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The Stolen Dream

by Geron Kees

© 2020 Geron Kees All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. All characters, situations, and places are imaginary. No real people were harmed in the creation of this presentation. Please observe the laws of your jurisdiction with regards to reading this material.

Friggy was amazing.

I kept my eyes on him as he moved smoothly among the crowd, wending his way among its members with a care that suggested absolute deference. He was walking against the flow of mostly grandly-clad gentlemen that were leaving the station at the end of the business day, after having just arrived on the train from Meridian and points south. He was darting to and fro to avoid directly running into anyone, smiling, and tipping his cap apologetically that he was going the wrong way. His expression and body language were clearly that of someone who knew he was being a problem, but had no other possible alternative.

I could see his mouth moving, but his voice couldn't reach my perch on the station's clock tower, where I was set to watch and warn him if it looked like someone had noticed what he was doing. But I could easily imagine what he was saying, and it brought a smile to my lips.

"S'cuse me, so sorry, my fault, sir. My master's commanded I attend his arrival, and I'm late. Very sorry, sir, s'cuse me, I just need to get through..."

Friggy was an expert at selecting the right targets, ignoring those sharp-eyed gentlemen obviously paying attention to where they were going, and focusing instead on those laughing and conversing with their neighbors. As he moved among these well-to-do travelers and businessmen, Friggy's hands moved with great art, seeming simply to be there to fend off those too preoccupied with conversations with others to avoid walking over him. At each touch he would tip his hat and say something polite to the mark, while the other hand would briefly disappear from my view. I would smile each time that happened, both at the magic of Friggy's dexterity, and at the thought of what we might be able to afford to eat later that night.

The train came and went four times each day, but one time was all we could do this, and then not again for some weeks thereafter. The wealthy objected to being victimized, and especially by those of more common means. Some of the sheriff's men would be posted inside the square after today instead of just at the gate, their eyes alert for any unusual occurrence. It would take them a week of dull observation before they would relax and become bored, and another week of lazy inactivity to be convinced that the thief had moved on. Eventually they would be reassigned to other, more pressing tasks. Codal was a large city, and her streets were certainly not tame, and the sheriff's men had better to command their time than to stand watch at the train station, hoping to nick some wayward cutpurse with his fingers in the wrong place.

This was just one part of our monthly cycle. Friggy and I would have to resort to other means to fill our bellies for the next few weeks, unless what he was able to acquire for this evening would somehow make ends meet for longer than a few days. But it wouldn't, because it never did. Purses were limited in what they had to offer, because most people were too wise in the manner of the streets these days to carry more than small change in them. That was fine by me, as we had many other tested means of surviving, some of which were my own specialty, and I did like to do my part to keep us going. Friggy shouldn't be expected to do all the work, after all. But it would be a very pleasant surprise to strike a rich purse now and then.

As he moved towards me, I let my gaze range carefully about the square, watching especially the crowd to Friggy's rear, which was dissipating into single gentleman, some with retainers, and larger, still animated groups; all moving towards the rows of carriages waiting by the road. Here was where trouble would stem from, as those travelers from whom Friggy had liberated purses in passing went to absently pat them, thinking ahead to paying the drivers for their services. I had seen it happen too many times not to watch for it now.

And so I was looking when a tall gentleman in a gray striped suit and black top hat, standing upon the step before entering his cab, turned suddenly and gazed furiously back across the crowd behind him. Two other sharply dressed men were with him, and they also whipped about to look back the way they had come. The tall man wore a fine beard, and his dark eyes looked piercing even from my high perch. It was a face to reckon with, no doubt.

He looked to curse to himself, and then he leapt to the cobbles and raced to where two of the sheriff's men were standing with their backs to the iron gates of the square, lazily watching the departing crowd. Those two straightened with attention at the man's approach, and stood waiting and ready as he drew to a stop before them. The tall man's arms waved energetically then, and he pointed back across the crowd in the direction that Friggy had gone. One hand came up to breast height in a rough approximation of Friggy's size, and then the gentleman was furiously waving a hand towards the station. The two deputies nodded, whirled away from the tall one, and plunged into the crowd.

Trouble! I took two fingers and pushed them between my lips, and blasted forth the sharpest and loudest whistle I could manage. It was piercing, the product of some years of practice, and echoed out over the crowd almost as loudly as if the steam engine had blown its own warning signal.

Friggy, up to that point still moving cautiously among the crowd, straightened suddenly and looked up at me; and then he bent low and plunged forward himself, diving between the dwindling ranks of travelers as he raced for the edge of the square. I let my eyes move back to where I could see the two deputies pushing their way through the crowd, and smiled. These two were much too polite, far too concerned with jostling any of the fine gentlemen in their paths. They were too slow, and would never catch up to Friggy before he was away. I watched a moment longer, just to be sure no other deputies were angling in from other points, and then hastened to the old iron ladder anchored to the side of the tower, and quickly made my way to the ground.

The alley below the clock tower was shaded from the angled evening sun by the tall buildings between which it ran, and I was careful as I made my way back along its length. The ancient, brooding stone facades of the buildings watched me pass with the dark rectangles of their indifferent eyes; windows wavy with poorly made glass, and filthy with the soot of a city older than legend. This alleyway had been here for a thousand years, and surely would be here for a thousand more.

I moved as quickly as safety permitted, the rubbery soles of my shoes making little noise on the grime of ages that covered the stone way beneath me. I was alert for sounds that might mean others, for to meet others here on these dimly-lit paths was generally not a good thing. Here at the edge of the inhabited zone, no traveler was ever completely safe.

I reached an intersection, a cross point with another alley of equally dark measure, and paused by two tall bins of rubbish, rank with the rotting odors of the eating establishment behind which they sat. Even that foul smell was enough to remind me that I hadn't eaten today, and my stomach gave a small growl of complaint as I crouched by the bins and waited. Friggy was fast on his feet, and I knew my wait would be short.

In a moment I heard the faintest of sounds, some small bit of trash kicked accidentally in the dimness; and then Friggy was emerging from the other alley and crouching down beside me. His chest was rising and falling a little more quickly than normal as he caught his breath, but his eyes were bright with accomplishment, and his grin not the least bit bent by worry. He put out a hand to my shoulder to steady himself, and leaned closer to whisper. "Don't think they followed me. How many were there?"

"Two," I returned, glancing back the way I had come. "Sheriff's men. They were afraid to muss the fine gentleman, though, and so were slow to make their way across the square. I don't think they ever even saw you."

He nodded. "I have half a dozen purses. Best we get them to the loft for counting."

We both froze as a new sound came to our ears. Another bit of debris, kicked aside in the dimness by accident, perhaps? The noise came from down the alley Friggy had just left, but sound traveled oddly here within these roofless tunnels, and there was no surety that whatever had caused it was near. Friggy listened a moment longer, then nodded to me, and pointed at the alleyway in the direction I had been traveling. We moved off, being as silent as we could.

We were not the only ones to use these backstreet ways. Most citizens avoided them, not just because they were dirty and foul smelling, but also because they could be dangerous. They were reasonably safe by day, being most traveled by those that confined their business to the dark of night; but even by day it was best not to meet up with anyone else here. Even if they were not actually pursuing us, they could be just as dangerous as the sheriff's own men.

And as we moved out of the inhabited areas and into the abandoned zone of the city, the likelihood of meeting anyone we would care to know rapidly decreased to zero. I looked back over my shoulder every so often, just to relieve myself of the notion that anyone might be behind us. Yet with each glance, the way seemed empty of followers. We paused several times to listen, but could hear no sound to indicate we were being trailed, and none to suggest anyone lurked ahead. We were far into the desolate part of the city now, the abandoned manufacturing areas, and even the drone of the living part of the city had diminished to a soft purr.

We reached a narrow footbridge across the Alonsa bargeway, and stopped and looked around cautiously. Below, a large gray barge was moving silently past on the brown waters, it's deck heaped high with the city's garbage, on its long way to dumping grounds at sea. The bargeway looped back and forth through most zones of the city, finally traveling here, through the abandoned zone, before finally exiting into the bay. The stench reached us then, and we both grimaced. But Friggy and I were no newcomers to this place, and we had found that its smells, while ugly, could do us no harm.

The barge's crew were focused on the journey ahead, and no one was looking upwards. Friggy nodded to me, and stepped out of the alleyway and turned left, and fluidly poured himself over the bridge's wooden railing and took a careful step downward. I followed, moving just as cautiously, and made it to sure footing on the other side. There was a narrow ledge there, an offset in the ranks of stones that made up the slightly inclined wall of the channel, and invisible from the bridge unless one knew to seek it out. We proceeded along it above the water, and around a curve in the channel, until we were well out of sight of the bridge.

Above us squatted the immense, disinterested bulk of an ancient factory, abandoned now, while across the way the blank, windowless stone reverse of some other ancient building ignored us with equal intensity. We were out of sight of any conceivable watchers now, two specks atop the high wall, invisible to a city that had been indifferent to our presence, anyway. Friggy relaxed a bit and slowed in front of me, and paused as we came to a lightly concealed hole, a large, even break in the stones that sided the bargeway. An ancient tarp, the same color as the stonework, disguised this small tunnel, and we pushed it aside and crept within. It was only then that I was able to release my breath and relax a little.

