April White Books
The books of the Baker Street Series stand alone and are the adventures of Ringo Devereux in Victorian London as he keeps company with the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde. Ringo’s origins as a time-traveling Victorian urchin and thief can be found in The Immortal Descendants series, book one of which is titled Marking Time. It is free and can be found at Amazon, as well as all other ebook retailers.
Chapter 1 - Thief
The little guttersnipe was fast, I’d give it that.
Quick-fingered and fleet-footed, for all it was ten years old, and there I’d been, cutting across Regent’s Park with my arms full of books as if I were the most oblivious nob in London. Damn, but I was in no mood to run. The entire month of August had been hot, and the camouflage I wore – the well-cut coat and fussy cravat of a respectable university student – was stifling. But if I didn’t tuck the books away somewhere and sprint after it, I’d lose Charlie’s money, and I certainly did not want to tell my wife the advance for her illustrations had been lifted from my pocket by a street rat.
The thief clearly hadn’t expected me to give chase. It was of indeterminate gender, small, slender, barefoot, and wearing its own camouflage of street grime. Grime was different than filth – grime coated the skin and clothes with good, clean dirt but didn’t smell of sewers or sweat. Filth stank and made people wary, therefore proper pickpockets tended to be fairly fastidious in their grooming habits under the dirt.
My annoyance grew in direct proportion to the distance we covered, and despite my longer legs, this rat had remarkable stamina. It took a turn out of the land of the quite-well-off, and darted into the dangerous territory of the very well-to-do, where the degrees of wealth ran from having one country manor to having ten. I hadn’t called out for help yet – my own habits of invisibility were too ingrained – but when the street rat sprinted toward the Langham Hotel, I finally knew how to trap it.
My voice had a pleasing boom and caused people to look around for the big man they assumed must go with it. I was not overly tall, and early years of hunger had likely stunted what may have been a large frame if I’d had proper feeding, but my voice had become surprisingly deep. It was menacing when I needed it to be, and authoritative enough to let me blend into the wealthy clientele of the Langham.
A slightly startled doorman, sporting the name John Horner on his uniform, acted without thought and grabbed my thief as she – yes, upon closer examination of delicate collar bones and elfin features, the street rat appeared to be female – attempted to slip into the hotel. I had perhaps ten seconds before Horner thought better of holding such a wriggly little thing and let her go; ten seconds in which to proclaim my authority over the glaring creature and retrieve Charlie’s money. The shreds of my own dignity, as a pickpocket’s victim, would be less simple to recover.
“Right. I’ll just have my wallet back then,” I said to the creature as I approached.
“I ain’t got nothin’ of yers,” she snarled back, squirming violently in the doorman’s hands.
I ignored her and met Horner’s startled eyes. He was surprised, perhaps, that I was young and lean and didn’t fit the voice I’d used to command the rat’s capture. “I’ll take this little vermin off your hands and remove it from your very fine establishment, if you please?” I slid into a posh, upper crust accent – I’d been practicing such mimicry for months, and it had become frighteningly second-nature. As such things still did in the English class system, the cadence of expensive English boarding school had the desired effect. It baffled me that such a simple thing as an accent could induce a person to compliance, and yet the evidence was right in front of me.
“Right-o Guv.” Horner shoved the pickpocket forward and she stumbled into my hands. She tried to wrench herself away before I could get a solid grip on her bony shoulders, but I had her spun around, one arm twisted up behind her back, before she could so much as spit. It was a move I expected would have been next if I had been so foolish as to face her.
“All right, Rat. Out you go,” I murmured into her ear as I marched her through the door and back out to the street.
“I’m no rat,” she protested sharply, as she attempted to bite the arm I’d wrapped across her shoulders.
“If it scurries like a rat, and squeaks like a rat, it must be a rat. The question is whether you’ll escape this particular trap intact. That was my wife’s money you stole, and I’ll have it back now.”
The girl scoffed. “Whoever ‘eard of a wife with ‘er own bob? It all belongs to ye, don’t it?”
