Lizzie: Lethal Innocence – Excerpt
Book 1 of Lizzie Series
A Canadian Bestseller by J. Robert Whittle
Fending for herself at nine years of age on the streets near London’s dockland was difficult for one so young, but Lizzie was a wily, cunning little thief with a winsome smile and a merry twinkle in her bright blue eyes. Her beautiful auburn hair hung in disarray over slim shoulders covered by an ill-fitting grubby grey dress which had not been washed in weeks — her tatty, black coat had been recently torn when she collided with a workman on the docks.
This seemingly frail child, however, was far from ordinary. She was accustomed to life on the street and brighter than most. Some of the older children of the streets tried to copy Lizzie’s enterprising tricks, but most were caught for their efforts.
Then one day, life as she knew it, almost ended. It was mid-morning and she and her friends were making their usual rounds picking pockets and pinching what food they could find, when she almost got caught. She barely escaped by hiding under the skirt of a dressmaker’s model that stood in a shop doorway.
Sadly, her companions weren’t so lucky. They were soon caught by the eager hands of the law and apprehended. She only saw them one more time — the day she sneaked into the court and witnessed their sentence for deportation to the Colonies of the New World. No one seemed to care what happened to those poor little lost souls…except Lizzie and now it was too late.
Tears streamed down her face as she trudged back to the garret where she and her mother lived in total poverty. Her weary bare feet landed on the top step and she reached out for the door latch. Standing there in the last rays of sunshine, her thin elbows resting on the rickety top rail, she made the decision to leave. There was nothing inside she either needed or wanted, so turning her back on the only home she had ever known, she slowly descended the stairs…for the very last time.
By the time her feet landed on the cobblestones of the back lane, she had a plan and the drunken sailor lying in a doorway was the first stepping stone to her newfound independence. Deftly, she searched through his pockets and relieved him of his money. Her young, experienced hands worked both quickly and gently, and caused him not the slightest discomfort.
All the rest of that day and into the evening, Lizzie walked the streets begging for only as much food as she dared. Nighttime came and she carefully searched her familiar locations until she found a place to sleep – a handsome cab left by the owner until morning in a stable yard. Soft, comfortable leather seats made a resting place of pure luxury for her young body. Her old, dirty coat was her blanket, her folded arms her pillow, and it was not long before sleep overtook the worn-out child.
The clip clop of horse’s hooves, rattling on the cobblestones, awoke her as dawn broke. Quickly, she slipped away unobserved into the fresh morning air of dockland. With her tummy rumbling from hunger, Lizzie Short started her first full day of freedom by heading straight to the big coaching house, “The Robin” on the corner of Dock Street and Water Lane. It was a popular place for travelers to get a last meal before boarding their ships for a long sea voyage to a far-off land.
Slipping off her ragged coat and hiding it behind the stable block, she quickly walked over to the wash trough, washed her hands and face, and with a little giggle, made her way over to the kitchen. Behind the back door hung the aprons belonging to the serving girls. Making sure she wasn’t being followed, Lizzie unhooked an apron from a nail and closed the door again, without even going inside — this was a trick she had pulled off many times before.
Smoothing out the wrinkles on the apron she was now wearing, she entered the front door and snatched up the first tray she found left unattended. Now it simply took strong nerves to walk into the kitchen and load up the tray with food. In a few minutes, she was walking out into the public area with a full tray and a jaunty air of self-confidence.
Suddenly, a large hand fell on her small shoulder and a rough voice asked, “Who the hell are you?”
Quick as a flash, Lizzie smiled her sweetest smile back at the man, giving her answer in her most innocent voice. “New girl, sir.”
The hand fell away and out she walked into the yard, passing between the many travelers, stable hands and coachmen. Hiding behind the stables, the girl ate hurriedly at first, her young eyes shining as she turned over in her mind the plan for the rest of the day. Stuffing the surplus food from breakfast into a bag and hiding it under her coat in a corner of the stable, she returned the apron to the nail and laid the tray on the first table inside the door.
As she turned to leave, four girls almost knocked her over, as they ran screaming and laughing into the coach stop, bumping into everything in their urgency to get to a table and food. A big, well-dressed man followed them — a scowl on his face and an air of importance in his manner.
Lizzie watched in envy at the carefree antics of these well-to-do young ladies and momentarily considered if she would be as silly if she had a private coach to ride in and fancy clothes to wear.
Out in the yard, the private coach that had just brought the girls to this place was being unloaded — trunks from the rear carrier, bags and more bags were being thrown from the top rack, and a stable lad was unhitching the matched pair of beautiful Cleveland Bays.
Watching the action with interest, Lizzie noticed the dark blue coat lying on the ground — no doubt dropped by one of the girls. In a flash, she scooped it up as she hurried across the yard.
She returned quickly to the stable to collect her own coat with her bag of food tucked inside, but not needing her tatty coat anymore, she threw it to one side and was quickly out in the back lane and on her way.
What a wonderful start to the day she was having. Thoughts danced merrily through her young mind as the tall ships passed gracefully on the great river she had heard the adults call The Thames. Dockland was waking to a new day.
I need a place of my own, she mused, her eyebrows puckering in deep thought, but where? With all her friends gone, no relatives she knew of — this was certainly going to be a problem she needed to solve — and very soon.
As she slowly walked through the streets of dockland, she saw many things she hadn’t noticed before. She had become surprisingly aware of the many small shops that lined the streets and lanes — clothing shops and blacksmiths, hat shops and food shops — and with each passing day, she had become more interested in the people she saw.
One day, she noticed an old man with walking sticks crossing the road just ahead of her. At the same time, she saw a carriage driven at full gallop and in a wildly irresponsible manner careening toward him. She tried to cry out a warning but the words stuck in her throat as she stood paralysed with horror as the carriage came closer. Then it was too late, as it collided with the old man sending both him and his walking sticks flying in all directions.
Instinct forced Lizzie to run to his assistance, tears escaping her eyes as she saw how badly he was hurt. Cradling the old head in her thin arms, blood trickling from his battered face, she held him gently and his eyes slowly opened.
Bravely, he tried to smile as he haltingly mumbled, “Take…me home…please.”
His eyes began to close, but Lizzie shook him gently and demanded, ”
Ware is home, mister?”
Slowly, he tried to open them again, but the effort seemed too great.
“Ten…,” swallowing hard, he struggled for words, “ten . . . Slaughter . . . Lane,” he whispered, but his head flopped limply to one side, eyes shut once more.
A lad pushing a two-wheeled cart stopped to take a look.
“Looks dun for, ta me,” he said in a serious tone.
Lizzie looked up with her tear-stained face and clutched the lad’s arm.
“Load him on yer barra an tec us home…an ah’ll give yer a penny,” she said urgently, ignoring his comment.
The lad nodded eagerly.
It took their combined strength and a great deal of effort, to load the old man onto the transport. Lizzie threw her new blue coat over him for warmth and off they went, the lad pulling and the girl pushing.
© 1998 J. Robert Whittle
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