Summary: Dumbledore ought to have known better than to leave an orphaned Harry Potter in the hands of the Dursleys. A twist of fate has the boy-who-lived living with criminals. Sly, cunning, street-smart. Sorted into Slytherin where his housemates have been raised to hate him, will Harry survive? Or maybe it's the House of Snakes that doesn't stand a chance.

Important information about story before reading: This is an alternate year one story – with major divergence from the events in the first book. As the story progresses, it will get further and further away from the books. Harry is very morally ambiguous – a very solid Grey!Harry bordering sometimes on Dark!Harry. Powerful!Harry. This story will not have a main pairing, nor will year two and year three at least. Eventually, this story will include Slash – but not until year four at the very earliest. There will be a lot of reference to severe child abuse. Other warnings include but aren't limited to: gore, attempted rape, corporal punishment, severe bullying and a lot of foul language. Dumbledore bashing and Ron bashing by the bucketloads. I'll have additional warnings at the beginning of chapters where they apply.

A/N: My take on Slytherin!Harry. I've been working on this for over year and am currently updating. Also, I'm making some revisions and corrections to get rid of discrepancies and fix some plot holes that have come up and replacing the early chapters as I edit them – if you notice some blaring inconsistencies, I apologies. I'm in the process of fixing it. I've only just extended the warnings because some of the stuff that happens later was blindsiding people, I think. Anyways, I hope you enjoy!

Prologue (Or: At the Heart of a Criminal Organization)

Carl Broderick considered himself a rogue—a scoundrel—was proud to be in the group classified as the 'dregs of society.' He was a low-life, a criminal—and a damn good one at that. There were very few things that made him second-guess his choices, and he had long since stopped griping about his lot in life.

That changed one day—on August 19, 1987 to be precise. The day in question had started out routine enough—he was finally putting a scheme in motion that he had been working on for a few weeks. It was simple, really. Not a large payout—but certainly a fast-cash sort of job.

It wasn't even the first time he had ever held a child for ransom.

One of his guys had chosen the target—a rather well-to-do suburbanite family. The husband—one Vernon Dursley—was the executive of Grunnings Drill Firm. It wasn't a very large company, but it was fairly successful. Not too high profile. Which made Vernon Dursley the perfect target.

Vernon had a wife and a son. From the time Carl's guys spent casing the less-than-modest house on Privet Drive, it was established that the son was the best choice to kidnap and demand a ransom from. The seven-year-old was a spoiled brat and the parents were doting. In less than 48 hours Carl would collect the hefty sum of 10,000 pounds.

Carl was not a large man, by any means. He was in his forties—but he was solid. He didn't work out obsessively, but he kept himself in shape. His hair was nondescript—a brown that wasn't lighter or darker than average. His eyes were also brown, though if one looked close enough golden specks could be seen at the edge of his irises. He dressed casually and practically—jeans and a blue, short-sleeved button up. His boots were just run-of-the-mill, black leather work boots.

It was 9:15 in the morning—Carl was pacing furiously in the ragged little apartment that had been hastily converted from the office of an old upholstery factory. There was a bed in one corner, a couch along the back wall and a small kitchenette—the fridge was loosely stocked with enough food to last three adults and one child for two days. A card table and several folding chairs took up most of the space in the middle of the room and the bathroom door was missing and had a shower curtain hanging in its stead.

Carl cursed as his pacing took him too close to the bed and he banged his shin on the metal bedframe. He glanced at his watch—any minute now his guys would be snatching the boy from the front yard. A quick polaroid of the kid tied up would be left with a note detailing that the police shouldn't be contacted and directed Vernon and Petunia Dursley to be waiting by the phone at 6:00 that evening.

If everything went well, it would take Dan and Lou another twenty minutes to make it back to their hideout.

Carl forced himself to stop pacing, flopping down on the couch. It was an easy enough job—they'd watched the house long enough to know the family's Sunday routine. They knew the mother would be obliviously and obsessively cleaning the house while her Husband watched the telly and her son went outside after breakfast to run the neighborhood.

It would be so easy.

Twenty minutes later, Carl was pacing again. He wasn't panicking—that wouldn't happen until an hour passed the due arrival time. He had to give some leeway to the guys—maybe there was unexpected traffic or they had a flat tire—any number of issues could cause a delay.

