Seducing a Stranger – Kerrigan Byrne

The devil’s breath was a persistent cold prickle on Cutter Morley’s neck. He’d awoken with a start in the wee hours of the morning, propped up against the doorway to St. Dismas where he’d taken refuge. Vicar Applewhite had fallen ill, and so the rectory was locked against vagrants today. More’s the pity. He’d not been able to scrape together enough money to afford a flea-bitten room for the night, but the fact that his twin, Caroline, hadn’t met him in the abbey courtyard meant she’d found a roof to sleep beneath. Or a protector willing to allow her into the warmth of his bed for a pound of flesh. She wasn’t a prostitute. Never that. She was just… desperate. They both were. But not for long. He’d a plan—one he’d implement just as soon as he was old enough, or rather, as soon as he looked old enough. He was so close. Just one or two more winters.

One or two more inches. No one was right sure of their ages… maybe thirteen or fifteen. Probably not older, but his recollection of the first handful of years was cagey so he couldn’t be sure. They’d no papers. The slick of oily disquiet Caroline’s new sometimes profession wrought within him was a mild hum compared to the symphony of peril and impending doom sawing at his nerves. It haunted him as he set off from Spitalfields to Shoreditch, increasing with every step until he lifted his grimy hand to swat at the itch and smooth the hair at his hackles back against his neck. He had a hard-enough time staying warm with only the moth-eaten jacket he’d filched from a rubbish heap, but something about this day frosted the marrow in his bones. He thought to lose the disquieting demon in the Chinese tent city, hoping it could be distracted by inhabitants of the cloyingly fragrant opium dens just as easily as he was drawn by the sizzles and aromas of food cooked in the out-of-doors. His gut twisted with longing, but he found no opportunity to filch a breakfast. People were extra wary today.

Perhaps they, too, felt whatever portent hung in the air. He wandered through throngs of peculiar and elegant Jews, his ear cocked to the lyrical Crimean accents of those escaping the violence in Russia, Prussia or the Ukraine. He thought their industrious bustle would perhaps chase away this unfathomable sense of bereavement. But alas, he made it all the way down Leman Street with the healthy sense that calamity watched him from the shadows of the palsied, rotten buildings, waiting to strike. It wasn’t a matter of if, but when. Or… no… perhaps it had already happened. The thing. The terrible thing. And the world held its breath waiting to suffer some awful consequence. Turning down Common Doss Street, he loped up to number three, a ramshackle place mortared with more mold than grout.

Mrs. Jane Blackwell land-lorded over the only seven rooms free from vermin. At least, vermin other than that of the human variety. In Whitechapel, vermin were as inescapable as the toxic yellow fogs belched up by the Thames and thickened with soot from the refineries. Cutter didn’t need an invitation to shoulder into the doorway of the Blackwell common house, he’d been doing it since he was a lad. The sharp smell of lye cut through the noise and stench wafting from men and women of dubious nocturnal vocations who had already begun drinking beer for the day at half noon. It drew him to the back of the house where a square of garden was connected by several alleys cobbled with grime. Clad in a dark frock and a soiled apron, Mrs. Blackwell stirred laundry over a boiling pot. “More discarded bastards in these sheets than in all of Notting Hill,” she muttered with a grimace.

“I’m charging Forest extra if he’s going to wank all over me linens, bloody pervert.” She glanced up when Cutter ambled over, her marble-black eyes crinkling with a good-humor quite lacking round these parts. In a place where most humans were anything but humane, where corruption was the only legitimate business and vice the only escape, Jane Blackwell was a warm, if rough-handed oasis of compassion. Cutter would have given his right eye for a mum like her, or any mother really. She was a crass and vulgar woman, but he knew nothing else. She’d inherited these rooms from her father back before the pernicious poverty had taken over Whitechapel so completely, and an addiction to gin rounded out her inheritance. Or rather, drained it. On top of her rents, she could charge tuppence a week more for her laundry services, and when she was of a mind to be dry, the money kept her and her son, Dorian, in luxuries like meat, cheese, and sometimes milk. No wonder the lucky bugger was so tall and broad when they’d only dipped their toes into their teen years. So long as Mrs.

