* * * * *
She still had her arms and legs wrapped around Daron, unwilling to let him go. Yes it was cold, and yes, the damned roof was uncomfortable, but she felt too good to care. Especially when he was blowing air across the edges of her ear and chuckling with that sexy voice of his.
“You are mine now, yes ashavi?” It wasn’t a question really, but the tone was less proprietary than the last time he’d said something similar. Give the man points for learning.
“After that? You still doubt? Tsk tsk…do we need to have another go just to make sure you understand?” She was joking, but when he gave her that smirk and began sucking on the sensitive spot right under her ear, one hand plucking softly at her tender nipples, she whimpered a bit in surrender.
“What am I supposed to call you then, huh? Are you ashavi to me?”
He chuckled again and even if he was soft inside of her, she could feel that laugh in every inch of her body. “Ashava. I am your ashava. Your friend, your companion and your mate.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Well, ashava mine, if you are my fated mate, why don’t I remember a wedding ceremony then, eh?”
He smiled and she sucked in a quick breath at how handsome he looked in that moment, the soft swirls of residual energy from their fused passion rippling within his eyes. “I think perhaps we can think of something, yes?” He descended for a kiss and she was lost in the skillful thrust of his tongue and the texture of his lower lip between her teeth. That’s why she didn’t immediately notice the clatter of the trapdoor to the roof being thrown open.
“West! Where are you! Something’s happened to June and Hester!” footsteps clomped forward a few feet before halting abruptly. Frozen in mortification, Sophia figured their naked bodies must shine like some kind of beacon on the dark surface of the roof.
“Jeepers creepers!” Alan squeaked before spinning around.
Sophia laughed. What else could she do? Only Alan could sound like a shocked fourteen year old girl in such a situation. It was curiously charming. She even felt Daron’s low chuckles as he pulled himself away from her, gallantly retrieving her coat from the pile of scattered clothes and covering her before searching for anything for himself. She was struck again how ridiculously lucky she was to have such a man want her as much as she wanted him.
She scrambled up from the ground, her body aching in wonderful ways, the skin of her knees and her back scratched from the unforgiving roof tiles. It had been worth it though. She felt as though she could run from here to Coney Island or win that dance marathon at the Savoy next weekend. She pulled on her bloomers, her camisole, the prim blouse and skirt with a slightly dazed happiness, before she finally woke up to the frantic undertones that Alan and Daron were talking in.
“What’s happened?” she asked, watching the dark undertones of worry bleed from Alan to Daron and back again. Daron took her hand and squeezed it for a moment before walking purposefully toward the trapdoor. She turned to face Alan, hands on her hips. This had better be good.
Alan looked down at her bare feet, rather than at her face. He was still a bit red from embarrassment, but the kind of situation that normally would have shut him up like a clam seemed to play second fiddle to whatever bee had stung him hard enough to get him up on the roof in the first pace. He took a deep breath, “I had come up to Harlem to visit June and Hester.” He paused half a moment, and when he’d received no wry taunt went on to the rest of it, “I went to knock on their door, only, the door wasn’t completely shut. I knocked anyway and opened it wider, only to see an empty room. They weren’t there, either of them. I thought June might still be working, and Hester was being looked after by Missus Garcia or somebody else in the building. Maybe she’d just forgotten to lock up…but there was a chair overturned, and all the jars in the pantry were dumped out on the floor. And, I just have a bad feeling about the whole thing, that’s all.”
Sophia’s stomach dropped. She’d been so close to June’s place, passing by the fifth floor on the way up to Daron, she’d even thought to stop by and say hello, trying to delay the inevitable confrontation that she thought was coming. For all the joy that she’d felt just a moment ago, now there was a nagging sense of guilt. If her Gift wasn’t capable of alerting her to foul play involving those she cared about, it was because of her own self-centered needs, not any limitations she knew of.
She raced after Daron, climbing down the ladder with foolhardy speed, slipping a few rungs and cursing as she almost blistered her hands. Alan came down after her and stooped to pick up her ancient clogs, smiling through his anxiety. “Hee, if I wasn’t so god damn worried, I’d be able to come up with a suitably witty comment on how low you have fallen in your choice of footwear, but I find I don’t really give a futz about it.”
