“Do you know anything about canals?”: a True Pretenses short story

True Pretenses content

To celebrate the release of Listen to the Moon (about a very proper valet and a snarky maid-of-all-work who marry to get a plum job), here is the traditional free short story about the characters of my last book, True Pretenses.

It’s probably no surprise to anyone that I’ve been reading a lot about Aaron Burr. He was in England in 1808-9, and I kept coming up with different crossover scenarios where my characters met him. A few weeks ago, I spent some time fantasizing about Ash and Rafe running a con on him, and when Courtney Milan and Jenni requested I actually write it, I couldn’t resist.

The story follows directly from this passage in Burr’s journal, when he “[l]ost or spent 28 shillings and a pair of gloves” in Birmingham on Christmas Eve 1808, on his way to Edinburgh. As it happens, Ash mentions in True Pretenses that he was in Yorkshire on Christmas Eve 1808—in Dewsbury, to be exact, where they ring a bell once for each year since Christ’s birth.

Dewsbury is just off the Great North Road, north of Birmingham and south of Edinburgh…

“Do you know anything about canals?”


February 1813

Ash made a sharp, sorry exclamation over one of the London papers. Lydia was secretly proud that he had started reading them, even if she knew he mostly scanned them for interesting names.

“What is it?”

Ash waited until their chambermaid Jenny left the room. “Aaron Burr’s daughter was lost at sea,” he said quietly. “He was…he doted on her.”

It was the last thing she’d expected him to say; she was so startled that manners deserted her. “Aaron Burr? The former vice president of the United States?”

Ash nodded.

“Aaron Burr who killed General Hamilton and tried to tear his country apart?”

Ash grimaced. “Did you not like him?”

“I never met him,” Lydia said in freezing accents. Lord Wheatcroft had made a point of avoiding Burr, which hadn’t been difficult as they didn’t precisely move in the same circles. But she remembered when the man had swanned around London on the arm of that unpleasant utilitarian Mr. Bentham, the one who kept trying to sell the government his cut-rate plan for managing convicts. “Poor Lord Liverpool was all a-flutter over quashing his absurd claim to British citizenship. The man went by Colonel, for God’s sake. Colonel in the rebel army!”

Ash looked into his coffee. “He loved his daughter, though.”

“I’m sure that was very commendable in him,” Lydia said more gently. “How did you know him?”

Ash laughed, and leaned over to whisper in her ear, “We stole his watch. Ask Rafe to see it next time he’s here.”

Excerpted from The Private Journal of Aaron Burr:

Dewsbury, December 26, 1808. Virtue is rewarded! While traveling outside the mail coach, made acquaintance with a young man, assez gal.1, tall and blond with something of John S. about the face.2 Loaned me his gloves when he learned how I had been relieved of mine, and told me of an interesting opportunity, of which more to come. Recognized me! Gave me a bad moment, but fortunately he was well-informed and well-disposed toward A.B. Conversed on paupers, prisons, etc. Education not of the best, yet ideas firm and often sound. Ignorant of J.B.3 May loan him my Panopticon.

1 Probably assez galant, courteous, genteel enough.
2 John Swartwout, one of Burr’s American associates.
3 Jeremy Bentham, Utilitarian philospher and friend of Burr’s, who wrote extensively on prisons.

There’s something about the passenger that draws Rafe’s eye. At first he thinks it’s just that the man isn’t dressed warmly enough. No muffler and no gloves! And that despite his brand-new rich man’s boots. To ride outside in December with no gloves—it’s like something Ash would do.

At least the sky is clear. Ash is much too fond of getting himself soaked to the skin so people will let him into their homes. He’s bound to get pneumonia sooner or later.

Rafe taps a finger against the wooden seat and mutters kayn aynhoreh. It’s no use worrying about Ash when Ash isn’t here, but he does it anyway, just to be safe. Complacency attracts the Evil Eye.

In the stiff wind, the other passenger pulls his white hands out of his pockets to blow on them. Rafe almost laughs. Instead he takes off his gloves and passes them over. “You can wear them for a few miles.”

The man looks directly at him for the first time. Rafe blinks. Below his scratch wig and high forehead, his eyes stab sharper than the wind: dark hazel, intent and piercing. Mesmerists get a similar effect with a lot of squinting.

