"United as Five"
Nine-year-old Chen Wu had his nose pressed up against the grimy windows of the store, peering eagerly inside and feasting his eyes on the shop's display. On a small stand sat a brand-new polished silver typewriter, announcing its presence for the world to see. And though Chen had most definitely heard of typewriters before, he'd never actually had the opportunity to see one with his own eyes.
"Hey, you!" Suddenly the store's door was thrust open, and Chen heard the tiny tinkle of its bell. From inside, a man dressed in what passed as nice clothes stormed out and advanced towards the boy. Startled, Chen took a step back.
"I don't want to hear it, boy!" the man hollered, stepping closer towards Chen, who, despite himself, kept retreating. "I'm sick and tired of people like you hanging around the shop all the time! Get lost!"
Chen's mouth fell open in astonishment, and, stunned, he shook his head. "No—it's—sir, I haven't done anything!" he protested. "I just wanted to see—"
But the man just scoffed. "You haven't done anything? Please." The man kept stepping towards the nine-year-old, forcing him to back up into a corner, where the typewriter shop met another building.
"I just wanted to see how it worked!" Chen cried. "I thought I could—"
But, far too quickly for Chen to see, the man's hand shot out and landed a stinging blow on the boy's cheek. Chen cried out and clapped a hand to his burning cheek, his cry a mixture of pain and complete shock. He searched the man's eyes helplessly, his own gaze filled with betrayed confusion. What did I do wrong?
The man just scoffed. "Get away from here," he said dangerously, in a low voice, and Chen flinched but didn't run.
"I'm not doing anything!" he protested again, a note of desperation creeping into his voice. "I swear, I'm not—"
Suddenly the man's hands were tight around Chen's collar, and he let out a sudden, involuntary gasp. With a sudden thrust, the man forced Chen backwards, throwing him, hard, into the brick wall. Another slap landed on Chen's cheek, but this time the boy didn't cry out; he gritted his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut to prevent himself from letting even a gasp escape his lips.
Suddenly the man was crouching down and looking Chen dead in the eye. "Run," he ordered in a whisper, a single, hissed syllable.
And Chen ran.
He didn't even know why he was running; he wasn't really afraid of that shopkeeper or his slaps. And Chen desperately, desperately wanted to examine the typewriters and puzzle out how they worked. But there was no way, really, that he could keep fighting, or even possibly win this battle.
That wasn't to say that Chen didn't intend to come back to the store. He'd come back that night, of course, when the store was closed. With a candle stub, if he could manage to steal one and light it. Maybe he'd even be able to pick the store's lock and get inside, and—would he dare?—touch the typewriter.
At that, Chen's mind started racing along with his body, as he hurtled down a thin alley away from the stationary store. Maybe, if he got inside, he could even find time to dismantle one of the typewriters. The store opened at six o'clock in the morning, Chen knew, so if he wanted to allot himself a good three hours to experiment…
Chen rounded the corner and turned up the pathway to his house; or, at least, the building where he slept perhaps half of the time, when he wasn't out until midnight sneaking around the city and examining every mechanical object that came under his nose. His parents, while both still alive, were some of the most irresponsible so-called caregivers in London. They never hit their son—something Chen was eternally grateful for—but they barely cared about him. He could stay out all night long, and the next morning, they wouldn't even question it. But for some reason, if they left clothes or dirty dishes lying around the house, they'd expect them to be cleaned and put away by either Chen or Mei.
Ah, yes; then there was the matter of Chen's older sister, sixteen-year-old Mei. Despite the facts that they were siblings, and she technically lived in the same house as he did, Chen hadn't spoken more than a few words to her in years. Like Chen, Mei was in-and-out of her parents' house, often staying out all night and trapesing around London breaking into pawnshops and stealing what the shopkeepers were careless enough to leave out on the unlocked countertops. Chen and Mei knew each other, to be certain, but they only really saw each other in passing. The last thing Mei had said to her little brother had been, "I broke your window, by the way. Accidentally." Chen had rolled his eyes and left the house in a huff.
So yes, that was Mei. Chen thought he should probably care about her more, but he didn't. It was unusual if he saw her as much as three times a week.
