Tartin awoke at five-thirty in the morning. He was not in the habit of waking up so early – the Underground to work took a mere fifteen minutes – so he was somewhat surprised when he looked at his clock.
He tended to be a night owl – it was a common trait among Rookery thieves. It was best to do one’s work late at night, after all, and so the hours of the day were somewhat shifted. Typically, he considered five o’clock to be more often a bedtime than a time to wake up. So it was a curiosity indeed that he would find himself up at this time.
His heart was beating somewhat fast. He wondered almost if he had had a nightmare, but he did not remember it. Unable to go back to sleep, he rose from bed and put on his robe. He had a fair tolerance for temperature, but the robe made him feel more decent, even if the only person likely to see him was his partner Natalie, and indeed, she was out of town on business for the next few days.
He turned on the shower and breathed in the steam. The heat of the water contrasted sharply with the cold of the air. It reminded him of a time nearly fifteen years earlier, when they had discovered a hot spring in the forests of Hanzhou. He and his 12-person team all stripped naked and jumped in, modesty be damned. As he recalled, that was one of Emily’s earlier expeditions, and she had been the shyest of them all.
Emily’s warning sat with him. The Rookery was a large organization, but the thought that someone Tartin might know could indeed be in league with the House was profoundly troubling.
An Agent in the Rookery. The thought made him angry.
The last thing he would want to do would be to start imagining his co-workers as moles, yet he would have to begin at least consider this possibility. He would even have to look at Emily with a certain degree of skepticism, even though she had been the one to bring the information to him in the first place.
It was the common belief at the Rookery that Tartin had had a breakdown and grown soft after his episode in the desert. This was not strictly-speaking inaccurate, but he had not merely been “kicked up the stairs,” as many suspected. He tried to cultivate this image as best he could (and putting on the act was not terribly difficult, given the half-truth of the situation,) but unbeknownst to his office-mates on the eight floor, Tartin was now Deputy Director of Acquisitions.
There were, at the moment, ten teams on high-priority expeditions, and he had coordinated each of them. He had not been surprised when Nascine informed him that she had not gone to Elderland, because Tartin’s man in Port Sang had told him as much (there were also some very troubling stories involving the undead, though for the moment he merely filed this away as atmospheric detail.)
The mission Nascine had been on was over, which resulted in an automatic downgrade in classification. If he asked the right sort of people, Tartin suspected he could find out at least the purpose of the mission. If Yasik was truly involved, it would be something quite big.
The question, of course, was what made Yasik suspect there was an Agent in the Rookery. For that, Tartin knew exactly who to seek out.
The humidity had finally broken through, and Ravenfort was washed in a light, fine rain. Tartin stepped out of his flat and hailed a cab. They rode for about fifteen minutes before arriving in Elerton Square. It was still quite dark outside, and the streetlights were necessary to illuminate the city.
Elerton Square was home to the Finger’s Market, where one could acquire some very unusual commodities indeed. Still, at this time of day only a few merchants had even arrived yet, and those that were there were still in the process of setting up their booths. Tartin was not there for the booths, though. Instead, he walked a little farther down the square to an odd little storefront, with a faded shingle that read “Thompson & Son’s Salvage and Tinker.”
The store was closed, but not in any serious way, so Tartin was able to quickly slip inside.
The store was dark and dusty, and its shelves were lined with a thousand odd contraptions – navigational equipment, binoculars, telescopes, typewriters, lock mechanisms, steam-cart parts, radios, computers, and many things Tartin could not identify.
There was a chair at the workbench in the back, and Tartin sat down there.
It took a few minutes, but soon he could hear someone coming down the stairs.
“Hello Tom,” said Tartin.
Tom looked utterly shocked. He was in his seventies, quite thin with an uneven white beard and deep-set, dark eyes. “Bloody hell, Gil. You gave me a fright.”
“Sorry. How have you been?”
“Same as always.” Tom descended the stairs and leaned against the wall. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“I need to update my kit.”
“Right,” said Tom, though he could tell Tartin was not yet finished.
“Also, what’s the news from Carathon?”
Tom sunk a little. “I thought you were just running the thieving these days?”
“We’re going to be cleaning out the cage soon, Tom. I don’t want distractions and false leads. Get me the real list by tomorrow – and don’t leave any of them out, or they’re going to be right in the line of fire.”
Tom’s mouth wobbled somewhat, but then he said “All right. I’ll get on the tapper and get clearance.”
Tartin smiled grimly to himself. If Tom and the rest of the University knew what they were doing – and he certainly hoped they did, or Yasik had made a grave miscalculation – he would have the names of every University spy in Retrein. That was step one.
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)