Jason Nichols stiffened and listened carefully. It didn’t sound too threatening. As the voice came again, he realized it was a female, not very old, but obviously angry. As he finished shaving, he wiped his face and turned from the mirror. He left his bedroom and headed towards the door with the usual bounce in his step.
At the door was a young lady, holding Jason’s brother by the ear.
“Hey! What are you doing to my brother?” asked Jason.
“This wretched thing tried to pick my pocket!”
“Michael! What’s th’ first thing I taught yuh?”
The boy, who couldn’t have been older than seven or eight, shrugged. He was a scrawny, shy thing with poorly cut brown hair and ragged clothes.
“Yuh not supposed t’get caught, yuh rat! Eh, out wi’ yuh! Go t’yer room, find somethin’ t’do, yuh won’t be botherin’ me all day,” said Jason, kicking in the boy’s general direction so he would leave faster. “Terribly sorry ‘bout that, miss.”
“You’re teaching the boy to pick pockets? What kind of place is this?” she asked. As she spoke, a dozen more boys came parading into the place. It was away from the hubbub of the London streets, set back quite a distance amongst warehouses. The place had been a smaller warehouse at one time, but now was a sort of home for fourteen pickpockets hiding from the law. An odd assortment of bunks lined the wall. The stove, table, and chairs stood awkwardly in the middle of the open space, and small room took up the far end of the building. It was used as Jason’s bedroom away from the boys.
“Well, Miss, if yuh’d ‘scuse me, I gots ta take care a me boys. It was nice t’meetcha.” Jason carefully steered her out the door and bolted it.
“Whew!” called James, the oldest boy with the exception of Jason. “Who’s the girl, Jason?”
“’Aven’t got a clue, but she brought Michael ‘ere by ‘is ear. Said he tried t’pick ‘er pocket - can yuh ‘magine?” asked Jason with a daring grin.
“Th’ boy ain’t got much sense or skill,” added James’ comrade Alex.
“Eh, ‘e’s barely eight, an’ ‘e is me own brutha. Give ‘im time, boys, give ‘im time. Go get th’ rat, an’ we’ll see what we scrounged up this fine day.”
Meanwhile, Jessie Schaefer sat outside a small London dress shop sewing. She was sewing outside because she preferred being outdoors to being cooped up inside. She didn’t like the owner of the dress shop, Miss McDonald. She was a crabby, unmarried woman who temporarily forgot her own misery by harrassing her young employee about everything, from the way she dressed to her bad habits. Jessie couldn’t wait until she could save enough money to get away. Until then, she spent almost every evening away from the dress shop, gambling and drinking until the wee hours of the morning.
While tomboyish, Jessie still managed to keep her very feminine looks. Her abundant blonde curls were tied back under a kerchief to keep them out of her face. Jessie had sparkling gray eyes that fit her happy-go-lucky attitude quite well. On her left middle finger, she wore a simple gold ring that she wouldn’t let go of if her life depended on it.
That ring was the poor girl’s only memory of her parents and other family. She’d been born into a poor London family in a filthy apartment, the youngest of seven children. Jessie was a tomboyish child, always outdoors running and playing with the neighborhood boys. Her older sisters shook their heads at her and disapproved, while she was shut out of the games of the older boys. Because of which, she was never at home. By the time she was ten, she ate breakfast, left the apartment, and didn’t return until very late at night. About that time, cholera struck the building. Jessie avoided the disease, and returned one evening to find her sick family all dead. After a good deal of running, hiding, and avoiding the law, Jessie found a decent job working at a dress shop. She wasn’t exactly happy with the job, but it gave her food and a place to spend the nights.
But Jessie often didn’t spend her nights at the dress shop. She loved to gamble, and would sneak out to go to a cheap bar, gamble her week’s savings, and return at three o’clock in the morning with five times the money she started with, drunk from excitement and cheap alcohol. One more incident, and the Miss McDonald would be sure to kick her out.
A policeman on the beat strolled up to the small girl. “Hello there, missy. Bit late fer a girl a yer age ta be out, ain’t it?”
Jessie looked up coolly. “Yuh know how late I stay out. Cost you a good five dollars last night, if I remember correctly.”