Now, Chen let himself in through the back door—always unlocked; if only the robbers knew—and slumped down at the kitchen table. A pair of wine glasses sat disregarded on the counter, with the remnants of red wine in the bottom. Chen sighed. He'd wash them in a bit.
Chen ran a slow hand through his matted black hair, his heartbeat slowly returning to normal after his run through London's streets. After a few minutes of catching his breath and letting his leg muscles relax, he got up, washed and dried the wineglasses and put them away, and climbed the stairs to his bedroom.
Chen slept in his bedroom about half of the time, the other half preferring to remain on the streets. His bedroom, however, was also where he stored the majority of his inventions; most of them were made of scrap metal, and they would rust quickly if they were left out in London's harsh rain and winds.
Currently, Chen's project was a pair of Self-Shining Shoes. The way Chen figured it, London's rich folks would pay anything to have a pair of shoes that shined themselves, instead of having to stop on the street and pay a whole shilling or maybe even more for a good shoe-shining. So of course Chen's invention would sell well. (To be fair, he'd thought that about at least three or four of his other products, and none had ever gone on the market. But Chen was eternally convinced that this invention would be the one that got him money.)
The mechanics behind the shoes were simple, but the execution wasn't quite as easy. There was a tiny lever attached to the bottom sole of the shoe, and when the shoe's owner took a step, pressure was applied, forcing the lever to move. This, in turn, raised a tiny metal bar the size of a matchstick, which forced yet another lever downwards, which made a spring expand and contract; that spring's movement made a scrap of cloth rub along the shoe, essentially shining it. Complex, but, Chen thought, efficient.
Chen did indeed have a prototype, although, admittedly, it was just one shoe. And it was an old sneaker, not even a gentleman's shoe that would require shining in the first place. And it looked messy: the entire contraption, besides the sneaker itself, was made of metal, all of which Chen had found somewhere on the streets. And it only worked when it wanted to. But it filled Chen with pride nonetheless.
Today, he was going to build another shoe, Chen decided. The first one was sloppy, and clunky, but it worked. If Chen was going to sell his invention to a big manufacturing company, he needed at least two working shoes: one matching pair.
Chen had built a pair of levers and found a scrap of metal that would do; just that morning, he had found a discarded box with three metal springs discarded in a trash can outside of a factory, and he had taken them eagerly. So now he had enough materials to make a second shoe.
Chen set to work instantly. The room was silent, to be sure, but it was a pregnant silence, full of buzzing energy and whirring mental gears. If anybody had stepped into Chen's bedroom at that moment in time, they would have been taken aback by the sheer electric enthusiasm and passion that filled the air.
Quickly the boy worked, attaching the first lever to the sole and connecting what he called his "metal matchstick" to it. That in itself was a process that involved generous amounts of white glue, and by the time Chen was done, the carpet on his floor was soaked with wet but quickly-drying adhesive. Chen shrugged. He, for one, didn't care.
By that time, it was nearly six o'clock. Chen knew his parents were in their bedroom—and of what they were doing, he had no doubt—so it seemed to be up to him, yet again, to get dinner for himself. Sighing, Chen put the Self-Shining Shoes away under his bed and snuck out of his room, before descending the stairs and ducking out of the house.
It was June, and, despite the season, it had been a gloomy day and was now an even gloomier dusk. It was misty, and the dull streetlights shone like beacons through the foggy, wet cloud that had descended upon the city. Chen grit his teeth; it was this chilly, dark weather that was his least favorite. It was just physically uncomfortable.
The one upside, though, was that it made it that much easier to hide in the shadows and not be seen. That was especially helpful if, like Chen was at the moment, you were trying to steal food and get away with it. Chen didn't like to steal—he still found it immoral and just plain wrong—but better steal than starve, was Chen's logic. Sometimes, you had to do what you had to do.
So now Chen was crouching in the back doorway of a bakery, his nose catching the tantalizing scent of freshly-baked bread wafting through the air. Chen's dark eyes peered around the corner, watching as the shopkeepers closed up for the night. The boy paused only a moment; this was a routine theft, for him and for hundreds of other street children. Just wait until the shop owner's back was turned, and then—
Now! A quick dart into the shop, emerging behind the counter; grab a few rolls of whatever you can get your hands on; then fly out of the door and walk down the street like you've got nothing to hide. It was common knowledge for all of London's homeless: if you look suspicious, you're going to be suspected.
