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Chapter 4

“Is that not why I’m here?”

Isha shifted her weight, hoping her stance seemed natural, hoping it concealed the fact she was raising the back of her shirt and unbuttoning the clasp on her sheath.

“Yes, of course, but, well...”

He still hadn’t said anything to quell her nerves. If this guy didn’t want to get stabbed, he needed to start saying the right things. And soon.

“I haven’t actually seen any rats myself.”

Not enough. Keep talking, bud.

“Unless you can already tell otherwise, I’m not entirely sure I actively have a rat problem. At least not yet. Like our friend in the cheese shop, my product is more valuable when it hasn’t been eaten by rats. Personally, I’d prefer not to wait until my stock has been ransacked.”

“So you’re not even sure if you have a problem?”

“While I may have heard some scurrying and scratching, I’m more interested to see what you find.”

She relaxed her arms, relieved.

“Gotta say, this is one of the stranger requests. People are usually very sure they have rats before they’re willing to drop coin on a ratcatcher.”

“Worse case scenario, it’s a preemptive measure.”

“Fair enough. I can’t possibly charge you full price if I don’t find any actual rats, but I have to charge you something.”

She already went through the trouble of lugging all her tools and traps down here at the asscrack of dawn. At the least, she deserved to be paid for her troubles.

“The way I see it, I’m not just hiring you to catch rats. I’m paying for your expertise. Whether that means catching rats or simply ensuring that I don’t have any—and won’t get any in the future—I’m paying you for ease of mind.”

She began weighing possible prices to charge in her head, weighing what she could feasibly get away with, what her initial offer should likely be before they began haggling. He seemed like a generous man, so perhaps she could get away with—

“How does five drachmae sound?” the man suggested, interrupting her train of thought.

“Just to take a look? Sure, but I usually charge more for actual ratcatching.”

“How about this? I pay you the full five drachmae right now, all upfront, and an additional drachma for any rat you actually find. Think of it as an incentive to do a thorough job.”

Even if she didn’t find a single rat, the four she brought with her would put her over what she made the previous day, which itself was more than what she ever made in a single job before. She felt her belly rumble again, hungry in more ways than one.

“Incentive... hmm.” She tried to play it off as casual as she could, like she was still debating the offer. “Alright. But I have one condition. I keep any rats I catch.”

“My dear, if you’re that hungry I can—”

“No, no, no. Not eatin’ any rats, no thanks. It’s just...” She fumbled for the right words, her usual script about poison and killing them at the source now useless. If she was going to use her rats to score some extra coin, she had to make damn sure she brought them back alive. “I’ll do just as good a job, nice and thorough. Might take a wee bit longer, but... sometimes the process for catching rats can be cruel. More killing than catching.”

“A ratcatcher with a heart. Imagine that.” He paused for a moment, examining her or debating with himself she knew not which. “You have yourself a deal. As long as they’re nowhere near my shop, I can’t say I mind what you do with them afterwards. Take them and start one of those street circuses as long as it’s outside my walls.”

“I’ve considered it, but I ain’t suited for performance. Or begging.”

“Work ethic. I admire that.”

He reached into a deep pocket on the inside of his cloak and pulled out a soft, flat coin purse. He counted out the five coins, returned the purse to his pocket and extended a handshake once more to seal the deal.

His fingers were rough, the hands of a man unafraid to do his own heavy lifting. Isha was sure he was the kind of man that ground his own tea, maybe even went gathering for his own ingredients. The kind of man who valued hard work and who wouldn’t dare try to squeeze his way out of payment at the end of the job. Like some assholes.

“I’ll let you get on with it then. Could I possibly offer you a cup of tea to warm your hands? On the house. It gets awfully cold back here so early in the day.”

“I’d love some.”

“Any preference? I do have quite an assorted collection to choose from.”

She hadn’t a fucking clue. Did people normally know how to answer? It wasn’t as if she never had tea as a child, but she never really had a choice. A steaming cup of flavored water was offered, never a choice. It was just tea. There was no variety. She glanced at the array of names along the big spice rack, nervously searching for an answer, when Faerris spoke up again.

“Actually don’t tell me.” She turned her head back to find him looking her up and down, an analytical glance, searching for some insight towards a question she didn’t know how to answer herself. “You catch rats, but you care. You like to come off as tough, but there’s a softer side to you. I think I know just the one.”

And with that, he turned and walked back into the shop, towards the side room beyond the beaded curtain.

Well, time to get to work I guess.

Knowing the man would be returning shortly, Isha couldn’t take the rats out to help her investigate just yet, but there was nothing stopping her from getting started on her own.

She left the door open for now, but could see she would have no problem jamming it shut from the inside. The door had much nicer locks than the cheese shop did. Not just a simple latch, but lock and key. It did lock from the outside, but the mechanism was simple enough that she figured she could use her shims to keep it jammed without much effort.

Two windows allowed plenty of light into the room, but they were glazed over with a tint that obscured the view through them with a blurry haze. They were perfect for her needs, preventing anyone outside from spying on her while she did her thing.