“Thank you,” he says with an urbane little laugh. God save Rafe from gentlemen! “I lost mine last night. Or they were stolen, I’m not sure.”

A born flat, Rafe thinks with a rush of relief. He needs one; he’s supposed to meet Ash in Dewsbury tonight for a canal swindle.

Actually, he was supposed to meet Ash two days ago, on Christmas Eve, so they could hear a bell tolling together. But maybe Rafe dawdled just a bit, because he hates Christmas and Ash loves it, and anyway he hadn’t found a flat. Christmas ought to be the easiest time of year to swindle people without families, yet somehow even the lonely men in pubs just want to sulk quietly into their ale instead of gambling on a crooked business venture.

“Christmas Eve, eh?” Rafe gives a haven’t we all just misplaced things as though they didn’t cost money kind of laugh. It’s not as good as Ash’s. He can’t get round wanting to keep himself separate, to think Well I wouldn’t do that. Ash just lets himself dissolve in the stream and wash away, and somehow he’s always still there at the end of the day. Rafe isn’t sure he could manage that. He holds on tight to knowing he’s laughing for a reason.

“I’m afraid so. It was a celebratory evening.”

“Ranulph Bacon.” Rafe holds out his bare hand in a frank, manly fashion. He’s glad of his height, since the flat is more than twice his own age of twenty-two. Which is all to the good—it’ll help lull his suspicions—but still, it’s nice to be taken at least a little seriously.

“Thomas King.” King’s hand is swimming in Rafe’s glove, but his handshake is firm.

It hits Rafe: small, American, piercing eyes, going by the name of King…

Rafe’s been waiting. Ash laughed, Ash said he was mad, but he’s been waiting! Ever since that newspaper report: The last packet from America brought over to this country the celebrated Aaron Burr…

Rafe is going to make him pay.

He leans in. This is a risk Ash wouldn’t take, but Rafe thinks he can play it through. “Pardon me…are you Aaron Burr? Sir,” he adds when the other man—definitely Burr—goes rigid. “Only I’m such an admirer of yours.”

Burr relaxes a little, as if that does sound plausible to him. “I’m sorry, you must have me confused with someone else. My name is King.”

“Your secret would be safe with me, sir.” Rafe doesn’t have to fake suppressed boyish excitement. “A man as unfairly maligned as yourself—you’ve only ever done what needed doing, I think.” He glances down, then back up, bashfully. “General Hamilton—there was no alternative open to a gentleman.”


“Rafe hates dueling,” Ash explained. “Hates it. He says it was bad enough for the kids in gangs to scrap and knife each other, but we did it to keep from being knifed ourselves. Doing it just so someone won’t laugh at you—”

Something in his face made Lydia ask, “Did you ever kill anyone?”

“No,” he said. Too quickly? Suddenly Lydia wasn’t sure whether to believe him. She felt guilty that it didn’t matter. That maybe she’d just feel sorry for him if he had. “I came close once or twice, when we lived in London. Rafe—well. He was very taken with all that stuff in the newspapers about General Hamilton’s religious scruples, and how he forgave Burr on his deathbed. He was thrilled when they indicted Burr for murder, and furious when it didn’t go anywhere. He couldn’t believe that killing someone in cold blood was just allowed in America if you were rich enough. He wanted to take Burr for everything he had.”

Lydia sniffed. “Burr was a bankrupt. I heard when they arrested him and sent him abroad, he was hiding from his duns in the home of a poor woman he’d seduced.”

Ash smiled ruefully. “We found that out the hard way. He didn’t dress like a bankrupt, alas.” He poured chocolate into his coffee and stirred it, slowly. “And I think he was sorry about General Hamilton, only he couldn’t bring himself to say it after so many people had scolded him.”


Burr looks regretful for a moment, but only in a smug, ah, the cruelty of Lady Fate! sort of way, not at all strong enough for I shot a man who liked me in cold blood and I’m haunted by remorse. “Good Lord, that Aaron Burr. You don’t think it was a damned waste?”

Rafe leans in still farther, letting his eyes gleam. “The damned waste is you here freezing on a stagecoach instead of bringing freedom to Mexico.”

