by Jabe Stafford
“You watch for Mr. Rinkerton, I’ll watch for thieves.”
Llena clasped her daughter’s hand in her free one
and carried a cedar portrait frame under the other arm.
Its scent turned the heads of mothers and their wistful
children when she strode past them and the general
stores and boulangeries lining the street. Sweat slicked
her cotton gloves inside and out. Her heels clacked on
the loose cobblestones along with the hooves of horses
pulling wagons and carriages across the street.
Llena tripped on a broken cobble, caught herself, kept a
tight grip on the covered frame, and scanned the wagons.
One of the charlies was her buyer. Any shopper might be
a rival Framer from a bigger city with ideas on poaching
her sale. Street thieves with a hunger for frames could
“Tell Mum if you find him,” Llena instructed,
quickening her pace. “I’ve got two more frames to build
this month and we’ve got to get more wood and varnish.”
“I bet I’ll find him first,” Mary chirped. She
twisted her hand around inside her mother’s grip and
squeezed through the damp, white glove. “Green hat,
black coat. Green hat, black coat.”
A giggle snuck out before Llena could put her
business face back on straight. Constables --
bright-buttoned, uniformed, and helmeted -- pushed
through crowds of Sunday-dressed wives and men in
stovepipe hats. She flicked glances at each pedestrian,
newspaper boy, and postrider at the intersection. If
dirt was coin, she’d walked into a fortune. Whiffs of
baked bread and sun-baking horse manure blew under her
straw hat. She sneezed and gripped the straw-wrapped
wood that lined the inside of the hat.
Mary tugged at her mother’s grip, almost slipping
out of it. “Look Mum, there he is.” Her dress bounced
and swished as she pointed at the reinsman four coaches
down on their right. A velvet-green bowler rested on Mr.
Rinkerton’s head. “That’s where the constables had come
“Good eye, Mary,” Llena murmured, watching for
anyone who looked like they might rush her. “That’s
where they came from. He must be shaking hands and
kissing babies every Sunday now. Come on, stay close to
Mary’s shoes pitter-pattered on the cobbles while
they left the street, a harmony with Llena’s heels.
Fewer people entered the charcuteries and boutiques on
this road. Constables left places feeling haunted once
they departed. Llena didn’t think any incidents had
occurred before they arrived. The road looked about the
same as her studio’s location. Gaslights unlit. An
expressman rushing a parcel between businesses. A
hanger-on here. An open boot there.
Llena crossed the sunlit road, her daughter pulling
her arm ahead. Her business face ebbed again when Mary
squealed, “Hi Wrinkly Rinkerton. I missed you. Got any
new stories or coins?”
“You know better than to call names,” Llena scolded,
voice low while they stopped next to the buyer’s
Doffing his hat, Mr. Timothy Rinkerton spoke with
the rasp of old age that matched his gray mop of hair.
“No coins this time, young lady.”
“Aww, not even a rupee or a franc?” Mary said.
Llena drew up to Rinkerton’s carriage and halted
when he continued. “You’d be more likely get a paisa or
a centime from most folks. I left the governor’s employ
Clutching the frame in both hands, Llena frowned.
“So those constables weren’t delivering tax money of
Rinkerton slipped his hat back on. “Tax collecting
wears on a man of my demeanor, ma’am. If no dissenters
come for me or any other candidates, I shall be running
to become mayor of Berkshire in tomorrow’s election.”
The first professional smile of the day crossed
Llena’s lips. “Which is why you commissioned this.” She
held up the frame, covering and all.
“Citizens don’t care to fund what the government
provides anymore,” Rinkerton rambled, indicating the
team hitched to the carriage. “My leaders nearly threw
their shoes this morning. If these cobbles and gaslights
are not refurbished, we’ll have broken ankles enough to
overload every doctor’s schedule for a year.”
Mary bounced on the balls of her feet. “You should
track where the money’s going, and use it for steam
Llena shook her head, brown curls brushing the
frame. “Those fantasies and detective stories eat up
time, Mary. Hush and help Mum with the business.”
“You sell characteristics,” Mary said as though
reciting an advertisement. “People can be new people
with a frame by Llena.” Llena waved a hand to shush her
daughter, but Mary only raised her voice. “You
fantasy, so I should be allowed to read
Heat swelled and blood pounded in Llena’s ears. She
peered every direction along the road. No one among the
sparse foot traffic looked to be listening in. A thief
would know not to appear interested. Her own life was
likely safe. England only had so many Framers, and even
the murderers wanted Framers’ magic more than their
Unless murder was less trouble for them than losing
a powerful frame.
Llena scoffed, then wiped road dust from Mary’s dress
and smiled. “Pardon us, Mr. Rinkerton. Mary just turned
six. She wants to use everything she learns. What I do
is real now. Those pulp stories aren’t.”
“Stories,” Rinkerton blurted, flinging a hand
skyward. “You wanted stories, didn’t you, young lady?”
Llena boggled at how this man took no social cues
from others. How did he hold positions of authority
without what she was selling him?
Before Mary could speak, Llena slipped the cover off the
frame’s edge and revealed the cedar corner. “Empathy.
Two hundred shillings. And that’s a discount considering
the young men I typically sell to. Wear gloves and keep
the cover on the frame to stop the transfer until you
get home with it.”
His beetle-black eyes saw Llena, but not her urgency
as she covered the frame. He shook his coat’s pocket.
Keys jangled within it. “Now, now. We’ve got time for a
story. Mary, when I returned from France earlier this
A man with a cloth tied over his face slammed into
Llena and Mary. Llena whipped both arms around her
daughter instead of cushioning her own fall. They
spilled to the broken cobbles. A crooked stone jammed
into Llena’s ribs, and she gasped. She’d landed first
and stopped her daughter from getting anything worse
than a skinned elbow.
By the time the stitch in Llena’s side lessened, the
masked man had bolted.
