Toad’s captor manhandled him to the door at the end of the library, knife edge biting into his throat. In seconds, the door had been kicked open and Toad found himself in a circular room with a small table in the center. The talk ceased immediately as four heads swiveled in Toad’s direction. One dark figure took up nearly half the room with his girth; he made Bone seem wimpish in comparison. Another was tall and stringy with the pallor of a weed devoid of sunlight. The third sat hunched in a low, leather armchair, his round face flushed pink. It was the fourth, however, that stole all of Toad’s attention: slim, composed, with short, black hair smoothed into elegant waves, Mr. Edward P. Owl sat with a slightly raised eyebrow, eyes as slate gray as the Banks River.
Toad pinched his eyes shut — this can’t be happening; this cannot be happening.
“Cutter, what is this?” asked Owl.
“Caught this whelp in the library,” said the man, giving Toad a rough shake. Toad inhaled sharply as the knife’s blade cut skin. “Thought he’d help himself to the Emerald Dragon, sir.”
Owl stared at Toad and Toad suddenly didn’t care if his throat got sliced if he tried to jerk free: he wanted to run and never stop.
“Shall I deal with him, sir?” Cutter asked, eager and breathy against Toad’s cheek.
“In a moment,” said Owl and his voice was as glacial as his eyes. “Mr. Barrow was here first.” He redirected his gaze to the hunch-backed man with the round, pink face, the only other one sitting. “This is quite the unfortunate turn, Mr. Barrow. You tell me your expert got himself bludgeoned to death by an ogre?”
Pink-faced Barrow was sweating profusely. With a trembling hand, he wiped his top lip clear, his bald plate agleam in the gaslight. “Y-yes, sir. It’s wild, the west country. But rest assured, sir. I can find you another.”
“Another expert? This time, perhaps, you can find one who does not run afoul of ogres? Or maybe one who doesn’t get so drunk that all his goods, including the clothes on his back, are robbed by bandits, like the one before that? In short, do you have any experts for me, Mr. Barrow, who are not fumbling morons?”
Owl’s voice never rose in volume. It remained as composed as ever, but the room seemed to grow more frigid.
Barrow’s trembling increased visibly. “I made a mistake in recruiting Morris. I see that now. B-b-but if you give me a week—”
“I think not, Mr. Barrow,” said Owl, slicing off Barrow’s words. “I’ve grown tired of your ineptitude. Fletch.”
The pale, wiry man moved close to Barrow’s chair. Barrow gave him a nervous twitch of a glance.
“There is a Hickory Guard stationed outside,” Owl said to Barrow. “I wonder if you will go to him for sanctuary, even with the obvious threat of a jail sentence for a smuggler such as yourself.”
At these words, Barrow’s face drained of color. “Mr. Owl — I’d never — never — You can trust me, sir! Please, sir — I can get you another expert — a better one!”
Owl ignored him. He pulled out a pocket watch. “I will give you a minute head start before I send Fletch after you.” He eyed Barrow expectantly across the table. “Get going.”
Barrow shot another terrified glance up at Fletch, who leered down at him, flexing his abnormally long fingers, before leaping to his feet and darting from the room without another word. Toad could hear his shoes squeaking and slipping on the polished wood floor in his haste.
“Fletch,” said Owl, a tinge of warning in his cool voice, “you know what I expect. No body.”
Fletch nodded, grinning in a fashion that made Toad’s skin crawl, before slipping from the room after Barrow. Owl pushed his chair back and rose. He strode past Toad and Cutter without a glance, entering the dark library. Toad, already trembling with panic, wondered if this was Owl’s silent code to ‘handle him’, for the arm clamped across Toad’s chest tightened and the knife’s edge cut so deep he felt a trickle of blood slide down his throat. But a moment later Owl returned, now holding the emerald statue that Toad had spied. He did not return to his seat but settled against the table’s edge. At once, Toad was thrust into the vacant armchair, still warm from Barrow.
Toad forced himself to look up, and Owl did something that made his insides vanish: he smiled.
Owl was a highly polished man. His shoes gleamed, his trousers were pressed, even his fingernails seemed to have been buffed. Toad had never gotten a good, proper look at the man before — only spying him once or twice across the street, getting in and out of his shiny, black carriage. He’d always envisioned him to be far older and Toad was surprised, therefore, by how young Owl appeared … hardly older than Jack.