“Hush!” But Burr’s own eyes glint. “Mexico is certainly warmer this time of year.”

Rafe crows. “Then it is you!”

Burr hesitates—then smiles indulgently. “In the flesh. You understand why I prefer to travel incognito.”

Rafe knew he could get him. “I won’t betray you, sir,” he vows. “You haven’t given up, though, have you? On Mexico? They say you haven’t. If I could be of service to you—”

Burr laughs, basking in the admiration. “I shall let you know.”

It might mean he really will, or it might be a joke, and Rafe recognizes that passion for ambiguity. Burr is a swindler himself. Rafe heard all about his treason plot: Burr told each man something different. That the government was backing his scheme, that he knew war would break out with Spain, that he meant to stage a coup d’état in Washington, that he’d break the country in half. He took that flat Blennerhassett for everything he had—and why? For nothing. For the silver mines of Mexico. Rafe thinks Ash half admired the man, but as far as he’s concerned it’s a sad swindle that ends with you responsible for a whole country instead of off somewhere with the cash.

He wondered at the time, though, if maybe Burr did have the cash tucked away somewhere. If maybe things had gone exactly to plan. He tries to decide how much to take Burr for, at first.

“I don’t suppose I could be of much service,” he says with a sigh. “I can’t even raise the ready money for a small land purchase.”

Burr’s gaze sharpens. “What kind of land purchase?”

Rafe doesn’t smile. He looks about for prying eyes, even though they both already know they’re alone atop the coach and the driver on his perch can’t hear them over the wind. “Do you know anything about canals?”


“Unfortunately he knew a lot about canals,” Ash said. “How were we to know he’d served on the boards of two water companies?”

Lydia laughed and put her feet in his lap.

27. More of R.—B.—’s opportunity. Met with his brother, less than pleased to be dealing with unknown third party. We brought him round, however. If I can raise the money, a good thing may yet be made of it. Was busy writing letters all afternoon. I hope it can be sorted quickly, as I slept on the floor last night to escape bugs. Seeing the town required no more than two hours; mostly mills. There is a quaint Christmas custom of ringing the devil’s funeral knell here (one toll for each year since Christ’s birth), but we arrived too late to hear it and the rest of the year is given over to dullness. Cake, jelly, and custard for dinner, 1 shilling 6 pence; upbraided by R.B., who bought me a plate of collops as though I were the younger of the two. I was absurdly touched, thinking of home and you.4 Couch.5 at 2.

4 The diary is addressed to Burr’s daughter Theodosia.
5 For couché, went to bed.

Ash hugs him, genuine and delighted for a brief moment, and Rafe feels a rush of home safe happy. No matter how brief and backslapping Ash keeps the hug, it’s always so tight that for a moment Rafe can’t breathe.

Then Ash’s gaze slides to Burr, and narrows. “I told you to come. Not you and…” He waits impatiently.

“Mr. King, may I introduce my brother, Dashwood Bacon.” He’s still annoyed by this alias, but it made Ash laugh so hard he didn’t have the heart to object. And both their heads do turn instinctively at the word.

Ash’s handshake is just on the other side of rude. “Ranulph, can I speak to you a moment?”

He pulls Rafe aside in the busy tavern and intent muttering begins, Ash’s displeased and his own eager and cajoling. Rafe says, “I told him they’re building a new canal between Dewsbury and Goole to bypass some tricky places in the river, that you’re a clerk for Aire and Calder Navigation, that you heard of a man in town who just inherited a piece of land on the route from his mother and wants to sell it quick to pay some bills that came due on Christmas.” He can see Burr fidgeting and trying to decide if Rafe is sharing his identity.

“And how much do you want to take him for?”

“Don’t look in his direction or say it where he can see you, but that’s Aaron Burr. I told him if we can scrape together a hundred pounds we’re good, and that I’ve got twenty and you’ve got almost thirty. I think we might be able to get more out of him after, but let’s start there, since he’s traveling.”

“That’s Aaron…” Ash throws his hands up. “Or is he pulling your leg?”

