Lost boy, p.1
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       Lost Boy, p.1

           Wendy Spinale
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Lost Boy







  The smell of cinnamon and baked apples fills the air in the Boudin Bakery and Confectionery Shop on the east side of London. I navigate the aisles of warm breads, fresh biscuits, and fruit tarts, stuffing the pockets of my green coat as I go. The bustling crowd at the counter shields me as I nick the baked goods undetected.

  I round the corner and stumble upon anise-flavored lollies, my twin sister’s favorite treat. Although my pockets are full, I manage to fit in a few for Gabrielle.

  A dark-haired boy no more than five years old turns to watch me shove the last few treats into my pockets.

  “Thief! It’s a thief!” he yells. “That boy stole sweets and—”

  I grab him, slapping a hand over his mouth. “Shush! For someone who has pockets bulging with butterscotches, you oughtn’t be throwing anyone to the wolves.”

  The boy struggles in my grip before he sinks his sharp baby teeth into my flesh. I wrest my hand free, wincing. He’s broken my skin, and blood seeps from two of the tooth marks.

  “Better you than me,” he says, kicking me in the shin. He dashes toward the front of the bakery, leaving a trail of wrapped candies behind. The bell jingles as he shoves the glass door open. I give chase, catching the door just before it shuts. But the boy is gone, dodging through the crowded street and disappearing around the corner of a brick building.

  When I glance back, all eyes are on me.

  “Thief!” Mademoiselle Payne shouts. She snatches up her rolling pin and hobbles from behind the counter, her buxom form nearly toppling customers as she barrels through the crowd.

  The constables know me all too well already, and the last thing I need is to be thrown in the clink today. I dash into the square teeming with shoppers, ducking between horse-drawn carriages and the occasional gas-powered motorcar driven by the wealthiest of society.

  I run east toward Victoria Park, leaving Mademoiselle Payne cursing in her native French behind me. Within minutes I find myself in the manicured grounds of one of London’s busiest parks. The innocent song of laughter rings through the air.

  A young girl, about eleven years old, leans against a hollowed tree, her arm covering her eyes as she counts. “Eighteen … nineteen … twenty! Ready or not, here I come!”

  She spins, her blond ponytail whipping in the air. She pauses for a split second before bursting into a fit of giggles. I follow her gaze to the courtyard, and a chuckle erupts from me as well.

  Gabrielle hides behind a gas lamp pole in the center of the promenade. As if that wasn’t already a terrible hiding spot, her wheelchair protrudes out on both sides, clearly visible to anyone who might be searching for her. She has our father’s humor and our mother’s heart—she truly encompasses the best of both of them.

  “I see you!” the girl shouts, racing toward my sister.

  Gabrielle spins her wheelchair in the opposite direction and tries to escape the clutches of her seeker. “You might see me, but you’ll have to catch me!”

  The young girl easily tags Gabrielle. My sister feigns disappointment. “No fair. Do you have speedy rocket boosters in your shoes?”

  The girl giggles. “My turn to hide,” she says, bouncing on her toes.

  “Okay, but don’t forget my only rule,” my sister says.

  “No hiding off the pathway because your chair isn’t a hover tank and your wheels might get stuck in the mud,” the girl says.

  “That’s right!” Gabrielle says, winking.

  A warmth fills my chest as I watch their interaction.

  “Don’t let her fool you,” I say as I walk toward them. “I’ve seen that chair go places even military tanks can’t go.”

  “Pete!” Gabrielle says, her eyes lighting up as she sees me.

  I give her a hug, then place my fists on my hips while shooting her a mock scowl. “I see how it is: I go looking for food and it’s all fun and playtime for you. Aren’t you supposed to be helping out here?” I say.

  Gabrielle blushes. “I needed a break, and there’s no one else here anyway.” She reaches for the rusted tin can in her rucksack and shakes it. It rings out as the coins jingle inside. “Besides, today hasn’t been all games.”

