Maggie tugged her shawl a little tighter around her shoulders as she hurried through the deepening gloom. She was late, her mistress had not released her from duty until nearly sundown, and even her rapid steps would not get her home before dark. Hallow’s Lane was not a place to be once dusk took a firm hold on the day. Too close to the prisons and even closer to the docks, strange men walked in the night and even harder edged women wove their way in between. Maggie had heard the stories, but as she shuffled quickly, she saw no one. The streets were silent.
The clatter of her shoes echoed in the empty street as shadows swallowed the corners. Those who huddled in the cramped rooms were too poor to waste money on lanterns that would be stolen before day. The city was too tightfisted to install the lamps that were promised year after year. Maggie’s toe slid into one of the holes left by a loose cobble stone. She stumbled nearly to her knees.
“Bloody, arses,” she cursed, not bothering to hide her thick accent as she did while working for the mistress. “’Specting us ta pay our taxes, and nuthin’ be’n done.”
A thin moon crept above the roofs, lending a weak light to the end of the lane. Relief relaxed her shoulders as she approached the last house on the lane. It was late, she shouldn’t wake the children, so she scratched on the door.
Tommy awoke to the snores of his older brother in the next pile of blankets. Winter was setting in and while the stove below them warmed most of the house, the little room he shared with his brother was often cold. Tommy watched his breath drift across his chest as he tried to go back to sleep, but his thoughts drifted to the stories his brother had been telling.
Old enough to work on the docks with their father, Jim had picked up tales of some of the sailors and brought them home to tell the family. Most were dismissed as foolishness by their parents, but a few drew angry looks. Those were the stories that Jim whispered to his little brother at night under the eaves. Some made him shiver in terror, but most brought a heightened sense of curiosity, as though those words opened a door only Tommy could peek through.
His eyes flickered to the window, perhaps one last look.
Below, the new moon only brightened the shadows enough to tell one doorway from another. Disappointed, he began to turn away but a flutter of movement caught his eye. He blinked and rubbed at the cheap glass trying to get a better look.
A woman wearing a pale shawl walked up the street. She tripped on the uneven stones and then walked to the house on the other side of the street.
Tommy squinted, pressing his face against the glass, no one went out at night alone. What was a woman doing outside this late?
She cocked her head to the side and stepped away from the Peterson’s door. Stepping out into the lane, she turned her head slowly, searching.
Breath whistled through the gap in Tommy’s teeth as he stood perfectly still. His heart beat faster as the ends of her skirt drifted around her like wisps of fog. He could see the door behind her.
“Jim?” he whispered quietly.
The woman below him glanced at his window and smiled. She slid under his sill and approached the door.
“Jim?” Tommy wheezed again.
Below, Tommy could hear a scratching on the door.