Together they took the stairs fast, clattering into the apartment at the same time. Daron crouched on the floor, staring at mingled remains of coffee grounds and flour and spilled black beans.
“There were three of them.” Daron looked like a bird of prey, examining with trampled tracks like the keenest of hunters. His cool detachment didn’t fool Sophia for a moment. She could see the sharp flare of his anger and feel the echo of his remorse in her gut. He stood, walking to the chair that had been flipped over in the middle of the floor. June was fastidious and the coarse fibers hanging from the arms of the chair were not something she would have tolerated in her household. Daron ripped one away, holding it up to the light of the weak bulb overhead. “Rope fiber. Somebody was tied to the chair. Likely June, tied and gagged to wait for Hester to come up from Ixchel’s. Muladi bavel!” He swore and surged to his feet, pacing across the floor. His chest was bare, revealed by his unbuttoned shirt and his feet were as bare as hers. He radiated barely controlled power than seethed beneath the surface, waiting to be tapped into some kind of action.
She spoke, putting into words the inevitable conclusion and the companion question. “Somebody or somebodies took them, against their will. Who would take them and why?”
Alan butted in, his passion overwhelming attempts to reason out a course of actions, “Where the hell are they? Shouldn’t we call the cops or something! Why don’t we go after them!” He hovered near the door, as though not wanting to face the truth scattered across the floor.
Daron looked up at her, those green eyes clear as crystal. “I do not know all that haunted June from her past, only that it was a threat that kept her awake many a night. She had run many times to escape it and has often said in the last few months that she had stayed here too long.”
It was not really important. They were missing and no policeman was going to bother themselves coming up to Italian Harlem to look for a couple of missing persons based on an overturned chair and spilled coffee. Sophia had to try something else, something she was not certain she would be able to do in a city as crowded as New York. She stepped in front of Daron, stopping his pacing and taking his hand in hers, feeling the ensnared power there.
She stroked his palm with her thumb, “Will you give me this? I will need everything to try to search.”
He gave her a rueful smile, “You still need to ask me to give you anything? It is already yours, ashavi. Take all that you need.”
Alan cleared his throat, “Sorry to butt in to this fascinating conversation, but what the seven hells are you jabbering about! We’ve got to do something!”
* * * * *
The last time Sophia had sat on the floor of this room she’d felt the undeniable pull of love. She hadn’t wanted to recognize that the bright searing bond she shared with Daron as love. She hadn’t wanted to acknowledge the feelings she had had, an almost painful fulfillment, as though her heart would burst if she let herself bask in the potential for bliss for too long.
She hadn’t known what to make of it. She’d never seen such a bright connection. Heck, she’d never seen more than a ghostly wisp of the connections she now saw in vivid detail, ever since she joined her powers to his.
Now they sat on the cold floor, legs folded in front of them, bare feet just touching toe to toe. She held his hands in hers and she breathed slowly, trying to clear her mind as he had told her to do. Instead, she watched him through hooded eyes. Daron had practiced this kind of deep relaxation in the past, he had said. His father had trained him to understand his powers from a young age, apparently more thoroughly and completely than Grams had ever been able to teach her. Magic was something to keep hush about, something just a bit frightening. Sophia had finally left home after one of her mother’s blistering diatribes against witchcraft. Elinor Hunter had wanted to try and forget Grams ever existed and would try anything to drive the Gift out of Sophia if she could.
For Daron, magic was his birthright. Sophia wanted to give their children that. Daron’s face relaxed completely, losing the edges of tension and becoming almost the face of a boy.
This must be how he looks when he’s asleep. But he was most definitely not asleep. Her hands grew warm as pure power flowed from him and into her, sharpening her vision, filling her with energy. Not that she needed much more. She was already filled almost to the brim with power from their lovemaking and her body was still not completely certain that it would not resume their passion as soon as possible. Her mind though was torn up with worry and guilt and energy swirled around her, diving in and out of her skin, making her sweat from the heat of containing so much undirected force.
Sophia tried to push down her own sense of panic and fear and clung to Daron’s solid determination, only she wasn’t entirely certain which emotion was whose or whether it really mattered. There was a scared little girl and a terrified woman somewhere out in New York and they had to be found before they were snuffed out like candles.