By the time that Chen finally settled down next to an eight-year-old girl and her mother who were eating their own dinner on the street, it was almost seven o'clock. The stationary store closed promptly at seven, but Chen wanted to wait at least an hour until he broke in. By eight, it would be dark enough, and the shopkeepers would be long gone.
Any way you looked at it, though, that meant Chen had more than an hour to kill. Chen sighed. London's streets could be boring sometimes. Chen slumped down against the wall and just stared at the rush of oncoming traffic, both pedestrian and carriage. Nothing exciting happened, especially not at night.
That hour was dull. The boy couldn't deny that. Thousands of faces passed by, all completely unrecognizable. Chen's thoughts drifted listlessly to his inventions a few times, but he didn't have the mental stamina to put too much thought into them at the moment.
At last, though—at last—the church bells were chiming eight o'clock, and Chen was getting up and making his way, in a roundabout direction in case anyone was watching him, to the store with the typewriters.
Chen skulked around to the back door of the shop, which was in a filthy back alley. Hey, at least that way nobody could see him breaking—no, sneaking—in. That was a plus.
Taking a deep breath, Chen surveyed the building. The lock on the door looked incredibly insecure; it could, for sure, be picked by a lady's hairpin. Chen made sure to always have one of those in his pocket; they were surprisingly helpful, for lock-picking and for poking into spaces that a hand couldn't fit in.
There was nothing to suggest that today would be any different from the numerous other times Chen had snuck into stores to get a look around. Absolutely nothing. As far as he could see, there was nobody hiding in the shadows (although, to be fair, he didn't search too hard) and the building's lights were all off. It was deserted; or so the boy thought.
But just as he was standing on the top step and inserting the hairpin into the lock, a hand grabbed him from behind, the unseen person's arm firmly around him from his right shoulder to his left hip, holding him tightly. Chen would have let out a startled cry if, at the same moment, a hand hadn't clapped over his mouth, stifling any sound he might have made. Chen's body froze; then, suddenly, he began kicking and punching and biting at the hand over his lips.
Suddenly there was a hissed order from the person holding him. "Stop—Chen, stop! Chen!" Chen went still with shock at the sound of his voice. As soon as he stopped struggling, the man loosened his grip slightly, though not letting the boy go. "Please calm down, Chen," the man said, in a soft undertone. "I'm not going to hurt you."
Chen exhaled deeply through his nose, although he could feel himself shaking. Ever so slightly, he relaxed his body, although he still held himself firmly, ready to bolt.
The man seemed to sense Chen's eagerness to run, and he kept his arm tightly locked around Chen's body. But then he said softly: "I want to talk to you, Chen." He paused slightly before offering, "I'll take my hand off of your mouth if you promise me that you won't scream, okay?"
Chen didn't react for a few moments; then, he gave a short, jerked nod.
The man must have trusted him, taken him at his word, because the hand came off of Chen's mouth immediately. Chen quickly took a shaky breath in through his mouth, trying to make himself breathe more naturally. But due to the fact that there was still an unseen man behind him, keeping the boy firmly in his clutches, Chen wasn't getting very far in the whole "calming down" process.
"Chen—" the man said again, slowly, but Chen cut him off.
Chen's voice was shaking, but he forced out: "How do you know my name?"
There was a slight pause. "Chen, I—"
But then the boy interrupted him again. "And how did you know I'd be here?"
The man let out an exhalation tinged with a laugh. "I know you, Chen Wu," he said, and Chen could hear the smile in his voice. "You're a very smart child, but you're also extremely inquisitive. And you're willing to go to great lengths to explore something. Even if that means breaking into a shop at night to investigate a typewriter."
At those words, Chen tried, once again, to twist around and see the man's face. Because those words had stunned him. Chen didn't have any friends who he would really consider close, and his parents and Mei didn't know much about his interests and cared even less; and the fact that somebody had read Chen so well and anticipated his next move so accurately shocked the boy.
Chen couldn't quite twist around to see the man's face, though. And so he asked yet another question, his voice trembling right along with his body.
"Who are you?"
