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The lone figure of a woman stood in the shadows. She leaned against the wall of a crumbling lodging house, her shoulders hunched as if she were ill. Derek Craven's hard green eyes flickered over her as he came from the back-alley gaming hell. Such a sight wasn't unusual in the streets of London, especially in the rookery, where human suffering was visible in all its variety. Here, a short but significant distance from the splendor of St. James, the buildings were a crumbling mass of filth. The area was crawling with beggars, prostitutes, swindlers, thieves. His kind of people.
No decent female would be found here, especially after dusk. But if she was a whore, she was dressed strangely for it. Her gray cloak parted in the front to reveal a high-necked gown made of dark cloth. The lock of hair that strayed from beneath her hood was an indistinct brown. It was possible she was waiting for an errant husband, or perhaps she was a shopgirl who had lost her way.
People glanced furtively at the woman, but they passed her without breaking pace. If she remained here much longer, there was no doubt she would be raped or robbed, even beaten and left for dead. The gentlemanly thing to do would be to go to her, inquire about her well-being, express concern for her safety.
But he was no gentleman. Derek turned away, striding along the broken pavement. He had grown up in the streetsborn in the gutter, nursed through infancy by a group of ragged prostitutes, and educated in his youth by criminals of every kind. He was familiar with the schemes used to prey upon the unwary, the few efficient moments it took to rob a man and crush histhroat. Women were frequently used in such plots as bait or lookouts, or even assailants. A soft feminine hand could do a great deal of damage when it was wrapped around an iron cudgel, or when it clutched a stocking weighted with a pound or two of shot.
Gradually Derek became aware of footsteps close behind him. Something about them caused a warning prickle along his spine. Two sets of heavy footsteps, belonging to men. Deliberately he changed his pace, and they adjusted to match. They were following him. Perhaps they had been sent by his rival Ivo Jenner to cause mischief. Swearing silently, Derek began to round a comer.
As he expected, they made their move. Swiftly he turned and ducked beneath the drive of a clenched fist. Relying on instinct and years of experience, he shifted his weight to one leg and lashed out with his booted foot, striking a blow to the assailant's stomach. The man gave a muffled gasp of surprise and staggered back. Whipping around, Derek lunged for the second man, but it was too late . . . He felt the thud of a metal object on his back and a blinding impact on his head. Stunned, he fell heavily to the ground. The two men crawled over his twitching body.
"Do it quick," one of them said, his voice muffled. Struggling, Derek felt his head pushed back. He struck out with a clenched fist, but his arm was pinned to the ground. There was a slash across his face, a dull roar in his ears, hot wetness flowing in his eyes and mouth . . . his own blood. He sputtered a groaning protest, writhing to free himself from the searing pain. It was happening too quickly. He couldn't stop them. He had always been afraid of death, for somehow he had known it would come like this, not in peace, but in pain and violence and darkness.
Sara stopped to read through the information she had gathered so far. Peering through her spectacles, she puzzled over the new cant words she had heard that night. The language of the street changed quickly from year to year, an evolving process that fascinated her. Leaning against a wall for privacy, she pored over the notes she had made and scribbled a few corrections with her pencil. The gamblers had referred to playing cards as "flats" and had cautioned each other to watch out for the "crushers," which was perhaps intended to describe policemen. One thing she hadn't figured out yet was the difference between "rampsmen" and "dragsmen," both words used to refer to street thieves. Well, she would have to find out . . . it was imperative that she use the correct terms. Her first two novels, Mathilda and The Beggar, had both been praised for their attention to detail. She would not want her third, as yet untitled, to be faulted for inaccuracies.
She wondered if the men coming and going from the gambling hell would be able to answer her questions. Most of them were quite disreputable, with unshaven faces and poor hygiene. Perhaps it would be unwise to ask them anythingthey might not welcome an interruption in their evening revels. On the other hand, she needed to talk to them for the sake of her book. And Sara was always careful not to judge people by outward appearances.
Suddenly she was aware of a disturbance near the corner. She tried to see what was happening, but the street was shrouded in darkness. After folding the sheaf of paper she had stitched together to form a little book, she slipped it into her handbag and ventured forth curiously. A torrent of crude words brought color to her cheeks. No one used such language in Greenwood Corners except old Mr. Dawson, when he drank too much spiced punch at the annual town Christmas festival.
There were three figures engaged in a struggle. It appeared that two men were holding a third on the ground and beating him. She heard the sounds of fists pounding on flesh. Frowning uncertainly, Sara clutched her reticule as she watched. Her heart began to pound like a rabbit's.