Pawn – Karen Lynch

“SORRY, KID. I wish I could help you, but you know how it is.” I gave the manager of the coffee shop a weary smile. “I appreciate you taking time to talk to me.” “I heard one of the hotels in Hoboken is looking for maids,” she said as I turned to leave. “Thanks.” I didn’t bother to ask which hotel because there was no way I was getting a job across the river. My parents would never allow it. I hadn’t told them I was extending my job search into lower Manhattan. I figured I’d wait until I found a job before I brought it up. If Dad had his way, I wouldn’t leave Brooklyn until I went to college. I left the warm shop and stepped out into the brisk November air. Pulling up the collar of my coat, I leaned against the building while I contemplated my next move. It was late afternoon and I’d been out here all day, but I wasn’t ready to give up yet. I pushed off from the building, and a poster tacked to the wall of the newsstand next door caught my eye.

It was an Agency recruitment poster, featuring a male and a female agent, both sharp and attractive in their crisp black suits. “THE FAE ENFORCEMENT AGENCY NEEDS YOU,” it read in big bold letters. Beneath the poster was a rack of celebrity gossip magazines. My eyes skimmed the covers, and I wasn’t surprised to see the front-page story on every one of them was about the new Seelie prince and his upcoming introduction to society. There weren’t any pictures of him, so no one knew yet what he looked like, but the entertainment world had been abuzz with speculation for months. The closer we got to his big debut, the more the excitement built. I didn’t get what all the fuss was about. Sure, we hadn’t had a new Fae prince since before I was born, but it wasn’t as if there weren’t already a ton of royals for people to gawk at. What was one more? There were more important things to obsess over, such as the shortage of jobs. “Come back here, you little freak!” yelled a man’s voice.

I looked up the crowded sidewalk and caught sight of a tiny figure weaving between the pedestrians, with a large angry man in hot pursuit. The kid, who couldn’t be more than eight or nine, was a dozen feet from me when I saw pointed ears protruding from his white-blond hair, and luminous green eyes. His face and clothes were filthy, and he looked scared out of his wits. As he came abreast of me, my hand shot out and snagged his thin arm. In one move, I yanked him forward and shoved him behind me into the narrow gap between the newsstand and the coffee shop. I backed up, hiding his small body with mine and ignoring the tiny hands pushing ineffectually at my backside. The man slowed to a stop, his mean face mottled and sweaty as he furiously scanned the area. When he didn’t spot his quarry, he let loose a loud string of profanities that earned him looks of censure from the people around him. Behind me, the elf boy whimpered, and I put a hand on his shoulder. “Shhh.

” The man stomped away, halting at the intersection to look around again. I didn’t know what beef he had with the elf, and I didn’t care. There was no good reason to chase down a child like he was an animal. Feeling eyes on me, I looked across the busy street and caught sight of a tall, dark-haired man watching me. He was in his early twenties, handsome and well-dressed in dark pants and a gray shirt that did nothing to hide his powerful physique. I was pretty sure he was a faerie, but he was too far away to say for certain. He continued to watch me, probably wondering why I would go out of my way to protect an elf street urchin. I stared back in a silent challenge, while praying he didn’t tip off the other guy. I let out a breath when a silver SUV pulled up beside him and he looked away from me. He and a blond male, who also looked Fae, got into the back of the car without another glance in my direction.

“Hey! Let me go,” wailed a muffled voice behind me, dragging my attention from the departing SUV. I glanced around to make sure the elf’s pursuer had moved on, and then I stepped aside to free the little guy. His pale face was pinched in indignation. “What did you do that for?” “Do what? Save you from that brute?” He drew up to his full height, which was all of four feet to my five-seven. “I don’t need no saving. I can take care of myself.” “Yes, I can see that,” I retorted, taking in his gaunt face and brittle eyes that had probably witnessed more than any child should ever have to see. Life on the street was rough, but it had to be twice as hard for children, especially faeries. I opened my mouth to ask him if he was alone out here, but he bolted before I could speak. I watched him dart away through the passersby, who paid him no heed.