Like the windows at the front of the shop, they were also adorned with patterned lattice made of solid, sturdy metal that somehow still looked light and elegant. This did, however, mean they weren’t made to be opened.

Aside from the main door there seemed to be no other way in or out. No exit to the outside would have made sneaking harder, but she didn’t really have the need. She already had her rats with her, her cages, some leftover peanut butter and the remaining cheese shavings. And that only mattered if there were any rats to find.

The first and most obvious place to look was the massive tea rack. While it might prove a bit difficult for them to reach, rats would have no problem tearing through some simple canvas bags. Each “pocket” was carefully labeled. Hibiscus, rosehips, mint, rosemary, basil, ginger and more. The assortment was so varied she didn’t even recognize half the names. What the fuck even is anise?

Every shelf was as organized as the last. And from what she could tell, each and every bag was pristine and untouched. At least by any rodents. No holes bitten through the bags, no scratch marks where they might have climbed the rack, not a single sign of unwanted activity.

Isha was crouched down, neck twisted to look at the undersides of the shelves when Faerris re-entered the room. Careful and delicate, he held a small dish in one hand and a simple teacup resting atop it, his thumb and forefinger gingerly gripping the curve of the handle.

“Hard at work already, I see. You’re quite the go-getter.”

“I try,” Isha said with a playful, humbling shrug.

He placed the cup atop one of the stacks of boxes grouped near the far wall of the room, a faint wave of steam still rising into the chilly air.

“No rush, but don’t let this sit for too long. Don’t want it going cold on you.” Isha practically leaped up to her feet at the prospect of a warm drink. “Let me know how you like it.”

It had been ages since Isha was treated to a warm drink. She closed her eyes as she breathed in the aroma, an herbal, flowery mixture that she was finding herself absolutely delighted by. She quickly blew on it a couple times, the liquid still scalding hot, and took a careful sip. The warmth slowly spread down into her belly.

It was rejuvenating. Like water to someone dying of thirst out in the desert.

“It’s wonderful.”

Even without much experience, Isha could tell this had to be some top of the line tea. Equally impressive was the fact that Faerris was able to choose a flavor so perfectly suited for her. He could have poorly guessed and brought liquorice or bergamot or whatever anise is.

“That it is. I’m also a good judge of character,” he said as he gave her a sly wink. “I’ll let you get back to your work now. Enjoy the tea and please come find me if you have any questions or concerns.”

What a gentleman, Isha thought. He was so polite and thoughtful that she almost felt bad about planning to scam the guy.

As if he were reading her mind, he stopped in the doorway and spun on his heels.

“Oh, open or closed?” he asked, pointing to the door.

“Closed please. The silence helps, plus you don’t want anything scurrying out into your shop.”

With a smile and a nod, he pulled the door closed with a click.

Relieved, Isha wasted no time. She popped open her toolbox and took out her shims. Faerris hadn’t locked the door behind him, so she gently tapped them into place into the door frame. It was highly unlikely he would interfere whatsoever, but better safe than sorry.

Next, she took the tray out of her toolbox and lifted the cage from inside. Mick, Little Stu, Gonzo and Sliver, all ready and raring to go. They were a curious bunch, exactly the kind of energy she had hoped to see in her investigation squad. She lifted them out one by one, each scattering to different corners of the room. Sliver was the last to be let loose, slower than the others, but more methodical. Or that was what Isha liked to think, at least.

Isha casually followed them around the room, tea in hand. She stood tall, breathing in deep, a smug smile of satisfaction on her face. She felt powerful, important. In the moment, if Faerris were to walk in on her, she felt like she could own it, explain away what he would be seeing. She wouldn’t need to worry in the slightest. She was a fifteen-year-old boss bitch, and the only one clever enough to use trained rats to flush out other rats. And she wouldn’t even be lying.

She took a swig of the tea, burning the inside of her mouth.

Right. Still scalding.

So far, between her and her rats, they had found zero evidence of any other rats. No disturbed product, no obvious holes in the walls, no rat droppings, not even any scratches or chew marks. Faerris did say he hadn’t seen any rats himself, but he heard them, hadn’t he? Was he just wrong?

Or was he lying?

Isha felt her heart beginning to beat just a little bit faster.

The man was kind and courteous, but wouldn’t that be the perfect cover for more nefarious deeds? What if this was all just a ploy to lure her into a room and keep her captive? Just some street kid that nobody would miss. That nobody would ask about if she were gone. Any moment and Faerris could lock the door shut on her and she would be trapped.

She squinted her eyes and shook her head loose.

What the fuck am I thinking?

The door’s locking mechanism was on her side. She knew that. She had no reason to worry about being locked inside. So why was she so worried all of the sudden? Her mind was tricking her into forgetting the facts and disregarding logic—at least momentarily. But why? Something felt off, but she couldn’t pinpoint why.

It was in her best interest to always question people’s intentions. And for a successful business owner, Faerris was being uncharacteristically charitable. Perhaps it was just the lingering unease from earlier. It had been a while since she had reached for her knife. Maybe her nerves were still tense.

Get it together, Isha. Do the job, get paid, then leave.