The man standing behind him smiled and opened his mouth, and in that moment, he told Chen Wu everything he'd told the four other children who he had already met. And at the end of it, Chen was no less than stunned.
Then, and only then, did Sherlock Holmes release the boy. He smiled kindly at the nine-year-old as Chen took in the detective's features, examining him closely, more in awe than in suspicion now. And then Holmes bent down and murmured in the boy's ear. Chen listened, nodded, and said something quietly back.
Only then did Chen finally walk from the alley, hand-in-hand with the detective, and barely even realizing that he'd never gotten a chance to actually investigate the precious typewriter.
It was just after eight-thirty when Holmes and Chen made their way up the front steps of 221 Baker Street. The sky was an inky indigo by now and it was nearly pitch dark, but up on the second floor of the building, several rooms were shining with brightly-lit oil lamps shining through the windows. Chen heard Holmes chuckle gently at the sight.
"Well," the detective said, unlocking the door and gesturing for the boy to enter, "head on in." With an excited grin creeping onto his face, Chen ducked inside the building. Holmes ushered the boy up the stairs and into the flat he shared with Watson.
Chen gasped when he saw the living room, which was currently occupied by four other street children, wearing clothes at least as scraggly and torn as his own. Three of the children, who all looked to be around thirteen years old, were engaged in a fast-paced and high-energy yet nearly silent game of Old Maid. The reason for the silence became obvious in a moment as Chen's eyes found the fourth child, a small, caramel-haired girl, who was fast asleep in a plush armchair and snoring lightly.
Holmes laughed quietly when he saw Chen watching the girl. "That's Ash," he informed the boy softly; "she's seven, and it's much past her bedtime." Chen giggled.
At the sound of the voices, the three other children turned around, and their faces lit up at the sight of the detectives. Instantly there was a cacophony of sound, most of which seemed to be the children asking Holmes eagerly if they could eat now that the detective was back. At the sound, Ash groaned and shifted. Holmes, laughing, held up his hands for silence, and the children quieted immediately.
"There is a seven-year-old girl asleep ten feet away from you," he whispered into the silence. "I would hope you'd remain as quiet as you were when you were playing cards." The children grinned guiltily, not looking a touch abashed. They could all tell—and Chen could too—that the detective wasn't truly frustrated with them.
"Now," Holmes said, no longer whispering, but still speaking softly, "yes, you can eat now. We," he emphasized, gesturing at himself and Chen, as well as the other children, "are going to eat with you. And during that time, you will introduce yourself to Chen. You're all going to be seeing a lot of each other in the next few months."
Quieter now, the children smiled and nodded, with waves and hushed, "Hi, Chen"s directed to the boy standing in front of them. Chen smiled back, a little nervously; he trusted Holmes and he was glad to meet the other children, but he still didn't really know them and was a touch wary of their presence.
Then the brown-haired girl, the only girl of the three children facing Chen, looked at Holmes and said, "Can we please get food now? We've been waiting forever."
Holmes laughed. "All right, Pockets," he said, smiling, "but let Chen go first." The girl—had Holmes called her Pockets?—rolled her eyes but laughed good-naturedly.
Now Chen looked at Holmes uncertainly, not quite sure where said food was. Noting the boy's look of confusion, the detective, still smiling, led Chen through the living room and into a kitchen. On the stovetop sat a cooking tray holding breaded chicken, next to a pot filled with mashed potatoes.
Holmes sighed and turned to the children. "I told you three to take the chicken out of the oven when it was done, and to put it in a bowl." He paused. "You three are all exceedingly smart; I'd have thought you'd remember a simple request like that one."
The children smiled sheepishly, and, again, it was the girl who spoke. "We were playing cards," she explained. "We took the chicken out, though!"
One of the boys, who was nearly as tall as Holmes, added, guiltily, "We just… forgot about the bowl."
Holmes rolled his eyes. "Clearly." But then he chuckled and took five plates from a cabinet, handing one to Chen and keeping one for himself before giving the rest to the girl to distribute. "We'll survive."
The girl passed out the rest of the plates quickly, and Holmes gestured for Chen to get food and then move to the table. A bit uncertainly, Chen put two pieces of chicken on his plate next to a spoonful of mashed potatoes before walking to the table, where five napkins, five sets of silverware, and five water glasses sat.
