He was my cousin and my father’s favorite apprentice.
Late at night when the fog was especially thick (which is to say every single night for many, many years) my father’s fakirs would slide down the chimneys of the grand and withdraw a few minutes later with a candlestick, a watch, a spoon, a brooch. When the thefts were discovered more servants would be sacked, more bellies would be empty and more children would crawl to my father pleading for work.
Each boy carried with him down the chimney a sack containing a hooded suit that covered him from his boots to his cap, and which he would don before leaving the fireplace. These suits were carefully cleaned betweentimes and were meant to contain the filth, prevent tracks and silence the feet. This was my father’s proudest invention. With it his boys could enter and depart with the stealth and ease of a fright of ghosts.
Among them all my cousin was the boldest. He slipped in past constables, servants, grates, flames and traps. He escaped with diamonds, banknotes and blackmail. He might emerge naked and covered with grease, pursued by ferrets, wildcats and snarling dogs—but always with his prize and always with evident obedience, fear and respect for my father, his patron.
His aunt—my mother, his master’s wife—blushed scarlet whenever he entered the room and was careful never to meet his eye. His uncle—my father, his master—was arrogant and secure in his dominion and so week after week, month after month—even his wife grew colder to him and began sleeping in the day—he was blind to the ghost in his own manor until early one morning when she could no longer contain herself and let out an operatic cry of ecstasy which shriveled my cousin’s penis and woke my father from his gin-soaked oblivion, deep in the dust of the parlor divan.
Perdix began to run, his scrotum shrunk tight as a fist. My father lurched to the kitchen and emerged with a carving knife. My cousin was already leaping across the rooftops. My father had taught him this game and still knew it well, no matter that he was old and full of gin. At last the night was free of fog. The moon and stars looked down, eyes wide, jaws dropped. The two shadows hurtled across the slate and clay, like fox and hound or mouse and wolf.
The house where the Earl kept his mistress had a court with roses, apples, pears and quince, and a marble statue of a maid and a faun that was more than the Earl’s life was worth, should anyone of finer sensibility ever learn of it. The court was the only break in the rooftops from the rookery to the park, and it was into this void that my cousin vaulted—though he should have known better; his trade, his training, his knowledge and his cunning should have proved a brake, should have stopped him from that awe-inspiring leap, his finely-muscled limbs scissoring into the clear (for the first time in memory!) night sky, and he fell—gracefully, silently, perfectly—and was impaled in a thousand places by the unyielding limbs of a comice pear.
I was born nine months to the moment the Earl’s mistress heaved her magnificent breasts and let out a scream entirely unlike that which had begun the deadly chase. My father’s (perhaps my father’s uncle’s?) pride never entirely recovered from his vigorous cuckolding, nor his fortunes from the loss of his very best fakir. His inventiveness however remained undimmed. He has just completed work on a pair of spring-heeled boots, with which I can escape from any pursuer, survive any fall, and which will carry our infamy high above London, above the world into the smoke-dimmed sun.