The frame -- a two week project -- was gone.
Mary jumped up first. She pointed after the
trench-coated thief with her bleeding arm. “Brown coat,
blond hair,” she yelled. “Taller than you, Mum.”
“Stay with Rinkerton, Mary,” Llena snapped, standing
and kicking her heels off. “I’m getting that frame
“Er -- Constabulary,” Rinkerton shouted. “Burglary
in progress. Over here!”
Llena dug her toes into the dirt and took off after
the blond thief. She kept off the cobbles and held her
skirts up above her knees, the corded muscles of her
arms straining along with her legs. The Framing
exercises she used in her work eased the pain in her
ribs and flooded her mind while she dashed between
pedestrians. You kept your eyes out for the moments when
the surroundings synchronized with the frame you desired
to build. Atmosphere, temperature, foliage, buildings,
people, feel. Llena’s eyes locked on the street thief
and did not lose him in the crowd.
Her eyes were not on the horse droppings on the
Soft splats resounded when her bare feet slapped
down onto them. Cold moisture pressed up between her
toes and caked on. Spluttering and stumbling, Llena
refocused on the thief and saw two men in frock coats
dashing ahead of her. They split apart, one skirting the
left row of carriages, one swerving right.
More thieves. She’d
they were around. The frock-coated thieves had been
content to watch and let another thief attack her, then
steal from the stealer. When Llena or Rinkerton called
for officers, they’d report the blond burglar’s features
and not these thieves’.
With stale manure filling her nostrils every time
she panted, Llena lost sight of the burglar. Cupping
dusty hands around her mouth, she yelled, “Road agent,
road agent. That frame is mine. Stop him.”
In the big cities, gentlemen leapt to help Framers in
the hopes of discounted characteristics down the line.
Hokies in this town kept right on walking like they knew
the caliber of men who’d be after them if they helped.
Thick dust plumes and a hundred yards separated her and
the burglar. He’d vanished behind a mud wagon and
although a commotion erupted, he did not reappear. A
pair of toppled wagons blocked any view of the road out
of Berkshire. Said commotion had left the wagons’
vegetables and merchandise strewn in the road.
Mary pattered up next to Llena and jabbed a shaky
finger at the overturned wagons. “See? He jumped on a
horse, Mum. He’s probably not hiding in town.”
Llena saw dust billowing from around the wagons.
That and concerned pedestrians stopping to help how they
could. No horse. No rider. Not a hint of the other
She pursed her lips so the anger and knee-jerk
frustration wouldn’t escape. It wasn’t Mary’s fault. She
read newspaper detective stories about the Berkshire
Bloodhound. She wasn’t a real detective. Two weeks of
Framing exercises, of catching the perception she wanted
to sell and infusing the cedar with it, was wasted. Even
if the constables -- the professionals -- did help her
and Rinkerton get it back, the frame would be drained.
Nobody that stole a frame didn’t know how to take
its magic for themselves.
“Come on, Mary,” Llena rasped through aching ribs
and a lungful of dust. “Rinkerton can tell the
constables what he looked like. Maybe we’ll get a name
if we’re fortunate.”
Clasping her daughter’s hand, Llena led them both
back the way she’d run, toward Rinkerton’s carriage.
There hadn’t been any blood this time.
“Brown coat, blond hair, taller than Mum,” Mary
recited, sing-song style. “Brown coat, blond hair,
taller than Mum. You got poop on your feet.”
Framer or not, the woman was easy prey.
It was the other thieves that concerned Weston.
He couldn’t bleed those in charge if they filched
Weston sprinted away from the carriage with Llena’s
cedar frame in his leather-gloved hands. He’d stolen
those gloves from the last Framer who’d come to
Berkshire. She’d skipped town as the rumors said, and he
bet Llena would too after this. Characteristics were the
most expensive business. New Framers always relied on
their buyers’ shotguns to protect them. Asinine.
Weston rushed across the cobbles and over the dirt
road. He darted between a dozen shoppers and another
dozen newspaper boys hawking headlines and pulp stories.
A glance over his shoulder and he saw no straw hat, no
brown curls chasing him.
Two rail-thin men in frock coats gouged through the
crowds, pursuing him. He lost sight of them behind a
pair of stage coaches on either side. They had taken
cover so he wouldn’t see their blades and revolvers
coming for his guts and his prize. Dust and pulverized
horse dung plumed upward with every bootfall. It didn’t
choke him through the kerchief over his nose and mouth,
but it slathered his brown coat as he fled with his
future tight in hand. Stinking to hell and back now was
Weston’s feet took him north across loose cobbles
and past sneering reinsmen atop carriages carrying
politicians in town for tomorrow’s mayoral vote. The
rich garbage only gave when they got back more. Lines of
besuited men and dress-laden women bustled into and out
of the seemingly endless line of wagons.
It was a stageline. A whole stageline in town for some
purpose or other. Both frock-coated thieves re-emerged
from behind six-horse teams and rushed toward Weston,
cutting the distance. One lone mud wagon was unoccupied
at the front of the stageline several wagons up.
Weston whipped out a hunter’s dressing knife from within
his coat, gripping it in his one free hand. He slashed
the traces on the nearest wagon and hoped it’d topple
and hinder his pursuers.
Whinnies and shouts announced his success. Heavy
collisions and pained cries confirmed it. Jumpy beasts
spooked at anything. From what he knew of those thieves’
employers, they’d go for Llena next if they survived
The mud wagon was twenty yards ahead of the upturned
wagons. Its lead horse was loosely tied compared to the
rest of the team. Just how he’d left it. Weston sheathed
the blade, skidded to a halt, and wheeled his arms for
balance when a loose cobble under foot gave way. He
cursed the mayors and governors who did nothing with the
tax monies they wrangled up.
“Road agent, road agent,” a familiar woman’s voice rang
out. “That frame is mine. Stop him.”
