Cracksman's Bird

Cracksman's Bird

by Sarah Brockmann

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Overview

When ten-year-old Dina and her best friend Kate are unexpectedly whisked from the relative safety of the orphan home to a factory indenture, Dina promises to protect her friend from their imperious matron and hostile co-workers. It is a promise that she cannot keep, and in a revenge-driven midnight siege, Kate is tragically killed. In despair, Dina escapes to the depraved streets of Victorian London's East End.

Canny and resilient, she must learn quickly how to fend for herself, filching food and finding shelter where she can. Before long, her life takes another, more perilous turn when she is plucked from the streets by a volatile cracksman and his gang, to assist them in their high-end burglaries. She must use her every skill, and learn new ones, to survive Ian Brown's often violent keeping and the work she must do. All the while, she must also avoid capture by the man hired to return her to her indenture; someone known to Mr Brown through still darker circumstances, and someone who could prove as dangerous to her as her keeper.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781458216076
Publisher: Abbott Press
Publication date: 06/27/2014
Pages: 212
Sales rank: 1,016,804
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.48(d)

Read an Excerpt

Cracksman's Bird


By Sarah Brockmann

Abbott Press

Copyright © 2014 Sarah Brockmann
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4582-1607-6


CHAPTER 1

The girls dug their fingers into the hard, grey soil, their fingers stiff and dry and caked with dirt, as they tried to loosen the potatoes and carrots that seemed set with mortar into the hard ground of the kitchen garden. There were ten of them, aged as young as eight and as old as fourteen, and none either well-dressed or well fed by the look of it. Each of the girls carried a small sack, into which she dropped her prize after she pried it from the ground. The late summer sun offered little warmth and only thin light, blocked by the imposing black brick shoulders of the St. Elizabeth Hospital for Orphan Girls, which rose up behind them.

Dina was working a row of small potatoes. A bit small for ten, but sturdy, with light olive skin and dark eyes and hair, she scraped at the dirt, loosening two small tubers. A furtive glance towards the building, then she slipped one of them into her sack, and the other down the front of her pinafore. She moved down the row a few steps, stooped over the dirt, and met up with another girl—taller, with a tousle of unkempt brown hair and a face full of freckles.

"Have you got anything yet?" asked Carol without looking up.

"Not much," Dina replied, eyes carefully fixed on her work. "The eyes of the devil himself are on me today."

The devil himself was in fact Deacon Henry, who sat with his scuffed wooden chair tipped against the building, surveying the girls thinly, and watching Dina with a particularly hawkish eye. He was not fond of the outdoors and did not enjoy minding the girls in the garden. He much preferred being indoors, especially when he could be in the company of that deliciously plump, light ginger-haired novice, Sister Josephine. She was so easily flustered by his undeniable charm—a quality that he found quite irresistible.

Deacon Henry pulled a large, handsome handkerchief from his wide waistcoat—a very fine waistcoat, he thought to himself as he wiped his brow, though it was not warm. Deacon Henry took great pride in his appearance, believing that being a man of God did not necessitate taking up in sackcloth and ashes; indeed, he felt strongly that his fine appointments gave glory to God, and he was keen to give God as much glory as he could afford.

Deacon Henry leaned forward and squinted out through his tiny spectaclesintothegarden.Hetippedhischairbacktoupright,rolledtohis feet and called out crossly, "All right, then, girls, you've had time enough. Inside now, and I hope you've got enough for your supper tonight!"

The girls creaked to standing, rubbing backs and necks, and made their way towards the Deacon and the kitchen door. Dina quickly joined hands with Kate, a pale, delicate girl with strawberry blond hair and light freckles on her pretty face, and they fell into the line to go inside. Deacon Henry stood at the door, taking each sack and hefting it critically before depositing it into a large basket. Kate, anxious and ever wanting to please, looked worried as they approached.

"What is it, love?" Dina whispered.

"I've only got two. Deacon Henry will be so displeased," Kate fretted.

"Not to worry," said Dina, as she deftly switched sacks with Kate, though hers was not much better, with only four very small potatoes and a baby carrot. Kate opened her mouth to protest, but Dina shook her head, short and quick as they came to the head of the line. Kate handed the bag to Deacon Henry, who nodded wordlessly, dropped it in the basket, and waved Kate through the kitchen door. He had missed the switch. Dina was next, and the Deacon glared as he hefted the meagre bag she offered.

"Is that really the best you can do?" he sneered.

"Sorry, sir," replied Dina, meeting his disapproving eyes a bit too boldly, which made him thin them the more. Kate waited nervously just inside the kitchen door, and the other girls paused to listen where they stood.

"I'm sure I saw you picking up more than this," drawled the Deacon, eyeing her up and down.

"Just rocks, I'm afraid, sir. Hard to tell the difference," she replied, shrugging.

"Are you sure you're not nicking them?" The Deacon attempted a piercing glare down at the girl, and his squinting eyes were almost swallowed behind his fat cheeks. Dina widened her eyes in innocence, though the gesture was not the least convincing.

"No sir! What would I want with a dirty old rock?" She couldn't quite completely suppress her smile. The Deacon swatted at her with his cane, but she was too quick, and ducked round him and inside.

