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First pages

One

Tallowhead had been waiting for over an hour. He spent the time smoking his pipe, trying unsuccessfully to blow a series of smoke rings over his head. It wasn’t a very good brand of tobacco, either, but it was the best he could afford doing freelance. Now that he thought of it, it tasted like gunpowder, blasting his taste buds and nostrils. Through the cloud of smoke he examined the room: a dingy, rotten hole just large enough to admit a handful of scoundrels, himself included. A few of them stared back at him, as if to say: I don’t like the look of you, either. Tallowhead muttered to himself and sucked on the pipe. Twenty more minutes, tops. Then I’m leaving.

The door opened and a figure stumbled in, blinded by the unholy blackness of the tavern. The man—for Tallowhead swore it was a man—banged into the chair, upset a thief’s drink, tripped over a misplaced shoe, and came to rest in a puddle of someone’s leftovers. He felt blindly around him, looking for a chair, a leg, something to prop himself up on. Tallowhead bent down and offered his hand. The fellow took it gratefully and hauled himself up.

“Much obliged, truly,” he said, squinting at Tallowhead.

“Have a drink?” Tallowhead asked.

The thief—for Tallowhead knew he was a thief, if an incompetent one—nodded vigorously. Tallowhead poured him a glass and nudged it across the table. The thief drank it quickly and sniffled. His face assumed an odd, puckered expression; he had obviously never tasted Birchwood Ale before. The combination of poison and spices made it difficult to drink in anything but the smallest of sips. Large gulps tended to make one—

The thief lunged under the table and added to the pile of leftovers.

“Are you trying to kill me?” he gasped.

“Forgive me, I mistook you for a thief,” Tallowhead said.

The thief eyed Tallowhead for a moment, as if deciding whether to slug him or find him amusing. His humanitarian impulses won out; he sat down again and rummaged through his coat, obviously looking for something. After a moment he pulled out a greasy, faded piece of parchment shaped like a disfigured triangle.

“This mean anything to you?” he asked, sliding it across the table.

Tallowhead knew what it was without looking. With a grin, he removed a similar piece of parchment from his sleeve—this one in the shape of a small square. He maneuvered his piece into a corner of the thief’s, which interlocked and became an almost recognizable letter. Only one piece was missing, a large chunk in the lower right hand corner, obscuring the words and sentences. Tallowhead mentally tried to read it: something about a generous fee…the central square…and the Great Stanislav Clock?

“I’m Hoodwink,” the thief said, extending his hand.

Tallowhead shook it. “Tallowhead.”

Hoodwink let out a sharp guffaw. At least, that’s how Tallowhead defined it, since it was somewhere between a laugh and a snicker—but more offensive than both.

“What?” he demanded.

“Your name,” Hoodwink said, covering his mouth. “I’ve just never heard of a thief called Tallowhead. I guess you’re the first.”

“I guess so, Hoodwink,” he said. “May I give you a word of advice?”

Hoodwink nodded agreeably.

“People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

Hoodwink stared at him blankly. Glass houses? Who lived in a glass house? He didn’t even have an apartment! It must be a code of some sort, a bizarre form of thieves’ cant he wasn’t aware of. He couldn’t betray his ignorance or else he might lose the job, and he had debits, ever so many debts! Bluffing seemed the best course of action.

“Yes…and pinecones in an arboretum never lose weight,” he said.

Tallowhead frowned mightily. What in the world was he talking about? Pinecones couldn’t lose weight—what nonsense! He should dowse the ale over his head and go find a new partner. After all, he was Tallowhead, the most respected thief for three miles, accused—but never convicted—of arson, assault, piracy, and publicly insulting the king’s wardrobe. Only one thing gave him pause: what was an arboretum? Was that a password in thieves’ cant? Perhaps Hoodwink was just playing dumb to test him? He couldn’t reveal his stupidity—not now, when his job and reputation hung in the balance. Think, man, think! Two could play at this game.

“You can mix monkeys with china but not breakfast with dessert,” he said.

Hoodwink froze. So it was a code. He couldn’t let up now, the stakes were too high. His right hand reached for his knife—just in case.

“A moonbeam has the consistency of vinegar if you’re drinking wine in France.”

Tallowhead cursed under his breath. This fellow was good! Sweat dotted his forehead as he contemplated his next move—a thrust that would send Hoodwink to his knees, begging for mercy.

