Maverick shut the door to the shop and leaned back with a grin. That poor girl had no idea what she’d just agreed to. Pops was a kind soul – somewhere under all his gruffness – and hopefully Damsel would get a chance to see it before she stabbed him with a lockpick. Which he wouldn’t put it past her to do.
He laughed and pushed away from the door, heading away from Pops’s shop.
By the grim expression on Firefly’s face earlier he thought it best to avoid her, so he turned away from the tent city and back towards the library. Jack was in no mood to be played with, either – Fletch had seen to that, the bastard. The smirk disappeared from Maverick’s face, replaced by a scowl. Jack had warned him to watch out for the worm, but had given no reason. Not that he really needed an excuse to stay away from Fletch, but he was curious. What was he planning? Maverick had seen his interest in Damsel – like a cat with its sights set on a mouse. Maybe he’d ask Mosh to keep an eye on the girl. Couldn’t hurt.
“Eat somethin’ you shouldn’t have, Mav?” someone teased.
He shook himself out of his thoughts and recognized Reason coming down the stairs towards him. She was giving him one of her smiles – the one like she was laughing at something he didn’t understand. He recalled a painting famous for such a smile.
“Aye, something like that,” he admitted, spitting to rid himself of the bad taste Fletch left in his mouth.
“Charming,” she said. A brown sack almost half her size nestled against her chest, .
“D’ya need help?” Maverick asked with a gesture to the bundle.
Reason glanced down at it, as if she’d forgotten it was there. “Oh, no thanks. Got a delivery for Pops is all.”
Maverick’s eyebrow rose. “The week’s haul?” Reason was the best pickpocket he’d ever met, but that was a good-sized bag.
Reason’s eyes lit up. “Today’s,” she corrected. “Teamed up with Lazybones and Hopscotch. You’d think people were just throwing their stuff down in the street.”
Maverick ran his hand over his mouth to keep his jaw closed. “Were they just throwing them down in the street, lass?” he asked.
Reason winked. “Turns out people stop paying attention to their prized possessions when something more important catches their interest. It’s like fishing for hobos out there.”
“Why? What’s happened?”
“Elroy Masters Senior – you know, the Investars guy? He was murdered about an hour ago.”
Maverick snorted. “It’s no’ every day the Tracks stoop to our level.”
Reason leaned in. “I bumped into Rumour in the crowd. She says the Sisterhood might be involved.”
Aye, that made more sense. Masters’ death also meant chaos was about to erupt in the Golden Tracks, and even the Shadows would have to brace themselves for the earthquake. Maverick wondered if Jack knew. Foul mood or not, they needed to talk.
“Pops is with the new recruit,” Maverick advised, gesturing towards the shop. “Feel free to brag as much as you like. Damsel needs something to work for.”
“Already got an earful about the new girl from Firefly. Can’t say it was friendly. Colour me curious.” Reason’s secret smile came back. “See you topside sometime?”
“We’ll hunt together, just like the old days,” he promised.
Reason shuddered. “I hope not. You were awful in the old days.”
“Bah.” Maverick waved her away and continued on, a smile back on his face.
Back down the hall towards Jack’s room, he nearly tripped over Pipsqueak who was running the other way as if afraid of getting caught. Maverick grabbed him by the collar and yanked him back.
“You been sneaking round Jack’s room, lad?” he asked. It happened from time to time. Jack wasn’t one to hoard, but didn’t share what he thought was his, either. Now and again the thieves liked to see how far they could go.
“N-no, Maverick, of course not,” Pipsqueak squeaked. Sweat beaded on the boy’s brow and his tongue flicked through his missing teeth over dry lips.
“Give,” Maverick said, holding out a hand.
Pipsqueak’s mouth tightened, his eyes narrowing into suspicious slits. Maverick recognized that look, too – the one that said Squeak wasn’t about to share his loot with no one, not even him.
Maverick tightened his grip on the boy’s shoulder. “You can either show me what you got or I can dangle you by the ankles until it falls out your pockets. Decide fast.”
Another moment’s hesitation and then Squeak gave in and dumped the can in Maverick’s palm. Tinned meat. Certainly not something Jack would have hoarded and not something that would have been found in Greylands anymore.
“Where’d you find this, lad?” he asked, curiosity piqued.
