by Fred Warren -
The corridor light was dim, but still bright enough for reading. Whatever soulless computer or bureaucrat controlled the day/night cycle in Avenir’s lower levels would soon throttle it down to a barely perceptible glow. Smith turned a page in his tattered copy of Oliver Twist and squinted at the tiny print.
‘Hush!’ said the girl, stooping over him, and pointing to the door as she looked cautiously round. ‘You can’t help yourself. I have tried hard for you, but all to no purpose. You are hedged round and round. If ever you are to get loose from here, this is not the time.’
Struck by the energy of her manner, Oliver looked up in her face with great surprise. She seemed to speak the truth; her countenance was white and agitated; and she trembled with very earnestness.
‘I have saved you from being ill-used once, and I will again, and I do now,’ continued the girl aloud; ‘for those who would have fetched you, if I had not, would have been far more rough than me. I have promised for your being quiet and silent; if you are not, you will only do harm to yourself and me too, and perhaps be my death. See here! I have borne all this for you already, as true as God sees me show it.’
Kate settled in beside him and pulled up her shawl so it covered her head and shoulders. “We’ve never before sent them off alone.”
With a sigh, Smith closed the book and stuffed it into the folds of his coat. “If they can’t manage a job this simple, they’ve no business going out at all, with or without us.”
“It’s not the job that’s prickling the hairs on my neck. It’s the partnership.”
“All Wallace cares about is the money. We have a deal. We help him smuggle his parcels, and he lets us be.”
“How very warm and cozy.” Her smile was acidic. “’Tis a glorious day indeed, when we clasp hands with the likes of Wallace Beadle.”
He wouldn’t look directly at her. “You think I’m enjoying this? I had no choice.”
“There’s always a choice, Smith. You taught me that. Your speciality is finding the choices nobody else can see. Since when do you give up so easy, or toe the line on a contract with a piece of filth without conscience or scruples of his own?”
“This is different. Peacekeepers are involved. I can crack Wallace’s skull if gets too high and mighty, and I can lead a few fat Enforcers a merry chase, but I can’t dodge Peacekeepers. Their resources are unlimited, and they have license to kill.”
“Fine. You were backed into a corner, with no other options, so you ducked your head and tugged at your forelock, for the sake of the children.” Kate stood up and gazed into the depths of the long corridor where they’d skipped away on their dubious errand.
“Something like that.”
She whirled on him. “And what of Wallace’s options?”
“I don’t follow you.”
“Put yourself in the wretch’s shoes for a moment. What’s your best option...your most profitable option? Surely not to honor the terms of your arrangement.”
Smith shrugged. “He’d gain nothing from betraying us. Orphans are a flea on the government’s backside. Plucking them from the corridors and taking them into custody costs more than ignoring them, no matter how much pocket change they nick.”
“It all depends on what you do with them afterwards, doesn’t it?”
Now he lifted his head and stared at her. “Do with them? You mean mad labs? Doll factories?”
“We’ve all heard the stories. It explains the missing.”
“There are better explanations for the missing than fairy tales spun to keep fractious children in line. If there truly was a black market in flesh, the Peacekeepers couldn’t let themselves be linked to it, and even Wallace wouldn’t sell children.”
“Wouldn’t he? I expect a dozen new Frankies would fetch a pretty penny. He was always joking about it, remember? ‘Rich folk want their pets obedient and housebroken,’ he’d say. Wallace gets a tidy bonus, and he cuts out your heart in the bargain.”
The words of Nancy, Oliver’s guardian angel, echoed in Smith’s head: I have saved you from being ill-used once, and I will again, and I do now.
He groaned. “I hate it when you’re right.”
Kate knelt beside him and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. “I’m not asking you to go back on your word, love, nor to put the wee ones at risk. Just take a quick look, to be sure. Make well and certain the slimy latchmaggot is keeping his promises.”
“What if we’re seen?”
“Ah, Smith. Seen? Have you sunk so low?”