“You hear about that girl too, yeah?”
“You know. The girl, the one that got into Drake at, what, twelve—”
“Oh yeah, that one. She must have parents with a deep wallet. Hey, where’d you get sent to again?”
Some laughter. “Shut up. At least I got some schooling.”
The waves drown out their conversation again. Several muffled thuds sound out from the planks over my head. They must be stacking crates here. I’ve reached the spot right under the little office and the shipment of goods. I pause to readjust my footing. Then I climb up several beams, grab the edge of the pier’s walkway, pull myself up, and peek around.
The office is right over my head. The inspector stands on its far side, his back turned to me. I scramble quietly up onto the walkway and huddle in the shadows of the office’s wall. The rocks in my pocket clack against each other. I take one of them out while keeping my eyes turned toward the workers. Then I fling the rock toward the boat as hard as I can.
It hits the side of the boat with a loud thud, loud enough to get the attention of the boat workers. Several of them turn toward the sound—others head over to it. I take the chance and dart out from my hiding place, then make for the stack of crates. I manage to skid right behind it before anyone catches sight of me. My heart thuds frantically in my chest.
Every time I steal Republic supplies, I imagine myself getting captured and dragged off to the local police headquarters. Getting my legs snapped, like what happened to Dad. Or maybe I wouldn’t get taken to the headquarters at all. Maybe they’d just shoot me dead right on the spot. I can’t make up my mind which would be worse.
Time’s running out. I pull my pocketknife from where it’s tucked neatly against my shoe, and then jam it into the side of one of the wooden crates until it breaks through. I hack away in silence, careful to keep an eye on which direction the guards are looking. Most of them have wandered away by now, thankfully. Only two still remain, and even they stand a good distance away from the crates, lost in mindless chatter.
This shipment’s definitely stuffed with canned goodies. My mouth waters as I fantasize again about what I might find inside. Hot dogs and sardines. Meats of all kinds. Corn, pickled eggs, beans. Maybe even peaches or pear slices. I’d once managed to steal a fresh peach, and it was the best thing I’d ever eaten in my life. My stomach lets out a loud rumble.
I jump. My eyes dart up to see a teenage girl leaning against the crates, chewing on a toothpick and watching me work with an amused grin on her face. All my food fantasies vanish. Instantly I yank my knife out of the crate and make a run for it. The other men on the pier see me, shout something, and give chase.
I run as fast as I can down the pier. My bad knee burns from the sudden movement, but I ignore it. Bad knee won’t matter if I’m dead. I brace myself, waiting for the searing agony of a bullet in my back.
“Charlie!” one of them yells. “Get that little con!”
The girl replies with something I can’t hear.
I stumble through a pair of bewildered port workers, reach the pier’s end and the beginning of Lake’s streets, and run toward the closest alley I can see. Behind me, I can still hear the sounds of my pursuers. Stupid, so stupid. I should’ve been quieter, or waited until nightfall. But I’m so hungry. Now I just hope I can lose them in the maze of Lake’s alleys. My cap flips off my head, but I’m too scared to stop and go get it. My white-blond hair tumbles down past my shoulders in a wild mess.
Someone tackles me from behind. I squirm right out of his grasp, then try to make a leap for the wall and get a grip on the second-floor ledge. But my bad knee—already weak from my hurried escape—finally gives way, and I collapse to the ground in the shadows of the alley. All the breath in my lungs gets knocked out in one whoosh, but I still twist around and bare my teeth, ready to sink them into whoever’s grabbing me.
“Hey, chill out!” It’s the girl who had first spotted me. She has a nonthreatening face, but she pins me firmly to the ground. “It’s just me. I told my dad’s crew that I’d track you down. They’re all still back at the pier.”
I keep struggling.
“Look, we could do this all day.” The girl tilts her head at me and gives me a frown. I keep expecting her to slide a knife against my throat. But she doesn’t. After a few long seconds, I calm down. She nods at me when I do. “What were you trying to steal from my father’s shipment?” she asks.
“Just some food,” I reply. I’m still having trouble catching my breath, and the pain in my knee isn’t helping any. “I haven’t eaten in two days.”
“You from the Lake sector, cousin?”
I give her a smile. I hope she can’t see how nervous I am. “As much as you,” I say, noting her slang. “You’re probably even from the same neighborhood as me.”
She studies me for a moment. Now that I finally get a good look at her, I can see that she’s kind of pretty, with brown skin and frizzy black hair pulled back into two haphazard braids. She has a light smattering of freckles on her nose, and her eyes are golden brown. Her eyebrows look permanently set at an amused angle. She’s probably somewhere in her mid or late teens, although she looks small. A grin spreads on her face as she notices the way I’m checking her out. She carefully lets me sit up, but she doesn’t release my arm.
“You gonna let me go anytime soon?” I ask. “Or are you gonna drag me back to your dad and his pals?”