“Careful,” Rafe murmurs. “He knows about canals. Sorry, I didn’t know. I want to take him for as much as we can in the end, the bastard corrected my spelling in the hotel register. Not to be unkind, but because he thinks I can do better.”

Ash snorts.

Burr’s mouth thins. Without a word he turns on his heel and strides out of the room.

Ash sighs. “Well, go get him back. I suppose I’ll have to grovel.”

Rafe runs after him. “Mr. King! What’s the matter?”

Burr’s fancy boot taps out an angry rhythm in the snow. “I didn’t come here to be insulted. I came to do you a favor, if you’ll recall.”

“It’s nothing to do with you,” Rafe says earnestly. “He wanted to keep the business in the family. He could lose his place if anyone found out he was going behind Aire and Calder’s back this way.”

“I’m very sorry, but I want nothing more to do with the business. Such twopenny schemes come before my eyes at a great rate, and I only consented to involve myself in this one out of a desire to be of service to you. If your brother doubts my word—”

Rafe thinks it’s pretty funny to take offense at someone doubting your word when you’re involving yourself in a plan to steal from his employer and buy something under false pretenses. “He knows you’re a gentleman. He’s just afraid. Please.”

Burr fusses with his watch. It’s a nice watch, new, silver. Rafe appraises it idly: worth eight guineas for the watch, another thirty shillings for the chain; they could sell it for twenty guineas to the right flat.

“This might be a twopenny scheme to a man like you”—he puts a little desperation in his voice—“but I’ve been scraping along on half-rations. We could sell this property for five times, maybe even ten times what we’ll pay for it. A chance like this could be the making of me, and I can’t do it without you.”

Burr’s eyes sear into him. “You ought to get a bigger share than your brother, for bringing me in,” he says abruptly.

Rafe blinks. “But he’s putting up more money than I am.”

Burr smiles. “Yes, but you’re putting up all the nerve, it appears to me. Since you brought me in, and you can’t do it without me, you ought to get something extra. I’ll draw up the contracts, if you like.”

Rafe hates him. “What if Dashwood objects?”

Burr’s good humor is restored now. “I don’t see he has much choice,” he says blithely. “Buck up. You ought to have a better notion of your own deserts.”

Rafe hesitates a moment longer before nodding. “You’re right. I’ll do it.”

Burr claps him on his determinedly squared shoulder. “That’s my boy.”


“Rafe had him eating out of his hand,” Ash said proudly. “Burr wanted to make something of him. Kept giving him advice on books to read and telling him to practice his writing. Made him copy out the contracts and corrected his spelling.”

Lydia grimaced.

Ash laughed. “Rafe hated it! You should have seen him, all wide-eyed gratitude and youthful determination to be worthy. The angrier he got the more he could smell Burr’s humiliation when we fed him turnips.”

“When you what?”

“Haven’t I taught you that one? To turn a man up is to get rid of him, and—”

“And to turn him up sweet is to do it so he doesn’t know he’s been had,” Lydia finished artlessly, smiling when Ash’s eyes gleamed at having corrupted her. “You did tell me that.”

“Well, ‘turnip’ sounds like ‘turn up’, so. Anyway, I apologized profusely. There wasn’t much he wouldn’t swallow in the way of flattery. Usually I keep a hint of suspicion so the flat can feel proud when they finally win me over completely, but he was so touchy I didn’t dare.” Ash smiled fondly. “He wasn’t wary enough to make it as a swindler, but his skills were better than mine, some of them. He had a gift for cheerfulness and he could listen like you were the most fascinating thing in the world. And his eyes…” He whistled. “They were like a shock of electricity. You wanted to please him, somehow. He got me to talk more than most flats before or since.”

“Not as much as me,” Lydia said smugly.


Ash waves his hand. “Oh, we bounced around from aunt to aunt. They were kind enough, but it’s not like having a home of your own.” They’re walking by Dewsbury’s narrow canal, congratulating themselves on its approaching obsolescence.

“I was raised by an uncle, myself,” Burr says. “There were quite a lot of us children. When I ran away at four, they didn’t find me for days.”

Ash chuckles, a little sadly. “Were you a good hider or was he not looking?”

Burr shrugs. “I choose to believe the former, as the explanation more flattering to myself.”