Daron’s presence next to her was unyielding, an anchor for the journey she was about to attempt. The last time she had done this, she was still a girl, fresh and full of her talents as she searched through a dark forest for a lost little boy on a stormy night. The Younge’s never forgot that she’d found their little Robbie, and she had had homemade toffee every Christmas after that, till she left for New York.
But it was easier to track a soul through the wind and rain and the stern presence of birch trees than through the throngs of New York. Still, she had to try.
She tried to bring up the flavor of Hester; the quiet, joyful innocence that threaded throughout her essence. The strong, resilient gold of June, facing her battles and winning. She would win this one too. Sophia would use every drop of her abilities to see that it was so.
She found the incandescent bond that stretched between she and Daron. Flowing her awareness into him was easy, but both comfortable and disconcerting all at the same time. The dregs of their arousal called to each other, remembering the interrupted tryst. She tasted him again on her lips but tried to force her mind back to her task and away from the drugging memory of the feel of his hard thighs under her hands, the shape of his ass and the sounds of his pleasure in her ears as he emptied himself into her.
But those memories did help to overcome her tension and with relaxation came the opening of her vision to the countless other bonds her ashava felt. There was a strong bond, colored in a shade of the strong copper of her lover, extending far, far away. She was sure that was his sister, whom she knew he missed more than anything else from his old way of life. It was amazing how much they had both talked on that long carriage ride, and how much there was still to learn. There were bonds to all the people he’d befriended in the city, the people in his building, people he knew on the street. It was remarkable how many lives he had touched, and who he had been touched by. She wondered if she herself had affected half so many lives, though she’d been in New York more than twice as long. Sorting through them all, she found two linked tightly together that were clearly mirrors of June and little Hester.
Taking a deep breath and trying to forget the hardness of concrete floor, the flickering light of the streetlamps outside the window and her own fear, she pulled herself along the glowing bonds, following in her mind’s eye out the window and down the street. Other bonds, weaving the City of New York together as one coherent whole became almost impenetrable. It was a mass of light, of feeling and emotion that she never would have suspected in the cold cruel world of the city. It was ironic that bonds of connection, of love and affection, should end up impeding her search for those who needed help so desperately!
She heard a grunt of frustration and the sound pulled her back to her own body. It wasn’t Daron who had made the noise though. He was as lost in trance as she should be, giving all of his abilities to her for the search. Alan had made the sound, in his impatient frustration to be of some use and in having to trust something his scientific training said was impossible.
She should be angry and tell him to shut up and let her work, but when she turned to face him, he held the answer that she’d been searching for.
Alan, sweet, amiable and all around quirky guy, had a bond that glowed brightly enough that it seemed impossible that she had never noticed it before. How had it come to be? When? Had she truly been so low in the last few weeks that she hadn’t bothered much at all about the people closest to her?
But the bond was there and it was undeniable. Alan’s face was intense, desperation evident in his eyes as they flickered back and forth between her and Daron. Sophia knew what she should do, but couldn’t help second guessing herself. It was Daron who grunted in exasperation, letting go of one of her hands and with his eyes still half closed in concentration gripped Alan’s forearm none too gently and pulled him in an awkward heap to the floor.
Sophia took Alan’s hand, preventing him from lashing out in confused fury at Daron. “Help me Alan. Help us find them?”
Alan furrowed his brow but left his hand in hers, muttering under his breath when Daron gripped his other hand. “What could I do? I don’t know anything about magic? I’m only half-believing this mumbo jumbo will do a lick of good because I don’t have any other options!”
Daron snorted, “Being silent as possible would certainly help.”
Sophia repressed a laugh. Perhaps they were too closely linked – Daron was starting to sound more and more like she did. “Alan, honey, just try and relax. Think about June and Hester being safe. Imagine that they are close to you. Almost like, if you call, they’d come.”
Daron opened his eyes fully and smiled at her. She felt his admiration, his pride in her simple instructions. She had simply trusted her instincts, but the words felt right. This time, when she closed her eyes, it was a simple matter to ride on a ribbon of white light that streamed from Alan’s heart out into the ether. His love for June was remarkably strong and she was happy for her friend. But when she felt the bond with Hester, the true affection he felt for the little girl, she was proud to know such a man. Alan would be a marvelous father. But first she had to find the girl and her mother.
