Sliceharbor is a city divided. Giants and waterfolk. Orange people and blue people. Cops and robbers.
Bendoko is the burglar who stole the giants' sacred scroll. He was promised fifty imperials; what he got was a heap of trouble. The giants say they'll tear the city apart unless they get their scroll back ... and Bendoko doesn't have it anymore.
Now he needs to figure out who hired him, find the scroll's hiding place, and steal it again. Then he can put it back and everyone will calm down, right?
Right. That should work. No problem. He just needs a little help from his friends.
Too bad he doesn't have any.
Is he desperate enough to team up with the cops?
The Burglar of Sliceharbor is a feel-good crime story set in the world of Edgewhen. Each Edgewhen adventure is a stand-alone novel. If you like sneaky burglars, brave cops, and toothy alligators, you can start the series right here.
Jason A. Holt's The Burglar of Sliceharbor reminds us that sometimes we need a touch of escapism with our hope, a chance to wander in Edgewhen, a world of giants, waterfolk, and other fantastic reflections of humanity. – Cat Rambo
In the port of Sliceharbor, all the buildings are thatched with palm fronds. Local thatching techniques can be divided into two schools: the orange and the blue. And because this is Sliceharbor, where oranges and blues have been living together for hundreds of years, many of the orange-skinned thatchers subscribe to the blue school, and many of the blue-skinned thatchers subscribe to the orange. The people under the roofs don't much notice, as long as the thatch keeps the rain out.
But Bendoko the Crane noticed. He spent a lot of time on rooftops. Not only could he tell the difference between the orange school and the blue, he could also spot the dozen-or-so variations within each school. On this sticky summer night, he was lying on a roof thatched in the style he called "whole-stalk batten-weave". He did not know what professional thatchers called it, because he was not a thatcher. Bendoko the Crane was a burglar.
It was a good night for burglary. The silver moon shining through the misty clouds gave Bendoko enough light to see the stalks he was unweaving. Of course, anyone looking at the roof could see Bendoko, but no one ever looked at roofs, especially not on hot summer nights when every sane person in Sliceharbor was either at home sweating through a stupefying sleep or relaxing in one of the city's many bathing pools. The rain had passed, the mosquitoes were out, and no one would be taking an evening stroll in the Palace District.
Bendoko carefully undid the thatcher's work and set aside the cluster of palm fronds. They smelled of fresh rain and roof mold. A tiny gecko near Bendoko's hand began gobbling up the ants that scurried out of the disturbed thatch.
Everybody's got to eat, Bendoko thought.
He lashed his climbing line to the exposed ridge pole and peered inside the hole he had made.
Inside was a second roof, made of wood, sloping leeward—a hurricane roof. Good. He was pretty sure the rest of the palace had only a single roof. The hurricane roof indicated he was indeed above the palace's library wing. The library needed the extra protection. Irreplaceable documents could be destroyed if the roof leaked.
The space between the two roofs was big enough to crawl into, but too small to stand up in. And it was dark.
Well, I've got to eat, too, Bendoko decided. He slipped off his straw sandals, brushed the mosquitoes off his arms and legs, and crawled inside.
The boards of the hurricane roof were tarred and caulked, like the deck of a ship. Bendoko had a tiny saw on his tool belt, but he hoped to find a hatch. There should be one, somewhere. The librarians would need a way to access the cramped space if the attic fauna became too stinky or belligerent. A few spiders and lizards were to be expected—even encouraged—but you wouldn't want pack rats to set up shop above the largest scroll collection in Sliceharbor.
Bendoko felt his way along the sloping boards, brushing his bald head against the poles that supported the framework for the thatching above. The small patch of silver moonlight did little to illuminate the space under the thatch. He hoped he wouldn't find any snakes.
He didn't. But he didn't find any hatch either.
Mendu, I hope you haven't set me up, he thought.
Bendoko knew he was an easy target. He worked alone—no partners-in-crime, no bosses to pay taxes to. In other words, no protection. If he were imprisoned, he would not be missed.
And Mendu was a criminal. He helped merchants smuggle goods into Sliceharbor without paying the port tariffs. That made him a bad person, like Bendoko. One of the drawbacks of Bendoko's profession was that he did not get to deal with good people. Good people, by definition, never needed anything stolen.
As Bendoko groped in the darkness, searching for the elusive hatch, he told himself, That's what you get for taking a job you didn't scout yourself.
But Mendu had seemed to have all the answers. Mendu had a map. He knew the library was unguarded. He had offered one hundred imperials, fifty up front.
