“There’s another one!”
“I’ve got her, Cecile. You take the old gent with the suspenders.”
Charlie threaded his way through the crowded market, his eyes fixed on the spider brooch that identified his next mark, a tall woman in a green dress and broad-brimmed hat. Her white-bleached hair cascaded across her shoulders in a network of complicated braids threaded with colorful beads.
Two more packages to go. His worry over the parcels he’d squashed in the corridor was a faint memory now. This was so easy it was almost fun. No fear of getting caught stealing when he was giving items to the marks, no need to continually check the exits, and no nagging from Smith afterwards about his technique.
He felt more grown-up without Smith and Kate watching him like a pair of sentry beetles. They still treated him like a baby, and he was one of the oldest. It wasn’t fair. Maybe I’ll get a little more respect now, he thought, as he drew up behind the woman and slipped the chilly package into her shopping bag with a grin. By the time she noticed the extra weight, he’d be off to the next mark.
As he turned to dart away, something tugged at the corner of his vision, and he paused for an instant to look. The woman in the hat wasn’t alone. Her other hand was clasped by a girl about Charlie’s age, dressed in a frilly green frock that matched the woman’s in miniature. She looked familiar, but he couldn’t quite…
The memory came into focus. “Sophie? Sophie Wander?” She was from one of the other orphan gangs, and they’d bumped shoulders more than once in the marketplace. Charlie’s excitement overcame his caution. “I can’t believe it…you’re an Oliver!” Smith was always talking about the lucky few that caught the fancy of a rich family and got themselves adopted, like in the story, but to actually meet one, and somebody he knew—it was like a window into heaven.
The girl stared back at him without a glimmer of recognition, or emotion.
“Sophie? It’s me, Charlie Lone! We were nicking pretties together in this very spot not long ago, remember?”
No twitch of a smile, no widening of her eyes. It was as if she was looking right through him. Then, he noticed the faint line of stitch-scarring at her hairline, and the barely-perceptible spiderweb of slender wires beneath the skin of her neck and on the backs of her arms and hands. He was suddenly cold all over.
She’s a Frankie doll.
Another story come to life. The orphans told this one to each other in whispers as they shivered beneath their shredded blankets at night. This is what happens if you’re not careful, if you don’t follow the rules, if you’re bad. This is what they’ll make you.
The tall woman noticed him now, and her mouth twisted in disgust. “You’ve run your errand, little guttersnipe. Get out of my sight.” She tugged on Sophie’s arm. “Charlotte, dear, come along. Pay him no mind.”
“Yes, mummy.” Her voice was as lifeless as her eyes.
He stumbled away in the opposite direction, trying to make sense of what he’d just seen. He delivered his final package in a daze, not even trying to make the delivery smooth and silent. The mark shoved him away with a curse, and Charlie staggered toward the nearest exit, pushing back against an overwhelming urge to run, run, run to someplace dark and silent and safe where he could hide.
A pair of rough hands seized his shoulders and flung him into the iron grasp of a burly man wearing an Enforcer’s uniform. A damp cloth muffled his screams and metal buttons pressed painfully into Charlie’s face as he struggled in vain to free himself. The pungent, syrupy odor of whatever was soaking the cloth drained his strength, and his legs sagged beneath him. His ears began to buzz, but he could still hear voices, harsh and gravelly, from far, far away.
“This is the last one?”
“Yessir. Delivery of all packages, plus ten expendables for the lab or dollworks, as appropriate. I’ll take my payment now, if you please.”
“You’ll be paid once delivery is confirmed by the clients and the expendables are re-purposed. Not before.”
“That wasn’t the deal I made with…”
“Shut up! Don’t speak his name here. It’s the deal you’re getting. Be grateful you have your freedom. He doesn’t like loose ends.”
“If I’m not paid, boyo, he’ll have a lot more than loose ends to worry about.”
There was more, but the buzzing was so loud now, Charlie couldn’t make out the words.