We moved inward a dozen paces and then stopped, listening. Ahead we could hear the slow drip of water, and the quiet and eerie sigh of sound that was air moving through the tunnel from the larger spaces beyond, bearing the muted and inarticulate sounds that were the life voices of the city. But no human voices came to us, no sounds of activity or motion, nothing to indicate that Friggy and I were not alone here beneath the ancient factory. And yet still we waited a full minute, our ears dissecting the sounds we could hear, until Friggy looked back and nodded to me. "Sound good to you?"

"Yes. The building still sleeps, I think."

He grinned, reached back and gave the front of my jacket a brief tug, and then started onward again. I smiled at that brief touch, and the smile that had accompanied it, and followed. The tarp that mostly covered the tunnel's entry to our rear let in enough light around the edges to illuminate the way, though care did need to be taken with where one placed his feet. Ahead of us, a dim, indistinct circle, a lesser patch of darkness, could be seen, which was the true entry to our destination.

The tunnel had at one time run fairly deep with waste water of some sort, and faint watermarks still marked the walls to each side of us. The deserted factory above us was the home of rusting iron vats and great, ancient machines of mysterious purpose, and pipes large and small that worked their ways all about the inside of the place. Two great sluice gates at the city aqueduct end of the building, now covered with rusted iron doors, suggested that large amounts of water from the river Einslee had once been channeled here to take part in whatever operations the old structure had once hosted. But that had been long ago, when some of the ancient industries had still flourished here. Manufacturing had long since passed from Codal's repertoire of offered services, and today the city was a market for wares from up and down the east coast of Nordam, a center of banking and business, and a nexus for trading with Eero across the sea the vast amounts of coal and iron and livestock and grain that the interior towns produced as their livelihood. Codal was a giant of a city in more ways than one, older than anyone knew or even cared, and much too busy a place on average to notice the small evils that Friggy and I were forced to leave upon others in order to survive.

But memories of the past were everywhere in the city, reminders of its more illustrious days, and most such things had long been abandoned to their own company. Codal was far too large for anyone to worry about cleaning up or disposing of these cluttered remnants of times gone by. No one that we knew still remembered this part of the city as living, suggesting that the ancient factories lining the bargeway had been silent for more than just a few generations. A cloak of ages had settled about the district, the sort of sense of emptiness that only occupies the places of people long after those people have gone.

It had proved the perfect place for us to move into and call home. And others, too, though none had yet chosen places near ours. There was plenty of room in the abandoned district not to have neighbors, and the bargeway had an omnipresent smell to it that put many off from wanting to live close to it.

We made our way up the length of the tunnel, and soon arrived in a larger area, with an arched stone roof far above us, and a stone platform cut into the wall above our heads to the right. Stone stairs worked into the stone wall allowed us to ascend to the platform, and I followed Friggy for its length, watching where I put my feet in the dim light. A system of polished metal mirrors still directed sunlight from the great skylights in the main factory to the darker parts of the building, though now that light was streaked with the shadows of tarnish and time. There was enough light to see by, more than enough for us to reach the great central room where the vats and machines still stood, and where the dirty skylights let in enough of the day to walk more boldly across the worn stone floor.

Friggy picked his way carefully among the rusty behemoths. We were no longer entranced by their sheer size and bulk and mysterious purposes, but we were still wary of the sometimes sharp or jagged edges they offered up to us in passing. It looked as if some of the great machines had been partly dismantled in the past, perhaps with an eye to moving them out, but that the process had been abandoned and the rusted parts left to rot. Some parts of the floor were an obstacle course, with cuts or gashes, or torn clothing at the least, bestowed upon those who failed to observe the rules of travel.

But we were familiar with the way now, and soon crossed to the far wall. Here, great timbers larger in girth than our own bodies protruded from the stone floor, rising an arm's length away from the stone wall to mingle with the jungle of timbers overhead that supported the vast expanse of the roof of the factory. Unseen unless one actually came and looked, these vertical supporting timbers were anchored to the wall by rounded wooden dowels, which offered the same handholds and footholds as a ladder might, and which rose into the dimness above just as the ladder had climbed the side of the station clock tower I had watched from earlier.

Friggy took hold and started to climb, and I waited until he was above my head to follow. We climbed a long way, the height of a three-story building, and then arrived on a small platform under the roof. A skylight gave more light here among the warren of roof timbers, and a crisscross of supporting members all about the platform gave it a secure feeling of being enclosed. Large blackout curtains hung along the open side, now pulled back to expose the factory below. There were a dozen escape routes from the platform in addition to the makeshift ladder we'd used to reach it, across any of the thick roofing timbers heading off in three different directions. We had explored many of these routes, and felt confident that we knew the way out should the 'front door' become impassable. I sighed, feeling good to be home.

There were a few crates to sit upon, and a larger stack of them that we used as a table. In the back corner was our sleeping pad, covered with the bright striped linens we'd purchased after another successful adventure the previous year. They looked too colorful and incongruous here, surrounded by the browns and grays of old wood, but I thought them a bright and cheerful addition to the small space we had come to think of as ours. Home is where you hang your hat, right?

I doffed mine and dropped the cap atop the crates. Friggy's landed beside it, and then he was emptying the hidden inner pockets of his jacket and dropping the take on the table. I couldn't help smiling as I counted them aloud, as each purse landed with a thump and a jingle of coins.


"That's all," Friggy said then, patting himself a last time and then sitting down on one of the chair crates and gazing at the stack of purses. "Not bad for quick work, huh?"

I sat beside him, and also looked at the purses. They were all made of leather, some larger than others, some rather plain and functional, others worked and ornate. They were the same in their contents, though: coin of the realm, spendable coppers and silvers, and, if lucky, a gold or two.

I sighed. "I'm hungry."

Friggy gave a soft laugh, and leaned against my shoulder. "You're always hungry, Jewl."

I smiled, and nodded. "I have a good reason. My stomach always seems to be empty!"

He turned his head, briefly pushed his cheek against mine, and then nodded. "Well then, let's see what we've gotten."

He grabbed up the first purse, not, coincidentally the fattest one in the pile, loosened the drawstrings, and poured the contents onto the tabletop. I laughed, and made a circle of my arms around the horde as several tried to roll to freedom. But we both gasped; they were all silvers, about forty of them, enough to keep us eating for a month!

"A windfall!" Friggy chirped, the delight in his voice making me laugh. "This fellow should be whipped for carrying about such a fortune in his waist purse!"

"Good for us, though," I said, a brief feeling of regret at the magnitude of this particular robbery arriving and fading in an instant. This many silvers would be a week's pay for many of the city's residents, and their loss keenly felt. But the mark this purse had come from had been a gentleman, and so no normal citizen. For the richly dressed gentlemen that rode the trains each day, forty silvers was the price of a new top hat or vest, at best. The former owner of these silvers could not have prized them too highly, to be carrying them about as spendable cash at his belt.

Friggy nodded, and quickly divided the coins into two equal piles, one before each of us, and then tossed the empty purse into a far corner of the platform. He grabbed up the next one, and again I made a circle of my arms, and he dumped the contents inside. The coins again rolled everywhere, coming up against my arms and falling onto their flat sides with a merry and invigorating tinkle.

These were mostly coppers. There were twenty-five of them, three square meals for each of us, and three silvers. Friggy divided the coppers, added them and a silver to each of our piles, and then frowned at that last copper and silver where they lay. "I don't remember. Who got last tops?"

I sighed, and leaned my head onto his shoulder. "It doesn't matter. You did the most work. You take the silver."

I felt him shake his head, and then he was pushing the silver into my pile, and pulling the copper to his. "No. I got tops last time, I remember now. This one's yours."

I didn't argue. Arguing with Friggy is always a pointless effort. He'd just smile and laugh, and do as he wishes, anyway. The only time he really listens to me is when our safety is at stake, at which times he is more than willing to consider all options. But he's the leader, and I'm the follower. That's the way it's always been, and it has always been just fine with me.

The next few purses were more of the same, mostly coppers, with a few silvers to round things out. I was adding them up in my mind as our piles grew, and realizing that we would not need to do anything for five or six weeks but eat, sleep, and relax. With the warm months just coming fully upon us, it was a wonderful and much needed respite.

There were two purses left now, one very ornate, and the other rather plain. But even my eye could see that the ornate one was a gaudy, beaded waste of money, intended to impress; while the plain one was well made and sturdy, intended to do a job, and do it well. The previous owners had obviously been men of different sorts, one rather showy with his money, the other practical and sane. I remembered the tall man in the gray striped suit and black top hat, that had realized his purse was gone, and sent the deputies racing after Friggy. Until now I had not associated any of the purses with possible owners; but now I had a strange feeling that this last, practical purse, was his.

Friggy grabbed up the ornate purse and emptied it onto the tabletop. The contents were equally divided, with eight coppers, six silvers, and two gold. Gold!

"Whoa," Friggy said, eying the trove. But then he turned and grinned at me. "Feel some new clothing coming on?"

I scoffed at that. "We could eat for two months each on two golds!"

"I know. I am thinking ahead to the winter months. Neither of us has a warm coat, and our pants are thin and starting to hole. Our shoes are not so well off, either. We could replace all of those items for each of us, and have small change left over from a single gold. And the other gold still left for food."

The winters in Codal were not as harsh as in the northern cities, but they could be quite chilly in an unheated place such as this old factory. I did recall being cold more than a few nights this past winter, and wishing for warmer clothing, or even a cheap blanket to trap the heat that Friggy and I generated by snuggling together under the sheets. To sleep tranquilly, even should the city lie under a fresh coat of snow? That would be a gift beyond measure!

"And maybe a blanket, too," I added, pushing the memories to the back of my mind.