“A chicken that struts on its…er, no…what I meant to say is…a doctor who claims to be a…no, no, that’s not…”

“A boot is more than half a shoe but still can’t buy a donkey,” Hoodwink offered.

“Yes, but—”

“A jack o’ lantern can only bounce as far as your mother can sing.”

“What?!”

“When dining in private you can never forget—”

“Enough, you win—congratulations,” Tallowhead scowled.

With a snort he drowned his sorrows in a large gulp of Birchwood Ale. The tears came to his eyes as much from the taste as his ignominious defeat. Bested by a thief named Hoodwink!

“You really gave me a run there,” Hoodwink smiled. “But tell me, where’s the other contact? I’m anxious to get started.”

“Good question,” Tallowhead nodded.

There was still no sign of the third contact, their final partner in this nefarious scheme. Not that Tallowhead knew anything about it—he just assumed anything that paid eight hundred fobs a piece was “nefarious.” Days ago, he had been approached by a fellow who only identified himself as Moth. Moth said he was referred to Tallowhead by a “trusted friend,” and offered him a lucrative job that would increase his stature in the thieving community. Meet at the Dog’s Bane Tavern at noon, and take this with you, he said, handing him a torn piece of parchment. Your contacts have the other two pieces. Together you will know your mission.

Tallowhead continued to scan the room, mentally weighing each thief and scalawag. Where was he? Or she, since some of the greatest thieves were far more attractive than he was. Hoodwink yawned and stretched out his legs—causing something to shout “yeeooow!

“Sorry, did I kick you?”

“That wasn’t me,” Tallowhead said.

“Then…”

They both looked under the table and saw nothing but pitch darkness. Hoodwink kicked again.

Gooof! Stop kicking me!” a voice shouted.

“Who’s there?” Tallowhead asked, drawing his pistol.

“No one, nobody, and none of your business,” the voice whispered back.

Tallowhead and Hoodwink reached in and grabbed hold of the scoundrel—for he was most certainly a scoundrel—and brought him into the light (or what passed for light in the tavern). The figure before them was a smallish gentleman with a swollen eye that darted from side to side. His clothes were dirty and reeked of every gutter and dung heap in the city. He struggled for a moment but soon realized the futility of his situation; sighing, he told them to be quick about it and promised to forgive them in the hereafter.

“Forgive us? For what? You’re the one trying to rob us!” Tallowhead exclaimed.

“Rob you? Brother thieves, I had no such intention,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m hiding from him—he could be anywhere. Quick, look around, do you see anyone?”

Tallowhead and Hoodwink surveyed the area, but didn’t see anything unusual.

“Who are we looking for?”

“I’ve already said too much,” he whispered. “Would you be kind enough to pour me a drink? I’m rather light at the moment.”

Tallowhead handed him what was left of the bottle. The thief downed it in one go, without blinking or screwing up his eyes.

“That hit the spot,” he smiled.

“What’s your name, then?” Hoodwink asked.

The thief climbed into a chair beside them and took off his hat (which was so black and foul they mistook it for his hair).

“Shakebags, thief of the lower orders,” he said, shaking their hands.

“Nice name; my grandfather was a Shakebags, too,” Tallowhead observed.

“It’s one of the more respected names,” he nodded. “I figured I needed all the luck I could get. And you are…?”

Hoodwink and Tallowhead introduced themselves. Shakebags didn’t laugh at either name, but he didn’t seem all that impressed, either. Tallowhead felt compelled to explain his rank and pedigree to this sniveling upstart. He was no mere thief, mind you; his father was a respected pick-pocket—

“Funny I should run into you,” he said, unlacing his boot. “Because I’m supposed to meet two fellow thieves for a mission of some importance…can’t say what for sure. Ring any bells?”

Having removed his boot, he pounded on the bottom, sending mud, grass, pebbles, and other rubbish cascading on the table. He dug through the debris, picking out a faded, soiled parchment in the shape of a ‘Z’.

“Welcome to the fold, Shakebags,” Tallowhead said, taking the parchment.

He slid the zigzag piece into place, forming a shriveled letter crisscrossed by tears. The thieves crowded together to read it, at first impressed…then confused…then appalled. This Moth fellow had some explaining to do.