It was a sad statement about our society that the sight of a homeless child didn’t make people bat an eye. No longer in the mood to wear a polite smile, I decided to call it a day and resume my job search tomorrow. I stuffed my hands into my coat pockets and headed to the subway station half a block away. Passing storefronts with festive holiday decorations in the windows, I was reminded I still hadn’t started my Christmas shopping. Knowing Mom, she already had our presents wrapped and hidden in her closet. I smiled to myself. There was no one as organized as my mother. It wasn’t until I was at the subway turnstile and reaching into my back pocket for my MetroCard that I realized my day had taken another downward turn. I felt around in my pocket a few times to be sure, and then checked my other pockets, before my shoulders sagged. That little bugger had picked my pocket and made off with my card and the ten dollars I’d had there.

Way to go, Jesse. I patted my coat pocket, relieved to find my phone still there. At least he hadn’t gotten that. Heaving a sigh, I turned away from the booth. I cast one last longing glance at the train before I climbed the stairs to the street. I had a long walk ahead of me, and if I wanted to make it home before dark, I needed to get moving. A bus passed me as I neared the bridge, and my lip curled at the video ad playing on the side of the bus. It was for one of those entertainment shows, promoting their upcoming exclusive interview with the as-yet-unseen Seelie prince. We had faerie kids living in the gutter and stealing change to survive, and the country was obsessed with some royal faerie who hadn’t known a day of suffering in his pampered life. Thirty years ago, when the Great Rift happened, my parents had been kids.

A tear had formed between our world and the faerie realm, forcing the faeries to reveal their existence to us. At first, there had been widespread panic, but once people got over their shock, they embraced the Fae with open arms. Well, some of the Fae. The beautiful, immortal Court faeries, who looked like genetically-perfect humans, were accepted immediately. Among them were the Royal Fae, who became instant celebrities and moved in the upper circles of society. Lower Fae races such as dwarves, elves, trolls, and many others, lived among us, but their lives weren’t as easy as the upper Fae. They had to deal with bigotry and hardships that their beautiful upper class didn’t need to worry about. Mom and Dad loved to tell me stories about what life was like before the Great Rift. I found it hard to imagine a world where faeries and magic existed only in books. The old movies we watched that were made before the Rift didn’t feel real to me.

What did feel real was the cold drizzle that started just as I reached the halfway point of the bridge. “Great,” I muttered, increasing my pace. Not that it made any difference. By the time I reached the Brooklyn side, the drizzle had become a steady rain, and I could barely see through my glasses. I was soaked through and chilled to the bone by the time our three-story brick building finally came into view. I spotted a tall, dark-haired figure getting out of a blue Jeep Cherokee farther down the street. My father looked up, and his smile became a frown when he took in my appearance. I didn’t need a mirror to know I resembled a drowned rat. “Don’t ask,” I grumbled when he met me at the steps. One thing I didn’t do well was lie to my parents, and I really didn’t want to tell Dad I’d gone to Manhattan and gotten my money stolen.

He chuckled and followed me into the building. “That good, huh?” I glowered at him as Mrs. Russo came out of her apartment the moment we entered the small lobby. “Patrick, the pipes in my bathroom are making that noise again,” said the eighty-year-old widow, her messy updo at least five shades redder than my ginger curls. Dad rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Russo. I’ll look at them tomorrow if you can wait until then.” “That’ll be fine.” She smiled warmly at him, and then her gaze narrowed on me.

“Child, are you trying to catch your death, running around like that?” I was saved from answering by the arrival of a stocky, gray-skinned dwarf with scruffy black hair, who came through the front door behind us, pushing a bicycle. He stopped when he saw the three of us and lifted a hand in greeting. “Evening,” he mumbled in a guttural voice. “Hey, Gorn,” I said as he propped his bike against the wall beneath the mailboxes and opened his box. He grunted and flipped through his mail. With a curt nod in our direction, he grabbed his bike and wheeled it to his door, which was directly across from Mrs. Russo’s. If he were human, Gorn’s behavior would seem standoffish and rude. But as far as dwarves went, he was downright sociable. “Such a nice boy.

