"We have got to stop meeting this way Cassie. It is becoming decidedly... unpleasant." These words were uttered by Lady Emilia Lockwood as she gingerly stepped over something dead and mushy. She then continued running after her friend.
Cassandra, who was stealthily rushing down interlinked alleyways, looked back at her friend without breaking stride and chucked. "You mean more unpleasant than a night at Almacks? Think of the dancing, the music, the latest dandies vying for your attention?"
Emilia snorted in a rather undignified manner and then cracked a smile. A very small one. "No. I think I prefer the stench of the London sewer." She wrinkled her nose. "If only there were fewer rats! You know how I detest rodents."
Cassandra shook her head. A more skilled fighter she had yet to meet, but Emilia simply hated anything small, furry, with four legs that chose to live in dark, festering places. But this setting was more often than not, exactly where the friends found themselves.
Emilia and Cassandra, friends since childhood, had been born into families whose lineage always produced a female, a protector, a guardian of the secrets of the underworld.
The day they turned eighteen, they were each told about their destinies and tutored in the art of research, fighting and self defence. No real profession for any respectable lady, they soon learnt the art of deception and misdirection in order to protect their real activities. So well in fact, that no member of the ton would look at them and suspect who they really were. Fighters and guardians.
Both dressed in black breeches, black silk shirts and billowing black coats meant to hide their identities and shield their feminine shape; they rushed down another lane, which ran parallel to the sewer. One of their usual informants had tipped them off to the fact that another murder, in the already long line of related murders, was going to take place tonight. And so, instead of being dressed in the finest silk and jewels, instead of dancing the latest dances in the halls of Almacks, they were rushing through the slums, hoping to catch a killer.
"John had better be right about this tip off Em. I'm slowly losing patience with this coward. So far, none of those letters from him has come to anything."
Emilia grabbed her friend by the hand and halted her progress. As Cassandra turned around enquiringly, Emilia put her finger to her lips to hush her, and pulled her into the shadows of a tall building. The stench was overwhelming. The smell of poverty, industry, and the depravity of the human condition polluted everything.
Cassandra's senses sprang to life. Two pairs of footsteps could be heard. And another sound. It sounded like something heavy was being dragged down the alleyway ahead. And then there were two voices.
"I'm sick o' this here work. Been doin' a'right for meself. Now all I do's hang around an wait for some secret messages from 'im. Not so sure this's all worth it no more."
The scraping stopped. Cassandra turned to Emilia. Her friend was already inching forward, trying to get a closer look around the corner. Cassandra signalled to her and stealthily moved across the inky shadows and positioned herself behind a pile of crates on the opposite wall.
"Shut your stinkin' mouth you ungrateful lout!" the other person hissed. "We do as the master asks! Nothin' more, nothin' less. Don't be forgettin' whose puttin' food on your darlin' Bessie's ruttin' table! Not another word from ya! Here. This should do it."
From Emilia's vantage point, she could see the shadows of the two men hunched over the parcel they had been dragging along. It was difficult to detect its size, but from the grunting and exertion evident in the ragged breathing of the men, it wasn't hard to guess it was something heavy. A body, perhaps?
John might just have been onto something, she thought. Emilia crouched down low and peered around the corner. She winced inwardly as she felt tugs on the ends of her cloak. Damned rats! She put that from her mind, saw Cassandra across the yard behind the crates and watched.
The alley led into a courtyard. The cobblestones shone dimly in the black night, and only because it happened to be a full moon. The yard was deserted. Not unusual, it was after all around four thirty in the morning. There were boxes and all sorts of waste evident everywhere. It accounted for the smell. It seemed like the courtyard might be used as a trading post for produce. It would explain the rats, she mused.