Friggy laughed. "There's a lot things we can do to eat. A catch like this doesn't come often. We shouldn't let the chance to better equip ourselves pass by."

"You're right, as usual. Shall we go to the marketplace this evening?"

"After dinner, maybe? I would love a hot meat pie at Mother Hen's, first."

I gasped, and licked my lips, already tasting that wondrous delight. "Deal. Now let's open that last purse."

Friggy grinned, and took up the last, utilitarian purse, unsnapped its top, and dumped the contents on the tabletop.

And then both of us gasped.

There were no coppers here. Nine new silvers rolled in circles about the tabletop within the confines of my arms, while five golds, much heavier, immediately fell over on their flats and lay still.

"Jackpot!" Friggy hooted gleefully. But then he frowned. "Hey...what's that?"

In the middle of this new wealth gleamed something else that spoke of fortune: a round medallion, slightly larger even than the gold coins, and obviously forged from that same most precious of metals. It's surface sparkled strangely in the off light, and when I moved closer I could see why. Its surface was dotted with tiny gleaming, multifaceted shards, that could only be gemstones. Red and blue corundums, or rubies and sapphires, to those who cherished such things in their hearts.

We stared at this bounty, all thoughts momentarily stilled.

And then I remembered the tall man in the gray suit, and the sharp and angry look upon his face as he realized he'd been robbed. A sinking feeling came over me then. The speed of his reaction had to be due to having lost something of great value, something like this. And there had been something about that tall one, something that spoke of...of what? Something slightly fearful, perhaps? Something that simply shouted that here was one who would not tolerate having his property stolen.

And now I told Friggy what I had seen. He listened quietly, and nodded. "Perhaps. Perhaps it was his." He shrugged. "We'll never know."

"He may seek to regain it," I pointed out. "Especially if it means something special to him, besides its value. I just have a feeling that the person that owned this piece will not simply forget about its theft." I shook my head. "We should get rid of it now."

"No. It's owner may come looking for it. He may hire trackers to try to recover it. And certainly the sheriff's men can be bought into service. But..that tall man? I remember him. He was arguing with his two companions as I passed. He didn't even look at my face when I bumped against him. I don't think he could identify me, surely. The city is packed with street boys our age. Finding us wouldn't be easy."

"We may call attention to ourselves."

"Really? And how is that?"

"We have to spend those golds to make use of them," I pointed out. "People will take note of that, because we don't look like we could have golds to spend."

"It depends on where we spend them," Friggy countered. "Now you're being ridiculous. Most shopkeepers won't risk losing a gold to a sheriff's investigation, especially when they know the sheriff will likely pocket it himself before it's all over. Even so, we can get them changed into silvers in a dozen places, with no questions asked." He reached out and gave me a slight push. "You're looking for reasons to worry."

I stared at the medallion again, and just felt it was a sign of trouble to come. "That thing scares me, is all." What I didn't say was that the tall man had scared me, too!

Friggy snorted. "Who cares about that? For now, we are men of means. We can eat and dress better than we have in ages!"

I shook my head. "These golds and silvers will keep us fed for months, until winter, even if we buy the new clothing you mentioned. But what of the medallion? If we don't get rid of it now, what then? We can't just forget about it. By the look of it, it's a small fortune all on its own."

Friggy scratched at his ear, looked at the medallion, and then turned his patient gaze upon me. "It's dangerous to dispose of it now, Jewl. Golds and silvers are all of a kind. No one can say where we got them. But this is not of a kind, very likely. It's probably unique, and could be identified. We can't risk selling it to any of the jewelers. It's probably already on the new hot sheet by now."

I prodded the medallion with a finger. "It's gold, and those are rubies and sapphires. It's probably worth more than all the coins we gained today!"

"Probably. But we can't sell it now. It's too risky." Friggy smiled then. "Hmm. But we could probably pawn it at some point. Old Mister Crumb at the docks might take it, or Gypsy Leeda in the burbs." He looked at me, and shook his head. "It will be risky, no matter what we do with it. Better to wait at least several months. "

That made some sense. "Okay. We don't need to do anything with it now, while we have all these coins. But it would be safer to stash it, don't you think? I don't want us carrying it around. Let's hide it, and maybe sell it next year or something?"

Friggy watched me a moment, then nodded. "Sure. What is it about this medallion that worries you?"

I squinted at the thing, and then shook my head and owned up. "I don't think it's the medallion itself. It's the tall man I think it belongs to. You didn't see his face when he realized it was lost."

Friggy leaned closer, and put an arm around my shoulders. "He shouldn't have been carrying such valuables in a waist purse, then." He nuzzled me gently. "No matter. You're all I have, Jewl. I'll drop this medallion in the sewer before I'll have it come between us."

For a moment, my desires warred with my fears. But, perhaps inevitably, survival was the winner. "No. If we can't dispose of it right away, let's stash it. And then worry about it next year."

"Done." Friggy squeezed me a last time, then picked up the utilitarian purse, scooped up the medallion, and put it back within. Then he stood, and motioned for me to follow.

We went out along the beams, crossed carefully above ancient machines that would certainly have killed us had we fallen, and crisscrossed a few times, eventually reaching the other side of the building. Here was another platform similar to ours, but smaller, and not located by one of the vertical timbers reaching up from below. The only way to reach this platform was the way we had come, and it simply was not visible from below.

Friggy crossed the platform with me in tow, and squatted at the filthy stone wall there. He grasped a stone, one that looked no different from any of the others, and gently worked it out of its socket. A space was revealed behind it, small, sided with old mortar, and one we had used to stash coins in the past. It was empty just now, and into the space Friggy thrust the purse, and then pushed the stone back in behind it.

He stood and came to me, and grasped my arms. "Okay?"

I smiled, and nodded, feeling relieved. "Okay."

And then he wrapped me in his arms, and kissed me.

Mother Hen's was crowded, but that was the normal state for the place. It was because the food was good, and cheap - a rare combination in the city. Mother Hen himself did most of the cooking, aided by a small staff of mostly guys our own age, whom it was said attended him more than just in the kitchen. No one really cared, for it was obvious that all of them were happy, and well-fed, and cared for. There were far worse situations a guy on the streets could find himself in, surely.

Mother was a big man, perhaps thirty in age, with tattoos along his arms and a head of thick, black hair. He was handsome in a coastal pirate sort of way, and had smiled at us the first time we had come in, and stopped to talk several times thereafter. We were not exactly regulars, there being even cheaper places to eat than Mother's; but we had been in enough times to understand that Mother appreciated us for the same reasons that Friggy and I appreciated each other.

We found one of the last vacant tables over by the counter, and sat ourselves down. Mother was in the kitchen, and could be spied at the griddle through the pass-through window. I'd watched him cook before, and likened it to a dance, where each deft movement resulted in something good to eat. He was almost always smiling, one of his equally smiling staff close by, often whispering something into his ear. That the guys that worked here were happy with their situation had been apparent to me from the first, and Friggy and I had laughed about what we imagined the lot of them doing together after hours.

One of the servers approached us, and immediately put on more than a professional smile. "You two again. Mother will want to see you." He pulled out a pencil and a pad of yellow paper, and nodded. "What will you have?"

Friggy and I each selected a meat pie, the flaky crust stuffed with beef and noodles and vegetables. We got fresh grape juice to drink, and bread pudding for dessert.

We had stashed most of our coins, just bringing a few silvers each, enough for the meal, and then maybe to buy something at the market after. We'd decided it would not be smart to buy all the new clothing we wanted at one time. We'd piece it out, and get one thing here, and one thing there, so as not to advertise that we were wealthier than normal. Which was not wealthy at all.

Our server wrote down our wants, nodded, and smiled. "I'll be back with your drinks in a moment."

I watched him go, and admired what I saw from the rear.

Friggy immediately leaned towards me across the table. "I know that look."

I felt my face warm, but nodded. "He's cute. I'd not be me if I didn't look."

He smiled. "He is cute. And he belongs to Mother."

I rolled my eyes. "You know that's not true. Guys come and go here. Only a small group has stayed with Mother for more than a year."

"And that server is one of them." A smile came onto Friggy's face. "I'll not share you. Not with Mother, nor one of his boys."

I laughed at that. "You'll never have to. I belong to you, and no other."

We played this game every now and then, and it was fun. I knew that Friggy and I were partners, and he knew it, too. And yet both of us occasionally admired the passing scenery, just because it was built into both of us. But I considered the passing glances to be in the same category as examining artwork upon the gallery wall. I could admire it, without having any desire to steal the piece for my own.

We joked back and forth a moment more, and then settled into smiles that said we both knew it was a happy game. I caught a movement out of the side of my eye then, and saw our server through the pass-through window as he went up to Mother and whispered into his ear. The big man's eyes widened, and then immediately moved to the pass-through, where his gaze landed squarely on us. A giant grin spread over his features then.

Friggy laughed. "Uh oh. We've been sold out."

Mother waved at someone in the back, and another lad in an apron came forward and took the spatula from him and leaned over the griddle. Mother wiped his hands on a towel, grinned at us one more time, and then disappeared from view. Friggy sighed, but did not look in the least distressed.

In a moment Mother was beside us, his meaty hands plunked down on the table so that he could almost lean his face down between us. "Ah, Friggy and Jewl. So nice to see you both again."

"We came to eat," Friggy said immediately. "Not to play."

"Of course! I have given up trying to lure you two into my harem."

I laughed at that. "Harems are for girls."

He turned his smile upon me. "Harems are places for any loved ones, to be safe and admired."