"Go on, then, damned gypsy," he scowled. He called her that often, not always under his breath. Dina did not hesitate to give him reason to do so, and she took his name-calling as a point of pride. He had disliked the girl the minute he encountered her on his first day at St. Elizabeth's. The animosity had long since become mutual, in large part because he did so little to hide his aversion to her, and because Dina made such sport of his distaste.

Dina could not remember a time that she did not live at St. Elizabeth's. In part because of Deacon Henry's taunting, she was quite certain that she had been a gypsy foundling; one of the many taken by the British government to provide them with a better life than that of the thieving, dirty, wandering gypsy. The orphanage would not have been a particular improvement, but it was all she had ever known. She was well-liked among the other girls—clever and funny and always willing to share what she was able to pinch from the kitchen garden, for she believed that none of them were fed enough, and she was quite adept at stealing—a skill that she felt proved her gypsy heritage. Though popular with the other girls, she had never had a best friend until Kate came along.

Kate had arrived only two years prior, shaken and lost after the death of her caretaker aunt. She ate almost nothing for her first two days, but wept and shook and tried to stay to herself. Dina was taken at once by her delicate appearance, her fear, and her sorrow, and she took her under her wing immediately. Within the week they were nearly inseparable. Dina shared her food, her blanket, even slept with Kate on the coldest nights, holding her close and safe and warm. Although she still looked out for the other girls, Dina was devoted to Kate above all others, and Kate responded with deep affection and equal devotion. Even Deacon Henry had to admit that Kate's arrival had changed Dina for the better, though it did not compel him to dislike her any less.


The line of dusty girls tromped through the kitchen and into the laundry room, in which two large caldrons steamed, each surrounded by five girls, stirring muslin sheets with large, wooden paddles. For this was the work of St. Elizabeth's—washing the bedding of the St. Luke Voluntary Infirmary round the corner. All of the girls had a turn in the laundry room several times a week, and they were happy to do it, or so they were told, because it was through this work that their lodging was funded. In truth, it was horrid work. The linens came to them soiled with blood and excrement, and even after they were rinsed as clean as they could make them, they were hot and heavy and difficult to manage, especially for the smaller girls.

Sister Josephine bustled into the room, as always pink and pretty and flustered. As she was still a novice, her head was uncovered, and her hair flew in thin, curly wisps about her round face. She wore a simple novice's grey dress and white bib, which brought out the colour in her face but did nothing to flatter her generous figure. She swept past the girls who had just come in and who had already gathered round a long, low sink and begun to wash.

"Quickly now! We must get this lot hung up before supper!" she called as she reached the first cauldron and shooed the girls away. "Go on, put your paddles away and get the hooks. Water coming out!"

As she cried her warning, she turned a large handle near the bottom of the cauldron, and cloudy, steaming water began to flow down a chute and into a shallow channel worked into the stone floor. The water rushed through the channel and out into the yard. Even as she released the water from the second cauldron, girls were probing the first, pulling out steaming, dripping linens and dropping them into large baskets. In minutes, all twenty-odd girls were at it.


An hour later, the girls were assembled in the dining room, shivering as they sat in two long rows of tables and benches, empty wooden bowls and spoons set before them. Every one of them was soaked from their work. Torches flickered on the walls but added little warmth to the darkly panelled room. On a slightly raised dais, a smaller table was set for three. Sister Josephine and Deacon Henry sat at opposite ends of the table, surveying the waiting girls as though at any moment one might start a riot. Evelyn, the greasy, dark-haired cook was waddling back to the kitchen, having just wheeled out a large, steaming pot of soup. A basket of bread waited nearby, and the girls watched the pot, shivered in silence, and waited.

Dina sat close to Kate, who was blue-lipped and shaking badly. Dina put her arms round her friend and held her shoulders tightly. She was so pale, so thin, yet so perfect, she thought.

"I wish I had a blanket or something warm to give you!" Dina fretted.

Kate attempted a thin smile. "If it's still warm when we eat, I'll be better."

Dina nodded, and she pulled Kate a little closer.

The door to the dining room opened, and at once the benches scraped the floor and the girls stood. Sister Josephine and Deacon Henry also stood as a tiny, wrinkled old nun entered the room. Sister Mary-Helene's steps were not quick but steady, and her black cane thumped the floor as she made her way past the girls and up to the dais. She took the step with only the briefest hesitation, then came round to her place in the centre of the smaller table. She lowered herself slowly, carefully, into her chair. The moment she made contact, everyone else quickly took their own seats.

Sister Mary-Helene's eyes scanned the room for a long moment. Then she spoke in a voice surprisingly strong for one so frail-looking.

"Let us pray. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name ..." The girls joined in the prayer methodically, hands clasped and heads bowed. Dina glanced over at Kate, whose eyes were closed and whose hands were clasped tightly and who whispered the words of the prayer intently. Dina watched her praying with such earnestness and wondered what the words could possibly mean to her. For her part, Dina had only ever mouthed them as best she could when she knew one of the sisters was watching, but she had no idea of what she was supposed to be saying or what it all meant.