Blackwell kept her broken teeth—courtesy of Dorian’s missing father— behind her lips, she was still a handsome woman. Her night-hued hair remained free of grey, and curled from beneath her cap in the steam of her laundry. She’d clutched Cutter to her breasts from time to time in a fit of sodden sadness or effervescent good spirits, and he’d be lying if he said he didn’t enjoy it. He enjoyed it twice when he got to rib Dorian about it until his best mate blushed and boxed him one. “I’m going to marry your mum,” he’d taunt before dancing away. “Then I’ll raise ya proper.” “Sod off,” Dorian would reply irritably. “Don’t worry, I won’t make you call me Da.” “I’ll call you worse than that, you poxy cock.” At the thought of future scuffs, Cutter directed a half-grin at her, the one he knew made his cheek dimple, and he hefted what little sparkle he had left into his eyes.

It was the first time he’d felt close to warm all day. “Hullo,” he greeted. “Did Caroline breakfast here?” “I ain’t seen her, Cutter,” Jane greeted with a noticeable slur and a lack of any T’s whatsoever. He reached for the back of his neck and rubbed once again, even though little needles of gooseflesh stabbed at every inch of his skin by now. “Dorian about?” he asked. “In the kitchen fleecing doxies out of their hard-won earnings wif his dice last I checked.” She swiped at her forehead with the back of her wrist and wrinkled her nose at him. “I’ve a mind to boil your wee arse in my pot next, ya noxious goblin. I can smell you from here.” Cutter’s testing sniff of his own person was interrupted by a strong arm around his neck as he was pulled in for a grapple choke that might have resembled a boisterous hug if one was feeling generous.

“Oi! I think you smell awright.” Dorian’s voice seemed to deepen by the day, though Cutter’s had changed over a year ago, much to Blackwell’s competitive consternation. “I’ve heard there’s a dead body or some such washed up at Hangman’s Dock.” His mate’s dark eyes gleamed with a greedy sort of mischief. “Wot say we go and work the crowd?” Working the crowd was their language for relieving the distracted onlookers of their watches, coin, and pocketbooks. “Maybe later.” Cutter rubbed at his chest as the dread that had dogged at him now bared its teeth and struck, wrenching at his heart with an icy pain. Pain meant weakness. And one never showed weakness here, not even in the presence of those he knew the best. He always covered his pain with humor if not indifference.

“Your mum just offered to bathe me.” Cutter waggled suggestive brows and summoned a cheeky smile from lord-knew-where. “Now toddle off, son.” A hot rag hit him square in the face, eliciting a very unmanly squeak of surprise. “Wash your face, you little deviant, and then both of you make yourselves scarce, I’ve work to do!” Jane’s bellow was softened with a wink, and Cutter gave himself a halfhearted scrub before he tossed the soiled rag back to the laundry pile and threw Jane another smile. This she returned with a curse and a shake of her head. He’d felt this strange sort of veneration for her since the first time Dorian had brought him and Caroline around. She’d allowed them to curl up in the kitchens and sleep like dogs by the stove in the winter and eat whatever crusts they’d helped clean from the tables. The next morning she’d sent them to Wapping High Street with strong warm tea in their bellies and a few pointers on how to beg. “You’re two golden-haired angels, inn’t ya?” She’d tugged their noses fondly.