Pipsqueak spat and jerked his head towards Jack’s closed door. “Dieb gave it to me, for taking him to Jack. I earned it. It’s mine.”
Maverick cocked an eyebrow. “Aye, you think so? You’ve been in the Shadows long enough to know: nothing belongs to anyone. We take what we get.” He flipped the can in the air and gave Squeak a wink. “Thanks for dinner.”
He sensed Pipsqueak’s open-mouthed stare as he turned towards the door, tossing the tin again. The boy mumbled something and the worn soles of his sneakers scraped the ground as he walked away. With a chuckle, Maverick turned back.
“Hey, boy,” he said. Squeak stopped and spun on his heel, glaring. Maverick tossed the tin towards him and Pipsqueak caught it with both hands. “Make sure to share it with a few of the others, hm?” Pipsqueak nodded and fled.
Maverick pushed into Jack’s room, where a disheveled man with sunken unshaved cheeks and a tattered rucksack had just reached the door. He gave Maverick a nod and then disappeared into the darkened hallway. Maverick stared after him before turning towards Jack, who stood in front of the fire.
“What’d the scavenger want?” he asked.
Embers popped and sparks flew as Jack gave the logs another poke. “Some locked door in the Corpse caught his interest. He wanted to trade pistols for explosives.”
Maverick yawned, poured himself a drink and settled himself in a corner chair, propping his feet up on the sidebar. Jack’s mouth twisted, unimpressed, but he refrained from saying anything. “Best of luck to him. Nice he’s found a hobby. What did you give him instead?”
“Dingo. If he’s right and there’s something worth taking, I’d rather we got it first.”
“And if there’s nothing behind door number one?” Maverick asked.
“Dieb never comes back empty-handed. He either brings back what’s in that freezer or he’ll find something else. He knows he’s not getting back into the city otherwise.”
Maverick shifted in his chair, pushing away the creeping desire to go with Dieb to the Corpse. Not to dig for garbage, he had no interest in that, but getting out of the city would be a nice change.
“You heard about Masters?” he asked, swirling his drink in his glass and lifting his gaze to stare at the back of Jack’s head. Jack nodded, set down the poker, and threw himself in his oversized stupid joke of a throne chair. Actually, it was a lovely piece of furniture, but looked ridiculous in the slums. And wasn’t very comfortable, Maverick knew.
“It’s not good, Mav,” Jack replied.
“Could lead to nothing. Why worry?”
Jack’s expression softened. “That’s the difference between you and me. Always has been. You joke and I worry. If either of us ever stopped doing what we do, the balance of everything we’ve worked to build would crash down around us.”
“Ach, you give yourself too little credit, brother. I’ve seen you laugh once or twice.” He took a sip of wine and smiled over the rim of his glass. Jack sniffed a chuckle before the amusement drained away and his regular sternness returned.
Maverick took another sip, letting the sweet bitterness prickle his tongue before he swallowed. Jack was happy to pick at the paint chipping on the arms of his chair.
“What do you know of this new girl?” he asked after a time.
Maverick groaned. “Not you too.”
Jack’s eyes narrowed. “What?”
“First Mosh trotting after her like a puppy, and then Fletch can’t keep his eyes off her. Firefly’s about to force a cooking knife into her throat, and no mistake. What’s your interest?”
Jack raised a shoulder. “At first it was just Fletch’s interest that interested me. Now…I don’t know. She seems familiar somehow.”
“Met her before have you?” Maverick joked. “Stopped by to say hi after her Pa was shot?”
“You’re an asshole. You know this.”
“All too well,” Maverick agreed.
Jack’s mouth twisted. “You’re interested because she’s pretty – don’t fault me for being curious. It’s probably nothing, she just reminds me of every other pathetic story that’s come through the Shadows.”
“Who knows? All I know is that if it’s something he wants, it’s probably best he doesn’t get it.”
“On that, brother, we agree,” Maverick said and lifted his glass in a toast.
He decided he would keep his own eyes on Damsel. He had another job for Mosh.
Pops did not believe in half-measure training. On the first day, he kept Alexis at the same lockbox for five hours (“We’ll start you off easy,” he’d said) until she finally heard a satisfying click and opened the box to find a smaller one inside. Repeat.
