Story Excerpt

Thick as Thieves

by Gigi Vernon
 

Thick-as-Theives_Maggie_Ivy
Art by Maggie Ivy

The Quality

Drenching rain meant the Quality were well wrapped in cloaks, and Betty had no chance to get at the valuables in their pockets. The only thing she had to show for a day tramping the cold wet streets was a single silver button that turned out to be pewter. Ned would be displeased with her, and worse, she had nothing to add to her own savings to get free of him.

She turned a corner and came upon a glut of carriages from which gentlemen and ladies descended to enter a town house lit up for a ball. Twigging the place might appease Ned. She was dressed in her most respectable toggery, so bold as you please she swept up the front steps. The footmen on duty allowed her to pass.

Inside, yards of black silk draped a drafty parlor. A funeral, it was, the mourners aglitter with pearls and gold.

The silk handkerchief of the dandy in front of her was ripe for the picking, but she feared he might reach for it if grief overcame him, and so she nabbed his more valuable pocket watch instead.

A great raucous press of the bereaved carried her to a velvet-lined coffin. The deceased looked a right old bastard, eyebrows bushy and white, lips thin, and heavy jowls that no amount of powder and rouge could improve. “Henry Salter, b. 1705–d. 1772” was etched on a brass plate. Fluttering her fan to shield herself from view, she leaned over as if to kiss him farewell and slipped a gold ring from his finger.

Straightening, Betty’s breath caught.

A young woman in black silk with a towering powdered wig topped by a miniature raven in a cage was watching Betty. She seemed too young to be the widow. Could she be the grieving daughter?

Expecting the woman to raise the alarm, Betty forced herself not to elbow her way through the crowd in a certain admission of guilt. Besides, the door was too far, the press too thick. She’d be caught, arrested, and transported to the colonies if she were lucky, hanged if she were not.

Brazen it out, she heard Ned say, and tried to espy, without seeming to do so, an opening through which she could slip away.

The woman approached and stopped directly in front of Betty. She was younger than Betty, as much girl as woman. Her cheeks were dimpled and her blue eyes were as fixed as a wax doll displaying the latest fashions in a shop window.

Brazen it out. “My condolences, Madame,” Betty said, faking a well-bred accent, and dropped into a curtsey.

“Forgive me, have we met? The weight of my cares since my husband’s passing . . .” She was a widow then, a very young, rich one and, judging by the dry eye she dabbed with a black handkerchief, not an overly distraught one.

Choosing the first name that popped into her head, Betty introduced herself, “We met once. I’m Mrs. Valentine, if you recall.”

Mrs. Salter clasped Betty’s hands between her black gloves, pulled her toward her, and held onto her unsteadily. “In sorrowful times, friends are such solace,” she said, the words reeking of brandy. “But I have none. These ladies and gentlemen here . . . They’re not . . . I never had a friend, not a true one.”

Drunk as a doxy, Mrs. Salter was, and perhaps a bit mad. The Quality were all mad, weren’t they? Betty smiled sweetly. “If you will allow it, I shall be your dearest friend.”

Mrs. Salter embraced her and planted wet kisses on her cheeks. “These people . . . they’re vultures. Thieves. All of them. If you only knew . . .”

But Betty did know. She slid her hand into Mrs. Salter’s pocket. Her fingers discovered a jeweled snuffbox, a ring, a key, and another silk handkerchief. One by one, she transferred them into her own ample pockets.

 

Ned waited for her with a bottle of gin in their lodgings above the Bear & Bull. “Where have you been?” he said with a peevish glint in his eye and a foreboding curl of his lip.

Betty emptied her pockets on the table, and his foul mood was gone like a cloud in wind.

Grinning, he pulled her onto his lap. “With the rain, I worried you’d have nothing for me, love.”

Her luck made him amorous. They took to their bed and had such a tumble that she was reminded of her first days with him, when she thought she could love him, before she came to know him. Afterwards, as they shared a pipe of tobacco among the tangled bedclothes, she told him the story of the funeral and they laughed together.

“This widow, Mrs. Salter, thinks you a friend then?” he asked.

Betty pushed a tousled black curl out off his handsome forehead. “I’ve an idea for a bilk to relieve her of more of her wealth, if you are willing to play a part.”