Fellow Thieves,

 

Now that you have assembled, I offer you the generous fee of eight hundred fobs a piece for a deed of such cunning, such recklessness, as only a master thief could accomplish. At one o’clock this morning, you are to make for the central square and ascend into the heart of the Great Stanislav Clock. Once inside, you are to dismantle the minute hand and carry it off, where I will be waiting for you at this address: 823 Cypress Spurge. Tell no one of your mission and make haste!

 

Everyone was speechless. Of course, they could simply ball up the letter and go their separate ways—no one would be the wiser. Or, they could actually accept the fee and attempt the impossible: to climb into the Great Stanislav Clock, the largest clock in the tallest tower in the kingdom, and actually remove the minute hand. In layman’s terms, that would be similar to snatching an elephant from a storm cloud. Tallowhead looked nervously at his comrades. Were these really the men for the job? Could he trust them?

“Well…I’m up for it,” Shakebags shrugged. “It’s worth a shot.”

“Mmm…eight hundred fobs,” Hoodwink muttered, noncommittally.

All eyes turned to Tallowhead. He had become the unstated leader of the group, which was just how he wanted it. After a dramatic pause, during which he blew on and wiped his monocle, he nodded.

“Brothers, we’ll do it. They’ll tell stories about this evening for a hundred years.”

Two

The air was bitterly cold. A thin blanket of snow covered the streets and roofs of town, with here and there a long icicle glimmering in the moonlight. It was a wretched day to thieve; Hoodwink longed to curl up by the fire and dream of happier times, when he could abandon cutpursing and take up a respectable occupation. Shakebags stared pitifully at the approaching clock tower, growing larger and larger, its top disappearing in the foggy night. And they were supposed to climb that—remove the minute hand—carry it across the city? Over drinks it sounded heroic, a romantic feat of thievery which would be talked about for a thousand generations. Now it just sounded stupid. What were they thinking, accepting this harebrained scheme—never mind how much it paid! Only Tallowhead remained optimistic, examining the Stanislav Clock with his monocle (what he could see of it, anyway).

“Yes, just as I thought,” he nodded.

“What did you think?” Hoodwink asked.

“Piece of cake,” he grinned.

The streets were deserted. No watchmen or scalawags wandering about; they were free to operate unobserved and make as much noise as they liked. On a night like this, no one would emerge from a warm bed to investigate. They approached the door to the clock tower. Locked. Tallowhead tugged on the lock for a moment, as if genuinely surprised to find it.

“Are either of you…”

“Allow me,” Hoodwink said.

Removing a thin cloth from his sleeve, Hoodwink revealed a collection of picks, hooks, and wires. He selected the smallest pick and set to work, jabbing, scraping, wrenching, and thrusting it into the lock. Tallowhead paced impatiently behind him, expecting every second to hear the lock snap open. Hoodwink grunted. The lock had rusted in place. Tallowhead bit his lip; this wasn’t going right at all—they would have to abandon the entire scheme. He should have planned it more carefully, handpicked his own team—never mind these nincompoops!—and negotiated the price. If it had been up to him—

The lock snapped open. Hoodwink gave a relieved laugh, looking over his shoulder. Tallowhead smiled and rubbed his hands: yes, everything was going exactly according to plan.

Hoodwink nudged the door open. Only the first two stairs were visible, but even these seemed forbiddingly small and steep.

“Blast, we forgot a torch,” Tallowhead said. “Too late to go back now. Everyone, take a hand and proceed slowly. One misstep and we all go down.”

The thieves took each other’s hands and inched slowly up the stairwell. A blast of wind swept through the street and slammed the door behind them. Shakebags whimpered—and almost fell.

“Careful!” Tallowhead hissed.

The stairs grew farther and farther apart. What began as an uncomfortable shuffle became an extensive lunge as their feet groped in the darkness. Tallowhead began to despair that they would ever reach the top. Perhaps it would be better to turn back before it was too late—unless it already was.

“Listen—do you hear it?” Hoodwink said.

They paused, and distinctly heard the sound of grinding—or clicking, perhaps. Steady, mechanically above their heads.

“The clock. We’re getting closer,” Shakebags whispered.

They continued their ascent, their palms sweating and eyes aching from the darkness. They had to be close. The stairs turned now in one, now in another direction. The grip on each other’s hands tightened. One fatal misstep…

GAH!” Tallowhead cried.

