The streets of London were just as congested as the streets of downtown New York. Sellers
hawking their wares in the streets stood shoulder to shoulder with prostitutes and children left not
other place but to beg on the streets. The noise was almost defeaning. Almost. Even after all the years
Dermot had been "civilized" the super sensitivity of the world around him was apparent.
The clip-clop of metal shod hooves mixed with some sort of machine that spit out white smoke
and made rumbling noises as Alstronia lead him to the shopkeeper who traded her the pocket watch.
His father's pocket watch. A small grubby hand reach toward Alistronia. On instinct Dermot grabbed
the small thin wrist.
"Didn't mean no harm, gov. 'ave a message for the lady."
"For me?" Alstronia turned around her pale skin even paler in the weak afternoon sunlight. "From
"Don' know, miss. 'e was hidden in shadows."
"Oh. Ummm.... thank you."
Alistronia reached forward to take the note with shaking fingers, but Dermot snatched it out of the
boy's grubby fingers first. He slit the black wax seal watching with narrowed eyes as the boy ran off
down an alley. Looking back down at the masculine scrawl across filthy paper, he grunted.
"What is it?" She stepped closer to him biting her bottom lip.
"Nothing to worry about. A fear tactic."
Alistronia's swallow was loud in an even louder world. "What did it say?"
"She's fine. Continue on."
For a second she hesitated then finally nodded and turned back towards the row of brick buildings
ahead of them. Shaking his head at the stupidity of criminals he slipped the paper into the inside
pocket of his great coat. The bastard had made the biggest mistake of his life. He must be getting
desperate. Not only did he have a gender, but judging by the script and wording he was well
educated. Which took much of the work of him hunting down in the hells of London.
"Are you sure this is place?"
The building they stopped in front of was an everyday run of the mill brick building with a shop
front on the first floor, apartments on the second floor and more than likely storage on the third. The
shop two shop windows on each side of the door showcased ready-made clothing for the average
working man, a few toys and a very pretty party dress for a little girl. He'd seen so many similar
displays in America he was actually surprised to find it in downtown London.
"Of course I am. I've been here several times before yesterday. Occasionally the owners received
some interesting things from the orient. Not often, hence I'm not a regular customer." She paused
trying to peer through the curtains behind the displays. From his knowledge it usually meant the
owners were not opening for the day.
"There hasn't been any rumors that they went on holiday. How strange."
"There would be such rumors?"
"Of course. We shop owners are a close-knit group. We look out after each other whenever
"Back door?" Alistronia scowled spinning around to face him. He sighed. "Is there a back door?"
"Oh! Yes. In the alley." She pointed to the corner of the building.
"Sorry, but until I get Bronwen back in my arms, where you go I go."
Dermot snorted then coughed quickly hoping to cover the blunder. She wrinkled her nose at him.
swallowing the need to kiss the tip of her nose he turned towards the alley. He didn't know what it
was about her that made him feel comfortable. The rustle of her black cotton skirts filled the alley
blocking out what he knew to the scurrying of rats. She gasped a couple times telling him she'd
noticed them as well. The scent of decay poured out of the back of the building. He shook his head
but the stench was there to stay for at least the rest of the day.
"What is that smell?" she coughed.
"In a matter of one night and morning? What could do that so fast?"
He glanced at her over his shoulder reaching to grasp the knob. "You're certain the woman who
traded with was the woman who worked this shop regularly?"
"Of course. You can ask anyone in this neighborhood. She never goes anywhere. I think she's
afraid of her husband. He can be a real mean person." She pulled out a handkerchief from her reticule
and pushed it against her nose. He could tell by the wrinkling of her nose it didn't do anything to keep
the smell from her.
"Has he ever raised a hand-"
"If he has he's never marked anywhere uncovered. Do you think someone died and that's why it
smells so bad?"
Dermot shook his head. Even on the battlefield he hadn't smelled anything so foul.
"This isn't a dead body. At least nothing I've ever encountered. I've never smelled anything so
bad. You should probably stay here. There's no telling what I'll find inside."
"I told you. Where you go, I go."
"Are you always so stubborn?"
Alistronia shrugged. Grumbling under his breath he swung back to the shop door. She slipped up
behind him practically pressing her front to his back. His fingers itched for the pistol he'd forgotten
back at Tremayne's place. Thrusting one hand back Dermot grabbed a fist full of her skirt just to be
sure of where she was standing at any given point. Her small gasp went straight to his groin. Damn!
"Stay right behind me and be quiet."
"I'm not going anywhere else."
Dermot wasn't sure this was a good idea, but getting a law enforcement agent would take too
long. The last thing he needed at the moment was to loose the lead on what happened to his father all
those years ago, and on the whereabouts of Alistronia's God-daughter. The swung open the door
choking on the bile that threatened to come up at the overwhelming smell. After a few seconds to
gain his composure, he stepped over the threshold very aware of ever step she made behind him.
Dermot's hand gave off the only heat in the darkened smelly building. He said it wasn't the smell
of death and it certainly wasn't food rotting. She didn't know of anything that could decay that fast.
The acrid scent burned her nose and threatened to cause her stomach to revolt.
"Can you see anything?"
"Didn't I tell you to be quiet?"
"I can't see anything."
Dermot sighed. "Stay."
