Her Majesty's Milken (Excerpt)
by Nicki J. Markus
The lock was a simple one, in many ways unworthy of her time and effort. If London's toffs were this careless about the security of their valuables, it was a wonder no one had cleaned out all of them already. Still, if rich folks asked to be relieved of their possessions, who was she to argue when opportunity called?
Grace manoeuvred her lock picks carefully, twisting them within the keyhole until she heard the telltale clockwork click. The door to the ludicrously unsafe safe swung open, and she sat back on her heels to survey her bounty. A stack of bank notes caught her eye first--those went straight into her bag--then she turned her attention to the box. She had already removed all the jewellery from the ladies' bedchambers. Some of that was of decent quality, so this piece ought to be something special. She raised the lid and grinned as she stared at the glistening diamond necklace. Even after paying Jack his percentage for the tip, she was looking at an impressive return for an hour's work.
She tugged the necklace free and returned the box to the safe, closing the square door. Though it no longer locked, her action gave the illusion of security. It hid the theft from casual glance until someone went to open it, which could be days from now, and gave her time to dispose of the goods before the rozzers came looking. She slipped the necklace into her pocket. That way, even if she lost the bag she would retain the most valuable item. Her darbey secured, she collected and stowed her belongings, rose from her crouch, and crept back to the hallway.
Music and laughter from the party below drifted up the main stairs and Grace lingered for a moment to listen. A string quartet played a waltz, and she imagined the scene within the ballroom: drink flowing as dancing couples spun. Sometimes, when she was more suitably attired, she liked to sneak a peek--but not tonight. Given the manner of her entrance and planned exit, she wore boys' clothing rather than her parlour maid costume, and tonight's rich pickings meant she could not risk discovery.
She turned from the main stairs and continued down the corridor until she reached the servants' staircase. Then she ascended to the garret. A society event was always the best time to stick a bust, for it guaranteed the servants would all be occupied, their rooms empty. She proceeded to the maids' bedchamber at the rear of the house. The window through which she had entered earlier remained open, her grappling hook still embedded in the woodwork. A glance down revealed the way was clear, so she tossed her bag into the courtyard. The thump as it hit the ground was loud to her ears but she trusted none would hear it over the music and festivities. She waited a moment, just in case, but no one emerged from the back door below to investigate and no footsteps sounded in the hallway.
Extricating herself was harder. The window was small and did not open fully. Luckily, in this type of situation, her short stature and slight frame were a distinct advantage. She pulled herself through the space backward until she dangled half in and half out of the room then she reached for the handhold on her grappling hook. She established a firm grip before wriggling the rest of the way out. For a moment she hung there, the grappling hook the only thing stopping her from plummeting two storeys. Her arm ached from the strain, but it would not be for long.
Grace depressed the button beneath her thumb and the wire extended, lowering her in a graceful, measured descent. Once her feet touched the ground, she pulled on another lever that retracted the three prongs into the hook and it came tumbling out of the window towards her. She drew in the wire as the hook fell, allowing her to catch it neatly in her palm. The impact caused a tremor along her arm; however, she was used to the vibration and it did her no harm. She retrieved her bag and shoved the grappling hook inside. Then she clambered over the railing and made her escape.
Normally she did not mind the walk back from Mayfair to her lodgings in Whitechapel. However, with her bag and pockets bursting, she did not want to risk being stopped, whether by bobbies or one of her own kind looking to make a quick shilling. Therefore, she hailed a hansom cab as soon as she reached a main thoroughfare. The driver looked at her askance at first, but he quickly changed his tune once she waved a coin beneath his nose.
When she reached her room, Jack was waiting. He had lit the glim and lay draped across her bed, his dirty boots resting atop the metal frame. The left shoe had worn through on the toe and revealed the remnants of a grimy, moth-eaten sock.
"You took yer sweet time."
"Gotta wait until they've all arrived and 'ad a tipple or two. 'Sides, I'm early and you know it."
