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Collectors

By CConta All Rights Reserved ©

Drama / Mystery

Chapter 1

I had worse ideas. Not many, but worse. Not that it mattered then. 

The police closed in on my heels, their whistles squealing in my ears. The real reason they blew those damn things had to be because it drove the people around them half crazy. It was my own fault for attempting to collect anything in the Garden District. Temptations, Ollie told me, were the bricks on the road to hell. I would usually just tell him I’d had enough preaching about hell to last me until I passed its gates. 

Still, it was hard to call him wrong at a time like this. I swept past another opulent house, its wrap-around porch and gardens teasing me as my bag hit against my hip. Debutantes and debonaire millionaires leaned out of their second-story windows to catch the scene like we were a free Little Rascals short. It is when they began hissing at me and calling me names that I sent up a foul gesture. 

I bet they never saw that in the cinema. 

My distraction cost me a little of my head start. If they were brave enough to leap and tackle me—or were less concerned about taking down a girl—they could win, easy. These two, though, didn’t exactly look like the brave type. Foppish and wearing a uniform because it suited them, so to speak. You didn’t get that type in the French Quarter, that was for certain. That kind would have dropped me to the ground four blocks back. Being in the polite part of town helped with some things. 

It would have been different if I looked more like I belonged here. If I looked like Charlotte, for instance. Before I even finished thinking of her name, her bright face popped into mind. Blond, wildly curly hair and green, doe-eyes. She would make a better film star than I ever could. At least, for those sorts of people. They paid pocketfuls to watch girls like “Charlie” light up a screen. They probably would have paid her to rob them blind for the privilege of looking at her. 

Another sharp corner approached and I braced for the turn. Just as I rounded it into an alleyway, a pair of hands grabbed for my jacket and pulled me into the darkness. Those large hands muffled a scream before it could escape my throat and their owner dragged me behind some discarded crates. 

“What the hell is wrong with you, Jack?” 

Boyd. I could have killed him if I didn’t want to hug him right then. My heart raced a mile a minute, trying to get over the panic he had just caused. 

“Me?! Are you trying to give me a heart attack?”

“I’m trying to keep you out of jail. If you prefer that route, though, we could always call them back.”

I sent him a glare but any sharp remarks were cut off as another whistle approached. Together we waited, pressing our hands to our mouths to silence our heavy breathing and any swears tempted to leap from our mouths. 

We waited there for several minutes, tangled in terrified darkness until it was clear they had lost us. When the last of the footsteps had died down to silence, I pulled away from Boyd and stood. 

“Thanks, but please, next time don’t try to kill me when you save my ass. I’d really appreciate it if I could keep breathing.”

“You’re welcome, but maybe a heart attack would do you some good. You know we don’t go here on a whim. What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking I saw something,” I insisted, brushing myself off. 

“What would that be?” 

“Like, this,” I said. I tucked some fallen brown strands out of my eyes and pulled my bag from my side, extracting a few pieces of newfound treasure and extending them out to him. A few of the items—a women’s pocket watch, a small ring, and a few trinkets—could prove useful enough to feed the four of us for at least a couple of days. It was the largest item that I was the most pleased with. A broach, at least two inches across, made from mother of pearl and lined with gold, glittered in my hands. It wasn’t the materials so much as the design that widened Boyd’s eyes. 

The intricate etching along its front resembled a dove expanding its wings into a fleur-de-lis shape. While its meaning was lost on me, the familiarity of it—not to mention the precious gems surrounding it—made it feel heavy in my palm. Two weeks of meals’ worth of weight, by my estimates. 

“If someone catches you with that, they’ll cut off your hand,” warned Boyd in spite of the stars in his eyes. 

“This is New Orleans. They’ll probably just dump me in the river.”

“And that’s better?”

I shrugged and chose to peek around the corner for any leftover signs of police. The whistle had died to a low squeal echoing in the distance, though I knew better than to think we were entirely out of danger.  We got up and began moving to a safer area. Safer for us, anyway. Somewhere that would help us stick out a little less. 

The city was split into easily discernible sections. From one block to the next, anyone remotely familiar with the area could pinpoint the neighborhood. Residents who had lived here long enough could tell where a person was from no matter what block they were standing on. 

A split second was all it took for even the dogs to realize that Boyd and I didn’t belong here. They snarled and growled as they caught our scents, baring their slobbering teeth. The police whistle had completely died away, but it would only take some near-rabid hounds to draw them all back. 

“Ready to get the hell out of here?” asked Boyd. 

“Do I have a choice?”

“Doubtful.”

Three blocks east was the border of the French Quarter: a mess of poor artist-types and aspiring delinquents. Our kind of people. It was place where we could get lost; the trick was those three blocks. One way out had a practical guarantee of more police and the other was barricaded by canines. 

Still, never say never. 

“Up and out?” I asked. 

“Do I have a choice?” asked Boyd. 

“Doubtful.”

He glanced up the brick façade in front of us and resigned himself to his fate. Everyone has their anxieties. Boyd’s wasn’t heights so much as a fear of falling from them. Shoddy ladders and uneven bricks did little to ease his concerns. 

