These were bad streets. Dark streets, foggy streets, streets where your shoes against the cobblestone were the only thing that broke the silence, streets where men with their hats pulled down over their faces stood on one side of the road and women with painted faces and moth-eaten dresses on the other. Streets Ettie Rutter knew very well, streets she had spent her childhood running along, streets she had been passing through unharmed for over 20 years now.
But lately things had changed. Her steps had quickened, her breathing had become strained, her eyes had lowered whenever someone looked at her, her coat had been pulled tighter around her by arms that were almost acting on their own. Things had changed, and now she scurried past the dilapidated, cramped houses she used to pass strutting. Now she was too short, too heavy, too dark, her eyes glimmered too much and her breasts were too big. Now she saw all the risks, the danger that was everywhere. Her pockets were empty and her dress was thin and worn, but she was a small, lonely girl in a night-dark world, and her skin was the colour of amber in a city where she had often heard men call it exotic and brag about such conquests.
But there was safety, behind the red door to the house with planks over the windows. Ettie ran the last few steps and practically flung the door open. The Drunken Duck was a dump not even worthy of a sign. It was a place for sailors wild after time at sea, where they drank beer at low, rickety tables in the darkened, smoky room. Of furniture there was little else, and all in the way of ornaments was a vulgar painting of a woman half-wearing only a corset. Pretty girls sometimes moved between these tables and sat on these men’s laps, but Ettie was safe here. She was known here, because Eddie was here every night, and so was she.
“Ettie!” Ben was sitting on a chair on the other side of the bar and waved at her smilingly.
She smiled back. “Aren’t you supposed to be working?”
A man at the bar banged his glass against the table and snorted, “Yes he is.”
Ben gave him the finger and some cruel words before he looked back at her again with a softer face.
“Eddie’s back there.” He pointed into the room.
Ben nodded. “Some bloke who looks too fancy to be here.”
Ettie’s face gained a concerned expression, and she wrapped her coat tighter around herself again. But she was walking calmer now, because she was out of danger, at least for the moment. Even though she knew that at some point she would have to leave the Drunken Duck, and where else would she go but back to the streets where she had always lived?
They were sitting by a corner table against the wall, as far into the room as one could get. Eddie sat on the chair with her back against her, dressed in a cheap-looking brown suit, and opposite him was a man Ettie had never seen before. Ben’s description had been correct. This man’s hair was too perfect, he wore white tie and a thick long coat, and Ettie was fairly certain that the bowler on the table was not Eddie’s.
She slid into the chair next to his and eyed the stranger with suspicion. They had been speaking – with voices too hushed for her to make out any words – but they both quieted as the stranger looked at her and seemed to force his lips to form a smile.
Eddie turned his head and she, knowing him, could see in his eyes that he was cursing on the inside when he realised that it was her. He was a few shades lighter than her, but had the same brown eyes and just as black, curly hair.
“Jack, this is my sister Ettie”, he said with his most genteel voice. “Ettie, this is Jack.”
Jack bared some teeth. “Good evening, Ms Sullivan.”
“It’s Mrs Rutter”, she heard her voice snap back. Being misnamed was the one thing she could not stand.
Eddie awkwardly leaned back into his chair and put a hand around the beer glass in front of him without actually lifting it. Jack looked too comfortable here, as if he had spent just as much time there as them, as if he had grown up on the very street and worked the bar as a child to make money, but had now returned with success and money, just to gloat and show it all off.
“Jack and I are discussing doing some business together”, Eddie said.
She gave him a frown. “What sort of business?”
Eddie smiled in embarrassment and looked over to Jack for help, as though he could not speak for himself. Ettie had never seen her brother like this. She did not like it, and she was more than a little sceptical about the man who could make it happen.
“Is it illegal?” she asked loudly before either of them could reply.
“Incredibly so”, Jack smirked, interlocking his hands over the table.
She glared at him, and back at Eddie.
“Eddie – you promised.”
On their parents’ graves he had sworn, that things would change. At this point there were no other options. But with the desperation he had in his eyes when he looked at her – she understood. She hated it, but she understood.
“Ettie”, he said, “I promise this is the last thing. After this I won’t need to do any more. But I-“ He leaned closer and lowered his voice to a whisper, in vain trying to keep it from Jack. “I can’t go back to sea, so what else could we do?”
She bit her lip and put a hand on her stomach, but she said nothing, so she had caved in and he had won. She looked at Jack again.
“What is this incredibly illegal thing then?” she demanded, effectively hiding all her bad feelings.
“I want Eddie to rob a house”, Jack said matter-of-factly, as if he had just asked him to pick up some milk on the way home.