She looked to the floor to see Mick and Gonzo congregating against the wall opposite of the massive spice rack where dozens of various herbs and plants were hanging pinned against the wall to dry. Unless they could grip the dark wooden frames, they had no chance at reaching even the lowest hanging herbs.

But that wasn’t what Mick and Gonzo seemed interested in.

The two rats were sniffing and clawing at a slender gap between the wall and the floor. Maybe this was where the rats were getting in! Or at least trying to. Mick and Gonzo tilted their heads as they tried to squeeze themselves in, but to no avail. Perhaps Little Stu would have better luck? Or even if he wasn’t, the scratching Faerris heard could be rats struggling to get in just as hers were failing to get out.

The gap was too clean to be the result of rats trying to claw their way in, likely just a simple fault in construction. The gap stretched along the edge from one dark timber beam to another. And then it continued, upwards, a seam between the wall and the beam. Some of the hanging plants partially concealed it, but the gap climbed all the way to the ceiling.

She looked to the ceiling, already knowing what she would find. Between the beams, sure enough, the gap continued.

Alone, they might not have been more than passing observations, but together painted a picture that grew more and more obvious. This wasn’t just some missing mortar between the seams; this was intentional.

Curiosity took over. Isha ran her finger along the edges of the gap, not knowing what she was looking for. Feeling for the flow of air maybe. She lightly pushed against the wall, but it didn’t budge. Directly in front of her, a hook pinned some kind of flower to the wall. She gingerly wrapped two fingers around it, took a deep breath, and pulled.

Did Faerris know he had a secret doorway built into his wall?

It was hard to imagine how he couldn’t. But if he did, why the hell would he ever invite some random thief to snoop around the room? He must not know. It had to have been like this when he bought the place. The door was so difficult to open from the inside that it’s possible he never realized it was there.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t simply some old storage space that had been closed up. That she could understand. But this was anything but. Stairs descended down until they were lost in darkness. She had no way of knowing where it led, but she knew she shouldn’t be seeing it.

Isha closed the door and took several steps back, almost stepping on Mick in the process.

She needed to leave. And now.

She pulled out her whistle, gave it a blow and threw the cheese shavings on the ground. All of them.


She was panicking. She knew she didn’t need nearly that much cheese. A few bits would have sufficed to gather her rats back up. Now the floor was covered in shavings that she’d have to clean up. And that took time. She didn’t even know what exactly she was worried about happening, but she knew the longer she spent here the more likely it was to happen.

Once the rats had all returned, the mess cleaned up and her tools packed away, she made her way to the door. She opened it, only to find Faerris was standing right in front of her.

She froze.

He was facing away from her when she opened the door, busy fiddling with a display. His long cloak flowed off the arch of his curving back, concealing his form, giving the impression of a dark, shadowy wraith. He turned to meet her, standing up straight, like a ghostly visage taking shape.

He seemed impossibly tall.

“Ah, Isha. Done so soon?”

Gods, what has gotten into me?

She was being paranoid. That had to be it. Her nerves were shot and she was worried. He was just a man. And a kind and generous one at that.

“Or did you find something? Any discoveries?”

Do I tell him?

If he doesn’t know, he’d probably want to know. He’d probably be grateful to be told. But what if it was something sinister and he was behind it? As kind and generous as he’d been, Isha knew to never press her luck. Admitting that she found his secret could make the situation very delicate. All her worries of being trapped or abducted or murdered or anything else her suddenly active imagination could conceive of seemed all too plausible.

It wasn’t worth the risk.

Keep it to yourself. Just leave.

She had already been paid upfront. The job was done. Successfully even! And now that it was over, she had no reason to linger. She only needed to pack up her shit, tell the man she didn’t find any signs, maybe suggest he invest in a couple simple traps just in case, and be on her way.

“Oh, she discovered something alright,” a woman’s voice said, almost laughing. It was a playful laugh, not the least bit sinister. But because it was coming from behind her, from inside the once-empty room, Isha heard nothing but worrying portents. The secret door sat wide open, a stout woman not much taller than herself leaning against the frame, an apple and knife in hand. She gave Isha a smile and a nod as she cut herself a slice and brought it to her mouth.

“What’s with the fucking apple, L? You trying to scare the girl?”

Isha turned back to Faerris and instinctively took a step back. He stood just beyond the doorway, entirely too close, effectively trapping her in the room. This was exactly what the kind of scenario she was worried about. She’d have felt proud for her gut being right all along if it weren’t busy churning her insides to the point that she felt like she was about to vomit.

“Please, fear not, my dear,” Faerris said in an attempt to reassure her. “And forgive the trickery and theatrics. I assure you we mean no harm.”

“Quite the opposite,” said the woman.

Funny fucking way to show that.

Isha wasn’t remotely close to feeling safe. Her eyes darted back and forth between the two. She was fairly sure she could drop her cages and reach for her knife before Faerris could grab her, but would she be able to get through him before his friend caught up to her? She hoped she wouldn’t need to find out.

“I know you must be feeling uneasy right now, but trust me when I say you have nothing to fear from us. All of this was nothing more than a test.”

“For what?” Isha hesitantly asked.



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