Read Shanghai Sparrow Online

Authors: Gaie Sebold

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Steampunk

Shanghai Sparrow (4 page)

He had visited Lathrop’s home, and there he had had his first stroke of luck. The former servants were still in place, awaiting the confirmation of a male heir. The housekeeper had remained chilly and disinclined to be charmed, but one of the maids, sufficiently bribed, had managed to procure him a picture of the family: the mother, father, daughter and a wrapped bundle of lace that was presumably the younger child. It was faded, but the features were sufficiently clear. They had run away, and London was the nearest place they might have reached, other than small villages in which they would immediately have been spotted.

Acquiring the machines had been comparatively simple. The things were not regarded as of particular value. Money in the right hands, a suggestion that Her Majesty’s Government would be grateful for cooperation in the matter, and the mechanisms were his. The rest of the estate would no doubt be tied up in probate for months or years while the search for a relative – any relative – went on.

Then it had been a matter of time, money and persistence. He had a sufficiency of the first two, and an exceptional amount of the last. Honour among thieves there might be, but Holmforth found that the right combination of money and threat could make it evaporate like morning dew.

The girl’s background had been respectable. If she had not fallen too far into degeneracy, she might still be useful to the Empire. But if she had no Etheric talent, she would be of no use to
him.
His hands clenched.

 

 

E
VVIE DAWDLED AWAY
from the park, walking as though she’d not a care in the world, until a steam hansom came chuffing and rumbling along behind her. A quick glance told her it had cut her off from the sight of Grey-Coat – she grabbed the wheel-arch and lifted her feet, holding on grimly. Her hands were the strongest part of her. Luckily for her, the driver was sloppy with keeping his vehicle up – the arch had been a while between polishings, and the grime helped her grip. The driver, humming to himself, didn’t notice her; and the cab was empty of any passengers who might have raised a fuss. She briefly considered trying to slide inside, but though the driver might not notice her clinging like a monkey to the outside of his cab, he’d be pretty sure to notice the door opening. Instead she waited until they passed an alleyway and dropped to the ground, landing at a run, ducking into the smelly, narrow space and pelting like a hare for the other end. She made swift, not entirely random jigs and turns, nipped into a pub and out the back, through another four or five turns, keeping up the pace until she felt safe enough to glance behind her.

No sign of Grey-Coat. She wiped her hands on the rag she’d lifted from the pub kitchen, smoothed her hair, raised her chin, and sashayed, grinning, along the back alleys towards Limehouse, Ma Pether’s, and home.

 

 


N
IHAO
, E
VVIE
!” A young man in the green and gold uniform of the Brighart Steam Transport Company waved at Eveline as he balanced easily on top of a pile of crates. “How are you today?” Behind him one of the ships gave a great blaring whoop and a blurt of steam. Chains and crates clashed and creaked and groaned.


Nihao
, Liu!” Eveline dropped a brief curtsey. Liu had been hanging around for the last month, as his ship underwent apparently endless repairs. The first time he had called out to her, she had ignored him. The third, she had sighed and made a rude gesture. The fifth time he had not called out at all, but had dropped a little parcel in front of her, of bamboo wrapped in a green silk ribbon. She had picked it up suspiciously. It turned out to contain a small figurine of a grinning fox carved in pale green stone, nestled in silk padding.

She had turned around and glared at him. “I’m not in that game,” she said. “So you can take this back.” She thrust the figurine at him, not without regret. It was a very pretty thing. Automatically, she wondered what its value was; she had seen something like it in a fancy shop off Regent Street, but didn’t know if it was of the same stuff.

He had looked so miserable, she almost laughed. “What, you can’t get it somewhere else?”

He bowed. “I am not seeking anything but the pleasure of your company.” She looked him over, properly this time. She had dismissed him before as just another of the Chinee sailors, with their chattering singsong voices and funny eyes. Now she saw him properly, he was slender and neat, in his smart uniform, a matching green and gold cap perched on sleek black hair tied in a pigtail. His eyes were strange, but it was only a matter of the way they were set in the skin – for that, he looked pretty much like anyone, and a deal more like her than half the Folk did, especially the lesser Folk, like the bogles.