“You’ll empty more pockets than a naughty peep show, eyes that big and blue. ’Specially you, darlin’.” She’d pinched at shy Caroline’s pale cheeks and tugged at her golden ringlets. And so they had. For years, Cutter and Caroline worked the streets of London, his sister drawing upon the kindness of those who would stop to offer a coin, while he learned to divest them of the rest with a pick of the pocket and a nimble getaway. Sometimes they’d be caught, and Cutter would take the beating meant for them both. Those were often their most profitable weeks, as he could use the pitiable bruises and abrasions to solicit more charity. This kept them fed until they’d passed their first decade and were no longer young and wretched enough to pity. People began to solicit them rather than offer them kindness, and eventually Cutter learned to answer the beatings he received with violence of his own. Because he lacked the brawn of other boys, he relied on reflexes more advanced than most, and he’d mastered a slingshot as well as his sleight of hand, earning him the moniker, “Deadeye.

” It was that name the streetwalkers of Whitechapel squawked as he tumbled into the common room with Dorian, loping toward the front entrance. “Bugger me at both ends, you ladies ever seen an angel and a devil so ‘andsome?” A girl they ironically called “Dark Sally,” jabbed at one of her friends, who gathered at the long-planked table nursing sharp beer and waiting for darkness so they might ply their trade. Cutter knew instantly he was the angel, as Dorian’s wealth of shiny, black hair and sharp, satirical features made the comparison bloody obvious. “I don’t see no ladies here.” The older plump prostitute named Bess gave an overloud bark of laughter before peering over at the boys. “I’ve swived plenty of devils in my day, but I’d bonk an angel with pretty eyes like that for free.” She reached out an almost masculine hand to Cutter. “Come over here, darling, and let’s see what you’re packing.” Cutter didn’t raise his eyes from the floorboards as his cheeks burned. “Any you seen Caro?” “Look! Someone who still blushes in this shitehole,” crowed yet another woman.

“I’ll bet you a pence he’s a virgin.” “Caroline, you seen her or not?” he asked again. Bosoms bounced as shrugs passed around the table, though it was Dark Sally who spoke. “She took up with an old watchmaker last I heard.” She turned to Bess. “Remember the one, had an orange to share and it weren’t even Christmas.” “I’d do right sick things for an orange,” muttered a girl he didn’t recognize. “Little bitch swiped him up before anyone got the chance at him.” “Careful, you,” Bess threw a soiled handkerchief across the table. “That little bitch is his sister.

” “I like virgins,” sighed a thin, waspish woman around her sip of beer. “They ‘aven’t learnt to be cruel yet, and it’s over quick enough. Right grateful they are.” She sized Cutter up with a look that made him squirm. “At that age, they’ll pay you for another go in five minutes!” said Bess. “And, what they lack in skill they make up for in eagerness,” added another. Dark Sally’s eyes turned from kind to malevolent as she speared the boys with a hatred they weren’t yet old enough to understand or to have earned. “Don’t no man ‘round here bother with skill,” she sneered. “They’ll grow to be no different.” A roar of laughter followed the lads out into the yard as they escaped the loud and bawdy women only to be swallowed by the crowded din of the streets.

A bitter autumn wind reached icy fingers through their threadbare clothes, and Cutter snapped the collar of his jacket higher, though it did little good. He rubbed at the back of his neck, and again at the empty ache in his chest. Something was fucking wrong. Off. Missing. “Fleas at you again?” Dorian ribbed. “No, I just…” Cutter could think of nothing to describe what he was experiencing. “I’m cold is all.” “Where’s the coat you got from the Ladies’ Aid Society this spring?” Dorian asked, shoving his hands into his pockets. “That jacket you’ve on wouldn’t warm a fleeced sheep.

” “The sleeves barely came past me elbows anymore,” he answered, giving his newly elongated limbs a wry stretch. “Besides, Caroline’s was swiped from a doss house while back, so I gave it her.” Dorian nodded. A tepid humiliation lodged next to the demon dogging Cutter, and he glanced over at Dorian to suss his friend’s thoughts. “Caro’s not like them whores in there,” he rushed to explain. “She’s just…well she won’t let me spend me rifleman money on a room while it’s still above freezing, so she does what she’s got to.” “I know.” Dorian gave a sober nod, his shoulders hunching forward a little more. “She wants out as bad as we do.” “Maybe worse.

