Read Shanghai Sparrow Online

Authors: Gaie Sebold

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Steampunk

Shanghai Sparrow (5 page)

 

 

“W
ELL, HOW WAS
it?” Ma Pether was seated at the vast littered table, a chewed and weary cheroot in the corner of her mouth, poking a screwdriver at something that looked like a dismantled pistol with a bulbous barrel and a fancy chased-silver stock. Evvie moved around to one side of the table, so the barrel wasn’t pointing at her. She knew Ma and her mechanisms.

There was a
pop
and a spurt of vapour; something pinged off into a corner of the room, and Ma swore.

“Did I hear you cheeking Bartholomew, Sparrow-Girl?”

“No, Ma.”

Ma raised her head. She had a jeweller’s glass screwed into one eye; the other was grey, sharp, ready to be amused or to glower. Her strong coppery-blonde hair was streaked with white, pulled back in a rough bun under a net. She wore a coarse cotton shirt, a hide weskit and battered canvas trousers.

“Better not. I know you ain’t never going to be best of friends, and let’s be honest, he ain’t none of mine either, but he’s too useful to go making an enemy of. Enemies are bad seeds you sowed yerself, remember.”

“Yes, Ma.”

“So, the house. Anyone scope you?” Eveline had given her answer some thought on her way home. She’d been pleased with how her morning’s business had gone, but the more she’d thought about it, the more Grey-Coat had wormed his way into her head.

If he was a copper and she didn’t tell Ma about him and there were consequences, she’d be up to her neck in shit. And if Ma had sent him herself, the fact that Evvie had spotted him would show Ma how good Evvie was.

“The house went well,” she said. “I know where everything is, and it’ll be empty on Whitsun. But there was someone hanging about. Not while I was checking the place, but after, a good street away. Smelled like a bluebottle, though he wasn’t in uniform. Darkish, not so tall, in a grey coat. Neat-looking.” She eyed Ma for some sign of recognition, but Ma’s frown looked genuine. “Seemed like he was watching me. Well, he wasn’t actually watching me, I just got that feeling that he’d been looking, and looked away, just as I caught him. I’d not have made anything of it, only I think I seen him before. Anyway, I lost him.”

“I hope you weren’t staring, Evvie. You
know
what I taught you.”

“‘Staring’s foolish, staring stinks, staring gets you thrown in clink.’ Yes, Ma, I
remember
.”

“You’d better. You seen him before. When and where?”

“Down the docks, about three days back. I dunno what made me take notice, only he didn’t seem quite
right
. Then seeing him again – it seemed odd.”

Ma blinked the glass out of her eye and dropped it among the other debris. “Sounds like a copper, all right. That’s it, then, that house is blown. I’m not risking it. Hell and the devil, what a waste. I thought that might be the one. You never know what you’re going to find in a place like that. Enough to retire on, maybe.” She looked Evvie over and sniffed, shaking her head. “Dunno how he spotted you. You look all soap and Sunday in that getup. And with your talents – you do something stupid?”

“Not as I can think, Ma.” She picked up the pistol. “Where’d this come from?”

“Never you mind, and put it down.” Ma eyed her, and Eveline, feeling it, looked up enquiringly. “You sure you didn’t make a botch of it?” Ma said, taking out her cheroot and pointing it at Eveline. “I worry about you, Evvie Duchen. You’re getting too full of yourself. And that’s...”

“‘The fastest way to a fall.’ Yes, Ma. I know.”

“Don’t you roll your eyes at me, missy. You get caught, I can’t help you. You want to get transported, die of the flux halfway to hellangone and be thrown over the side for fishes’ dinners, hmm?”

“No, Ma.” Eveline said, her voice small. The thought of transportation was one of the few things that really frightened her, and Ma knew it.

“Well, then. You’re to stay indoors for a week. You can do some mending and such, and make yourself useful. And see if you can get some letters into Saffie’s head. Now get out of the maid’s rig, ’fore it gets all over muck. And brush that mud off and put it on Lazy Lou.”

“Yes, Ma.”

“I’ll check.”

“Yes, Ma.”

“Then come down and tell me the rest.”

