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The day began with a jagged edge of lightning and a crash of thunder. Penny woke abruptly from a fitful sleep, unsure at first what had woken her until she saw the thin sliver of gray light through the roof and felt a cold drop land on her forehead. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she saw that the roof, already weakened from years of overuse, was sagging with rainwater; even now it was beginning to creak and groan from the strain, and water was pouring through gaps in the shingles. She closed her eyes briefly, shook her head, and opened them again. The water was still there. Penny groaned, then leapt to her feet. The book! It was the only thing that could prove her innocenc. She had to save it; it would surely be ruined by the water. She looked around frantically, trying to remember where she had last hidden it in a fit of cautiousness. Not under the bed or in the chimney; too predictable. She wouldn’t have hidden it anywhere near the fireplace, for fear it would burn. Then where – her eye caught upon the threadbare carpet that she had put by the door. Yes! She had hidden it in the highly useful loose floorboard by the front window. She pulled up the rug and desperately dug her fingernails into the crack between the wide planks. Finally it creaked open and she breathed a sigh of relief to see that the book was there, along with a few silver coins. She scooped it all up and wrapped it in her jacket and tied it tightly with a bit of twine, then shoved her feet into her shoes. She glanced around the hut one last time, looking for anything to bring, knowing that she had to get out before the roof caved in. Mentally cursing the oily landlord who had was letting the house, she opened the door and stepped out into the foggy, cold half-light of morning.
As she began walking away from the house, Penny looked back over her shoulder. The house was sagging, water dripping through the walls and the roof. The chimney began to lean to one side and was on the verge of collapse. She shook her head scornfully and began to walk faster. There was no point trying to get her money back from the landlord; she would just be laughed at. She should have known to be on her guard, should have known that no one would just let a 14-year-old girl rent a decent house for a decent price.
After about twenty minutes, Penny’s teeth were chattering and she was soaked through, and she realized that she had unconsciously walked to Blind Richard’s hideout, the old Tavern in one of the more disreputable parts of town. He had discovered the Tavern last year, empty and forlorn, with broken windows and a door that had fallen off its hinges. While being careful to maintain the rather seedy-looking atmosphere around the front, he had made the back room comfortable and warm by adding fireplaces and blankets. He had let Penny stay there a few times, when she had nowhere to go or when she was afraid of being caught. She knew that he would let her stay there tonight; but she would also need to find a place to stay, at least for now if not permanently.
She pushed open the door and walked cautiously through the maze of broken tables, chairs and miscellaneous debris that had been left behind. She knew that Richard left it there to give the illusion of being uninhabited. Few people knew of this hideout of his, and he wanted to keep it that way.
When Penny reached the back wall, she pushed open the wooden door and walked through the darkened hallway. It was still early in the morning; Richard was probably asleep. She moved cautiously down the corridor until she found the well-concealed door. It had been used as a gaming room when the Tavern still operated, but now it served as the main room for Richard’s makeshift home. Not bothering to knock, she walked straight into the room – and stopped short in horror. The room had been destroyed; tables were upturned, blankets strewn about the room, drawers flung to the floor, and cabinets cast wide open. Broken glass was strewn about the floors – and there, in the middle of the floor there was a large red stain, already seeping into the wide wooden floorboards.
And Richard was nowhere to be seen.
Penny’s mouth was open in shock and she had let her precious package fall to the floor. Gathering herself, she picked it up and held it close. There had been a fight, that she could see from the broken chairs and ripped papers and blood – but oddly it looked as though the room had also been searched. But who would search Richard’s hideout? He didn’t keep anything of value here, most of the expensive things that he had stolen were sold and the money safely in a vault under the name of Ricardo Caecus. And who, besides herself, even knew of this place? Richard himself, of course, his friends Cora, a fellow thief, and One-Legged Jack, a beggar. Then there was Henry, who sold most of his goods, Frances, a shy, silent orphan boy who was only about nine or ten, and Penny herself. These were the only people trusted enough to be given directions to the hideout; and Penny knew that none of them were up to a fight, especially with Blind Richard.
Penny walked into the room tentatively, unsure whether she should flee the scene immediately or stay and try to investigate. She half-hoped that Richard would pop up from a pile of blankets and say, “Got you – April Fool!” Except it was September. And Blind Richard never pulled pranks.
