The story, which starts in London on a snowy New Year's Day, is about two friends who are apprentices to pawnbrokers. Amos Coot, a sixteen year old in the fourth year of his apprenticeship, works for Mr. Thompson – Personal Banking on Moderate Terms. Jeremiah Snipe is apprentice to Mr Long – Loans arranged for Modest Security.
The two friends have been left in charge of their respective shops by their employers who have gone away to the country for the festive period. Both apprentices have been trained by ruthless employers. In Mr Thompson's words ' A pawner is a man in difficulties and a man in difficulties is a man in despair. Despair makes a man untrustworthy, it turns him into a liar, a swindler, a cheat'. He maintains that they always tell you they will return to redeem their item - that it is only a loan they are having. 'But like tomorrow, they never come' he adds 'So you watch out!'