"Hot corn, get your hot corn!"
Her voice cut through the clamor of Broadway but attracted no customers as she made her way south through the teeming crowd, bouncing her basket on her hip. When she reached the gates of the old fort known as Castle Garden, where the immigration center was, she flashed a smile at the guard, entered the premises and quickly sold her corn, several dozen ears, to the usual cast of hollow-cheeked immigrants. The stuff had been dried on the cob in the fall and had to be soaked two full days before boiling, but even so, it had tasted good to her, five years back, after the unrelenting porridge of the passage from Dublin. Here and there, ears that had been stripped clean lay discarded in the dirt, kicked up against the pillars, along with every other sort of garbage.
So shed sold her corn, but it didnt earn her much, just pennies a piece. She didnt mind. Selling hot corn wasnt why shed come. Hot-corn girls were notorious for rounding out their incomes by stepping into corners and lifting their skirts upon request, but that wasnt the sort of compromise Beatrice had chosen to make. Shed found another way to save up the money to bring her younger brother over, and to keep her dignity, too.
"That was fine, miss," said a boy, politely swallowing a belch. "Have you got any more?"
He was just about her brothers age. Her voice had sounded that Irish when she had first arrived. Now it was more flexible; she could show her brogue or not, depending on the situation. She let her voice lilt just enough to tell him he was at home there, too, but her answer was no, and she didnt crack a smile. She had too much to do to linger with him.
She and her friend Fiona generally hit the disembarking passengers together. They were good, the two of them, could make more money as a pair than the rest of the girls in the gang put together, not least because they had fun doing it. Theyd never been arrested, not even once. The jobs they pulled brought in plenty of money, but half the take went to their boss, just for starters, and then they split the rest between them. It was better than piecework, but it was taking too long for her to save up enough for Padrics ticket. She worried about what would become of him if she didnt send for him soon. And so she had been pleased to learn that morning that Fiona was needed to help on another job, leaving Beatrice free to go out solo. A small lie or two when the gang did their weekly accounts would mean she could keep four times as much as on a usual day, bringing Padric over that much faster. The only problem was, it was also far more perilous, since it wasnt just the cops she had to worry about, but the boss as well. He would break her fingers if he ever discovered shed kept his cut for herself.
She took a sharp breath and stashed her basket behind a vast pile of luggage. The day was raw, and she was freezing. To do what she was going to do, she needed her hands to be warm and nimble. Her fingers fluttered in the dank harbor air, then vanished into her dress, leaving the sleeves of her overcoat dangling empty. Her hands darted past cheap gabardine and worn shirting and came to nestle in the heat, the musk, the fine damp hairs of her armpits. Soon her fingers were starting to feel warm. But her arms were trussed, and all she could do, when a gust of wind worked a copper strand loose from its braid and whipped it in her face, was snort and shake her head. Through it all, she watched the steamships tenders as they were loaded up with trunks, then passengers.
The first-class passengers had long since gone through a genteel version of immigration and customs on shipboard; their tender landed them at a well-appointed West Side terminal, not Castle Garden. Steerage would be last off, as usual. But a ship this size carried people of every level of wealth and class, and her targets, the second-class passengers, would be the first to disembark here. As the tender bumped against the pilings, Beatrice extracted her hands from her armpits, stuck them nonchalantly back through her sleeves into her pockets and began to move. Her eye followed the parade of ribboned hats and horn-handled canes that parted the crowds in the frigid brick rotunda.
Excerpted from Metropolis by Elizabeth Gaffney Copyright © 2005 by Elizabeth Gaffney. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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