A Fortuitous Encounter
This story takes place over four years before "Excelsior" when Theodore Emelior Beem launched his airship in the Mayberry District.
Lieday in the Mayberry marketplace was always the busiest day of the week. The streets were thick with shoppers and if one looked carefully, they might even see an occasional Vibranni circumspectly navigating the narrow but busy thoroughfares. In this mass of people, noise and smells, one might be forgiven for not noticing the presence of a young brown haired girl playing with her doll near the public square. However, despite her ordinary appearance, Magpie was anything but ordinary. She was a gifted thief, something of a prodigy in her own right, who was carefully marking each of the neighboring merchant stands.
The watchmaker Amersfoort, only rarely set up his stand in Mayberry, so his presence immediately drew Magpie’s attention like a moth to a flame. The rumor on the street was that the watchmaker trafficked in stolen goods and used these occasions in Mayberry to quickly unload this merchandise to consumers who asked few questions. As a merchant who also did not pay protection to the local crime bosses, Amersfoort’s stand was also fair game for the likes of thieves like Magpie.
Nevertheless, for all of Magpie’s talent, caution was in order, since the watchmaker was an old hand, keen to the risks of Mayberry. What was needed was a patience and this is something Magpie had in spades. Just as she prepared to change her doll’s diaper for the third time, Magpie finally saw her opening. A bearded man with glasses paused in front of the watchmaker’s stand inquiring about one of the large older clocks to the rear of the watchmaker’s stand. This was exactly the kind of distraction that made Magpie’s spine tingle. Dancing through the streets with her doll in hand, Magpie gave very much the appearance of a preoccupied child. Just as the watchmaker turned towards the clock behind him, Magpie reached for a handsome timepiece at the edge of the display case. Magpie felt the cool metal of the watch in her hand, and was already retreating to disappear into the crowd, but in that moment, much to her startled surprise, Amersfoort lunged and grabbed her wrist.
“What d’we have here!” yelled the watchmaker, raising up Magpie’s arm like a fisherman holding up a prized bass. “You been mark’n me, young miss, but ol’ Amersfoort was a bit too fast for ye this time.”
Magpie squealed in pain and tried to squirm herself free of the watchmaker’s vicelike grip. A Bobbie perhaps sensing the commotion at the watchmaker’s table turned the corner to see what was happening.
“We’ll see what the Bobbies do with you,” said the watchmaker with glee, “I hear they have something special for the likes of you.”
Just as the Bobbie took a few steps towards the watchmaker, the bearded man stepped in and grabbed Magpie protectively by the shoulders.
“Sir!” yelled the man, “Why in Orr have you taken hold of my daughter? Have you lost your mind?”
To a passerby, the young man seemed very much like an aggrieved parent. Almost immediately Amersfoort released Magpie, but his eyes glared suspiciously at the bookish man and Magpie.
“Mister, you’d have me think this thief belongs to you? She’d a stolen that piece had I not caught her in the act.”
“Not at all,” said the man with his hand firmly on Magpie, “Seline here knew I was in the market for a pocket watch, she was merely trying to show it to me? Weren’t you honey?”
Magpie had no idea who this man was and whether he meant good or ill, but in that moment, she knew he was the only thing that would keep her out of the lock-up. Magpie acknowledged the man with a nod. Seeing that this appeared to be a misunderstanding, the Bobbie turned his step towards a loud noise down the street.
“I should probably be calling the Bobbies on you, sir” said the young bearded man, “But I see that my daughter here selected a fine time piece. If you please, the cost?”
The now confused Amersfoort muttered, “Twelve Ciam.”
“That’s a princely sum sir,” remarked the young man. Then taking a long glance at the watch he offered a puzzled expression. “Oh, what a curious coincidence?”
“What coincidence? What ye be talking about?” replied Amersfoort warily.
“Oh, nothing, so strange. . .This watch bears the seal of the Fairbottom workshop. Gossip on the street is that thieves made off with a large of sum of their stock. Terrible thing, thieves don’t you think?”
The bearded man gave a meaningful look towards the Bobbie who was still several feet away. Amersfoort’s face began to take on a pallid appearance. He licked his lips, while considering his options.
“Eight Ciam then and it’s yours.”
“Oh, what a deal you’ve found my darling!” exclaimed the young man to the girl. Then as he looked in his purse, he took on a crestfallen appearance, “Oh but, I’m sorry Mr. Amersfoort. It seems like I only have six Ciam.”
Showing the coins in his hand, Amersfoort and the young man exchanged a long look.
“Fine, then six Ciam, and get out of here” spat out Amersfoort.
“Oh Mr. Amersfoot that is most excellent of you. You truly are a gentleman. We will sing your praises whenever looking at the time.”
