“Watch where you’re going!”
Holly Hamilton jumped at the harsh voice, her hands immediately shooting up into the air, as if to prove that she was holding nothing.
A large woman in a fur coat, carrying a little white dog far too adorable to belong to such an ugly person, glared at Holly, her round cheeks flushed, her eyes searching Holly suspiciously.
Holly grinned back as an apology until the woman turned on her heel with a practiced “Hmph.”
Letting out a deep breath, Holly lowered her hands and searched the crowded street for the man in the business suit she had been about to pickpocket before Miss Hmph had forced her to abort her mission. She scowled as she saw the man duck into a nearby shop. It was one thing to “accidentally” bump into someone on a crowded street to grab their wallet. It was quite another to try to pick a pocket in a store with few exits, and no crowd to disappear into.
She debated for a moment on whether she should wait for him outside and try again, but the crowd was already noticeably tapering off. She would have to target someone else, although she hated losing such easy money.
As she scanned the people milling about, hurrying home after work or running errands, she scolded herself for not being more careful. She was actually lucky that the woman had yelled at her. Had Holly been in the process of grabbing the man’s wallet when she’d bumped into Miss Hmph, she would have been in a real pickle. She had to be more observant before she made a move. Normally she was more attuned to her surroundings, but with the meager prizes she’d managed to swipe that day, she had to make up for her losses by being quicker, and thus, more daring than usual. Or Mr. Grott would really make her pay. She would be lucky to get anything to eat tonight.
As if on cue, her stomach growled, and her determination soared. She would be eating tonight. On a cold winter night such as this, she needed a nice hot meal to top off the day.
She felt the inside pockets of her coat, assuring herself that the lumps of wallets and jewelry that she’d procured so far were still there. She had more than enough for Mr. Grott to approve of her work. She was a natural sneak-thief, probably the best of his “students.” Her younger brother Matthew, on the other hand, was clumsy and awkward at it, and usually ended up with only a wallet or two to show for a full day’s work. Which is why Holly had to work so much harder. She could have easily gotten by herself, but she had to look out for her brother. She’d promised her parents she would, and she never broke a promise.
Turning to take a gander in the other direction, Holly gasped as a woman carrying a pile of boxes up to her eyes, walked right into her.
The woman let out a startled cry and fell forward, crushing the largest box, and spilling the contents of one of her bags. Holly landed on her butt in a pile of slush, which quickly soaked through her jeans and sent an icy chill up her spine. She jumped to her feet in a flash, then thought better of it and leaned over to help the woman gather her pyramid of boxes.
“Oh,” the woman surveyed the damage with a worried expression. She blinked through thick glasses as she turned to Holly. “I’m so sorry. I hope I haven’t injured you.”
“Not at all,” Holly assured her as she dropped several chains of jewelry back into the bag, carefully sliding two of the more expensive-looking ones up her coat sleeve. She handed the bag to the woman and looked down at the crushed box sympathetically. “I’m afraid one box didn’t make it.”
“Quite so,” the woman agreed with a sigh. She pulled off the box top to regard a broken toy airplane. “Such a shame too. It was a beautiful toy.” With a shrug, she carried the box over to a nearby trashcan. The box wouldn’t fit, so she dumped the contents into the garbage, before leaving the box propped up against it. Then, without giving it a second thought, the woman hefted her stack of boxes up again, and continued on her way.
Holly stared after her for a moment as the teetering mountain of boxes disappeared into the crowd. Some people have more money than they know what to do with, she decided as she walked over to the trash can. But they make for easy pickings, at least.
She lifted the lid of the trash and gazed down at the airplane. It gleamed white in the fading sunlight, a candy apple red stripe down one side, from propeller to tail. One of its wings had broken off, but it was otherwise in perfect condition. A little superglue would probably do the trick. She reached in and carefully pulled the plane out, as well as the remote control that had been dumped unceremoniously beside it. With a smile, she placed the items into the crumpled box the woman had left behind. Matthew would love it. He was only nine, four years younger than herself, and still loved playing with toys like this. She imagined his eyes lighting up when he saw it, and quickly made for home, deciding that the extra jewelry would be enough to earn them supper for the night. And if she got home before him, she could quickly glue the wing back on and it would be waiting for him when he arrived.
As was her custom, she stopped by the public library on the way home. On really profitable days, when she was able to secure a good amount of valuables early in the afternoon, she whiled away the hours in the grand building, walking up and down the aisles and sitting down with a stack of books to lose herself in tales of daring young men, and girls with magical powers. But more often than not, she made a very brief stop, as she did today.
Climbing the wide staircase, she looked around quickly before ducking behind one of the stone lions that stood sentinel on either side of the double doors. Squatting down, she pulled on a loose brick and peeked into the hollow space behind it, a dark hole that only she knew about. She reached her hand inside and felt the reassuring presence of a wad of bills. She always went through the wallets she swapped, and took a few bills for herself. She liked to think of it as a tip. One that Mr. Grott didn’t need to know about. It wasn’t as if he actually paid them anyway, so it served him right. And one day, she would have enough saved up so that she and Matthew could leave, and start a new life for themselves. A Life that didn’t involve petty crime.
She added two twenty dollar bills to her hidden cache and replaced the brick, before slipping back down the stairs and hurrying home.
As luck would have it, Matthew hadn’t returned, and she had just enough time to glue the wing onto the plane and figure out the instructions while it dried. Holly considered the plane, which glistened in the light filtering in through the dingy windows of the orphanage bedroom. There were four beds in the room, fitted with rough sheets boasting holes and smelling of mold. Whenever an inspector came through, Grott would change the bedding, but until then, they would keep washing and bleaching the same sheets themselves, with the meager cleaning supplies he allowed, until they were all but rags.