"You scarcely know us," I returned, leaning away from his intense gaze, just a little.

"Yeah," Friggy chimed in, warming to the game. "You think because we are enchanting to your eyes, that we would also be nice to warm your bed. For all you know, what you see is simply the disguise of evil demons out to lure you to destruction."

I immediately nodded. "Uh huh. We could slit your throat in your sleep and make off with every copper of your savings."

Mother straightened and tossed his head back, and let out a roaring laugh that drew just about every eye in the place to our table. I instinctively hunkered down in my seat a bit, not used to such scrutiny, and even Friggy looked briefly astonished.

"Oh, please!" Mother said then, his head coming forward and his smiling eyes landing upon us. He took note of our consternation then, and where we were looking, and turned his eyes to the room. The smile vanished as if wiped away. "Well?" he asked loudly. "Do I come to your homes and watch while you talk to your friends? Eat, but mind your business!"

It was remarkable how swiftly the conversations resumed, and the patrons went back to what they were doing. Mother's was too good a place to eat to risk offending the proprietor. Friggy and I grinned at each other at the quickness of the change.

"Sorry." Mother leaned down again, and lowered his voice. "Are you two well? Anything I can help you with? Are you having enough to eat?" His smile returned. "You two are scarcely skin and bones, I must say."

It was not a game now, and Friggy just gave his head a small shake. "We're doing okay."

"Good. You're getting work?"

I had to smile. "Of a sort."

The big man nodded. "I won't ask, so don't tell me." He leaned down a bit more. "Just be careful out there. Something happened somewhere today. The sheriff's men have been in every shop this evening, looking about."

I felt a startling chill run up my back at that. "The sheriff's men?"

"Yes. And the sheriff himself is out and about. He went by here just an hour ago, in the company of three men that looked like they meant business."

I looked at Friggy, and he gave me a tiny shake of his head.

Mother didn't miss it, and frowned. "You're sure you're okay?"

"Yes." Friggy nodded. "It's just never good to hear that the sheriff is poking around. Someone must be upset about something."

"I would say it was the men he had with him. They certainly treated him as if he was an underling, instead of the lord high sheriff of Codal. And he was taking it, too."

I couldn't resist asking. "What did the three men look like?"

Mother straightened, and his eyes narrowed over a frown. "Well dressed, but in a quiet manner. The leader was a tall fellow with a beard. His eyes had the look of a hawk's, though. Not one to play with, I think."

My reaction must have shown on my face, because Friggy's eyes briefly glared at me; and then he was smiling at Mother. "This doesn't matter to us. We sleep at night, not roam the streets looking for trouble."

Mother's smile returned. "And sleep together, I'll wager."

Friggy tsked, and gave his head a more moderate shake. "That would be our business."

Mother sighed. "Yes. For now, anyway."

I looked up at him. "You said you were done trying to get us into your harem."

"Oh, just for the moment. But I can decide to resume that pleasurable task at any time."

That seemed to end the conversation. Mother cast a look back through the pass-through window, and spied the lad there watching him. "Well, I have cooking to do." He turned a last smile upon us. "If you ever change your minds, you are welcome here. There are no strings attached to my offer of sanctuary. None at all."

Friggy laughed at that. "None? We can see the way your boys look at you."

Mother nodded. "And they do that all on their own, with no insistence from me. They are of age, they are employable, they are happy and safe here...and they are loved." He smiled. "Be careful out there."

And then he was gone.

I leaned across the table, but Friggy gave me a look that warned me away from talking about what we had heard just now. Three men! And the leader was undoubtedly the tall man I had seen at the station. I pictured the medallion in my mind, and knew just what it was that they were after. Was it so valuable then?

But there are other reasons to pursue things. Just as Mother pursued those that entranced his eye, these three men may have been pursuing the medallion for more than it's basic value. It must mean something...something important. The sheriff did not get off his broad backside for just anyone, and certainly did not tolerate being treated like he treated his own deputies.

Our meat pies arrived then, and I dug into mine with the same gusto that Friggy lavished upon his. Hunger is hunger, even at the worst of times. But there was no conversation between us as we ate, and Friggy's gaze was turned inward, much like my own. Probably reviewing the day's events, and mulling over the possible consequences, and wondering that same all important question that I was:

Who were these three men?

The sun was low by the time we started for home. I carried a paper bag, with my new pants in them, and Friggy's new socks. Those had been our only new acquisitions that night, our doling out of our silvers for these two purchases apparently the last that we had. To any watchers, it would have seemed we were tapped out. That brought the return for a possible mugging down to the clothes we had on our backs, any items in our pockets, and the two new items we had purchased at the market. Considering our general appearances, someone would have to be pretty hard up to bother. Only a very foolish thief would try to steal from someone that appeared poorer than himself!

Yet we were vigilant as we walked, just because this was the city, and because we were soon leaving its populated areas and returning to the abandoned factory district, where poor was simply a matter of fact. Poor and desperate. The only mitigating factor to the danger was the relatively low population in the factory area. We often traveled for days without seeing anyone else, such was the expanse of the abandoned territory, and so unappealing a place it was to live.

But it never paid to go unguarded when traveling here, and as we entered the alleyways and the path ahead grew even darker, we both slowed.

"Get rid of that bag," Friggy whispered, as we stopped at one corner to peer around into the next alley. "It makes a sound as we walk, and it is starting to seem too loud to my ears."

I nodded, set the bag down carefully, and pulled out his socks. He took them from me, and stowed them in an inner pocket of his jacket. I removed my own jacket, and carefully inserted my new pants into the large interior pocket in the back, and then pulled the jacket back on. It felt stiff at my back now, but the pants could not be lost, unless my jacket was lost, too.

Friggy looked around the corner again, and we started forward. We were now passing from behind the last active businesses and into the dead zone, and the incessant murmur of the city began to quiet. With that lessening of sound came the awareness that any that we heard now would be reason for alarm. We were normally home long before this time, but had let our glee at having money to spend keep us out later than we normally would have felt allowable. It would be night by the time we reached our destination, and the interior of the old factory dark.

We were almost to the next intersection when Friggy suddenly ducked, and reached an arm back to pull me down with him. We squatted in the lee of a moldering pile of something odorous, and peered around the curve of the pile together. The sight was heart-stopping.

In the intersection beyond the one we were approaching, four men stood together in the early dusk. They had just emerged from the cross alleyway, and had stopped to talk. A huge dog, some sort of great hound, was with them, standing patiently at the end of its leash, its eyes roving about curiously, if the way its head moved was any indicator.

Now I could hear the soft voices of the men, and as I peered ahead at them, I realized that they were all young, maybe only three or four years older than us. Their clothing had the look of cheap prosperity usually displayed by office clerks, and the murmur of their voices a sort of educated tone that suggested that they were totally out of place here in the alleys. What they were doing here seemed obvious: they were looking for something.

Or someone.

The men continued to talk a moment longer, and then one of them pointed into the left-hand alley they had been approaching, and started on ahead. The others began to follow...until one stopped. It was the one holding the dog's tether, and he had stopped because the dog was not moving. It was looking our way, and standing rock-still, as if listening.

My instincts told me to run. But I knew if we did, the dog would catch us in short order. I felt Friggy's hand on my arm, and he gave me a tiny, reassuring squeeze, conveying a message as plain as if he'd said it aloud: Don't move!

The first three men came back then, and turned to look our way along with the dog's handler. We could hear them talking again; but before any decision was made, the dog suddenly turned toward the alley the first three had been heading for and pulled at the leash. The handler cursed, and threw up a hand, and the dog looked at him curiously over his shoulder, but made plain the fact that he was ready to proceed.

Away from us.

The team started off again, and disappeared up the left-hand alley. That was good, as we needed to go straight to reach the Alonsa bargeway, and home.

A minute passed, and then two. Friggy turned his head, and placed his mouth against my ear. "Not yet," he whispered. "They may be there, waiting."

I nodded, and we remained crouched behind the ancient pile. It had a fair stink of its own, but the odor seemed not to bother me at the moment, especially as I realized that all the smells in this place had to somewhat thwart the dog's chief sense, its nose, leaving only its superior hearing to possibly catch us.

Another two or three minutes passed, with no indication that anyone was hiding ahead of us. The alleys here tended to funnel sound, and it was quite hard to move through them and make no noise at all. We were good at it - probably better than a bunch of guys dressed like office clerks - but there was no way to get past the fact that it was getting dark quickly, and once we lost our sight, moving on would be an even more dangerous task.

Finally, Friggy nodded, patted my arm, and stood up. I followed, and took a moment to flex my legs to rid them of the stiffness that had come to them from squatting. Friggy peered ahead, and then cautiously moved out. I followed, watching the ground at my feet carefully, not wanting to betray our presence by doing something stupid like kicking trash around, or falling over something.

We made it to the next crossway, looked carefully in both directions, and then forged ahead. The next crossway was where the search team had stood. We approached it slowly, a step at a time, until Friggy was finally able to look around the corner. He squatted again and did that down low, because anyone looking would expect a peek at head level.

After a moment he straightened and looked back at me, and nodded. Then he started across the open intersection, walking carefully, with me right on his heels.

From somewhere off to our left, the dog suddenly barked. Friggy grabbed my arm and we started running, but softly like we had learned, the rubbery soles of our shoes making a minimum of sound in the muck that layered the alley floor. The dog barked again, and now we heard shouts. But they were not close by. The search team had made it at least to the next crossway, and only some freak of alley acoustics had let the dog hear us. But we could hear the pounding of feet now, coming back along the crossway. It would take them some time to get back to this alleyway, and by then we would be at the Alonsa bridge. My only hope was that they had not loosed the dog to chase us.