“Five minutes, tops, and we’ll be home free,” I assured him. 

“I’m getting you back for this if I die doing it,” he replied. 

“I’ll work up something to bring you back to life,” I said, grabbing the bottom rung of the ladder. The dogs had taken to pressing their snouts into the chain link fence, teeth grabbing for empty air in the hopes of snagging just a taste of us. 

“I can’t tell if that makes you sound more like Curie or Capone.”

“I like to think I’m a bit of both,” I shrugged. 

“And God help us all,” he said. 

He swung on the ladder below me, his hands reaching up each time my feet left one of the bars. We stepped in sync, like a hundred times before. Part of me thought I should stop getting him, Ollie, and Charlie into spots like that. Part of me knew that would never happen. 

“There are just a few buildings and if we hit the roof of the drug store just right, it should be an easy way down,” I told him. 

“And, if we don’t?” 

“At least there’s a place with medicine and first aid nearby.”

“I hate you sometimes,” he said. 

We rushed through the open rooftops and past the small gardens along the more affluent homes. As we neared our drop-off, rooftop gardens gave way to clotheslines. Women in white dresses and wide-brimmed hats changed into women bent over laundry basins with sore knuckles. 

I forgot sometimes we were in a depression until I saw people like them. Then I remembered just how sad the world was. 

At that moment, I had my own skin to worry about. I could not allow myself the time to mourn for the callouses they had received from their sinking lives. Couldn’t feel much for the men lined up at the unemployment office fifty feet below us. Boyd and I just jumped past the gaps between the buildings, putting off thinking about anything else.

If there was one thing I could say I had truly improved at over the years, it was my running. Where I grew up, ladies running was inappropriate and a sign of nothing more than trouble brewing. Perhaps that brewing trouble was why I left it five years earlier. In those five years, I had honed skills I seemed to be harboring and hiding, but running was really where I had to start from scratch. 

Four months after running from my home at St. Francis Church, I had already gotten myself knee-deep into trouble. I was half-starved and desperate, but the law never understood that bit, just the sticky fingers and truancy. If I hadn’t run into Charlie that day with her quick mouth and money in her pocket, I doubt I would have gotten past Felicity Street. 

“You ready?” I asked Boyd.

He looked at me fully as he settled on the last rooftop before crossing into the heart of the French Quarter. The smell smacked me in the face before the rest of it did. Where the Garden District had the distinct scent of—you guessed it—gardens, the French Quarter was more like cheap perfume over bullshit over shame. It’s the kind of smell that sticks to you for days, seeping into the threading in your clothes and straight through the seams holding you together. It just gets more noticeable the closer you get to old Storyville. Don’t make me tell you what that place smells like.

Together we hightailed it over a few more tightly-packed rooftops until we were able to duck down into a third-story balcony of a tavern. A crowd could be a blessing or a curse when you’re running from uniforms. Either the crowd slows you down enough to let them catch up, or you get lost in the mess well before they have the chance to close in. I prayed to whatever saint may still listen to me that it would be the latter. 

Heated bodies filthy with sin and liquor cramped around us as Boyd and I descended deeper into the tavern. Noise echoed in all directions making it difficult to tell who was even speaking, let alone what in the hell they were saying. It was only when a whistle sounded when we got halfway down the stairs that we knew the police had made their way in.

The thing about the police in a place like that? There were so many people that were sure it was them they were after that a swarm of inebriated, half-cocked delinquents flooded all directions. It pushed us in one place, pulled us another, and soon everyone was lost in a typhoon of panic. 

“I really don’t like you right now!” Boyd shouted by my ear. 

Any smart-aleck reply I had was lost as someone elbowed me in the stomach, and I doubled over into the floor. Boyd forced knees and fists into the crowd, keeping anyone from stomping me into nothing more than a greasy memory on the tavern floor. He managed to make just enough room to reach down and help me back up. I didn’t even take a moment to gather myself; I could do that on the way, stumbling, punch-drunk toward the door. 

“You liked me enough for that,” I couldn’t resist saying as we neared the side door. 

“The debt you now owe me now outweighs my annoyance with you.”

“And here I thought you were helping because you were a good guy.”

“No one helps just because they’re a good guy.”

I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or masking a serious statement with a smirk and a dry tone. That was the thing about Boyd—well, one of the things about him—he’ll cover the worst of statements with the best of intentions. 

Together we raced through the streets, the sound of panicked drunks and police whistles dying within a block. We ran through a few more with hitched breaths, waiting for the dogs and their bitches to catch up to us, but by the time we hit the bridge we were home free. Literally. 

We paused just along the docks, staring down the river to the small boathouse we called home. A flickering light in the window told us either Charlie or Ollie would be home, if not the pair of them. A quiet night after a mess of an afternoon. 

“Your turn to clean up after dinner,” Boyd told me. 

“Wait, no! It’s your turn!” I snapped back. 

He shook his head, gesturing back down where we came. “After that? No. It’s yours.”

I growled, though soon the noise turned to a laugh as we headed to the flickering light in the window. “Fine. Then we’re even.”

