In the frantic bustle of a cold, dark, workaday evening, hordes of fleeing adults poured out of factories and shops, offices and dockyards; they piled into double-decker omnibuses drawn by teams of heavy horses that went clip-clopping up and down the lamplit streets, trundling them on to Victoria Station. There, they thronged aboard steam-trains that chugged away from London, gathering speed, to be flung out far away in the snowy English countryside—only to repeat the whole mad ritual tomorrow.
Amidst all this busy back-and-forthing, nobody paid much mind to a small girl of seven in a rough woolen coat, her hands in fingerless gloves reddened with cold and hard work as she gripped the handles of the wheelbarrow she was pushing up the side of the street, leaving Covent Garden Market.
The wheelbarrow had started out full, but now it was empty—except for its passenger: the scruffy little brown dog standing proudly in its painted metal basin.
The wee Norwich terrier braced his forepaws on the front brim of the barrow, his snout pointing forward like he fancied himself the figurehead on the bow of a pirate ship. His stump tail wagged a friendly hello to everyone they passed. Some smiled but most ignored him and the little girl.
His name was Teddy, and his owner, Dani O’Dell, was among those making her way slowly homeward at the end of another long day.
She was wishing that it weren’t so dark out already.
It made the walk home to the rookery a bit scary, but there was nothing to be done for it. Come December, it was like midnight by five in the afternoon.
Her breath clouding around her in the chill, Dani paused to wipe her runny nose on the back of her sleeve.
Then she grasped the handles again and trudged on, her satchel with a book in it over one shoulder, Teddy’s leash looped around her wrist.
Whew, she’d been on the go since the city roosters crowed. First chores, taking care of her family, then school, then work hawking oranges.
She’d yelled her singsong about the stupid fruits until she was hoarse: “Orrrranges! Who’ll buy my oranges? Winter special, aaaall the way from sunny Spain!”
The rare tropical fruits were a great delicacy at this time of year, and people would buy them for Christmas.
Unfortunately, all her efforts had paid off with a sore throat. Probably catch me death, I will. Ah, well. At least she had Teddy. Her little friend made her lowly life bearable.
Da had given him to her as a tiny pup after Ma died a year and a half ago, and Dani had failed to cheer up after a few months.
Teddy always made her laugh.
“Why don’t you push me for once?” she asked the dog pertly.
The terrier glanced back at her, panting and wearing a big doggy smile. Then he looked forward again, alert to every sound and motion.
Dani was glad he was with her as she approached the entrance to the rookery. It was a dicey place, her neighborhood.
Not that any of the people there would dare to bother her.
Nobody who’d ever heard of her five elder brothers would risk such a thing.
No, Dani’s loathing of the place stemmed from something deeper. Colder. More vague. A trapped sort of terror that she would never get out of this place.
The wintry darkness seemed to thicken as she approached the opening to the street where she lived. They didn’t bother putting streetlamps in this part of London. The locals would’ve only snuffed them out at once to hide their activities. The bobbies generally stayed away.
Dani paused across the street from her intersection and let out a sigh.
Home, sweet home.
Two tall brick towers loomed ahead, blackened by coal soot, like the gatehouse of some forbidding castle. A crooked lane ducked between the soulless tenement buildings, and it was into this narrow passage that Dani forced herself to go.
Her building—Block Four—was farther down the way, but they all looked the same. There were rows and rows of these ugly towers, each crammed with apartments barely bigger than horse stalls. A labyrinth of garbage-strewn streets wound between them.
As Dani shoved her wheelbarrow along over the uneven cobblestones, feeling watched as she went, for the windows glowed orange through a layer of coal dust, like the wicked eyes of a jack-o’-lantern. Here and there, she could see silhouettes of the people inside the tenement houses through the shades, when they’d bothered to pull them.
She could hear some of them arguing as she went by, angrily switching back and forth between English and Gaelic. From the next building, she at least heard a few guffaws and also caught a snatch of the secret code language that the rookery folk had invented to fool the bobbies.
Outsiders called the seemingly nonsensical babble thieves’ cant. They didn’t know how to speak it, and that was the whole point. A dummy meant a coin purse, for example. A jug was a bank. To bubble a person was to cheat them; to dawb was to bribe them; but to hush someone meant to murder them.
Beyond that, Dani didn’t want to know. She was an honest girl, and she’d promised Ma she always would be.
Pausing to take the satchel wearily off her shoulder, she plunked it into the wheelbarrow, then heard a splash some distance behind her. She grimaced, all too familiar with that sound.
