Back by popular demand: more totally random crap from my writing files. Okay, fine. There was no demand for random crap, but it’s what I’ve got. This is a scrap from a historical that’s been put on a back burner about a dozen times. The pleasures of research have also slowed down forward progress, but I still like the story idea. Someday I’ll get back to it.
The woman who answered the row house door was poisoned on gin, her teeth rotted out, her eyes sunk in their sockets. Not long for the world if she went on drinking that way.
“Good day to you, ma’am,” I said and let a schilling wink between my fingers for a moment. Her rheumy eyes caught the gesture and went bright even under their haze of gin. Not too far gone to want a coin.
“Mrs. Jakes sent you from ’round the corner?” she said. “It’ll cost you a deal more’n that bit of silver. My daughter’s a virgin. God’s truth she is. Ne’er been touched by a man. Not e’en her own pa.”
She cracked a toothless smile at me, making me wonder if she was too far gone to do business with. Then it occurred to me she was expecting someone and didn’t know I wasn’t him. I simply needed to play the role to get what I wanted.
“A virgin, I swear it. Milky white skin, innocent. Only fifteen,” she leered.
Fifteen and still a virgin. An unlikely proposition in that neighborhood.
“What’s your price then?”
“A gentleman like you,” she hinted. To her, I suppose, I was a gentleman. Clean and dressed in fine clothes, but that was all a costume. A thing I’d learnt to put on. “A crown, sir. Never been with a man, she hasn’t.”
Highway robbery unless the girl was pretty and truly a virgin, and that was unlikely. A shocking expense, too, when all I wanted was information.
“The girl—her room is above stairs? Does it face the street or the mews?”
The woman’s eyes narrowed, gone suspicious of me that quickly. It was a fool thing to say, a beginner’s mistake. “What’s that to you?”
“Only that I should like to know the prospect from the room,” I said in my blandest dandy voice, the one I’d learnt from Robert Letour before he hanged at Newgate.
She shrugged and said, “To the street, an’ it please you, sir.”
“A crown it is,” I said. “You’ll have the first half now, but the second after I’ve satisfied myself that she is as innocent as you say.”
With any luck I’d bluff my way out of paying the second half crown and she seemed to fear that, too. When I produced the two coins, held them up, one in each hand between my thumb and finger, she hesitated, eyes glowing with desperation. She was terribly thirsty.
I presented her with the half crown in my left hand and returned the second to my right pocket, to feel the reassuring presence of my pistol under my coat.
“This way, sir,” she said.
The house was worse than the street. The only window on the first floor was covered with greased paper and in that foul darkness the stink of unwashed flesh and gin and rotted food was like a blow to the face. I gagged against it and kept my hand against my pistol. In the reeking darkness, the old woman hesitated at the stairs until I feared an ambush, but she was only hesitating because the coin in her hand spoke of gin to her. The time to walk me up the rickety stairs would keep her from it a moment longer than she liked.
“Up and to yer right, sir. Just undo the latch and mind you don’t let her out.”
Kept prisoner then. It didn’t surprise me, if the woman was pimping her. I half-expected to be set upon in the narrow stairwell or at the landing, but I made it to the top unmolested. From below, I heard the outer door opening and closing. The old woman going out to the gin house. To Mrs. Jakes, where she thought I had been sent from.
The upper door was closed with an iron latch, and when I slid it back, a quiet voice said, “Is that you?”
The girl was too lovely for that place. Pale and thin, with chestnut hair and soft brown eyes. Her cheeks flushed when she saw me and she stood up from her narrow bed, looking me up and down with wild eyes. Abruptly, the fear dropped away and she smiled.
“Oh, you ain’t who I was expecting.”
“And who were you expecting?” I said.
“Her. Or some scoundrel come to—to pay her.”
“I have paid her, but I don’t intend any assault on your honor.”
She laughed, cheeks going pinker, and sat down again on the bed. “My honor? Oh lord, you’ve learned a fine way to talk.”
“I was forced to deceive the woman below, but I shall be quite direct with you, Miss. I am a representative for a gentleman investigating the disappearance of a young woman, whom I believe was recently in the house directly across from yours. Directly across from your very room, I believe. May I look out your window?”