The Ambiguous Enigma of the Hunted Lady – Emma Linfield

The August wind blew through London, forcing its way round corners and down cobbled corridors. Dark clouds filled the skies as the day came to an end, bowling into each other with gusto. From those twisting shapes came the irregular, forcible splatter of rain, crudely and absentmindedly discarded by the storm. The citizens of London, wise as they were to the August weather, took shelter in their homes, penny houses, workplaces, and hideaways. Taking advantage of the storm, the adventurous few remained against the gale ever ready to seize whatever wealth they could find. Leah Benson tried to hide the scar on her face. She adjusted her borrowed cap and lowered her head. The wind sliced through the thin gentleman’s coat she wore – drenched as it was – and chilled her to the bone. Her clothes were matted with sweat at the neck and on her collarbone; she crouched, panting, letting the torrent of water surge down around her in the alleyway. Too close, she bit her lip and staggered to stand against one of the dirty brick walls. The windowsills and garden boxes above her gave some shelter from the pelting rain, but not enough. I was far too careless. They nearly had me. In an abrupt instant – as it often seemed to happen – the storm gave way. A strange sense of quiet befell Leah as the pounding of raindrops on flagstones ceased, replaced only by the hard whistle of the wind and the dribble of gutter spouts.

Then her serenity was rudely interrupted. “Snatch her, boys!” Leah heard Nash’s slurred words coming around the corner, and she sprinted for the alley. Taunting screams and hollering came from behind her. The grubby pack of foxed pickpockets was made up of street urchins and ruffians belonging to her old crew. Leaping and bounding like wild dogs, they charged after her, waving looped belts and slick knives. She’d been found, despite her greatest efforts. The men gave chase as she weaved through the alleyways, ducking under clotheslines and hurtling over low fences. The stench of sewage and toxic waste in the air thickened as she drew near the river, but she didn’t much mind it. She had spent more than enough time in the bad parts of town to become acclimated to the stench of an urban industrial city. Leah tucked a lock of hair into her ragged cap and pushed over a wagon of rubble to divert her chasers.

The barrels bounced and bashed against the street, causing her pursuers to scramble. One went down howling over his toe, but the others pressed on, tossing only a few insults his way. Nash laughed when he jumped over the wreckage, avoiding the diversion with an ease that spoke to his years as a runner. As one of Riphook’s most trusted anglers, he held the loyalty of almost every thief in England, or at least, those that mattered. Nothing happened in the underground without Riphook hearing about it and having a say so. To act without Riphook’s permission was on a bad day a death sentence and on a good one a beating. The world of London crime was his to lord over, and he had become very efficient at doing so. As a child, Leah had been taught how to move quickly through the city. The key was to be smarter. In that jungle of side streets and courtyards, one had to know every route in order to survive.

Riphook had trained her to fight, thieve, and hide with the best of them. There was a time when they had been the only real family she’d ever known. Thick as thieves the saying went, and none knew it better than she. It was these criminals who had fed her, clothed her, and looked out for her. It was those same criminals that now chased her through the streets with knives and rotten teeth. Everyone knew Riphook was building an empire. He started by recruiting gypsies, then rogues and pickpockets, and eventually anyone who was looking to make a bit of coin, and didn’t mind a bit of dirt. Now it seemed every hired blade and sneak thief in town was in Riphook’s pocket, and that was the way he liked it. But Leah knew Riphook was afraid. He was a paranoid man who ruled with an iron fist, and the larger his power became the cagier he behaved.

Riphook was changing London. He was turning it into the town he wanted, not the one he had taken through lies, corruption, and violence. With that change came disappearances. It was a normal cycle, but at its height, it was pure madness. Beneath those brewing storms, Leah had resolved to leave the life behind. At least in London, at any rate. Things were becoming tense at all times; danger lurked beneath every overlooked overcoat. It had been three months since her friend Teller had disappeared. He was a fence – a damn good one too – but he did some side business outside of Riphook’s influence, working with sailors from the West Indies. Leah ran some of her high-end scores through Teller, rather than Riphook, largely because Teller scared her far less than the other.

For a time, this was all well enough. Riphook still got some money from Teller from the street rackets, and things seemed to progress unhindered. But then Riphook took over the Smithfield Market, and soon after, he wanted the ports. People started to go missing. At first only a few of Teller’s anglers and one of Riphook’s. Everyone knew what had happened to them. They even teased one another about who the murderers had been. Then one of Teller’s go-betweens was found dead in a lodging house, cut up bad. The war was as good as over. Leah had tried to calm Teller down, to convince him to pay Riphook whatever he wanted, and end the violence.

