My name is Ephraim Harris. I’m sixteen years old and I am a criminal.
There. It feels good to have said it.
I could justify it. I could tell you about the workhouse, the rows upon rows of dormitory beds disappearing to a vanishing point. The years of pointless, thankless work for the Authority, making trinkets for Uppers who’d never stop to wonder where they came from. The first theft—a book, for goodness’ sake!—just to have something all to myself.
But I won’t.
The truth is a pliable thing and you can twist it however you like.
I was just in the wrong place at the right time, or maybe the other way around.
She found me.
She found me on the very first day I snuck out of the dormitory to see the Capital for myself. She found me in the middle of a crowd, with one hand in a lady’s purse, teasing out a silver cigarette case.
And while I was busy thieving, she was doing the opposite. She was putting something into my pocket.
It was a card with a business address on Melville Street. P. Samuel Haddo, Daguerreotypes & Photographic Fancies.
Beside the door to the shop was a collection of daguerreotype images of women in costume. A washerwoman, an Upper in horse-riding gear, an actress dressed in an Indian squaw costume. Even then I wondered if they were all the same woman.
The door opened at a push. I still think that’s funny, a master thief leaving her front door unlocked. Later, she would say, “If anyone pursuing me has the wit to come to my front door and push, then the game is already up. Locking the door would achieve nothing.”
She was slim and not old, maybe in her early thirties. She wore a plain black dress and had pulled back her dark hair to braid them into buns. But it was her eyes that got me. They were the saddest eyes I had ever seen.
Of course, I didn’t recognise her face or even her name. Nobody would have, even though The Patriarch printed stories of her exploits most days. The newspapers would have killed for a picture and an identity.
“My name is—,” she said. I can’t even bring myself to write her real name here!
She continued, “But most people know me as the Pale Shadow.”
She never said as much, but the Pale Shadow must have seen promise in me. Why would she have involved me, otherwise?
Maybe some other time I’ll tell you about the thief training she put me through. Pickpocketing a jacket hung on the back of a chair, hundreds of times a day. My first real test, stumbling through the carriage of a pipe-smoke-yellow train, then her look of triumph as I emerged with a wallet in hand.
Some other time.
I want to tell you about our first real crime.
“I’ve always loved this painting,” the Pale Shadow said, pointing at the open book in my hands.
The text below the picture stated that it was called ‘The Conjuror’ and had been painted by an artist called Hieronymus Bosch. It showed a group of people gathered in front of a low table to watch a street entertainer. This man, the Conjuror himself, performed a game of cups and balls.
You must know the game. You hide a bead beneath one of two upside-down cups, swish the cups around, then ask an onlooker to work out which one conceals the ball. If you’re good at it, you get the onlooker to bet on the result and they lose, of course.
The Pale Shadow masked the centre of the daguerreotype with her hand. “What do you make of that?”
I frowned. With her hand in the way, all I could see was the wide, gilt frame around the painting.
“The edges!” she said, lifting her hand. “Look more carefully!”
I bent to look closer. The bricks of the wall behind the Conjuror continued on the right and into darkness beyond the crowd on the left.
“The colours,” I said, “They change at the edges.”
“Excellent. And why might that be?”
I saw no obvious clues. Then I looked again at the painting’s ornate, golden surround. “To fit the frame!”