"So, was I right?" Jack swung his legs off the bed and sat upright, watching her with a hungry stare. "They 'ad a gem or two, I bet. Let's see 'em."
"You going to buy some new shoes wi' your share?"
"Maybe. First I need me a drink."
Grace's heart sank. Gin was Jack's downfall. When he got it into his head to block a quiet pub, there was no reasoning with him for days--until his money ran out, at which point he had no choice but to quit. Desire to remain in the gin house for as long as possible also made him greedy when it came to his cut. He snatched at her bag, but she swung it out of reach.
"Don't be so impatient." She set it on a chair and rummaged inside, pulling out the jewellery and the wad of notes. "Ten percent, remember, so take a few o' the notes and jewels. You can 'ave first pick."
Jack's idea of the limits of his share proved to be vastly different from Grace's. He scrunched all but two of the notes into his pockets then reached for the jewellery. As he scrambled to collect necklaces, brooches, and rings, the diamonds became a hot and heavy weight in Grace's pocket. She ought to reveal the necklace. She and Jack had known each other for close to ten years. He had saved her from the streets at an age when starvation would soon have forced her to sell herself to the men who wandered the East End at night. Thanks to him, she'd found another path. He'd taught her to pick pockets, and from there she had climbed the ladder of thievery to become one of the most wanted milkens in all of London, doing well enough in her trade that she no longer had to scrape along but could afford food, a private room, a few furnishings, and new clothing when she required it. She could also help her friends when they were in need. Friends like Jack.
"I'll be off then, Gracie. If I 'ear of any more opportunities, I'll let you know."
Jack ambled to the door. Grace was about to call him back and show him her prize when her gaze flashed to the bed. Only two one-pound notes and a couple of rings remained, and she changed her mind. Honour amongst thieves was all well and good. However, unless both parties observed the rule, it only resulted in ruin. Jack had received more than his share of tonight's bounty; she would not let him drink away the rest. The necklace was hers.
"Goodnight, Jack. Don't forget to get them new stamps and some pannum."
Jack nodded and gave a cheery wave, and Grace shut and barred the door. She doubted he would heed her advice, but at least she had tried. If this necklace proved as valuable as she suspected, she might have enough spare to buy him the boots herself. She would take it to Sammy in the morning. He always gave her a fair price. What happened to the goods after that she never knew, but a prominent piece such as this one could likely not be passed on without attracting attention, especially once the owner reported the theft. Doubtless Sammy would strip it down and reset the diamonds in rings and brooches and pendants before selling them. He was a skilled goldsmith and had a reputable business. The original owner might even end up buying back some of the diamonds in a new form one day.
Fatigue caught up with Grace, as it always did once the excitement was over. She dropped the remaining notes and rings back into her bag and kicked it under the bed. Then she tossed her cap onto the table, raked her fingers through her roughly shorn hair, and sat to unlace her boots. Although spring was here, the nights remained cold, so she wasted no time in huddling under the covers and drawing the blankets up to her chin. She did not bother to change into her nightgown. Until she made a deal with Sammy on the morrow, she would not let the necklace out of her sight. The safest place to keep it was on her person, where she could feel the press of its outline through her clothes. She settled on her side and rested her hand over her pocket. Once comfortable, she drew in a deep breath and blew out the candle.
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Nicki J. Markus (aka Asta Idonea) was born in England but now lives in Adelaide, South Australia. She has loved both reading and writing from a young age and is also a keen linguist, having studied several foreign languages.
Nicki launched her writing career in 2011 and divides her efforts not only between mainstream and MM works but also between traditional and indie publishing. Her works span the genres, from paranormal to historical and from contemporary to fantasy. It just depends what story and which characters spring into her mind!
As a day job, Nicki works as a freelance editor and proofreader, and in her spare time she enjoys music, theatre, cinema, photography, and sketching. She also loves history, folklore and mythology, pen-palling, and travel, all of which have provided plenty of inspiration for her writing.
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