” Mrs. Russo gave an approving nod. “Never has much to say, but he always takes out my garbage for me.” She patted my father’s arm. “You’re a good man, Patrick, for letting his kind live here.” Mrs. Russo spoke with the candor of someone who had lived a long life and felt they had earned the right to say whatever they wanted. But we knew she didn’t have a racist bone in her body. When she said “his kind,” she meant lower faeries, not just dwarves. Many landlords refused to rent apartments to lower faeries, and they were not required by law to do so.

That meant most faeries, like Gorn and the quiet elf couple on the second floor, were forced to live in slums and pay exorbitant rents. I was proud to say my parents were nothing like those landlords. Our building might be a little dated, and something usually needed repairs, but anyone was welcome as long as they weren’t criminals. Not that the criminal element was stupid enough to come around here. Dad and I stayed for another minute to chat with Mrs. Russo before we climbed the stairs to our apartment on the third floor. The unit across from us was home to Dad’s best friend, Maurice, when he was in town. He traveled a lot for work, so his place was empty at least nine months out of the year. That meant we mostly had the floor to ourselves. The mouthwatering smell of meat loaf greeted us as soon as I opened the apartment door.

Mom’s meat loaf and mashed potatoes was one of my favorite meals and the perfect way to make up for my crappy day. Mom was in the kitchen when we entered the apartment. Her hair, the exact same shade as mine, was pulled back in a ponytail, and her glasses were in their usual spot on top of her head. If I wanted to know what I’d look like in twenty years, I only had to look at her. Except for the blue eyes I’d inherited from Dad, I was a carbon copy of Mom, right down to the dusting of freckles across my nose. “Great timing. Dinner’s almost ready,” Mom said before her eyes landed on me. “Jesse, you’re soaking wet.” I grimaced as I kicked off my Chucks. “I’m fine.

Nothing a hot shower and your meat loaf won’t fix.” She laughed. “Call your brother when you’re done.” My wet socks left a trail behind me as I walked to my bedroom, which overlooked the street I’d lived on my entire life. My room was small, but I made the most of the space. The walls were a cream color, and my twin bed was covered in a pretty patchwork quilt that brightened up the room. On one side of the window was my desk, and on the other side was a stuffed chair that had seen better days. Next to the chair, my old acoustic guitar was propped against the wall. Grabbing a change of clothes, I went down the short hallway to the bathroom. Three people sharing one bathroom wasn’t the most convenient arrangement, but we made it work.

And my parents were great about giving me privacy. As chilled as I was, I would have loved a prolonged stay under the hot water, but hunger had me rushing through my shower. I left my room twenty minutes later, dressed in a long-sleeved T-shirt and warm fleece pants. In the living room, I went over to the small tree house in one corner of the room. A narrow ladder ran from the floor to the house, which was nearly hidden behind the flowering vines that covered it. “Finch, it’s dinnertime,” I said to the tree house. The vines moved, and a round, blue face framed by bright blue hair appeared. Large lilac eyes blinked at me, and a devious smile was the only warning I got before he leaped at me. “Gah!” I yelled, even though I should have expected the attack. I tripped over my feet and fell backward onto the couch, making sure not to crush the little monster in the fall.

My reward? An evil, twelve-inch-tall sprite tickling the crap out of me until I begged for mercy. “Finch, stop torturing your sister,” Dad called from the dining room. “Mm-mmm these fresh blackberries sure are tasty.” Finch was off me and out of the room before I could blink. Grinning, I got to my feet. I followed him into the dining room where he was already sitting on the table beside his plate, stuffing a fat blackberry into his tiny mouth. Juice dribbled down his chin, but he was blissfully unaware as he devoured his favorite food. “How did it go today?” Mom asked Dad as he helped her set the meat loaf and potatoes in the center of the table. “Phil and I caught that banshee he’s been after, so we’ll get half the bounty for that one.” “That’s great!” She sat across from me, looking pleased.