Evvie slouched upstairs, scowling. What was the point in talking about the house she’d been checking over, since now they’d not be robbing the place? But Ma always wanted to know everything. Or maybe it was Grey-Coat she wanted to know about, but there was so little to tell.

“I dunno, Lou, what’s she want?” Evvie said, getting out of her dress and apron and fitting it over Lazy Lou, the brass and copper mannequin who stood in Ma’s room, staring blind-eyed out of the filthy, rag-curtained window. Lou chimed faintly, as she always did when dressed or undressed. She was a clever creation. She had jointed limbs that all folded inside each other so you could pack her into a box no bigger than a travelling-bag, and was supposed to be able to move about, but as long as Evvie had been working for Ma, Lou had been no more than a clotheshorse. Ma was forever picking up mechanical bits and pieces and fadgetting with them, trying to make them work, then she’d get bored before they complied. The cellar was piled with the things.

Eveline’s mother had liked mechanisms too. But hers were stranger. They had sung and whispered and shivered the air, and she had never seen anything like them anywhere else.

She shook off the memory. Mama was gone, like Papa, like Charlotte. The cossetted happy little girl she’d been was gone too. Eveline looked back on her former self with something like exasperation. She wouldn’t have lasted a minute on the streets – the only thing Uncle James and Aiden between them had done for her was start the process of turning that trusting, stupid child into someone who could duck and thieve and manipulate... and survive. Sparrow-Girl, that was what Ma called her – and that was what sparrows did, survive around the edges of things.

Eveline brushed the mud off the skirt, doing a thorough job despite her sulk. After all, she might be the next one to wear it – although not for at least a week. Mending! She scowled. She could stitch all right, but sewing bored her silly. Vengefully, she spent a few moments poking about Ma’s room, careful to put everything back where she found it. The fascinating clutter was a right old jumble, but Ma could spot anything missing in the blink of an eye.

Pictures of men and women and children, horses and houses and trains; some in fancy frames, others jammed into the surround of the big dusty mirror. Most of the people in them were strangers, the pictures acquired in a variety of robberies: sometimes Ma just took a fancy to them. Only one, of a boy of about ten, stood by itself atop the dressing table, in a heavy elaborate frame with a miserable-looking angel draped over the top. Unlike everything else in the room, it was dusted and cared for. That was Paulie, Ma’s son, who had died in one of the fevers that swept through every few months on hot dusty wings, leaving corpses in their wake. The boy’s face stared solemnly out, pale and dark-eyed, a sailor hat perched on his head. Eveline stuck her tongue out at him. He might look like a little angel in the photograph, but she remembered him as a proper little imp, forever pinching and whining and telling tales.

There were heaps of costume jewellery and a tottering pile of fancy hats. A few books, with gilded pages and bright illustrations. Ma couldn’t read, but she liked books, especially picture books. Eveline had had some schooling, back before everything went to the bad – though if Ma thought she’d be able to teach Saffie to read, she was dreaming. Saffie was a sweet little thing, but had no more brains than a poodle.

Eveline picked up a necklace of amber beads and tried them on, posing in front of the mirror, grabbing a vast gilded fan with two broken sticks. “My dear sir, I can’t possibly allow you the next dance, my card is quite full,” she said, fluttering the fan below her eyes.

Not much of the day’s brightness got into this room. The dust on the mirror made a ghost of her; nothing but a pale smudge of face between a grubby shift and black hair, which wouldn’t curl despite Ma’s occasional efforts with the tongs. “Hair like a heathen Chinee,” Ma always said. Eveline smiled, thinking of Liu, then saw a figure in the doorway reflected in the glass. “Ginny.”

“Ooh, look at Miss Fancy-Drawers.” Ginny grinned, showing several missing teeth. She had been a factory child, thrown out when a machine chewed her arm up. Ma had spotted her neatly dipping pockets with the arm that still worked, down in Whitechapel, and brought her home – much as she’d done with Eveline. Ginny’s wasted arm might not be much use as a limb, but as a distraction and a source of pity it made them some money.