We reached the footbridge, and Friggy threw himself over the rail. I followed, and we moved along the hidden ledge far too rapidly for safety, but that couldn't be helped. I breathed a little easier as we rounded the curve of the bargeway and the bridge vanished from sight; and then we were at the hidden entrance to the old sluice way, and inside.

Friggy immediately turned and grabbed me, and we stood in each other's arms, listening. Far off, we could still hear the dog barking, but the sound seemed to be diminishing, not coming closer. There were several shouts, but they also seemed now to be moving away from us. If the search team had reached the bridge at all, they seemed to have crossed it to the other side. That route would quickly take them away from us, as it curved off in the other direction. Not only that, but someone not very friendly lived over that way - a large group of somebodies, we thought - more than a match for four men and a dog. It was entirely possible that the search team would find people there, just not the ones they expected.

I had little sympathy. Running this part of town at night was a dangerous business. It was only done by need, or as an act of stupidity. We had overstayed our visit to the market, and that had nearly cost us our freedom. But the search team might actually pay with something even more dear: their lives.

Friggy sighed, and hugged me tightly. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "It's my fault we were so late getting back."

"No, it's not. You got your new socks first. I spent all that time looking at pants afterwards. That's what delayed us."

I felt his face grin against mine. "Well, I let you do it. I'm supposed to be smarter than you."

I laughed. "You're not. You just have way bigger balls."

He thrust his crotch against mine. "We'll talk about that later."

He released me, and went back to the entrance of the sluice. Then he turned and came back towards me, counting his steps this time. At 'ten', he squatted, found the loose stone in the wall, and pulled it out. He extracted the candle and the matches, and replaced the rock.

There was a flash as he struck the match, and then the tunnel glowed with light as the candle was lit.

"That's better. " He grinned at me. "Come on. I want to get home."

We made our way onward, pausing to listen at points, but hearing nothing to indicate danger. Finally, we were among the machines again, and crossing to the ladder to our loft. There were no sounds now, no dog barking, no shouts of pursuit. The search team had gone to meet their fate.

Friggy climbed carefully with the candle in hand, and soon we reached the loft. The first thing we did was pull the blackout curtains all around. We'd tested them more than once, looking from different places within the factory, and when they were drawn, no candlelight could escape from the loft. Friggy drew them into place, and I double-checked them behind him to make sure they were snug on all sides.

And then we sat at the table, and said nothing for several minutes.

"Okay, you were right," Friggy finally said. He nodded at me. "The medallion is dangerous."

I had already decided that this was what it was all about. The search team and the dog. And probably other search teams, with other dogs. They were looking, probably for anyone that lived back here in the abandoned zone. While the tall man may not have paid attention to Friggy's face, he would still have absorbed the fact that it was someone younger that had bumped against him. A lad, maybe sixteen or so, and a commoner, too. That suggested an unattached youth, a street kid.

But it by no means confirmed it. There were thousands of guys our age in the city. Just because one was a cutpurse did not mean he lived on the streets. And not that he lived here, in the abandoned zone. How had they narrowed the search so quickly?

"Something odd is happening," Friggy said then, and I laughed.

"I was just thinking that. How did they get onto us so fast?"

He tugged at his lip, and then shook his head. "I don't know. I would say it would be impossible to find someone who had lifted your purse, in a city this size. And yet, here they are, right in our own neighborhood. And not a week later, after they've searched elsewhere. But right now, the very same day." He made an amazed noise. "I would have said it was impossible."

"It's like they have a way to track the medallion. Or at least get the direction where it is hiding."

Friggy's eyes got big. "Like a psychic? That stuff's a lot of bunk, isn't it?"

I shrugged. "I don't know. I've heard some stories."

He frowned again. "So have I." He turned his head in the direction of the far platform where the medallion was hidden within the stone wall. "If there's any truth to it, we need to get rid of that thing, and soon."

"We can't do it tonight. It's not safe to go out."

He gave a little sigh, and nodded. "Yeah." And then he brightened. "They can't sniff it out like a dog would a bone, or they'd already be here. Maybe they are using a psychic, but can only get a general direction or area."

That was a comforting thought. Still --

"They're still too close for my liking." I looked around the loft we'd lived in for better than a year now. "I like this place. I'd hate to have to move on."

"Yeah. I know. This is the safest place we've ever found. I don't want to lose it, either." He nodded. "Okay, first thing in the morning, we take the medallion to old Mister Crumb, and see if he'll give us something for it."

I stared at him. "Is that smart? And if they trace the medallion to Mister Crumb, and make him say where he got it?"

Friggy shrugged. "Mister Crumb has no notion of where we live. He doesn't even know our names. What could he say, except he bought it from two boys that sometimes have things to pawn?" He shook his head. "Besides, I have a thought that our pursuers will be satisfied with recovering the medallion, and not be so concerned with paying harm to the one that scarfed it."

I licked my lips, and nodded. It still felt dangerous to me, also seemed like a true waste to simply get rid of the medallion and get nothing for it. That it was a valuable treasure was obvious. And we needed all the money we could get!

"Okay. In the morning, we get rid of it."

Friggy sighed, and leaned up against me. "I love you."

I nodded. "I know. I love you, too. I can't bear the thought of something happening. Happening to us."

"It won't." Friggy leaned back, and pulled his new socks out of his dip. He held them up in the candlelight, and eyed them appreciatively. "They look comfortable, don't they? And warm?"

They did, indeed. They were gray in color, and of a fancy lined material, stretchy and rugged, and even shaped somewhat like feet. They were a stark contrast to the worn old gray tubes of cloth I wore on my own feet.

I grinned. "Put them on."

Friggy laughed, but immediately bent over and pulled at the fasteners of his shoes. He kicked them off, and then was yanking off the old socks he was wearing, which were much like my own. He took the new socks, handling them carefully as if they might break, and pulled them over his feet, then stood and walked back a forth a few times in front of me.

"How do they look?"

I grinned. "Sexy. And very, very comfortable. I think I want a pair now."

"Then we'll get you some while we're out tomorrow." He laughed, and came over and squatted in front of me, and unfastened my shoes and pulled them off. "Oh, yes. These old things have to go." He patted my feet, and then stood and leaned his face down close to mine. "I want to see you in your new pants."

"I'll have to take the old ones off."

"That was my plan."

I stood, and he unfastened my belt, and soon had my pants down. I stepped from them, and he pushed them away. Then he went for his own belt, and unfastened it with a quick twist.

I laughed. "You have no new pants."

"No. But you don't get to have all the fun!"

He dropped his pants, stepped out of them, and used a foot to push them away. Then he came closer, and took me in his arms. Our bodies came together, and were immediately filled with an awareness of that closeness. I felt a stirring down low, which quickly magnified as Friggy pressed his own enlarging crotch against mine. His face came closer, and then pressed against mine with a similar urgency.

I kissed him, or he kissed me. It was immediately a mutual experience, and we both worked at it together. Soon I was pulling off his shirt, and he mine, and then came the loose-fitting underwear, until we just stood in our socks. And then we were moving over to the sleeping pallet, where we pulled back the striped sheets and lay down.

There was something wonderful about rubbing my loosely-clad feet against the clingy softness of his new socks, and making love by candlelight. Gone was the city, and even the world that watched it. There was just us, my Friggy and me, together within a soft bubble of golden, flickering light. There were no cares, no worries, no looming dreads to be pondered. No devils, lurking just out of sight.

Just the two of us, together forever, cradled within the blind, unconcerned arms of the night.

In the morning, we retrieved the purse with the medallion inside, and made our way back to the inhabited zone of the city. We encountered no search teams, with or without dogs, though we did hear sounds that could only mean the presence of others within the dim tunnels of the alleyways. More than enough traffic to convince us that the search was still on. Yet that search also seemed to have moved away from our exact area, to somewhere on the other side of the bargeway.

Perhaps the search team from the previous evening had indeed run into those belligerent others that lived there, and that meeting had resulted in the current actions. We could hear occasional shouts, and even a few reports that might have been gunfire. That almost certainly meant the sheriff's men were involved, as rare indeed was even the crime boss that owned a gun. Certainly, none of the drifter commune that had taken up residence across the bargeway from us could afford to have even one among them.

Friggy had digested the scale of this action and hastened his step, until we were once again among the more crowded streets of the market. He smiled then, and pointed at one of the corner stalls as we walked by. "There is where I bought my socks. Shall we stop?"

"No. Let's get this over with."

I think that's what he wanted, too. He nodded, and we hastened on down Market Street, and soon turned into the lane that led along one of the inner canals to the docks. An arm of the bay cut deeply into the heart of the oldest section of the city here, and was the primary shipping point for a hundred miles in each direction along the coast. Large cargo steamers docked here, both of the smaller coastal paddle wheel variety, and of the giant, screw-propelled ocean steamers. Friggy and I had watched them come and go on more than one lazy day, marveling that such tremendous bulks could move at all.

Trade was the driving force that kept Codal a viable city. With large portions of the world still lying beneath the pall of death that had resulted from the Great War, large cities with functional seaports had become even more important as links that held what was left together. Even as populations had dwindled in the aftermath of the war, these cities had remained functioning mostly because their links to the world were by water. As inland cities slowly rebuilt, it was the seaports that kept the trade routes open, providing the all-important means for allowing the world that remained to share in the fruits of a much-reduced group economy.

