San Francisco 1900. It had been five hours since Big Tilda had been arrested, and she was very upset. The police had locked her in an interrogation room without any respect for her status or so much as a by-your-leave and had promptly forgotten her. It was downright disrespectful. Insulting even. She was the Pickpocket Queen of San Francisco, not some common thief or crook, and she expected to be treated as such.
It had taken three strapping young men to subdue her on the trolley, and she was fairly certain that she had broken one of their noses and given another a black eye. Big Tilda was absurdly proud of that. Her daddy had been a boxer in his youth, and had taught her to throw a punch if nothing else.
She had been dragged to the station, fingerprinted and photographed, leaving her fingers splotched and her eyes blinking back tears. Newfangled inventions for a newfangled century. Big Tilda distrusted them both and remained stubbornly silent throughout. She only spoke once, when she first arrived.
“Quirke and Wry,” she said. “I want to see Quirke and Wry.”
After much stern protesting, the docking officer had finally agreed with a disapproving frown, but Quirke and Wry hadn’t come yet.
No one had.
Big Tilda occupied herself by whispering a few of her favorite songs and belting the bawdier lyrics at the top of her lungs, but even that had not managed to attract anyone’s attention. Outside the interrogation room doors, the station was a hive of ceaseless, nervous activity. She could hear raised voices and pounding feet and taste the barely restrained panic in the air.
Finally, the door opened and Inspector Quirke entered, followed by his faithful shadow, Sergeant Wry.
Quirke sat across from her and studied her face closely with Wry scowling behind him.He was a distinguished, particular man with a pointed mustache and dark woolen suit.
“I understand you wanted to see us,” Quirke said, somehow turning the innocuous statement into a borderline threat. “May I ask why? It’s rare that anyone, let alone someone with your record, asks for the pleasure of our company.”
Big Tilda snorted. “Can’t imagine why not.”
Wry glared. “If you’re just going to waste our time…”
“Yes,” she interrupted. “I can you’re busy today, running around like headless chickens.” Big Tilda leaned forward conspiratorially, her handcuffs clattering on the table. “Wouldn’t have anything to do with them Chinamen murders, would it?”
Quirke had an impressive poker face. The old inspector barely flinched, but she caught a glimpse of surprise in the corners of his mouth and in a slight tightness around the eyes.
“What do you know about that?” Quirke asked with studied indifference.
“I read.” She grinned. “Devoted follower of the San Francisco Oracle, me. They always have the best murders.”
“You mean the most gruesome,” Wry said with a scowl.
“Same difference.” She shrugged. “And I was told you fine gentlemen was always willing to make a deal.”
“Who told you that?”
Wry’ scowl deepened. “Atwood! That little…”
“Curious,” Quirke interrupted, holding out a calming hand without breaking eye contact. “I have always found Mr. Atwood to be remarkably tight lipped in these matters, especially for a newspaperman. Why would he give you our names?”
“He owed me a favor.”
“Ah.” Quirke nodded. “Of course. You understand that even with Atwood’s…sterling recommendation I can’t simply let you go.”
“’Course not. That’d be silly.” she waved that concern away easily. “But I can pay.”
“We don’t want your money!” Wry snapped, rising to his full insulted height.
“Not talking about money,” Big Tilda said, her expression clearly called him an idiot. “I’m talking about your little murderer.”
“The Rabbit-Mask Killer?”
“That’s the one.”
Quirke and Wry exchanged skeptical glances. “And how would you know…?”
“Easy. I have his watch and chain.” She was gloating now, savoring the looks on their faces. “And I have his wallet.”
“You picked the murderer’s pocket?” Wry demanded incredulously.
“Who do you think you’re talking to?” she asked. “I’m the Pickpocket Queen of San Francisco! I pick everyone’s pocket!”
Quirke, Wry, and, of course, the Pickpocket Queen of San Francisco herself all appear in The Alchemist in the Attic.
I love all three of them from the cheerfully nonchalant pickpocket to the sneeringly judgmental sergeant, and poor Quirke who only ever wants to get on with his job.
This was a bonus little character scene just for fun, and because I wanted to revisit them again like old friends.
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