The voice filters slowly into my consciousness, as persistent and irritating as a steady drip of water from a rusted tap.
“Miss, are you alive?”
That is what one might term an excellent question.
I have to admit that my current reality: face down on some sort of cold, rock-hard surface that smells strongly of horse dung, chilled to the bone, and with a headache that feels like sharp-edged rocks are crashing around inside my skull—appears to rival even the traditional fire and brimstone on the spectrum of unpleasant outcomes for the afterlife. But I do not believe myself to be dead. Which would lead one to the conclusion that I am indeed alive.
“Miss? You can’t sleep here. The museum will be opening soon.”
No, I am definitely still alive.
Which I suppose on the bright side means that I am not consigned to an eternity of lying here with a crashing headache and a strange male voice addressing me as Miss.
Something awful has happened. An unnamed horror twists in my stomach. Something awful is waiting for me—ready to pounce.
I can’t remember what it is, but I can feel dread pooling like a lead weight in my chest.
I push myself up to sitting—at least my arms and legs still appear to function—and pry open my eyes.
“Will you stop saying that?”
The owner of the voice sits back, blinking in surprise at the suddenness of my resurrection.
Now that I am more fully awake, his voice sounds low and pleasant. He has an accent of some sort that I can’t place.
My first glance provides me with a jumbled impression of dark hair under a domed blue helmet and thickly-lashed dark eyes.
But the feeble light of what appears to be either very early morning or very late evening is stabbing clear through to the back of my skull.
I squeeze my eyes shut again, massaging my forehead in vain hopes that some of the throbbing ache will stick to the tips of my fingers.
“Stop saying ‘Miss!’”
“I beg pardon.” The man’s voice—Policeman’s voice, a sluggish part of my brain corrects. That’s why he’s wearing the helmet and the dark blue tunic. He’s a police constable.
No, actually detective constable. Risking a second glance through slitted eyes, I can make out the insignia patch on the sleeve of his jacket.
“But since we haven’t been formally introduced, it seemed like Miss was the best I could do.”
His voice is amused more than anything else. But then he clears his throat, sounding somewhere midway between disapproving and awkward.
“Look here, you’d better find a place to sleep it off. Somewhere safe. If you go down to Queen’s Street you could try the St. Vincent De Paul Society. I can’t promise that they won’t ask you some awkward questions or want to pray for the good of your immortal soul, but—”
The dark speckles are clearing from my vision, the headache retreating from agonizing to merely sickening levels of pain.
It’s enough for me to finally take in the full details of the detective constable’s appearance.
He’s quite young. I doubt he can be more than twenty-two or -three.
He’s also quite handsome. His features are lean and sculpted, with dark, straight brows, a square jaw, and a firm, graceful curve of his mouth.
His dark eyes are intelligent, but also slightly shadowed, watchful and jaded-looking—as though young as he is, he’s already seen his share of the ugly side of life.
The pale white line of a scar bisects his eyebrow on the right side, making me think that he’s also seen his share of violence. But somehow it only makes him more handsome, not less—turning him from a perfect paragon into a real, living, breathing human.
He looks, not humorless, exactly—but slightly grim, with an edge of danger that makes me certain any criminal would have to be an idiot to challenge him while he walks his beat.
Beneath the regulation police tunic, his shoulders are broad and straight. I think he’s tall, but at the moment, he’s crouching beside me on the ground, so I can’t tell exactly how tall.
He looks strong and quick—and completely self-reliant. I can’t imagine him trusting easily or laughing particularly often.
All of which is interesting to a student of human nature. But also more or less irrelevant, since it in no way lessens my outrage at him.
I draw myself up. “Are you implying that I’m a”—for a moment, my mind hitches on coming up with the right word—“street walker?”
The constable blinks at me, obviously taken aback once again. Then he quirks up an eyebrow. “Maybe you’d rather be called a night flower? Or some other term?”
“I do not prefer any term!” I glare at him. “I’m not a—”
A wave of dizziness slams into me, as though somewhere inside my mind, I’ve just run straight into a brick wall. Darkness swirls across my field of view all over again.
