The knocking is what first roused Rory from sleep, a furious banging on the front door loud enough to wake the dead.
Rory knew that sound. It came from a heavy walking stick, one with a knob of gnarled wood on the end of it the size of a swollen walnut. Only one person used a stick like that.
He threw on his shirt and pants and rushed out of his room. His mum had already opened the door to reveal a large man dressed in a dirty plaid suit of red and green. His face was a lesson in scowling. A black bowler hat sat on top of his head.
“Rent,” he said brusquely.
Rory’s mum, whose name was Hilda Sorenson, feigned a smile—although if you knew her well enough you could hear her voice tremble. “Do come in, good sir. I’ll fetch you a cup of tea.”
The man, who was known as Mr. Bumbailiff, snorted once and stepped into the small house. Rory’s mum closed the door behind him and turned to her son. “Rory, some tea for our guest, yeah?”
Mr. Bumbailiff propped his walking stick against the side of a chair and sat down heavily. He glared at Rory as if waiting to be served. Rory grudgingly walked to the shabby kitchen and lit the coal stove, then put the kettle on.
It was a modest house with a sitting room in the front with a fireplace and an old piano, a kitchen in the back, and two tiny rooms upstairs. There wasn’t a bathroom, but a big copper tub sat in the kitchen for washing up. Unfortunately, they had to go outside to use what they called a privy. Rory didn’t like it, but it was all they had. Most of the people in Gloom didn’t have running water and had to use a well or one of the water pumps placed around town. Rory and his mum were lucky. Their house was right next to a pump, so it wasn’t too much trouble getting water to bathe in. But they still had to heat the water in a big pot on the stove first. All in all, living in Gloom wasn’t terribly comfortable.
Rory returned to the sitting room and sat down next to his mum on a well-worn couch.
“Well,” Mr. Bumbailiff said, peering around with an air of authority. “Place looks a bit shabby.” He ran a stubby finger across the armrest of the wooden chair he sat in. “Your lease states that the house must be kept free of dust and dirt at all times.”
“Yes, yes,” Rory’s mum said quickly, wringing her red-knuckled hands. “It’s just with my hours at the inn and the tannery, it’s hard to find extra time to clean.”
The landlord looked at Rory derisively. “What about him? He’s a big lad. Surely he knows how to wield a broom.”
Rory swallowed a curse in his throat. He had survived several visits from the landlord before and had always ignored his snide remarks. But today, Rory didn’t like the way the man made his mum cower in front of him. She was almost shaking with dread. They’d been late with the rent for the past two months, and now there were no more excuses. They needed money, and quickly.
The teapot whistled from the kitchen, but before Rory could get up to tend it, Mr. Bumbailiff glanced at his watch and then stood. “Never mind the tea,” he said. “I have a full schedule today and I can’t be running late.” He paused and raised a bushy eyebrow. “So . . . the rent.”
“Yes,” Hilda said. “One moment.” She looked to her son, and Rory saw that her eyes were wet. “Rory?”
Rory ground his teeth. He hated seeing his mum humiliated like this. With a withering glance at Mr. Bumbailiff, he stood up and walked back to the kitchen. He took the kettle from the stove and set it on an iron trivet, then removed a framed painting from the wall and placed it on the table. The picture was of no consequence, only a muddy watercolor of Quintus Harbor at dawn, but behind it, there was a loose brick. Rory pulled it out with a scrape and set it next to the painting. He reached inside the dark hole and retrieved the money jar, then opened it up and counted. They were short, but it would have to do. There was no other way around it.
Back in the sitting room, Rory stood in front of the landlord. He wanted to throw the money in his scowling face but instead held it out to him, as if offering a slice of cake. “Here you are, sir.”
Mr. Bumbailiff snatched the bills from Rory’s hand. Now Rory really wanted to punch him. The landlord raised his right hand to his mouth and licked his thumb. “One,” he said, counting the first bill. “Two . . .”
A minute later, after he had counted the last bill, he released a heavy sigh. “Seems you’re still a bit short,” he said, then looked to Hilda. “I’m afraid I can’t extend my generosity any further. You’ll have to pack your things. You have till tomorrow morning.”
Rory’s mouth dropped open. His mum stared at the floor, defeated. She seemed suddenly so much smaller to Rory at that moment, like she had shrunk into herself.
Rory bit back his anger. “Please, sir. We can get the rest. I promise. Just another few days and we’ll be all square.”
Now, as Rory said this, he had no idea where he was going to get the money, but he had to do something. Anything. His mum raised her head and glanced at him. “He’s right,” she said, holding back tears. “Just another few days. I’ll get another shift at the inn. You’ll see. Just a few more days, good sir.”
Mr. Bumbailiff was now in his element. He seemed to enjoy making people squirm. He stuck his thumbs in his suspenders and leaned back a bit. “A few days, you say?”
“Yes,” Rory and his mum said at the same time.
The landlord exhaled a wheezy, rattling breath. “One week,” he declared. “With interest. If not, you’re out. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Hilda said. “Thank you, sir. We won’t let you down.”
Mr. Bumbailiff shook his head and picked up his walking stick. Rory wanted to clobber him with it. The landlord turned for the door, then slammed it shut behind him without so much as a backward glance. The sound echoed in the air for what seemed like minutes.
Rory’s mum turned to him, her eyes red-rimmed.
“What do we do now?” she said.