Chen sat silently until the others arrived at the table; once the other children sat down, they immediately started in on their food. The boy who had spoken before, the tall one, hissed to Chen, "Dig in!" Slightly nervously, Chen nodded, and took a bite of the chicken, which he had to admit was exquisite.
Finally, Holmes took a seat, swallowed a bite of chicken, and spoke. "As you all know, this is Chen," he said, gesturing to the boy, who smiled, albeit with some reservation. "I told him a little bit about Ash, but why don't you three introduce yourselves?"
The children looked at each other, and one of them nodded. The tall boy, who had told Chen to eat, was sitting next to Chen, and spoke first. "I—well, my name is Tiny," the boy said. Registering the look on Chen's face, he laughed. "Irony. I—I'm twelve years old, and I'm Ash's older sister." Unsure of what to say next, he shrugged and gestured towards the girl.
The girl nodded and smiled at Chen. "I'm Pockets," she said, "and I'm thirteen." She didn't add anything else, and the third child spoke.
"I'm Wiggins," he introduced himself, "and I'll be fourteen in less than six weeks."
There was a slight silence. Chen nodded at Wiggins's introduction but didn't say anything; the others already seemed to know who he was. But then Wiggins asked, "You're ten, right?"
Chen ruefully shook his head. "Not yet. Not for a few months."
The others nodded sympathetically; then Pockets said, "And Holmes told us you're an inventor, right?"
Chen blushed slightly and smiled. "I—yes, I am. I invent a lot of things. They're not always easy to build, because I just find materials on the streets, but I have lots of products."
Wiggins, Pockets, and Tiny all smiled. "It sounds like you're very talented," Tiny told Chen, which made the younger boy smile, almost giddily, and thank him.
"Why don't you tell him what your talents are?" Holmes prompted gently, and the three older children instantly launched into eager explanations. Before long, Chen had learned about Pockets's incredible pickpocketing skills and the recent fiasco of Alexander Henderson's watch; Wiggins's polished deductive skills and his mental catalog of several hundred Londoners to date; and Tiny's book smarts and intellectual knowledge and his caution and suspicion that contributed to his survival on London's streets. He was told, too, more about Ash, and her eagerness and her ability to see how a puzzle fit together instinctively that the older children tended to overthink. And when they asked, Chen told them about his Self-Shining Shoes and several of his other inventions. By the time they had finally exhausted the conversation topic of themselves, it was almost ten o'clock.
"I have to get going," Wiggins finally said reluctantly, standing and taking his plate to the sink. "I have… places to be."
Chen looked at him curiously—where on earth could Wiggins have to be at ten o'clock on a Tuesday night?—but Holmes just nodded understandingly. Pockets quickly followed suit, commenting that she, too, needed to get somewhere, and, with thanks to Holmes and goodbyes to Tiny and Chen, the two, with almost surprising speed, ducked out of the apartment. Tiny and Chen were left alone with the detective, with Ash sleeping peacefully in the other room.
"Ash and I should really leave too," Tiny said, scrubbing the plates Wiggins and Pockets had left on the counter. "We have someplace safe to sleep."
Holmes took the plates Tiny passed to him, dried them, and put them back in the cabinets as he spoke. "What, that alley?" The detective shook his head. "Stay here for tonight. I don't believe your sister has any intention of moving."
Tiny laughed. "I suppose that's true," he admitted. "It's really okay if we sleep here? Just this once?"
"Of course!" Holmes assured him. "Chen's sleeping here too, for tonight." And Chen nodded.
A quarter-hour later, Chen was sleeping on a pull-out couch that had turned into a bed, while Tiny was curled up on a sofa next to the armchair where his little sister slept. The minute Chen had hit the bed, he had collapsed into a dreamless sleep. It was late, and it had been a busy day; Chen didn't even have the energy to process it all. Tiny, too, slept peacefully.
Sherlock Holmes just stood there watching the children sleep for a minute, before heading back to his own bedroom and crawling into bed himself. Today, June 29, 1886, he had spoken, for the first time, to three of the members of his team of children. And they had enjoyed each other's company over dinner.
Holmes exhaled gently into his pillow. This was going to work out. Oh, yes, this was going to work out very well indeed.