“Comfortable?” the doctor asked.
Wally Cooper adjusted himself on the hard, leather chair. The office shone dully under the new electrics. A chill seeped from the marble hallway, and the occasional scream echoed from the cells. How could anyone feel comfortable in Greyridge Mental Hospital?
“Um, yes, sir,” he said.
“Good,” the doctor said. He flipped open a file bearing the name of Wally’s older brother. “Let’s see here … Graham Cooper. Ah, yes. Our resident artist.” He gave Wally a flat smile. “Though I prefer paintings of flowers myself. Or a bowl of fruit. None of your brother’s outlandish landscapes. How about you?”
Ever since Wally could remember, his brother had drawn pictures. There had been no cause for concern until Graham had started sketching his otherworldly works on the sides of public buildings, catching the attention of the Oakers, who promptly arrested him. Before the Pox had taken Graham and Wally’s parents, their mom had asked Graham why he couldn’t use paper like everyone else. Graham had answered that paper wasn’t big enough.
I’m practicing my portals, he’d said.
The doctor shut the file and adjusted his glasses at Wally. “Your brother’s condition is worsening, I’m afraid. He’s having grand delusions about his role in a citywide conspiracy. Something about Rifts and Fae-born. When I asked what sort of evidence he has to back up these claims, he told me that he can see into the future.” The doctor sighed. “If you aren’t able to pay your brother’s bill within the next week, the board will be forced to nominate him for some of our more experimental treatments.”
Wally crossed his arms to keep them from shaking. “W-what are you gonna do to him?”
“Oh, nothing to be concerned about,” the doctor said, avoiding Wally’s eyes. “Some electrical shocks. Administering medication that hasn’t made it to market yet. Perhaps a tiny hole in the back of the skull to release pressure on the brain.”
Wally nodded. Or thought he did. His whole body had gone numb. This was it. The doctors were going to hurt Graham. Just as their mom had feared.
“Any questions?” the doctor asked.
Wally wanted to ask how his brother’s condition was worsening. Graham seemed like the same old Graham. Sure, he had his delusions, but he wasn’t hurting anyone. He was just drawing his landscapes on the walls of his cell, using dirt and cobwebs as naturally as if they were ink.
The doctor cleared his throat. “If you’ll excuse me, I have other patients to see.” He tapped another file that read LUCAS, VALERIE. “We’ve got a woman here who believes her daydreams are trying to murder her.” The doctor chuckled and, when Wally didn’t crack a smile, scribbled something on his notepad. “Have the back payment by Friday. Otherwise we’ll take care of your brother the way the hospital sees fit.”
He tore the paper free and handed it to Wally. It was a list of the hospital’s expenses. The number at the bottom made Wally’s stomach flip. He’d never seen that much money in his life, let alone in three measly days.
He continued to stare at the paper as the guard led him out of the hospital’s portcullis entrance. Wally’s lock-pick set hung heavy in his pocket. Come nightfall, he could sneak back to the hospital and pick the lock to Graham’s cell as easily as untying a pair of shoelaces. But then what would Wally do with him? The last time Graham had been loose in the city, he’d stolen a lady’s feather boa and wiggled it through the air, claiming it was a Serpent of the Heavens—before getting cracked in the head by an Oaker’s nightstick.
As much as Wally hated to admit it, his brother was better off in the hospital. So long as Wally could find the money before those experimental treatments began.
* * *
Wally walked down the craggy cliffs of the coastline and back into port. The horizon was shifting from blazing orange to sleepy purple, and the air was growing cool. The smell of ocean salt blended with that of coal from the steamships. The cries of seagulls were drowned out by the rattle of carts and merchants hocking their wares.
“Apples! Fresh apples! The mushiness brings out the flavor, marm!”
“Fresh fish! Still with the wiggle in their tails! Oops! Watch out, sir! It might slap ya!”
“And then the doll kissed him! I swear it! A peck on the ankle before skittering into the sewer. Now look at him! His skin’s hard as a rock!”
“He just had one too many at the pub, ma’am.”
“My husband’s never drunk a drop in his life!”
Wally had no clue what the argument was about, but the man lying on the cobbles did have a big, dumb grin on his face. And his eyes did look glassy.
Wally continued toward the Wretch—the poorest quarter of the city. How was he supposed to come up with the money? He could try to multiply the few coins he had at the gambling houses. But Wally never did have any luck at cards. And those games were fixed. He could break into one of the fancy houses in the Gilded Quarter, but Oakers patrolled those streets. Besides, neither of those options had ever earned him a fraction of what the hospital was asking for. And if he was caught thieving, he’d get locked up just like Graham.
Wally did know someone who might be able to help. So long as this someone behaved himself, that is.
He entered the Wretched Quarter, heading down gloomy Paradise Lane and past the Ghastly Courtyard where the Oakers hanged members of the Black Feathers, Kingsport’s most notorious gang of thieves. He continued beyond the dance houses and the gambling dens, past the boxing ring and the rickety tenements where Wally had spent most sleepless nights since the Pox had taken his parents.
From a high window, a young member of the Black Feathers hailed him with the sign of the Rook’s claw. “Oy, Cooper!”
