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"I saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas Day, on Christmas Day..."
A mink-lined cloak hooked beneath her chin, and hands ensconced in a matching muff, Cornelia Peabody approached a band of children caroling near the Beacon Street entrance of Boston Commons. A frigid wind off the harbor had the children huddling close together, and after a quick glance up at the darkening sky, Cornelia paused to dig for some coins.
"What strong voices you have to carry us into the new century." She smiled at the oldest youth. "How much more must you make before you're allowed in out of the cold?"
The teenage boy glanced at her with crafty eyes. With an efficiency that spoke volumes of long practice, he took in her silver-buckled boots, dark blond hair secured by a garnet-accented snood, and the black silk top hat that shielded her face with a fishnet veil.
. The word was all but scrawled in six-inch letters across his face.
"My brothers and sisters would sing for nothing at all for a fine lady such as yourself, miss," he began, his gaze earnest. "Only... We can't go home without nothin', or our father will beat us and make us sleep in the woodshed again. If it's this cold now, we'll surely freeze to death by sunup." As he spoke, one of the younger children scooted closer to her, the touch feather-light.
Not bad. But of course, she was better.
"Quite a decent blab, boyo. Delivery was smooth, too." Cornelia's smile never wavered as she caught the tiny thief's hand still clutching her decoy purse. "But there's a pair of coppers who patrol this part of Beacon Street, not to mention we're on the cusp of Irish Paddy's known territory. You wouldn't want either of those anvils falling down upon your precious heads, now would you?"
The singing stopped and the teen looked like he'd swallowed an icicle sideways. "M-Miss, please forgive my little brother. He ain't never pulled this sort of mischief before"
"Now, now, don't misunderstand. Consider this a friendly warning, from one survivor to another. Try the pickings south of Faneuil Hall. A lively marketplace has set up there, it always does this time of year. Lots of distracted pigeons, and you'll be in no one's established territory." She let the child go, then brought out the money to give to the stunned teen. "You hearing my words, boyo? If not, I'll say it plaindon't come back to Beacon Street."
Cornelia's smile vanished into the evening along with the pack of street urchins. They got younger by the day, she thought as she crossed the street, the flare of gas lamps casting a rosy hue over the frozen city. Though she had been that young when she'd embarked on her own career. Younger. And those urchins had each other to lean on. She'd had no one but
Her thoughts came to a teeth-jarring halt as her brownstone came into view. It was a lovely building, three stories of rooms she'd customized to fit her needs. It was her bank vault, her sanctuary and her fortress, complete with her own specially devised sentries. The sight of the twin white flags perched atop the building never failed to fill her with reassurance. But as her gaze flicked to the gothic cornice along the brownstone's rooftop, the sight of only one flag blowing in the December wind froze the blood in her veins.
The alarm had been tripped.
The flag could have blown down, came the knee-jerk denial, but ruthless logic squashed the weakness for what it was. She had designed that flag to retract, not fall over. The tripwire connecting the flag to the brownstone's first-floor entry points had been activated.
Someone had broken into her house.