Weston scrambled to his feet, untied the mud wagon’s
lead horse, and mounted up. He snapped the reins with
his unburdened hand, dug in his heels and was off before
Llena could round the wreckage to catch up. Open, sunny
countryside unrolled ahead of him and his mount’s
hooves. The Framer hadn’t ridden a horse into Berkshire.
Let her be concerned with the other thieves. Prey
like her was only worth what he could get out of it.
Weston only needed to touch the frame he carried
with his bare hands to change his perception. Finally,
others would follow him. Many more people would listen.
Hundreds more would empathize and understand that for
those in power to choose to make a change, they either
had to benefit more, or get hit where it hurts.
Real pain. Not protests, not slander, not sob stories.
Hurt what the powerful want. Hurt what they need. Bleed
them. That’s how you improve the people’s lives.
He slid the sackcloth covering off the frame, breathed
in the cedar. The fragrance of Empathy. There’d be time
to savor the flash of brilliant artistry when he touched
it back at the farmhouse. No constable would pursue a
single thief the day before an important election.
A horse trough.
The happiest sight Llena had seen all day.
She stumbled across loose cobbles toward the
constabulary entrance. The eyes of uniformed men coming
and going narrowed at her and her daughter’s condition.
Overhead, the past-noon sun shimmered onto the surface
of the trough’s water. Llena dipped a foot in, gasped at
the liquid’s chill relief, and shook it vigorously.
“Mary, wash your feet off too.”
Mary plodded to the trough’s edge, leaned over it
appraisingly. Her long brown curls broke the surface.
“It’s dirty, Mum. We don’t want to smell worse when we
“Spit feet is better than sh -- er, poop feet.”
A male constable shorter than Llena stormed out the
entrance of the three-story brick townhouse that served
as the constabulary. His mustache waggled and his cleft
chin shook with anger as he pointed at the pair. “You
will stop this instant. That’s fresh water, that is.
We’ll have to refill it again.”
“See?” Llena said, switching feet. “It’s all right.
Come on, clean up and we’ll report the theft.”
Those words changed the mustached man’s expression.
He pursed his lips, saw Mary’s patched-with-a-kerchief
elbow, and rolled his upper lip against his facial hair.
“Theft, you say? Is this to do with the election too?”
as she swirled first one bare foot, then the other in
the trough water. “Mum’s a--” She lowered her voice
“--Framer, and she made a frame for Wrinkly Rinkerton.
It got stolen by a bastard taller than Mum in a brown
coat with blond hair.”
Llena whispered, “That’s enough name-calling and
swearing. Apologies, constable.”
“Well, that’s the--” the constable stopped himself,
glared at every passerby within ten feet, including his
own co-workers, then waved them inside.
Llena and Mary trailed a thin coat of mud inside the
constabulary’s atrium. Constables in navy berets and
uniforms with silver buttons crossed from office to desk
and back, chatting and shouting. Oil lamps on carven
desks remained unlit with the day’s sun tumbling in from
the bay windows at front and back. Oaken staircases worn
shiny with use were in the near-left and far-right
corners, leading to the second and third stories. Whiffs
of starched uniforms and body odor plugged the air.
She led Mary through a maze of desks to the mustached
man’s desk in the rear corner. His seemed to be the only
one without stacks of newspaper headlines discussing the
mayor or tomorrow’s election. Instead, heavily marked
maps of Berkshire’s roads from Villa Square to Rotter’s
Home Station stood in one untidy stack, and--
“Berkshire Bloodhound,” Mary squealed, snatching one of
the pulp stories atop the stack of newspapers next to
the maps. She nearly knocked a nameplate off the edge,
and Llena pushed it back. Mary went on. “Constable Ellis
reads the stories too.”
Llena seized the paper with its clockwork ship on the
front out of Mary’s hands. “If you’ve got time for
stories at home, you’ve got time to help me build frames
“You don’t let me do the magic part.”
“Then fill your head with useful knowledge instead of
something you’ll never use.” With that, Llena slapped
the paper back on the desk.
Wincing, Ellis sat in a creaky chair and removed his
beret. Oiled and brushed with care, the constable’s ebon
hair didn’t show a lick of hat static. With a smile and
a nod at Mary, he dug in a drawer and said, “It was a
good thing I caught you. Station’s busy to a man with
tomorrow’s mayoral election. We’re indoors now. You may
sit and get comfortable.”
The pair sat on stools across from him. Llena pulled her
hat a little tighter by its wooden, straw-wrapped brim.
“Comfort is a treat I swore off six years ago. I’ve
learned to keep the things that matter close to me,
Constable Ellis.” She squeezed Mary’s hand while she
“With the seeming exception of today, unfortunately,” he
said, drawing parchment and fountain pen from a drawer.
“I won’t abide a mother and her daughter being burgled
in my town. A theft happened today?”
Llena peered over first one shoulder, then the other.
“An expensive one. You know what Framers do?”
Ellis quirked a lip, and a moustache. “Characteristic
“Yes, and everyone wants to steal my magic.”
“Sounds much the same as money or power.”
“I have to bring Mary with me everywhere. My studio
isn’t safe, and it’s on Villa Square.”
“We try to patrol the troubled areas, but most of my
colleagues are burdened with the coming election.”
“I haven’t owned a revolver since before we moved here,
and I have no problem getting one to use if you won’t
help. My daughter’s life could have been in danger. In
Ellis sucked in an aggravated breath. “And I’m so sorry
that happened to you both. Having one’s person invaded
and taken from is painful. Demoralizing. Scary.”
He’d empathized, and hadn’t offered clean bandages for
Mary’s arm. Respectful of her independence? Or
apathetic? Llena breathed out and said, “Yes, it is. I
can be the toughest Framer and mother around, and it
“I won’t pry into your business details, just the
theft’s details. Perhaps we can slow those down or
eliminate them. Get your family some peace of mind.”