Whatever had happened to them, it had happened less than an hour ago. They’d been taken to the opposite side of the island, she was sure of it. The bonds strung out past Harlem, and arched over Central Park, down toward Midtown. She had a firm grasp on it, as though it was a tangible thing she could hold in her hands. But she had to get closer before she could pinpoint exactly where they’d been taken.
Her eyes snapped open. “Alan, did you take the subway, or did you bring that damn car?”
* * * * *
If Sophia had thought Alan drove Ol’ Nellie a bit too fast the few times she’d ridden with him in the past, she had been completely wrong. That had been a snail’s pace compared to the race they were running at the moment, the engine whirring and rubber burning as they lurched around turns. She was certain that Daron must have lost circulation to his leg, she was clutching on to his thigh so hard. Wedged between Alan and Daron in the front seat, she was thrown back and forth. Daron’s arm around her shoulders was the only thing keeping her steady and losing the meager contents of her stomach.
Her eyes were clenched shut and she tried her best to avoid thinking about the hard turns and sickening speed. She had to hold fast in her mind to the trail only she could see to follow and gave terse directions to a frantic Alan at the wheel.
The city spun past her in ghostly transparency, highlighted not by buildings, landmarks and streetlights, but by people and the relationship between them. The threads that stretched out over the city formed a giant living tapestry and Sophia was trying to weave her way between the warp and weft to follow two single strands among the multitude.
The density of people became much greater as the entered the blocks of warehouses and tenement slums known as Hell’s Kitchen. Daron tensed beside her, aware of the danger of entering the heart of gang violence in the middle of the night without a weapon to speak of.
“Ah, well, she was a nice car while I had her,” Alan sighed. If he hadn’t still been driving, Sophia would have kicked him. But as they veered down 10th Avenue and passed deeper and deeper into some of the worse slums of New York, Sophia found she could barely call up the energy to breathe. She held on to the bond she followed only with sheer will, gritting her teeth against the darkness pressing in all around her. She wanted to cry and scream, rant and wail all the things people were too damn tired to bother with. She didn’t want to think about all the possible horrors that could happen to a woman that looked like June, much less the sweet little girl that shared her remarkable beauty.
When they got to 39th Street, the trail grew crystal clear and icy hot, like holding a broken icicle in her bare hands. She sucked in a breath through her teeth. “I don’t give a damn about Ol’ Nellie, Alan, but you’d better find somewhere to park her. Whoever took June and Hester, they are holed up in that alley right there. And something about it seems really really nasty.”
She shrieked as Alan swung the car over, stopping on a dime and leaving the scent of burning rubber in the air. Daron grumbled, before popping out of the car door, dragging her with him into the shadow of a nearby doorwell. Alan seemed to have learned something from all the crime-thriller movies he watched, because when she thought to look around, she couldn’t see him anywhere. It was a lucky thing, because a head emerged from the alleyway, clearly checking the street for any signs of disturbance. And below that silhouette, a gun was clearly visible.
“Fuck,” said Daron, so quietly it was more like a sigh than a word.
“See, you don’t have to worry about making it in America, if that’s the first curse word you think of at a time like this.” It was trite, but at the moment she felt close to hysteria and she’d rather laugh then cry. Daron simply turned to her and set a finger against her lips for silence. He caught her hand in his once again and turned back toward the alley.
The hour was late, but it wasn’t so late to explain the eerie quiet that engulfed the street. For a moment, all Sophia could hear was the winds rustling past, carrying paper wrappers and the last of the dry leaves from the autumn long past. Here, the orange glow of the sky was sinister not striking. Sophia wondered how she could go from the heights of ecstasy to feeling such cold in the depths of her soul. If Daron hadn’t been standing by her, she would have been unable to move, unable to think for the weight of despair she could feel. Suddenly she realized she’d even lost the thread of Alan’s bond to June and she clenched her eyes shut, fighting the need to cry.
“What’s the plan?” Alan whispered behind her and Sophia was so worked up she felt like she would jump out of her skin with surprise. Slapping her hand over his mouth, she jerked her head in the direction of the alley.
There was sound filling the silence now, and it wasn’t pretty. It was the sound of weeping mixed with the hard slap of bone on skin that meant someone was being beaten.
