Joe stood on the sunny pavement looking annoyed as he took a last long pull on his cigar. He flicked the remainder off into the gutter and reached for the big brass latch to the imposingly solid front door of his ammunition factory. Whichever eagle-eyed urchin was the first out of the factory at the end of the day would have themselves the unexpected reward of a full half of one of Joe's cigars.
When Joe stepped through the second door and onto the factory floor the chatter, which was louder than normal and much louder than he allowed, trailed off as twenty or so heads turned his way. Joe turned to the on duty overseer with an expression designed to convey that more would be said about this later. He was in no way surprised to see that the man in question was Taioko, Tuki's live-in whatever he was and father to the growing lump she hauled around even when visiting gangs.
Now he had their attention Joe turned to the flight of stairs that went up to the walkway that led to his office. One hand on the bannister, he climbed the steps slowly. Only looking up and talking as if for his own ears.
"As you all know, it appears that my other half has decided to throw a party for our little girl's birthday. And for some reason best known only to her she has invited you lot."
Grinning faces turned to each other. Kirsten had breezed in that morning with the good news. A day off, and a party too. And they all knew Joe well enough to know that because he doted on 'the Mrs. Joe' and little Anneka, the party thing was a done deal.
Joe was halfway up the stairs.
"She has invited a clown too. To 'entertain' you all."
This news brought laughter from the assembled orphans who were now slowly gathering to a point below where Joe regularly stood outside his office door to check up on them. Wearing the grey felt smocks, trousers and boots the children shuffled across the dusty wooden floor like so many curious rodents.
Joe could now see them out of the corner of his eye as reached the top of the stairs and began to make his way along the wooden planking of the walkway. The fingertips of his left hand barely touched the worn smooth guard rail.
"Except, by 'you all' I mean Anneka. Because Anneka, you see, is still young enough to think clowns are actually funny."
Now twenty pairs of eyes stood watching Joe. The older and wiser ones caught it first and they nudged and elbowed the younger orphans, who were still snickering, into silence.
"So, the thing is." Joe stopped suddenly and lifted his hand from the rail to make an exclamation point in the air. "Because Anneka still thinks clowns are funny." Joe started moving again, knowing that all eyes were now on him. His hand slowly dropped to the rail again. "Because her three year old brain is still amused by clowny type antics." Joe reached the point on the walkway directly above the little crowd of kids, aged variously from about seven to somewhere around sixteen, and turned to face them, placing both hands firmly on the rail so that he could lean forward and glare down. "We don't want a snarky crowd of smart-arse little street urchins ruining it for her... Now do we?"
A few of the kids actually swallowed. Those who had been employed by Joe Spivey, or even around him, for any length of time had come to learn that there were times, ok, maybe few and far between, but times when Joe was dangerously serious. It was these kids who led the slow chorus of "No Joe"s
Joe took a breath.
"Good. Now then, we all want to have a good time at this party so here are the rules."
There was a collective groan from below, which cheered Joe up for the first time since hearing he was losing a day's earnings.
"There will be no weapons brought to the party so leave you shivs and your pacifiers under your pillows... Oh, and no alcohol either."
Joe leaned further across the railing.
"It's a little kid's party fer chrisake! So no booze! Just to make sure though, Taioko here is gonna frisk you all on the way in. Right, next. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, is to fetch a present. Again, no weapons or anything dangerous..." Joe paused and searched the sea of faces. Finding the right one he gave seven year old 'One Tooth' a hard stare. "...or dead."
Teaching the younger kids to read had revealed to Joe some of their less savoury habits. Nine times out of ten the bad smell in the office could be traced to whatever was in One Tooth's pocket. Warning given, Joe cleared his throat.
"Ideally, nothing stolen either but if you ain't sure just bring it to me first an' I'll give it the once over. Next. No swearing..."
This brought another round of groans and even a few protests. Joe stood up straight and used both hands to wave the orphans into sullen silence.
"I know, I know. But if Annie picks up any four letter stuff from you lot then I'LL be the one to get it in the neck. And it goes without saying that if I get it in the neck I'll be passing the compliment on to you lot."
There was some shuffling of feet but they reluctantly agreed to try and keep the air clean. Joe didn't push it.
"Oh right, before I forget. This clown bloke Kirsten has got coming. By the end of the party he better be able to make it home under his own steam... just saying." Joe knew that, to the kids on the street... and a lot of other people too, anyone who dressed up in big colourful clothes, wore makeup and liked to be around kids was just asking for a kicking. Joe was undecided on the matter, but he'd be keeping a bloody close eye on the proceedings.
"Right, where's Finny?"
There was a general kerfuffle amongst the little crowd until a small figure was finally pushed to the front. With a scowl distorting her abundant freckles Finny stood, arms crossly folded over her scrawny chest, looking up at Joe. Joe grinned.
"There you are. Right, Finny. Your job for the party is to make bloody sure little Annie is having a good time. Anyone starts giving her, or you, any grief then you either sort it out yourself or let me know and I'll sort it out." He eyeballed several of the meaner kids, making sure they knew he was buttonholing them in particular before widening his gaze to take in everyone. "The rest of you. Your job is to help Finny to do her job. Am I clear?"
The nods and mumbles were generally in agreement. Finny stuck up her hand.
"'Ere, what if she doesn't though? What if she starts crying or sumink?"
Joe grinned down at her.
"I have every confidence in you Fin. You being the resourceful lass I know you to be."
Finny's scowl deepened. Joe's words and tone implied that there would be consequences should her 'resourcefulness' not meet his level of confidence in her. Joe's smile, however, broadened. This was a test for Finny and he did indeed have confidence in her abilities. The trick, though, would be turning those abilities of hers away from the path fate held for most of her contempories... Of course she would have to finish learning how to read and write first.