Llena nodded and recounted all she could of the
encounter at Rinkerton’s carriage. The knock-down
burglary, the rush through the busy road, her loss of
the burglar. It took her longer than it should have,
considering all the sights she’d omitted for business
reasons, as Ellis put it.
“The thief had a brown coat, blond hair, and was taller
than Mum,” Mary piped up.
The constable’s pen had scratched through Llena’s
recollections, but it stopped here. He eyed Mary.
“That’s the same man the wagoneers described to me not
an hour ago. The Irishman. It should have jogged my
memory when you said that before. Apologies. Stress.”
Llena’s eyes narrowed. “If you recognize him, don’t
you have constables searching the area for him already?”
Ellis grimaced. “A handful of my co-workers left
their positions this morning. Just came in and told my
Chief they were done with this place. I was hoping the
mayor’s family would give an appearance today, but--”
“With theft on the rise,” Mary said, “They thought
it was too dangerous.”
Llena seized her daughter’s hand. “Do not interrupt
the good constable.”
“Ah, you’re taking those stories to heart,” Ellis
said, raising his eyebrows at a constable behind Mary’s
chair who was waiting to speak with him. Ellis smiled at
Mary. “Were there any other details you noticed?”
Mary’s voice grew quieter the longer Llena fumed.
“Mum said they had frock coats. The other thieves did.
And the brown coat man rode a horse out of--”
“I’m sorry,” Llena said, raising her voice slightly.
“She knows not to interrupt. It’s those stories that get
Mary looked from her mother to the constable.
Ellis spoke first. “I’d hope she’s as excited as I am.
We brought two frock-coated men in with injuries
earlier. I’d suspected they weren’t victims of a wagon
accident. That has to be The Irishman and his followers.
It seems they’ve set their sights on more than
stagecoach robbery.” He tapped the newspaper stack and
raised an eyebrow at Mary. “You’d both best be prepared.
Too much of a good thing is a bad thing, but the right
amount of a good thing is different for each person.”
Mary bounced on her stool and looked ready to blurt
something else, but Llena’s glare stopped her. Facing
Ellis again, Llena said, “My studio is about four
streets away from here on Villa Square. You’ll be able
to tell which one’s mine. Could you send someone down
with information once you learn something new?”
“And a constable friend to guard us too?” Mary
Ellis smiled with his eyes at both of them. “Your
information has helped more than you know. Thank you. I
shall do my best, though I cannot promise a time when I
will be able to drop in. You may be on your own for
several hours, what with the election and the matters
you discussed.” He caught Mary peeking at his notes and
stood, ending the conversation and greeting the
uniformed man waiting for him.
Llena rose and led her daughter the way she had come
through the desk labyrinth. Once they stepped into the
afternoon sun, she searched the road for the local
boulangerie. Its rough timber sign, which she’d painted
with a bread pan and honey jar when she and Mary had
moved to Berkshire, was one more street away from her
studio. Five blocks away total. Constables kept plodding
in and out the door behind her, kicking up road dust,
hurrying in from or going toward Villa Square.
“You hungry for a croissant and jam?” Llena asked,
knowing the answer.
Mary nodded, ambling down the road and keeping pace
with her mother. “Who’s The Irishman?”
“Another thief Mum will handle. It was rude of you
to intrude. We’re lucky Constable Ellis didn’t get cross
and ignore the theft.”
“Mum, the stories always have a constable fr--”
“Forget what the stories say. This is reality and
someone stole my magic. Let them do their jobs. They’re
too busy for friends or stories.” Llena fingered the
shilling in her pocket, remembered how few more she had
at the studio. “This money was supposed to be for frame
materials. We won’t eat as much while I build another,
Mary. Make this treat last. Let’s go eat.”
They trudged on, Llena anticipating the fresh pastry
scent with each mostly clean footstep. The detail Ellis
reacted to the strongest was Mary’s description of the
frame thief. Several people identified that same person.
The Irishman. He’d assaulted her and Mary as well as the
actual wagon accident victims. Assuming they were safe
because he’d stolen empathy was a mistake.
Llena tugged her hat low by its brim and led her
daughter into the only happy place they were likely to
Weston recognized the brown coat on The Irishman the
moment he slithered into the lamplight. Same style, same
cut he’d worn earlier that day. The blond wig Weston
himself had ditched looked the same as The Irishman’s
hair. That’s what you did with people under you. Set
them up to take the fall first.
Former constables, a dozen shop owners, gunsmiths,
and the whole region’s moonshiners filed into his
farmhouse’s drawing room. Their formal clothing was worn
at best and swiss-cheese ratty at worst. Several wore
frock coats like those the thieves who’d chased him had
worn. Sloppy Irishman. Giving the same old clothes you
had lying around to your hired footpads was the same as
screaming, “I’m behind the crimes, please arrest me.”
Was the place crowded? Yes. Was it odiferous?
Guaranteed. With this many jaded miscreants in one
place, road dust was the high-end fragrance. Berkshire’s
former upper-class citizens and its gutter-trash. In
this room. With The Irishman. Where they could see
Weston and the covered frame hanging behind the pine
desk clearly. He’d hidden the older stolen frames in the
None of their cares mattered. All that mattered was
what they could do for him. He didn’t bother quieting
them. In one series of motions, he whisked the sackcloth
off the cedar frame and laid a bare hand on one side.
Perception bled into Weston’s mind. An instant
registering of different facts, behaviors, tells. The
cool woodgrain against his fingers soothed him a bit.
He’d never cared for the feel of wood before unless it
was the handle of a woodcutter’s axe or a knife grip.
Raising his eyes to the frame, he froze at the sight
of the canvas that showed itself to him. Faces.