“He’s not a robber.”
“He does illegal things for money.” He shrugged. “It’s close enough for me.”
Ettie barely managed to conceal a frustrated tear that was struggling to escape her right eye. But they had no other choice, and she knew it. He could not go out to sea ever again, but they desperately needed the money.
“You mention money”, she said when she had gathered herself together. “How much do we get?”
Jack just smirked contentedly and leaned over to tap a finger against the wooden box in the middle of the table. Hesitantly Ettie reached out and opened it, and immediately caught her breath.
“See”, Eddie whispered beside her. “I told you, this will last us forever.”
Still in a daze, thinking she must surely be dreaming, she dug through the jewellery and pulled up the grandest necklace in there. It was shaped like bands and bows and decorated with diamonds and rubies. It was enough. He would never have to go out to sea, she would never have to relive the worst period of her life. She would not have to do it all alone; he would be there with her. And they would have plenty of money.
She had barely put the necklace back and retracted her fingers before Jack slammed the box shut again. The look on his face said that he was well aware that he had nothing to fear from her any more.
Ettie gulped. “It still doesn’t change the fact that we don’t know how to get into this house. You can’t pick locks with diamonds.”
Jack looked amusedly at Eddie, who dangled a set of keys on a ring that he had in his hand.
“I’ve supplied you with keys”, Jack said. “If you know how to use them I think that will be sufficient, don’t you?”
She nodded numbly. He turned to Eddie again.
“And you remember the details about where we will meet and you hand over the goods?” he asked. “I don’t want to repeat it in front of her. The fewer who knows, the better.”
Eddie nodded. Ettie stared down at the box that contained her entire future. Would someone even miss them? Would someone who owned such riches be even remotely affected by some stolen possessions?
“Do we have a deal?” Jack asked loudly.
She looked up. Eddie was staring at her. He was waiting for their answer. He was waiting for her to make the decision, and he would do whatever she said. She felt bad for him, someone so bright who had ended up here. But he was only a sailor, son of another sailor who had gone to sea and never come back, and a woman who had worked the streets until the men that had been her livelihood had tired of her. And it was because of Ettie that he was in this position, so what right did she have to deny him this final thing? This – this would change their destinies. All three of them.
“Will they even miss any of it?” she said with a hollow voice.
Eddie smiled in relief. He had run out of options, and without this he would have been at his wit’s end. He turned back to Jack.
Jack nodded and picked up some black leather gloves from the table.
He spoke as he started to stand. ”I trust you understand what the consequences of trying to play me would-“
The siblings stood up just after he did, and that was when he went mute in the middle of a sentence and got stuck staring at her stomach. When she had sat down, coat around her, he had probably not seen it.
“How long left?” he asked without moving his eyes.
“A few months”, Ettie replied.
Jack managed to find some voice again. “Where’s the father?”
She put a protective hand over her big bump. “My husband was a sailor just like my father and brother”, she said. “And just like my father he went out to sea, and his ship never returned.”
He looked up at Eddie.
“This-“ He pointed at the box on the table, “goes to the child.” It was a command and nothing else.
Eddie smiled tiredly down at his sister.
“Yes”, he said. “Of course.”
“Good.” Jack pulled on his gloves and put on his hat. “I changed your lives tonight.”
She nodded. She knew he had.
Jack tipped his hat and said nothing more. With his coat swinging around him he walked confidently between the tables towards the door. He would be lucky if he got home without getting jumped by anyone tonight.
Ettie and Eddie both remained standing, looking down at the box that was theirs now.
“When-“ she started, after a silence that had lasted more than a few minutes.
“Tonight”, he said. “He says no one is home tonight.”
How did he know that? It was one of the many questions running through her head, as Ettie stepped out of the carriage in front of the house. It was a brown brick house, three stories high with a balcony on the second, and some stone steps led up to a blue front door.
Why did Jack want them to rob it? How had he gotten a key? Who had that jewellery belonged to? How did he know they were out?
She shivered in the cold as Eddie put his hands in his pockets and started walking up the stairs. The rest of the gang would arrive later, one by one, as to not arouse suspicion. But they did not want to be standing out there on the street as they waited. They needed to know if the key would work. They needed to know that they had not been played.
Ettie wondered if she would give birth in prison, and what would happen to her child. It had to be a scam, all of it. They had been given a key, they had been paid in advance, any second now police officers would start appearing around corners and jump out behind doors. Or – she realised with fear, as Eddie brought up the key from his pocket – they would be waiting inside to catch them in the act.
He put the key in the lock. It fit. She took a deep breath below the stairs. He turned the key.