Once he’d determined she wasn’t useless at the smaller tasks, he started her on sewing.
“Seriously?” Alexis was uncomfortable enough about the lockpick; a sewing needle was something else again.
Pops reached for a hefty knife on the second shelf of his weapons collection and twisted it in his palms, running his thumb along the edge to test its sharpness. “You questioning my teaching methods?” he asked, voice slow and clear. Wide-eyed, Alexis shook her head, not sure whether to laugh or scream. “Good,” he said and pointed the blade towards a square of brown sack canvas. “Then sew that into a bag before I decide to stitch up yer mouth.”
The first half of the second day was spent working on the heavy canvas. It was boring, and took three tries to meet Pops’s expectations on the evenness and tightness of the stitches, but once done Alexis felt a flutter of accomplishment. Then Pops had handed her the knife.
“Now cut it apart at the seams,” he instructed, and Alexis set to work destroying what she had created.
That afternoon Pops switched tasks again and led her to the gymnasium of an abandoned high school. Bull was waiting for them.
“Surviving doesn’t only mean street smarts,” Pops explained as he wheeled into the room. “There are kids – both in the Shadows and out – who’ll slit your throat for rotten fruit. You don’t learn how to guard yourself and fight back, you may as well kiss your life goodbye.”
Bull approached them and Alexis’s thoughts jumped to the last time she had seen him, two days ago when he and Mosh had brawled in the street to save her life, how he had grabbed her before she’d fallen into the subway tracks.
“This boy, here, he fights. Best fighter in the Shadows. He’s now going to beat you silly.”
“What?” Alexis barely had time to ask before she was doubled over at the waist, the imprint of Bull’s fist in her stomach. She gasped for air and then there was a foot behind hers and she was flat on her back, seeing stars as her head bounced against the floor.
The ear-piercing squeak of Pops’s trolley came closer and four of him looked down on her.
“Appreciate I’m not doing sleep dep training at the same time,” he said, “but don’t test me. Can’t say I didn’t warn you this was coming.”
Bull extended a hand and Alexis eyed him warily, choosing to help herself to her feet. Pops barked a laugh. “You learn quick, Goldie. There’s not a single person in the world you should trust. Most are as likely to kill you as help you.”
As if to prove it, Bull then came at her with a knife.
Since then, her mornings had followed the same routine. She would meet Bull and Pops in the auditorium, and Bull would teach her how to block his attacks and come at him while Pops yelled from the sidelines to pick up her feet and not get dead. Once he deemed her sufficiently bloodied, he would call it quits and put her back to sewing, always with the same sheet of canvas – putting it together only to take it apart again.
After a week, Alexis had had it. She groaned and tried to roll onto her back, every muscle she had screaming in agony. She wanted to lie still and never move again – ever – but the giant subway clock ticked away the seconds until she had to go, so she knew she’d better start sitting up. It would take a while.
There was a giggle next to her. “Oh boy do I remember those days. I gotta say, I don’t envy you.”
Alexis grunted and rolled another few inches. Her ribs argued. “You’re welcome to join us,” she offered. “I’m sure Bull wouldn’t mind teaching you some new tricks.”
“Thanks, but I’ll keep my skills where I have them.”
A last exertion and Alexis collapsed onto her pallet with a sigh of relief, staring up at the folds of her tent. It hurt to blink.
“Here, you’ll need this.” Reason passed over half an apple and Alexis took a half-hearted bite.
Fifteen minutes after Alexis had been introduced to Pops, Reason had knocked on the door of the shop, unloading a large sack of wallets and purses.
“It’s not my birthday,” Pops had said, wheeling over to the counter to see what the girl had brought. In a swift movement that went against his age and lack of legs, he pulled himself onto the surface of the counter to rifle through the swag. He waved Alexis closer.
“See here, girl. This is what you’ll be expected to do in a matter of months if you pay attention and learn quick.” He paused and continued to peruse the pile. “Well, maybe not quite this much. Golden shit, Reason, you threaten the whole city?”
The girl named Reason grinned. “Something like that. Hi, you Damsel?” She offered her hand for Alexis to shake.
“Alexis,” she corrected.
“Not anymore,” Reason lamented. “Down here, names only create connections with people, and there’s no point for that. Still, you probably need a place to stay, huh?”