Teller hadn’t listened, and soon enough, he was missing as well. Leah knew it was time for her to leave. For the past two months, she had been preparing. She had found a captain willing to take her across the channel unregistered. His confidence came with a price and had left her with near to nothing in her purse. Realizing she would be as good as dead in France without money, and cursing herself for spending so much on bribery, Leah had set out in the storm. She had that afternoon to make one last score that would carry her to a new life. Leah had disguised herself as a man. It was easier this way, both for her safety and for maintaining a low profile. A woman on her own, out and about, now that was something to look at.

A slim man with his face tucked into his collar on the other hand, was not. It was not difficult to fool the rich folk of London; it was something that she practiced regularly. She set out to bilk an unsuspecting gent in a desperate attempt to leave the city; however, it was the scar that gave her away. It was a reminder of the past she ran from, but the fate she could never escape. No doubt they were looking to snag her to gain some proper loot; Riphook had put quite the bounty on her head. Leah faked a right turn and headed toward the event at the Assembly Rooms taking place down by King Street. She dodged a particularly nasty tackle as she changed course, sending a thug crashing into a cobbler with his covered cart. The man had no time to protest before the wave of hoodlums washed over him, hollering all the while. One of Nash’s men hurled something large at her, and she heard it crack across the brick wall beside her. Leah hit the ground and rolled to the right, beneath the wheels of a covered carriage, and sprang up on the other side.

“She’s over there!” Nash shouted, waving his hands wildly. “On her, boys! On her there!” Leah sprang forward and splashed through puddles of questionable liquid as she retreated into the shadows. It began to rain again, and the rhythmic pattering worked to drown out their screaming. “There!” “Get her, boys!” “We’ll have you drip dryin’ before the night’s out!” “Run on, doxy! Run on!” The men barked insults and threats as she picked up speed. Her heart thrummed in her chest as they whistled to the carriers posted at the inn to join the pursuit. The carriers left their post in a hurry, surging ahead of the four lagging thugs with their fresh legs. The carriers moved to cut her off at the turn while Nash and his minions came up behind her. I will be trapped here. Leah tripped over some bloke sleeping on the street while she glanced around hurriedly, scanning for some sort of escape. “Gotcha!” She felt a biting grip squeeze her arm suddenly.

She dropped low to throw her attacker off balance and used her momentum to trip him up with an arcing sweep of her leg. He hit the ground with a wet thud and an irritable grunt, the dirty water drenching him. She was free! The garden box. Leah took a running leap, springing off of a stoop, and grappled with the low-hanging garden box from the balcony above. With a grunt of effort, she hauled her body using abdominal strength in a brilliant arc above the carriers. She landed with a great splash beyond them, and before they could spin around, she was gone. “I said get ‘er, you fat-headed cloves!” Nash looked to be in a panic, gasping for air along with the rest of his men. To him, it likely seemed as if she were going to get away. He could not allow that to happen, and Leah knew it. Not only was she going to be his income, but also his reputation.

A failure like this was hard to come back from, in Riphook’s eyes. Leah let out a cheeky snicker and turned toward St. James’s Street. Riphook’s men wouldn’t openly attack her in front of the highborn members of society, lest someone recognize Nash and the gang. It was a delicate relationship. The city of London had no standardized police force. Instead, each neighborhood made up their own militias of night watchmen and constables. In the more comfortable parts of the city, blatant criminal action was forbidden. Among the wealthy citizens of London, it was a game of sneak thievery, of pick pocketry, and sly con men. This was in direct contrast with the majority of the city, where the poor lived overcrowded in the shadow of manufactories and markets and were directly affected by the criminal underground.

Among the poor, crime was an open expression of society, but there on St. James’s Street, crime was a horribly-hidden secret. It was a balance that Riphook had worked hard to attain. The framework had been there always, but it required a good deal of coin to bring it to fruition. One of the reasons Riphook was so successful was because he understood one simple thing: the rich folks didn’t care one way or another what happened across the river. As long as their shop fronts were clear and their gardens unmolested, they would pay no mind to the goings on a few blocks over. This truce was enforced with coin to the constables, and even, it was rumored, a judge or two. While Leah knew that the thugs chasing her would stop at nearly nothing, she also knew that they would not dare break the truce of St. James’s Street, or there would be high hell to pay. Leah smiled while she neared her destination; the high-fenced gardens of the nobility were coming into sight.

