Lila Bard lived by a simple rule: if a thing was worth having, it was worth taking.
She held the silver pocket watch up to the faint glow of the streetlamp, admiring the metal’s polished shine, wondering what the engraved initials
—L.L.E.—on the back might stand for. She’d nicked the watch off a gentleman, a clumsy collision on a too-crowded curb that had led to a swift apology, a hand on the shoulder to distract from a hand on the coat. Lila’s fingers weren’t just fast; they were light. A tip of the top hat and a pleasant good night, and she was the proud new owner of a timepiece, and he was on his way and none the wiser.
She didn’t care about the object itself, but she cared a great deal for what it bought her: freedom. A poor excuse for it, to be sure, but better than a prison or a poorhouse. She ran a gloved thumb over the crystal watch face.
“Do you have the time?” asked a man at her shoulder. Lila’s eyes flicked up. It was a constable.
Her hand went to the brim of her top hat—stolen from a dozing chauffeur the week before—and she hoped the gesture passed for a greeting and not a nervous slip, an attempt to hide her face.
“Half past nine,” she murmured deeply, tucking the watch into the vest pocket under her cloak, careful not to let the constable catch sight of the various weapons glittering beneath it. Lila was tall and thin, with a boyish frame that helped her pass for a young man, but only from a distance. Too close an inspection, and the illusion would crumble.
Lila knew she should turn and go while she could, but when the constable searched for something to light his pipe and came up empty, she found herself fetching up a sliver of wood from the street. She put one boot up on the base of the lamppost and stepped lithely up to light the stick in the flame. Lantern light glanced off her jawline, lips, cheekbones, the edges of her face exposed beneath the top hat. A delicious thrill ran through her chest, spurned on by the closeness of danger, and Lila wondered, not for the first time, if something was wrong with her. Barron used to say so, but Barron was a bore.
Looking for trouble, he’d say. You’re gonna look till you find it.
Trouble is the looker, she’d answer. It keeps looking till it finds you. Might as well find it first.
Why do you want to die?
I don’t, she’d say. I just want to live.
She stepped down from the lamppost, her face plunging back into her hat’s shadow as she handed the constable the burning sliver of wood. He offered a muttered thanks and lit the pipe, gave a few puffs, and seemed about to go, but then he paused. Lila’s heart gave a nervous flutter as he considered her again, this time more carefully. “You ought to be mindful, sir,” he said at last. “Out alone at night. Likely to get your pocket picked.”
“Robbers?” asked Lila, struggling to keep her voice low. “Surely not in Eaton.”
“Aye.” The constable nodded and pulled a folded sheet of paper from his coat. Lila reached out and took it, even though she knew at first glance what it was. A WANTED poster. She stared down at a sketch that was little more than a shadowy outline wearing a mask—a haphazard swatch of fabric over the eyes
—and a broad brim hat. “Been picking pockets, even robbed a few gentlemen and a lady outright. Expect that mess, of course, but not ’round here. A right audacious crook, this one.”
Lila fought back a smile. It was true. Nicking spare change in South Bank was one thing, stealing silver and gold from the carriage-bound in Mayfair quite another, but thieves were fools to stay in slums. The poor kept up their guards. The rich strutted around, assuming they’d be safe, so long as they stayed in the good parts of town. But Lila knew there were no good parts. Only smart parts and stupid parts, and she was quick enough to know which one to play.
She handed back the paper and tipped the stolen top hat to the constable. “I’ll mind my pockets, then.”
“Do,” urged the constable. “Not like it used to be. Nothing is …” He ambled away, sucking on his pipe and muttering about the way the world was falling apart or some such—Lila couldn’t hear the rest over the thudding pulse in her ears.
The moment he was out of sight, Lila sighed and slumped back against the lamppost, dizzy with relief. She dragged the top hat from her head and considered the mask and the broad brim cap stuffed inside. She smiled to herself. And then she put the hat back on, pushed off the post, and made her way to the docks, whistling as she walked.