He swayed forward, only to come crashing against Hoodwink and Shakebags, who caught him before tumbling endlessly backward.

“What? What happened?”

“There’s…no…step,” Tallowhead gasped.

“What do you mean, no step?” Shakebags panicked. “You got disorientated—you stepped the wrong way.”

“No—no! I felt…lunged with my entire foot…but nothing. It just stops.”

The three thieves stood at the precipice in silence. They had to turn back. But perhaps it didn’t stop; perhaps a step had simply broken loose, with another just a short jump away? They all thought it, but Hoodwink was the first to suggest it out loud. Shakebags shook his head violently: too risky, much too risky. Better to turn back while they still had a chance. Tallowhead half-heartedly agreed, making clicking noises with his tongue.

“Still…perhaps we could test it, just to make sure.”

He removed a small stone from his pocket—he had a habit of picking up stones—and tossed it into the darkness. Nothing.

“You see! I told you,” Shakebags moaned.

Unconvinced, Tallowhead removed a second stone, this one slightly larger, and tossed it farther. Smack! He emptied his pockets of stones and tossed them all: the ones thrown one to five feet away fell into nothingness. The others, thrown slightly farther, clattered and bounced on a wooden floor.

“It’s not far at all—just a short leap,” Tallowhead said.

“Are you mad? How can we tell if we—no, I can’t believe you’re actually suggesting—”

“What other choice do we have?” Hoodwink agreed. “We’ve come this far.”

“Say we do make it,” Shakebags said. “How the devil are we supposed to get back down?”

Tallowhead cursed silently. It would be near impossible to make the leap cradling a twenty foot minute hand between them. Still, it had to be done—and if they didn’t do it, someone else would. And Tallowhead couldn’t stomach someone else stealing his glory (it had happened once too often in his brief career).

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Tallowhead shrugged. “Now follow me.”

“You’re not serious!” Shakebags said.

In response, Tallowhead took a powerful leap and landed on the other side—tripping over the scattered rocks and pebbles. The resulting clatter made Shakebags moan inconsolably.

“He’s dead! You see—I told him not to do it!”

“I’m…fine,” Tallowhead said, rubbing his head. “It’s a short jump, even a child could make it. Come along!”

Hoodwink and Shakebags stared at each other in the darkness. Who should go next? Hoodwink said something about a bad leg, which had no bearing on going first or last, while Shakebags muttered a tall tale about needing to watch their backs in case they were followed. Both excuses led to a violent disagreement where each called the other a coward, a fool, a dunghill, and other names so foul they could only be expressed in thieves’ cant (the dialect of highwaymen and rogues).

“Save your breath and jump!” Tallowhead cried.

Hoodwink finally spit in Shakebag’s direction and hurled himself across. He, too, landed successfully on the other side, treading on Tallowhead’s finger. The resulting howl made Shakebags curl into a fetal position and sob uncontrollably.

“I told them not to go—now they’re both dead!”

“We’re not dead, you gutless wonder!” Hoodwink shouted. “Now hurry up and jump.”

Shakebags gradually got to his feet and stared into the distance where he could hear, but not see, his comrades.

“And it’s really not far?”

“You can hear us, can’t you?” Tallowhead said. “Six, seven feet at the most. In broad daylight you wouldn’t think twice.”

Shakebags scowled. In broad daylight you wouldn’t catch him dead with such glorious good-for-nothings. Where the devil had that Moth fellow dug them up—the cemetery? They didn’t have a brain between them, and certainly didn’t know the first thing about orchestrating a successful robbery. Why, when he was just starting off, he had single-handedly—

“Are you coming or what?” they shouted.

Choking down a tear, Shakebags crouched, whispered a hasty prayer (on the off chance that the deity still listened) and…

CRASH! He had overshot the mark, smacking both Tallowhead and Hoodwink in the face. The resulting howls and curses made Shakebags scream for dear life. He was dying!

“You’re alive—which is more than I can say for us!” Hoodwink shouted, flailing at him.