“Miss?” The constable’s voice seems to come from a long way off, flattened and distorted by the roaring in my ears. “Miss, are you all right?”
I don’t even have the energy to snap at him for calling me Miss yet again.
He doesn’t sound as though he believes me; his voice softens slightly. “What’s your name?”
I don’t know.
That’s what I’ve just realized. I can’t remember anything about myself. Nothing at all.
“I’d … rather not say.” I force myself to draw in a shaky breath, then another. Don’t panic.
Panicking never solves anything.
How would you know? A nasty, jeering voice in the back of my head asks. Maybe you just don’t remember.
No, stop. Just think. I recognized the detective constable’s insignia. I risk a cautious look around us, and catch a glimpse of a city street, stone row-houses marching in an orderly line behind wrought-iron fences and tiny yards.
London. The word slowly surfaces inside my mind.
I have no idea how I came to be lying on this particular patch of cobblestones here—but I know that I’m somewhere in the city of London.
Somewhere in the spinning chaos behind my eyes, I must have the answer to exactly who I am.
But there’s nothing.
It’s not just the headache—though that’s not helping. I feel as though a giant hand has reached into my mind and scooped out all trace of who I am and what I’m doing here.
All that’s left is that same overwhelming sense of dread I felt before. It hasn’t gone away. I may not know who I am—but my insides feel tight and clumped together with the cold certainty that something horrible has happened.
The detective constable clears his throat again. “Be that as it may, you need to be moving along.”
“Wait!” I hold up a hand—then notice that the sleeve of my dress appears to be covered in the source of the smell of horse dung.
Ugh. “You wouldn’t happen to have a handkerchief, would you?”
The young man’s expression veers between bemused and exasperated—but he digs into a pocket, producing a square of cotton. “Here.”
I scrub the worst of the muck away from my sleeve, then hold the handkerchief out to him.
The constable draws back. “No thanks. Consider it a gift. As I was saying, the museum will be opening soon, so you’d best get moving—”
“Say ‘moving’ again!”
The young man gives me a look as though he’s beginning to suspect that I’m not only a lady of loose morals, but a madwoman, also.
But he evidently decides to humor me. “Moving.”
He gives me an even odder look, but I don’t care. A tiny spark—not exactly of memory, but at least of knowledge is flickering to life in me.
“My voice doesn’t sound like yours!”
The constable’s eyebrows go up. “Yeah, well. That’d be because I’m from Cheapside right here in London, and you sound like you’re—”
“American!” I finish for him.
Unfortunately my feeling of triumph doesn’t last long. I’m certain that the voice I hear coming from my own lips is accented with the tones of America.
I don’t actually remember being an American.
This is ridiculous. I press the back of my hands to my eyes. I have to remember something.
I’m a young woman. Not a lady of the evening. I’m originally from America—
A sudden shower of images explodes across my field of view—sharp and jagged as broken glass.
A hand—my hand?—holding a revolver.
A woman screaming, howling like a lost soul.
Blood spurting onto dirty paving stones—so much blood. No one can lose that much blood and live.
My stomach spasms, bile stinging the back of my throat. I curl over, trying not to be sick.
“Miss?” The constable’s voice is laced with a shade more concern now.
“I think I may have shot someone.”
That is not, of course, a sensible statement to make to a detective constable. But my lips shape the words before I’m even fully aware of what I’m saying.
“You shot someone.” The constable’s eyebrows are once more quirked up, and his expression is calm. “Can you tell me who?”
Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the sickening sense of dread I feel isn’t because something horrible happened to me. Maybe I’m the one who committed a heinous crime.
“Hmmm.” The constable doesn’t look ready to arrest me. Instead he takes my hand.
His touch is surprisingly gentle, his fingers warm against my own half frozen ones. He bends his head, inhaling with his face close to my palm. The tickle of his breath is strangely intimate—almost enough to make me yank my hand away.
But his expression is completely impersonal as he raises his head.
“There doesn’t appear to be blood anywhere on your clothes. Which itself doesn’t tell us anything. But even barring where a girl of your—” he stops. “A girl such as yourself would have gotten a gun, there aren’t any powder burns on your palms. Nor any smell of gunpowder.”
