“Stow away! Stow away down below,” yelled the captain, a robust man with a dark scraggly beard resembling tangled yarn. The gold buttons on his jacket shone like tinny suns. He dragged his peg leg across the wooden floorboards. In the deepest crevice of the lower deck, a dirty faced girl hid with her knees pressed against her chest. At a glance, she looked more like a boy than a girl. She had sandy brown-cropped hair that was matted to her acorn shaped head. She was dressed in torn shirt and raggedy britches. She trembled with fear as she heard the thud of boots above her. All she wanted was to escape her poor life. Maybe find a cozy home with a nice hot meal.
“There he is,” a growling voice called out. The dirty faced girl could feel her tiny body lifted from her hiding place, which was a small cobwebby cabinet. She pried open her eyes to come face to face with the captain and several sour looking men.
“Ah, Lad what do you mean by stowing away on my ship?”
The dirty faced girl remained silent. The truth was she was an orphan on the lam from Specks home for girls. Death claimed her mother when she was just weeks old. The whereabouts of her father was unknown. She spent many starless nights lying on her cot underneath a moth eaten blanket dreaming of a mother she never knew. She wondered what she was like. Did they have the same hair? Was she soft and sweet? What did her laugh sound like? A sharp jab in the ribs brought her out of her reverie.
“The captain asked a question,” spat a skinny gap-tooth man. He jabbed her once more with the rusty dagger.
“Ouch,” she yelped, touching her side.
All the sour faced men stepped back. “We’re all doomed.”
“A lass on my ship,” the captain snarled. He turned to face his crew. “Throw her overboard,” he commanded.
“Walk the plank. Walk the plank,” the men chanted.
Before she knew it, she was hoisted upon a wooden board and once again jabbed with a dull blade in the back. She swallowed hard as she peered down at the lulling blue abyss. Plunging into the blue would be far better than living in that horrible girls’ home were eggplant soup and moldy bread was a staple. The dirty faced girl cringed when she thought about the mildew walls and the stony-faced woman who oversaw things. Ira Specks. She didn’t wait to be pushed she held her nose and jumped.
Ira Specks was a top-heavy woman who dressed in billowy blouses and high waist skirts. Her face was creased and crinkled like a raisin. She walked with a limp and her lower lip jutted out. It was suppertime at the girls’ home and every girl stood erect as a soldier, awaiting orders. Madame Specks as she liked the girls to call her eyed the girls with a venomous gleam in her eye. She wasn’t very fond of children but it was a family tradition that all Specks women run the orphanage. As she gave the girls the once over she felt something was wrong. “Something not right,” she said, her pebble like eyes scanning the dour scenery. She looked from the brown peeling walls to the bare floorboards and then to the thin faced girls. Her cold eyes fell upon the only portly girl and the empty spot next to her.
Madame Specks took a choppy step forward. “Where is she? Where’s that dusty headed heifer.” Now her name escaped Madame Specks but she knew it begin with a vowel, but they were all heifers to her. The portly girl known as Waverly exchanged glances with the other girls.
“She’s run off again,” Madame Specks, said in a pococurante manner. “I guess I need to put bars on the windows, so you all won‘t be flooding the streets like rats,” she mumbled as she left the room.
A low rumble like thunder echoed from the girls’ empty bellies. Waverly clutched her paunch as she peered deep into the yellow-stained bowl. Even though life at the girls’ home was bleak. Every night she would look through her dirty windows and into the black velvet night, she would see the brightest star shining like a beacon of hope. Then Waverly would close her eyes and pray for a change to come. Unbeknownst to her and everyone in the city of New Vahl things were about to change.
Instead of descending to a watery gave the not so dirty faced girl emerged from the water. There was a net around her head. “Gotcha! I finally caught a mermaid,” a boyish voice said.
“I’m no mermaid,” the girl protested throwing the net off.
“Oh, I see.” The boy’s caramel eyes widen as the girl hoisted herself up on the raft. She looked the boy square in the eyes. He had a shock of curly raven hair and beige skin. He was dressed in overalls and no shirt. “May I ask you something?” The boy nodded his head. “What would you do if you happen to catch a mermaid?
“Make mermaid stew,” he replied matter-of-factly.
The girl scrunched up her face. “Aren’t mermaids half-human?” She glanced into the distance and saw the ship she stowed away on drifting further out to sea.
The boy laughed and snorted at the same time. “They would be pretty odd looking creatures. I’m Kyson,” he said, holding out his hand.
“Ametrius. Ametrius Jade,” she replied, staring absent-mindedly into the calming blue sea.
“Ametrius,” the boy repeated the name, rolling the syllables over his tongue like a sweet savory morsel. That sounds like a warrior’s name. I like it,” Kyson added. “So why were you on that ship?” he asked after a brief silence.
“I was running away,” she said, pulling at the frayed ends of her britches.
“Having troubles with your mom and pop.” Kyson began padding toward the land.
