DOWN THE ALLEYWAY
In a rough-and-tumble, not-altogether-respectable neigh borhood south of Hammersmith Cross Station, wedged between darkened taverns and foggy dock-lands, sits a rambling bookshop with cheery red shutters.
For most of the year a tiny old lady minds the shop, frowning in concentration as she knits stocking caps for no one. But should you pass this shop and find the dusty windows scrubbed clean, or the door decorated with a sign advertising deliveries, you would find someone else behind the counter of Alabaster & Sons, Purveyors of Rare Books Since 1782—to all appearances, just an ordinary teenage boy, bent intently over a detective story. But appearances can be deceiving.
* * *
In the pale gloom of the unusually cold January afternoon when our story starts, the roads are desolate, but their emptiness is not due entirely to the dreadful weather.
As you have probably heard or read or suspected without quite knowing why, sinister things indeed were happening up north, and in those dark days, fearful rumors were more common than holiday cheer.
But where there is suspicion there is also doubt, and some people still pretended that nothing was the matter. After all, appearances have to be maintained, especially by those looked to as an example. “Let the superstitious servants worry!” the aristocracy scoffed from the comfort of their elegant town houses.
After all, it wasn’t as though there were proof to any rumor.
“Wot’s in the boxes, then?” The tall dangerous-looking boy sneered, taking a step forward.
“Jus’ deliveries.” The boy called Alex whimpered, feeling the cold, slimy wall of the alleyway against his back, blocking his escape. “Please. I ain’t got money, an’ I need this job.”
The dangerous-looking boy’s eyes narrowed, and his two hulking friends laughed, their fists already raised. “Will yeh be needin’ both yer arms fer that job o’ yours?”
“Or,” the sneering boy continued, hoping that no one could hear his stomach rolling with hunger as he withdrew a knife from his tattered jacket, “both yer ears?”
Henry Grim shook his head in mock disgust as his best friend demolished a strawberry tart in two enormous mouthfuls.
“Oh, very polite,” Henry said. “Be glad that Rohan isn’t here. He’d perish from the shame.”
Adam swallowed thickly and wiped his mouth with his coat sleeve. “What? They’re good.”
“Well, of course they’re good,” Henry said in exasperation. “Sucray’s is the best bakery this side of the river. Come on. I wasn’t really supposed to leave the shop unattended …”
“Right, because someone might be having an emergency that only a rare encyclopedia can cure.”
“It’s the Code of Chivalry, Adam.” Henry sighed. “I gave my word to Mrs. Alabaster that I’d mind the shop.”
“It’s boring in there,” Adam complained. “I can’t wait for term to start.”
“Next week,” Henry said, reaching into his jacket pocket for his keys. “And at least save me one of the tarts.”
Adam opened his mouth, frowned, and stood absolutely still.
Henry shot his friend a confused look, and then realized that Adam was on to something. The road on which they were walking was too empty, and altogether too quiet.
Adam cocked his head in the direction of an alleyway up ahead. Faintly they could hear scuffling and muffled whimpers.
Henry nodded and put a finger to his lips, trying to move silently over the icy cobblestones. He knew that it wasn’t Sir Frederick—that it couldn’t be—not with their former professor’s face plastered on hundreds of faded posters advertising a handsome reward for any information that led to his capture.
But even though he knew it was impossible, for a moment Henry hoped for the chance to confront Sir Frederick. For the chance to, somehow, fix everything that had happened last school term.
His heart hammering nervously, Henry peered around the corner.
It wasn’t Sir Frederick. But then, he’d known it wouldn’t be.
Down the dingy alleyway, past a pile of wooden crates, stood three huge boys, their clothes in tatters. They formed a menacing circle around Mr. Sucray’s delivery boy, Alex, who was curled into a ball on the ground.
Less than a year ago it would have been Henry at the center of that circle, resigned to enduring whatever bullying or punishment his tormentors had planned.
But so much had changed since then.
“You there!” Henry called with false confidence, blocking the alley’s only exit. “What do you think you’re doing?”
The largest of the boys froze, a battered Sucray’s cake box in his hands. Alex, still on the ground, coughed and moaned. “Wot d’you want?” the hulking boy growled.
“I want you to give Alex back his packages and get out of here,” Henry said calmly, even though he was unprepared and terrified and knew that if it came to a fight he’d lose.
“You ain’t no police knight,” the boy sneered, nodding at the braid and crest on Henry’s jacket.
“Not yet,” Henry allowed, lifting his chin and performing an impression of Rohan’s posh accent. “But my father is, and he’s waiting in our automobile just outside the shop.” Behind him Henry heard Adam snort.