Finally—over ten minutes past the planned rendezvous time Carl heard the sound of the heavy metal doors in the factory slamming open. He sighed, going to the door of the office and staring down over the empty factory as Dan and Lou came in. Lou—a great hulking beast of a man was leading Dudley Dursley by a firm grip on his arm. The blonde little chunker was sobbing, and appeared to have wet himself. Carl scrunched his nose in disgust.

Dan—who was nearly as tall as Lou, if much too thin and wiry for his height to be really intimidating—was dragging a second kid. Carl's eyebrows shot up—this was not in their plans. The second kid was downright scrawny—wearing clothes that were at least four sizes too big. He was obediently following Dan across the factory floor, his head held down and his messy black hair flying all over the place.

"What happened!? Where the bloody hell did the extra come from!?" Carl roared, storming down the stairs to meet his two henchmen. Dan looked unimpressed by his angry glare, but Lou stopped dead and started shifting back and forth from one foot to the other. The blonde in his grasp just continued sobbing.

"We didn't realize there was another kid living with the Dursleys. He was outside—we tried to wait for him to go back into the house. But time was running by fast and we decided to grab him too." Dan explained simply, dragging the boy forward for Carl to inspect. "We figured it was better not to leave a witness if we didn't have to. Besides—two kids equals more money."

Carl glared down at the extra kid—the boy's head was still bent towards the ground. He reached out to grasp the boy's chin, ignoring the slight flinch the scrawny little thing gave when his hand came into his line of sight. There was an odd scar on the boy's forehead—shaped like a lightning bolt. He stared into the bright green eyes for a moment, arching an eyebrow. There was no fear in those eyes—just carefully concealed curiosity and a sense of wariness.

"You live with the Dursleys?"

The boy blinked at him.

"I asked you a question, boy!" Carl snapped, releasing the kid's chin.

The boy immediately looked back towards the ground, but answered quietly. "Yes, Sir."

"Since when?"

"Since my no-good parents got themselves killed when I was a baby and the Dursleys were good enough to take me in." The boy's voice was flat—the answer smooth and well-recited. Carl frowned, raising an eyebrow at Dan.

"Don't look at me—he was pulling weeds in the garden."

Carl swore again. "What's your name, kid?"

The boy shifted nervously. "Harry James Potter, Sir."

Carl snorted. "Quit it with all that 'sir' crap."

"Yes, Si—Mister." Harry muttered quietly.

"You're sure an obedient little bugger, aren't you?" Carl sighed, running a hand through his hair. "You already left the polaroid? With both boys?"

"Yes." Lou finally jumped in. "We slipped it in through the mail-slot."

"Alright." Carl jerked his head towards the stairs. "Get them up there—and clean that brat up. What did you do to scare him so bad?"

"Lou growled at him." Dan chuckled, leading Harry up the stairs. The boy didn't try to struggle as he was lead into the small apartment. Dudley Dursley on the other hand, went limp and had to be bodily lifted up the stairs. The whole while, he wouldn't stop crying.

Carl sighed again, rubbing at his temples as a headache began to stir. He had a feeling things had just gotten really complicated. Grudgingly, he trudged up the stairs—grimacing at the sounds of the chunky-boy screaming in the bathroom. Dan was gazing in the door, one eyebrow raised. "He's quite the whiner."

The other boy—Harry—was standing still by the table. His hands were clenched loosely in front of him and he was staring at the floor.

"Don't just stand there, kid. Sit!" Carl barked. Harry obeyed immediately, sitting down on the floor and completely ignoring the four empty chairs to his left.

"Do you think the kid's in shock?"

Dan shook his head. "He wasn't acting much different before we snatched him—must be slow or something."

'Or something.' Carl rolled his eyes, approaching the boy. "When I said 'sit' I meant in a chair—or on the couch. I'm not some animal that's going to make you sit on the bloody floor."

Harry made no move to get up, shaking his head. "Freaks aren't allowed to ruin the furniture."

Carl blinked at the boy, his jaw dropping. When he met Dan's gaze, he could see equal amounts of bewilderment.


Harry nodded, still not moving from his spot on the floor.

"You think you're a freak?"

Another nod.

Carl didn't look up when Lou came out of the bathroom with Dudley—the boy was soaked from head to toe and was dripping all over the place. From the looks of it, Lou hadn't bothered removing the kid's clothes before the impromptu bath. At least the little blubber-ball wasn't crying any more. His eyes were wide, and he was staring in fear between the three grown men in the room. Lou sat him down at the table—stepping easily over the other boy that was still sitting obediently on the ground.