 

The next day, well rehearsed in their roles, she and Ned returned to the townhouse. Ned, dashing in sober black, was to be a thief-taker who’d apprehended Betty with the ring stolen from the corpse and hoped for a reward from the widow for its return. While a tearful Betty pleaded with Mrs. Salter for mercy, Ned would nick whatever was to hand and twig the town house with an eye to returning later with his coves to strip the ken.

She and Ned arrived to find the Salter town house in turmoil. Liveried footmen carried boxes and baskets down the front steps into waiting carts. No one took notice of Ned and Betty. Inside, bespectacled clerks consulted ledger books while servants packed paintings, silver, china in chests. Was the widow departing London?

They found Mrs. Salter sitting on a stool in the parlor, a storm of preparations swirling around her, a decanter of wine at her feet. Her face lit up at sight of Betty, but she was able to stand only by clutching at Ned. “You’ve returned, Mrs. Valentine! How good of you!” she said, slurring her words. “You see my situation? I am ruined. Utterly ruined. My husband left me nothing. I am penniless, and entirely without friends, family, or connections in London. I am to be taken to Fleet Prison until I can pay his debts.”

Betty’s grand plans for fortune crumbled into ashes and she dreaded the fury which was sure to erupt later from Ned.

“What am I to do, Mrs. Valentine?” the widow asked.

Betty tried to signal to Ned that they should steal what they could before the law arrived, but he seemed more interested in the widow’s wine-stained lips and glistening blue eyes.

“Please, I beg of you,” Mrs. Salter said. “Could you not take me away in your carriage before the bailiffs come for me?”

Their carriage? Betty coughed to cover a laugh. “If we are to be friends, you must tell me your given name.”

“Pamela,” Mrs. Salter said.

“You may call me Betty. This is my particular friend, Ned.”

“Let us help each other,” Betty said.

 

Betty and Ned raced upstairs, tugging Pamela between them. The bedchamber looked like a bawdy house on Sunday morning, the floor covered with a froth of linens.

“Jewels. Quick. Where are they?” Betty asked.

Pamela pointed to a drawer in a chiffonier. “But the key has been misplaced.”

Betty was about to produce the key she’d stolen when Ned drew out a dagger and smashed the lock with its butt.

Pamela flinched and jammed a handkerchief to her mouth as if she might cry out in protest or be sick, but did neither.

Ned scooped out necklaces, rings, and earbobs and dumped them into a pillowcase.

“You’re taking them?” Pamela asked.

“Better us than the magistrate,” Betty said, which drew a tremulous smile from Pamela.

Leaving Ned to finish, Betty hurried into the adjoining chamber, but it was bare, already stripped, nothing but floorboards and faded places on the walls where portraits had hung. She returned to find Pamela being bolstered by Ned.

“We must go,” Betty said to him.

“I beg you. Do not abandon me,” Pamela said, clinging to Ned, but imploring Betty.

Hardening her heart, Betty avoided Pamela’s gaze and expected Ned to do the same, but he half-carried, half-dragged Pamela down the stairs and out.

On the front steps, Betty spied a bailiff and his men striding down the street towards them. “Ned,” she said in quiet warning.

At sight of the law, Ned’s gallantry vanished. Releasing Pamela to fend for herself, he strode away with Betty.

“Wait!” Pamela cried and tottered drunkenly after them.

Neither Betty nor Ned waited, but, somehow, despite her drunken state and impractical heels, Pamela managed to trail them until they came to the safety of Tottenham Court Road. By that time a new plan had sparked in Betty’s mind, and she nudged Ned to slow and let Pamela catch them up.

“What is this place?” Pamela asked, much sobered, looking around with wide eyes at the narrow street running with filth lined by tightly-packed buildings with broken windows patched with rags.

It was a far cry from the widow’s fashionable neighborhood. “St. Giles,” Betty said, doubting that it would mean anything to Pamela.

“A rookery? This is where you live?” Pamela asked, oddly more curious than frightened.

“It is.”

“Please. I have nowhere to go. Could you not lend your aid to a gentlewoman in distress?”

“At the lane’s end are quite a few bawdy houses,” Betty said, her tone harsh in order that Pamela would understand that Betty and Ned were her only choice. “Perhaps a coress will take pity on you and allow some of her gentlemen to pay for your company.”

Pamela’s eyes filled and her lip trembled.

“Betty,” Ned said, the reprimand unusually gentle.

Betty couldn’t tell whether he was playing some role, or had designs on the girl.

