Mark had a role to play in the Ghoul’s gang same as everyone else. He wasn’t just a tagalong kid, there to provide some sympathy for the police if they should appear, or to make their business seem more legitimate. He had a job, an important job, one that the gang wouldn’t work without.
It surely didn’t feel that way, not when he was “sneaking” through the undertaker’s office in his mud-soaked boots and uncomfortable working clothes, trying not to wake the man he knew was just in the next room. The man had said he didn’t feel well and needed to lie down, which coincidentally gave Mark the perfect opportunity to sneak into his office and nab papers listing where a few new deaths would be buried. He left muddy footprints on the creaking wooden floor as he went, and every step made him feel more and more anxious that the man would wake up. How could a hallway that was only twenty feet long possibly seem so vast?
The documents were lying out on his desk, and were easy to slip into the big pockets of his work coat. Mark hurried to leave, painfully aware that the rest of the gang would be there waiting for him. He pulled on his black cap, almost the same dark shade as his hair as he ran, and slid on the hard black fabric mask that hid his face. In the fading light of the evening, he looked faceless, and completely anonymous.
A hand slammed him on the back so hard Mark’s mask nearly flew off. He turned angrily to see Ransom Egerton standing beside him, grinning.
Ransom was someone Mark had known for all of his fourteen years. He had soft, flat blonde hair, a pale face, and big blue eyes that had no emotion behind them. He was in theory as poor as Mark was, but he sure could afford a lot of things Mark couldn’t, like more than two outfits, one of them a suit, and a revolver that was stocked with bullets and never far from his hand. Ransom didn’t have as many siblings as Mark, only four living at home to Mark’s six, and one of the ones who wasn’t at home was in the military, with a salary. Maybe that was why he could afford extra things.
“What was that for?” Mark asked.
Ransom smiled, which had an effect like a wolf baring its teeth. “Just wanted to greet you.” His family was Scottish, and his accent, despite being less extreme than that belonging to his parents, was overtly present.
“Well, hullo there, then. You’ve greeted me.”
Ransom continued to walk beside him, and Mark, rather than tell him off, but his lip.
“Going to see that ghoul you work for?”
“I might be.”
“I don’t get why you would work for him when I exist.”
“Maybe I don’t like beating up old women for money.”
Ransom scoffed. “One time.”
“Oh, believe me, your other exploits are well known.” Mark might have been a criminal, but he was nothing if not a pacifist. Ransom was practically the young prince of violence on the streets.
“Well, if you know I don’t just beat up old ladies, why not join me?” Ransom spread his arms out. His frame was thin, but muscular. “It’s more money than your grave robbing arrangement.”
“I- I’ll think about it, okay?”
“Better get me an answer this time.”
Ransom drifted back off into an alley, and Mark breathed a sigh of relief. His older sister Mabel’s words from earlier came back to him suddenly.
“You had better tell me if Egerton’s out again. He’s supposed to be helping his mum with her pregnancy.”
And his response.
“I will, don’t worry.”
And now he would have to turn Ransom Egerton in.
Mark sighed heavily under his mask, and turned the corner into the alleyway where the others would be waiting. There was a sewer grate that came out there, which they used to get the bodies down to the sewers, and which the rest of the gang would disappear into after Mark gave them the papers.
The Ghoul was the leader, and he was tall, with distinctive boots that left hooflike prints when he walked. He also carried a cane to help with his heavy limp, but Mark had never seen a man with a cane run as fast as Ghoul could.
The rest of the gang was around him when Mark arrived. There was Firefly, who had glowing yellow eyes Mark had never seen on anyone else, leaning against the wall. Wild and Sap, who were both women but otherwise completely unremarkable, were playing some kind of game that involved slapping each others’ hands. The last one, a Czech woman with a heavy accent who went by Scarecrow for her tall, extremely thin frame, was polishing the side of one of her knives.