  She returns the tin to the bag, alongside the bamboo flute that once belonged to our mother. It was the one item Gabrielle was allowed to keep when we were taken from our home. Although the flute lacks monetary value, it is priceless to her. To both of us. Its somber song reminds me of the many nights our mother played it as we drifted off to sleep. These days Gabrielle uses it while busking for shillings or whatever small gift is offered. The stark contrast between its use by my mother and Gabrielle weighs heavily on my heart. While the flute brought serenity at one time, it’s now a harsh reminder of how much we’ve lost.

  “Who’s your friend?” I ask, nodding to the young girl.

  “Pete, this is Annabella. Her family is here picnicking,” Gabrielle says, gesturing to a well-dressed couple sitting on a blanket near the lake. The woman rests her head on her husband’s shoulder and smiles warmly as she watches us. My stomach rumbles as I take in the banquet of food laid out before them: meats, cheeses, bread, jams, and ginger beer. I can’t remember the last time I sat at such a hearty meal.

  Annabella notices my stare.

  “Be right back,” she says. She races toward her parents and carries on a conversation I cannot hear. Soon enough Annabella’s mother spreads out a cloth napkin and fills it with food. She gathers the corners of the napkin, pulls a green ribbon from her hair, and ties up the bundle. Along with a tin drinking cup, she hands the parcel to her daughter. Annabella kisses her mother on the cheek and sprints back to us with the package. When she places it in my hands, the scent of biscuits and the tin of mock turtle soup makes my mouth water.

  When I glance up at Annabella’s parents, they smile and wave. Emotions flood me and I bite my lip. Normally, people like Gabrielle and me, people with stained and tattered clothes who obviously have nothing, we’re treated worse than rodents. We’re spat upon, called vile names, and even beaten on occasion. Although we were once equal to the privileged, we’ve become the scum of the earth in their eyes. A drain on society in general. This kindness, this generosity, it is something I’m not used to.

  “Thank you,” I say, and my voice cracks.

  “Of course! We certainly won’t eat all of that food anyway,” Annabella replies.

  Overwhelmed with gratitude, I hand the bundle to Gabrielle, reach into my pocket, and pull out a handful of the anise sweets. Annabella’s eyes grow wide. I give three of them to the girl. She smiles brightly.

  “Lollies are my favorite!” she says.

  “Sweetheart! Time to go,” her parents call.

  She nods, rushes to my sister, and wraps her arms around her neck. “Thanks for playing with me. See you tomorrow?”

  Gabrielle returns the gesture. “Definitely! I haven’t had this much fun in ages.”

  The girl then hugs me around my waist. “Nice to meet you, Pete.”

  “The pleasure is mine,” I say, ruffling her bangs.

  She dashes off and joins her parents. They pack up their picnic and wave one last time before they stroll off, each holding one of Annabella’s hands.

  “Any chance I can get one of those?” Gabrielle says, gesturing toward the lollies.

  I hand her a candy and sneak a kiss on her rosy cheek. “Of course! Who do you think I got them for?”

  “That was awfully sweet of you to share them with her,” she says.

  “Are you kidding me? This food and what I was able to scavenge will satisfy the little ones’ hunger for the night. It was the least I could d
o.” I unload the baked goods from my pocket into Gabrielle’s rucksack. “Speaking of the Littles, do you think you can manage back home on your own? I have work in less than an hour,” I say, pulling my father’s pocket watch from my coat and checking the time.

  Gabrielle rolls her eyes. “Work? You’re a rat catcher, and frankly, I don’t buy it. Judging by the fact you come home with new stitches and bruises nightly, those rats must be gigantic.”

  I give her a lopsided grin and shrug. “East End rats are vicious.”

  “Likely story. Just be sure to give Doc my regards,” she says, her cheeks flushing.

  Although she denies it, Gabrielle has been sweet on the local physician for months now. I see it in the sparkle of her eyes, the shy smile when she mentions him. It’s the only hospital in all of London that will provide her therapy because no one caters to the poor, not even if their life depends on it. But Doc, already brilliant in his late teenage years, will humbly accept small trinkets or even a song on my sister’s wooden flute in return for his help.

  “Shall I let him know you send him kisses, too?” I ask, nudging her.

  “Farewell, little brother,” she says with a roll of her eyes.

  “Little? Do I look little to you?” I ask, throwing my hands in the air. “I’m only seven minutes younger.”