Gestures. Expressions and the lack of them fluttered out
from the leaves of trees windblown into human facial
shapes. The play of sunrays on a matron’s smile on the
grove’s left. Two men’s youthful visages, one bellowing,
the other weeping for joy. Or from sorrow. Perchance
both. These stood out to him, along with every child’s
range of emotions displayed on apple and cherry trees on
the canvas’s right side.
And it was done. Empathy had ceased flowing, the
canvas bare white again.
Around him, women and men who’d abducted children or
worked for the governor gaped at the sight. Business
people who robbed or had been robbed in one fashion or
another stared. A room full of eyes flicked from Weston
to the frame and back.
The Irishman clomped forward to the head of his
shine-making compatriots. “You stole another one?”
Weston nodded once, noting every bewildered
expression in the room. “I ran the last Framer out of
The Irishman didn’t hide his secret-stifling smirk well
enough. Fury masked his face a second too late. “And you
lured six of my boys after her that time. They been hung
or worse after that.”
An apologetic frown pulled at Weston’s lips. “Only
because you gave away your involvement when you cheaped
out on your own men. I understand the desire not to
spend coin on an expendable’s clothing. Fodder raiment
for fodder footpads. Didn’t they get arrested?”
The Irishman drew a revolver from his frock coat with a
knot-knuckled hand. “You know how many men better ‘n you
I shot with this gun here.”
“Every Framer that refused you is a corpse. So are those
who failed you. People deserve better than a government
of hoarders and an apathetic mobster and his brood.”
The Irishman drew the hammer back with a click. “And why
should I not shoot that jaw off and stuff soap down it?”
Weston’s voice was velvet. “The mayor’s son’s murder
might draw constables.”
Men staggered backward. Women took another look at
Weston’s bald head, clean-shaven jaw, and thick muscle
covered with a fine-cut suit. Weston read their
expressions. They’d believed the rumors, thinking the
mayor’s family had stayed away. Expectation -- that the
mayor’s overthrower would be a man of ragged dress and
charisma -- was only half right. They feared him as they
had his father.
Weston continued. “That witch Llena would’ve sold her
frames to the people in government. Ambition like
theirs, multiplied, has left us scraping.”
Afternoon sun fell through the windows on the former
constables, who snarled for all to hear. “Mayor’s got a
throne made of shillings behind that desk.”
“Framers sell all their magic to the people in charge so
they can starve us more.”
“The whole cabinet sits on them taxes claimin’ it’s,
‘In anticipation for war.’”
Weston sighed. “Once, I wouldn’t have cared to see your
perspectives. Now I see what each of you wants. To be
yourselves instead of wasting away with empty bellies
and a run-down town.”
“We want what we got,” The Irishman said with a knife’s
smirk. “On’y a bit extra. Seems to me you’re suggesting
we take it.”
Weston pointed at the Irishman’s gun and tilted his
head. “You have the power right now to do that. They
have hoards. Take them. They have a Framer. Bring Llena
to me in the best condition.”
Eyes and leers flashed in the growing dark. Weston
added, “Because we want our witch in a good mood. We
care about her. Don’t we?”
Mutterings turned to nods, cheers, hands thrust into the
air or clapped on backs.
Weston and his fox’s smirk waited for silence. Then he
turned glistening eyes on the Irishman. “About your men
in the wagon accident. I’m sorry I chose to do that to
your good people. You work hard, and that work’s made
harder by laws the governor scrawls and taxes that the
mayor sits on. Once we take what is theirs, I’ll
At last, the revolver disappeared into The
Irishman’s frock coat. “I’m thinkin’ of putting you
behind that mayor’s desk. What’d you get from touching
those other frames you stole?”
Llena’s studio near Villa Square wasn’t ransacked.
None of the windows that faced the mayor’s three-story
Northern European villa were cracked, shattered, or
pried open. Her shelves of small, empty frames were as
undamaged as the paintings and canvases that hung on the
walls. The homes and business around it were still the
intact, dingy, red brick buildings she remembered
walking Mary and the empathy frame through that morning.
The honey-orange sun hit the front door low from the
west, setting it alight.
“Look Mum,” Mary squeaked while the pair climbed the
front stairs with newly cleaned and re-shoed feet. “The
“Huh,” Llena said, removing her straw hat and
readying it like a weapon. “No stolen frames. Lucky me.
Usually they destroy the whole shop when they want to
run Framers out of town.”
Mary huddled closer to her mother’s dress. “Are we
going to move again?”
“Never,” Llena said. “Rinkerton’s constables might
have left the mayor’s villa when he left his job, but
we’re still in the safest neighborhood in Berkshire.”
“But the lock’s busted. Shouldn’t we leave and get a
constable from somewhere else?”
Patting her daughter’s curls with one hand, Llena
gripped the rounded wooden frame beneath her hat brim.
“That means we protect ourselves. Frames are our life,
Mary. No one wrecks the place where we make them.”
A shove with her foot snapped the door open.
Metallic lock bits tinked onto the timber threshold.
Scents of oil paints, thinners, and cedar shavings
lingered among the entry hall’s dust motes. No burning
odors. No carpets or oil lamps or spindle-legged tables
out of place in the hall ahead of her.
Llena tensed her legs the way a Framer’s exercises
required. “If there’s one burglar, Mum can hit him and
he won’t hit back. More than one burglar, you run for
A hinge creaked inside. The door to the studio’s
storage space crept open in a slow circle. It swung away
from them. She’d see anyone emerge into the hall’s dim
Ready to strike, Llena slipped her shoes off, left them
on the stairs, and tiptoed inside with her daughter’s
hand held tight.
No one emerged.
Both of them snuck forward a yard.
Two yards. Still no burglar.
A stifled groan sounded from beyond the storage room
threshold. Someone was bound, being held there. An Irish
accent replied to the struggles. “We care about the
little witch, an’ not you. Unless you give her to us.”
Llena raised her straw hat, stepped ahead.