Cross Owl and start digging your own grave.
Toad gripped the chair’s armrests to keep his hands from shaking. Horror stories from the Ramblers crowded Toad’s mind, making it hard to think. Owl might have looked like just another stiff-coated snuff-sneezer, but as Toad sat glued to the chair, he knew that every tale the Ramblers had told him was true. Owl — though his impeccable fingernails said differently — didn’t mind getting his hands dirty.
“You have good taste, I’ll give you that,” said Owl, cradling the statue in his hands. The frigid bite when he’d been speaking to Barrow was gone. His voice was light. Almost friendly. “This is one of the largest emeralds in existence. It was found centuries ago in the Great Gordwall Treasure, later to be carved by the legendary sculptor, Byron Letterfront. Did you know that?”
Toad shook his head.
“No, I didn’t think you did. I appreciate thieves who do their research, but at least you recognize worth when you see it.” Owl smiled, almost indulgently. “I approve of your eye, though not your prowess. You were lucky that Cutter caught you. If Mr. Ogg had you wouldn’t be fit for this little chat.”
Toad swallowed. He shot a wary glance at the giant looming in the corner. His neck was the size of Toad’s waist.
“So, before my associates take care of you” — Toad’s eyes snapped back to Owl — “tell me why you thought you could steal from me, Mr. …?”
“Toad,” Toad forced out. His mouth was very dry.
Owl’s lips twitched, as if a laugh teetered there. “An Owl and a Toad. How fitting. Don’t you agree, Mr. Ogg?”
Ogg glared at Toad.
“Mr. Ogg is a man of few words but decisive action,” Owl relayed pleasantly. “But we are getting off track. Do explain yourself, Mr. Toad.”
“I—” Toad’s eyes cut again to Ogg, who deliberately cracked his sausage-sized fingers, to Cutter who was slowly running a broad thumb across the blade of his knife. “I wasn’t stealing anything.”
A hand whacked the back of Toad’s head, making him see stars. “Don’t lie, you rotten little worm!” Cutter barked. “I saw you!”
“No,” Toad insisted, blinking his eyes furiously. “You thought I was gonna steal it. I was just waiting for the right time to get to Owl!”
“Well, you have me,” said Owl, his voice losing a touch of the lightness it held before.
“I’m here to — to offer my services,” said Toad, feeling sweat slide down his back.
There was a breath of silence before Cutter let out a vicious laugh. Ogg’s eyebrows contracted into one severe, bushy line, and Owl merely stared.
“Services?” Cutter jeered. “Do you even know who you’re talking to, boy?”
Perhaps it was Owl’s unimpressed expression or Cutter’s goading, but Toad found himself growing angry instead of frightened.
“I may be young, but I ain’t no newby! I used to be a Rambler!”
Owl’s eyebrows rose in surprise.
“You were a Rambler?” said Owl, his voice delicately incredulous.
Toad’s heart raced beneath his ribs.
“I left ’em,” he said, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt. “They were too stale for me. They don’t do high risk transactions.”
“And you do?” Owl asked softly.
“You name it. I’ll get it. That” — Toad swallowed with difficulty — “bloke who was just in here—”
“He let you down, but I’d never let you down, Mr. Owl. Give me a chance. I’ll prove it to you.”
“You think you can procure the items Mr. Barrow’s man Morris failed to obtain?”
“’Course I can.”
“Even without knowing what the items are?”
“Sir,” Cutter interrupted, “sir, let me deal with him. I’ll make sure the Guards don’t see.”
“I told you,” Toad repeated with force, “I may be young, but I ain’t no newby. I know how the game’s played. Didn’t you lot hear about the Diamond Heist two years back?”
“You weren’t in that!” Cutter snarled.
Ogg moved closer, making the floorboards creak under his weight. He leaned close to Owl and whispered something in his ear. Owl frowned.
“Yeah I was!” said Toad fiercely. “They couldn’t have done it without me! I squeezed through the bars on the windows!” Which, of course, was not true. Lynch had done that. Toad had been playing cards with Wilson back at Rambler headquarters, waiting for them to return.
“Sir! Please let me kill him!” Cutter cried in exasperation.