Ametrius was quiet. She raked her eyes across the boy’s face. She was sure all the other girls would think he’s cute. She sighed. “I don’t have a mom and dad.” She turned her eyes back to the port. Ruddy face men were unloading several brown crates off a ship.
The city of New Vahl was a port city, were everything centered on the harbor. Many ships brought staples of flour, sugar, and crackers, fresh produce, fish and salt to the city. Ametrius gazed at the ships loading and unloading. She had tried so unsuccessfully to stow away on one of those ships.
“What happen to your parents?” Kyson asked. Before Ametrius could respond, a bald man covered in tattoos started yelling at them. “You kids have no business in that water,” he said, his voice deep as a roll of thunder.
“Uh-oh. We better run,” Kyson said, half-laughing, as he roped in his raft.
Ametrius stared wide-eyed at the bald, tattooed man as he sprinted toward them, the crosses and ink faces seem to move. “Run.” Kyson’s voice rattled in her ears. Ametrius commanded her feet to move. Her raggedy sneakers slapped against the cobbled ground. She was use to running, especially from Specks home for girls. New Vahl’s port was teeming with people, besides ships there was a variety of markets. A hardware store, where a large hammer tapped on the roof. There were fur traders and jewelry makers. “Necklaces made from deep sea pearls,” announced a woman with one large roving eye, the other was covered with a bedazzled vermilion patch. Savory smells danced with sweet scents from cafes and beauty parlors. In a sea of custom tailors and salty tongue sailors, it was no wonder nobody took notice of a bare-chested lad carrying a wooden raft and a poorly dressed lass running through a maze of people. But there were some who did take notice, especially of the girl. A reed thin man in a charcoal trench coat with skin paler than bleach bones peered from the top of a magazine. A woman with a pinched nose and tightly flaxen bun looked away from the window display long enough to make a mental photograph. A short little man with bug eyes watched from across the street. And the woman with the vermilion patch saw with her one good eye the girl disappearing around an orange brick building.
“Did we lose him?” Kyson asked in between deep breathes.
Ametrius peeked around the corner. She saw throngs of people but none of them was the bald tattooed man. “I think we lost him.” She leaned against the wall to catch her breath. “I stay at the Ira Specks home for girls.” She looked at Kyson, who was pulling damp dollar bills from his pocket. He turned and met her gaze. “I heard she’s a dreadful woman.”
“You heard right.” Ametrius inhaled the aroma of roasted meats that invaded her nostrils and teased her grumbling stomach.
“Want some kettle corn?” Kyson pulled apart two dollars.
Tendrils of ruby reds and fiery oranges were all that remain as the sun slid between blankets of cloud. The crowds began to thin out. A small child tugged at his father’s sleeve in hopes of directing him toward the cotton candy. A stout woman swept the steps outside her shop, the Sweet Tooth. Ametrius munched on her kettle corn but it did nothing to sate her appetite. She stared hungrily at the turkey legs as they rotated on the spit.
“They sure do look good.” Kyson smacked his lips together.
Ametrius looked from the popcorn, which seem to go stale to the golden brown turkey leg. “I have to have one.”
“Hello there, would you like a turkey leg, young lady?” A man with extra large teeth asked.
Ametrius nodded her head. The man handed her a golden brown turkey leg. “That’ll be $3.50.”.He held out his hand.
Ametrius glanced over at Kyson. Kyson shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t have any money,” she said in a small voice.
“Well then you won’t have a turkey leg,” the man responded reaching for the turkey leg.
Ametrius held the turkey leg close to her chest. “But I have to have it.” She turned on her heel and ran.
“Stop thief. Stop that kid,” the man shouted.
“He’ll never catch us.” Right? Kyson.” She looked around but Kyson was gone. Still holding the turkey leg, she turned around. A swarm of people was gathering around. She couldn’t pick Kyson out of the crowd. The man stepped forward, pointing a finger at her. “Let the boy go. There’s your thief.”
Still holding the turkey leg Ametrius fled.
Night had settled onto the city of New Vahl. A bright moon hung low in a star-scattered sky. The streetlamps bathe the pavement in a warm glow. Cars roared down the nearly deserted streets. Revelers from a nearby club stumbled onto the sidewalk. Not far from the club a motel sign’s O illuminated brightly, putting it in direct competition with the moon. Inside this motel on the second floor and in room 213, four individuals gathered around a table.
“Could you please close that window?” A blonde woman with her nose held high asked. She raked a gloved finger across the table. “Ugh.”
A man covered in ink markings got up and slammed the window shut. He sat back down mumbling curses to himself.
“How long do we have to wait?” a short, bug-eye man sitting upon a phone book asked.
“I hope not much longer. A girl has to have her beauty rest,” said the woman with the vermilion eye patch as she checked her reflection in the compact mirror.
The blonde woman sniggered.
“Excuse me.” The patch-eyed woman snapped her compact mirror shut.
The blonde woman didn’t reply. She pretended to pick lint from her pea coat.
The patch eyed woman shot daggers with her good eye at the blonde woman.
“Alright, I’ve waited long enough.” The short man clapped his hands together.