  “Seven minutes and forty-two seconds, to be exact. It still makes you my little brother,” she quips as she rolls her chair up the street.

  “Fine, but I’m wittier than you,” I yell.

  She doesn’t look back but instead tosses a rude gesture my way. Turning, I head in the opposite direction, pleased that I’ve gotten under her skin.

  * * *

  It’s only the third round of the boxing match, and the lure of my winnings keeps my adrenaline pumping. Sweat and blood sting my eyes in the humid underground saloon.

  Customers, mostly grown men, wave fistfuls of money, casting bets on who will still be standing by the end of this match. Girls dressed in corsets, short skirts, and fishnet stocking wait along the sidelines, hoping to earn a coin or two for the privilege of the company of the inebriated customers. A bat of the eye, a giggle, and if the chap is nice enough, maybe a kiss by the end of the night … or more. Other than the beer, nothing at the Rusty Crown Saloon is legal.

  Having handled two street rats, I am working on my third; however, they are not at all the filthy vermin I’ve told my sister they are.

  I feel rather than hear the crunch as his nose breaks beneath my bloodied fist. The sound is drowned out by the pulse of the instruments from the band and the shouting crowd that encircles us. Sweaty bodies push against one another, vying for a better view of the carnage.

  Ribbons of blood trail from my opponent’s crooked nose and the large gash on his brow. He swings wildly, missing my head as I duck. I take the opportunity to land a hard blow to his right kidney. Slipping my arm under his left shoulder, I throw three more punches. He howls, his legs quivering as they almost fail him. The crowd roars in approval, but it is only white noise. There’s no room for distraction. Losing focus for even a second can mean a total knockout. I, quite literally, cannot afford that. Only my breath and the rapid beat of my heart keeps my focus.

  Holding my arms and fists up to protect my face and torso, I let the poor bloke get a few hits in. Faking weakness, I grunt with each of his swings. The mob grumbles, and from the corner of my eye, I see money swap hands. They’re doubling down on him, hoping for a new winner. A few hold tight to their earnings, knowing that as the twelve-week champion, it’ll take a lot more than a few punches to knock me out. Amused, I let the boy—who is at least six inches taller than I am—land a right hook to my face. There’s no need to completely humiliate him. I’ll have his money by the end of the night anyway, but I can let him leave with his dignity somewhat intact … at least this time.

  My teeth rattle and my vision blurs as I stumble into the crowd. Hands and arms catch me and toss me back into the ring. My bottom lip swells and the coppery taste of blood fills my mouth. I spit, watching and waiting for the opportunity to land my final blow.

  The boy holds both fists in the air in celebration, unfazed by the blood dripping from several cuts in his dark brown skin. The mass cheers, ready to settle their bets, when I tackle him to the ground, straddle his chest, and slug him as hard as I can. It takes only one hit to knock him unconscious.

  The group roars and money flies between hands. The saloon’s owner, Sylvia, declares me the winner before she circles the room to collect our earnings. Music rises above the noise and girls line up at the bar, waiting for someone to buy them a drink. I help the unfortunate loser up from the floor while he struggles back to consciousness.

  “Nice right hook you’ve got there,” I say, holding out my handkerchief.

  He takes it, wipes down his face, and spits. A tooth flies from his mouth and settles onto the floor in a bloody puddle. “Thanks,” he says, offering me my kerchief back.

  “Keep it,” I say with a wave of my hand. “What’s your name?”

  “Robert. Robert Hode,” he says.

  I give him a firm handshake, disregarding the blue bruises and gashes on his knuckles. “Ah, yes, the infamous neighborhood thief, Pickpocket. I’ve heard a thing or two about you. What are you doing here getting your face tenderized when you could be out stealing from the innocent folks?”

  Pickpocket shoves the handkerchief into the pocket of his trousers. “The face tenderizing is because I thought it was high time you didn’t have an easy win. Seems I was wrong about that. And as far as the innocent folks … do you think those bankers, tax collectors, and bobbies are guiltless? Hardly. They’re swimming in money like it grows on trees, like manna from heaven; meanwhile, there are thousands who can barely afford the end of a loaf of bread. A handful of missing shillings isn’t going to put them out on the street.”