Her bare feet made no noise. Mary was just as
silent. She must have kicked her shoes off outside as
well. A little fear drained away from Llena at her
Wood on bone thunked from her immediate right. “Owwww,”
An oil lamp crashed to the floor. Then the spindle
table Mary had tripped over. Llena jerked her daughter
ahead out of the glass peppering the floor by main
strength. She landed in a sprawl in front of the storage
A burly blond man in a brown coat slunk around the
door frame, revolver in hand. Llena screeched and
whipped the hat brim down on his cheek. Aqua light
flashed outward from the hat, silhouetting the man
against the wall. The wood took some skin and blood with
it. Bellowing, the man stumbled back, clutching his
Then he turned his attention to the broken things in
the hallway. His eyes flicked from the table and lamp to
the revolver in his hand. He set it gently onto the
floor, barrel pointed away from any person in the
studio. No one else leapt out to seize Llena or Mary,
and he made no sudden movements.
Llena jabbed the hat-covered frame at The Irishman.
“What were you trying to steal? Or did you break in to
scare us out of Berkshire?”
The Irishman kept mum and shied away from Llena when
she stepped toward him. He backed into the storage room,
palms out. Llena paid no attention to the bewildered
expression on his face. He broke into a Framer’s studio.
He’d find out what she did to him eventually.
Timothy Rinkerton’s thin form lay tied with ropes
and gagged with a wad of cloth. The Irishman had crammed
him feet first beneath a rack of completed oaken and
pine frames with blank canvases. That was all she could
see of him in the lightless storage space. Llena
crouched and dragged the former tax man’s body across
the room. When she got him into the light of the
hallway, she pulled him toward the back door away from
the broken glass. She leaned him against the wall and
spotted the blood oozing slowly from a wound to his
“Mary,” she called. “Fetch the salve and the
bandages from Mum’s desk in the storage room.”
“I can’t,” Mary said. “The burglar man keeps trying
to grab me.”
Llena looked up from Rinkerton’s wound and saw The
Irishman lunging to stop Mary’s progress toward the
storage room, but never actually touching her. At last,
he cried, “What’s happened to me? I’m supposed to take
the Framer witch back. We all are. We don’t care about
the others. Why can’t I do it?”
“Because my Mum kicked your ass.”
“Mary,” Llena snipped, fighting back a smile. “Good
job. Now please get the things Mr. Rinkerton needs.” She
stepped between The Irishman and her daughter, who ran
for the storage room they’d just left without another
word. Llena listened for Mary rummaging around for
bandages. Then she scooped the revolver off the carpet.
The Irishman bit his lips. “What do you need that
She drew back the hammer. “You attacked me in the
street and stole my magic.”
“That was W-Weston. Not me. He wanted more frames.
Please don’t use that.“
“Brown coat. Blond hair. That’s you. Is this Weston
your partner in crime?”
“No violence, please. He tricked us both. I believed
the rumors as much as you and the constables.”
“Tell me who and where he is.”
If they’d stayed at the studio, they’d be
babysitting a pacifist mobster.
If they’d run four blocks and told everyone at the
constabulary, they’d have detained them both for their
If Rinkerton hadn’t woken when he did, nobody
would’ve delivered word before tomorrow’s election.
Fires burned in the night behind Llena and Mary.
They jogged out of town along the road Mary’d seen the
thief ride away on. Shop owners they knew rushed past
them without looking twice. Men in constables’ berets
with revolvers followed close behind them. Stinking,
ragged-clothed winos and women with lanterns tore along
behind them. All rushing
Berkshire, not away. The town battled with itself while
Weston’s violent dissenters sprinted unknowingly right
past the Framer they hunted.
“Rinkerton’s coat looks good on you, Mum,” Mary said
after another mob had charged past them.
“Black coat, green bowler,” Llena replied, a smirk
in her voice.
“I got the idea from the Berkshire Bloodhound.”
“You mean you didn’t take a leaf from Weston’s book?
Dress like the person you want to get in trouble?”
“Nope. The stories taught me faster than reality.”
The Irishman’s revolver in the coat pocket beat
against Llena’s left hip with every other step. “Then I
suppose you have two good teachers and not just one.”
Twin ruts ate into the road beneath Llena’s feet,
and she slowed, squinting and following the digressing
track they made. It dragged to the right between
neglected pastures to a farmhouse. Trees hemmed it in
from the north. A tumbledown barn and an old, sturdy
silo haunted the crop fields that prickled with dead
stalks and voracious weeds. One black structure in the
countryside. Unaffected by the riots and the destruction
caused by the man inside.
Apathy could be captured here if there’d been time
for a Framer’s exercises.
Llena searched the darkness for more rioters heading
in Berkshire’s direction. No one was nearby, but another
stampede of farmers and country bumpkins marched toward
town about a half mile off. Dozens of torches
silhouetted their machetes and garden hoes. Waiting to
confront Weston until they passed might get Mary
kidnapped if anyone recognized her hiding on the porch.
Llena began to shed Rinkerton’s coat and hat. “Mary, do
you remember the Framer’s exercises?”
“The kicks and the hits, yep.”
“Stay close to me and be ready. Mum will have the
gun. I’m leaving the bullets here in the road.” She took
the revolver, dropped four rounds to the ground, then
passed Mary the folded coat and hat. “If Weston comes
for either of us, throw these at him and trip him up.
Then use any exercises you need to and try to get away.”
Llena snicked the revolver closed. “I’ll keep us safe.”
Mary peered up at Llena, eyes watering. “We
shouldn’t have to do this, Mum.”
Lifting the hem of her dress with one hand, Llena
gripped the gun in the other. “Don’t we both know it. We
should be home safe in the studio. But this is what
magic makes people into. This is reality. I love you.”
“Love you too Mum.”
