"You killed her?" he asked, his eyes locked on me, his expression one of concern.
"That wasn't the plan," I said.
"I should think not," the woman said. I couldn't read her eyes, a talent I thought I had long ago mastered. Her thoughts were also closed to me, which begged a question I dared not ask.
"It's a rather convoluted tale, I'm afraid," I said. The three of them sat in continued silence, urging me on with obvious attention. I noticed I was wringing my hands and forced myself to place them flat down on my knees. The chair in which I sat was rather uncomfortable, but it was appropriate for the story I was about to divulge.
"I know I have to share this with you, but you'll have to accept that some of it isn't going to be easy. I'm sure you can understand that." Nods all around. "I will say this. I regret nothing. All that I've done was what I had to do, if only to survive. What comes from this, whatever the future holds, the consequences of it all...I accept fully and without hesitation."
I took a deep breath and launched into my tale.
"I'm not quite sure where to start, so, please bear with me."
I arrived in Daytona late at night four days ago. It was one more maneuver in a desperate bid to elude the assassin. After all, my actions had set my fate. I knew the bastard would send someone after me, someone relentless and dedicated. I knew him well enough to know that he could not allow me live.
I set the cruise control on the stolen Cadillac and glanced back at Robert. His eyes were closed, and his head lay against the armrest of the rear passenger door. He was a good-sized, handsome fellow with a charming smile and had a nice voice. Perhaps that was what had led me to ask for a ride, rather than procuring one of my own. Things would have been so much nicer if he had just given me the lift I'd asked him for, without trying to take something in return.
Now, I had to find someplace to dump the damned body.
I merged onto Interstate 4 from the 95, outside of Daytona, and maintained a speed just under the limit. There was no need to bring any further unwanted attention to myself as I made my way to Orlando. The incident at the airport had left much to be desired, but I'd learned a long time ago how to roll with the punches. Nevertheless, the last thing I needed was a curious cop wondering why some teenage girl was cruising down the highway in a stolen Caddy, only to pull me over and find dead Robert in the back seat.
I dragged my attention back to the matter at hand and checked the glowing blue LED lights of the digital clock display. It was only eleven thirty, and time was on my side.
My eyes flicked from the GPS back to the darkened highway in front of me as I determined my next steps. Within minutes, I exited the freeway onto East New York Avenue, then headed north to Gasline. I found a suitable dark, quiet spot and pulled the Cadillac to the side of the road. I need to be quick about this, I reminded myself.
After scanning the road for any oncoming lights, and noting none, I pulled dead Robert's body from the back seat and tossed it a dozen or so yards into the woods. In times like those, I truly appreciated my own strength. Within a few minutes, I was back on I-4, dead Robert little more than another memory in a lifetime of dark moments.
Wait. I should start at the beginning.
I was born in 1877, to a tax collector and his young wife in the Seamills area of Bristol, off the River Avon. I rarely saw my father, as he was mostly at work doing whatever the hell it was he did. All I knew was that when he came home, it wasn't to see me. Whenever I caught his eye, he would look at me as if I'd just stabbed him in the gut — not that it mattered to me much at all, for I kept to myself whenever he was home. Mother would tend to his needs, providing him with food, alcohol and an undeserved bevy of other things that he preferred. I was only seven when I learned exactly how little the man cared for me.
The shouting began in the late evening, after our small dinner. For the life of me, I cannot recall what it was about. Father had been drinking since he'd returned home the day before. Maybe Mother had finally stood up to his constant berating. Who knows? What I do know is that she didn't back down that time. The house we rented was a two-story building, what would be called a "duplex" these days. A family lived next door to us, and we shared one common wall between us, from top to bottom.
To escape the terrifying screaming, I'd hidden my small body snugly in the crawlspace beneath the stairs and covered my ears. Even that did little to stifle their argument. I was moving along the bottom of the stairs, in search of a better hiding place, when I heard my parents' voices above me. Mother's scream pierced the air and my heart, and I whirled about just in time to see her falling backward down the stairs toward me, flailing her arms helplessly. She landed in a heap at my feet, her scream cut off by a loud popping sound, her neck at an awkward angle. Her blank eyes stared up at me, and I rushed to her and tried to shake her back to life.
Seeing that my efforts were futile, I looked up the stairs at my father, who was eyeing me with that same gut-wrenching, blaming, contemptuous glare. At that moment, something snapped inside me — something as real, timely and awful as the snap in my mother's neck. I caught my breath in reaction, feeling nausea and tightening in my stomach. Without a second thought, as he took his first step toward me, I made haste for the door and dashed out into the early fall night.
