Vicar Brekonridge had earned the bubbled and congealed mass of waxy scars that covered the right side of his face and head honorably, saving children in a housefire, but he preferred to cover himself in public. He draped a light woolen scarf around his head and neck and secured it with the battered beaver-felt John Bull that he typically wore on the job. It looked shabby compared to his new suit and greatcoat, but he liked the hat, and it had served him well in his exploits. It was a nice change to walk the streets of London in the crisp autumn air with nothing in mind except savoring the afternoon. He found a small park in the intersection of several streets and settled into a bench there with the intent of relaxing until something forced him to move.
Seconds later, a man dashed around the corner, running for his life, only seconds ahead of an angry mob that screamed at him and hurled sticks and rocks. Brekonridge watched as they thundered past. The man skidded and stumbled as he grabbed a gaslight pole and swung himself around the next corner.
“Huh,” Brekonridge grunted. He raised his considerable mass from the park bench, turned left, and walked away from the corner the mob had taken. He traversed a garbage-strewn and muddy close between two apartment buildings and emerged in the next block just as the running man came into view. Brekonridge stepped out into the street and grabbed him by the arm, jerking him into the close. The man, small in stature, vanished behind Brekonridge’s greatcoat, as the hulking thief-taker leaned against an ancient crumbling brick wall and watched the crush race past the close without seeing him. Few of them even looked at him, and those who did looked away just as quickly.
“You’re welcome,” Brekonridge said once they disappeared. His voice was deep and gravelly. He tipped his hat and turned to leave.
“Why did you do that?” the man asked.
“My nature. Good day.”
“Wait! You don’t know what you’ve done.”
“Don’t I?” Brekonridge said.
The man pulled a card from his pocket and handed it to Brekonridge.
“All right, Athelney Cribbins,” Brekonridge said. “Explain.”
“I am a sin-eater.”
“Ah,” Brekonridge said, as that explained everything. “Well, then, my apologies. Please do not allow me to detain you. I believe your mob went that way.”
He tipped his hat again and turned to leave. Athelney Cribbins placed a hand in the crook of his arm to stop him. Brekonridge glared at the little man, who jumped back as if he had been struck.
“I do not relish being touched,” Brekonridge growled.
“Apologies. But you are Vicar Brekonridge, are you not?”
“Have we met, sir?”
“I have seen you plenty enough. I am a clerk at Bow Street.”
The Bow Street Magistrates Court was the first stop for most miscreants in 1842 London after they were apprehended. It was where criminals were arraigned, and magistrates posted bills and warrants calling for the apprehension of wanted scoundrels. Vicar Brekonridge was a thief-taker, a career that required him to walk abroad at all times of day and night in search of scofflaws and ne’er-do-wells. Even with the new London Metropolitan Police constables seemingly on every corner, the apprehension and detention of wanted offenders still frequently fell to independent contractors like Brekonridge. When his funds dwindled, he’d walk to Bow Street, pick out a likely candidate from the posted warrants, and hunt. It had proven a lucrative profession.
“A legal clerk seems a curious occupation for a sin-eater,” Brekonridge noted. “Most men in your field are social pariahs.”
“My father was a sin-eater. My grandfather was a sin-eater. His father as well. Every one of them led lives of rejection and isolation. I chose to live amongst people. Alas, being a simple clerk, while a decent and honorable vocation, does little to fill the coffers. I live a life of near penury. Falling back on the family tradition provides me some small creature comforts.”
“And it does not detract from your reputation at Bow Street?”
“They are unaware.”
“Ah. Well, they will not hear it from me. Good day, Mr. Cribbins. If you hurry, you can catch up to your pursuers by taking the next corner and walking about three blocks. I wish you well.”
“Wait!” he said. “They have certainly dispersed by now, and I would very much like to consult with you on an urgent matter.”