As they gradually collected themselves, they noticed the sound of gears and engines all around them. It was still muffled, but they could distinguish an almost sing-song rhythm that ended in a sharp click every so often (the minute hand, no doubt). They carefully felt their away across the floor, which led them down a tight corridor crisscrossed by shards of light. The roof was full of holes, which let in light, rain, and the small, furry things that scampered over their feet. Tallowhead didn’t particularly like rats, and closed his eyes until Hoodwink nudged him. He opened them: the gears of the clock turned mindlessly before them, tracing the outline of each day, month, and year. Tallowhead marveled at the ancient yet flawless design; everything seemed to know its place, though none of the thieves could understand how it worked. Wheels turned against other wheels, which moved gears and levers, worked pulleys, and released steam. But no—the steam was their own breath, which quickly clouded the room.

“It’s freezing up here…I can barely keep my teeth still,” Shakebags said.

“We’ll have to work quickly. So listen: all we have to do is climb outside the tower, unscrew the minute hand, and carry it off. Nothing simpler.”

“Nothing simpler?” Shakebags sniffed. “I can think of nothing harder. Nothing more impossible. Nothing—”

“That’s about all you’re good for—nothing,” Hoodwink interrupted. “I’ll do it.”

“Be careful. It may be slippery from the ice,” Tallowhead warned.

Hoodwink nodded, slipping out a door in the face of the clock. Outside, the wind stung his face and burned his hands. He couldn’t see the city below, as a thick fog enveloped the tower; only the tops of the tallest buildings jutted out, like islands in a vast sea of murk. He sniffled and maneuvered across the clock face, eye level with the tremendous “8.” Hoodwink imagined crawling in the bottom loop and going to sleep—it was certainly large enough. He gazed up at the minute hand, pointing defiantly to the “2.” Even with a ladder it was out of his reach.

“How’s it going out there?” Tallowhead called.

He wanted to say impossible; foolhardy; suicidal. Instead he muttered, “ehhh.”

“I’m coming out.”

Tallowhead crawled through the door, gasping as a fierce blast of wind shook the tower. For the first time that evening his courage failed him. A bird sailed past, disappearing in the fog before letting out a plaintive cry. Fools—humans can’t fly! Tallowhead was inclined to agree. The thieves examined the clock face, realizing that the clock was too smooth—and too icy—to scale. They would have to wait for the minute hand to come to them. With luck, they could then climb to the center and unfasten it. But after that…

So they waited for five…ten…fifteen minutes, each second an eternity during which time ran backwards. If Tallowhead didn’t have the clock for a reference, he would swear that they had stumbled into a terrible world where cold, not time, dictated the seasons. The two shivered miserably in their threadbare coats. Just a bit more…the hand was almost within reach. Hoodwink reached out and touched the tip with his fingers. Another two, three minutes.

“Do you have it yet?” Shakebags cried.

“Get out here, you halfwit!” Tallowhead replied.

Shakebags stuck his head out the door and cursed foully in thieves’ cant. With encouragement, he inched his body out and clung pitifully to the clock face. The wind battered the thieves as they waited, breathless, for the hand to descend.

CLICK!

“I’ve got it,” Hoodwink said.

Three

Hoodwink hoisted himself on the minute hand and began shimmying toward the center. It was tough work, as the hand was slippery and oddly shaped; Hoodwink twice paused for breath, feeling his hands burn with resentment. Tallowhead and Shakebags watched in silence. There was nothing they could do but wait…and pray…and get out of the way if he fell. Nodding, Hoodwink continued up the hand, reminding himself of the great reward and respect that would be theirs—

CLICK!

The hand wrenched forward and Hoodwink lost his grip on the hand. He slid down and came to a violent crash at the base of the clock. Tallowhead and Shakebags rushed to steady him, but he nodded angrily.

“I’m fine, fine,” he said.

“I’ll give it a shot,” Tallowhead said.

Shakebags swallowed the lump in his throat. If Tallowhead failed he would be next. Better to jump right now and have it over with.

“Start counting and warn me when the minute’s up,” Tallowhead said, starting his climb.

Tallowhead was taller and thinner than Hoodwink, which made his climb somewhat easier. That, and he had experience scaling things that weren’t meant to be scaled; it was his professional trademark. Below, Hoodwink and Shakebags silently counted the seconds.

“Forty…forty one…two…three…” Hoodwink thought.

“Fifty seven…eight…nine…” Shakebags thought.

“NOW!” Shakebags cried.

Tallowhead braced himself for the change.

“What? I’m at forty-six!” Hoodwink shouted.

“Forty-six? It’s been a full minute—”

“It’s counting—not a personal opinion!” Tallowhead snapped.

