by David Steffen
The boy crept out of the front door, distant streetlamps bouncing dim reflections off his smooth cheeks, breath misting in the chill air. Pete couldn’t help but smile. The boy was just the right size, old enough to have grown some real muscle but still well short of being a man. He was downright plump compared to the half-starved urchins Pete was used to. Strange for a boy with a family to be out at this time. Hadn’t his parents told him the night was populated by thieves and killers? Their loss.
“Ripe for the plucking, yes,” Pete whispered. “How tough, strong, how healthy.”
The boy looked around, but didn’t see Pete where he stood in the pool of shadow between streetlamps, bulging sack set next to him. Convinced he was alone, the boy crept right past Pete and on down the street. Pete shouldered his sack, heavy even for him. The sack squirmed and let out a muffled moan before falling quiet again.
They crept along, the boy’s fine shoes scraping against the cobblestones, Pete’s footsteps light and silent. Pete allowed the boy to walk, to gain some distance from his home, less chance of struggle that way. The boy’s head turned this way and that in fits and starts, like a bird watching for predators. He shivered; his coat did little to hold off the night’s chill.
A few doors ahead, a pub door slammed open, filling the street with light and noise from inside, the smell of roasting meat. Two men staggered out, yelling loudly to each other, and the boy froze, then ducked into an alley. Pete followed, his eyes adjusted quickly into the cramped space. The boy picked his way by feel over the refuse strewing the alley, putting his foot down in a mound of dung, too fresh to be frozen, soiling his fine shoes. Pete grinned. Little boys, blind in the darkness, should know to scurry home to be safe from foxes.
A tall figure approached from the other direction. Tall compared to anyone but Pete, who stood two heads taller yet. It was a man with hand extended as if holding a knife, silently picking his way through the trash. A night stalker, cutthroat, intent on his business. The fool boy didn’t see him coming. What a waste that would be to see the boy bleed and die!
Pete dropped his heavy sack with a thump, and quickened his step, abandoning his efforts to be quiet. The boy spun at the sound, screamed. Pete pushed the boy aside into the trash. The cutthroat lunged with his knife, and Pete sidestepped, catching the wrist with his own hand, twisting the hand sharply so the knife fell into Pete’s other hand. In a moment the hilt of the knife protruded from the cutthroat’s eye socket, and he fell, still silent.
The fight had taken but moments, and the boy was still struggling to find his feet. Pete grabbed him by the back of the shirt.
“Fabric so fine,” he said. “Not a hole in sight.” He could find a use for that fabric as well.
“Mama!” the boy screamed, as Pete hauled him back to his sack and stuffed him in with the others.
Shouldering the bag, Pete ignored the kicks and muffled screams, grinning at the night’s haul. The struggles went on and on.
“Full of life, that one. Good, good. Those are the best. Nick will be pleased.”
No one accosted him. His size was enough to keep most away. His long strides ate the ground quickly, carrying him out of town to his humble home, worn but comfortable. First, he barred the door and set the heavy steel lock in place. Second, he lit a lamp, so the children would be able to see. Third, he dumped his haul out on the floor. Four boys and one girl in total, all street urchins but the last. Freed from their cramped confines, they began to stir, all but the smallest of the boys, who wasn’t breathing. He’d been the first in the sack, smothered by the others. No small loss, but the last boy more than made up for it.
While the others lay on the ground and weeped, that boy was the first to his feet, staring wildly around, noting the lock on the door, the lack of windows, the door to the only other room in the hovel, but lingering the longest on the huge cauldron hanging over the banked coals.
Without a word, Pete strode over to it, and scooped cold porridge, mixed with his special herbs, into four wooden bowls. He put a wooden spoon in each and set them on the floor in front of the children, not wanting to startle them. Once he stepped away, the street children sat up and ate, surely the first food they’d had in days.
The last boy, plump and proud, looked once at the porridge, but didn’t move. “You mean to fatten me, and eat me up.” It was easy to not eat when you weren’t hungry.
“No, no, children aren’t for eating.” Pete chuckled. “Old Pete needs children, but not for food. You can starve, if you’d rather.”
The boy eyed him wildly, looking for an escape.
“Yes, yes,” Pete whispered to the others, quiet as he could. “Eat, eat, keep you strong and keep you small, the better to keep you.”
When they were finished eating, Pete led them into the other room, the walls lined with bunks stacked four high. The girl sneezed at the sawdust raised by their feet. Eyes peered out from each bed: his little helpers, some old, some young, every one kept healthy and small by Pete’s special porridge. Those eyes sized up the newcomers.
The lamp illuminated the tables filling the rest of the room filled with hammers and saws, blocks of wood and nails. “Sleep and sleep hard,” he told the new workers. “Nick’s list is mighty long, and all those good girls and boys need their toys, don’t they?”
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