"So. Dudley. Tell me about your friend." Carl demanded, his eyes returning to Harry.

"My friend? You mean Piers?"

"I mean Harry you bloody moron—the mysterious kid that no one knew about that lives with you!"

Dudley turned with wide eyes to look at his unmoving counterpart. "Oh. Him!? He's not my friend. He's just the ungrateful freak that lives in the cupboard under the stairs."

Incredible—someone had to be having him on. That was all there was to it. "The cupboard under the stairs?"

"Yep. Mummy and Daddy say that's where freaks live—they have to be kept hid. See? This is all his fault—Daddy didn't want to let him out today. If he had been kept in the cupboard like normal I wouldn't have been kidnapped."

"You know—I've done some pretty nasty things in my life." Dan commented dryly, sitting down on the couch. "But I think this has just turned into the most twisted thing I've ever seen."

"So. You have a boy living in the cupboard under the stairs." Carl gritted out, his eyes never leaving Harry. "Why?"

"Because he's a freak."

Ahh. The simple logic of seven-year-olds. Carl was willing to bet everything he owned that the little whale of a kid was just repeating what came from the mouths of his parents. And it disturbed him.

But what could he do? He couldn't very well go to the authorities and turn the Dursleys in, now could he? How would that go? 'Yes. I'd like to report a case of child abuse. You see, I kidnapped one kid and found out that there was another kid living in the house that I didn't know about. Kidnapped him too, just to cover my tracks. Then, I found out that the kid lives in a fucking cupboard. Would you kindly take care of it?' That would be a laugh.

"So. Harry just stays in the cupboard all the time?" Carl prompted.

"No. He has to go to school—and he has to do chores."

"I see. And what do the people at school say about him living in a cupboard?"

"They don't know that—he's not allowed to talk about what happens at home." Dudley grinned. "He has to punish himself if he does."

Carl wasn't sure what to say to that. So he said nothing.

"I'm getting really bad vibes, man." Dan muttered. Lou was frowning at Harry—who seemed completely unperturbed by the conversation.

"I'm hungry." Dudley suddenly said. He got off the chair and waddled over to Harry. "I said, 'I'm hungry!'"

Harry slowly pushed himself up—his green eyes scanning the room. He went hesitantly towards the kitchenette—opening the fridge to look inside. After a second, he pulled out some pork chops from the bottom of the fridge and continued to look around the little kitchen. At length, he found a sack of potatoes in the corner and some cooking spray. He went through the cupboards until he found two pans and found a knife in one of the drawers. While the pans were set to heat up over the little-two burner electric stove on the counter top he quickly started dicing the potatoes.

"This is fucking ridiculous." Carl muttered, frowning as he watched the boy easily and efficiently set the potatoes frying and rub the pork chops with salt and pepper. Soon, the pork chops were sizzling merrily and the potatoes were being flipped. "He can't hardly see over the fucking counter!"

Harry seemed oblivious to Carl's indignation, however. While the pork chops and potatoes were cooking, he scoured the rest of the kitchen until he had four plates and four sets of silverware. The second the food was done, four steaming plates were set at the table. Then, Harry backed himself to the corner of the kitchen and turned his gaze back to the floor.

"Is that for us?" Dan asked uncertainly, casting a look at Carl.

"Yes, Sir."

Carl wasn't sure how to react—how was one supposed to deal with a child-captive that just made a hell-of-a-decent meal for his captors? The smells were certainly making his stomach rumble—he hadn't even been that hungry before.

"Thank you, Harry." Dan moved slowly over to the table, motioning for Lou and Carl to do the same.

Harry didn't say anything—didn't move from his spot in the corner of the kitchen.

Dudley was too busy chowing down on his own plate of food to pay any attention to the three awkward adults in the room.

"Aren't you going to eat anything, Harry?" Dan asked calmly.

Harry shook his head.

"Don't you want to eat?"

More head shaking—a little more desperate this time.

"Aren't you hungry?"

Carl noted the slight pause before Harry shook his head again. "You're lying."

The boy suddenly went rigid before frantically shaking his head again. "I'm not lying, Sir. I promise. I know better than to pine after food I didn't earn. I'm not hungry. I swear!"

Damn it all—Carl swore loudly and pushed himself roughly to his feet. He snatched his plate up off the table and stomped over to the corner where Harry was still standing. The boy flinched horribly when the plate of food was shoved into his line of sight. "Eat!"

Harry didn't take the plate—but he finally looked up. His green eyes were wide and fearful for the first time that morning. "Freaks aren't allowed to eat food meant for decent people."

