To all six of my lovely reviewers ~ Thanks so much for commenting. You guys are amazing!

Author's Note ~ This is one of my slower starting books, so if anyone out there agrees, do not fear. It's going to speed up soon.

Copyright ~ "I killed a man. With this thumb!" – Horst, Ratatouille

It will happen to you if you dare take a word.

Chapter 4 ~ Chance Encounter Kamin Austas

The soaked sweatshirt stuck to my back as a plodded through puddles in the foreign alleyways of the southern city. Rain pushed my hair into my eyes and made my costume clothes become heavy with water. I wondered how any human would fight Timekeepers just to live a life so full of hardship and pain. In the world we Timekeepers strove to create, everyone was healthy and held comfortable lives. But Crims were splaying cracks in the window, behind which the perfect world lied.

I ran through the faces in my mind. The woman, with curly brown hair, named Elisias, married to Marlow, the blonde man with bright blue eyes.

The mission was quick, clean, and simple: identify the children in the couple's care and clear out. It was planned to take less than two or three days at most. No training was needed, and the only thing I had to learn to use was Nolbee's recorder device to report the names of the children back to headquarters.

I spotted an open dumpster down the path to my left, and trudged my way there to take cover under one of the flaps. It provided minimal protection, but anything would do in my condition.

I make a pretty lousy Crim, I thought.

A shrill whistle pierced the steady sound of drumming raindrops, making my head shot up. A figure stood at the end of the alley, leaning casually against the wall. The downpour made for poor visibility, so I couldn't tell if it was a girl or a boy. When the figure began to stride towards me, my muscles naturally locked and I knew I wasn't moving anytime soon. Instead of jumping and fleeing like most frightened people did, I always froze into an impenetrable shell and was impossible to move.

"Hey, little man," called the figure, laced with the distinct pitch of a female. "You're looking a bit wet."

The girl stopped about ten yards away from my cover, but I still couldn't see her face clearly. She seemed to be waiting for a response, but my jaw wouldn't move.

"I see you!" said the girl in a sing-songy voice. "Come out, little bugger."

She held out a hand, and hundreds of pictures of knives and other weaponry flashed through my head. Anything could be clutched in that other palm. I inched away, pushing myself with the heels of my boots.

There was a sudden yank on the hood of my soggy sweatshirt, and I was forced to stand so I could breathe. Struggling against the hands on my hood, I managed a feeble, "…let… go…"

The pressure eased and I held a hand to my neck, gasping for air. I could easily see the girl's long blonde hair and unmistakable Crim clothing she wore, now that we were face-to-face. Not to mention the smug smirk that played on her lips.

"That's better, boy," laughed the girl. "Now I can see you're not a rock after all. I'm Trow, in case you were wondering."

She held out a hand, and before I even registered that it was being offered to me, she grabbed my wrist and placed it in her palm, shaking it lightly. When she let go, she simply gave a perfect smile and stared at me. I shifted uncomfortably, having no idea what to say.

"Well, are you gonna tell me what to call you, or will I have to name you myself?" asked Trow finally.

"Kamin," I mumbled. "Kamin Austas."

"Well, if we're being all formal with last names, I'm Trow Dahlen," replied Trow, "and I'm on strayer duty. It means I pick up little buggers like you and haul them home!"

The recognition buzzed in my mind. "Home, where?" I asked quietly.

"Elisias and Marlow's place, a 'course!" Trow answered. "Every stray's dream parents. They welcome any and every stray we find wandering around. That's where. Now, come on! Skit was on picking duty today and he found a few unopened cans of soup. You can't miss that."

The housers, Elisias and Marlow, were taking care of this girl. I managed to give myself a little smile at my accomplishment, and that made Trow light up. "What's picking duty?" I asked, not as mute now that I was confident that I could play the role.

"How long have you been in the trash, Austas?" scoffed Trow. "Picking duty's the best job. You hunt for food, and get the best pickings for supper."

I followed Trow through the maze of alleyways that formed the southern city, trusting she knew where she was going. I allowed myself to ask some questions as we walked. She spent the time describing a Crim's life, and all the duties one was expected to work.

"Strayers find the strays and wheel them in," she explained, "like a dog-catcher. Pickers find the food. Trash-hands collect the little knickknacks that can be traded to the stall runners, who trade food or cloth for things that the trash-hands find. Housers are in charge of small groups of younger Crims. Elisias and Marlow are housers."

Just like the jobs of a Timekeeper, there was a system of rank in Crim society. Strayers and pickers were the lowest ranks. Trash-hands and stall runners were a little higher. Housers were respected and a necessity, so they sat atop the other jobs. But the most respect ones were the red-hands.

"Everyone wants to be a red-hand one day," said Trow. "But it's really hard to work your way there. Red-hands are the wisest and most-experienced Crims, and only a few people are ever chosen to become one. It's extremely dangerous to be a red-hand, and you have to be born with the natural instincts that can lead you away from danger. I don't have those, for sure. Everyone's best at something, and I'm best at being a strayer."

"What do red-hands do?" I asked quietly.

Trow must have no heard me, because she didn't respond. We walked in silence for a few blocks, listening to the rain become just a drizzle as it pattered. A crumbling shack came into view, and voices could be heard from inside. A small light shone through one broken window.

"This is the house!" Trow said happily, steering him towards the door. "Welcome to the family."

"What do red-hands do?" I repeated, louder.

Trow stopped and turned towards him. An evil smile crept up onto her face. "They do the most important thing any Crim can do," she replied. "They kill Timekeepers."