“I spoke to Levi earlier, and he said he might have another level Four for us this week. He’ll know in a day or two.” “November might be our best month this year,” Dad said with a smile. I dug into my food while my parents talked shop. Most kids listened to their parents discuss their office jobs or something else equally mundane at dinner. I’d grown up hearing about bounty hunting. The Fae presence in our world hadn’t come without complications. Suddenly introducing faeries and magic into the human realm caused a whole slew of problems. Crime increased, and our police force was not equipped to handle the nonhuman cases. The Fae Enforcement Agency was established to police and protect the Fae, and to regulate the use of magic.

But even the Agency couldn’t keep up with it all. That’s where my parents came in. The Agency contracted out the overflow of their cases to bond agents, who, in turn, gave the jobs to bounty hunters. I didn’t know all the ins and outs of the business, but I’d heard enough from my parents to know that bounties were classified by threat level, and the higher the threat, the bigger the payout. There were five levels that I was aware of, and a level Four job carried a nice fat bounty. Mom and Dad were two of the best hunters on the eastern seaboard, and widely respected by their peers. That was why Levi, one of the bond agents they worked for, always gave them a heads up when a choice job was coming down the wire. Bounty hunting was a competitive business, and everyone wanted the top jobs. Our neighbor, Maurice, was also in the business. He’d started out working with my parents, but now he traveled all over the country, taking on the really big jobs.

Dad always said if there was someone better than Maurice Begnaud at bounty hunting, he had never heard of them. “Any luck today, Jesse?” Mom asked. Yeah, bad luck. “I think I have better odds of marrying a Fae prince than finding another job in this city.” She chuckled. “You’ll find something. Nancy gave you a great reference.” Nancy owned the coffee shop where I’d worked part-time for the last two years. After I’d graduated in May, I’d gone full-time at the Magic Bean, the plan being to take every shift I could and bank all my earnings for college. It had been going well until a freak drought wiped out entire coffee bean crops in South America.

Overnight, the price of coffee beans skyrocketed, and most people could no longer pay for their daily cup of joe. Smaller coffee shops, like the Magic Bean, hung on as long as they could before they were forced to close their doors. Even some of the chain stores were struggling now that only people with money – like the patrons at that Manhattan coffee shop – could afford to drink coffee. I toyed with my food. “Unfortunately, there are too many people like me with good references.” “The economy will turn around,” Dad said cheerily, even though we both knew that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon with the country in its second year of a recession. The only business booming these days was bounty hunting. “I guess I could always join the family business,” I joked, earning disapproving looks from both of my parents. Dad laid down his fork. “As proud as I would be to have you working with us, you are going to college.

You still want that, don’t you?” “More than anything.” “Good.” He nodded and picked up his fork again to dig into his mashed potatoes. Something cold touched the back of my hand, and I looked down to see Finch standing beside my plate, holding out a blackberry. His pretty eyes were sad, like they always got when he saw I was down. “Thanks.” I took the offered blackberry and popped it into my mouth. “You’re the best brother a girl could ask for. You know that?” His face lit up, and he scampered back to his own plate. I couldn’t help but smile as I watched him attack a piece of mango.

All it took to make Finch happy was to see his family happy. That and lots and lots of fruit. Realizing my parents had gone quiet, I glanced up to see sadness flit across Mom’s face before she hid it behind a smile. As I replayed my words to Finch in my head, I berated myself for my thoughtlessness. Finch must have seen it, too, because he walked over to bring her one of his precious blackberries. She smiled and leaned down to let him put it in her mouth. Sprite children liked to feed their parents as a sign of affection, and Mom loved it when he did it. He was close to both of our parents, but there’d always been a special bond between him and Mom. Her phone rang in the kitchen, and she jumped up to answer it. She was back a minute later, wearing a serious expression I knew well.