“Get in that damn door, girly! And let go a the lil’ one. I ain’t decided what I’m goin’ to do with ‘er yet. If you’re good, I might let ‘er work in the sweatshop and if you’re bad, I’ll just turn her over to a child-pimp for a fat fee. She’s a pretty lil’ thing, ain’t she?”
“She’s your daughter, you scum!” The voice was clearly June’s and the resounding slap that followed her insult rang against the walls. Alan lurched forward, making it halfway to the alley before Daron tackled him soundlessly.
“They have guns. We must have a plan or it does June no good to have you dead.” Daron’s eyes gleamed in the half-light looking deadly serious, but Alan did not cower in front of the larger man.
Alan pushed Daron away, then began looking up at the decrepit warehouse they were standing in front of.
“Maybe we can get above them? Drop down on them or something?”
Daron nodded joining the inspection. Sophia closed her eyes again, taking a deep breath and trying to fight the instinct to just sit down and give up. A door slammed down the alleyway and Sophia realized they must have gone in a doorway at the end of the alley. Listening intently for a moment while the men were occupied, she heard no further echo from the alleyway. Creeping along the side of the building, she knelt on the filthy ground and peered around the corner, praying there wasn’t some flunky with a gun waiting to shoot her head off.
The alley was empty except for a panel truck, open at the back. There was a half unrolled carpet on the ground. There was no sign of anyone and no indication if the three men Daron had predicted from the tracks in June’s kitchen were all the enemies they might be facing. She was pulled back abruptly and almost let out a yelp, but the absolute fury in Daron’s eyes and that flooded into her from his touch silenced her.
“Don’t risk my heart so easily, woman!” He had not raised his voice. He didn’t need to. Then he too looked around the corner and assessed the situation, pulling back quickly when two men appeared in the alley to shut the back door of the truck and take in the carpet. When their grumbling voices indicated they had heaved the heavy carpet on to their shoulders, Daron eased around the corner once again.
The door slammed. Daron turned back to Sophia and Alan. “They went into this building.” He indicated the warehouse with quick gesture.
“It sure looks abandoned though.” Alan piped up. He looked around the corner quickly. “And what’s up with the carpet cleaning truck?” He took a whiff of the air. “I can tell you guys right now this building hasn’t seen the kind of chemicals they use to clean carpets. All I smell is…” he paused, a wry grin on his face. “Somebody around here has a cheap still. Eau de bathtub gin is hard to hide from a chemist.”
Sophia blinked, knowing enough not to question Alan’s nose for chemicals but not seeing what use that was to anyone at the moment. Daron had drifted back to the front door of the place, examining the lock on the door. Strangely enough, it was a cheap padlock and faster than the time it took Sophia to walk from the corner to stand by Daron’s side, he’d gotten a knife out from somewhere and had stripped off the outer casing. A couple of turns of his nimble fingers and the thing had dropped away. Daron slid the knife into the well between the door and the doorframe and with a loud click that seemed to echo ominously, the way seemed clear.
“That was just like the movies!” said Alan, clearly impressed. “Any other gypsy-type magic you gonna pull?”
“No,” said Daron, worry evident in his voice, “that was too easy. I may be the son of an instrument maker and the grandson of a jeweler, but that should not have been as simple as that.”
“Let’s just go in! Face whatever the hell it is and get them out!” Sophia was sick of standing around and talking. If she was going to face death, she’d face it. “Time’s a-wasting and we don’t know what’s happening to them!”
Daron took a look at her white face and knew. “You lost your connection?”
She looked away and nodded. Daron took a deep breath, bent forward and placed a kiss on her lips. “Can I convince you to stay here, ashavi? It is a bad neighborhood, but…”
“Are you kidding! Hell no!” she pushed past him and turned the knob, pushing open the door slowly and heaving a sigh of relief when the hinge didn’t squeak too loudly. No sign of a night watchman or a barking dog. In fact, there was nothing in the room but a shred of light from the cracked windows high up on the bare walls and the empty expanse of wooden floor. Aside from stray garbage, squeaking rats and a couple of blankets that might have housed a hobo at some point, the place looked like it had been empty for years.
Daron came up behind her, putting a hand in the small of her back. By the time they’d all entered, it became evident that this was just one of many large rooms in the place. Alan sniffed again loudly. “I think we should split up, cover this whole place. Something smells fishy to me. I’m going that way. You folks go whatever way your magic stuff takes you. Holler if you need me!”