There was a lot of foot traffic along the lane, as well as streams of carts and wagons heading in both directions. The streets were littered with piles of dung, even as busy sweepers with brooms and carts pursued them. The draft animals snorted and called to each other, people exchanged talk and laughter, and the occasional whistle or bellow of a steamer's horn echoed above it all. It was an exciting place to be, and both Friggy and I grinned around at the sights as we walked along.

"I hope old Mister crumb is at his stall," Friggy said. "If he's not, we'll have to head out to the burbs to see Gypsy Leeda."

I frowned at that. That would mean taking a streetcar, which would mean another walk over to the depot. That was in the opposite direction from where we were heading, and would take at least another hour. I wanted to dispose of the medallion as quickly as possible, and not be forced to carry it all over town. Briefly, I patted my pocket where the purse was hidden. I had wanted to be the one to carry it, because I knew that if something dire happened, I could easily toss the thing away and be done with it. Friggy would hold onto it longer, just because it was valuable.

But nothing was more valuable to me than our safety, and that we remained able to stay together. If the need arose, the purse and its contents were history.

There were more than a few birds here, too, wheeling above the busy lane, settling sometimes atop the canvas-covered crates of freight along the canal to talk and socialize. The sense of life here was strong, and such a contrast to the area of town where Friggy and I made our home. There was a sense of safety here, too, at least during the day. Perhaps there would come a time in our lives when we could afford to live in a place like this. But flats required regular rental payments, and - so far, at least - the frequency of our income had been haphazard, at best.

A new sound reached my ears then, an unusual chug-chug-chug, like the wheezing breath of some great beast. I turned to gaze up the lane to our rear, and laughed. "Oh, look! A steam cart! There's something you don't see very often!"

Friggy stopped, and I stopped with him, and we turned to watch as the vehicle drew near. It was a cumbersome thing, large and ungainly, and rolling about on solid rubber wheels. There was a compartment with two tiers of seating behind the operator, with the rear tier raised so that the occupants there had a view over the heads of those in front of them. The cart seemed full, and it looked like a sight-seeing excursion, by the way that everyone seemed to be trying to look everywhere at once.

It was only as the cart drew down on us that a strange creep crawled up my back. I could see cheap suits and caps in the front passenger seat, like those worn by office clerks. And in the back seat, three top hats, above suits that certainly cost more than an office clerk could afford. And next to the top hats, on our side of the cart, a head of hair that could only be feminine in nature, moving untamed in the wind of the vehicle's motion, and gray as the seas itself on a stormy day.

"Shit," Friggy breathed, grabbing my arm and pulling me back against the brick side of the building. He was also drawing me back into the lee of a pile of canvas covered crates, and out of the direct sight of those in the cart. The creep at my back had turned to fear now, as the beard on one of the top hatted men registered in my mind's eye.

The cart came abreast of us, moving more slowly now, and just as I thought it would pass, the gray-haired head of the old woman swiveled in our direction, and her eyes widened as she spotted us.


Friggy grabbed my arm, and yanked me into motion, we turned and fled back the way we had come, leaving the cart no room to turn about and chase us.

"There!" The old woman's voice screamed, and I knew she was pointing at us. "Get them!"

Neither Friggy nor I am slow. The streets have ways of giving wings to one's feet, and if you do not learn to fly at an early age, you may not last to an old one. We raced back up the cobbled way, and spied the narrow opening of an alley ahead. Just then we heard a commotion behind us, and then the sounds of many running feet. The chase was on!

Friggy twisted into the alley, and I followed. Here the alleys all paralleled the water, and most terminated at warehouses or other storage. Once through, we would surely find many places to hide.

We reached the other end and came out into a vast storage area, with cargoes piled high in all directions. Although we could still hear the running feet pounding after us, the sounds of them told me they had yet to enter the alley. Friggy knew this, too, and twisted right between a tall pile of lumber and stacked crates bearing only a company logo. I followed as we pelted down the wide way between, towards the large open doors of a mammoth, stone-sided warehouse.

And then we were within. Friggy twisted to the left now and stopped. I passed him, and stopped as well. He leaned backwards then, peering up the aisle we had just come down, and I jumped back beside him, and looked, too.

At the far end, where we had made the turn to the warehouse, four men ran by, not taking the turn we had. Friggy grunted at that, and blew out a small breath. "Maybe we lost them."

"We can't count on it." I patted the pocket of my pants holding the medallion. "I should get rid of this."

"No." Friggy turned and grabbed my shoulder. "They've certainly gotten a look at us now. We may need the medallion to bargain our way out of this. If we just toss it, we'll have to be looking over our shoulders forever."

"If we keep it, and get away, we'll still have to be watching over our shoulders," I pointed out. "At least until we get to Mister Crumb." My thoughts were coming quickly now. "If I just drop it right here, the old lady will eventually lead them to it, and then they will have no reason to pursue us."

Friggy's mouth worked silently as he weighed the two scenarios. "No. Hold onto it for just a little longer."

I sighed, but nodded. "We need to get out of here."

But then we heard a shout. We turned and looked out the door of the warehouse again. The three men with top hats had appeared, pushing the old lady in a wheelchair. She was pointing down the way between stacks of cargo, directly at where we were hiding.

"She has to be a psychic," Friggy said, a trace of fear in his voice now. "The stories are true."

"She'll lead them right to us!" I warned, reaching into my pocket for the purse.

Friggy grabbed my arm. "Wait!" His eyes looked desperate now. "She can't go very fast in that wheelchair. We can outrun them."

I stared at him, until he suddenly leaned closer. "I just feel it's important that we keep the medallion for now!"

He didn't wait for my answer, but grabbed hold of my hand and started pulling me deeper into the warehouse. I grunted in dismay, but pulled my hand from my pocket and followed him. We set off at a run down another aisle, between stacked and racked crates and boxes of every description. The lights were down in the building, indicating that no cargo was currently coming or going from this particular warehouse, and no one could be seen in the cross aisles we passed. But surely there had to be security guards, or stock people, or someone about!

We must avoid them, too, as I had a feeling such people would side with our pursuers, and not us. To be grabbed and held, waiting for the bearded man in the top hat to arrive and take us, was not a scene to my liking. I increased my speed, and came up beside Friggy. "Where are we going?"

"There has to be another way out of here."

But the warehouse seemed huge, and even darker in the direction we were running. The other end would let out on the docks somewhere, but only if the large sliding doors there were open. By the lack of light coming from that direction, it certainly seemed to me that they were not. But there were surely smaller doors, made for people to pass through, and just one would be enough for our escape.

We raced by the great timbers that supported the roof, and I was sure now that we had crossed the halfway mark and were now on the other side of the vast building. But no light showed ahead of us, no indication that the dockside doors were open.

And then, quite suddenly, there was a rumble from ahead of us, and a light did appear.

"Mister Royce!" a voice bellowed. "We've cut them off!"

"Be silent!" another voice called, from far to our rear.

Friggy ground to a halt, and I nearly fell over him. He looked at me, his eyes full of desperation. Again, I patted my pants pocket, and again he just shook his head quickly. "No. Come this way."

He turned and started off down a cross aisle. I followed. Ahead lay one of the stone side walls of the building, in front of which were piled all sorts of large items.

Now we could hear others moving about inside the warehouse, though no one sounded close by. Friggy reached the lines of cargo stored by the wall, and pushed his way between two large stacks of crates. In a moment, our backs were to the wall.

"What are we going to do?" I asked then. "We can't just stand here. That old woman will lead them right to us!"

Friggy's eyes darted everywhere, but it was me that spotted a way out. Just behind the stack of crates was a huge timber that went up and up - support for the wooden roof. And, just like at our factory, the timber was linked to the stone wall with dowels. Like the rungs of a ladder!


Friggy turned and saw, and gasped. And then were climbing. The roof here was every bit as high up as at the factory, and was, if possible, an even denser warren of cross braces and supports. As we climbed I looked out over the immense floor of the warehouse, and soon could see across the tops of the racks and stacks of cargo. Almost to us now, following the same aisle we had used to reach the timber, were the three men in top hats, the bearded man striding along purposefully while one of the others pushed the old woman in the wheel chair. The third top hat was on the other side of the wheelchair, his eyes examining each row as they passed.

Over by the now open dockside door, four young men in clerk's suits stood in a line across the opening, obviously waiting to see if we were flushed in that direction. We were not going to oblige them, certainly. We reached the top of the timber, and looked out over the complex web of other timbers that supported the roof. There seemed any number of directions we could take.

Friggy looked at me, and waved a hand for me to follow. We cut to the right and went along a beam that paralleled the wall, until the aisle we had used earlier, the one with the top hatted men in it, was obscured from view. We reached another timber, and from there we turned and started out over the vast floor. The practice we had navigating the beamed roof structure at the factory served us well here, and we made good time.

A voice rose from below. "Stop!" It was the old woman again.

"You said they were ahead of us," a deep voice said, quietly. I recognized it as the voice that had called for silence earlier. Mr. Royce.

"Something is wrong. They are behind us now."

"We passed them," another voice said. "They're hiding in the racks, or something."

"No." The old woman sounded very sure of herself. "We did not pass them. They have passed us."

A third voice cursed. "They must have cut over to the next aisle and backtracked."

"Then Murdoch and his men will grab them," Mr. Royce said. "What do you sense?"

This last must have been to the old woman.

"They passed by us very closely. Even now...they can hear my voice."