"Amen" croaked Sister Mary-Helene, and instantly twenty heads snapped up and twenty bodies leaned from their benches. Sister Mary-Helene nodded, very deliberately, to Deacon Henry and Sister Josephine, who just as deliberately got up and went to stand by the soup and bread. All eyes were fixed hungrily on Sister Mary-Helene, who glanced from the waiting pot to the waiting girls, then lifted her chin and said, "You may fill your bowls."

At once the girls rushed forward, forming a jagged line across the room. Sister Josephine ladled out the thin, greyish soup so that each girl got a few small pieces of potato in her bowl. Deacon Henry thrust a piece of crusty bread into each girl's hand, and they moved carefully back to their seats, but did not eat. Dina inspected her own bowl and Kate's, then switched them.

"Here—this one's a bit thicker, I think."

"It's all right," protested Kate under her breath. "I don't..."

"You're too thin. Go on!" whispered Dina with a grin and a nudge.

When everyone had been served, the Deacon and Sister Josephine returned to the dais and took their seats. The three adults at the head table uncovered their own plates, which had been brought by Evelyn while the girls were being served, revealing a small cut of meat and several round potatoes. Sister Mary-Helene stabbed a potato with her fork and stretched her lips around it. The moment her mouth closed on the food, the room erupted with the clatter of spoons in bowls as the girls quickly devoured their meal.


When supper was ended, the girls were herded to their dormitory to get ready for bed. The dormitory was a large, open room on the second floor of the orphanage. Three sizable, leaky windows hung close together and looked out over the street; the rest of the room was solid, grey plaster. An assortment of wood and metal cots was laid out in the room in strict rows. Each had one thin sheet and one thin blanket, and some combination of cotton ticking, rags, and straw that served as a mattress. Each girl's belongings, if she had any at all, were folded beneath the cot. Dina, like many of the girls, had only the dress she was wearing and a nightdress that she was far from the first to own.

Kate, being the most recent arrival, and having come not from another orphanage but from her late aunt's home, had an extra dress, a small but thick shawl, and a pinafore that she could still squeeze into, in addition to her nightdress, all neatly folded beneath her cot. She had also brought with her two extra pairs of stockings and a small jacket, but Sister Mary-Helene had decided that these items ought to be redistributed to more needy residents, and Kate had seen them passed between two girls already.

In their nightdresses, for they all had one in some form or another (Sister Mary Helene had determined that their day dresses would last longer if they did not sleep in them), the girls sat quietly on their cots while Deacon Henry read from the large Bible on the stand by the door, as he did every night that he was there. When he was not, the duty fell to Sister Josephine, but as she was not a skilled reader, the recitation was usually brief, halting, and sometimes amusingly mispronounced. She stood at the door now, looking on with great admiration as Deacon Henry read with great gusto in his nasal voice, punctuating his words with glares round the room.

"For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." His eyes traversed the room a final time as he concluded the reading, surveying the girls with a distaste that made it clear that none of them could possibly become the righteousness of anything, with or without the mercy of Jesus Christ, then he closed the book with a flourish.

"Amen. To bed, now, girls, and not another sound from you!" he barked, and a little wave of blankets moved through the room as the girls got into bed. After casting a final, stern glance over the girls, the Deacon took his lamp and, motioning to Sister Josephine to go before him, left the room. The last light of the setting sun crept through the windows and took the edge off of the darkness.

After several minutes of silence, tiny whispers of conversations began to float about the room. Dina slipped out of her own cot and went to sit by Kate. They were joined by Carol and her ready smile.

"I thought he was never going to finish!" exclaimed Carol in a loud whisper.

"I think Sister Jo was wondering as well. Did you see her, all moony eyed behind him?" asked Dina, as she stood up and circled Carol flirtatiously. "Oh, Deacon Henry, dear, the way you read that book—it's so very ... fancy!" Carol smirked and flicked her eyebrows.

"Do you think so, Josephine? Maybe I should read you a poem? A love poem!" Carol tried to look seductive. A number of the girls stopped their conversation to watch. This was a game that they had played before. Dina swooned dramatically as the girls giggled.

"Oh! Oh, Deacon Henry! I could just eat you up!" At that, Dina smothered Carol with kisses to the delight of her audience. After a moment, they fell apart, laughing. Dina darted to her cot and reached inside the drying dress. At once, faces lit up across the room. Dina drew four small, raw potatoes out of the folds of her pinafore, and with a warning finger to her lips, tossed three of them, one at a time, around the room. The fourth she gave to Kate.

"You first," said Dina, nodding encouragingly.

Kate smiled and took a bite before she passed it along, as the others were doing, and all four were quickly devoured by the hungry girls.


Meanwhile, on the floor below, the adults were saying their evening prayers in the small, dark wooden chapel. Sister Mary-Helene sat with her prayer book open and her eyes closed, reciting the words almost silently. Her closed eyes gave Sister Josephine ample opportunity to bat her eyelashes and wave across the stalls at the Deacon, who responded, even while reading the prayers, with his own silly, flirtatious winks and glances.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Cracksman's Bird by Sarah Brockmann. Copyright © 2014 Sarah Brockmann. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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