Pax didn’t really want to go home. It wasn’t, he thought, because it was such a bad home. No, it was more that, well, it wasn’t very good either.
He cut across a back alley, jumping across puddles and lumps of things he didn’t know what was, but which he knew he didn’t want to step in. It was very dark in this part of London, and one was better safe than sorry.
Gas–light had never made it this far into the East End, and the new–fangled electric lamps would never get here, of that Pax was certain.
If he ducked under the wooden fence at the end, he could sneak across old Packersby’s garden, and be home in a quarter of an hour. Best to take the other route, through the coach–yard. Shouldn’t be no–one there at this time of night.
He turned left to the longer road, but stopped at the alley’s opening. Outlined against what little light came through the perennial smog was something huge, and metallic. It looked like … yes! Pax approached carefully. A large metal leg, complete with knee, ankle, and huge, flat feet rested against a wall. A hansom; one of the new steam–powered ones with two squat, piston–powered legs. It looked broken, and amazingly abandoned for such an expensive thing.
The cab itself must have been hauled away for scrap, but somehow they forgot about the leg. Pax cheered under his breath. If he could just push it into the alley, and cover it with garbage, it’d be a great find to show Sparks on the morrow.
Pushing, and pulling, and cursing all that his twelve–year–old body could manage, Pax thought about his friend Sparks, and the gang of street–urchins the older boy led. It was more fun with Sparks than at home, but mostly, mostly it wasn’t so terribly alone.
Ghost would love the find more, he decided. The tiny girl — he was pretty sure she was a girl, under all the grime, and the oil–stained coveralls and heavy boots, and all the tools she always carried — loved machines more than she loved people. She never smiled at people. That’s why they called her a ghost, ’cause she didn’t seem alive unless she could tinker.
For a moment he thought that their gang, which never had a good name, not really, even if some called them Spark’s Specials, held more girls than was normal. It could be ’cause Sparks was, well, he was a little bit strange, wasn’t he?
Pax giggled, looked around quickly to see if anyone heard, and started to gather what garbage he could find, wrinkling his nose a little bit at the stench.
Just a little bit strange, he decided, heaping bits and pieces on top of the metal leg. It wasn’t so much the dress, or the other bits and pieces of girl’s clothing he wore. Sparks made a very cute girl, even Pax agreed with that. No–one knew why he dressed like that, but he was just so dam … darned nice, and no–one in the gang minded.
Actually, come to think of it, none of the other gangs Pax knew about minded either. He was nice, and smart, and always looked out for his family. That was Sparks, and if the sixteen–year–old preferred strange clothes, who was Pax to disagree?
Quickly brushing his hands on his trousers, he had to admit his own clothing didn’t look too proper either. They weren’t exactly rags, but once Dad started drinking two years ago, money was tight at home. Mum did her best, but Pax’ older sisters got the best clothes, on account of them working in an office and had to look neat.
Which is why Pax had started thieving’, and how he had run across the Specials and got invited in …
With a last look at the heap of rubble, Pax turned back to his route. The coach–yard was quiet, still, and he crossed at a run. Just a few more blocks to go, and he’d be home. It was very late, and he was tired. The day had been very long, but profitable. Mum would never believe the amount of money! Not that he’d tell her.
Skirting the shadows across from a brothel, in case the bouncer was still awake and looking to hit someone, he decided to just leave half the money at the bottom of her sewing caddy. Dad never looked there, and wouldn’t she be surprised to find ten shillings? Ten shillings for Mum, ten shillings for Pax — it had been a fantastic day!
He knew that one day Dad would lose his job. Even a municipal works supervisor couldn’t go too long dead drunk before someone noticed, and where they’d be then? So Mum set aside as much money as she could, and his sisters tried to save, and Pax…. Pax took every job Sparks could get them.
One last street to cross, and then through the back yard. It was all a mess of tiny warrens and twisted pathways, but Pax had lived here his entire life and knew them all. There was the widow Thomas’ hen–house, and there the limit on the Jones’ family guard–dog’s chain. And there, over there, almost impossible to see in a doorway at the tenement across the road, was something out of place. It looked like a girl, no, a young woman, all the right curves in all the right places, and long hair — except that she wore a man’s suit and a top–hat. Pax stopped to gawk, and jumped, heart racing, when she tipped the hat to him.
It wasn’t someone he knew — he didn’t know anyone who dressed like that, not even Sparks — and so he dropped back into the shadows, and decided to take an even longer route home. It gave him time to think, but it wasn’t making him any less nervous.
Sparks was smart. He worked for an old gent, the chap must be at least forty, over near Richmond and his Specials were ac … acqui–sition agents. They never called themselves thieves; oh, no. They were Specials, after all. Pax, despite the strange woman he had seen, grinned to himself, ducked under another fence, and crawled behind a privy to reach a third.
From time to time the Gent would call for Sparks, and Sparks would wander off looking like any other house–maid or office–girl, and no Bobby in his right mind would think of stopping him. When he came back he brought cakes, and perhaps bread, which firmly established their employer as Wealthy in Pax’ mind.
And he brought a job. Street urchins were everywhere in London of 1890, and so they could go all over and not be discovered. But, and here’s where Pax had to admit he really admired Sparks: most gangs didn’t make much money. The Specials did, much more than most, and from time to time lots of money. Not as much as this, but …
Wriggling under the third fence, Pax dropped a hand to his money–belt, just to be sure it was still there. Ten shillings! It wasn’t often a body could earn a guinea just for sneaking a box out of a house!
It had been almost easy, he recalled. Sparks had come back the day before last and told them they were going to crack a house in Arundel Street, not far from The Temple. It was a nice, easy job; in the door, grab the box, and hook it. They almost didn’t believe him when he said they’d get a pound and a shilling; a whole guinea, a piece.
Pax grinned again. Didn’t turn out that simple. First, finding the place was easy, but there were Bobbies all over so they had to work very, very quietly — and without a light. That wasn’t so bad, but then the lock had been tricksy and James, their cracksman, had taken his sweet time opening it. Odd how they all called James James, but never Pax Tobias. Not that he liked being “Tobias” any more than he liked being a very–common Smith.
Finally he found the loose plank and squeezed through the opening into his own back yard. Getting from there, past the water–pump and a quick wash to get the stench out, and into bed was easy. He could hear Dad snore in the other room, and heavy breathing from his sisters and Mum. It was good getting under the covers.
Sparks had gotten nervous, Pax remembered, when the lock wasn’t the only thing protecting the place. There was some sort of clockwork mechanism inside the doorframe, slowly ticking over with a really very scary sound. Inside the frame! Who’d think up something like that?
Ghost was so happy she almost smiled at him when she got to examine and stop whatever it was it was supposed to do. She never said, but did take bits and pieces away to examine later.
After all that it was easy to get the box. It was just sitting there, prettily, on a shelf. Pax brough it out, Sparks gently took it, slipped it into some pocket hidden in one or the other of his petticoats, and they retreated the way they’d come; all nice, and neat.
Pax grinned to himself in the dark. Perhaps he’d buy Sparks a hair–ribbon tomorrow. He had money to spend!
The shadows behind the door moved. He saw, in what little light came through the dingy windows, a top–hat. Then someone whispered.
“Good evening, Mister Tobias Smith. Or will ‘Pax’ suffice?”