Alexis hadn’t thought about where she would sleep. After everything that had happened, she didn’t think she’d be able to anyway.
“You’ll come stay with me, then. If Pops gives you the chance. Just down the stairs here, third hovel to your left.”
“One of the nicer ones, too,” Pops snorted.
“I do what I can,” Reason replied with dramatic flair. “It’s just so hard when your neighbours don’t wash the linens or pick up after their rats.”
Pops patted her on the arm. “There there, m’dear. With his collection, Jack’ll move you up a tier, you’ll see.”
“Don’t put ideas like that in my head, I might never look at my tent the same way.” She winked and gave Alexis another smile. “Best of luck today. Be strong.”
Without further explanation, Reason had left and the truth of her words became clear. When Pops finally released Alexis for the night, she had stumbled to the tent and fallen asleep within seconds. Reason didn’t seem to believe in friends, but since then they had gotten to know each other, and Alexis was grateful for the female companionship. Firefly still seemed to hate her.
“What are you working on today?” Reason asked.
Alexis groaned again. “Same as every day: not getting killed. I think Bull’s actually trying.”
Reason laughed. “You ever see him fight for real? He’s treating you like a kitten. As a tip, go for his left knee. Bout a year ago he hurt it bad and hasn’t been able to balance on it. You take out the knee, you take out the enemy.”
Alexis thanked her, but didn’t ask why Reason hadn’t felt the desire to share this information days ago. She raised her arm with effort to gingerly poke at the swelling around her right eye. Pops had assured her nothing was broken, but she wasn’t sure. “Does he really think this is the best way to train us?”
Reason shrugged. “It’s worked so far. Everyone who comes to the Shadows has to learn what they don’t know. When I first got here, I could sneak into any house in Greylands and take what I needed without being noticed. By the time Pops was done with me, I was a better pickpocket than I was a thief.”
Alexis had asked her once what she actually managed to pickpocket. At sixty dollars for a loaf of bread, it didn’t seem worth it to steal money. Reason had explained that no one trusted their important stuff at home anymore, believed it was safer to carry it around. Things like gloves and hats, sometimes even food. It used to be people would steal for watches and rings – now it was all about what would help them survive.
“I guess Pops’s been doing this a long time? He must know everything.”
“He gets help. Bull does the fighting, I’ll be helping you with the thieving, Squeak’s a great lockpicker.” Alexis remembered how quickly he had gotten rid of her handcuffs. “But yeah,” Reason continued, “he’s been ‘round a long time. Used to be a high school teacher. That’s where he met Mav and Jack.”
Alexis sat up with interest, ignoring the complaints of her stomach and legs. “He’s known them that long?”
Reason stared at her, gaze travelling across Alexis’s face before she said, “If you haven’t left now you’re probably sticking around, so I guess I can tell you. Not that it’s a big secret, but it’s also no one’s business who don’t need to know.” She took a bite of her apple half. “Maverick and Jack went to the same school, back when schools were still open. Guess they must’ve been nine or ten and they were locked at the hip, always getting in trouble. Maverick’s family lived next door to mine, so he and I, we knew each other pretty good. I saw plenty of Jack, but he always kept to himself. Only person he ever really seemed comfortable with was Maverick. Then, well, you know the story – schools closed for good, kids didn’t have no better way to spend their time, and their parents weren’t working. I started thieving to help my mother keep my brother fed, and Mav, he came with me sometimes. With him I think it was just for the rush. His parents were dead and his sister….” She paused, shrugged and continued.
“Anyway, Jack’s parents up and died with the fever, so Maverick took him in and the two of them near starved to death. That’s when they ran into Pops. He had joined the military, got himself a job guarding the Golden Gates. Something went bad one day and he got his legs blown off, lost his job and was staying alive begging for food. Mav and Jack found him – or maybe it’s safer to say Pops found them and started training them. Mav’ll tell you it was his idea,” she said with a smile, “but the truth is that the Shadows started with Pops. He was a teacher, he looked out for his kids. As things got worse, more kids started coming in. I was seventeen when my mother finally got too sick to help her and my sister, she’d starved a few years back. Maverick was there to introduce me and I’ve been here seven years now.”