For the first time in his life, Carl found himself at a complete loss. His hands were shaking violently—the kid was trembling and had resumed staring at the floor. He didn't know what to do—and that was the surest way for his short temper to burst to the surface.

"Damnit! I said 'eat!' So you bloody well better take this fucking plate of food and eat!"

Quite a few hours later, Carl was lounging on the bed and staring at Harry. The boy had eaten—damn near choking himself as he wolfed the food down like a half-starved dog. He had been sick afterwards.

Carl was almost ninety-nine percent certain he would never be able to send this kid back where he came from for any amount of money. After the kid vomited on the floor he had rushed to clean it up.

Dan had put a stop to that—Lou had just watched the whole thing with wide eyes. But that wasn't the real kicker.

The real kicker was that the kid had promptly stripped and braced himself against one of the folding chairs and waited to be 'punished' for making a mess on the floor.

The kid had been sick—it certainly hadn't been his fault. Yet Harry had stood there, completely naked and waited for a beating.

And there were scars—lots of them—from a belt, and most definitely from a knife. On top of that, the kid was literally nothing more than skin and bones.

Carl had never been so disgusted in his life—but it still only got worse. When he had started yelling at the pathetic little creature to get his damn clothes back on the boy had taken that to mean that he was to punish himself.

Now, Carl was not a fan of killing—but he was sorely tempted to throw the whole ransom deal out the window and just go massacre those bloody fiends that dared call themselves 'decent people.' What the fuck was wrong with them? Who brainwashed a little kid into thinking he was a freak that had to 'punish himself.'

Luckily, Carl had managed to get the knife away from the kid before he got very far in his 'punishment.'

Dudley had watched the whole thing without batting an eyelash. He had even brought a little more information to the table—so to speak.

"If he doesn't punish himself properly, Daddy has to do it and it will be worse. Freaks have to be punished good and often if they ever have any hope of becoming normal."

Yeah. Carl had lost his temper again. Part of him knew that the blond-blob was just as brainwashed as Harry was—but he just couldn't take any more. He'd bound and gagged the boy. And left him sobbing and writhing on the floor.

It was just Carl and Lou at the moment—Dan had gone down the street to make the phone call to the Dursleys. Carl didn't trust himself not to lose his temper. Dudley had fallen asleep after a very long temper tantrum. Lou had finally untied the little snot after an hour of muffled screaming. Carl had to threaten to punish him like his Daddy punished 'freaks' to get him to shut up.

Harry had stayed completely still—standing rooted to the same spot in the kitchen. Until Carl had finally lost his temper again and told him to 'sit.' He'd then bodily lifted the boy from the floor and deposited him on the couch. The boy hadn't moved since. Only now, as Carl watched him carefully, he seemed to be fidgeting—just the slightest squirm.

"What's wrong, Harry?"

"Nothing, Sir."

Carl narrowed his eyes at the boy. "Don't lie to me. Why are you fidgeting?"

Harry bowed his head. "I'm sorry, Sir. I'll sit still."

"I don't want you to sit still! I want you to tell me why you're fidgeting!"

Lou was sitting next to the boy on the couch and raised an eyebrow. "Do you have to use the loo?"

Harry hesitated, before nodding. "But I can wait."

"There's no reason to wait! The bathroom's right there! If you have to use it, just use it!" Carl snapped his mouth closed, massaging both temples. "Why would you not use the loo?"

"I have to wait for permission, Sir."

That boy was going to be the death of him—that was all there was to it. He was going to have a massive stroke if he found out any more of the perverse rules this kid had to live by. "You have my permission to use the bathroom whenever you need to."

Harry stayed frozen on the couch for a second, before slowly getting up. "Thank you, Sir." He walked slowly to the bathroom—and a second later the sound of a very heavy stream could be heard splashing into the toilet. It seemed to last forever.

"How bloody long was he holding it for!?"

Lou just shrugged, his eyes wide. At length, the toilet flushed and the sink turned on. Harry came out, wiping his hands on his pants.

"I want you to sit down—on the couch! And I want you to tell me about all the rules you have to follow at the Dursleys. Do not lie to me. Do you understand, Harry?" Carl moved to the edge of the bed, leaning over and bracing his elbows on his knees. Harry sat stiffly on the couch, staring at the ground. "Look at me, Harry. Do you understand?"

Green eyes flickered up for a second, finally settling somewhere around his chin. "I understand, Sir."