1884, Bristol, United Kingdom
I'm not certain how long I ran, my little lungs stretching to match my strides and my ever-swelling fear. That night, I slept on the street for the first time, huddled beneath a tattered blanket I'd pilfered from a refuse bin. It was the first of many nights that I would spend begging, borrowing, and stealing. I tried the local church, but as soon as the vicar began pressing me about my parents, I slipped out into the lonely darkness once again, with only myself for company. I refused to allow anyone to take me back to my father. I'd sooner survive on my own than to live with the monster that had destroyed my mother, no matter what it took.
The days went by, the months. The first winter was not quite so bad. I managed to find the food and shelter I needed when I needed it. I never stayed in one place for very long and kept moving from one end of the city to another. There were other kids out there, as well as adults, people who wandered the streets and lived on them, and they would help me if I asked.
I learned to steal with the best of them: boxes of matches, trinkets from vendor booths, and whatever else I could find. I sold the stolen goods for small amounts of money to buy food or used clothing.
One of the things I managed to procure was a photograph of a cityscape, lit up bright enough to eliminate the night. It was so very beautiful. I gazed at that image for hours on end before finally falling asleep at the end of each long day. Paris, France, The City of Lights, of Love. Life there would be so much better, wouldn't it? I imagined. No more cold nights, no more begging and stealing. Maybe I could find a family there who'd take me in and...no, I supposed it was best not to ponder hopeful things like that. Dashed dreams are always more painful than no dreams at all.
The best survival teacher I had was a street kid named Marty. He and his friend, Liz, were practically veterans; they'd survived out there for a year or so longer than I had, and they were always willing to share what little they had with me whenever our paths crossed. Marty had a terrible mouth on him, but a few of his words wormed their way into my vocabulary. Liz always blushed when he used the f-word. For whatever reason, "fuck" and all variations thereof seemed to offend her delicate sensibilities. I found that strange, because she was fourteen, and she had sold herself on more than one occasion, profiting off of the verb she so hated to hear or utter. Why a word would have a more detrimental effect than the smelly weight of some old man pressing down on top of her always stumped me. Nevertheless, I kept my curiosity about that to myself, not wanting to offend a friend.
Marty protected Liz and me against other, bigger kids who tried to bully us or take what little we had. It wasn't that we ever had a lot—or anything worth much—but the streets were a fight for survival, morality be damned. I looked up to Marty and admired his gentlemanly, big-brother-like concern for us. He was older than Liz, though I wasn't sure by how much; some things just really didn't matter. All I knew was that he was kind to me and somewhat protective, and that was enough.
Marty taught me the fine skills of pick-pocketing, casing a target, and creating a physical distraction to buy time so I could grab any item I desired. I finally began to succeed after multiple failed attempts. One close call was with a man who tried to punch me after I attempted to snatch his wallet and then dropped it on the ground right in front of him.
At times, we even worked as a team. Marty would present the distraction, and I would swoop in low, due to my small size, unseen and undetected. It kept us alive and fed on many occasions, that little talent—that is, until one day, when it all came crashing down.
Even now, my heart hurts to think of it. To remember that day is one of the most aching memories I have. I would forget it completely if I could, if I didn't think it might tarnish the whole of my memories. It's the occasional rainy day that brings it all back.
"See the man with the light overcoat?" Marty said, nodding his head toward a taller gentleman across the muddy street, standing beneath his umbrella, his tan coat draped over his forearm as he chatted up a younger lady in a blue dress.
Liz and I nodded.
"I'll come from the south side there and bump into him hard enough to shift the umbrella. He'll get wet and be distracted enough for you to grab his wallet. He just put it in the outer pocket of the coat." Marty had directed the swipe to me, since I was so much better than Liz. "Liz, you come running up just after I begin apologizing. Tell me our mother is waiting and that she's getting upset with me. That will give us all time for a clean getaway. Sound good?"
We nodded and began moving into our designated positions.
I'd always admired Marty's scheming ability. It was rarely a hit-and-run with him, and he always added some extra element to throw the target off balance and keep them that way until we were clear. We'd run the same scam on many occasions, and it had never failed to work perfectly.
I had to wait until a carriage passed by before crossing the street to get into position. The two horses whinnied, and their hooves kicked up the mud from the street. I darted across and slowly moved closer to the target, then watched carefully as my partners-in-crime got into their respective positions.