The bullies in the alley looked at one another in defeat. Grumbling, they abandoned their perilous game and stomped toward Henry and Adam with murder in their eyes. Henry held his ground as the leader edged past.
Wordlessly Henry took the box of tarts from Adam and thrust it into the boy’s chest.
With a sneer the boy grabbed the parcel and slammed his fist into Henry’s mouth. Henry didn’t flinch, even though he tasted blood.
Adam gulped nervously and flattened himself against the wall as though he rather hoped he could disappear.
“I ain’t afraid o’ no rich brats,” the boy jeered, and then took off running, his cronies following suit.
Letting out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding, Henry wiped a smear of blood from his lip.
“Let’s go down the creepy alleyway,” Adam muttered. “Oh, yes, what a wonderful idea. Then we can confront a trio of murderous bandits and get ourselves punched in the face.”
Henry chuckled at Adam’s reaction, and then winced, touching his fingers to the fresh split in his lip.
“You okay, mate?” Adam asked.
“No,” Henry said, and then because he couldn’t resist, “I really wanted that last tart.”
Down the alleyway Alex coughed and stirred.
“You all right?” Henry called. “Yeah, you’re not dead, are you?” Adam asked. Henry sighed. Just once it would be nice if Adam didn’t say the first thing that popped into his head.
“What hurts?” Henry asked, kneeling next to Alex and checking the boy for injuries. At Knightley they’d learned a semester of medicine for situations precisely like this one.
“My head,” Alex mumbled. “An’ my foot.”
Henry and Adam helped Alex hobble to the bookshop, where they took a closer look at the boy’s injuries. One eye was entirely black and nearly swollen shut. There was a lump on his head that hopefully wouldn’t cause a concussion, and his right ankle was sprained.
“Have those lot given you trouble before?” Adam asked, perching on the counter while Henry held a cold compress to the boy’s ankle.
“Not me,” Alex said, shaking his head. “But I seen them about, an’ I know wot they’re up to. Supportin’ the Nordlands an’ goin’ to rallies down at the docks instead o’ workin’ honest jobs.”
Henry and Adam exchanged a look. And at that moment a crowded omnibus rattled past the storefront.
Adam glanced at the clock, swore, and scrambled for his coat. “How’d it get so late?” he asked.
Henry shrugged. “Guess we lost track of time, what with the bookshop being so boring and all.”
“Oi, you know I have to be home in time for supper or I’ll never hear the end of it,” Adam said, edging toward the door.
“See you later,” Henry called. The jingle of bells answered him as the shop door shut behind Adam, and Henry sighed.
It was wonderful that Adam could visit over the holiday, that they were only a half hour’s ride apart, while the rest of their school friends were spread out all over the country. Even so, every time Adam left, scrambling tardily after the departing omnibus, Henry was still sad to see his friend go.
At school they were roommates—Henry, Adam, and proper, perceptive Rohan. And while an afternoon playing cards in the bookshop was nice, it wasn’t the same as their late-night exploits or illicit fencing bouts with Frankie, the headmaster’s rebellious daughter.
“What are you doing?” Henry asked, turning around as Alex tried to wedge his swollen ankle back into his boot.
“I’ve got a delivery,” Alex said helplessly. “It has t’ be tonight. Some posh party up the Regent’s Hill.”
Henry closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He’d just had to go down that alleyway, hadn’t he?
“Put your boot down, Alex,” he said. “I’ll make the delivery.”
That was how Henry found himself hurrying along the frost-covered cobblestones, carrying a stack of parcels tied with twine. He wore his old falling-apart boots, since he was trying to save his good pair for school. The cold had seeped in through the soles, and he kept slipping over icy patches and having to pinwheel his arms to stay upright.
This was not, Henry thought wryly, one of his finest moments.
Regent’s Hill was one of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods, and Henry caught glimpses inside the town houses as he passed by. No doubt many of his classmates were spending their holiday on these very streets, in town for the city season, expected to make polite chaperoned conversation with giggling schoolgirls and to endure five-course dinners that involved at least five different forks.
For once he was glad to be different.
Henry shivered and tucked his chin deeper into the layers of his school scarf, longing for the crackling fire that warmed the parlor above the bookshop, and for the mystery novel propped on the edge of his favorite armchair, two chapters remaining. He wondered if he’d get back to their flat before Professor Stratford returned from his tutoring job, and he wondered if the professor would worry if he didn’t, and he wished he’d remembered to leave a note.