“Well, if it isn’t Ghost,” Ghoul said.
Mark had picked his nickname on a whim, hoping that it would be enough to keep people far enough away that he didn’t have to explain himself. “Y- yes. I’ve got your papers.”
Ghoul held out his hand, and Mark gave him the folded papers. Scarecrow read it over his shoulder – well, maybe not reading. Mark could barely read, having dropped out of school at the age of ten, and he didn’t know that Scarecrow could read English. Ghoul was a writer, though, he’d once told Mark that.
“This is good,” Ghoul said. “We have a buyer lined up, too. Ghost, you’ll have to show us where this means- plot a3? There’s no markings.”
Mark shifted uncomfortably. He didn’t want to go, but what was he going to do, deny his boss? “Can I change first? My clothes are-”
Ghoul shook his head. “If we get caught, you need to be wearing worker clothes so that they don’t arrest you.”
That was a good point. “Alright, if that’s what you think. Where are we going?”
Ghoul tapped his cane. Wild and Sap stopped their ‘game’ and both squatted down to lift the heavy sewer grate. Scarecrow, who could mimic almost any sound nearly perfectly, went first, and yelled out a signal when she was on the floor. Firefly was next, slipping in and gripping the ceiling. Wild helped Ghoul down, Mark came after, and Sap was last in, shutting the gate after her with a clang.
Ghoul led the way through the tunnels, walking with incredible purpose in the concrete maze. Mark was already lost by the time they had turned two corners, but the rest of the group all seemed to know exactly where they were going. Firefly had disappeared from the main group, and when Sap saw Mark looking around nervously she pointed up. Few times had Mark been so terrified as when he looked up to see Firefly crawling along the ceiling above them.
The group came up near the cemetery indicated on the papers. Ghoul led the way into it, toting several sacks that would be used to transport the bodies. Sap and Wild had the tools, being the two strongest members of the gang, and would be the ones to break open the coffin. Firefly would guard, with his knives, and Scarecrow would keep watch. Mark’s job was as simple as Ghoul’s was: he was to indicate graves, while Ghoul supervised.
“This one,” Mark said as they entered the graveyard. The ground around the grave was fresh-tilled, and certainly no one would be able to tell if they dug the coffin up. “That one, and that one.”
The gang moved in on the grave. Scarecrow grabbed Mark by the arm and pulled him away from the main group, to sit up on the wall.
“Take your mask off,” she said. When he hesitated, she rolled her eyes and smacked his arm. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell.”
She took off her mask. Her hair was short and dark, her face was long, and her skin was pale. “Your turn.”
Mark slid the mask off his face. His mother was from somewhere in the Middle East, so his skin was dark, and his hair was black. His face was round, and he’d been told that it was rather unattractive.
“That’s good,” Scarecrow said. “Now we make polite conversation, and if the police come around the corner they’ll think we’re just a pair of friends talking late at night. How old are you, kid?”
“I’m fourteen, nearly fifteen.”
“Never say how old you really are. Always add on at least a year. You’re sixteen now, kid.”
Mark shifted. “How old are you?”
She snorted. “No, stupid.”
“How old are you really, then?”
Mark was beginning to get annoyed with her antics. “Give me the real answer.”
Scarecrow smirked for a moment, then said, “Seventeen.”
Mark was silent a moment, before smiling. “Then we’re only a year apart.”
Scarecrow guffawed. “You’re getting it now, kid!”
They sat there silently for a few minutes. Mark looked up at the smog that hid the sky. His mother said that back in her home you could always see the stars, unless there were clouds over them.
“Got any brothers or sisters?” Scarecrow asked.
Mark shrugged. “I have six.”
“Nice. I’ve five, myself, and another on the way. Used to have six, but one of ‘em died.”
“Don’t be. He was a drunk.” Scarecrow’s head snapped to the left for an instant, then she looked back. “He died a right appropriate death, too.”
“Cholera. He pooped himself to death.”
