Alex stopped walking the street-jetty about a meter in front of the three older kids who were blocking his way. Joey Pozniak stepped forward from his central position to close the gap, and poked Alex in the chest with his index finger. That was Joey – nothing if not predictable.
“You stink, mud-crab,” said Joey cheerfully. It was a fair comment; Alex looked down at the trousers covering his good leg, which were soaked to knee height with muck. He shrugged.
“High tide, innit,” he said. “The Heap’s always minging at high tide.”
“Well,” retorted Joey, “it’s not like you’re so nice to smell when you’ve not been scavving on The Heap, eh?” His deputies chuckled dutifully.
Alex shrugged again. “If you say so. I gotta scav where I can, anyway. The Heap has to make do for me.”
Torsson, the brick-chinned and slow-witted hulk to Joey’s left, shifted his weight and furrowed his brow in preparation to speak. “Why you not worry about losing leg in mud, crabber?”
Here we go again, thought Alex.
“Yeah,” said Joey, trying to cover his annoyance at being beaten to the line. “Ain’t your trick leg a liability out there? What if the mud jammed the joints, eh? You should be at home with your mum, I reckon.”
“Better that than you being at home with my mum,” replied Alex. “Anyway, she’s sick, isn’t she. If I don’t scav, we don’t eat. Now, it’s getting late, so if you’re going to turn me over like usual I’d appreciate you getting on with it, OK?”
Alex guessed Joey’s mob had been busy, because they couldn’t muster the energy for a proper warm-up, progressing instead straight to the now-accustomed ritual of divesting Alex of his bag and up-ending it on the jetty. Joey poked through the little pile of scrap with his worn old kitchen knife.
“Plastic gears … screws … poor pickings again, mud-crab.”
“The best stuff’s long gone from The Heap, Joey. Unless you to raid it from the staked claims, and I can’t run fast enough for that.”
Joey palmed a few fat capacitors that looked relatively undamaged by the wet of The Heap, and toed the other bits of junk back into a pile. “Damn it, mud-crab, sometimes you’re not even worth the effort of turning over.”
“Perhaps,” replied Alex. “But if I were really worth turning over then there’d be more people willing to turn you back over on my behalf, wouldn’t there?”
Joey glowered in response. “Don’t bloody lecture me on the market, mud-crab. I know how this city works better than you do.” He rallied his henchmen, and started trudging off along the jetty toward the Gunwharf towers to the south west, before turning briefly to call out, “Best get to the Exchange before he shuts, crab! You know he don’t like to open late!”
Alex knelt on his good knee, smiling as he shovelled the scrap back into his bag.
“Good scavving, young ‘un?” The old merchant at the Vicky Park Exchange was far from displeased to open the door for Alex, but then he never was. His wire-wool eyebrows scrunched together as he squinted along his nose. “Pozniak turn you over again? Eh?”
Alex laughed. “Course he did! I think I’d almost miss it if he didn’t.”
“That boy’s a thug,” grumbled the merchant. “I won’t buy from him.”
“You might as well,” said Alex. “Why spite yourself if he has something you want?”
“Free market it may be, young ‘un, but that don’t mean you got to abandon your principles unless you choose to.” The old man picked through Alex’s bag. “Looks like he took all you had worth taking.”
Alex laughed again. “No, he didn’t.” He reached down and detached his ageing prosthetic leg, its once-lurid pink plastic stained by mud and time, and hopped a few steps before banging the leg knee-first on the worn wood of the merchant’s counter.
Out slid about a meter and a half of half-inch copper piping, folded in four.
The merchant’s brows shot skywards. “No, I guess he didn’t.” He shuffled off into his back-room store, and Alex settled himself down to wait for the old man to return with the scales.