shall we find a runner? I don’t happen to have one handy about my person.”
“There’s a tavern only a little way down the street. They’re sure to have someone who would do an errand for a shilling, and more who would stand over these men until the constable arrives.” James turned away, bored with the inert thieves.
“Fairly said. Shall we just leave them here in the meantime?”
“I don’t see why not. I’m certainly not carrying anyone about. And they all appear to be sleeping soundly.”
They went back up the alley towards the illumination of the streetlamps at a casual stroll, then walked the short distance to where the tavern’s light and sound spilled out onto the street.
They entered and James took in the rough atmosphere with a jaundiced eye. It was one of the establishments that sat on the fringes of wealthy London, catering to the vices of the rich and the cits and giving them a thrilling chance to rub shoulders with the hoi polloi of the working class and the more questionable elements of the city. His nostrils picked out the faint reek of opium and hashish above the tobacco smoke.
George captured the attention of a barmaid who wended her way through the crowd to their side, fending off grasping hands with deft slaps, her own hand as swift as a striking snake.
He explained the situation, pressing a coin into the palm that appeared expectantly. The blowsy woman bustled off to find assistance. A runner and two thickset men were dispatched, with more coins on one side, and respectful tipping of hats on the other.
Obligations thus discharged, George and James were about to leave the tavern when James heard a loud call of “Gentlemen!” from a raised dais at one end of the room, and turned.
The barkeep was standing there, next to the cloaked figure of a woman.
“Gentleman, I have for you here a special treat. You knows as I don’t like to interrupt the drinking and gaming. I don’t like to see the flow of money into me own pockets cease,” there were chuckles from the patrons at this sally, “but I simply cannot resist the urge to share with you this here delicious morsel.”
With that he reached out and quickly swept the hood back off the woman’s head, so that it fell on her shoulders. Her face was revealed to the room. There was an audible indrawn breath from multiple throats.
Such a sweet, pretty face. No. Beautiful was a better word. With large eyes and delicately arched brows over fragile cheekbones, a rosebud mouth and a strong, determined jaw. Her shining golden hair, unfashionably long, was caught up at the back of her head in a simple knot then fell from there to lie in waves and loose curls about her shoulders, tousled from the hood enough to look like she had just risen from her bed.
The crowd fell silent, waiting for the bartender’s next words.
“Now, sadly, I cannot share her with all of you. It breaks my fragile heart, but this tender little darling is looking for just one man. One man with the purse,” he rubbed his fingers together meaningfully, “and the cock,” he clutched his own and there was a quick, lewd cheer, “to give her one hell of a virgin night!” This time the gleeful yell came from many throats, and there was a general surge towards the dais.
“Yes, my lads. We have here a sweet, untouched little virgin. Pretty as they come. She has descended to us from Nob hill, put her delicate little feet in our gutter, and is looking for a real man to match her real woman.”
With a swift flick of his fingers he opened the clasp at the woman’s throat, grabbed the edge of the neckline and pulled the cloak completely away from her body. He flung it aside theatrically.
From head to toe she stood revealed in a white dress. The décolletage was low, showcasing her lush breasts pushed high by the bodice. Sleekly the gown followed the graceful line of her body, artfully draped to sweep in to her tiny waist before blossoming into a more generous width of