“You said start counting—”

“You started too soon!”

“I did not—”

CLICK!

Tallowhead lost his grip and almost plunged off the tower—his legs catching him at the last second.

“He’s dead! I knew it!” Shakebags howled, covering his eyes.

“Pipe down!” Hoodwink said, eyes wide in terror.

With great difficulty, Tallowhead managed to twist himself back on the hand, his heart racing in both ears. Tallowhead’s courage failed him for the second time as he realized he was in mid-air, straddling the minute hand of the Great Stanislav Clock, with only the foggiest notion of what he planned to do with the hand when—and if—he unscrewed it.

“It’s almost as if this Moth fellow wanted us to die in the most ridiculous way possible,” he grumbled.

He continued his ascent, gradually making his way to the very center of the clock. Now what? he thought, staring at the bolts that connected the minutes and hours. Tallowhead removed some tools he had brought with him for the job, but the bolts were frozen in place, worn by weather and time. He looked down at his companions, who pitifully met his gaze—neither with any degree of confidence or encouragement.

“Wait a minute…” Tallowhead said to himself.

He suddenly remembered his imprisonment last June. His companion was a sorcerer who had fallen on bad times, orchestrating an elaborate theft of the king’s stables. The wizard’s name was Dufgal, a brooding character with a disheveled, blood-red beard. In exchange for sharing Tallowhead’s pipe, Dufgal taught him a few spells he thought might come in handy for a career pickpocket. Not that Tallowhead could remember any of them at the moment. But there was this one…how did it go exactly…

Shakebags craned his ear toward Tallowhead from below, puzzled by what seemed—unless he was greatly mistaken—as singing.

“What is it? What’s he doing?” Hoodwink asked.

“Do you hear him? He’s…singing.”

“I’ve heard of that,” Hoodwink nodded, gravely. “People go frost-mad, it affects your brain. We should get him down before he kills himself.”

“Be my guest,” Shakebags muttered.

Tallowhead sang what little he remembered of the spell, a pleasant tune with mysterious words. In fact, Dufgal said he adapted the spell to an old ballad about a thief being hung on the gallows. It was unnervingly appropriate.

“Hmph…I thought he said it was a spell for removing unwanted barriers,” Tallowhead said. “I must have remembered it wrong.”

CLICK!

The minute hand wrenched forward and then made a shrieking, ear-splitting SCHWACK! The bolts popped off and the hand swung abruptly back to the “6.” Tallowhead clung desperately as the hand swayed precariously in the wind. In retrospect, there was a serious flaw in his plan; namely, how to get off.

“What happened?” Hoodwink asked.

“Quickly—take my hand!” he shouted.

The thieves each took his hand and hoisted him off—and not a moment too soon. With a fierce blast of wind, the hand wrenched loose from the clock face. It bounced heavily against the tower—narrowly missing Shakebags—and then plunged into the fog. Moments later they heard a thunderous crash resound from the depths. The thieves stared at the fog in wonder, realizing they had just accomplished the impossible; impossibly bad, that is.

“Well, we got it off,” Shakebags muttered.

“Now we have to find it,” Tallowhead sighed. “It must be in a thousand pieces.”

The thieves beat a hasty retreat from the clock face and descended the blackened stairwell. Once outside again, they found the minute hand shattered in three enormous, uneven pieces—one for each of them. But Shakebags complained when his was the largest (a good five feet taller than him, which wasn’t saying much).

“That’s your reward for being a good-for-nothing; enjoy it,” Tallowhead said. 

“Good-for-nothing? Me? I told you this was a terrible idea from the start. Not that you listened.”

“I’m sorry, are you still speaking?” Tallowhead grimaced. 

The thieves tried to make off with the pieces as best they could, but no matter how hard they pushed, pulled, kicked, screamed, and swore at the hands they stubbornly remained in place. Even worse, they were no longer operating in secret. Faces appeared framed in candlelight in the apartments and buildings around them, stirred by the recent commotion. 

“How the devil are we going to move this?” Hoodwink gasped, his hands on his knees. "Know any more songs?" 

"Look, it's probably not even that far...let me find the address," Tallowhead said, fumbling for the scrap of paper. 

At last he found it, but he couldn’t make out the words. Tallowhead searched desperately for a torch, even a stray beam of moonlight, but the entire road was darkness. He passed it among the thieves, but as much as they strained and swore they couldn’t read it. 