Agreed.” The tattoo man rose up.
“Are we leaving?” The pale man darkened the door. He strode into the room. “Evening, Xenos.” He nodded in the direction of the tattoo man. “Aubrei.” He tilted his hat toward the blonde woman. “Saffron, that shade of red brightens your eye.”
Saffron smiled. “Thank you, Delmont.
“Do you need help? Pat. Delmont stared down at the bug-eyed man, who was sliding off his phone book.
“I don’t need your help. Just get on with your business.”
The pale man, Delmont remained standing. “I’m sure you’re wondering why I’ve called you all here.” His steely gray eyes surveyed the faces of everyone around the table. They all nodded their heads. “It’s about the girl we all saw at the port.”
“She looks just like what’s-her-face?” Saffron was the first to speak.
“She’s like the spitting image of what’s-her-face,” Pat said. Wait who are we talking about?” The short man’s eyes nearly bulged out of his sockets.
Delmont drummed his fingers on the table. “That’s because she’s the dreadful spawn of our long dead rival, Nina Jade.”
Saffron shifted in her chair. “She had a child.”
Delmont leaned forward, his bony fingers tapping together. He took in the perplexed looks on the disbanded members of the S.I.N.S organization.
“So what does Nina Jade’s child have to do with us?” Xenos asked.
Delmont leaned in closer, shadows dappling his pallid face. “For twelve long years the Dragon claw talisman has been hidden. The last person to have it was Nina Jade. Now with the appearance of the Jade girl the talisman and its power will be mine.
Xenos cleared his throat. “Don’t you mean ours?”
“Of course. Isn’t that what I said?” Delmont pushed away from the table.
“Are you sure the girl has it?” Aubrei asked.
“Trust me, the girl has it,” he said slowly.
Aubrei exchanged unconvinced glances with the others. “How are we to find the child and the talisman?” she asked.
Delmont walked over to the window. He stared into the night. “Watch the sky,” he replied.
“Watch the sky,” the others repeated.
Delmont didn’t respond. He stood with his hands behind his back, watching the sky.
It was lights out at the Specks Home for Girls. But none of the girls was asleep. They were all on the edge of their cots, listening to Ametrius spin yarn about her latest attempt at escaping. “And then I had to get out of dodge,” she said, making grand gestures with her arms.
“Ooh, you stole something.” a girl named Cayla shook her head.
“And you let someone else take the blame.” Tiana, who at sixteen and a quarter was the eldest girl at the home, gave a disapproving stare at Ametrius.
Ametrius feeling the pinch of guilt flopped down on her cot. She looked over to her left at Waverly, who was still gnawing on the turkey leg.
“I see you’re not only part pig but part dog too,” Tiana laughed.
Waverly raised her head. “What?”
“Don’t go picking on her.” Ametrius got to her feet again.
“I can handle myself. Kool-aid doesn’t run through these veins.” Waverly went to get up, but her foot was caught in the blanket. THUD. She landed face first on the hard wooden floor. Several of the girls burst into giggles.
“Waverly, are you alright?” Ametrius and Cayla helped her off the floor.
“What’s all the racket?” Ira Specks’ jarring voice cut through the mirth. “Why aren’t you heifers in bed?” Ira Specks’ choppy footsteps were approaching the girls’ resting quarters.
Quickly the girls ran and stood next to their respective cots. Madame Specks appeared in the doorway, hands on her hips, one foot tapping and a scowl on her face. “Why aren’t you heifers in bed?”
None of the girls answered. Ametrius stared at the peppered curls burrowing their way from under Madame Specks’ slumber cap. Madame Specks continued to tap her fuzzy slipper foot as she scrutinized the girls. Ametrius noticed the turkey leg bone was lying on the floor next to Waverly’s foot. All Madame Specks would have to do is lower her gaze. Ametrius cleared her throat, trying to get Waverly’s attention.
“What?” One of you heifers says something.” Madame Specks’ eyes narrowed into *****. “I need my beauty rest, now speak up.”
“I’m thirsty, Madame Specks,” Esmeralda, the smallest and youngest girl said in a whispery voice.
Madame Specks looked down at the scrawny girl in the over sized gown.
“May I have a glass of water,” Esmeralda repeated.
Ametrius exchanged sidelong glances with the other girls, waiting for Madame Specks to tell Esmeralda if she’s thirsty then swallow her spit. A smile found its way on Madame Specks’ creased face. Would the cute charm work on Madame Specks Ametrius wondered.
“Get your little behind back in bed.” Madame Specks gave Esmeralda a shove. All the other girls gasped as the little girl threw her bony arms around Madame Specks’ stumpy waist. She tossed Esmeralda like she was a rag doll.
The girls gathered around Esmeralda, who lay in a fetal position on the floor.
Madame Specks clicked off the light as she exited the room. The girls waited until her footsteps retreated down the hallway. “Esme, are you alright?” the girls asked.
Esmeralda raised her head, a toothy grin taking up her face. “Look what I’ve got,” she said dangling a silver key on a string between her small fingers.