” “We’ve almost enough, Cutter.” A thread of steel hardened his friend’s voice and worked at his jaw as he looked so far ahead, he might squint into the future. “I bet our haul today will cover at least one of us.” “But we go together,” Cutter reiterated. “Together,” Dorian nodded, and they knocked their forearms. A few months past, Cutter had hatched a scheme on the day the royals had paraded through High Street to celebrate the betrothal of a princess. Dazzled by the accompanying regimentals in their crimson coats and rifles, he’d decided that in the space of a year, he and Dorian would be tall enough to lie about their ages and join Her Majesty’s Army whereupon they’d be paid a penny a day. Enough to keep Caroline in rooms, and even send her to the regimental school. Enough to get medicine for Jane Blackwell’s deteriorating health. Enough to buy a future that didn’t end in an early grave or worse, prison.

But that took papers…documents of birth they didn’t have, and forging papers took money. So, they all kept whatever savings they could scrimp together in a tin hidden in Dorian’s wall, waiting for the day they’d have enough. “All’s we have to do is evade the coppers until then.” Dorian shoved his chin toward a pair on their beat, cudgels already out though there was no disturbance. “They’ll give you nickel in Newgate for just about anything these days.” “You’ll still marry her, won’t you?” Cutter’s soft question was almost lost to the din. “Even after the watchmaker. Even after—” A rough punch landed on his shoulder. “’Course I will, you toad. Caro’s me first kiss and everything, and…we all gotta do what needs doing to survive.

” Dorian less than some, Cutter didn’t say. Because it wasn’t his fault he had a mum, a roof over his head, or at least one or two guaranteed meals a day. Besides, Dorian and Mrs. Blackwell were generous whenever they could be. “Maybe, if I’m going to marry Caroline, Mum would let her sleep in my corner with me.” Cutter’s head snapped up as he speared Dorian with a glare. “Not like that.” Dorian lifted his hands in a defensive gesture. “I won’t touch her or nothing. Just… so she wouldn’t have to sleep somewhere else.

With…anyone else.” Cutter had to swallow around a thickening throat before he could reply. “You would do that?” “’Course. We’re family.” Dorian shrugged him off. “I’d ask for you both if Mum didn’t rent out every inch of space we own at a premium.” “It’s all right. I can fend for meself.” They skipped, dodged, and slithered through the masses toward the docks, answering the calls of the other street lads, most of whom either feared or venerated them. Dorian, because he was strong as a cart horse with a punishing temper to match, and Cutter because of his aforementioned dead eyed aim and his sharp fists.

Cutter threw them convivial retorts out of habit alone. For some reason, the worse he felt the more stalwart he was at maintaining a pretense of normality. If anyone knew you were down, they’d kick you for it. So he did his best to conceal the devil of dread riding him today. They arrived at Hangman’s Dock the same time the coroner’s cart did, so they had to act quickly before the police scattered the crowd. “Look,” Cutter pointed above. “There’s a landlord charging a fee to get a glimpse from his fire escape. I’ll wager there’s at least a handful of shillings in that box.” “He’s our mark.” Dorian made a quick assessment of the buildings and boathouses above the river.

“Think you can climb that drainpipe there, and get to the roof above him? I’ll create a diversion and lead them away while you swipe what you can from the box.” “I’ll swipe the whole bloody box, see if I don’t.” Cutter nodded and spit in his hands before raking them through the dry bank silt and rubbing them together. They’d just have to get to the other side of the crowd and then, he’d grasp the drainpipe, shimmy hand over hand until he’d scaled the two stories, and scoot onto the roof poised to drop into the spot the blighter would abandon once he tore off after Dorian. This was one of his favorite ruses. Cutter didn’t care about the corpse. Hell, he’d seen his fill of death after the last typhus epidemic raged through the East End, what was one bloated river find? Boring, was what.


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