Nell kicked herself hard, trying not to let the smell of fresh baked bread distract her. Getting distracted meant getting nabbed by the coppers, and she couldn’t afford that. Not today.
She scuffed her faded black boots on the cobbles, affecting the bored and restless mein of a child dragged to market by her mother. Nell had no mother that she could remember. Nine years old or thereabouts, she’d been taking care of herself since escaping St. Benevolent’s Home for Orphans as soon as her five year old fingers could pick the lock. Years of practice had taught her that people never noticed a child who seemed to have a caretaker, no matter how inattentive. The key was to stick close enough to an adult that she didn’t attract attention from others, but keep enough space to avoid the notice of that adult. Tricky work, but easier when the market was crowded.
She’d managed to filch a drab frock from someone’s laundry that was the perfect state of shabby. Nothing screamed “orphan on the loose” like filthy rags, a dirty face, and bedraggled hair, but looking too prosperous could be just as bad. The ideal appearance was cared for, but too poor to be a promising ransom prospect. Thus, her hair was braided, her face washed, and her grey cotton dress was clean and at least a few months’ washing away from threadbare. She faded into the background of the city, no more distinct than the fog, the dingy river, or the acrid smoke that poured from the factories day after day.
Old Madame DuChamp eyed her from the doorway of her shop as she always did. But they had an understanding, did Nell and Madame. The pallid old haberdasher wouldn’t alert the coppers to the presence of a sticky-fingered waif in the alley, and Nell wouldn’t point out the distinct odor of juniper coming from Madame’s back room. In a street where gin carts selling properly-taxed government refreshments had surprisingly lackluster sales, the old Frenchwoman had good reason to keep mum. As far as the authorities in their starched and slate-coloured uniforms were concerned, this street held nothing more suspicious than curiously abstinent patrons who lost a small valuable or two from time to time.
Still, it wouldn’t do to pull the job in full view of Old DuChamp. Their deal balanced precariously on the basis of their relatively minor and equivalent known transgressions. If DuChamp got an inkling of what Nell had planned, the potential reward of turning her in would almost certainly topple their fragile alliance. Also, the old biddy never liked her much after Nell dropped a dead mouse in her still.
Nell dropped her rubber ball—more a thief’s tool than a child’s toy—and chased it to the next distracted cluster of people. Picking up the ball, she spotted her mark turn onto the street precisely on time. A man with salt and pepper hair stopped at the news stand just when she’d expected. He was nattily dressed, with a polished walking stick and neatly brushed bowler hat, a fine silver brocade vest stretched taut over his prosperous belly. The mark fiddled with some coins to pay for his daily paper. Nell deftly sidled up behind him. A fat coin purse dangled from his stubby yellowed fingers. Tempting, but that wasn’t the prize she had her eyes on today.
Just when she was beginning to worry the distraction she’d counted on would not show up in time, she spotted them heading her way. A gaggle of rowdy university students came through, jostling her into the man in the bowler hat on their way to the cafe.
By the time he turned to see who had bumped into him, she was already gone. Halfway down the nearest alley, she tucked herself into a recessed doorway. Opening her fingers, she gazed breathlessly at her spoils: a shiny brass key with a pair of maple keys embossed at the top. Weeks of watching the man’s quotidien movements told her she had perhaps two hours at most before he would notice it was missing. At this point, speed was more important than remaining unnoticed.
Nell hiked up her skirts, slipped off her shoes and socks, tying them around her neck. She shimmied up the drain pipe to the roof. Running lightly across cedar shakes and curved, clay shingles, she startled flocks of pigeons as she leapt from rooftop to rooftop. Before long, she’d reached her goal, a stately limestone townhouse. A weathered wooden shed perched on the flat roof. She shod herself, and quickly picked the lock on the door of the shed.
Inside was the marvelous contraption she’d seen the man tinkering with for weeks, sitting in a wooden wagon. She pulled the wagon out onto the open roof, dropping the gate to form a sort of ramp, then clambered up to sit upon the odd velocipede within. She turned the brass key in a slot on the machine, and it fired to life, copper and brass gears sputtering and spinning while steam and smoke poured out of a few small jets. Just as she’d seen before, something like a spiral umbrella ascended from the body of the machine, and began spinning at a dizzying speed. She gripped the handlebars of the velocipede as she’d seen the man do, and twisted them backwards. The machine bolted forward, rolling down the ramp of the wagon and rocketing towards the edge of the roof. Nell shut her eyes tightly as it bounced over the edge, dropped precipitously for a moment, and then bounded upwards.
Finally daring to look down, Nell watched the bleak city drop ever further away. She leaned forward, aiming the marvelous flying machine towards the great orange setting sun she could see, and the green fields and blue streams she hoped were hidden just past the horizon.