Rafe wishes he could smack both of them instead of laughing appreciatively.

Burr looks at the thin ice on the water’s surface. “My sister was away in Boston, at school.”

Ash’s eyes light up. “You have a sister?”

Burr puts his hands in his pocket and looks careless. “Alas, she was recalled to Abraham’s bosom. Ten or eleven years ago now.”

Rafe can see the sympathy go through Ash like an arrow. He’s such a sap. Every flat gets him. Every single one.

He’d take Ash’s arm, but he doesn’t want to make Burr jealous.


“Rafe thinks I’m a sap,” Ash said, “but he was sad. Sad and restless, and he’d done foolish things to try to stop feeling that way. I understood.”

You never tried to start a civil war,” Lydia couldn’t help pointing out.

“No,” he allowed. “But some folks are only at peace when they’re fighting.”


“I’ll mix it,” Rafe says, because Burr is going to spill the hot water and burn himself. He measures out the cream of tartar and puts a little sugar in, and won’t hand Burr the cup until it’s cool. He’s pretty sure it doesn’t really do anything for a hangover.

Burr has a tin tube in his lap. It holds a portrait of his daughter, which he showed to Rafe yesterday: a coolly smiling, confident girl with red-blond hair and a long nose that turns up at the end. Burr is talking drunkenly to the tube.

It makes Rafe uncomfortable. Go home, then, if you miss her.

“You’re a good lad,” Burr tells him.

Rafe smiles in his face.


“So he didn’t have the money.”

“He didn’t have the money,” Ash agreed. “For a couple of days he fooled himself into thinking he could raise it, because he needed the cash more than we did. But either we didn’t get him drunk enough or we got him too drunk, because he came to his senses and fed us turnips next day.”

28. Up all night with crem. ta. pun.6 Rose at 5 and spent three hours going over accounts. Tore out hair (peruke not yet on, alas!) and smoked 3 segars, but was eventually forced to conclude that I could not be part of RB—’s scheme. Scene as bad as expected; reproaches, decu7, etc. Parted friends however and drank each other’s health. 3 shillings. But my watch is lost. Have recollected that virtue is rarely rewarded. Searched 2 hours and even (hont.!8) accused the maid. Bought passage to Ferrybridge, 7 shillings (inside), thence to Edinburgh.

6 Cream of tartar punch, a hangover cure.
7 That is, déçu, disappointed.
8 Honteux, shameful.

All right, so it didn’t come off, that’s true. And he picked out a flat who was dead broke, that’s true too. But Rafe loves his new watch.

Thanks for reading! If you’re interested:

1. If you haven’t read True Pretenses and you’d like to, you can pick it up at:

kindle · nook · kobo · apple

2. Visit my True Pretenses DVD extras page for mini-stories, deleted scenes, Pinterest boards, and more.

3. Check out my other books!

4. Sign up for my newsletter to be reminded when I have a new book out.

5. Read my other free short stories.

7. To see free shorts like this before anyone else, join my Patreon!

8. Some historical links:

This is probably the portrait of Theodosia that Burr carried with him in Europe.

More on the Dewsbury Bells.

Aire and Calder Navigation canal system on Wikipedia. There was actually a canal rather like Ash and Rafe’s made-up one that was proposed about ten years later and built 1822-6, although in a slightly different place.

The Private Journal of Aaron Burr, covering his time in Europe (1808-12): Volume 1 on Google Books, Volume 2 on archive.org. Make sure if you read the Journal that you are reading the 1903 edition NOT the Matthew L. Davis version, which is heavily expurgated.

Aaron Burr’s attempt to claim British citizenship. Burr wrote this about Lord Liverpool’s reaction (Hawkesbury was Liverpool’s courtesy title before the death of his father):

At 12 called at Reeves’s. He showed me a letter from Colonel Jenkinson about my pretensions as a British subject. Dampier has given opinion that I may resume at pleasure, the Lord Chancellor, Eldon, that I cannot, and am forever an alien. The Attorney-General is doubting. Lord Hawkesbury thinks the claim monstrous. I begin to think the policy of this brusque movement very doubtful.

If there’s anything else you’re curious about, please let me know. ♥

Happy new year!