“It was something like Cinquefoil Square,” Hoodwink said.

“Nonsense, no respectable criminal would live on Cinquefoil Square,” Shakebags scoffed. “It must have been Celandine Circle.” 

“There’s no such street—and you’re not helping,” Tallowhead said. “If only we could push it into that alley."

They tried again--with no better success. If only he could recall the address, Tallowhead swore, then somehow everything would make sense. However, even though he boasted an encyclopedic brain, he must have had trouble turning the pages, since all he could come up with was “eight…something-something…Cypress something.” 

“Cypress Spurge, was that it?” Shakebags said.

“YES! That’s it—I’m sure of it. But the number, which number?”

The thieves tossed numbers about, finally settling on one of the following: 892, 833, or 825. Tallowhead and Hoodwink were for 825, while Shakebags insisted on 892—or 833, he wasn’t sure. An argument ensued until Shakebags punched Hoodwink who shoved Tallowhead into Shakebags. Violent oaths were spilled in thieves’ cant, enough to attract the attention of a cut-purse who was returning from dinner. 

“His mother’s a what?” the rogue said, drawing a pistol.

The thieves stiffened, realizing their vulnerability. Night, the middle of the town square, sitting on the remains of a twenty-foot clock-hand. Even a tourist had more common sense. 

“What are you lot arguing about? Find something good?”

“Er…just some junk we came across, it’s of no consequence to you, brother,” Tallowhead said. 

“Watch who you call brother,” the cut-purse glowered. “I don’t know who you are yet. So who are you?”

The thieves made hasty introductions. On reaching “Tallowhead,” the rogue laughed through his nose. Tallowhead flushed red. What did people have against his name, anyway? Was it a crime to be original? Any ingrate could name himself Shakebagsand call him a thief—but he was still an ingrate. 

“I should have guessed, amateurs. Let’s see what you’ve got there.”

The thief nudged Tallowhead’s piece into the light. 

“Looks like part of a clock hand. A big clock.”

“Really? Oh, no, just some rubbish…found it on the street, tossed from a coach.” 

“Strange,” the cut-purse said. “I heard something about the minute hand of the Stanislav Clock flying off. Made a terrific ruckus—woke up half the neighborhood.”

“How interesting,” Tallowhead frowned. “Perhaps you should go have a look.” 

“I don’t have to. Because this is it. And I know as well as you that clock hands don’t go flying off on their own. You stole it.”

“The most obvious response would be to say “how dare you, I’m not a thief!” Unfortunately, he was talking to a band of thieves, for whom the word “steal” was a mark of honor. To accuse someone of theft amounted to saying “you accomplished a great deed,” or “you just made a name for yourself.” So despite the pretense, Tallowhead, Hoodwink, and Shakebags blushed and made self-depreciating remarks like “oh, it was nothing,” and “well, we did our best, and it wasn’t easy…”

“If you stole it then it must be worth stealing,” the cut-purse mused. “And if it was worth stealing, them someone must have wanted it…someone willing to pay. In which case, I’ll relieve you of your burden.”


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

I am an English professor at a small university in Oklahoma, teaching the books that most inspire me as a writer: works of fantasy from Beowulf to the present day, as well as tales of travel, romance, and dystopia. I have three self-published novels on Amazon set in the same world as Shakebags & Co. I promise my students to never teach my own books. :)

Q. What books have influenced your life the most?
A.
The classic works of fantasy and the imagination going back to the dawn of civilization, but particularly works like Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, all of Shakespeare, as well as great writers of character such as Jane Austen. You'll find them all in my books in one form or another.
Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A.
Revising it. I've spent 10 years re-writing it and making it shorter and more focused. I started this book before I was a father...and finished it with 2 boys on the verge of junior high. I don't see the world the way I used to, so I had to make sure the story reflected that.
Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
The ability to explore a world that seems unfamiliar, but is actually very like our own. Similarly, I can talk about our own world and its problems while pretending to write about a world "long, long ago." Fantasy is tricky that way.

Next in:
Science Fiction & Fantasy
The Corrupted Spirit
Demigods, Alchemy, and Magic in the Dark Ages
The Gray Side of Eden
Who's afraid of Death?
Rebirth
The God of Evil searches for who she is