But it was to Betty not Ned that Pamela made her appeal. “For pity’s sake, do not force me to sell my virtue.”

As if the two of them had succeeding in persuading her to clemency, Betty said, “We are to be your new friends it seems. Come along then. You may stay with us in our home, humble as it is.”

Pamela brightened with gratitude, just as Betty intended, and Ned took the girl’s arm.

 

The roost Betty shared with Ned consisted of a common room and bedchamber and were the finest she had ever possessed.

Pamela inspected them with an air of disdain. “Where am I to sleep? Am I to share a bed with you?”

Was the question genuine or leading? Betty couldn’t read the girl’s doll-like expressions. Before Ned had a chance to agree with Pamela’s suggestion, Betty pointed at the fireless hearth. “There. Roll yourself up in a spare blanket.”

Ned had already turned his attention to their take which he’d dumped on the table—necklaces, pearl chokers, bracelets, a dozen rings, a set of silver spoons. It was a better haul than he’d taken in many a month, and Betty had to hide her chagrin. If Ned hadn’t been with her when she returned, it would all be Betty’s, and him none the wiser, and she would have been gone, far from him and London.

Betty gestured at the necklace and earbobs Pamela wore. “Off with them. Your wedding ring too.”

Pamela did not weep or rail, as Betty expected. Instead, she obeyed and tossed them onto the pile with indifferent, dry eyes. “What will you do with them?”

“Hold them for you, love,” Ned said, with a wink at Betty as he slipped his arm around Pamela’s waist, pulled her to his side, and squeezed her.

Pamela squeaked and stiffened, but allowed the liberty.

Ned was welcome to enjoy Pamela’s company once Betty was gone, but this night, Betty made sure Ned took her to bed, not Pamela. After he was sated, while he slept, Betty plotted, staring up at the ceiling beams.

Ned had stowed the Salter valuables behind a brick in the bedchamber’s wall, and Betty’s fingers itched to take them and be off. For such a betrayal, Ned would surely kill her if he found her, and find her he would. He had eyes and ears everywhere in the city. She set herself to devising a scheme.

In the morning, she presented an idea to him. “Pamela will serve us both. She will be my apprentice and describe the residences of her acquaintances that you may the more easily rob them.”

Agreeable to anything profitable, he approved, as she knew he would, and drifted back to sleep.

What Betty didn’t tell him was the rest of her plan. While Ned was gone committing robberies, she could do with Pamela as she wished. She’d work Pamela for as long as the girl had wealthy acquaintances to give up, then Betty would set a constable on her. Pamela would try to save herself by betraying them and Ned would no doubt be taken, but Betty would be long gone.

 

They rose late, and Ned went out straightaway to fence the silver spoons.

Foolishly, Pamela had not left in the night. She was awake, sitting on the bench by the cold grate in the common room, her hair a tousled mane around her shoulders and a smudge of soot on her cheek. Her forlorn expression evaporated at the sight of Betty.

It must be true then what Pamela had said; she truly had no friends or family in the city. Good.

Betty intended to set her to cleaning and washing and scrubbing, until she discovered Pamela knew how to do nothing useful. Not how to sweep a floor or bring up water and heat it over the fire. Not how to wash linen or fetch meals from the cookshop on the corner. She didn’t even know how to brush off her own skirts. “If you’re to stay here with us, you must earn your keep,” Betty said.

“Am I to serve as your maid?” Pamela asked, wide eyed.

What would it be like to have a maidservant, Betty wondered? She couldn’t imagine such a thing. “No, we keep no servants here. You’ll be expected to take up the life.”

“The life?” Pamela bit her lip and blushed.

“Not on your pretty back with your heels in the air,” Betty said, “unless you displease me or Ned and we throw you out. The life of a thief.”

Pamela regarded her for a long moment, and Betty prepared for an outburst, but instead, Pamela asked with what appeared to be genuine curiosity, “Were you raised to the life? It that why it comes naturally to you?”

“Naturally? No,” Betty said, trying to keep her lips from twisting.

“Then you’re like me. Forced by circumstance.”

“I’m nothing like you. You’re a soft young lady.”

“I don’t want to be soft. I want to be like you, Betty.”

What a mad thing for the girl to say. “We are worlds apart. I was a farmer’s daughter until my father’s passing and the loss of our tenancy. With nothing more than the clothes on my back and my dead mother’s wooden thimble in my pocket, I set out for London. Fortune favored me and I obtained a position as a maid in a great house, and I was grateful. No word of complaint ever passed my lips though I worked from before sunrise until late into the night every day of the week.” She picked up a comb. “Let me show you how to comb and pin up your own hair.” The comb stuck in a tangle and Betty yanked at it.