Bendoko wondered if he should have asked for more. The up-front money had been enough to buy off his sister's landlord for another year, but was fifty imperials enough to guarantee that Mendu wasn't setting him up? It was probably spare change to a guy like Mendu. Then again, what would Mendu get out of the deal? Who would pay fifty imperials to get rid of Bendoko the Crane? There were cheaper options.
Bendoko's toe bumped against the corner of something. The hatch! Right where he had thought it would be—almost.
So Mendu wasn't setting him up. Of course not. No, Mendu just had a job that needed to be done.
The hatch had been tar-sealed to keep the hurricane roof water-tight. The seal was no problem. Bendoko took his putty knife from his tool belt and slipped it into the tar. The night had not yet cooled off—nights never really did cool off in Yellowmonth—and the tar was sticky soft.
When Bendoko had the hatch loose, he took a moment to recall Mendu's map. He guessed he was breaking in about here. The scroll should be over there. Right?
Yeah. That was probably right. Bendoko opened the hatch.
The air inside smelled crisp and clean, nothing like the stinky tar or the musty thatch. Bendoko poked his head through and took a deep breath.
It was as dark inside the library as it was in the attic. But that was good, right? It meant no one else was in the library. So no one would ask him why he was crawling in through the ceiling.
Bendoko tugged his climbing line to be certain it was still secured. Then he lowered himself into the room. His feet touched the filmy cotton gauze that Sliceharbor residents hang from their ceilings to catch stray insects. Bendoko parted the gauze with expert toes.
His torso was only partway through the gauze when his feet landed on a flat surface—probably the top of a scroll hutch. Mendu had told him to expect the hutches everywhere.
Bendoko let go of his line and crouched down so that his bald head was below the gauze. It was time for light.
A sprinkle of quicklight powder atop a candle. A quick flick of the flint striker. The spark hit the powder and the flame sparkled to life. Bendoko shut his eyes against the brightness—too late: the image was burned into his vision—and when he opened his eyes, the room was lit by the clean glow of a beeswax candle.
Well, actually, the candle didn't light the entire room. The room was huge. Bendoko was indeed atop a scroll hutch. A short distance away was another scroll hutch. And lurking in the shadows were still more hutches, as far as the light would reach. The room had looked much neater on Mendu's map.
Bendoko climbed down to the stone floor. This was easy because the scroll hutch consisted of many rows of cubby holes. Each cubby hole held a wooden cylinder. Inside each cylinder, wax-sealed against the damp and the mold, was a scroll. All Bendoko had to do was find the right one ... among hundreds and hundreds of scrolls.
Ancient religious texts, accounting records from the Imperial days, historical documents of famous legal judgments—every scroll Bendoko passed was worth a few imperials to somebody. But he wasn't tempted to scoop up any extras. How would he find a buyer? And how could he sell anything without having the theft point back at him? No, Mendu was the man to handle problems like that. Mendu had contacts; that was his job. And it must pay pretty good if he was offering a hundred imperials, fifty up front.
Bendoko arrived at a hutch in a corner. This was it. Or at least, this could be it, if he remembered the map right—if Mendu had drawn the map right. How good was the inside man, anyway?
Bendoko held the candle flame up to the cubby holes, looking for the scroll case marked by a golden sun.
"It is not here."
Bendoko jumped. The candle flew from his fingers and extinguished itself before it even hit the floor.
From no more than ten feet away, the voice said, "The item you seek has been moved."
Bendoko's heart was pounding in his chest. He wanted to run, but without any light, he would just run into a scroll hutch.
Damn you, Mendu!
Bendoko edged away from the voice, trying to be quiet, but his breaths came in noisy, panicked gasps.
"If you would care to relight your candle, I could direct you to the current location," the voice offered.
He was male—and probably blue, because he sounded like he was the same height as Bendoko. If he'd been orange, his voice would have come from two or three feet higher.
His accent was strange—not just the fancy words he used, but also the way he said them. He wasn't from Sliceharbor. Maybe he was attached to one of the senators who were staying in the palace.
And he wasn't threatening. Bendoko realized he had just made contact with Mendu's inside man.
"Wait a moment," Bendoko muttered, shuffling his feet along the floor, searching for the candle. He found it, warm and soft, against the base of the scroll hutch.
Bendoko picked up the candle with his toes and passed it to his hand. He took the flint striker from his tool belt and began flicking sparks. The bright flashes in the darkness were too brief to illuminate the inside man, although they were more than adequate to reveal Bendoko's position.
The candle wasn't lighting. Bendoko took the time to straighten the wick, and then he remembered to use the quicklight powder. This time, the candle sparkled to life. Bendoko held it out toward the stranger, but he was gone.
"This way," called the voice.