He stalked away, leaving Sophia and Daron blinking in confusion for a moment. Still, he was right, they could cover more territory if they parted ways for a time. Sophia didn’t want to have additional things to worry about, but Alan had disappeared through an open doorway to the right of this front room before she could find sufficient arguments to merit a response. Daron flicked his head forward and she sighed, following Daron deeper into the echoing building.
The floor seemed to make a ridiculous amount of noise as they crept across it. The farther they had traversed toward the back of the empty warehouse, the louder the voices they’d heard seemed to echo. But then those voices suddenly cut off, replaced by a tiny sound that Sophia hoped was only Hester sniffling in fear. She didn’t want to dwell on all the other possibilities for what the heartrending noise could mean.
Daron gripped her arm tightly and quickened their pace. The floor made ominous creaking noises. Something just seemed wrong about it. Sophia dared to draw back her fragile walls blocking out the roiling density of people in the tenements nearby. She wanted to try to understand more about the coming danger they faced. Overwhelmed by sickening nausea she stopped dead in her tracks staring down at her feet with eyes wide.
Then the world dropped out from under their feet. She barely had time to let out a scream as Daron pulled her tight to him, trying to flip them in mid-air so that he would take the brunt of whatever they hit as they plummeted down into the dark.
* * * * *
Sophia woke from her stupor with the beginnings of a blistering headache and the urge to retch. Fortunately, it had been long hours since she’d absentmindedly chewed on an apple and a sausage roll, so there wasn’t much for her stomach to try and eject. Daron had an arm around her waist and he was trying diligently to haul her to her feet despite her dead weight. She tried to help, but her left ankle sent a bolt of pain through her and she hissed in pain, finally opening her eyes.
She almost slammed them closed again. The view down the barrels of a .44 and a sawed-off shotgun was not a sight she’d particularly wanted to see in her lifetime. But she needed to be there and not faint like some namby-pamby heroine in a dime store novel. She couldn’t leave Daron alone to save everyone.
The voice she’d heard berating June in the alley greeted her in harsh tones. “Thanks for dropping in on us! Never thought that trapdoor would come in so ‘andy now, did ya Billy?” The man grinned menacingly around half a cigar.
One of the two gunmen smiled, showing rotting yellow teeth in a leer as he held up the .44. The other one, presumably Billy, caressed his shotgun and answered, “Yep, sure is.”
The ringleader coughed and Billy amended his answer, “Yes sir, Mr. Diggins sir. It’s very handy.”
Mr. Diggins wore a sharkskin suit and a fine felt fedora, both in a matching shade of blue bright enough to be called teal. With the fading gold of his hair and the livid redness of his cheeks, he looked like an aging peacock. Sophia swallowed a nervous giggle. He looked utterly out of place against the backdrop of the dank basement. The shine from his patent leather shoes chased off the skittering of roaches fighting over crumbs on the floor from somebody’s discarded lunch.
Her eyes fluttered to her right, where June sat clutching a wide-eyed Hester against the brick wall. June was almost catatonic with remembered terror. Sophia forced herself not to look for Alan. Either he’d run for the cops or he was still upstairs, clueless about the basement’s occupants. She hoped he had a chance of evading the two bulky henchmen that flanked Diggins. Those two nasty looking fellas were wearing much rattier clothes than their boss. It seemed that Diggins kept his money solely for his own benefit. Sophia hoped that translated into those brutes being all show and no substance.
“So, what da ya two fancies possibly got goin’ with Juney-baby to bother followin’ her all the way down to the Kitchen, eh?” Diggins chomped on his words like he chomped on his cigar.
Sophia pushed past the sickening hopelessness that dragged her down. She spoke before caution caught up with her thoughts. “And what the hell reason have you got to steal her and her daughter out from their home?” Daron’s hand tightened around her elbow and she suddenly felt a shot of the deadly intent behind Diggins’ icy gray eyes. They were all in deadly danger.
Diggins moved his cigar from one side of his mouth to the other and stared at her. “You ain’t as pretty to look at as Juney-baby, but you do look a sight sturdier. I’m sure the boys will have a fun time breakin’ you in ‘fore I sell ya to a whorehouse.”