With that, Llena hurried toward the farmhouse. Mary
held the coat and hat under one small arm and held onto
Llena’s dress with the other hand. They crossed to an
iron gate between brick planters as tall as Mary. Dead
flowers hung down the sides. Parched vines crinkled
under Llena’s hand when she pushed the gate.
Creaks scratched the air and she rushed up the
cracked flagstones to the oaken double doors. She willed
her quickening breath to quieten, reached for the
Locked. A glance at the window panes. A search for locks
to snap or jimmy.
“Guests don’t need to break in,” a male voice said.
Llena whirled to find a hairless, thick-muscled man
in a tight suit already reaching an arm out. She spun
the hand with the revolver in an arc, knocking the hand
aside. Wincing, the man stepped back and extended the
same hand again. “The name’s Weston. Do witches always
greet buyers with violence?”
Backing into the locked door, Llena bared her teeth.
“I treat others the way they treat me.” When Weston made
no move toward her or her daughter, she looked him up
and down. “You’re not wearing your Irishman getup.”
“And you’ve passed Timothy Rinkerton’s clothing to
your daughter.” He knelt and smiled warmly at Mary. “I’m
sick of the lies, aren’t you little lady? None of us are
here to cause pain. That’s something we could all use
Llena’s eyes went from her hesitant daughter to the
man she’d expected to fight for her life. “You goaded a
mobster to hurt my friend and violate our home.”
Weston frowned, troubled. “Then I’m afraid my
compatriot made a poor choice. We care for you, your
daughter, and anyone that my father hurt. Please, come
inside and let’s talk.”
Llena scrambled with Mary back from the bald man,
who produced a set of keys and unlocked the front door.
He walked inside. The snap of a match against the box.
An oil lamp lit the wallpapered hallway beyond.
Mary peeked over her shoulder in the direction of
Berkshire, but Llena never took her eyes off Weston.
“Come on, Mary,” she whispered. “We don’t want the next
mob finding us.”
The thief crossed into what looked like a drawing
room off the hall, and Llena moved after him. Mary
tugged at her hand, pointed back past the iron gate. The
searing red of Berkshire silhouetted a solitary figure
approaching the farmhouse from the road. Her grip on
Llena’s hand tightened.
“I am not a blood drinker from the pulp stories,”
Weston’s voice called from the open door.
Llena entered, raised the revolver, and crossed the
hall into the drawing room as quickly as she could
without dragging Mary. Flickering lamplight whisked
across warped floorboards, a wardrobe, and a window with
two knit curtains masking it. Dust motes and mildew
lingered among the odor of sweat. A lone pine desk was
pushed back against a wall, where a familiar cedar frame
hung empty and spent.
“Of course you used it,” Llena hissed as she stopped
in the room’s center. “No one who steals a frame doesn’t
know how to take its magic.”
Weston settled himself in a chair behind the desk
and opened a drawer. “My father the mayor is the bigger
thief. I’m here to make sure that tax money he stole
gets back into the hands of the victims. People like
“Tax money he stole?” Llena thought of the
constables who’d fled right past Rinkerton that morning.
She’d tripped on broken cobbles the mayor hadn’t paid to
repair. She’d seen the ruined gaslights on the road
between Villa Square and Rinkerton’s carriage that the
mayor didn’t bother to replace. Rinkerton even told her
he left his job with the mayor’s office a year ago.
Likely because the mayor hoarded money instead of
improving his town with it.
“Ah, you have noticed the neglect,” Weston said,
lifting something out of the drawer. A spent frame. Ash
wood, heavily varnished. “Thanks to your magic, it will
be easy to build the rapport to take the mayor’s
position following tonight’s riots.”
He produced a second drained frame and set the
polished cherry wood next to the first. “The right word
from me, the mayor’s son, soon-to-be savior, and it all
He set another spent frame made of rum barrel wood
next to the others. “Then I make sure you poor people
continue to receive reimbursement for my father’s sins.”
Llena’s hold on the revolver loosened. She wouldn’t
sell another frame for two weeks. Two weeks of draining
work, exercises, and falling into somebody’s debt just
to obtain materials. “Who is ‘you people?’”
“The less fortunate. Working women and men. People
with the skills to earn livings under a righteous leader
who does not rob them and lie to them.”
If she was going to live in a studio on Villa
Square, it might as well not be run down. Her magic
brought more shillings than any man or woman who wasn’t
a Framer. When it wasn’t stolen or misused by those in
Mary pointed a twitching finger at each frame. “Hey,
Weasel Weston? Did you bring those out to threaten my
a demonstration. A promise of future violence despite
the empathy and other characteristics he’d stolen.
Violence he’d brought to bear on fellow Framers. Llena
blinked while Weston replied, “Those who harm my town
and my people have a habit of vanishing. Berkshire will
soon know it was me that took on that responsibility.”
Llena pulled her daughter close and drew back the
revolver’s hammer. “The Irishman’s your people. So are
the mobs burning that town and the crooked constables
who abandoned their jobs. You’d take the people’s money
and never stop giving it to
Weston reached into a drawer and sneered. “I’d
expected more empathy from the witch who sells it.
Wouldn’t you have a nicer studio if you didn’t have to
bleed dry so that corrupt people can waste your coin?
They gorge on pleasures instead of fulfilling the
Floorboards groaned behind them -- almost like
footsteps --and Mary shuffled in place at almost the
same moment. Llena sighted on Weston’s pate. “You
murdered Framers and stole their magic. Their
“And you emptied your weapon in the road to save
your daughter from the sight of violence,” Weston
hissed, bringing a snub-nosed revolver of his own from
the drawer and leveling it at Mary. “While you work for
me, I’ll let you deal with the consequences of that
Llena whipped her daughter’s body around, Framer’s
exercises flaring in her thoughts. The girl landed on
the floorboards behind Llena while she whirled twice.
A flash and a powder blast burst from behind the desk.
Weston snarled at his missed shot in the semi-darkness.
