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Story 4

 Jabe  Stafford

 

Craftspersons of every type have been revered over time and over cultures. The wares of the subject of our story are  more desired than most, leading to burglary and... worse.

Seeing your own shortcomings is easy. We see them in the mirror, in our behavior with others, and in their behavior toward us. We are our own best critics. Changing oneself can be agonizingly difficult, but there's a reason it is. If you could change something about yourself just like THAT, the consequences could be worse than changing the slow way, with effort and thought. -- Jabe Stafford

Enjoy Llena's and Mary's adventures in this prequel to Jabe's story, The Fiend In The Frame.
The Fiend In The Frame is available on the author's website at https://www.jabestafford.com.

Jabe Stafford has a published short story in Kyanite Press Volume 1, Issue 3, along with articles published with Write Plan and Kyanite Press Online, and is a featured guest on the League Of Villains Podcast.

In addition, Jabe wrote the Guest Editorial for Issue 22 of 4 Star Stories.

 

Perception Thief

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 be anywhere.

 “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 from.”

    “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 Mum.”

    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 carriage.

    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 last year.”

    Clutching the frame in both hands, Llena frowned. “So those constables weren’t delivering tax money of yours?”

    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 carriages.”

    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 make fantasy, so I should be allowed to read other fantasy.”

    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 blood.

    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 year--”

     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 back.”

    “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 corner.

    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 known 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 thieves either.

    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 his prize.

    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 no matter.

    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 those wagons.

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 go inside.”

“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?”

    Mary shook no 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 for customers.”

“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.

Mary pouted.

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 talked.

“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 sales.”

“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 broad daylight.”

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 still happens.”

“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 her excited.”

    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 added.

    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 see today.

 

###

 

    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 desk’s drawers.

    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 town.”

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 compensate you.”

    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 lock’s shattered.”

    “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 the constables.”

    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 light.

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 daughter’s smarts.

    Wood on bone thunked from her immediate right. “Owwww,” Mary squealed.

    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 room door.

    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 face.

    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 liver-spotted scalp.

    “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 for?”

    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 protection.

    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 into 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.”

    “Stay close.”

    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 tarnished knob.

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. Behind her.

    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 less of.”

    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 you.”

    “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 stops.”

    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 power.

    Mary pointed a twitching finger at each frame. “Hey, Weasel Weston? Did you bring those out to threaten my Mum?”

    Each frame was 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 your people.”

    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 community’s needs.”

    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 livelihood.”

    “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 choice.”

    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 other.

Ellis’s roar smothered in a second powder blast from Weston’s gun.

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 trigger.

    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 closer.

    “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 top.

    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 slammed.

    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 herself?

    A hinge creaked down the end of the hall. “I love you too, Mum!”

Finis

 

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