“Why?” she said. “And how come you speak so fancy?”

“You wanchee pidgin talk my?” he said.

“I dunno what you just said, but if it was something rude...”

“It was not. I would like to know you because you are very clever, and I speak good English because
I
am very clever.” He bowed again, grinning at her.

“How do you know I’m clever?”

He leaned towards her, put a finger on his lips, and then held up, before her eyes, a linen handkerchief embroidered with the initials
JK
in pink silk. “
Very
clever,” he said.

Evvie’s heart speeded up. She’d lifted that handkerchief just this morning, and had never felt it being lifted off
her
. “You... cheeky
sod
.”

“I think
that
was rude, yes?”

“Bloody right. What’re you doing with my billy?” She should be furious, but somehow the way he was looking at her, with his head a little to one side, like a dog that had just fetched a stick, kept bringing a smile to her lips.


Your
... billy?” He gave it to her, with a flourish, like a fine gentleman bowing to a fine lady.

She snatched it from his fingers, and made it disappear before he had straightened up. “What billy?” she said.

He laughed.

Since then, an odd, intriguing, half-wary friendship had developed. Evvie didn’t let herself get too fond of him – after all, his ship would eventually be mended, loaded, and back on its way.

People disappeared out of your life easy as handkerchiefs. It happened all the time.

Liu dropped lithely to the ground in front of her, and scrutinised her face. “What have you been doing, Evvie? I can see mischievous spirits in your eyes.” He grinned.

“Get away with you; you can’t.” She grinned back.

She hadn’t told Ma Pether about Liu, though if she didn’t know already she’d probably find out soon enough. She might even be pleased, though not about Evvie speaking with a young man – outside picking their pockets or otherwise making off with their goods, she didn’t encourage her girls to have any dealings with men. But Ma would be pleased about the words he was teaching her, because Ma believed in knowledge. She believed in it like some believed in the Life Everlasting. “The more you know, my birdlets, the stronger you are. Be you little as a kitten, if you’ve got a brain and the means to fill it, you can outwit the Queen and all her ministers.”

But Liu was a friend, not business. She’d keep him secret from Ma as long as she could. “I gotta go.”

“Meet me later and I will teach you how to ask for a cup of tea.”

“It’s late. Tomorrow, if I can get away. By the pie shop on Matlock Street, about three.”

He sighed. “Their pies are made of bits the pigs did not want even when they were alive. I will not eat one.”

“No one asked you to,” she sang over her shoulder as she hurried away. “I’ll have two of ’em.”

Where she’d been earlier, the city’s ever-present stinks – of sewage and soot, hot metal and humanity – had been overlaid with expensive perfumes, laundered linen, and well-tended gardens. Limehouse, on the other hand,
reeked
. The presence of human wastes was not a hint, but a bold declaration in letters fifty feet high. Other smells – filthy bodies, rotting food, damp, vermin, sickness – could hardly compete, though they tried. The only occasional relief, a banner of clean air, came when the wind blew up from the harbour. Even that was as likely to smell of fish as of the open ocean. Eveline noticed the stench, because she was a noticing girl, but it hardly bothered her. She had spent her last seven years here. It was home.

Only when she passed the transport moored near the bridge did she put her handkerchief in front of her face, and hurry past. The ship, restrained by a great black dripping chain, loomed above her like some terrible ancient half-dead thing, dragged up from the depths, its sails hanging like dying seaweed rotting on the rocks. A miserable ragged line of convicts shuffled up the gangplank, their chains clinking. As the wind shifted, she could hear the roaring and moaning of those already below decks and, clear as gunshot, the cracking of whips.

The streets churned with people. Some were decently covered, others ragged to near nakedness; almost all were dirty, thin, and tired. Sailors, dockworkers, men and women and children from the mills and the tanneries.