Friggy, who had slowed to listen, cast a frantic look back at me, and started moving again. We made it back to the center of the warehouse, where a cluster of timbers beneath a square box of braces held things up above us. We squeezed in among the braces, and paused to rest.

"Games up, lads," Mister Royce called to us then, from somewhere behind us. "There's no way out of this warehouse. My men have all the exits blocked." The bearded man sounded completely confident that he was right.

Friggy had been busy looking around, but at the sound of our pursuer's voice, his eyes came to touch upon mine. I could see sorrow in them; sorrow that he had not let me dispose of the medallion when I had wanted to do so earlier. I smiled at him, and put my hand on his forearm and squeezed it. "I love you," I whispered.

For a second his face knotted up like he wanted to cry; but then he squeezed his eyes shut, clenched his jaw, and nodded. His eyes popped open again, and he rubbed at his nose.

"All I want is the medallion," came the bearded man's voice. "You can keep the purse, and the coins within it." There was a harsh laugh. "Consider it a finder's fee."

Friggy narrowed his eyes, and I didn't blame him. I didn't believe a word of that. The anger was not so deeply hidden in the man's voice that it could not be detected. We had inconvenienced him, wasted his time, and upset his plans. There would be retribution for that, one way or another.

"That way," came the old woman's voice.

I gritted my teeth at that. All I needed to do was to fish the purse out of my pocket and drop it right now. It would land in the aisle below, and the psychic would lead the top hats right to it. They would retrieve it, and have no reason to pursue us.


But something in me resisted that notion. Just now our adversaries seemed only intent on chasing us down. But what if they seized us and got the medallion back? What would happen to us then?

We were nameless nobodies here in Codal. No one would miss us, except perhaps Mother Hen. And even he would think we had just moved on, if we were to disappear. Nameless nobodies went missing in Codal every day, most never to be found. I looked at Friggy, at the frantic indecision in his eyes, the plain wish that this could somehow be over, and the new fear that lurked behind it all.

And I set my jaw, and my mind. This could not happen to him. This could not happen to us.

"Keep going," I said softly, prodding him. "I want to see what's on the other side of this big box-work of timbers."

He stared at me a moment, and then nodded, and turned and moved across the big beam to the other side of the mammoth frame. He leaned out between the braces, scanned the floor below, and then the roof above...and froze. Then he turned and beckoned to me.

I crossed the timber to his side, and leaned close so that he could whisper to me. "There are more of those men by the way we came in. They do have the doors blocked." He smiled then. "But lean out between these braces and look up at the far corner of the roof."

I nodded, and leaned past him, and stuck my head between the braces. I felt his hand on my shoulder, steadying me, and smiled.

It was true. A half dozen men in the cheap office clerk suits had the door we had entered by covered. And as I looked about, I could see more men moving slowly up and down the aisles, peering into the stacked and racked goods. Looking for us.

There were, twelve men that I could see. Plus four more back at the dockside doors...for sixteen. And the three tophatters, Mr. Royce and his two partners. And the old woman. Twenty, against two. Scarcely fair odds.

I let my eyes slide up to where the walls met the roof at the far corner, and squinted at what was there. It was dim in the corner, but my eyes traced over a familiar outline...and then I smiled. A ladder against the wall, and a hatchway in the roof.

A way out.

I pulled back. "I see it!" I whispered. "Now all we have to do is get to it."

Friggy nodded, leaned forward and quickly kissed me. He pulled back and grinned at me, and then tossed his head towards the far corner of the building. "Come on."

The best way to proceed would be to cross to the far wall and then go along it to the corner. Moving around over top the aisles might catch someone's eye, but we should be safe in the shadows that topped the warehouse's walls. Friggy saw this too, and started across to the far wall. I followed.

We could hear the men below now, calling to each other that their aisles seemed clear. And every now and then the voice of the old woman, pointing out a new direction for the top hats to follow.

We reached the far wall and hunkered down atop the wide beam there to rest a moment. Balancing upon the beams so far above the stone floor was slightly unnerving, and combined with the pressure of our situation, draining. I felt like I had run a full mile, or climbed a serious hill. Friggy looked slightly winded, too, and glad for the brief rest. He smiled at me, and I could tell that he thought that we would now escape.

Our breathing stilled, and I rose to my feet. But Friggy reached out and grabbed my arm and hauled me down again. Just in time, too. We heard a noise from below, and again there was the old woman in the wheelchair, and the three top hats.

"This is ridiculous," said one of the men. "There's no way they can be moving around like this and none of the men are seeing them."

Mister Royce was looking irritated now. He pulled a large watch from his vest pocket and stared at it, and then shook his head. "Time grows short. We must retrieve the Kergen, and then get to the meeting." He thumped a hand down on the back of the wheelchair, and leaned down to snarl at the old woman. "You are more than worthless. No one can move about like these two seem to be doing. We chase ghosts!"

"I led you to them," the old woman countered, quietly and unafraid. "They are here, close before us."

Mister Royce looked around again, and shook his head. But he turned to the two men with him, and waved a hand at the cargo racks. "Have a look. They must be here."

The two top hats each took a side of the aisle, and made a quick inspection, and then returned to the wheelchair. "There's just nowhere to hide here," said one of them.

Mister Royce breathed out a short curse, and slammed a fist into his other hand. "This can't be happening! We're being outsmarted by a pair of street urchins!"

"Maybe they can fly," said one of the top hatters, a bit acidly. "And they're just fluttering about over our heads while we search below."

Mister Royce opened his mouth to offer a retort, but just as quickly closed it again. A startled expression crossed his face, and then his eyes widened.

And then he looked up. "Ye gods! They're in the rafters!"

The two other top hatters looked surprised, and then both of them looked towards the roof. "Look at those beams!" said one. "They're more than wide enough to walk on!"

Royce immediately cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled. "Murdoch! They're in the rafters! Find a way up!"

Then he turned to one of the top hatters, and pointed at the woman in the wheelchair. "Bring her!" And then Royce took off at a run towards the door where we had entered.

One of the two remaining men below us took the wheelchair handles, and then they hurried off, pushing the old woman before them.

"Time to go!" Friggy whispered. He rose, and started a hunched shuffle towards the far corner of the building. I quickly followed.

We'd just about reached the corner when someone shouted from below. "There they are!"

I glanced down, and saw two of the clerks, one of them pointing up at us. Friggy put on a burst of speed, and reached the ladder, grabbed the rungs and hoisted himself aboard. He started up at a record pace, and I grabbed the ladder and started after him. I'd taken two steps upwards when there was a loud report from below, and something smashed into the stones to my left and careened away with an incredible whine.

"Don't shoot them, you idiot!" a voice roared from below. "Something might happen to the Kergen!"

Friggy had cast a horrified look back at me at the sound of the gunshot, but upon seeing me just behind him, he put on a fresh burst of speed. Above us, the ladder ascended into a box in the roof, atop which was plainly a hatch of some kind. Friggy smashed into it and stopped. "Help me!"

He moved to one side of the ladder to allow me to crawl up beside him, and we both heaved against the stubborn panel. There was a creak, a groan, and it suddenly lurched upwards, and light poured into the opening.

"Get them!" someone yelled from below.

I looked down, and was aghast to see that the ladder went all the way to the floor. Two of the office clerks had already started upwards towards us!

"Hurry!" I urged Friggy.

He bolted up the last few feet, and then was turning to help me onto the roof.

"Jewl! Help me to shut the door!"

I turned back as Friggy grabbed the panel, and together we slammed it pack into place. Quickly, I examined the thing, but there was no lock or fastener of any kind. The panel fit down into a metal recess with wide holes on either side and in front, obviously meant to be hand grips. But there was no way to secure it!

Friggy looked around frantically, and suddenly ran to one side, and grabbed up a long board laying on the tarred surface of the roof. He brought it back, and rammed it into one of the side handholds. The board slid through the hole and started across the panel, then stopped, a little too wide to fit any more into the hole.

"Help me!" Friggy grated, as the hatch panel bounced upwards from an impact to the other side. I grabbed hold of the board with him, and we both pushed with our bodies. The hatch rattled fearsomely as greater force was applied from below...and then the board began to move, rough splinters shaving off the sides as it slid through the too small hole. We redoubled our efforts, pushing with all our might, and the board crept across the panel and finally nosed into the handhold on the other side, forming a solid bar across the hatch, anchored at either end.

There continued to be pounding sounds on the panel from the other side, but now it simply vibrated, and didn't rebound at all.

"Let's go!" Friggy hissed, grabbing my shoulder. We turned and fled for the other end of the warehouse, where the curved rails of a ladder attached to the outside of the building were plainly visible above the top of the wall. The tarred surface beneath our shoes was slightly angled to one side of the building, perhaps so that the rain would run off rather than pool, and the tar itself tugged at the soles of our shoes, soft in the warm sun.

I was hot on Friggy's heels when he suddenly ground to a stop, causing me to crash into him. I cursed, about to demand why he'd done that, when I suddenly felt a nauseating motion in the roof beneath my feet. It moved slightly up and down, as though we stood upon a board drifting on an active sea.

"Back up!" Friggy hissed.

No need to tell me twice. I lurched backwards, and he came with me. The roof moved up and down beneath us, plainly lacking support from below in this spot. I heard tiny cracking sounds with each step we took, sounding far too alarming to be ignored.

But just as suddenly as it had begun it stopped, and once again the roof felt solid beneath our feet. I looked down at the spot ahead of us now, and saw a spall of cracks in the tar, radiating outwards from where we had stopped. Clearly, the roof here was dangerously weak.

