“What’s got you all hot and bothered?” his brother asked. “You haven’t lost your temper this bad since we were ten!”
“He hit her, Martin!” The words burst out of Charlie’s mouth like vomit, involuntary and foul-tasting. “That slimy, slick-faced crook smacked her in the face, all because I would keep visiting her, and she actually enjoyed talking with me!” Charlie’s fists clenched as he felt all the muscles in his body tense. “I’m going back there,” he stated through clenched teeth. “I’m going back and getting her out, even if we have to run away--”
“You can’t,” Martin interjected.
“Why not?” Charlie exploded.
“That would be stealing.”
“It’s not stealing! I’ll convince her to quit--”
“She can’t quit.”
Charlie squinted at his brother. “What do you mean she can’t quit? She’s an employee, isn’t she?”
Martin shook her head. “No; she’s his property.”
“What?” Charlie felt a coldness in his chest.
Martin sighed and shuffled closer. “Ophelia explained it to me one night when you and Ruby were busy giggling and mooning at each other. She had snuck into Mo’s office one night, and she found a deed of sale from the date when Ruby started singing at the club. She didn’t just come to work for him all those years ago because he saw how talented she was and he wanted to make her a star; her parents sold her to him, in return for his promise to give her a place to live, clothes to wear, and a weekly stipend for food.”
Charlie felt the numbing chill expand through his body. “They sold her?” He rasped. “Her own parents?”
Martin shrugged. “The way Ophelia told it, she said that sort of thing happens all the time when a child with a marketable skill or talent is born to a family too poor to raise it adequately.”
“B-but… Selling your child?” Charlie’s brain was shutting down at the very idea.
Martin cast wary glances up and down the street. It was well past midnight by now, but there were still a few passersby, and some of them gave the two brothers strange looks.
“Let’s keep walking,” Martin recommended.
Charlie shoved his hands into the pockets of his overcoat and stalked briskly down the street. Martin kept pace easily with his twin.
“We have to do something about this, Martin!” Charlie fumed. He was always the more emotionally-driven half of their partnership, while Martin worked out the logical side of things.
“We aren’t exactly obligated--”
“Yes we are!” Charlie stopped and faced him as a car rumbled past. “That girl’s circumstances are shameful--what would be the point of knowing something like that is going on and continuing to go about our business as if nothing was wrong?”
“Charlie, what they did was well within the bounds of the law--”
“I still think it’s wrong, don’t you?” Charlie began striding again. He stopped ten paces later when he realized Martin had not bothered to continue with him. He glanced back as the older twin (by about five minutes) laughed.
“Slow down, Daddy Warbucks!” Martin teased. “I swear, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this worked up over a social issue. One may conclude that--” he stopped.
Charlie impatiently retraced his steps, closing the distance between them. “Conclude what?” he challenged his brother.
Martin laughed again. “Are you sweet on the Black Lily?”
“What? I--” Charlie’s mind betrayed him, conjuring memories of her lively eyes, her bright smile, her enchanting voice, her intelligent conversation… “Maybe,” he admitted. “I just... “ The ugly bruise arose once more, tainting the memory of her. “I can’t stand the thought of that man hurting her any more.”
“Well, you can’t buy her away from him,” Martin said. “You couldn’t afford it.”
Both brothers began walking again, this time at a more reasonable pace.
“The thought never crossed my mind!” Charlie scoffed. “If I could just figure out a way to get her the money she needs--”
“You could marry her,” Martin suggested.
They stepped up onto the sidewalk that skirted the block containing the family apartment.
“What did you say?” Charlie spluttered.
“I said you could marry her,” Martin repeated. “She’s eligible, single--”
Charlie waved his hands in consternation. “I know that’s what you said,” he clarified, “I just never thought you, of all people, would suggest such a thing.”
“It’s logical,” Martin said with a shrug. “If you love Ruby, and want to provide for her and share your life with her, if you want to give her a way out of the life she’s stuck in now, what better way is there than to marry her?”
Charlie blinked as they paused on the short flight of stone steps leading to the apartment building. “That does sound logical.”
“Of course, we’ll have to wait until we finish our school studies,” Martin went on.
Charlie nodded. “Of cour--wait, what?” He glanced at his brother sharply. “But that’s a whole year from now!” He frowned. “Who knows what that monster will have done to her by then?”
“You’re no good to Miss Ruby if you’re stuck at the Academy for hours on end,” Martin pointed out. “That’s no situation for a married man. We’ll finish the term, marry over the holidays, and there you have it.”
Charlie’s frown shifted from pouting to pensive. “I guess that makes sense… Wait, we?” He only just began to understand the significance of his brother’s normally-cold logic having already worked out something as subjective as marriage. “You’re planning on marrying too?”
Martin scoffed, “Well, I certainly wouldn’t put so much mental effort into something purely for your benefit!”
Charlie chuckled as they entered the building and ascended the steps to the sixth floor. “Martin Joseph Burke, I never knew you had it in you! Who’s the girl?”
Martin didn’t look back at him as he remarked to the air in front of him, “You should have figured that out by now; it’s Ruby’s friend, Miss Ophelia Lake.”
Even more amusing than the thought of logical Martin discussing the topic in question, was the idea that the coarse, brusque Ophelia engaging in a dialogue over it. “You two have been talking about marriage this whole time?” Charlie wondered how he could have missed such an astonishing concept.
“Not the whole time!” Martin shot back. “Besides, you and Ruby haven’t?”
They arrived at Apartment 6G. Martin pulled his key out of the breast pocket of his jacket.
“When you’re ready to pick a wedding venue, let me know. I have a few fairly decent churches picked out, and you can always help me decide between them.”