"Good. Let's have 'em."

Carl wasn't entirely sure this was a great idea—he was already in over his head. But he didn't want to continue having to weasel the information out of the boy.

"Number One: I am a freak. I must not forget I am a freak.

Number Two: I am never to do anything freakish or unnatural—ever.

Number Three: I must not ask questions.

Number Four: I must not speak unless I am told to.

Number Five: I must not cry, whine, scream or snivel.

Number Six: I will never talk back or argue.

Number Seven: I am to stay in my cupboard at all times unless I am told to come out.

Number Eight: If there is company, I absolutely must not be seen or heard."

Carl felt his rage growing as the kid continued to recite the rules—each more outrageous than the next.

"Number Seventeen: I will not steal food.

Number Eighteen: I must complete my chores before I eat.

Number Nineteen: I am only allowed to eat if there is food left over that no one else wants."

Lou was just staring at the kid. It was somewhere around 'Rule Number Twenty-Four' that Dan came back—he stayed silent while Harry finished.

"Number Twenty-Four: I must not tell lies.

Number Twenty-Five: I am always wrong.

Number Twenty-Six: If I break any of the rules, I must punish myself.

Number Twenty-Seven: If I don't do a good job punishing myself, I will get a worse punishment."

The boy finally fell silent, staring at the floor. Dan's mouth was hanging open, and Lou's fists were clenched tightly in his lap. Carl just blinked at the boy—trying to process everything. At length, he turned his attention to Dan.


"I talked to Vernon Dursley—told him to have 15,000 ready by tomorrow at six and wait for more instructions. I told him if he followed our directions neither boy would be harmed."

"And?" There was more to it—Carl could practically smell the unsaid 'but…'

"He yelled at me for a bit that I better not lay a hand on his son—then he tried to bargain with me. Said he'd give 20,000 if we returned his son and kept 'the other one.'"

"Oh." Carl turned his gaze back to Harry. "What did you tell him?"

"I said 'it's a deal.'" Dan ducked his head a little when Carl shot him a glare. "Don't look at me like that—we can't send that kid back there! I know you weren't going to anyways. He's actually going to pay us extra to keep him!"

"What the bloody hell are we going to do with a brainwashed, damaged little kid!?"

Dan shrugged. "Beats me. What other options do we have?"

Huffing, Carl let himself collapse back on the bed. What other options did they have? It was just their luck that they had stumbled across a situation that was worthy of a Steven King novel. They didn't have any other options.

Carl had already known that he couldn't send Harry back to those bloody lunatics. Looked like the choice was made for him. "Seriously!? What kind of people do that!? Bargain with kidnappers to keep a child!? This is so bloody fucked up!?"

Dan didn't say anything.

"Are you going to keep me?" Harry suddenly asked quietly before slapping a hand over his mouth. His eyes went wide. "I'm sorry."

"Yes. I'm going to keep you." Carl ground out. "Rule number one—all the rules you had at the Dursleys no longer exist. Do you understand? We're making new rules once this is all over, and you don't have to follow their rules any more. If you're hungry you get to eat—and you get to eat what everyone else is eating. If you have to use the loo, you use the bloody loo. You will not punish yourself—under any circumstances. And you most definitely don't have to live in a cupboard anymore. Do you understand, Harry?"

Harry shook his head.

"Well—we'll just have to work on that then, won't we?"

The next night found Carl leaning against a lamppost, smoking a cigarette in the back lot of a liquor store. It was nearing midnight, and he was awaiting the arrival of one Vernon Dursley to trade 20,000 pounds for his son.

Dan had the little blubber-blob in the trunk of a car—he was parked down an alley just barely in sight. He was set to drive away at the first sign of trouble.

A sleek black car came tearing down the street—roaring around the corner and screeching to a stop across the parking lot. Carl raised an eyebrow at the large, lummox of a man that leapt out of the car. Even in the darkness, Carl could see the way the man's chins jiggled as he marched determinedly across the parking lot—a small duffel bag in hand.

"Where's my son!?"

"He's safe." Carl quipped lightly, tossing his cigarette on the ground. "You'll get him when I get my money."

Dursley puffed out his chest. "I'm not paying you a single note until I see he's safe."

Carl rolled his eyes, waving slightly. Dan got out of the car, popping the trunk and pulling the weeping blob out of the car. A gesture from Carl had Dursley's beady eyes focusing on his son.

"There he is. Now, the money."