There were fifteen of them at the moment, ranging from Saffie, who was six, to Margot, who was seventeen. There were no boys. Ma didn’t want any of her girls pregnant or poxed, and discouraged mucking about with a heavy hand. She could spot a swelling belly in a blink. She’d get you dosed up, and if it didn’t work, out you went, to fend for yourself and the result of your folly. That troubled Eveline not at all; if she sometimes felt a pang at the sight of a young couple walking hand in hand, she only had to look at Docky Sal.

There’d been a boy, a long time ago. They’d been too young for sweethearts, but he’d been something more than a friend – or so she’d thought. He’d not stood by her, though, when she needed him, and she’d never seen him since.

 

 

M
A
P
ETHER AND
her girls all lived crammed in the narrow old crumbling house, and made their way by whatever form of trickery, stealing, and general illegality came to hand. They did well enough; everyone ate at least once a day, there was a roof to sleep under, and if you’d no shoes you could borrow some. All the girls knew what it was like to have none of those things and, sleeping out, to be fending off men who’d offer a few pence for a grind – and like as not wouldn’t pay, or would just take what they wanted whether you would or no. Eveline had learned early that you couldn’t always trust a smile or an offer of food. She got good at running, and if she couldn’t run, she would fight with whatever she could and then run. She hadn’t always got away.

Eveline sneezed, glared at the fan, and put it back. More reluctantly, she took off the amber beads and let them slide back into the glimmering heap on the dressing table.

“Any good, that Stepney place?” Ginny said.

“No. But she wants to hear it anyway. Don’t you tell her I said where I was going, you know what she’s like.”

“’Sif I’d blab,” Ginny said.


I
know that.
She
doesn’t. You seen that thing she’s got now? What is it?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care, ’slong as she don’t aim it at me.”

“Ain’t you even
interested?
” Evvie said.

“Why? If Ma wants me to know, she’ll tell me. You’re too curious, Evvie. You always got to pick and poke and try to find out stuff that en’t nothing to do with you. Get you in trouble, that will.”

“Ma says ‘A long nose’s kept many a thief out of clink,’” Eveline said.

“Unless it’s her business you’re poking it in. Besides, since when do
you
give ha’pence what Ma says?”

“Ginny?”

“What?”

“If Ma thought someone’d made one of us, what do you think she’d do?”

The girls looked at each other for a moment, Ginny cradling her useless arm in her other hand. “You been made?” she said.

“I think so. Maybe.”

“You told her?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Don’t be daft, Ginny. If I hadn’t and he’d followed me here, or the peelers turned up...”

Ginny was silent for a moment, chewing her lip. “I dunno,” she said eventually. “She likes you, Evvie, she thinks you’re smart, but if you’re a risk...”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

“She wants out. At least, she says she does.”

“Yeah she said about retiring. Again. Talks about it a lot, these days.”

“What d’you suppose will happen to us?”

“We’ll be setting up on our own, I guess. Anyways, I’m going to be stuck here for days. Once she lets me out, though, you want to go see a mentalist? Cumberland’s on at the Egyptian Hall next month.”

Eveline never passed up the chance to watch a stage magician, even sometimes going so far as to buy a ticket.

“Oh, no, them people give me the creeps.” Ginny gave a not entirely exaggerated shudder. “’S unnatural, is what it is.”

“He can’t
really
read your mind, you beef-wit.”

“Why go, then?”

“Because he works things out about people. It’s clever.”

Eveline had not the slightest interest in Spiritualism (to be fair to Cumberland, neither did he – except to debunk it). But stage magic, the deceptions of eye and hand and mind, those she found very interesting indeed.

 

 

E
VELINE, HAVING JUST
spent a frustrating hour trying to get Saffie to understand her ABCs, or her As, or what a book was for, other than pulling about, had given up and was sitting with some mending crumpled in her lap by the upstairs window that gave the best light. Mending bored her, but she was neat-fingered, and had managed, the last time she was in a theatre where a magic show was on, to sneak backstage and obtain a magician’s stage-coat. She was now attempting to adapt its internal construction to a jacket of her own. Secret pockets, capacious but inconspicuous, she thought were an excellent idea – though she had no plans to stuff a live pigeon in one. Not unless she found a use for it.

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