Reason took another bite of apple and Alexis stared. After all the other woman had been through, she acted unfazed. It wasn’t the first time Alexis had thought it, but again she wondered whether Reason was a great actor, or twisted enough that she really didn’t care.
The double chime that marked the half hour sounded through the tunnels and shook Alexis out of the spell of Reason’s story.
“Best hurry. Pops has Bull work extra hard on the late ones.”
“Thank for the tip,” Alexis muttered, and pulled herself to her feet.
“Don’t forget this,” Reason added, passing up a canteen. Alexis strapped it to her belt, took a breath and headed out to her lesson.
Armed with Reason’s advice, she headed into the gymnasium with a bit of extra confidence. Bull was already waiting for her, as usual, but Pops was nowhere to be seen.
“Said to get started without him,” Bull said.
Alexis clenched her hands at her sides. “Fair enough.”
She lifted her chin to meet Bull’s eye. Training or not, she knew better than to let him think she was afraid. She pulled off her jacket and threw it aside to protect it.
There was no “fighting stance”, no bell to mark the start. Bull flew at her and she jumped out of the way. She saw the glint of a knife and knew he was playing dirty today, so she pulled out one of her own – a small four-inch switchblade she’d taken to keeping in her pants pocket. He threw an elbow and got her in the shoulder, her knife clattering to the ground.
With the handle of his, Bull got her across the left cheek and Alexis tasted blood. Spitting out a gob of it, she turned her head slightly to the right, the less swollen eye now. He was moving too fast for her to reach him, but she could see Reason was right. He was favouring his left side, keeping it turned away from her, balanced mostly on his right leg. If he was aware his left side was weak, it would mean he’d hurry to protect it.
So Alexis lunged for his left, aiming a pathetic kick at his knee. As she predicted, he moved to guard himself, and she swung a fist at his right ear. He staggered and shook his head to clear the ringing.
A moment of exultation and Alexis was ready with her next swing, only to be blocked, punched in the chest and cast down on the ground. She started a coughing fit to readjust her lungs.
Slow clapping sounded from the sidelines and she twisted her head to see Pops had finally arrived.
“That was garbage,” he said. “It was weak and obvious.” Alexis felt disappointment fall on her even heavier than Bull’s fist. “Bull, what were you thinking letting her get away with that? Good job, Goldie. You found his weakness and used it. Not a great way of going about it, but a good strategy.”
Alexis grinned from the floor and then winced as both her left and right cheeks shot pain up into her head. Bull reached out a hand to help her up and this time she accepted.
“Normally, I would reward your brazenness, and your stupidity with more bouts, but something’s come up and Jack wants to see you, boy.”
Bull nodded and headed off without a word. Alexis watched him go and turned to Pops. “Everything all right?” she asked.
He spat. “Only time’ll tell. Seems the Golden Tracks have started a bit of trouble for themselves. Take the day for yourself, but use your time. I’ll expect to see improvement when you step back in my shop.”
With her unexpected freedom, Alexis headed back to her tent. It was still only seven in the morning and she could use the extra sleep. Head still reeling from her first success – the first of many, she tried to tell herself – she didn’t see Mosh until he fell into step next to her.
“Shit on a cracker, Damsel, what’s Pops doing to you?”
Alexis spat out more blood and smiled with pride. “Kicking my ass. Only took a week, but finally got a jab in myself. Best to talk to Bull on his left side for the next couple of days.”
Mosh smiled back, but it was half-hearted.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
“I dunno,” he said.
Alexis wanted to urge him for details. Everyone knew more than she did and no one was sharing, but still Mosh seemed distracted.
“Maverick’s asked me to do something,” he got to the point, “so I won’t be around for while. In case you were looking for me or anything.”
“Where will you be?” Alexis asked, concern tightening her stomach.
“I dunno,” he said.
“Are you scared?”
“Dunno that either. Maybe I should be.”
Alexis stopped and took Mosh’s hand to give it a squeeze. He gave her a smile and squeezed back. There was so much of Jake in that smile. “You’ll be all right. Maverick wouldn’t have asked you to go if he didn’t think you could handle it.”
“By the look of you, I shouldn’t be worried about me,” he said. “Take care of yourself, Damsel. The world might be collapsing topside – wouldn’t want you to get crushed by the rubble.”