“And stop this entertaining exchange?” said Owl. Ogg straightened and Toad shifted uncomfortably under the giant’s hard stare. “Mr. Ogg doesn’t believe a word you’ve said, Mr. Toad … and neither do I. I think you slipped into my house with your grease-slicked fingers and thought you’d help yourself to the pie like the rat you are.”
Toad frantically shook his head, his eyes bulging as much as pink-faced Barrow. “It wasn’t anything like that — I wasn’t —”
Owl leaned forward suddenly, making Toad’s voice catch in his throat. “Mr. Ogg has his own suggestions for what to do with you,” Owl whispered. “Cutter has a handful himself. I, however, am inclined to give you what you want.”
Something dark and dangerous was flickering in Owl’s gray eyes.
“You want to work for me?” he asked. “Then I’ll give you a job.” Owl put his hand in his pocket and Toad tensed, but all that Owl extracted was a short bit of paper and pen. He scribbled something down and flicked it at Toad.
“Do what Morris couldn’t. Bring me the items on that list.”
Toad looked down quickly at the glistening, still wet, ink. An uncomfortable heat crept up his neck.
“Can you read, Mr. Toad?”
“Well … I …”
Owl’s soft laugh was just as cold as his voice.
“Listen carefully then: One flask from the Springs of Mirg, a single strand of unicorn hair, one clump Elfin Gold, one fresh moonflower, and one roc talon.”
“Why d’you need ’em?”
Owl’s lips curved sharply upward; he suddenly looked far more like a shark than Bone ever had.
“That is my business. Your business is collecting them. It shouldn’t be too difficult with your … Rambler training,” Owl added with the slightest of sneers.
“And if I get this stuff then….?”
The condescending smirk grew on Owl’s face. He rolled the pen between his fingers. “Then we discuss payment. You do understand what happens to those who don’t fulfill their promises to me?”
At Owl’s words, Barrow’s scrambling escape from the room and Fletch’s predatory slice of a smile sprang fresh into Toad’s mind.
“I’ll take care of it,” Toad said quickly, shaking from head to foot. “Don’t you worry.”
Toad tried to make it look like he wasn’t speeding from the house even though he desperately wanted to break into a run. He knew they were watching through one of the windows and he didn’t want to give the impression that they’d gotten to him.
When he was sure the house was out of sight, he sprinted down the dark streets before diving behind a flower pot display, gasping for breath. He gripped his hair and let out a strangled yell. He dug out the list from his pocket. In the dark Toad couldn’t see the words Owl had written, though they would still be as much of a mystery to him if he could. It was difficult to feel elated at crossing Owl and living to tell the tale with the memory of those frigid eyes and the horrors they promised.
The option to simply throw the list in the gutter and run away had of course crossed his mind. But would Owl send Ogg or Cutter or Fletch or however many more goons he had after Toad if he didn’t follow through? Would Toad spend the rest of his life keeping his doors bolted and a wary eye over his shoulder? And how exactly was he going to be able to convince Jack to take him back with Owl’s shadow looming over him like some deadly disease?
Unicorn hair? Talons? Flowers? Toad wasn’t an expert, but those sounded like potion ingredients and for the first time all day he suddenly brightened. If all Owl needed were ingredients to a potion then the solution was simple: find an apothecary. Why Morris had been wandering about the west country when a shop down the road would do the trick was a puzzle to Toad. Then again, why didn’t Owl just buy them himself? They must make something illegal, Toad thought. And he’s being careful because the Guard is breathing down his neck.
But as Toad stared down at the indecipherable list, an unease bloomed in the pit of his stomach that perhaps it wasn’t as easy as strolling into a shop. Grimacing, Toad stomped the feeling down, assuring himself that there was nothing to worry about.
He stuffed the paper back into his pocket and looked around. Hickory was a large city, divided into four quadrants, but Toad knew the ins and outs of the city better than an alley cat. It took him only a second to find his bearings (East Hickory) before setting off at a steady pace, taking deep, calming breaths. There was no need to rush. Going at things too fast was what got him into trouble. There was no need to panic. He knew exactly where the nearest apothecary was — he’d passed it many times on his way to steal doughnuts from his favorite bakery.
They would have the ingredients. He was sure of it.