Chapter One: The Thing of Thieves
It all started with a gold watch that dangled from the back pocket of a tall man in a top hat. It was a rare and pretty sight for a thief and it had caught the eye of the smallest one on Tolls Street. Calist was seven or eight. She was small for her age and she had many things to fear on the longest, coldest night of the year. She feared the fabled corpse catchers who would stoop to any measure for a fresh cadaver from the streets. She feared that the bitter cold might take her in her sleep like it had so many of the children who slept under bridges. But mostly she feared being hungry for one more night. And there sat salvation, swaying with every step that the man in the top hat took.
It was unbearable to be so patient. Calist had followed him from the poorest part of West End to the shops on Tolls Street just waiting for the right opportunity. A few times she had been close, but just out of reach. It was a delicate operation, one which she expected only one chance to succeed at. So when the man in the top hat came to a halt near the crossroads she decided that this must be her moment. Without hesitation she ran forward and reached out to grab the watch as she darted past him.
At first she felt only joy as she lifted the weight of the gold watch from its master. She felt the promise of a full stomach and many more to come should she manage to snag a decent price for it. Then something caught her. It pulled her right off her feet and dropped her in a snow bank under an old yellow street lamp. The snow was not very soft to mask her fall, but better than being thrown to the frozen cobblestones.
"What have we here?" A shadow loomed over her now. "A rare little alley cat from West End I presume? You're a long way from your gutter, little kitten."
Calist got up and turned to run, but the man in the top hat was quick. He grabbed her by the wrist again and held it this time.
"Look-see here," he said and pulled her closer so as to get a better look at her hand. "What deft little fingers you have. A shame to see them all get cut off."
"Please sir no!" Calist found her voice at the thought of it. One hand was the price of thievery in Newbird and the authorities had no sympathy for children. Little Thomas Wily had gotten his own righter nicked off after a sloppy attempt at a lady's coin purse. If they did it to him they sure wouldn't blink an eye for her.
"I aint really tak'n it, honest," she said. "I just wanted a look-see, that's all. Just so's I-"
"So you could what?" Asked the man in the top hat. "Tell the time? I ought to take you to the city guard this instant." At the same time he said this, however, his tone softened and he smiled just a little. He loosened his grip around Calist's wrist. She in turn looked up to notice for the first time what a strange personage she had crossed paths with. One glance told her that he was not from West End. She doubted even that he came from Newbird at all. People from Newbird did not go about with coats formed from a thousand patches. Neither did they have such thin, curly moustaches. And the top hats they wore were generally black, not moss green.
"But there's no need for that now, is there?" He said. "It just so happens that I have a use for a nimble fingered alley cat like yourself. And if you do well you will receive more than my pocket watch. What say you to that?"
Calist took her hand back and glared at the man. She thought to run, but felt that he would just catch her again and might not be so forgiving. He was not leaving her much of a choice.
"What sort of job?" She asked.
"Oh it is nothing, nothing at all. Very easy," said the man in the top hat. "Do you see that shop over there?"
Calist looked to where he pointed and nodded. Every child knew of that shop because it was a toy shop. Inside there were trains and puzzles and every kind of wind up creation that a child could ever dream of, and many things that none had ever thought to dream of. The owner was a terribly nice old man with a long white beard named Mr. Varnum. Sometimes, when it was particularly dreary out, he would give some of his contraptions away to the children who slept under bridges.
"Course you do, clever thing," said the man in the top hat. "But I bet you didn't know that the man who owns it is what is known as a Contraptionist."
Contraptionist. The word rang familiar, but found no definition in Calist's mind. "What's that?" She asked.
"A Contraptionist is someone who creates things, but not ordinary things, no," the man whispered. "A contraptionist weaves magic into the things he makes. It is a dying art- a secret art, and there are few in the world who know of it's existence. Less who know the art itself. Of them there is Mr. Varnum, the toy shop owner, and myself. You can call me Trinket."
The man in the top hat, now identified as Trinket, looked to the shop quickly when he heard the sound of the door opening, but he relaxed again when he saw the it was just a customer leaving. A woman in a red coat was dragging her crying child from the shop by the arm while he desperately tried to go back for whatever toy she'd decided he couldn't have. Trinket ignored them and focused again on Calist.
"Now, in that shop is a little black music box carved into the shape of a hexagon…Do you know what a hexagon is?"
Calist shook her head no.
"Well it's a…It's something of a circle with six sides," Trinket explained. "But you would know it if you saw it. You see, it's not something he has on display. It's something he keeps hidden. Something he stole from me."
"Mr. Varnum doesn't seem like a thief," said Calist.
"Oh but neither do you, and that's just the thing of thieves, isn't it?" Asked Trinket. "You wouldn't know one just by looking at them. Now, I think you know what I require of you. I'd fetch it myself if I could slip by unnoticed. But you're small, and a child, and there are lots of children in that shop, aren't there? Why, you could run and fetch it and run out again and no one would blink an eye at you. What did I say? Easy."
He did make it sound easy, and Calist would have sprinted off to get it over with right then if he hadn't stopped her.
"Wait," he said. "Take this with you."
Trinket handed her a small object. It was a pin, barely as long as her thumb and thin as a blade of straw.
"What for?" She asked, confused. If he meant to arm her then a knife would have worked much better.
"For good luck," said Trinket. And with that he winked and shooed her off with a wave of his hand.