Finally, Marty was ready to make his move. He darted toward the man, laughing. I synchronized my own stride to get to the target just as Marty crashed into him. As planned, the umbrella moved far enough to the side from the impact, and the steady rain pelted the gentleman as he cried out at the reckless child he assumed Marty to be. At the same time, my little hand swooped in and retrieved the wallet from the jacket pocket, just as the man pulled up the umbrella and reached for Marty with the hand that held the jacket. I slipped back, noticing the young woman's eyes upon me rather than Marty and the man, who was giving my fellow thief a good tongue-lashing. I curtsied to the young woman and moved off down the street, passing Liz as she ran up to the scene.
"Marty! Marty, Mother is quite upset. Where've you been? She's waiting for us." She reached out and took Marty's hand and tried to pull him away, but the gentleman would have none of it and held fast to Marty's other arm.
"You little brat! Your mother, eh? Well, bring the woman to me so I can discuss her lackluster child-rearing with her!"
I saw Liz pull harder on Marty's arm as he attempted to extricate himself from the man's grip. "Come on," she cried. "We have to go!"
She was turned by the force of the man's pull on Marty, but then I saw Marty give one last jerk through the man's grasp, tumbling both himself and Liz into the muddy street.
Everyone watched in horror as the four-horse carriage rolled by, the horses' hooves barely avoiding the children, one huge wheel and then the next inflicting the damage. Screams echoed from several witnesses, including the young woman the target had been chatting up. The gentleman dropped the umbrella and rushed into the street, the carriage halting as the driver realized what had happened.
Marty and Liz lay motionless in the mud, Marty's arm at some twisted, inhuman contortion. Blood was seeping from Liz's mouth, the wheels of the carriage having destroyed her throat and shoulder. For several moments that felt more like several eternities stacked on top of one another, I stared at the commotion: people rushing about and coats being laid over my friends' lifeless young bodies. I was at a loss for action or thought. Something tickled my brain and edged me into movement. Knowing there was nothing I could do and that staying there meant the bobbies would surely haul me down to the station for questioning, I realized that I had to run. I could not risk being caught. That, in some way, would only add insult to my friends' fatal injuries.
I slipped away through the screaming, wide-eyed crowd and walked for over an hour before falling into tears beneath the slight shelter of an overhang behind a pub. I was alone again. I let the grief of loss overtake me, disappearing into the loneliness and pain. I'm not certain how long I sat there, weeping, but it was a cleansing time. It was one of those moments of clarity where I realized that I was both lucky and lost. My will to survive surfaced with a vengeance.
I left the alley behind the pub, removed the cash from the wallet I'd swiped, and tossed the thing in a ditch before I went on my way.
Such was the life of a "gamine," as they called me. But, difficult times and all, it was the life I'd come to know. I made it work for as long as I could.
The second winter came early and rudely, catching everyone unaware, bursting onto the scene with bitter cold and harshness and round after round of snow and ice. I was huddled beneath the eaves of a shop building in Totterdam when I felt the last of my strength seep away from me. I'd survived seventeen months on the streets around Bristol, but Old Man Winter had come, and he was calling for me. I'd layered myself up with every stitch of clothing and fabric I could find, and I just curled up and stared at the picture of my dreams, The City of Light. That old, crumpled photo had become my best and only friend, and if I was going to die, I would do so lost in its promise.
"She's a feisty little thing," a female voice spoke. It was strong and sharp, with the accent of someone who was far more educated than anyone I'd ever met before, my parents included.
I peered up into the night to see two figures, a woman and a man, eyeing me with calculating expressions. I thought they were, perhaps, just curious about death, seeing as I was about to walk through that door. I know I was curious, for the subject had been one of great interest to me since the Reaper had taken my friends in the street. Lying there, it seemed that death would not be such a mystery for very much longer.
"She's a waif," the man said in response, cocking his head at such an angle that he could see the photograph curled up in my little fingers. "Still, she's got a lot of fire for one her size. She has...potential."
"I've seen her before. She knocked the hell out of an older, much bigger boy who tried to take her matches last month — put him right on his arse!" the woman said.
The man arched an eyebrow, and I wondered if I should say something. Then, again, I didn't think it would matter at that point.
The man, who looked older than my father, squatted in front of me and peered into my eyes. "What's your name, child?"
I wasn't sure how to respond and wasn't even certain I should. For whatever reason, I lied. "Paris," I said through chattering teeth, barely able to get the word out before the world went black.