“I could have worn gloves.”
I’m not sure what I’m doing. Surely I don’t wish to be arrested. But somehow I can’t stop myself from pointing it out.
“True. But those right there are your gloves, aren’t they?” The constable points to a small lady’s handbag—which I notice is lying next to me on the ground.
The gloves are not tucked into the bag, but lying right on top, as though I pulled them off and laid them there.
The constable picks one up, turns it over in his hands, then sniffs it, also. “No smell of powder there, either.”
I look at him with a rising degree of respect. “You’re not stupid.”
For the first time since our conversation began, he actually smiles. A dimple appears in one cheek. I blink. I thought him handsome before he smiled.
“They didn’t make me a detective because I know how to whistle.”
Then he stops, sobering. “Look, Miss, ordinarily I’d be required to charge you with being intoxicated in a public place—”
I interrupt. “You have the brains to deduce that I haven’t fired any weapons recently—but you can’t tell that I’m not intoxicated? Do you see any signs of drink about me?”
Actually, for all I know, I could be recovering from one too many glasses of gin.
But somehow my mind rejects that possibility without my even having to think about it.
The constable’s gaze sharpens as he appears to realize the truth of what I’ve just said. He studies me more closely—no doubt checking my eyes for bleary redness and my breath for the smell of liquor.
“So if you’re not drunk—”
I scramble to my feet—managing to sway only slightly as the movement sparks another fierce throb of my head.
Until I know exactly who I am and what’s happened, the last thing I want is to attract the interest of a policeman—however young and however handsome.
“I beg your pardon. I must have had a dream—a nightmare, rather.” I force a smile. “I’m sure that I’m entirely recovered now.”
The constable is still staring at me. I can almost hear the wheels turning inside his mind, trying to come up with a likely scenario that would have brought me here.
That makes two of us.
A church bell suddenly tolls from somewhere nearby.
Five … Six ….
The constable straightens. “Come on. I’ll help you find somewhere safe to stay.”
That is also the very last thing I want just now.
I shake my head. “I’ll be quite all right on my own.”
The young man hesitates—unfortunately for me, he appears to have scruples about leaving me alone.
So I add, “You are about to go off duty, and you have someone waiting for you. Maybe a younger sister?”
The young man’s head snaps up sharply at that, and he looks at me through suddenly narrowed eyes. “How do you—have we met before?”
“Not that I know of.”
He has no idea how very true that is.
The young man’s expression moves from startled, to wary.
I feel slightly better about having been mistaken for a prostitute. I get the feeling that he does not often allow anyone or anything to catch him by surprise.
“But I can tell that you set aside a somewhat wild and dangerous youth in order to serve on the side of the law.”
Both the constable’s eyebrows go up this time. “Oh I did, did I?”
I should probably stop talking. But this conversation is making me feel steadier. “I admit that last is largely surmise—but I believe it is logical.”
The constable looks at me. “What are you, some kind of Sherlock Holmes?”
“Sherlock Holmes.” Something tugs in the back of my mind, like ripples moving on the surface of a cloudy pond. “I know that name.”
The constable gives me another odd look. “Yeah, you and the entire British Empire.”
I hesitate—but I need to leave. Now, before he remembers his earlier determination to find me a safe charity house.
“Well, good-bye, then.”
Without waiting for an answer, I turn and stride off with as convincing an air of determination and confidence as I can muster.
The street is growing crowded with traffic—carriages rattling past, wagons loaded with vegetables rumbling by on their way to the market. I’m surrounded by vendors with baskets of purple flowers, and laborers with shovels and other tools slung over their shoulders.
I manage to keep up the act of determined confidence until I’ve turned the first corner I come to.
Then I duck into a covered doorway of a shop that’s not yet opened, lean against the cold brick wall and shut my eyes.
I have no idea who I am, where I am going, how I came by the headache that at this moment is rattling the inside of my skull … or what crimes I may have committed.
I blow out a breath. Being a lady of the evening would have been so much simpler.
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