Docky Sal was sitting on the steps of the Duke of Windsor, taking advantage of the last of the sunlight. Sal smiled at Evvie, shifting her latest baby from one breast to the other. She had a dramatic bruise around one eye and bundle of crumpled linen draped over her lap.

“Awrite, Sparrow?”

“What’s that, Sal?”

“Fancy shirt. See?” Sal held it up. A needle marked the end of a row of fine, tiny stitches. “Lucky we got the sun today. I’ll get it done by tomorrow, then that’s me off me back for a few days.
If
that cheapskate in the shop pays me what I’m owed.”

Eveline leaned down and stroked the baby’s fluff of bright red hair. “Look at him, proper little copper-top.”

“Ah. Reckon it was that Irish stoker fella. Lovely head of hair he had. Ha’n’t seen him for a long time. Shame, really, he was all right. Not like the last one.” She made a face.

“He give you the shiner?”

“Some of ’em are more for hitting than wapping, love. You’re better off with Ma.”

“Don’t I know it. Here.” She tossed a guinea in Sal’s lap. “Buy him something, eh?”

“Oh, Evvie.”

“Shut it. Just don’t tell Ma, all right? You know what she’s like.” She’d want to know where Evvie’d got the guinea for starters, and why she’d given it to Docky Sal instead of Ma herself for seconds. “You take care, Sal.”

“You too.”

Evvie continued through the weary wandering crowd. Those who had no room for the night were already starting the evening’s desperate search for somewhere to sleep for a few hours. The soot-blackened scraggle of buildings often held three or four families to a room, and even when there was space to spare, it cost. If you had no money, you’d like as not end up sleeping on the docks or under a bridge, until the peelers came and moved you on. She’d spent plenty of nights that way herself, before Ma took her in. There were already dozens of children settling on the roofs or jamming themselves into tiny crannies. She’d done that, too – if you found a place too small for an adult you were less likely to get hauled out of it by someone bigger and stronger.

They called it a
rookery
, but the people, especially the children, always reminded Eveline more of sparrows. Small and scruffy and dirt-brown and noisy, ignored by almost everyone. Like her.

She jumped over the swollen, gut-burst corpse of a dog, raising a roar of flies. Clean, small, and respectably dressed, she could have been a less colourful version of Little-Red-Riding-Hood, striding innocently through the forest.

And here came a would-be-wolf, perhaps fourteen or fifteen, nearly as small as Eveline herself, and skinnier, his thin legs so bandy he looked as though he had an invisible gas-balloon between his knees.

When he reached for her pocket Eveline spun around, grabbed both his arms and held his hands up. “That,” she said, “that was a right munge. What were you trying to do, pat me on the arse? Saw you coming halfway down the street.” The nice young country girl the cook had fed with cake was gone like the hallucination she was; now Eveline was a city rat, all lash and grimy bite.

The boy swore and tried to kick her shins.

“Need some help, love?”

Eveline glanced at the grinning, broad-shouldered man standing behind the boy, an ancient stained bowler tilted over one eye.

Her captive hunched and tried to twist out of her grip. “
He
needs help more’n I do,” she said. “Bugger off, then. Juggins.” She let go. The boy gave her a final look of fierce dislike, spat at her feet and darted off into the crowd.

“Not a local, is he?” said the smiling man. “Or he’d know better.” He eyed her maid’s getup. “You going into service, turning respectable? That’d be a waste, that would.”

“No,” she said. “I gotta go, Bartie, Ma’s waiting.”

“Tell her I said hello.” He waved jauntily and set his hat to an even more aggressive tilt before striding off. Eveline watched him go with slightly narrowed eyes. Bartholomew Simms thought well of himself, but she didn’t like him. He gave her the cold grue. He ran a string of girls, and she heard things. Well, he wasn’t getting
her
into that line of work. Like Sal said, she was better off with Ma.

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