She could just imagine the fashionable ladies of London in their flowing gowns at the marriage mart, trying to run away from the pack of hooligans. What a sight that would be. Perhaps they needed a bit of excitement. While it was a fun thought, she knew she had to take a different route, and aimed to climb a wall into one of the private gardens. One could disappear for what seemed an eternity among those winding hedges, and that was what she meant to do. The rain at that moment ceased again, and the cold wind blew at her from the side. She headed towards an iron gate and jumped at the bars, hauling herself upwards. You’ve got to keep moving. The iron was slick, and the gate drenched from the rain; her hand slipped up when she reached the top, and she grunted out desperately as she plummeted awkwardly on the other side. She hit the ground clumsily, twisting her ankle on impact.

It was a lance of pain rocketing up her leg, but she had no time to think on it. “Bloody git!” Nash hissed from the other side of the bars. “Where do you think you’re goin’?” he began to climb the iron bars and signaled for his lackeys to swing around. Leah turned and dashed into the hedge rows. If she could make it across this garden, then she could take shelter from the goons in the bustle of St. James’s Square. There, she would finally be safe. The other men followed, careful to stay to the darkest parts of the streets. She cursed their parentage and made a mad dash towards St. James’s Square.

They were trying to cage her in, and it was working. She had to get clear before they got around her completely. “Them royals ain’t gon’ save you, little Leah,” Nash yelled from somewhere behind the hedge rows. “They’d rather watch you bleed out dry!” She had to remind herself that he was only half correct. The members of high society didn’t care whether her kind lived or died; however, their well-lit streets would keep Nash from killing her in the open. Her life meant nothing to them, but the sanctity of their streets was all important. Even if the storm had forced most people inside, the aristocratic businesses of the main stroll all boasted magnificent windows that looked out beneath the street lights. It was early in the day yet, and the shops would be full. Leah knew it was doubtful that the patronesses of the Assembly Rooms would allow her entry, but the closer she was to the crowds of aristocrats, the safer she’d be. Her disguise was shot to pieces from the chase, and she knew that masquerading as a gentleman would no longer work.

She caught sight of the final fence, and on the other side was an alleyway servicing St. James’s Square. That was her route. She pumped her legs faster than before, pushing the pain in her ankle aside, pumping fiery acid through her veins to close the distance. Nash was behind her. She could hear his heavy footfalls, his ragged gasping, and his mumbled curses. I am faster than him. Prove it! Leah vaulted over the fence, her ankle biting out in protest of her landing. To her right, she saw two thugs closing the distance, but to her left the way was clear. Nash grunted, jumping halfway up the fence, struggling to keep up with her.

She was free. “So long, sailor boy,” she grinned, winked at Nash, and dashed around the corner before the thugs could catch her. “I’ll ruddy kill you! Doxy! Cit!” Nash spat, ran his mouth, and watched her disappear. As Leah came soaring around the corner, a tall nobleman exited his carriage with a slight hop. The unusual movement for someone so well dressed threw Leah off balance, and she half expected him to turn and lay her out flat. He was finely dressed, as only the truly rich were, but his physique was not that of the far-too-scrawny, or far-too-heavy royal frame that she was used to seeing. He had broad shoulders that seemed they could carry the weight of the world. His face had the brief glimpse of curiosity, rather than anger, at her appearance, and Leah was thrown off guard. She nearly knocked the man over, colliding with one of his shoulders, but she regained her footing with a grunt. Pain shot again through her ankle, but she could not linger on it.

Leah pushed past him over the cobblestones as the rain started to come down again in its random spurts. As she limped away, she cursed herself. I could have had his pocket book. Kenneth Wilson, the Duke of Worthington, brushed away the impact mark on his greatcoat as the lad shoved past him. He was about to be received by his guest atop the stairs, in the entrance to the Assembly Rooms, but instead he had been run into by some lad in a hurry. Kenneth followed the runner with his eyes for a moment before turning his gaze back to the large nobleman atop the stairs. He raised his shoulders in a half-hearted gesture as if to say, “Well what was all that about?” His host, who had been appalled to see such an encounter, took Kenneth’s good nature as an indicator on how he should behave. “My,” the nobleman huffed. “in a hurry, isn’t he?” “It would seem.” Kenneth replied.

He checked his coat once more, and satisfied with its appearance, began to walk up the stairs towards his host. “Perhaps on account of this weather.” Kenneth gestured upwards to the turbulent sky with the handle of his cane. “Most likely,” his host grunted. “come in, come in, we were just discussing your bill – ” But he was cut short by the shouting of seven men, all in varying states of distress. They conglomerated just beyond Kenneth’s carriage, and pointed excitedly towards the lad that had run into him, limping down the street. “I say.” the Marquess huffed. “What is this?” “There she is!” Nash shouted. “Come on lads!” The pack tore after her like hounds on the hunt.

“Criminals!” the Marquess gasped. “Call the constables!”

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