It was her work face. “That was Tennin,” she said to Dad. “He’s in town, but he’s leaving again tomorrow. If we want to talk to him, we need to go now.” Dad was already standing by the time she finished speaking. The two of them looked at me, and I waved them off. “Go on. I’ll clean up.” I finished my dinner while they hurriedly changed into work clothes, which consisted of combat boots and dark jeans and T-shirts. Though I couldn’t see weapons, I was sure they both carried them.

My parents never went anywhere unprepared. “We shouldn’t be too late,” Mom told me as she tucked her phone into her back pocket. “Be back by curfew, or you’re both grounded.” Finch whistled in agreement and wagged a finger at them. Mom laughed, and Dad winked at us as they rushed out the door. I put the leftovers in the fridge and made short work of the dishes. Leaving Finch to finish his meal, I went to my room and spent the next hour scouring the classifieds and job sites. It was a depressing task, but one I did every night. I was going to college, even if it took me years to save enough to get there. I looked at the envelope bearing the official seal for Cornell University that was pinned to the bulletin board above my desk.

Beneath that envelope was one from Stanford and another from Harvard. I had been over the moon when I got acceptance letters from three of my top picks, until I saw how much it would cost. Tuition had almost doubled in the last decade and colleges didn’t give fullride scholarships anymore unless you were an athlete. Mom and Dad had some money put away for college, but it wasn’t enough to pay for tuition, books, and years of living expenses. I’d thought I could work my way through college, but I would need a full-time job with great pay just to cover tuition. Last spring, the Agency had tried to recruit me into their intelligence program after graduation. It was normal for them to recruit from the top five percentile of high school graduates, and I’d been in the top one percent. In addition to training, the program included a free college education at the school of your choice, as long as the degree was in an area that could be utilized by the Agency. The lure of a free college education was strong, but I’d also be obligated to work for the Agency for five years afterward. My phone vibrated on the desk, and I read the text from my best friend, Violet.

How goes the job hunt? Guess, I wrote back. A sad emoji appeared. Mom or Dad would give you a job. Violet’s father owned a big accounting firm, and her mother was a high-powered defense attorney. Even if one of their firms had an open position, it would be nothing that an out of work barista with a high school diploma was qualified for. If Violet asked them, they might create an intern position for me, but that felt too much like charity. I wasn’t at that point yet. Ask me again in a few weeks, I said. Will do. The twang of a guitar string interrupted my texting.

I looked over my shoulder at Finch, who stood beside my guitar, watching me hopefully. “Maybe later.” He plucked another string with a little more force, and I knew he wasn’t going to leave until he got what he’d come for. Shooting him a playful scowl, I picked up the guitar and went to sit on the bed. “I just learned a new song. You want to hear?” Finch signed, Annie’s Song. I scrunched up my nose. “Aren’t you sick of that one yet?” He shook his head and climbed up to sit on my pillow. “You’re such a dork.” I started to play.

Ever since Mom had come home with an old John Denver album last year, Finch had been obsessed with that one song. It was a good guitar song, so I’d learned to play it for him, but now he wanted to hear it all the time. Sing, he signed. I shot him the stink eye and started over, singing the words I knew by heart. My voice was passable, but Finch fell into a trancelike state every time I sang to him. It didn’t happen when Mom or Dad sang, and I’d read that something like one in a million people could entrance lower faeries with song. I’d tried it once on Gorn, and he’d looked at me like I was nuts. That was when I’d learned it didn’t work on all faeries. I’d used singing against Finch a few times to get my own way when we were younger – until Mom and Dad found out and grounded me for a whole month. I’d also endured a lecture about taking advantage of my brother, who had already suffered too much in his young life.

When I was nine, my parents rescued Finch after they busted a ring of traffickers. Because of their size and exotic beauty, sprites were often illegally sold as pets on the black market. Finch’s parents had been sold off already, leaving the one-year-old sprite orphaned and traumatized. The traffickers had clipped his gossamer wings to prevent him from flying away, and there was no way he would survive on his own or be accepted by other sprites in Faerie. So, Mom and Dad brought him home to live with us.

.

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