“Not even close,” he stated, “but nice try.”

Evening by the docks was quiet save for the occasional cricket chirp, slosh from the river, or random drunk singing about some woman named Clementine. I had finished cleaning after the dinner Ollie had cooked for us, whose sainted mother taught him how, and we settled into a stupor of habit and hobby. 

The tell-tale quiet of twilight began to seep into the glorified shack we kept. What had once been one room was now curtained off into five sections, with the four of us now gathered into the main “living” area. It was tight, muggy, and looked more like a barn small than anything else. Still, it kept us comfortable enough. It was home. 

I dried my hands after the last dish in the basin and made my way over to Ollie first, his deep brown eyes searching through the piles the four of us had collected. He was going through mine at the moment. Most of mine I reminded myself with a pat to the pocket holding the broach. I watched as Ollie inspected the pocket watch’s gears like a doctor would inspect a sick patient. He brought it close to listen to its off-beat rhythm before checking the markings along its insides. 

“Verdict?” I asked. 

“Well, she’s a little worse for wear, but we should be able to fix her.”

“Her?” 

“Yeah. Molly, see?” he said, pointing the name out to me, etched in the watch’s inner workings. “Molly Stark. I figure she’d probably like to be called by her name the same as anyone else.”

“Ollie, you should get out more.”

He just chuckled and continued in his assessment, pulling down the magnifying lens of his makeshift glasses. I had now lost him to hours of tinkering with his latest toy, all too aware it would be past midnight before one of us forced him to put it away and get some sleep. 

Charlie sat in the corner of our little home, admiring something shiny through the flickering lamp bulb. Her fingers, small and nimble, rolled a little treasure as its edges and grooves elicited an occasional excited giggle from the petite blonde. She was a bit of an odd one, Charlie. She could be featured in magazines holding a perfume bottle, dripping in silk and furs, her arms and neck covered in more jewels than royalty. Yet, here she was, huddled by the river with the three of us. She never took what could have seen as an heirloom, but she admired them more than any of us. At least, those times Ollie, Boyd, or I managed to get our hands on one. 

The thought I should share the broach with her crossed my mind, but I quickly shook it away. Not now. Charlie could be sensitive about items she saw as having belonged to a long lineage and more treasured for their personal value. Nothing felt quite as personal to me, but I hated keeping secrets from her. Out of everyone in this life I had made for myself, I had known her the longest. Still, now was not the time. 

I left Charlie to her treasure, instead collapsing on the dilapidated couch beside Boyd. He, like the others, was far more focused on his work than the world around him, though his joy came in no one place. Then again, I’m not sure if I could have called anything he did “joy” so much as simply doing his job. 

“Any luck?” I asked. 

He shrugged, pulling away from the pile of scraps in front of him. Boyd was our last stop for any of our finds before we relinquished anything to the “trash” heap. We never really threw anything away so much as not keep it for ourselves or try to sell it. Just because we did not find something valuable didn’t mean the items weren’t still important to the people who had kept them. So, we tried to return them back to their old homes, tied up in mailboxes or by a back door. For those items we could not remember or find the home of, we donated. We dabbled in the incorrect, though tried to avoid the cruel.

None of us tried to avoid cruelty more than Boyd. He seemed to be more worried he was touched by it than the rest of us and attempted to avoid it like it was a demon at his heels. He had a temper, his ice-blue eyes occasionally flashing sharply toward anyone with a wrong word or foul glance, but he rarely allowed himself to lash out. A bomb with a lot of wires and a very precise clock. 

Boyd relaxed here, sitting on the couch and sifting through the leftovers on the weathered coffee table in front of him. While Ollie had an eye for the mechanical and Charlie had an eye for beauty, Boyd had an eye for the hidden. Little pieces here and there that may be discarded by even their owners, seen as little more than trinkets. Out of the mess in front of him, Boyd could spot the few pieces worth dusting off. They were rare, but when he found them they could be much more valuable than even the sparkling gems Charlie pored herself over. 

I dumped another small pile in front of him before leaning back into the moth-eaten cushion. “Find anything interesting?”

“Not unless you count a few buttons that may be useful. I’ll check with Ollie and Charlie later to see if they can be put anywhere or if they have anything valuable in them. One might be garnet, but I’m still no damn use at identifying any of that. I’m still surprised I know what a garnet is. Oh, but I did find this.”

Out of the mess, he pulled out what looked like a small hollowed rope. “It has some charring along the side of it, but from what I can tell it has some tubing that could be used for some of your more, uh, interesting ideas.”

He grinned at me, extending the cloth-covered tube toward me. “What do you think, professor?”

“I think you’re brilliant,” I said, giving his arm a light slap as I used my other hand to twirl the find around my fingers. 

“And I think you’re half crazy,” he laughs. 

“As long as it’s not full crazy, I’ll take it.”

“After your stunt today? Full crazy may be closer than you think.” He reached out to touch the broach hidden safely in my jacket pocket. “You’re going to have to tell the others some time.”

“Later.” 

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1. Chapter 1
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