Chapter One ~ Escape

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Charlie's head still ached in the morning. She could open simple locks with no problem, easier than with keys. She just put her hand on a keyhole, any keyhole-she hadn't yet encountered a lock she couldn't open-and send a burst of her magic through. So far, any lock responded to her touch by opening up, although the more sophisticated locking mechanisms in safes and bank vaults often induced severe headaches. The last night's lock had been one of those.

She pulled the blanket over her head, but it didn't help the pounding in her temples. Better to get up and face the day. Wincing at the dull pulse of pain, she got out of bed and dressed. Perhaps the yesterday's heist would suffice for a while, and she wouldn't have to open another vault soon. Why couldn't her stepfather, Aaron, be content with the wealth he had already amassed? She had been opening locks for him and his gang of thieves for five years, ever since her mother died when Charlie turned thirteen. Why did he always want more? He knew about her headaches and he still wanted her to open more locks, so he could rob more banks, steal from more people.

She put the depressing and useless speculations out of her head and pattered downstairs to the kitchen for a fresh roll and a cup of coffee. Afterwards, feeling better, she started back up the stairs to her room. Was Aaron home, she wondered? Would he let her go to the subscription library today? Reading was her secret escape from his iron rule. It helped her to survive in her gilded cage. Maybe one day, books would help her gather some backbone to rebel against him, but not yet. Not enough to defy him openly.

She had once, two years ago, flatly refusing to open another lock. Her triumph had been short-lived. Mad at her insolence, he had hauled her home from their unsuccessful heist and whipped her bloody. Whipped her with his belt until she begged him to stop. She hadn't refused again, but after that day, she had started saving from her monthly allowance. Even though she didn't yet have enough money to last her for more than a few months, she would have to run away soon.

She was already on the second landing, when the front door opened. A male voice asked for Aaron. Charlie stopped, flattening herself in a dark corner. She didn't recognize the voice, and new visitors often meant new locks. She shivered. She'd better learn what this visitor wanted. It paid to be prepared. When Aaron's scratchy bass welcomed the guest and invited him to his study, Charlie dashed towards the servants' stairs at the end of the hall and skipped back downstairs.

The back door to Aaron's study was always locked, as if any lock could deter her. Maybe Aaron thought she only opened locks at his bidding. She smirked, flattened her palm over the keyhole, and the well-oiled lock clicked almost inaudibly. The men were still exchanging pleasantries inside, so the tiny ping dissolved into the ramble of their words. Charlie opened the door a few millimeters and listened.

"Thank you for coming, Mr. Haffner," Aaron said in his hated gravelly voice.

"Not at all. Not at all. Thank you for thinking of our institution." Mr. Haffner sounded high and reedy, like a broken pipe.

"Yes, well, your asylum comes highly recommended. My daughter needs the best care. No money will be spared, of course."

His daughter? What was wrong with his daughter? As far as Charlie knew, she was the only daughter he had, and a stepdaughter at that. She didn't need an asylum. Hardly daring to breathe, she pressed her ear to the gap.

"Of course." Mr. Haffner's thin tone cut across her nerves. "What are her symptoms?"

"She has developed some delusions." Aaron's laugh boomed. "She thinks she is a thief. Every time there is an article in the papers about a bank robbery or some such, she thinks she is responsible. I wouldn't want her to blurt such nonsense to a stranger."

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