Mark had to laugh at that, and Scarecrow smiled along with him. “I’ve got three brothers and two sisters,” she said.
“Are you the oldest?”
“Yeah, since that drunk died. I ran away a few years ago, though.”
Scarecrow didn’t answer immediately. She looked out over the street, chewing her lip, before saying, “let’s just not talk about my other brother, okay, Ghost?”
Mark nodded. Ransom had told him stories about that kind of thing, mostly picked up from other kids. He knew not to pry. “It’s alright.”
“Anyway, how about you, kid? Who are your siblings?”
“Well, my oldest sister’s got a daughter of her own now, and she’s marrying the father in two months. We’re saving up for it.”
“She’s moving out?”
“Yeah, they all are, but for now the three of them live with us.”
“Extra mouths to feed.”
“That’s why I work this job, I guess. To provide for them.”
“Seems to me that they should be working for their daughter.”
“Well, they do, it’s just-” Mark sighed. “It’s not enough, you know?”
“I know. Got both your parents looking after you?”
“No, my dad died six years ago, right after getting my mum pregnant with my second-to-youngest sibling. My sister.”
Scarecrow looked at him sharply. “Second-to-youngest?”
“Yeah, mum had Math- my youngest brother with one of her boyfriends a few years later.”
“Oh. Does he carry your last name?”
“What? Oh, yeah, of course he does. He’s my brother.”
“Do all of your brothers have the same last name as you?”
“Unfortunately. I don’t really go by my last name anymore, though. I tend to just have everyone call me by the one name.”
“What is it?” Oh no. Why had he said that?
“Your… name you go by?”
Scarecrow gave him an irritated look. “My first name?”
“Uh… yeah.” Mark could feel his face burning. He wanted to crawl into a shell and hide.
She was angry for only a moment more, then smiled. “Not something you usually share, but it’s a pretty common first name. Mary. Of course, that’s only what I go by. You have to be at least a third level friend to discover my real name.”
Mary. “That’s a good name to go by.”
“Thank you, I suppose. Now, I’m going to ask you what name you go by, and I shall be severely disappointed if you tell me your real name. What name do you go by, Ghost?”
“Uh…” Name he went by. Name he went by. “… It’s William.”
“William and Mary. I’ll wager you can’t swing a cat without hitting about five or six Williams and Marys.”
Mark grinned. He liked her.
Suddenly, Scarecrow’s head snapped up, and she pressed Mark’s mask back onto his face. She stood, and made the perfectly replicated sounds of a baby’s cry.
“What?” Mark asked.
“Get down, mask on, gun out.”
“I don’t have a gun.”
Scarecrow made an exasperated noise and pulled a gun out of her pocket. “Take this. Shoot when I tell you.”
She crouched down next to him. They were standing precariously on top of a stack of coffins against the wall, their guns pointed at the street in front of them.
A shadow darted out from the wall, into the middle of the intersection. Firefly.
“Who’s there?” Firefly shouted.
Another figure came out of the shadows on the other side of the street. “Me!”
“Do I know you?”
“Probably not, but it don’t matter. You work for that ghoul, yeah?”
“Well, you better tell him to come out here. We’re gonna to mess up his legs even more.”
Firefly didn’t move. “You are very welcome to try.”
“Think you can stop me?”
“I don’t even know who you are.”
“Well, if you really do want me to know you so badly, come out here and give me a reason to.”
The figure, which Mark could now see to be masculine, made it a single step before one of Scarecrow’s bullets hit him in the shoulder. The man screamed as he fell back, but was silenced a second later when Firefly opened his throat.
Mark felt bile rising in his throat. He turned away from the wall, and from all the blood on the other side of it, whipped off his mask, and vomited violently onto the grass. Scarecrow held his shoulder until he was done, then gave him a flask to swig out of.
Mark spat the contents out the instant it touched his tongue. His mouth was on fire. “What is this?”