Bendoko followed. It wasn't a setup. It couldn't be. Too complicated. Simpler just to call in the palace guards. Mendu said the Republican Navy guarded this place. An intriguing thought. Bendoko the Crane had stolen many things from the good citizens of Sliceharbor, but this was his first crime against the entire Lunaslip Republic.
"In here," said the voice, and his hand thumped twice against wood—a cabinet, Bendoko saw, as he came around the corner. By the time he reached the cabinet, the inside man had retreated to the shadows.
Bendoko studied the cabinet doors: polished mahogany, with a stylized magnolia carved into each knob; no other ornamentation except for a brass plate with a keyhole in the middle.
Bendoko tried the doors. "The cabinet's locked," he said.
"Is that a problem?" the inside man asked.
"No," said Bendoko. "No, it will just take a little more time."
Bendoko didn't like being watched while he worked, but he didn't think the inside man was offering him a choice. He looked around for a good place to set his candle and discovered that he was standing next to a desk with a lampstand that was just the right height. He set the candle on the lampstand and then felt around his tool belt for his lockpicks. This looked like a job for picks 5 and 7.
The lock was well-made, but not particularly tricky. Bendoko raised the catch, slid back the locking bar, and pulled the doors open. Behind the doors was a small hutch of cubby holes—most of them empty. Of the few scroll cases inside, only the one marked with a golden sun caught the light.
Bendoko removed the wooden cylinder. It was light—hollow, but not empty.
He flashed the golden sun in the direction of the man in the shadows. "This it?" he asked.
"That is it," the inside man affirmed.
Bendoko wondered who wanted it. But it was none of his business.
"Should I give it to you?" he asked.
"No, no," the voice said gently. "Continue with the original plan."
Bendoko shrugged. Meeting the inside man hadn't been part of the plan—or maybe it had. Mendu couldn't be expected to tell him everything. Bendoko dropped the scroll case into the shopping bag on his back and pulled the drawstring.
Before putting away his picks, he locked up the cabinet. It was always best to hide the theft if possible. People didn't come looking for things they didn't know were missing.
"I'm going out the way I came in," he said to the darkness. "Do you need help getting out?"
"I shall be fine," the inside man assured him.
"All right then." Bendoko could have added, "Nice meeting you," but it hadn't been—and anyway, he didn't think the inside man wanted to be met.
Bendoko made his way back through the labyrinth and up through the ceiling.
Alternate Sample (in case you want something shorter–1300 words)
Bendoko knocked on the door of a warehouse near the docks. Big sandaled feet shuffled on the other side, but no one opened for him.
"It's the Crane," Bendoko said.
The door opened. It had been designed to accommodate orange people, but the figure in the doorway made it look small. His muscular shoulders filled the width. His bushy-haired head brushed the top. Scant light leaked around his silhouette into the shadowy street.
Bendoko kept his voice steady and said, "I'm here to see Mendu."
Sunny Too-Tall shook his head—a gesture that reminded Bendoko of an irate ox.
"It's late," Sunny said. "I'm not going to wake him."
Bendoko glanced at the gauze-covered window that faced the street—the window of Mendu's office. It was illuminated.
"He's not asleep," Bendoko said. "He stays up all night counting his money. You go ask him. He wants to see me."
A voice spoke up from inside: "Close the door. You're letting out my air."
"It's the Crane," Sunny called over his shoulder. "He wants to see the boss."
Another huge pair of sandals shuffled to the door. Sunny stepped aside so his brother could get a look.
Tiny Too-Tall was a head shorter than his brother, but still plenty tall enough to look down on Bendoko.
"The boss doesn't do business this time of night," Tiny said. "You know that."
"He sent me to fetch something," Bendoko said. "He told me to bring it here as soon as I got it."
Tiny looked up at Sunny and shrugged. "I got no problem with that," he told his brother. "You got a problem?"
"I guess not," Sunny said.
Tiny looked down at Bendoko appraisingly. "Now maybe the boss will have a problem, but if he has a problem then it won't be our problem. It'll be the Crane's problem, right?"
"I guess," Sunny said. "More work for us, though."
Tiny patted his brother on the shoulder. "You can handle it. He's skinny. It's not like heavy lifting."
Before taking up with Mendu, Tiny and Sunny had been shakers—they had made their living by catching smaller people and shaking them until their money strings fell off. It was the sort of terrifying, nonlethal assault that only oranges could pull off. Now that they worked for Mendu, they had a reputation for terrifying, lethal assaults as well.
Tiny disappeared into the warehouse. Bendoko didn't like being left alone with Sunny. The man's navel was at Bendoko's eye level.
