Chapter 2.2

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Present day

Cutting a corner from a busy street into a quiet alley, Cleo flew past a hissing cat and tripped over the dirty leg of a sleeping vagrant. Ignoring his muddled curse, she continued deeper into the alley, managing to catch her breath as she leaned against a refuse bin. Peering around the corner back the way she came, Cleo was shocked at the stark contrast between the bright street and the dark alley in which she now resided. A large silhouette mounted the alley mouth and moved toward the vagrant. Cleo cursed her luck. She imagined that her uncle spied her enter the alleyway, despite the speed and gain she had on him.

Faint scuffling behind her drew Cleo's attention to the other end of the alleyway, where a second silhouette appeared. Now, boxed in, Cleo eyed her options. Every small nook offered a potential hiding spot, but considering that they saw her enter the alley, she'd be found regardless of her choice. Resigning herself to punishment, Cleo was about to surrender when she saw a door ajar. Without thinking, she lunged into the doorway, bursting into a bustling kitchen. Cleo slammed the door in her wake. Silence rippled through the small hot galley-shaped room. A few cooks glared at her and one reached for a bloodied butcher knife buried in a hog's haunch. Cleo crouched, ready to run, when a woman barreled into the kitchen.

"Who got cut? Who's on fire? What's with the quiet?" Then, as she spotted Cleo, a scowl grew to fill her expression. "Girl, what are you doing in here?" She eyed the cook with the bloodied knife in his hand. "And just what were you planning to do with that Ellmor?"

"My 'pologies Mistress. Wanted to make sure she w'aint here to rob us," the cook humbled himself, lowering his makeshift weapon. The kitchen mistress directed her harsh stare back to Cleo.

"If you won't talk, I'll send ye right back into the alley you came from," she threatened.

"No! You can't send me back out there!" As if on cue, a loud pounding sounded on the rear door Cleo from which Cleo had entered.

"Open the door," a man's voice called from outside.

The mistress looked with pity at Cleo who kept her eyes trained on the door's brass handle. It rattled as if some force strained against the lock. "You'll not enter my establishment that way. If you want to come in, you can come in the front room like a regular," the mistress replied.

Those in the kitchen strained to hear the man talking to someone else. He said "Stay out here. Don't want her sneaking out back while I go around." A minute of silence slipped by. Cleo eyed the kitchen staff and their mistress, none of whom were moving. The mistress seemed to see right through Cleo's scared façade, judging her intentions. The faint ring of a bell rippled through the quiet kitchen. The mistress grabbed Cleo by the arm with strong weathered hands and pulled her to a scullery. She lifted up a false floor and gestured down.

"Quickly child, in here," the woman's voice sounded softer than it had been in the presence of the kitchen staff. Cleo jumped into the dark chamber and landed on loose dirt. The false floor was replaced, plunging Cleo into darkness. It was now that she became aware of the smells around her. All at once, wood and damp earth filled her nose. Feeling around, Cleo's hands met a stockpile of chalky rocks, which she assumed to be coal. From above, she heard the bustle return to the kitchen. The kitchen mistress's voice sounded clearest over the food preparation din.

"Those loaves had better not be burnt Simone or I'll cut yer pay this week. Ellmor, why aren't the lobsters in the boiling water? People, we have a big night in front of us. Ye all need to get the weights out of yer legs and move." Loud footsteps sounded over Cleo's head.

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