“Oy, Alek!” Wally shouted, hailing back.
Alek was looking as skeletal as ever. The Rook, the Black Feathers’ leader, allowed young Black Feathers to keep just enough money to feed themselves so they could keep thieving without keeling over. Wally’s own stomach had been grumbling for weeks.
He ducked behind a spice cart and down a narrow alley. He scaled broken crates, leapt a fence, and using the windowsills of the tenements, climbed past the laundry lines—careful not to look down—before scrambling onto the shingles of the roof.
He found Arthur Benton right where he’d expected—tucked between two chimney pots and reading a frayed book by evening light. The book had been thumbed through and rescued from puddles so many times that it resembled an old sponge. The tattered cover read The Adventures of Garnett Lacroix by Alfred Moore. Or it would have, had most of the lettering not peeled away.
“Evening, Arthur,” Wally said, dusting soot from his shirt.
Arthur held up his pointer finger and turned a page.
“Oh, come on,” Wally said. “You’ve read that story a hundred times now.”
“Hush, Cooper,” Arthur said, eyes fixed on the book. “I’m just getting to the part where the Gentleman Thief frees the children of the orphanage and tells the madam, ‘That’ll be enough of your gruelty!’”
Wally leaned against the chimney and stared at the ravens perched on the laundry lines. It was said that the Rook, the coldhearted boss of the Black Feathers, was always watching through the black birds’ onyx eyes. Wally didn’t believe stuff like that, but it was hard not to feel superstitious when he was weeks behind on his tribute.
If the Rook knew that the money meant for the Black Feathers’ coffers was going to Greyridge, Graham’s hospital bill would become the least of Wally’s worries. Thieves who came up short on their tribute exited the Stormcrow Pub missing a finger or even a hand. And that was if they left the pub at all.
“Ha!” A laugh burst out of Arthur, and he snapped his book shut. “Gets me every time!” He rolled out from between the chimney pots and held up The Adventures of Garnett Lacroix like it was a holy text. “Did you know, Cooper, that Alfred Moore, author of these fine tales, is one of Kingsport’s very own? And that all of the adventures take place on the streets of our fair city?”
Wally sighed. “Yes.”
“And did I tell you,” Arthur continued, “that Moore up and retired without so much as an announcement, leaving us with a cliffhanger so steep it would make a mountain goat cry?”
“At least a dozen times.”
“Or that his adoring fans, myself included, have spent years trying to figure out where he lives so we can beat down his door and demand that he continue the story?”
Wally stopped responding. It didn’t seem to make a difference anyway.
Arthur placed his hands on his hips and beamed over Kingsport. “What I wouldn’t do for one last Garnett story. It would give me the clues I need to make this city bow before the grandeur of a real Gentleman Thief.”
Wally rolled his eyes. With Arthur’s soot-stained cheeks, oversized hat, and vest fraying at the seam, he was a far cry from a gentleman.
“So, um, Arthur,” Wally said. “Do you still need people for that secret job you were working on?”
Arthur narrowed his eyes. “Who told you about that?”
“Priscilla. She was, um, talking about it in the Stormcrow.” Wally didn’t mention that she’d been making fun of Arthur at the time. Instead, he pulled out his pick set. “She said you were looking for someone who could open a tricky lock.”
“I might be,” Arthur said, folding his arms. “Why are you interested?”
Wally glanced away. He never breathed a word about his brother outside the hospital. It scared him to think that Graham’s madness might be catching—that someday Wally too would start vandalizing city buildings and believing that feather boas were mystical flying serpents.
“Just need a new belt, is all,” Wally said, adjusting the rope that held up his pants. “Who’s the mark?”
Arthur plopped down between the chimney pots and started reading again. “I can’t share that information with just anybody. I only need the best for this job.”
“I can pick locks,” Wally said. “And I can make a pocketbook vanish like a breeze.”
“If you were that good, you would have risen higher in the Black Feathers by now,” Arthur said.
Wally bit his lip. Nearly all of his money went to Graham’s bills, which left Wally in poor standing with the gang.
Arthur turned a page. “I don’t need an amateur slowing me down.”
Wally knew that the real reason Arthur hadn’t pulled the job yet was that no one wanted to work with him. Arthur was loud, brash, and paid himself too much credit. His grandiose plans tended to be disasters. Like the infamous narwhal blubber job, to name just one.
Still, Arthur could charm the pink out of a sunrise. And when his harebrained schemes actually worked, he brought in more money than most of the young Black Feathers combined. If Wally continued picking pockets for a handful of measly coins, he’d be lucky to pay off Graham’s bill by 1910—long after the hospital had begun its experimental treatments.
Wally peeked over Arthur’s shoulder at the book. “Doesn’t Garnett Lacroix command his own gang of thieves?”
“They’re called the Merry Rogues,” Arthur said, still reading.
“Hmm.” Wally searched the rooftop. “Where are your Merry Rogues?”
Arthur turned another page. “The other Black Feathers are intimidated by daring adventures. They’ve got cold feet. Er, claws, I guess.”
“That’s too bad.”
Copyright © 2020 by Wasabi Entertainment Inc.