"Then it will do fine. I am going to live with apes in the jungle, after all. No need for luxury now! Would the bar's papa mind if you disappeared for a few minutes to help me with my bags? There could be a franc in it for you."
I filled with warmth. The Professor was singling me out, as I'd done him. I sized up the large leather valise and figured I could manage hauling it. I picked it up and fought back the wave of diz-ziness that tilted me. My worry was less about passing out and more that Prof would notice my strain and fire me before I'd begun. I lost sensation in my arms for a moment, but managed to fit them through the straps. Blood pounded in my head, pricking the hairs on my neck.
"Have you had anything to eat today?" Prof asked.
Please, I silently begged, don't be nice to me. I told him I had. I didn't tell him it was because someone had spilled pastis into a bowl of dried peas and I'd gone around back and downed the whole thing.
Omar, full of bar nuts, watched me passively from his shoulder perch.
"Do you need to tell your parents you'll be helping me?" Prof asked.
I shook my head.
He nodded sadly, as if I'd revealed myself, and I hated him for it. "Okay, let's get along, then," he said. "I know the bag is heavy. It might be worth five francs to carry. Or even ten. I am an important man, after all, on a very important mission, and important things are not cheap. Important things are either free or expensive." Pleased with himself, he scratched the silver-and-black scraggle on his chin.
I took a step forward and immediately stumbled. After a moment's pause, I made another step. Grinning to let the Arab know how enormously fine I was feeling, I freed a hand and reached for the metal briefcase.
"No, no," Prof said hurriedly, picking it up and clutching it to his chest. "I'll hold on to that."
Omar chattered at me and exposed his teeth. The stupid mon-key had figured me out better than his master had. Muttering under my breath, I took one step and another toward the far side of the town.
Prof puffed with exertion, walking with a slight limp.
We weren't a hundred paces from the bar when we came across Monsieur Tatagani. He spent his days sitting in the center of Franceville so he could keep an eye on his boys. Squatting in the dirt, he wore a blazer that was so unclean, it was more the tan of dust than the black of fabric. Sometime in his life he'd been struck on the head hard enough to expose skull; he had a ring of white at the top, like an upside-down teacup saucer. When I had night-mares, I always knew Monsieur Tatagani had been the cause if the monsters had the same saucer of bone on their heads and if, when I reached up my arms to defend myself, there were no hands at the ends of my wrists.
When he saw us coming up the walk, Monsieur Tatagani grinned hugely, exposing teeth unusually white and strong for a man of his age. He said nothing, though, I think because he sensed the chance for a payday. We were suddenly conspirators, he and I. The Franceville moneylender, the man generous enough to give me a place to sleep at night but cruel enough to cut off the hands of orphans who couldn't pay, saw into my wicked heart. Worse, he found himself there.
I avoided Monsieur Tatagani's eyes as I struggled under the valise. Soon he was out of view and Prof and I were stepping along Franceville's main paved avenue, kicking away garbage and excre-ment and the occasional stray dog.
"How old are you, boy?" Prof asked, gasping as we walked.
"I'm not sure," I said. It was the truth. The last person who'd acknowledged my birthday had been my mother. That had been my tenth. I thought that had been three years ago, but it might have been two.
Excerpted from Threatened by Eliot Schrefer. Copyright © 2014 by Eliot Schrefer. Excerpted by permission of Scholastic. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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