by Fred Warren -
Smith leaned against the corridor bulkhead and smiled as Kate ladled out stew to the queue of ragged children, each waiting patiently for their portion. It had been a good raid--enough meat, vegetables, and water to sustain his little army for a week, maybe two. Maybe they ought to try for blankets next time—heat to the lower levels of the Avenir station had been intermittent the past few days. They could stitch some of the material into fresh clothing.
“You’re a fool, Smith.”
He slid a hand toward the knife in his back pocket, then relaxed as the speaker emerged from the shadows. “Evenin’, Wallace. Come for a bowl ‘o beetle? Kate’s in top form tonight, and it’s as fresh as it comes.”
“Already ate. Better’n this slop.”
“I doubt that. State your business, or begone.”
“Why’re you still playing nursemaid to this pack of sewer rats when you could be second in my gang and live like a king?”
A toddler circumvented the line and went straight to Kate, bowl outstretched. She administered a mock scolding, then filled his bowl anyway.
Smith chuckled and pointed at the child. “I like them. Better than I like you.”
“Whuzzat?” Wallace snatched at the pocket of Smith’s coat before he could react, coming away with a tattered book which he held up for inspection in the dim corridor lightglobe.
“Give that back!”
Wallace grinned, revealing a row of discolored teeth, several missing. “As I live and breathe…Oliver Twist! I remember when the wizards came and passed these around. Waste of time. Hardly any of us could read.”
“Enough could. Some of us still teach the young ones.” Smith grabbed the book from Wallace and stuffed it back into his pocket.
“Rot and drivel, every word. But you believed it, didn’t you?”
Smith didn’t reply. He returned his attention to the children.
Wallace’s eyes lit up. “Aha, you still do! That’s why you won’t join up with me. You fancy yourself the Artful Dodger, watching over your band of adorable urchins. Do you line them up in the marketplace when the Welfare Society matrons come ‘round? Little tin cups and thumbs in their mouths, hoping some rich, barren hag makes an Oliver out of one of them?”
“Shut up, Wallace.”
“Now me, I always admired Bill Sikes. He was a man’s man, owed nothing to nobody.” He looked Kate up and down, running his tongue over blistered lips. “Saw something he wanted, he took it.”
“Sikes found himself dangling from the end of a rope.” Smith took a step to the left, putting himself between Wallace and Kate. “You keep mixing it up with the Peacekeepers, they’ll Frank you. You’ll spend the rest of your life with a head full of chips and wires, scrubbing toilets for those barren hags you despise.”
“You think they don’t do the same to the little cherubs they adopt? Rich folk want their pets obedient and housebroken.”
Smith seized Wallace by the collar and flung him down the corridor. “Get out of here. Don’t show your face on this Level again, unless you want it rearranged.”
“Last chance, Smith. Drop the apron, and be your own man. I won’t ask again.”
“You have my answer.”
Wallace straightened his jacket, locked eyes with Smith for a moment, and spit on the deck as he stalked away.
The children fed, Kate left the kettle to stand beside Smith as he watched Wallace vanish into the gloom. She slipped an arm around his waist. “Friend of yours?”
Smith shook his head. “No. Not any more.”