"We go around," Friggy said, pushing me towards the wall. We reached it, turned and headed along it towards the ladder in the end wall. In only a moment we had reached the curved iron handrails, and Friggy grabbed them and hauled himself up to look over the lip of the wall at the ground below.

He made a horrified sound then, and turned and pushed at me, running. "Go!"

I turned and went with him, and we fled across the roof again. Friggy bumped into me then, forcing me toward the outer wall, and we ran on another two dozen paces before we had ample reason to stop.

A shot rang out behind us, and Friggy and I both froze in our tracks. We turned as one, and there was Mister Royce, standing atop the ladder, the small black shape of a pistol in his hand.

He smiled at us, and hastened to climb down onto the roof, where he stood facing us.

"Well. That's the first sensible reaction you two have offered."

He came closer, his dark eyes examining us. He still wore his top hat, but he had removed his jacket and rolled up the sleeves of the fine white shirt beneath it. The expression on the man's face said clearly that he had won, and that it was about time, too.

As Royce approached, Friggy took my arm, and we backed away from him. But instead of moving straight backwards, Friggy pulled me to one side, moving us back towards the center of the roof.

"Stop right now," Royce said then, irritation returning to his features. "This has gone on long enough. Give me the medallion."

I looked over at Friggy, who licked his lips, and let his head sag forward in defeat. The move pained me, and made me mad. Friggy deserved better than this!

Royce came closer now and stopped. "What's the matter with you? I can shoot you both and take the medallion."

"You're going to shoot us anyway," Friggy said, sullenly.

Royce smiled. "I hadn't planned to do that. It will be much more convincing if you two fall off the roof, or something like that. I don't have time to be caught up in any stupid investigations. The sheriff here likes gold, but even he might draw the line at the bullet ridden bodies of two youngsters popping up in his town. Those idiot deputies of his love to gossip, and guns are uncommon here. I can't afford to be delayed."

"Then why kill us at all?" Friggy asked, giving a shrug.

The bearded man snarled at us. "Because you've been more than a little trouble to me!"

I licked my lips. "What is it? Why is the medallion so important to you? It can't be worth that much."

The bearded man blinked at the change of subject. "You think I'd go to this much trouble for some trinket?"

I shook my head. "No. That's why I'm asking."

Royce's smile vanished, and his eyes reappraised me. "Mmm. I guess it's a fair question." He leaned forward. "The medallion is a Kergen. It's a focus, left over from the old days."

That meant nothing to me, and it must have showed.

Royce nodded. "Once the world was different than it is now. We can't even begin to understand what it was like. Magnificent, in ways that defy the imagination. The Kergen is a relic of those times."

I shrugged. "So?"

Irritation flashed across the bearded man's face. "The Kergen is a thing of power. Power, and knowledge. For the man that possesses its secrets, it can be a way to reshape the world."

Despite everything, Friggy laughed. "You mean it's magical?"

Royce narrowed his eyes. "That's not so far from the truth, actually. Technology, when raised to a certain point, is indistinguishable from magic."

"What are you going to use it for?" I wondered.

"He wants to be king," Friggy told me, nodding. "Can't you tell?"

Royce glared, and waved the gun at us. "Just bring it to me now, if you please."

Something touched me then, inside my head. Something that offered peace, something that offered hope. The touch was astonishing, amazing. I felt myself relax, almost as if the danger we faced had no power left to harm us.

I looked at Friggy, saw the look on his face, and wondered if he was feeling what I was feeling. He gave a small shake to his head, and then almost smiled at Royce. "I don't have the medallion."

"I know." The gun turned to point at me. "You do." He smiled. "I am sensitive to the Kergen's presence, but only over short distances. That's why I needed the old woman to find it. She's a psychic, and in this case was able to utilize my sensitivity to the Kergen to locate it over much greater distances than I could ever have managed myself."

"You talk to it? I asked, disbelievingly.

"I'm aware of it, and it is aware of me."

"I'm surprised you didn't know it was gone, then," Friggy said slowly, "when I so easily lifted it from your belt."

The gun moved back to cover Friggy. "I was not paying attention to it at that moment. I didn't feel its absence until I got outside the square."

"I saw that," I said. "You sure looked mad!"

Royce's lips compressed, and his eyes moved back and forth between us. "I'm getting tired of this. Bring me the medallion!"

I looked over at Friggy. "He's going to kill us anyway."

He nodded. "I think so, too."

I shrugged, and returned my gaze to Royce. "I don't think I will."

The man shook his head in amazement. "I'll shoot you both and come and get it."

"What about the investigation?" I asked. "You might be detained."

Royce squeezed his eyes shut a moment, and when he opened them, there was no humor left within them at all. "Give it to me now, or I will kill you."

Friggy sighed, and turned to look at me. "Maybe we'd better let him have it." He turned, and looked sadly at the roof between us and the man with the gun. There was something oddly compelling about the way he did it, that instantly grabbed my attention.

I couldn't help it. I looked where he looked, so demanding was his glance.

And there, just between us and Mister Royce, was the snowflake-shaped spall that indicated the cracked roof, the place where we had almost fallen through. Friggy had maneuvered us around it!

I grinned at him then. "You're amazing."

He grinned back. "I try."

Royce's eyes were moving back and forth between us. "Are you two insane?" He stuck the gun straight out at me. "Give me the medallion!" he roared.

I thought he was going to shoot, and briefly closed my eyes. But the sense of peace within me intensified, and no shot came. I opened my eyes again. Royce was still looking at me, the gun was still pointed at me. But now he looked confused somehow, as if he had lost his train of thought. He gave his head a little shake, and glared at me again. "Well?"

I sighed, and dug a hand into my pocket, and fished about there for a moment, and pulled out Royce's purse. "I have it."

"Bring it here."

I gave a little cringe. "You'll shoot me when I get there."

A look crossed the man's face, as if he couldn't believe what he was hearing. He gritted his teeth at me, and then nodded, and extended his free hand. "Toss it here."

I looked at Friggy again, and he nodded. "Do it."

I gulped, drew my arm back, took a step forward, and threw. But at the last second I lost my footing, and the purse only went half the distance between us, and landed on the roof with a soft thwack. Directly in the center of the spall pattern.

"Idiot!" Royce looked furious, and I thought he might shoot me right then. But instead he stomped forward, and bent to pick up the purse.

There was a sharp crack of something snapping, and Royce's eyes looked up at mine, ever so briefly, just as wide with amazement as could be.

And then a large circle of roof simply broke away and fell inwards, taking Royce with it. For just a second the world seemed to hold its breath...and then there came a crash from below that sounded like the end of everything.

Which for Mister Royce, it certainly was.

Friggy let out a gasp of breath, bent forward and put his hands on his knees, and rolled his head back and forth. Then he looked at me in wonder. "I don't believe that worked."

I was feeling a little numb myself. "I know."

Friggy reached over and grabbed my hand, and pulled me around the hole. We ran for the ladder, looked down, and found the way clear this time. Friggy stepped up onto the first rung, and then paused, and looked back at the hole in the roof a last time, and frowned. "Too bad about the medallion, though."

I reached into my pocket and pulled it out. "Oh, that was just the purse I threw. I decided to keep the medallion."

Friggy laughed in astonishment, and then he was pulling me onto the ladder, and soon we were on the ground, and running away, and no one in pursuit. And a wonderful sense of peace within us.

It was a fine thing to be away from that place, where even now, a great many office clerks seemed to be racing about, seeking to find the cause of the noise.

Friggy and I sat together on the crate and watched the medallion where it lay in the flickering light of the candle. The tiny jewels on it seemed to sparkle along with the candle flame's movement, holding our eyes, even as we held each other. The blackout curtains contained the candlelight, shielding us from any lurking eyes, though we knew in our hearts that we were alone, here at our home.

Home is where you hang your hat, right?

And, where you bare your soul. I could feel the love flowing from Friggy, just as I sensed that he could feel mine, flowing from me. And the sense of peace, which we both shared. The medallion intensified your basic nature, if you allowed it to do so. We had, because it made us feel free. We were learning a lot, just by sitting, and thinking, and watching the medallion. We were learning to share more of ourselves with each other. And learning about other things, too.

Yes, the world had once been different. Greater. More wondrous. More equal. More free.

But also more troubled, and more demanding, and, at times, much more unfair.

There was much to be said about the old world, and much to be said about the present one, too. Neither was perfect, and neither could ever be.

But to combine them? To bring into this present world, some things from the old? The good things, maybe, and forget the bad?

It was simply an offer thus far, and Friggy and I were considering it. It would mean a journey to a far land, and a search for a place buried in time. A place where wonders could still be found, and perhaps brought back to share with the world of the present. The world of the present could use a few wonders, we figured.

I wanted to go. Friggy wanted to go, too. But we had not made the decision yet, because we still needed to know that the greed that had infected Mister Royce would not infect us, too. That the knowledge of power would not corrupt us. That what we did, we did because we wanted the world to be better, not ours to command.

What good are wonders, if the world was held captive to view them?

But there was time. No hurry at all. We would talk some more, and perhaps, one day we would decide.

But for now, we'll just listen, I think, and absorb these new ideas. Our new friend has many stories to tell, many memories to share.

And many hopes to offer, should we decide to accept them.


This story is part of the 2020 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: Socks". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 31 January to 21 February is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.

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2020 Inspired by a Picture Challenge - Socks

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The Stolen Dream

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