At first alarmed, now Magpie’s face now took a look of appreciation at the bearded young man, who simply winked in response. Having concluded their purchase, the man walked away from Amersfoort, with the watch in one hand and the other firmly holding Magpie.
The marketplace was loud and crowded, but despite all the distractions, one person was paying very close attention to the goings on at the watchmaker’s table. For although, Magpie was a talented and even gifted thief, she had been walking through the Market under the watchful eye of the Spider. In their small company of thieves, Spider was the unquestioned leader. As such, she took special care with the young ones like Magpie. For despite all of Magpie’s natural talent at thieving, the young girl sometimes got in over her head.
When the watchmaker grabbed Magpie, Spider began making her way towards the table, even while signally to their nearby friends, who were watching from the nearby rooftops.
When Magpie and the man, ducked into an alley, Spider picked up her pace, even while cursing under her breath. She had also seen the man and Magpie talking with one another. At one point the man went to one knee and spoke with Mags. What was his angle? This was Maryberry and so anything was possible. He could be a pervert, or possibly even a slaver.
When Spider turned the corner, she was taken aback. There was Magpie sitting on a barrel next to the man. They were sharing some licorice. Next to the man, on a nearby box sat a calico cat, who was fastidiously grooming herself. Spider looked at Magpie for some clue as to what was happening. Magpie, who was given to few words, shrugged and nodded towards the man, as if to say, “Listen to him,” and took a bite of her licorice.
“Spider is it? And those must be Handsome George and Viaak” remarked the man calmly as two others children jumped to either side of Spider “And those must be the twins,” remarked the man, as two more children, who looked remarkably alike, scampered down the drainage pipe of a nearby building to the alley.
Spider nodded warily.
“Very good then. You seem to have me outnumbered, so no worries about my nefarious scheme,” said the man laughing, quite amused at his little joke. When it didn’t appear as if anyone else was laughing, he cleared his throat.
“Ahem, yes well. I’ve been having a most excellent conversation with our mutual friend and your colleague here, Magpie. If you’d but spare a moment, I have something of proposal for you and your companions”
Spider gave Magpie a withering look, mouthing the words, “You should know better.” She was more than a little annoyed that Magpie had apparently taken so quickly to the stranger.
“You did us a turn back there, I’ll grant you. You got Mags out of a fix.” said Spider, “But don’t think this means anything. I’d a likely sprung Magpie anyway. We know our ways on these streets. Moreover, we wouldn’t a survived this long, if we let ourselves get taken in by the likes of you. Whoever, you even are.”
“Aww yes, to be sure, to be sure,” said the man scratching his beard, “How rude of me. My name is Theodore Emelior Beem, glad to make your acquaintance.”
The man gave a slight bow, which Spider acknowledged with a nod of her head. Looking at the man, Spider saw someone in their early thirties. He didn’t seem like a gentleman, but he was no tradesman. He was medium height, was relatively well groomed with a short beard, wore a brown wool vest and had a red handkerchief around his neck. His clothes were clean, but not new by any means. Although, his good-natured smile and generally awkward appearance there was something different about him. As a thief and grifter, Spider was a canny judge of people and her intuition said that this young man was no fool.
“Fair enough mister. You may call me the Spider. I’ve lived in this armpit they call Mayberry for all my life. Don’t think you can play me. I’ve chewed up’n spit out better than you. Now, tell us what you have in mind.”
“Very good,” said Theodore, smiling nervously, “I have a project. Very personal and very important. Nothing illegal mind you, but I have the needs of friends with your. . .um skills. For someone as you , who ‘knows their way on these streets.’
Spider looked at this young man, and shook her head. What an odd bird. Although, this young man seemed hopelessly out of his element, Spider was intrigued. If things went sideways she was pretty confident that they could rob this young man in short order and stuff him into a barrel.
“So, what be your project?” asked Spider suspiciously. Although Spider was no more than thirteen years of age, she had enough cynicism for a lifetime. This is largely how she had stayed alive for this long. More specifically, Spider had no desire to run afoul of Mayberry’s many criminal interests. The local neighborhood boss, was aptly nicknamed, “The Beast of Bellamy,” fancied himself as something of a local crime lord and was a particular pain in Spider’s side. The Beast was brutal and ruthless and like any beast was territorial. As he oft said, “There is no honest work in Mayberry,” and so he took an interest in anything that encompassed the four blocks of his territory.
“Yes well, can we just say it’s something confidential,” said Theodore Beem almost apologetically.
Hearing that Spider shook her head and started walking away,
“Listen Mister. We got to watch out for ourselves. If you can’t tell us what you’re planning, we can’t risk our necks for you. Our asses wouldn’t be worth a simo if the Beast found out we kept stuff from him.”