Dani scowled over her shoulder. Some woman had just tossed the contents of a slops bucket out a third-floor window, vaguely aiming for the gutter, but mostly hitting the street. Disgusting. Poor Teddy! What his little black nose must smell around here, she could barely imagine.
His fuzzy ears perked up all of a sudden as he spotted an alley cat sitting in the shadows beside the front stairs of Block Three. He moved to try and jump out of the wheelbarrow, but Dani immediately stopped him, tightening the leash.
“Leave her alone! She’s not bothering you.”
The cat held her ground in defiance, staring back at the dog and refusing to budge, though her fur bristled like a puffball.
Dani shook her head in confusion as she trudged on. Stray cats were free to go anywhere they pleased, so why on earth would that little tabby choose to stay here, of all places?
Why, she could go and live in Mayfair, where all the streets were pretty, or make a hideaway for herself in the bushes in some duke’s fancy garden, aye, one of those tremendous mansions across from Hyde Park.
The cat must not know such places existed.
Dani sometimes wished she didn’t know, either. It’d be easier to accept her lot in life if she believed this was all there was of the world.
Then she passed an alley where little squeaking things scurried on the trash heap, and it dawned on her why the cats stayed. Of course.Mice. Rats. There was always plenty to eat here.
At least for them.
As Dani approached the intersection outside her own building, a clamor reached her from the darkness ahead.
A sharp cry, raucous laughter, angry voices.
She recognized them at once, and so did her dog. Teddy’s ears perked up. He sprang out of the wheelbarrow.
“Teddy!” She had to pull him back by his leash, but fear gripped her heart, for Dani knew the sound of trouble when she heard it.
Mother Mary!What are those heathens up to now? She’d better go find out because it didn’t sound good. Gripping the handles harder, her dog straining at the leash, Dani ran toward the crossroads, the rusty metal parts of her wheelbarrow clanking; it was hardly meant for speed.
The voices grew louder as she approached.
“Oho! Ye think ye’re clever, do ye?” That was Matthew, the second-born.
“Leave me alone!” A stranger’s voice.
“Filthy little guttersnipe,” snarled Mark, brother three. “You’re on our turf, boy.”
“What are you talkin’ about? I didn’t do nuffin’!”
“You tried to steal me pocket watch!” Luke declared, brother four, the peacock of the family. “Don’t you know wot ’appens to people tha’ try to steal from one of us?”
“It wasn’t me!” The other voice was tight and shrill. Whoever it was sounded frightened, and he should be.
The five O’Dell Brothers were a proper clan of fightin’ Irish. What daftling had attracted their ire?
The whole rookery knew that to cross one was to cross them all. And Dani knew better than anyone that the whole pack of them were barbarians.
Because they were her own family.
Within a few more pounding, squeaking, creaking strides, she burst into the intersection, chest heaving, and dropped her wheelbarrow. The instant she arrived on the scene, she saw it was exactly as she feared.
Her five roughneck brothers—ranging in age from the feral youngest, John, twelve, to the terrifying firstborn, Patrick O’Dell, an up-and-coming captain of the rookery at the grand age of twenty—were pushing a thin, wiry boy of about nine or ten back and forth among them, jeering and doing their best to terrify him.
Dressed in a tattered jacket and trousers that were too short for him, bare ankles exposed to the cold, the boy went flying like a ragdoll from Matthew to Mark, then Luke grabbed him by the arm.
“I should break those thieving fingers of yours!”
“It wasn’t me!” the boy exclaimed.
“Aye, ’twas.” Patrick stood by in kingly fashion, feet planted wide, his muscled arms folded across his chest, and a scowl on his handsome face. “Ye brought this on yourself, boy. Take your punishment like a man now. Ye cry, we beat ye harder.”
Then Dani gasped as Luke backhanded the boy across the face. He went flying into eighteen-year-old Matthew, who gave a devilish laugh, then grabbed the poor urchin by the ankles and swept him upside down.
“Let’s empty those pockets o’ yours, shall we?”
The boy screamed, dangling and writhing like a caught fish. His woolen cap fell off, and his longish, gold hair hung earthward. But he planted his hands on the grimy cobblestones and narrowly avoided breaking his head by flipping over from a handstand into a clumsy backward bend when her brother shoved his feet away.
“Oof!” The stranger landed flat on his back, the wind knocked out of him. But when Johnny went and loomed over him, then started kicking the poor creature in the side, Dani felt her own Irish wrath rising up.
“Stop it!” she screeched. “Stop it right now!”
She released Teddy’s leash and both of them went racing into the fray...