He released her skirt. His footsteps thudded softly on carpet away from her. A match struck and a
flare of light illuminated the small back room. Her breath caught in her chest and it had nothing to do
with the smell.
"Not really." she croaked closing her eyes through unable to scrub the image burned into her lids.
Bubbles tickled her nose as she tried to keep from crying.
"Don't move Miss Parker."
"Ali. Call me Ali." she whispered. She wasn't a hundred percent certain they should be on first
name basis, but at this point hearing such an intimate thing was welcomed. She jumped when
Dermot's warm hand wrapped around her trembling shoulders. She dared not open her eyes for fear
she'd see even more horrendous images.
"I'm going to walk you back outside along the same path we took coming in. Only more when I
"Do I have to look?"
"It'd be best if you kept your eyes closed. You already say more than you should have."
She let her breath out. She should have agree with him and waited outside. His front pressed
against hers. Every definition of muscle rubbed against her soft feminine parts. Her heart pounded
while her breath sawed in and out of her corseted torso. If she hadn't been in such a predicament she'd
swear the reaction was from his closeness. Shaking her head just a little she pushed the thought from
her mind. His arms wrapped around her waist his fingers spreading across her lower back.
"Right foot straight back." His heated moist breath whispered in her ear while slightly
pushing with his body. Slowly he guided her back to the threshold and out into the alley.
Timidly she cracked her eyes open. The door was mostly closed hiding the carnage. She sighed.
Dermot cleared his throat sliding his hands from around her waist. She shivered.
She nodded trying to look everywhere else except his brown gaze and husky voice. "Yes. Thank
"Seeing as what we had tripping into I think it would be best to round up a constable and report
"Oh...ah...yes. Yes, your right." she shifted looking back down the alley.
"Why don't you go summon one while I make sure the scene stays undisturbed."
"It might be a few minutes. I don't usually see one around this time of the afternoon."
"I'll be here."
Ali nodded. Grabbing up her skirts she fled down the alley praying there would be a constable not
too far away. Of course luck wasn't with her. She had to go down five blocks and took close to half
an hour before she found someone. He debated her story at first but once she threatened to go to the
papers with their incompetence he quickly followed her back.
Dermot leaned against the wall next to the back door riffling through a stack of papers. He
nodded to the constable but didn't bother coming to attention. The constable took one step inside
before turning around and vomiting. Ali jumped back thankful for her quick thinking for the vomit
had just barely missed her new boots.
Ali wanted to smack the smirk off Dermot's face. The poor constable hadn't been prepared.
"Stay here. The Captain will want your statements." The constable stumbled down the alley
wiping his mouth.
Ali turned watching him completely stunned. She had expected him to go inside and look for
survivors. At the very least.
"No one has been inside there for several days."
Ali spun back around. Dermot held a piece of paper up to the light as he spoke.
"I told you the shop owner's wife traded me the watch for one of my summer hats specially
designed for her."
"And once again. Are you one hundred percent sure it was the shop owner's wife?"
"Why would you ask that?"
"Just answer the question."
"As sure as I can be. It wasn't like I came in here every single day, or even every week. She
looked and sounded the same."
"And yet that..." he waved tot he door, "is not from one night and one morning. That is weeks if
not months worth of time from several people."
"I...I'm going to wait on the corner. I need some fresh air." Ali stomped off.
"Wait! Ali, please stop."
"I don't want to hear it Mr. Harken. I am not a feathery minded woman who can't remember
someone she's worked with before."
"Dermot grabbed her arm and swung her around. She landed against his chest her own heaving at
the hurt. Hurt? Yes. Hurt. It hurt that he thought so low of me Why? It never bothered me before
when men thought of me. The only man's opinions that had ever mattered had been Lord Gray,
Bronwen's father. Ali notched her chin up determined to push the wayward emotion away. His eyes
caressed her face and when he spoke his voice was softer. Gentler.
"I didn't intend to imply any such thing." he pulled back handing her a single sheet or parchment
paper. "Read this and tell me what you think."
Ali frowned. The paper trembled as her fingers locked around the greasy item. Dread filled her
chest. whatever was on this paper wasn't going to be good news. Pulling her gaze from his concerned
one she saw the paper was a piece of a ledger. Inventory in, inventory out with the amount it sold for.
Nothing unusual in a shop, except for the names of the items.
"These are female names. Why?" She glanced up at him the feeling getting worse.
"My guess... this shop was used as a purchasing point for the white slave trade."
Ali frowned. She understood the concept behind slavery. She read the newspaper. It was the
very important in the American South, but here in England it wasn't important. She'd never given any
thought to owning another person. But weren't slaves usually of African descent?
"What is a white slave?"
Dermot scowled. "How sheltered are the women in London? Surely you've at least heard the
Ali shook her head. "White slavery is...they take women, preferably young, and sell them to anyone
willing to pay their price."
"What do they do with them?"
"Slavery. What does that imply? Anything their masters' decide. Usually it's sex, procreation..."
Her face went hot than all the blood drained. As she scanned the ledge her gaze stopped on the very
last name on the list. Bronwen. The world tilted. Her legs went weak. The last thing she remembered
seeing was the same masculine scrawl of Bronwen's name waiting to be sold.
Copyright Mae Pen 2013