Daron growled, gripping the knife he held so tightly his knuckles turned white. Sophia ignored the fear churning in her gut and tried to take stock of the situation.
Unlike the desolate rooms above, this sub-basement had the frenetic feeling of being very occupied. A battered June sat on the floor, a rumpled Hester in her arms. It was hard to tell whether the mother was comforting the child or vice versa. Against the concrete walls, there were stacks and stacks of rolled carpets, along with hundreds of half-gallon jugs imprinted with the seal of a well-known dairy. There was a pungent smell in the air, and a couple of sputtering gas lamps provided the only light, its yellow waxy glow painting everyone in unflattering relief. In the gloomy distance, there was a contraption that seemed to be made of dirty copper pipes, crusted over glass jars and laundry tubs. It was a far cry from the neat precision of Alan’s basement distillery, but Sophia knew a still when she saw one.
Suddenly everything fell into place in her mind. The carpet cleaning ad on the side of the panel truck in the alley was the same she remembered from the truck that had almost soaked her in front of Daron’s building. The wild messy cloud of Hester’s bright hair confirmed her suspicion that the child had been rolled up in the carpet and carried down the stairs, her mother forced to follow quietly or risk harm to her daughter. That’s probably how they smuggled their hooch too, innocent looking milk jugs containing second-rate joy juice rolled up in carpets and smuggled into speakeasys. A neat trick, but one for a two-bit operation, not some high-rolling high-living gangster.
She tried to stand a little bit straighter with her injured ankle and put a provocative pout on her lips. “I don’t know, big boy, how many whorehouses you got? Do I get to pick which one? I might even like the work enough to give you fellas a freebee without scratching and biting.” She gave a broad wink, “Unless you like that kind of thing. I aim to please.”
Daron’s arm was still around her waist and she prayed that he and only he could read the terror underneath her sexy bravado. He gripped her tighter and growled, whipping the knife around to hold it against her neck. She flinched, her eyes widening with shock but it was mostly feigned, as she could feel a sense of trust and adoration ripple through her from where he clutched her waist so tightly.
Predictably, Yellow Teeth came just a bit closer. “There now, no hard feelings buddy! Just ‘cause the bitch wants a new pimp don’t mean ya damage the merchandise.” The man leaned close enough to drag a finger across her cheek.
She smiled and then kicked Yellow Teeth in the balls with those heavy duty clogs, taking the .44 out of his hand with an ease that shocked her. Daron aimed a kick at the fella’s head and Sophia was fairly certain he’d be out for a while. Blinking suddenly, she aimed the gun at Billy who held the shotgun and hoped to God her hands weren’t shaking as much as she thought they were.
“Or maybe we’ll just take June and Hester and get out of here. That would work too.” She swallowed, wanting nothing more than a sip of water and for this all to be a bad dream that she’d wake up from, snuggled tight in Daron’s arms.
Diggins was turned a bright shade of puce in his rage. “Fuck you and your pimp, you little bitch! Juney’s my girl, I bought her from her mother fair and square. She and her little brat are my property and I’m just taking back what’s mine!”
“That wasn’t my mama, Hugh…that was my stinkin’ no good cousin. My mama died in one of your fucking sweatshops, trying to make a better life for us!” June hissed. She stood suddenly, ignoring the twitching from Billy as he moved the shotgun back and forth between Sophia and June. June’s eyes flared until they seemed to burn blue. “You took my childhood away, you bastard. You ain’t going to take my daughter’s!” She leapt at him, nails out and scratching at his eyeballs. Billy didn’t want to take the risk of shooting his boss and so watched dumbstruck as Hugh Diggins tried to subdue the wildcat he’d beaten up so easily a few minutes beforehand. With a mighty backhand, he hit June hard enough that she flew into the wall and Hester shrieked and tried to run at Diggins. But she never made it.
Instead, with a loud clanking noise, one of the jerryrigged pipes on the still behind Diggins swung out, bathing the back of that teal sharkskin in searing hot steam. Sophia thought she heard Alan’s yell of triumph over Diggins’ squealing. Daron took advantage of the moment of confusion to run at Shotgun Billy. For a brief moment, it looked like they’d won the day, but then the shotgun discharged and Daron staggered from the hit. Sophia screamed, holding her gun up to shoot, but Daron was faster, bowling the guy over and then slamming the back of his head against the hard floor. He kicked the gun away and then slumped over.