“Wait, wait…” said Theodore holding up his hands, “You wouldn’t be risking your necks. This wouldn’t involve thieving…necessarily. This has nothing to do with anything the local criminal interests might care about. What I need are a group of young people, who can travel around Gearford freely without notice or suspicion. You will need to occasionally deliver goods for me. I might need you to obtain certain things for me. I will also send you on errands to obtain other things for me. Again, nothing criminal or dangerous.”
“What kind of things,” asked Spider.
“Mostly mechanical things. I like to tinker and work with mechanical things. For personal reasons, I would prefer that my work remains private and outside of the scrutiny of the technocrats. You do understand why?”
Spider nodded. There was no great love for the Technocracy among the poor, particularly here in Mayberry. The Technocracy had a way of sticking its nose everywhere. There were even rumors of Technocrat agents in Mayberry. According to one rumor the Technocrats had even infiltrated one of the local syndicates, but unfortunately for the person who suggested it, they received a shiv in their ear shortly thereafter. Funny how the rumors stopped after that.
“Aww yes,” smiled Theodore, “and most importantly, I will see that you and your friends are paid for your services. I can pay in coin, food. . .and even water.”
At the mention of "food," the cat sat up and meowed while lifting up her forepaw.
"Quite right," responded Beem, who took out a small treat and gave it to the cat.
Spider paused and looked at his friends. The last six months had been painfully difficult for them. There was no question, things were bad. The reality of thieving in the district is that someone higher up in the food chain always wanted their cut. Their work was getting more dangerous by the day.
Moreover, Spider was also just tired of being hungry. Some of others like Handsome George and Magpie would starve before they uttered a word of complaint, but Spider could couldn’t help but notice their drawn eyes and their overly loose clothing. And yet, despite all of that, Spider had doubts and this was readily apparent from the look on her face.
“One more thing,” added Theodore earnestly, “I know something of your life here. It should go without saying, but let me assure both you and girls that I will never harm or even lay a hand upon any of you. You needn’t be afraid of me.
Although, this wasn’t clearly Theodore Beem’s intent, his remarks surprised Spider and took her by surprise. For while Spider and her small Gang of Misbegottens, were all girls, this was something they took great pains to conceal. With the exception of Magpie, none of them, including Spider gave the appearance of being a young girl. This was by design, since while Mayberry was not a safe place, this was doubly true for young orphaned girls. This was also why Spider had banded them together in the first place. It was for their protection. They watched each other’s backs. And yet despite their disguises, Beem saw through them.
Spider looked to the others to gauge their reaction to this exchange with Beem. Although they said nothing, their hands moved rapidly to convey their thoughts in their thieves cant to Spider.
“I like him,” said Magpie
“We can do jobs for him as it suits us. It would be good to get the steady pay,” remarked Handsome George with her usual thoughtfulness.
“We’re Hungry,” complained the twins.
“I don’t trust him. Let’s just rob him and leave his body here,” said Viaak.
There were still a dozen others of her gang elsewhere, but these five were some of her best and most trusted. Spider was still a little worried about how the Beast might react, but Handsome George’s advice seemed practical. Even if this arrangement could bring some steady pay for a few weeks here and there, it might be worth it.
“Alright mister, you've just hired yourself the Gang of Misbegottens. We’ll work for you, but only as it suits us and for long as it suits us,” said Spider.
“Very good,” said Theodore rubbing his hands together. In scattershot fashion, Beem then went over some of the details of their just engaged arrangement. He told them about of the few things he needed. He told them to keep an eye out for what was thrown out around Gearford, particularly around some of the factories and workshops. They even worked out a method of communication. When Beem needed their services, he would tie a yellow handkerchief off his porch. When they had something for him, they could bring it to his door during the early evening at dusk.
When all of the arrangements were made to their satisfaction, Spider and the girls began to leave the alley.
“Oh Magpie,” said Beem, throwing her an object which she grabbed mid-flight, “Since you liked this so much. Take it as a sign of my good faith.”
Magpie held up the just thrown pocket watch in her hand, smiled and slipped it into her pocket.
Before she could disappear back into the busy marketplace, the cat began pawing at Beem while trying get his attention. Beem spoke out again, “Ahh yes, of course. Magpie, I know you were probably just holding it for me and forgot, but if you could also return my wallet. Most appreciated.”
With a broad grin and shrug, Magpie walked back a few steps to Beem returning the wallet she had pinched earlier. She winked at him, and then skipped out to crowd, already seeing a new mark.
Spider watched this whole exchange with utter fascination. Yes, they would need to keep an eye on this Beem character.