  Another boy our age wearing a brown derby hat hands Pickpocket a few coins. “Sorry you didn’t win, but here’s something for you.”

  Pickpocket shakes the coins in his fist and scowls. “You wagered against me, Pyro?”

  Pyro shrugs. “The odds weren’t in your favor, mate, and I wasn’t going to let us walk out empty-handed. I’m starving. Haven’t eaten a bite all day.”

  “Good call. Pyro, meet the record-holding champion, Pete.”

  Pyro holds a hand out for me to shake. “Everyone who’s anyone around these parts knows who Pete is. Nice to meet you,” the boy says.

  Pickpocket continues. “Pete, this is my right-hand man, Pyro.”

  “Interesting name,” I say.

  Pyro whips a modified flintlock pistol from his waistband, twirls it, aims at the ground, and pulls the trigger. I half expect the bullet to ricochet off the concrete floors, and I shield my face in anticipation. Instead, a spark flares and dies out.

  “When there’s a safe I can’t crack, which is extremely rare, Pyro here just blows the darn door off,” Pickpocket says, laughing. “However, that is always a last resort. It seems to draw unwanted attention.”

  “Check it out,” Pyro says, handing me the gun.

  It is extraordinary. It appears to be a normal pistol with an embossed metal barrel and wood stock. Having been sawed off, the barrel extends no farther than the flint. A small chamber is drilled near the firestone and is fixed with a lid. The compartment is filled with what I assume is gunpowder.

  “This is brilliant. Did you make this?” I ask, handing the gun back.

  “No. We know a guy who knows a guy,” Pyro says, tucking the pistol back into the waist of his pants. “Care to join us for a drink? I hear the beer here tastes like dirt, but it only takes one to put you in a good mood.”

  “That’s because it is made from dirt,” I say, laughing.

  Sylvia marches over and drops several shillings into my hand. “I heard that! Let’s see what everyone else thinks. First round is on the house,” she shouts, stirring the crowd into another round of cheers. She shoves the remaining
money into her black-and-gold corset. “What do you say, boys? Can I indulge you in a drink? My treat!”

  Pyro removes his derby hat and elbows Pickpocket. “That’s awfully kind of you, ma’am. We’ll take you up on your offer.”

  “Let the bartender know what you want,” Sylvia says with a tilt of her head toward the curvy woman pouring beer and gin.

  I drop a few shillings in the pocket of Pyro’s waistcoat pocket. “The second round is on me. Your buddy here certainly earned it.”

  Pickpocket grins, exposing a gap where his tooth once was. They both thank us and find themselves a couple of stools at the bar.

  “How about you, slugger? Care for a pint?” Sylvia links her arm through mine. Although she’s at least ten years older than my sixteen years, she has no qualms about flirting with me. The boxing matches are my livelihood, my only hope to get out of the dire conditions my sister and I live in. If the authorities knew of the illegal activities going on, Sylvia’s bar would be shut down. In a year, Gabrielle and I will age out of the orphanage and be on our own. Without the earnings we’ve been saving up, we’ll be left to rot out in the streets, not that that is much better than our current living situation.

  I kiss her cheek. “Thanks, Sylv, but I’m going to pass tonight. I should get back home to Gabrielle.”

  Sylvia grins. “What you should do is bring that sister of yours in. I can probably put her to work as well. She’s got a sweet face.”

  She says it as if that’s the one thing that my sister has to offer to anyone. Like her “sweet face” is the only way for her to make a shilling. I’m not sure what angers me most: that she doesn’t recognize there is more to Gabrielle than her beauty, or the offer to make her a lady of the night. Peering at the bar, my stomach turns imagining my sister in her wheelchair with the rest of the young girls here, giggling as men slip wandering hands around their curvy bodies. My throat burns with hot bile.

  Holding back the slight flare of annoyance, I bite my bottom lip, reminding myself Sylvia is not a person I want to upset. She is my bread and butter.

  “Thanks, Sylvia. I’ll let her know about your offer,” I say, feigning a slight smile.

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