Winter holds on in mid-March with a stubborn, icy grip. Despite the bright afternoon sun, the air is crisp. Those meandering through New York’s harbor still dress in layers of thick clothing for warmth.
In the midst of the crowd that has gathered, a young thief breathes into her threadbare gloves, rubs her hands briskly together, and joins the masses to begin her work. Bright coppery curls tucked under a cap are her only distinguishing marker. Pale green eyes hide behind a shadow and her plain clothing helps her melt into the background. Just one poor immigrant in a sea of other immigrants.
Most of these poor souls do not have the money to visit Liberty Island, so they come here instead. Hundreds of unsuspecting victims bundle close while they shuffle along the pier. Many stop to gape in awe at the colossal splendor of the Statue of Liberty.
Just as well, for their diverted attention allows the pickpocket’s careful fingers to work without too many mistakes.
In this line of work, mistakes can be a death sentence.
Within the hour, she has garnered enough money to last her till Sunday, if she is careful. She dares not press her luck for any more. And, anyway, it is foolish to keep too much on her person. Plenty of other thieves to watch out for in this city.
Hiding everything within her full skirts, she slips away from the crowd and begins walking. She daydreams about dinner and the full meal that will fill her belly. She may even splurge just a little and wash it down with a pint of ale.
Someone pushes past her then. The sudden motion pushes her off-balance and jars her back to reality. Heart pounding, she pats her skirts. She hears the quiet jangle of coins from beneath the folds of fabric. Thank goodness.
Now more curious than frantic, she watches the other person, a girl close to her own age – maybe a few years older. The other girl moves swiftly toward the end of the street. A thick mass of people have all but blocked off that side and she stops behind a particularly thick wall of bodies. Her foot taps impatiently while she looks to the left and to the right to find an open path. Her reddish brown hair threatens to pull out of the haphazard bun tied at the nape of her neck.
The thief moves closer. The other girl’s clothes are old, but clean and well taken care of. Even closer now. A silver pocket watch glints in the sunlight at the girl’s waist and catches the thief’s eye. She gasps. That watch could buy her new gloves. Maybe even a new outfit.
Just another step. Almost there.
Fingers brush against skirt fabric. It rustles. The other girl whips around. Fingers wrap around the thief’s neck and without warning she is shoved. Her body trips backward. She slams against a brick wall, the other girl surprisingly strong for her size. The thief feels fingers squeeze against her throat when she struggles. The other girl’s face, now scowling, leans in so close that the thief can feel warm breath on her cheek.
“You picked the wrong target, street rat,” the other girl hisses.
A knife presses into the thief’s side and she stops struggling. She says, “I’m sorry,” in a strangled choke. Tears gather in the corner of her eyes. “Please don’t kill me!”
The other girl rolls her eyes. “Good lord, you are bad at this.” She releases her hold and steps back. A sudden rush of air fills the thief’s lungs and she doubles over and takes several frantic, ragged breaths.
“What’s your name?” the other girl asks.
The burning in her throat makes it hard to form words. “Keelie.” Her voice sounds scratch and foreign to her ears. “Keelie Flynn.”
“Well, Keelie Flynn, I’m Annie McCain.” She holds out her hand. Keelie stares down at it, dubious, before she takes it in her own. “I’m surprised you aren’t starving or in jail, what with that sad little display just now. Though,” she adds, looking Keelie up and down, “you do look a little worse for wear.”
Keelie flushes. “I’m doing just fine, thank you very much.” She turns away – then back again. “Why do ye care?”
“I don’t.” Annie pockets the knife and leans against the brick wall to Keelie’s left. “I just happen to be the best pickpocket in New York City. Wouldn’t mind having an assistant of sorts. I could show you the ropes.”
“What’s the catch?”
“No catch. Just a cut of the profits. What do you say?”
Keelie takes a moment to think it over. While a small part of her wants to say no, she is tired. And hungry. And, to be honest, she really is a horrible pickpocket. “Okay, then,” she says. “I’ll do it.”
“Great! Now then,” Annie says with a smirk. “Lesson number one: when you pickpocket a female, always move the skirt with the breeze. Not against.”
Keelie Flynn and Annie McCain are two characters in an upcoming novel collaboration with Heatherlyn Egan. I hope you enjoyed this little preview of the characters! Don’t forget to let me know what you think in the comments below. 🙂