The man glared at her. “I rememba no such thing.”
“Guess yuh really were drunk, huh?” she asked, avoiding his eyes.
“Where’d yuh get those fine new boots, Smoke? I don’t rememba those very well.”
“They were a gift from a friend.” Jessie knew better than to give her real name to her gambling partners, and went by the name Smoke, due to the fact that she was rarely found without a cigarette. She glanced down the street. Not another policeman in sight.
“Does your ‘friend’ know they were taken?”
“Well I suppose he does now if he told yuh, didn’t ‘e?” Smoothly, she dropped the dress she’d been sewing and, picking up her skirt in both hands, tore off down the street.
“Stop! Thief!” screamed the policeman.
Jessie plowed through the still-bustling evening crowds. She knew she could outrun the portly policeman, but to where? As she ran towards the warehouses, she had a sudden wonderful idea.
“Eh, get th’ door, James,” Jason said casually, not looking up from his cards.
James opened the door, and Jessie stumbled inside, panting for air. “Help, please, yuh gotta help me.”
Jason tucked his cards into his pocket and strolled over. “Well, g’d evenin’, madam. Glad yuh returned. Now I know anotha a me boys didn’t pick yer pocket, cause they’re all here-”
“Please, I’m beggin’ yuh, jest let me stay here, I’ll help yuh in any way I can, but th’ police are afta me an’ - ”
“Dat’s th’ magic words,” Jason said with a grin. “We’ve all been runnin’ from ‘em at one point or another. We’re glad t’help, miss. C’mon, back here.”
She followed him to the small room at the end of the warehouse. It was a simple room - bed, mirror, small table, and pitcher of water on the table. A tiny window without any glass let a bit of light in.
“Are yuh alright?” Jason asked.
Jessie sat down on the edge of the bed. “I think so… not any more hurt than I’ve been b’fore, at least,” she said optimistically. “Oh, by th’ way, I’m Jessie. Jessie Schaefer.”
“Nice t’meetcha, I’m Jason Nichols.” He studied her carefully. “Waitaminute… Smoke?”
“One an’ th’ same,” she said with a grin, pulling her skirt up to inspect her knee. Her skirt was badly torn from waist to hem, and her knee cut open brutally. She tore a small piece of the skirt off, wet it, and began to wipe the blood from her knee. “So, how much’d I con yuh out a?”
“Eh, not much. T’was a good game, well worth th’ money.”
“Nice t’know yuh enjoyed yaself.” She heard a loud knock on the door and froze.
“Hide unda th’ bed. Won’t be ten minutes, least not if I can help it.”
And true to his promise, the police were gone within ten minutes. “C’mon outta there, an’ come meet th’ boys. Yuh gotta place t’stay?”
“Not anymore,” she said.
“Yer welcome t’stay here, if ya’d like.”
“Sure, thank yuh.”
“Any time. Boys, this’s Jessie Schaefer. This’s James, Michael - me brutha - David, Colin, Martin, Andrew, Steven, Ben, Edward, Will, Thomas, Jack, an’ Daniel. She’ll be stayin’ wid us fer a while.”
“Jessie?” asked one boy, standing up.
“Tommy! How ah ya? ‘aven’t seen ya since yuh were smalla than Michael there.”
“Can’t complain, an’ yaself?”
“Good enough. Just wish th’ police would find someone else t’chase fer once. Yuh know th’ feelin’. So, what game ‘re ya boys playin’ t’night?”
“Deal me in,” she said quickly, taking a seat.
“Dis’ll be a long game,” said Thomas with a sigh.
Night quickly fell upon the warehouse, and the younger boys staggered off to their bunks slowly. The moon clearly shone on the river by the time Smoke, James, and Jason were done playing cards.
“Good game, fellas. Now, where ‘m I sleepin’?”
“Take my bed, I’ll sleep on th’ floor.”
“Yuh sure? I feel bad takin’ yer bed.”
“Nah. I can’t sleep out here - gotta let th’ boys know who’s boss - an’ yer hurt, so you can sleep on th’ floor, so I will.”
“All right,” Jessie said doubtfully.
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