Dursley hesitated again. "I changed my mind about the other one. I need him back too."

"That's not going to happen."

Dursley puffed himself up again, looking like an overinflated parade balloon. "Now see here! I have to take the boy back! The other freaks will come after us if we lose him."

"Other freaks…?" Carl shook his head, pulling a pistol out of the back of his trousers and advancing on the man. "Now, you listen here you bloody wanker. You will never see that boy again—and if you don't drop it you aren't going to get your son back. Now, I have a few questions you're going to answer. Then, you are going to give me my money, take your son, drive home and pretend you never knew Harry ever existed. Understand?"

Dursley's eyes narrowed on the gun and he nodded mutely.

"Who is Harry Potter? How did you get your fucking hands on him?"

"Er… You see… He's my wife's sister's kid—her and her husband were bloody freaks that got themselves killed and he got left on our doorstep. I mean that literally—my wife went out to get the milk one day and there he was, wrapped up in a blanket with just a letter explaining what happened to his bloody parents. If it had been up to me I'd have carted him straight to the orphanage. But Petunia said we had to keep him. Then, he started showing signs of his abnormalness—just like his parents. What kind of man would I be if I didn't try to stop it before it got out of hand!?"

Carl growled. "You're a bloody lunatic. He's just a kid! There's nothing he could have possibly done—you know what!? Forget it! We're done here. Leave the money, take your bloody lard ball with you. And if I find out you're trying to get the kid back—just remember that I know where you live, where you work—where your kid goes to school. You'll regret it. From this day forward, you don't know anything about Harry Potter. He doesn't exist anymore. Understand!?"

Dursley nodded, his chins bobbing up and down with his head. He dropped the duffel bag on the ground. Carl swept it up, opening it to make sure the money was actually inside. Then, he motioned for Dan to let the kid go.


"Dudders!" Vernon waddled across the parking lot to meet his son half-way. It took only a few seconds for the man to usher his son into the car and speed away. Carl slowly approached Dan, thrusting the bag of money at him. "We can count it later. Let's get the hell out of here."

"What did you find out?" Dan asked as they climbed into the car.

"Petunia Dursley is Harry Potter's aunt."


"Yes." Carl frowned. "He went off about his parents being 'freaks' and how Harry showed signs of abnormalness—seemed to think it was his duty to 'do something about it.'"

Dan frowned. "So what do we do now?"

"We go back and get the kid—I bet Lou is out of his mind right about now."

However, Lou was actually in his element. When Carl and Dan got back to the small apartment in the closed-down factory they found Lou sitting with Harry on his lap. He had changed the boy into a t-shirt—one of his own that was so large it damn near reached the boy's ankles.

Harry was watching wide eyed as Lou read him something out of a magazine—some car magazine. Every once and a while, he had Harry try to read a section.

"You two look like you're having fun." Carl commented dryly.

"I didn't have any bedtime stories." Lou shrugged. He lifted the boy off his lap. Harry stood unsurely where he was placed, looking up at Carl from under his flyaway hair.

"Well, it's settled. You are never going back to the Dursleys." Carl watched the boy carefully. "You are going to stay with me."

Harry nodded, turning his gaze back to the floor. Carl strode across the room and kneeled in front of the boy, lifting his chin so he could make eye contact. "Do you understand what that means? You are going to have a new life—you're going to be treated better. I can't promise that life with me is going to be really nice—hell, I'm a bloody criminal. But I promise I'm not going to hurt you."

Harry's eyes widened a bit, but he didn't say anything.

"And because you're going to start a new life, I think you ought to have a new name. How 'bout we go with James?"

The boy nodded his agreement, and Carl smiled. He picked the boy up, glancing around the derelict room. "How old are you, by the way?"

"I don't know, Sir." James bowed his head, keeping his eyes glued to Carl's chin.

"Shoulda asked the bloody whale." Dan muttered. "Too late for that now."

Carl ignored him. "James. You don't have to call me 'Sir.' My name is Carl. This is Dan, and that big guy over there is Lou. You got that?"

James nodded shyly.

"Great. Now, I'm going to take you home with me. In the morning, we're going to buy you some clothes and toys and things. Are you hungry at all? Remember, I don't want you to lie to me."

It took a minute for the boy to answer. "I am a little hungry, Sir. I mean—Carl."

"Good boy." Carl patted the messy head. "We'll go through the drive through on the way. You can order as much as you want—of whatever you want. Do you understand?"

James nodded again.

"Bloody excellent."