Chapter 1: Incidents and Accidents
Verone stepped out of the carriage and into Trifienne’s outdoor market amidst a sea of parasols and elaborate hats. Her signature gown, a study in steel grey and pin-stripes, provided stark contrast to the panoply of vibrant gowns that swirled about her. It also did wonders to downplay the less flattering aspects of her robust profile. Despite being festooned with a splash of gray and black plumes, her hat embodied all the femininity of a man’s bowler and did little to relieve the monotony of her ensemble. Neither did a parasol accomplish that purpose—she’d abandoned that conceit long ago in favor of a much more utilitarian attaché in finely crafted leather.
After a quick pat-down told her that her ginger-blonde hair remained confined within the bounds she’d set for it, she scanned for familiar landmarks, and started off toward her destination. She was, for a change, in high spirits, savoring the flawlessness of her plans as she prepared, at long last, to topple the domino that would finally set everything in motion.
The little patio café she’d chosen for this meeting was every bit as crowded as the market itself. Fortunately, she’d had the foresight to schedule a time that was half an hour earlier than she’d actually planned to arrive—she’d never really had much patience for such quaint plebian pastimes as waiting in queues.
Professor Dominick Everson had already arrived and laid claim to one of the tables scattered across the teeming cobblestone terrace. To his credit, it was one of the few that rested squarely within the dappled shade of an overhanging bough. Truth be told, Verone had never before laid eyes on anyone so thoroughly nondescript. Soundly middle-aged, he was of average height and possessed unruly hair the color of mud, an academic’s build, and just a hint of paunch. Normally he was merely unremarkable, but his propensity to make a spectacle of himself by waving excitedly to gain her attention made her cringe. She had to remind herself that his “refined sensibilities” were part of what made him so well-suited to the role he had unwittingly volunteered to play for her—well, that, and his affiliation with a clandestine band of heretics who had recently set up shop over at the University. After all, any complex scheme can benefit from a good, solid fallback position, and if it should come to that, who better to take the fall for heresy than an actual, honest-to-goodness heretic?
“Dommy, darling,” Verone said, as he pulled out a wrought-iron chair for her. “It’s so kind of you to meet with me like this on such short notice.”
Everson nodded, eyed the surrounding tables, and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I’ve been just dying to tell someone that I finally got that new spell you’ve been trying to teach me to work, and well, if you think about it, you’re the only one I really can tell.”
Verone adjusted her bustle to make the best of the outdoor seating, which would have been less-than-comfortable for anyone, but was particularly so for a woman of ample proportions. “Of course it worked, hon,” she said, “When brilliant teacher meets exemplary student, success is sure to follow.”
“I’m so glad I managed to find you,” he said. “I would never have come so far so fast working with my University group. Of course they’re worried about exposure, and who could blame them? I warned them that including undergraduate students, regardless of how carefully vetted, would incur undue risk, but as usual, they ignored my advice, and the entire enterprise suffers as a result.”
“And I’m so glad you’re making such progress!” she said. “Now that you’ve passed such a significant milestone, perhaps it would be a good time to discuss a little quid pro quo?”
“If you like,” Everson replied, “though you did say we could explore payment options involving services rather than money—you’ll recall I’m a bit cash-strapped at the moment.”
Verone settled her napkin into her lap and tried to catch the eye of the café’s harried proprietor as he passed by—to no avail. “I haven’t forgotten,” she said. “In fact, you’ll be relieved to know that I’ve come up with a way for you to bring your account current simply by making one tiny little delivery.”
“It’s not out of town, is it? I’m teaching, you know. I can’t get away for an extended period until next summer at the earliest. You weren’t expecting me to cancel any classes, were you?”
“Such a worry wart you are!” Verone said. “I would never dream of inconveniencing my sweetling like that. You’ll be relieved to know it’s a delivery to someone at your very own University…”
“That’s it? That’s all it would take to satisfy the debt?”
Verone shot him a sidelong look. “…in the middle of the night,” she added.
Everson did a double-take. “What?”
“And, in absolute secrecy,” she finished, slipping a large package out of her attaché. “No one must ever know you were there.”
Everson dropped his voice once more, and his right eye twitched. “What’s this all about?” he asked. “This isn’t going to be dangerous, is it?”
“You’re really going to have to try to stop being such a little stress-bucket,” she said, patting his cheek. “You’ll spoil your digestion.”
Everson rubbed his eye with the heel of his palm. “Answer the question, please. Is this going to be dangerous or isn’t it?”
“You’ll just be delivering this tiny little package to an empty building on your own campus in the middle of the night. I know it’s a little unusual, but really, how dangerous could it possibly be? Haven’t you ever been on campus at night before?”
“Well, I guess if you put it that way….”
“So, you’ll do it?” Verone asked, proffering him the package.
“And that will cover everything you’ve taught me up to today?”
“Every last little thing.”
“All right,” he said. “I’ll do it.”