“What are you doing here now?” Zara asked, growing slightly bolder now that they knew who he was.
“I came to offer our help with whatever you might need, to do what we had promised we would back then.”
“What did you have in mind?” Zack was slightly less weary of the man once he found out who he was.
Before he could reply, a shiny black Vortex Carriage, stopped beside them. It was the same one Zack had seen the day before at the construction site. Sure enough, the rear door opened a moment later and the smug face of the recruiter for Albion Travelers Academy stepped out to join them.
Zara scuttled behind Zack once more, using his back as a barrier from the plump man.
The recruiter glanced disdainfully at the cheap suit the other man was wearing and smirked at the kids. “I heard you had trouble at work yesterday after you threw me out.”
Zack raised his brow and looked pointedly at the vehicle. “You know, I saw a carriage that looks remarkably like yours sitting outside the office yesterday.”
The man they had been talking to coughed and looked at the recruiter. “I’m sorry, I was here first. What school did you say you were representing?”
The recruiter’s lip curled in a sneer. “I didn’t, but I can guarantee it is better than whatever backwoods institute you represent!”
“He’s from the Albion Travelers Academy. They offered me a full ride scholarship. I refused when they wouldn’t accept Zara as well.” Zack informed the military man after seeing they had a mutual disdain for the recruiter.
“Did they now?” It was his turn to smirk, “Well, I think I just found my answer.” He nodded to Zack and Zara with a wink. “I’ll be in touch within the next day or two. Better tart packing your bags. The semester begins soon.”
He spun on his heel and walked away, leaving them alone with the confused school representative. The pudgy man scowled, upset that the wind had been taken from his sails. “I’ve made sure, no business, legitimate or otherwise, in this city will hire you boy. You had better pray, that whatever school he was from accepts you both!” With those parting words, he climbed back into the carriage and left.
“Do you think that man from the military will be able to help us?” Zara asked quietly, still clinging to her brother’s back.
“I’m not sure, but he certainly seemed to think they could.” He wasn’t ready to trust the man just yet. The excuse that they had been lost in the cracks of the crappy government system was a little thin to him. The government knew where they were to pay for their housing, so there was some record related to them somewhere.
“Should we keep going?”
Zack glanced down at his sister, lost in thought. “Yeah, we still need to get some food for later either way.”
Together they headed towards the small, nearby shopping area. The food there was always close to its official expiration date, but was also the cheapest they could find as a result. The variety of food changed from day to day, and it was never apparent what they would find there.
Meat was uncommon and went quickly when it did appear. Vegetables and canned goods were always there in some fashion. It was the dried and dehydrated items that the siblings went for most often. The bland taste and odd consistency meant fewer people bought them, which drove the price down even more.
A lower price meant they had more to eat for less. They could put up with the bland food if it meant filling their bellies. Besides, things had been better recently. Zach’s job with the construction company had been stable work with a small but steady income. That had allowed them to splurge a little on meat and vegetables.
Now they were back to the cheapest possible foods they could find.
Zara crowded closer to her brother as they pressed through the crowds surrounding each of the item packed stalls. They were both known by the owners of the various stalls, Zara less so, since she rarely left the house. The sight of her always clutching the teddy bear George, however, was a sight that few could readily forget. There was something about the gesture that stirred up their protective instincts and cemented her in their minds.
“How much were you able to save?” Zack asked her softly, as they stopped in front of a stall containing some semi-rotten fruit. He had a little bit leftover in his wallet from the last time he had gone shopping for food, and that was it.
She passed George to him and indicated he should open the small zipper on the worn bear’s back. It was an addition he had made to the plushie years before, during their time as test subjects.
He pulled down the small, concealed zipper and reached inside the hidden space. A roll of money hit the tips of his fingers and he pulled it out to count, shoving it back in before others could see the amount. His little sister had managed to save a fair bit of money. If they were careful in how they spent it, the amount would last them several weeks. It would be cheap and possibly spoiled food, but it would be edible.
Passing the bear back to Zara, he reached into his pocket for his wallet. He wanted to count the money he had left from before. Instead of feeling the leather money holder, he found the note the secretary had given him the day before.
He had forgotten about it in his rush to leave the construction site behind. Neat handwriting filled the note with everything the kind older woman had heard through the thin walls of the office.
With a sigh, he crumpled it up and tossed it into a nearby trashcan. What the recruiter had told him that morning was true. He really had been blacklisted. It would be next to impossible for him to get any respectable work.
He could only hope that what the man from the military had said was true, and that he would get them into a school.
Switching pockets, he found his wallet and quickly counted the money. It was enough to buy some food for lunch, dinner, and breakfast the next morning, if they were careful.
Zara suddenly stiffened, her hand gripping his shirt tight. “We’re about to have company!” She whispered in annoyance.
He saw why a moment later. Walking towards them, ignoring the crowd of people, was a messenger from one of the local gangs. It wasn’t someone he knew personally, but the patches lining the arm of his jacket identified the group he was with. It was a group Zack had worked with in the past, back in the beginning, when they were first released from the group home.
“The boss heard you might be looking for work again,” The man just out of his teen years said without preamble, stopping in front of them.
Zack felt his sister tremble slightly at the close proximity of the unfamiliar person. “Jace knows better than to send someone to approach me like this while I am with my sister!” He growled, his fist clenching tightly at his side.
“Jace isn’t leading the group anymore,” The messenger shrugged, “He was… displaced, by Cooper a couple of months ago.”
Zack spit to the side at the revelation, splattering the dirty road. He had never liked Cooper, and the man knew that. This reeked of some kind of power-play against him, one that was designed to keep him off-balance or worse. “Tell Cooper then that this is not the way to approach me, and I don’t know who has been feeding him information, but they’re wrong. I’m not looking for work. The two of us are leaving to go to one of the Traveler’s academies within the next few days.”
He carefully looked the brother and sister duo over before shrugging again, “Doesn’t matter to me. I was just told to deliver the message and now I have. I’ll tell Cooper what you said,” His voice dropped to a whisper as he leaned in close. “I’d make sure my doors were locked tight if I was you, Cooper has been trying to expand the operation. After I tell him where you are headed, I can guarantee he isn’t going to just let you go without trying something.”
Zack sucked in a breath and quickly looked at the people around them. “Is he stupid? All of the portals are controlled by the government or large corporations!” The one the research institute had been in possession of had been an oddity in that regard. “Without a portal of his own, it won’t matter how many traveler’s he has under his control.”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that, in any case, I’ve said more than I should,” He nodded to them and left as abruptly as he had come.
“What are we going to do?” Zara asked from her spot glued to his back.
“We’re going to finish shopping, and then we are going to make sure all the locks back home are as secure and tight as we can make them.”