“What’s that?” Patty, a girl the same age as her brother asked with interest, as she knelt next to the table where the plane sat, awaiting its first flight.
“A present for Matthew.”
Patty squinted at it and poked at the propeller, which spun weakly under the probe.
“Don’t touch,’ Holly hissed, slapping her hand away. “It’s drying.”
“I never get presents,” the girl pouted, crossing her arms. “Why does Matthew get one when he can’t even pick a pocket properly?”
“Patty picked a pocket properly,” Aaron, an older boy, said with a laugh as he entered the room. He froze when he saw the plane. “Whoa!”
“Whoa, what?” Matthew asked, coming in behind him. His gaze fell on the plane and he tilted his blonde head curiously, his blue eyes sparkling as they drank in the toy. “Whoa!”
Holly smiled with satisfaction. “A present for you, Matthew. It was broken, but I fixed it up, right as rain.” She puffed out her chest proudly. “What do you think?”
“Whoa,” Matthew repeated, stepping up to the table shyly. He picked it up quickly, causing Holly to wince, but the wing held as he examined it. “Does it fly?” he wondered, his gaze shifting to the remote control.
“It flies,” Holly confirmed, and watched with pleasure as he immediately began to fiddle with the controls.
“Let me try!” Aaron demanded, pushing him out of the way. He always was sort of a bully.
“It’s Matthew’s,” Holly said sternly, glaring daggers his way. “You can try it out after Matthew, if he allows it.”
With a grumble, Aaron relented. “It’s lame anyway,” he decided as he plodded out the door. “I bet it doesn’t even fly.”
But fly it did. Patty clapped happily as Matthew flew it around the room expertly, his tongue sticking out from between his lips in concentration. He had mastered sharp turns and kept flying it quickly toward the walls before making it veer away at the last second. It gave Holly a heart attack every time. He was just getting the hang of loop-de-loops when the bedroom door opened with a thunderous crash as it swung into the opposite wall.
Matthew paled and turned his attention toward landing the plane as Holly sauntered up to Mr. Grott, her eyes not missing Aaron lingering in the doorway, a wide grin on his face. The dirty rat.
Mr. Grott’s beady eyes grew even smaller as he took in the scene before him. His thick mustache twitched beneath his hooked nose, his dense eyebrows lifting in response to the plane. He had a receding hairline, which he tried to hide by combing his hair forward, but it only served to accentuate the hair loss. Holly theorized that he grew out his mustache to make up for his head, but whatever his reasons, the overall look screamed “villain.” And that’s exactly how he acted, and how Holly perceived him. Perhaps he’d realized that he was a bad guy and figured he may as well embrace the look.
“Hello, Mr. Grott. Did you get today’s donations?” she asked sweetly.
He called them “donations,” like it would fool them into thinking that the people they stole from had willingly let them take their valuables. Usually Holly refused to call them by the term, but she didn’t need to provoke him at the moment.
Mr. Grott ignored her, sidestepping her so that he was in full view of the plane that Matthew had managed to land perfectly. Matthew was a genius like that, and managed to get the hang of things really quickly. He read manuals for fun, for Pete’s sake, when his nose wasn’t stuck in his favorite book, that was. The dictionary. Talk about boring. Before the accident, their dad had even let Matthew watch him take apart an engine. Matthew had been in seventh heaven.
“Well, well,” Mr. Grott said in an oily voice as he cracked his knuckles before him, as if in anticipation. “What is this, then?”
“It’s Matthew’s,” Holly said matter-of-factly.
“Is that so?” His eyes pounced on her. “And how did Matthew manage to procure such a fine airplane?”
Matthew looked like he was about to cry, which made Holly’s blood boil even hotter than it already was. She knew she shouldn’t talk back to Mr. Grott, that it would only make matters worse, but she couldn’t help herself.
“Not that it’s any of your business, but some lady was throwing it away, and I saved it. It only needed a little TLC and it worked fine.”
“Hmmm. So, you’re saying that you didn’t buy it?” Mr. Grott prodded. “Perhaps with some of the…donations?”
Holly gritted her teeth to keep from screaming. “I told you how I got it.”
Mr. Grott nodded, like it all made sense to him now. “So, you’re saying that you’re not skimming off the top of the donations you bring to me?” He snorted. “Well, I guess I’ll have to trust that you wouldn’t cheat me.”
And with that, he took a step in Matthew’s direction, making sure to step directly on the airplane, earning a definitive crunch.
Holly’s heart sank and she avoided looking her brother’s way. When he was upset, his lower lip trembled and his eyes shined with tears. She couldn’t face that right now, or she would punch the smug grin off of Mr. Grott’s face, and that wouldn’t be good for either of them. They wouldn’t have a place to sleep tonight, let alone something to eat.
“How clumsy of me,” Mr. Grott said in mock surprise.
“You did that on purpose,” Patty frowned.
He sneered. “A lesson in life. For free. Quite a bargain.” Then he turned and swept out of the room, an evil-sounding chuckle following him. He had to have worked on that laugh. It sounded way too super-villainy to be natural.
“No fair,” Patty grumbled. “I didn’t even get a turn.”
Holly sighed, staring down at the remnants of the plane. The wing had come free again, but that was the least of its problems. It was crushed and shattered in places that simply couldn’t be repaired. Without looking her brother’s way, she turned on her heel. “I’ll get a dust pan and broom.”