"What are you wearing?" Bendoko asked.
Everyone in Sliceharbor wore a sari. It was easy to take off when you needed to swim, and it was easy to put back on—just pleat the skirt, wrap it around your body once or twice, and drape the excess cloth over your shoulders. A sari was loose enough to let the air circulate around your skin, and the flopping fabric would brush off mosquitoes as you walked down the street.
Everyone in Sliceharbor wore a sari, except that lately a lot of oranges dressed like Sunny. Sunny's back and shoulders were bare. In front, he wore some sort of scarf that wrapped around his neck and fell down to his round, orange belly. The end of the scarf was attached to a wooden ring centered on his navel.
The ring was big enough that Bendoko could have put his fist through it. He didn't. He didn't want to be anywhere near Sunny's navel.
The bottom end of the wooden ring was secured by a strip of fabric that came up from Sunny's loincloth. Bendoko's observations stopped there. He certainly didn't want to know any details of Sunny's loincloth.
"I am wearing a mongzhi," Sunny said. "It is the traditional dress of my people."
"What people? Oranges wear saris like the rest of us."
"Maybe here, in the blue people's town. But in the Motherland, we wear mongzhis."
The blue people's town? Sliceharbor? Everybody knew that Sliceharbor had more orange people than any other port in the Republic.
From somewhere behind Sunny—and his skimpy mongzhi—Tiny called, "Let him in."
Sunny took a palm frond from its hook by the door and handed it to Bendoko. Bendoko brushed his mosquitoes off and handed the palm frond back. Sunny nodded and stepped aside.
The air inside the warehouse smelled sharp and tangy. Tiny and Sunny could create smells that drove away mosquitoes. It was a little bit of common magic that all oranges knew—like blue people's ability to sense water currents.
The door to Mendu's lamplit office was open. Bendoko stepped inside. He shut the door behind himself, glad to be leaving the presence of the Too-Tall brothers. Normally, he got along with oranges, but Sunny and Tiny had never been interested in getting along with anybody except Mendu.
Mendu looked like a skinny man who'd been given a fat man's skin. It hung loosely from his arms and his neck. His scalp—shiny blue in the lamplight—was wrinkled like wet laundry.
Fine hairs coated Mendu's jowls. Bendoko wondered how old he was. Blue men started growing hair on their faces when they reached their forties. Mendu's beard was white, which meant he was well over sixty.
Ink on Mendu's fingers betrayed the fact that he had been going over his accounts. But his desk was clear now—no ledger, and no sign of the money he had been counting.
"Job go smooth?" Mendu asked.
"Yeah, real smooth," Bendoko said. He dropped his shopping bag on Mendu's desk and took out the scroll case. "Do you have my money?"
Mendu held out his hand. Bendoko gave him the scroll case. Mendu examined it, turning the lacquered wood in his hands, running his blue fingers along the carvings.
"I have your money," Mendu said. "And I'll be keeping it a little while longer."
"Half up front, half when the job is done," Bendoko said. "I did the job. So give me the other half."
Mendu slapped the scroll case thoughtfully into his palm. "No, Crane, it looks like you did the job. But the job isn't done until my client says it's done."
"What does that mean?"
"It means I won't pay you until I've handed this off to my client."
"You said you have the money now."
"I do," said Mendu. "But how can we be sure this is the right scroll? Are you an expert on holy scrolls? I'm not. We'll have to see what my client says."
Bendoko chewed this over. "Your inside man said it was the right scroll."
Mendu looked up. "What inside man?"
"He was in the library," Bendoko said. "The scroll got moved after you made the map, and he showed me where it got moved to."
"I thought you said the job went smooth?"
"It did go smooth. He just, you know, gave me a little help ... to make it smoother."
"Did you see his face?" Mendu asked sharply.
"What? No," Bendoko said. "He kind of didn't want to be seen."
"You listen to me, Crane. You saw no one, got that?"
"Right, right. I didn't see him."
"Didn't see whom?"
"Ah ... no one. Because ... there was no one there to see?"
Mendu relaxed a little. "That's right. That's right, Crane. You did this job alone, because you're the best, right?"
Bendoko nodded. "Right."
That part was true at least. He was the best.
"Good," said Mendu. "Because—Crane, you're my friend, so I want this to be clear—if anyone hears that anyone was in on this job except you and me, my client can squish us both like bugs. Like bugs, Crane. He's that big. You got it?"
"I got it."
"So ... when do I get my fifty imperials?"
Mendu shook his head. "Come back tomorrow night. All right?"
Bendoko shrugged. "All right."
He didn't like waiting, but he knew Mendu would come through. Probably.