Sophia felt frozen, hoping again that she would wake up. Dropping the gun, she folded her hands around her middle and collapsed on her twisted ankle. She couldn’t lose him. This time she’d not be able to keep her sanity. Alan leapt over the steaming pipe and ran to Daron’s side, feeling for a pulse even while he glanced over at June slumped against the wall. “He’s alive, Sophie. We’ll get him out of here and to the hospital in no time!”
“Hell you will!” coughed Diggins. He was barely standing, his back arched in pain and an inhuman grimace on his bloody face as he held a .22 pointed at Alan before turning it toward Sophia and then toward the unconscious June. “I’m taking all of you out for this crap. Nobody hurts Hugh Diggins and lives. Nobody!”
It was true. Seeing clearly for the first time, the bonds which held the others in the room tied together were completely absent from Diggins. There was an emptiness around him. At another time she might have pitied the man. But now she would make him finally feel pity.
She filled herself up with the sharp pain of her worry for Daron, the righteous wrath of June, and the misery of a thousand souls within five hundred yards. All of the suffering of the multitudes packed into Hell’s Kitchen and failing to find a way out spiked into her, and then through her. She pushed, as Daron had once with Hester. She took all of what she felt and poured it into the emptiness around Hugh Diggins.
The darkness cut visibly through the dank steamy air, hitting Diggins like a physical blow. His arms flew backward and the gun fell out of his hand. Then he crumpled, the combination of physical and emotional pain too much to keep him upright any longer. He fell, twitching on the floor and clutching his head like a man possessed, all the ghosts of his past come to haunt him. With a wrenching cry he stopped moving, his nails digging into his skull hard enough to draw little rivulets of blood to add to the scratches June had given him. He was broken.
Sophia drew a shaky breath, tears running down her face with the full impact of what she had done. If Diggins wasn’t dead, he would never be the same. Daron groaned, trying to pull himself upright. Sophia sent a whispered word of thanks to the heavens and scrambled on hands and knees to see how bad he was, planning to send Alan to check on June. Then, she had to figure out how the hell to get them all out of there and into the tiny car – if the car was still there. And how not to lose consciousness, when her vision was rapidly dwindling to a long tunnel.
“Hey, you lot down theres!” A thick brogue called down from the gaping hole in the ceiling where a hidden trapdoor swung open. “Are ya havin’ a bust-up or a party hereabouts?” The dark-haired youth inhaled deeply the smell from the buckets of sour-mash Alan had overturned in his attack on the still. “It smells like a party and looks like a brawl. Just me favorite sort of fun! Are you lot looking for company?”
What the hell? Was this kid more trouble? Suddenly, she recognized the burly fella as one who had followed her in the first few days after she’d discovered the group in the park that spring morning. “Tommy? Are you Tommy?”
“Tommy’s the name, and trouble’s me game.” He squinted down into the darkness and suddenly turned serious. “S’that Daron? Is he hurt? I saw the pharmacy fellow’s pretty car out front as I was walking home with some mates from the bar and chased off some kids that were botherin’ it. Heard a riot a’ noise and thought it might be best to investigate. I’m not drunk enough yet not to be lookin’ for trouble.”
She breathed a sigh of relief, she had help now and wouldn’t have to get everyone in that tiny car. “It is Daron and he is hurt, I don’t know how badly. We’ll have to get him somewhere safe with better light, even better to the hospital.”
“Right. Best call Irene then, she always knows a fancy doc to call who’ll stay quiet for a bit of blunt. And there’s a carpet truck out here we can hotwire easy as you please. How the blistering hells do me and me boys get down there?”
Alan shouted up directions from where he cradled a befuddled June in one arm and a sniffling Hester in the other. Sophia crawled forward a few more feet, finally able to turn Daron over and see the weeping red of the wound in his side. He was still breathing, for which she was grateful and he groaned loudly and captured her hand in his when she tried to examine the wound further.
“I’ll live, ashavi, have no fear.” The words were said in a whisper, but that and the sure pulse of his life force calmed her enough that she let consciousness slip away, falling into a warm black pit where there was nothing but the sureness of Daron’s hand in hers for the rest of her life.