Metal-on-wood scraped again as he stood from his seat,
knocking chair and frames to the floor.
Mary reached the drawing room doorway first. She
flailed her hands while Llena spun toward the door. “Get
him, constable friend,” Mary screamed.
A man in a beret charged into the drawing room past
them, manacles swinging in one hand, a revolver in the
Ellis’s roar smothered in a second powder blast from
Metal links clattered to the drawing room floor.
The constable’s body tumbled along with it.
Llena burst into the hall and skidded to a stop
before she passed the drawing room’s door frame. She
trained the revolver’s barrel toward the room they’d
just left. Two rounds remained in the chambers ready to
fire. As she’d planned. Patting Mary’s back, she
breathed, “Leave, make a lot of noise, and hide.”
With a nod, Mary stomped toward the farmhouse’s
entrance and wailed. She shoved the door hard and
disappeared onto the porch.
Llena pressed herself against the wall and prayed no
rioters saw Mary hiding on the porch. She pictured
Weston’s exact height and listened. No sound from Ellis.
Only the tentative footsteps of another killer in
Llena’s life. Thick red fluid spread across the drawing
room threshold. Shudders prickled along her spine.
One noise. Boot leather on wood.
Llena raised the revolver, put her finger on the
Weston’s head and neck rounded the door frame,
following Mary’s racket.
Llena aimed for the man’s windpipe and fired. An
ear-crushing crack burst from the barrel. The hard bone
of Weston’s adam’s apple snapped, the round tearing into
Weston’s soft flesh. She pivoted, shaking, and walked
away from the body that slumped to the floorboards.
Finger off the trigger, she sobbed as she crossed to
the front door, collected her daughter from the porch,
and left the farmhouse. Bloody and shivering, she gasped
and chanted soothing phrases while they shambled.
Chanted over her still-ringing ears.
“You’re going to be okay.”
They stumbled into the ruts leading to the road.
“You did good.”
Berkshire’s burning outskirts grew closer and
“This was not your fault.”
Llena’s straw bonnet and blouse shone straw-gold in
the morning’s rays. Her fingers curled around twin
lengths of sanded and polished cedar, two in each hand.
She skipped, leapt, and pirouetted behind twenty
Berkshire constables following a single stagecoach with
a pinewood coffin inside. Constable Ellis’s funeral
procession moved past the mayor’s villa, where Timothy
Rinkerton’s besuited and bandaged form could be seen
behind constables, officials, and tax collectors
gathered on the marble stairs below him.
The reinsman atop the coach eased the team to the
right, leading the train toward Llena’s studio. Mary,
her favorite cerulean dress wet with tears, stood on the
stoop, waving to everyone who passed. Road dust
plastered the roof of Llena’s mouth, plugging her nose.
She ignored her own senses and focused on the senses of
those around her.
Flowing through exercise after exercise, the Framer
plucked sadness from well-dressed women along Villa
Square. She moulded duty and sympathy from the ranks of
constables ahead of her. Brown curls flipped this way
and that, brushing her cheeks each time she seized pain,
wove care, and swept resolve from the atmosphere. By the
time she reached her studio’s stairs, her arms burned
and knots cramped her feet.
Both constables at the back of the procession turned
and saluted Llena while keeping pace with their fellows.
She remembered their faces, their anguish mixed with
diligence from their discussion of Weston’s crimes and
the deaths at the farmhouse. That was days ago. A woman
defending herself was new to them, but Ellis’s passing
and their respect for a Framer’s work made it a
discussion, not an interrogation.
Mayor Rinkerton never cried once during that
discussion. He said plenty of oddball things, but he’d
showed up. And he’d visited the studio to help Mary
recover. And he’d traveled to each riot-burned townhouse
with tax money and builders.
At the studio’s entrance, Mary reached out a hand
and teared up. It was the first time Llena had left her
side since confronting Weston. She leaned the cedar
edges against the studio’s door and scooped Mary up in
her arms. If reality hadn’t taught Llena she was alone
as a Framer -- that she was always a target and a
misunderstood witch -- maybe she’d have let in the
people who could help.
Her daughter didn’t speak, and hadn’t since the
discussion at the constabulary. Llena carried her
inside, turned left, and sat her in the carved timber
chair in the display room. Dozens of whittled, sanded,
and polished picture frames leaned against shelves in
the middle and against each wall. Some contained
non-magical paintings of hers or of Mary’s. Most held
empty canvas. The Irishman’s revolver, cleaned and
loaded, rested behind a blank canvas on the highest
shelf where only Llena could reach it.
Retrieving the cedar edges and a newspaper from the
stoop, Llena shut and locked the door. She returned to
Mary’s side and passed her the newest edition of
Berkshire Bloodhound. Joy flickered across her young
face at the sight of the subtitle, Burgled Perception at
The stories. Fantasies. Steam engines. Blood
drinkers. Detectives and their fantastic abilities. They
were Mary’s shield, her pillow, her frame of reference.
“Mary,” Llena said, “I love you, and I never should
have kept the stories from you. You shouldn’t ever have
to see things like what happened at that--”
Shaking her head hard, Mary clutched the pulp
stories to her chest and fled to the hall. Her little
feet thumped toward their shared bedroom. The door
Llena had taken care of her daughter, led them out
of trouble. Then she’d moved to Berkshire and back into
it. The kind of pain and carelessness that destroyed
families and magic was everywhere. When others
repeatedly care only about what they can get out of you,
it becomes hard to open up.
Faith in others needs rebuilding. People like Weston
had beaten that faith out of her with their power
struggles and their greed and their barbarism. But
others, and Ellis had been one of them, re-affirmed that
faith regardless of Llena’s individual mistrust.
How had she allowed her perception to get so skewed?
What could she do to fix things, and to stay fixed
A hinge creaked down the end of the hall. “I love
you too, Mum!”