She heard a sound behind her and whirled around. A small, dark figure was standing in the door. She leapt backward. Maybe he hadn’t seen her, maybe she could get away – “Penny?” a small voice said uncertainly. She felt her shoulders sag in relief. It was Frances – only Frances. She was getting far too jumpy.
“Thank God it’s you. Come on, come inside. Why are you here? When did this happen?”
Frances stepped inside and closed the door. His face was tear-streaked. “I don’t know,” he said, sniffling. “I came here in the middle of the night because I had nowhere to go and it was like this. I’ve been hiding behind the bar in the front room and when you came in I thought maybe you was Richard so I followed you.”
He looked terrible, tired and dirty and frightened. Penny thought for a moment, came to a decision. If he had been hiding here all night, surely he would have noticed anyone entering or exiting; and if the room had been in this condition at midnight, whoever had done it was probably long gone. It was probably safe to stay here. For now.
She carefully set the book down on the table, still tightly covered, then glanced around the floor. There, she was right – matches were strewn across the floor, presumably from the box that Richard had kept on the mantle. She scooped some of them up and scratched one across the stone wall to light it. “All right,” she said to Frances. “We are going to light a fire and have something to eat, and then we’ll figure out who did this.”
In a few moments, a fire was blazing – not exactly merrily, given the circumstances, but it gave off light and was warm and improved Penny’s spirits very, very slightly. After searching the room perfunctorily, and locking the door securely, she felt safe enough to sit down in front of the fire with some of the “emergency rations” that Richard had kept above in one of the cabinets. She gestured to Frances, who was still standing by the door, to come join her. When he had sat down, she handed him a hunk of bread and started talking.
“So,” she said, “You came here in the middle of the night and it was like this?”
Frances nodded, his thin face bulging with bread.
“And no one was here – not Richard, not anyone…else?”
Frances nodded again.
Penny closed her eyes, frowning. It just didn’t make any sense. First of all, who on earth could have found Richard here? Second, who would want to? Richard was a seasoned thief, yes, but he had never hurt anyone, and although some of the London bobbies were more aggressive than others, most were willing to look the other way when pickpockets stole the gold from wealthy, pampered merchants and their wealthy, pampered wives.
Richard had entrusted so very few people with the secret of this place, been so very careful to make it hidden, it just didn’t make sense that anyone other than his trusted few would discover it.
Penny could feel her mind going in circles, coming to the same conclusions again and again, but she just didn’t have anything to go on. Finally she stood up, and picked up the wrapped book from the table. “Frances, I need to go now. Do you have anywhere to stay?”
Frances looked uncertain. “Mostly I stay here, but sometimes I’m over on Baker Street. Me and some other boys do errands for a man there, he pays us good but never makes much sense.”
Penny nodded, not really listening. “Okay, Frances, listen, you need to stay away from here for the next few days, all right? You stay over on – on Cook Street or whatever it was, and if you need me, I want you to go to the bakery over on Throgmorton road and ask for a dozen penny loaves and I’ll come find you. Got it?” Frances nodded.
“All right. And, Frances, if you think you know who did this, or find anything, just come tell me. We need to find Blind Richard.”
Penny put out the fire and scooped some bread and cheese into the bundle containing the book. She didn’t know where her next meal would come from and she wanted to be sure that she at least had something. She checked that Frances had some food and a blanket, made sure he understood how to find her, and set off into the morning.
As she walked (where to she didn’t know) her mind spun frantically with possibilities and facts, few as they were. She knew that, though Blind Richard was not universally liked and admired, he was at least respected by most pickpockets, and he was savvy enough not to put his trust in the wrong people. And though some of the thieves and beggars would happily turn in a fellow thief for a few silver coins, she wasn’t ready to believe that any of Richard’s few trusted friends would sink that low. Besides, Richard was one of the better bandits, and he was always willing to help those less streetwise than himself. After all, that’s how Penny had first met him – three years ago, shivering in a gutter, Richard had offered her a warm meal and a place to dry off. After that, she had simply stuck with him, which he didn’t seem to mind – after all, he had taught her all he knew. Richard was the first person to believe that Penny could amount to something – even if that something was a pickpocket.
She tucked her head down to her chest and pressed forward through the stinging rain. She would find Blind Richard – she had to.