Well, he hadn’t. And anyway, it wasn’t as though Professor Stratford were his guardian. Henry had never been adopted. He had simply left the orphanage the moment he was old enough, and had looked after himself as best he could. And as much as he enjoyed sharing the flat above the bookshop with his former tutor, a little voice in the back of his head wouldn’t let him forget that all of his school friends were spending their holiday with their families—adopted or otherwise.
Somehow, without Henry’s noticing, it had begun to snow. Thick flakes landed on his coat and hair.
Finally Henry reached the address Alex had given him. He stared up at the town house, briefly watching the shadows of partygoers pass behind the lighted windows before he descended the shabby out-of-the-way stairs to the basement.
He knocked, and a maid took her time opening the door.
Her eyes narrowed. “Whatchoo want?”
Henry held out the parcels. “Delivery from Sucray’s,” he said.
“’Bout time,” the girl said, and sniffed. “Cook’s been askin’ after them pettyfours fer an hour.” The way the girl spoke reminded Henry of his days working at the Midsummer School, where he’d been piled with extra chores by other members of the serving staff. But enough time had passed since then that Henry was no longer afraid to speak up.
“I’m sorry for the inconvenience,” he said, “but would you mind showing me where to put these?”
“All righ’, come inside, then,” the girl grumbled.
Henry eagerly brushed snow from his coat and hair and followed the girl down the warm hallway, pulling off his wet scarf along the way.
“Cook!” the girl shrilled. “The cakes’re here.” She pushed open the door to a cinnamon-scented kitchen and spun around to grumble at Henry some more.
“Don’ touch nothin’,” she warned, and then her eyes widened as she took in the braid and crest on Henry’s school coat. “Yer not a delivery boy.”
“Never said I was,” Henry replied, placing his parcels on a table and holding out his chilled hands to the warmth of the nearby stove.
The girl glared, but then thought better of it and flounced away, grumbling to herself.
Cook, a gray-haired old woman who was all chins, opened the parcels with a dangerously glittering butcher’s knife and peered inside. “Everythin’ looks in order,” she said, presumably to Henry, although she hadn’t thrown so much as a glance in his direction. “Warm yerself fer a minute more an’ then be off.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Henry said reluctantly, thinking of the long trudge back in the snow. It was moments like these when he wished he hadn’t signed his name to the Code of Chivalry after all, when he wished he didn’t go looking for trouble in all the worst places.
“Maureen!” A haughty voice shrilled, and Cook stiffened.
“’S the mistress,” Cook hissed in warning.
Henry edged around the curve of the stove, trying to be inconspicuous.
“Honestly, Maureen,” the lady continued, descending a staircase in the far corner, all emerald skirts and disdain. “I have been ringing for the desserts for ages, and clearly there is a very good reason as to why I have had to disengage myself from my guests to inquire after them personally.”
“Yes, mum,” Cook said with a curtsy. “They’ve only just arrived.”
“Only just?” the lady carried on in disapproval, having reached the bottom of the stairs.
Henry grimaced, because suddenly he knew whose house this was.
Frankie’s dreadful grandmother Lady Augusta Winter stood, hands on her hips, daring her serving staff to account for the late delivery.
“I’m sorry, madam,” Henry said, stepping out from the nook behind the stove. “But the roads are slicked with ice, and it’s snowing again—” Henry broke off with a sigh.
Grandmother Winter squinted at him and frowned. “Mr. Grim,” she began, “might I ask what you’re doing in my kitchen?”
“Delivering cakes, ma’am,” Henry said, feeling his cheeks color with embarrassment.
“And why are you delivering cakes, Mr. Grim?”
“A street gang accosted the delivery boy. I ran them off, but he was injured, and I—er, I volunteered to come in his place.” Henry looked up, cringing still.
Grandmother Winter had always made him feel as though everything he said were entirely wrong, and no matter what he did, there was no redeeming himself for the fact that he had grown up in an orphanage.
“How heroic of you,” she said coldly.
“Yes, ma’am.” Henry bit his lip and then winced as the split began to bleed again.
“Perhaps, since you have saved the day, you would like to join the party.”
Henry tried not to let horror show on his face as the kitchen staff gawked in his direction. He was certain that the only reason Grandmother Winter wanted him to attend the party was so that he’d embarrass himself or so that she might do it for him.
“Actually, I should be going.”
“Nonsense. I insist,” Grandmother Winter said, extending her arm. “You shall escort me back upstairs.”
It wasn’t a question. Henry gave a small bow and, with a sinking feeling, did as he was told.
© 2011 Robyn Schneider