Pamela didn’t protest. “My father died too, and we too were left without fortune. Though I was only a girl, my widowed mother pushed me to encourage suitors and to marry the wealthiest of them, Mr. Salter. He disgusted me and I never cared for him. It was hard, very hard for me.”

An easeful life in a fine house full of servants was no hardship. As if Pamela hadn’t interrupted, Betty continued, pinning up the girl’s hair. “One day a silver hairpin belonging to a daughter of the house went missing.” Pamela reminded Betty of that daughter, Sophie. Betty used to bathe and dress Sophie, curl her hair, and hear her girlish confidences. Betty thought she’d been fond of her, as she had been fond of Sophie. “She accused me of stealing it. I hadn’t taken it, would never have taken it, because in those days, I was a diligent, honest girl. But no matter. They would not listen to me. I was declared a liar and a thief, sacked, and tossed out on the street like wilted cabbage leaves, my wages forfeit—stolen. This, even after the hairpin was found where it had rolled under a settee.”

“Is that when you met Ned? Did he rescue you?” Pamela asked, twisting the bare finger where her wedding ring had lately been.

Without Ned, Betty would have gone to the workhouse or become a moll. He’d taken a fancy to her, and she to him. In those days, she’d thought him bold and charming, instead of the leech and gaoler she now knew him to be, and the less said about him the better. “We’ll begin with the easiest of bilks,” Betty said, “and once you’ve mastered it, we’ll go out on the town and have a go.”

Pamela clapped her hands as if they were to play a game.

“It’s called the ‘bulk and file.’ I’ll pick out a partridge in a crowd and make a signal. You’ll then jostle them or create a diversion to allow me to pick their pockets.”

Pamela proved to be an eager pupil, and with a little practice Betty judged her proficient enough. After a tankard of ale and bread and butter for their dinner, they went out.

Thick, smoky fog blanketed the streets, but the markets hadn’t yet closed. Betty watched the girl in case she tried to hail a constable, but Pamela stayed by Betty’s side as she’d been told, eyes shining and petticoats rustling with excitement.

Betty picked out merchants or housewives by gazing at them and Pamela knocked into them. While Pamela clumsily helped the victim recover, Betty dipped into their pockets. By evening they had a dozen coins, three pewter spoons, and a cameo brooch. Pamela was clearly proud of herself, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy Ned or to add to Betty’s savings.

Betty led her apprentice to richer prey on the busy Strand. She avoided the shops as traps for an inexperienced thief and kept to the crowded street which afforded plenty of well-dressed, wealthy lambs.

Here, when Pamela stumbled into swells in her fine gown, they recognized her as one of their own, and while the charm of her pretty apologies distracted them, Betty filched their valuables. By the time the hour was late and the streets were empty, she and Pamela had nabbed a dozen silk handkerchiefs, two pocketbooks, a snuffbox, a watch, and a half a dozen silver buckles and buttons.

It wasn’t enough for Betty to run away with, but it would do for a first day.

“I did well, didn’t I?” Pamela asked as they climbed the stairs to their lodgings.

“Keep your voice down.” Betty had expected Pamela to be tearful and distraught as she herself had been the first time she’d broken the law. For weeks afterwards, Betty had wept in secret, away from Ned, but Pamela’s eyes were bright and her color was high. Betty had to admit Pamela was a bold one, make no mistake about it, to go from wealthy wife to thief in the blink of an eye.

Ned was waiting for them. His evening had been profitable too with a successful house-breaking. He caught them both up, and pulled them to him, and gave them each a smacking kiss on the lips.

Pamela squealed like a timid virgin on her wedding day, but Betty could see Ned’s attentions neither shocked nor repulsed her.

“How was the day?” he asked Betty, wanting a reckoning of their take.

Betty gave him everything except the snuffbox, which she held back for herself, and edged out of reach of his fists in case he used them to show his disappointment.

“I expected more,” he said, “since there’s a pair of you.”

“It’s her first time,” Betty said.

“I’ll do better tomorrow, Ned, I promise,” Pamela said.

“I expect you will, or else. . . .”

 

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Copyright © 2019. Thick as Thieves by Gigi Vernon