“Does it matter?”
Mark held back tears and took a drink, if only to wash his mouth out.
“You should go,” Ghoul said. “We don’t need you for anything more. You live around here, do you not?”
“Go home, then, and take off your mask as soon as you can, to get people off your tail. We’ll bring your payment to you tomorrow.”
Mark gave an awkward bow, and ran off. Never had he been so grateful to get out of work. He took off his mask, and stood in the middle of the street for a moment, breathing heavily. His apartment was just down the street, on the top floor of the building.
He walked up the rickety stairs on the side of the building. The old landlord lived on the lowest floor, alone with his wife. On the next three floors were a smattering of families that Mark only vaguely knew, except for Hobart and Joanna Blakely and their mother, who lived by the stairs. He knew everyone on his floor by heart, though. Closest to the stairs were the Conrays, who had only three living children, Lottie, Monty, and Ansel, where last year they had had seven. The parents were still alive, and trying for another child, but Mum had told Mark that she didn’t think they’d get one.
After them was the Sapping apartment with Dom, Sylvia, and Deirdre. Dom had died, though, and another man had come to replace him. The new man was a frenchman, Mark had heard, and he had the biggest, meanest dog a person could meet.
The door to the Sapping apartment opened, and a man came out into the hall. He was tall and muscular, with auburn hair that was striped black in the front. The man’s face had a certain wolfish cast to it that made Mark uncomfortable, and there was something predatory behind his eyes. Suddenly, Mark’s throat was very dry.
“Pardon,” the man said. His french accent was thick. “Do you know where I could find a baker?”
Mark’s mouth opened and closed twice. He needed to calm down. Why be afraid of this man? “I- I know-”
The man’s face contorted into a wolflike scowl. Mark wanted to run. “Do you know or not, child?”
“I know,” Mark said. Stick to single-syllable words. “Three streets right from the door.”
“Turn right from the door. Go three blocks.”
“I’ll find a bakery there?”
The man flicked a coin his way and walked down the stairs. His steps were nearly silent.
Mark swallowed hard and continued walking to his apartment. The Egertons, Ransom’s family, was right across from his family, and they had almost as many children. There was Alice, the eldest, who had run away a few years prior to live on the streets rather than live at home. Ransom told Mark how glad he was that she was gone. Clara was the next, a girl of fifteen who was one of the primary breadwinners for the family. Ransom had a twin, Mary, who was off at an art school in France, learning to be a painter. She wouldn’t be coming home any time soon, if ever. After them came the other set of twins, David and Anna, who were five years old and identical in every way save for gender. There was also an oldest brother, William, who was off fighting in the military. There was a new baby in Anna Egerton the elder’s belly even now, a new one to replace the child they’d lost just before David and Anna the younger had been born.
Mark unlocked the door to his apartment. It was two rooms, like all the others in this area, and was home to ten people at present.
Mildred, his oldest sister; her fiance, Tom; and their daughter, Madeline were all sitting around the table. Tom was black, and only as tall as Mildred was. Madeline was three, as old as Mark’s youngest brother Matthew.
The younger children, who were ruled over by nine-year-old Margaret, were seated around the fireplace listening to Mabel, who was fifteen, tell a story. Margaret, Martha, and Matthew were all there, the others were at the table, and Mum was cutting bread for dinner. Everyone was present and accounted for.
So why did it feel as if someone was missing?
Mark realized a moment later. His younger brother, Morgan, was twelve years old, and had been sold to a master chimney sweep several years earlier. He snuck away sometimes to come visit them, if only for a few hours. Apparently, he wasn’t home tonight.
Mark sighed, and went into the kitchen to help Mum with dinner. When he earned enough money from working for Richard, he would buy Morgan back, and they could all be a family again. He’d just have to work double hard, put in double the effort, rob double the graves. Become respected enough that he’d earn more money. That wouldn’t be so hard, would it?