“It is money she earned. Perhaps even you can appreciate the significance of that.” I had my coin purse from the band at her waist before she felt the slightest motion. Despite having been ridiculous enough to get pickpocketed in the first place, my own dexterity, which had fed me for much of my early life, remained firmly habitual.
“’Ere now! That’s mine ye be takin’!” Her voice screeched alarmingly, and for one, quick moment I feared she would draw heroic eyes to her plight. Doormen I could reason with, but men or women of the social justice warrior class were more than I had patience for in the London heat with a wriggling pickpocket in my hands.
I leaned close to her ear, and dropped my voice to a menacing snarl, adopting the most effective accent for the job. “Ye’ll ‘ear this once, and only once. Marylebone is mine. From Regent’s Park to Mayfair and Fitzrovia, the only nimble-fingered guttersnipes that work ‘ere work fer me. And since ye don’t work fer me, ye don’t work ‘ere.”
My coin purse was back in my trouser pocket and the girl had finally ceased her struggle. She wasn’t afraid of me, but perhaps my accent had convinced her I wasn’t quite the nob she’d first believed. My awareness of the street around us had grown more pronounced as I spoke – the sounds of horses’ hooves told me the carriage that had pulled up behind me was driven by four spry Morgans, one of which was going lame. Conversations around us quickly catalogued themselves in my brain as important, like the young man gossiping with another about a scandalous baccarat game, or trivial, like the wife accusing her husband of appreciating another woman, and the jangle of coins in a man’s pocket included the dull ring of a solid gold Sovereign. I knew the rat had heard all these things as well, and I wondered if perhaps I should make a point of behaving like a tough for a few minutes each day to stay sharp.
The lunch crowd was beginning to thicken the street with the posh and powerful who regularly dined at places such as the Langham. I pulled the girl away from the hotel entrance, toward Portland Place. We turned the corner to avoid a couple approaching the steps, and nearly collided with a tall man in a frock coat who walked with the long stride of the very confident.
“Ringo, my dear young man! How lovely to see you!” The man’s deep, cultured voice was instantly recognizable, though it had the unfortunate effect of jolting my concentration. The rat jerked her arm free, and I succeeded in catching only a bit of the collar of her shirt, which neatly disintegrated with age.
I looked up to find the enormously amused Oscar Wilde smiling down at me. “Oh dear, I do hope I didn’t frighten that poor child away from whatever nefarious task you had planned for the creature,” he said cheerfully.
“She had just successfully picked my pocket. I was merely attempting to restore a shred of my professional dignity while relieving her of the ill-gotten gain,” I said, as I straightened the infernal cravat.
“Your professional dignity?” Wilde ventured.
I spoke the truth with just enough humor in my tone as to render it unbelievable. “Evidently, my previous life as a thief and pickpocket didn’t leave identifying marks.”
Wilde’s booming laughter at my apparent joke carried to the front doors of the Langham, into the direction of which he was propelling me. “Come to lunch with me. I’m meeting two other gentlemen of the storytelling persuasion, and they will wish to hear the tale of your adventure as much as I.”
I thought of my books, hidden behind a bench in Regent’s Park, and I thought of the long walk in the blazing midday sun to retrieve them before my planned expedition to study at the University College library, where I’d spent the past year being a respectable student of philosophy and physics, with enough history, science, and letters to keep things entertaining.
I held my hand out to shake, and it was instantly enveloped in his ridiculously large, yet remarkably gentle grip. “I’m delighted to see you again, Mr. Wilde. I was on my way to study physics, but I believe the restoration of my dignity might require a thoroughly self-effacing recounting of the day’s events. Thank you for the invitation.”
He clapped me on the shoulder. “Good man! Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught. And if it assuages your conscience, I am certain there was an element of physics at play in the encounter with your thief.”
I chuckled as I recalled an image of the street rat dropping off a wall, tumbling down an embankment, and leaping a leashed bulldog that turned and snapped at her heels. She was resourceful and intrepid – qualities I generally admired in a rare few among my acquaintances.
“Indeed, there was.” I looked back over my shoulder for the young thief I knew was long gone, and then allowed myself to be directed back into the elegant foyer of the Langham Hotel.