The precinct we were taken to was dimly lit, but fairly clean, and obviously doing a brisk trade that night. But for the bars on the windows, it could have been any office. A notary's maybe, or a bookkeeper's. We were pushed up to a high counter, hands still tied behind our backs.
"Another lot?" The clerk behind the desk, a balding, sweaty man with a red nose and jutting belly, looked harried, frantic even. "How many and what for?"
"There's three of 'em. Public indecency." The officer who had picked us up spat the last, loaded word out as if it pained him to have to say it.
"What manner of indecency?" the clerk, manically rummaging through the muddle of papers on the desk, was obviously a little slow on the uptake that night.
Our officer rolled his eyes at no one in particular and leaned in to whisper to the other man, so as not to offend all the ears pricked in the room with the utter depravity that was us three.
"Oh I get it, I get the picture. Youth these days, there's no end to the disgusting filth you'll do for a pound. You boys should be ashamed of.. " The clerk trailed off from his indignant lecturing, his attention meandering as he spotted the form he wanted. He grabbed it and smoothed it out with one fat, greasy hand. "Name please." He grabbed the stub of a pencil from behind his ear and looked up, at Finn first.
"Sod off." This earned him a sharp cuff from behind, which he took without flinching. The clerk, who either had no sense of humour, or a very developed one indeed, dutifully took it down and looked at me next.
"John.. Smith" was the best I could come up with at the time. How very creative. But I made up for it. As he got to Yuri, I blurted out, "Wait, 'e.. uh, doesn't speak any english. His name is.. Hans."
"I.. don't know. Just Hans." The clerk looked at me suspiciously for a moment, his thick jowls jiggling as he chewed on the end of his pencil. The officer behind us grunted in obvious impatience.
"I would like to go 'ome sometime tonight, if you please. See the wife 'fore she passes out and starts snoring like a hog. There's no raisin' 'er once she's gone off to sleep, dead to the world she is."
"Right, right, Hans it is. I'll toss 'em in." The clerk produced a jingling ring of keys and came round to lead us down a short hallway to a dank cell walled in on three sides by cinderblock, the forth being open bars. The door squealed on its hinge as he opened it, and we were untied and unceremoniously shoved in. "And no funny business, you hear?" The snap of the lock behind us seemed to echo as his footsteps got further and further away. We were left alone to survey our surrounding and our company.
There were four others in the cell. Well, four others that I noticed right off. Three sat on the low bench of greasy wood that was suspended from one of the side walls somehow. They were dejectedly sharing a fag, its red tip glowing out from the near-darkness. They barely glanced up at us. The fourth lay on his back on the gritty cement floor, waving his hands in front of his face and muttering gibberish to himself, something about pirates and outlaws. A sick-sweet odour invaded my nostrils from his direction. This man had obviously been making use of one of the many opium dens in our beautiful bit of London, playing St. George and chasing dragons. Poor fool, I almost felt sorry for him. The lot of them seemed a very weak threat, and I began to relax as much as one can while in a dank prison with no idea what would happen when morning dawned.
The three of us were not quite brave enough to assert ourselves and claim part of the bench, so we unanimously came to the decision that we would be sitting on the floor, backs pressed against the bars. I took off my jacket and spread it over my lap.
As my eyes adjusted to the weak light leaking in from the hall, I started, realizing that we were in the company of one more than I had though before. There was another man, hunched into the corner, his arms wrapped around his knees. He looked to be in his late forties, but I couldn't be sure. Even in the dim light I could see that he was much too well heeled to be in a place like this. His clothes were obviously tailored, expensive, and he had the air of a wealthy man. He was watching us, I could see his eyes glinting out of the darkness of his face. His gaze never wavered, even when there was no way he could have missed my noticing it. He put me on edge.
Time passed slowly. The tedium of staying conscious became heavier and heavier as the moments passed. We could have been in the cell five minutes or an hour when Finny, squished in the middle, began to nod off.
"One of us should keep awake." I elbowed him rudely in the ribs.
He looked at me with slightly unfocussed eyes, lower lip puffy and threatening to swell out even more. "Feel free. There's no use in all of us staying up. We're not goin' anywhere anytime soon."
I cursed him in my head, but left him alone. His head lolled back against the bars and he shut his eyes. Over him, I could see Yuri do the same. After a few minutes, I could intuit the natural change in his breathing and the general relaxation of his frame that signified his descent into sleep.
I stuck to my pledge to remain awake for quite longer than would have been expected, kept uneasy by the silent watch being kept over us by the man in the corner. But I eventually succumbed to the strangely comforting ebb-and- flow noise of the place.
When I awoke it seemed only a few hours later, obviously deep into the night by now. The ambiance had changed; there was no noise, save for the one that had taken me from my sleep. It took a moment for me to realize what it was: whispering, hushed so that I could hear only the sound but not the words.
My mystery man was no longer in his corner. He was now only a few feet away from me, hands laced through the bars as he talked earnestly, if quietly, to someone in the corridor. I twisted my neck to look at him, mind muddy and groggy still. In profile, he was tall and slim, his well-cut suit hugging him closely, as was the popular style. Something in the rustle I made alerted him, and he turned for a moment to look at me. I looked away quickly, cursing myself for giving my consciousness away. I gritted my teeth as he whispered a few last words to whomever he was speaking to. There was the sound of footsteps , quickly drifting off into silence.
Out of the corner of my eye I could just barely see his shoes as they approached me. I could not bear to look up, my body taut as a bowstring, expecting a kick or a lashing or some other infliction of pain.
But he only crouched down beside me. I could feel the warmth from his body, and realized how much the cold had seeped into me, how numb my fingers and toes were. I looked up and found myself staring into a handsome face, lit by the glowing tip of a lit cigarette. His was a face with high cheekbones, vaguely Celtic in their angularity, a face that was aging gracefully, lines appearing symmetrically about the eyes and mouth. He flipped the fag and held it out to me. I took it gingerly and nodded my thanks. It was pungent, filling my lungs with spicy-sweet smoke.
"What's your name?"
"Rowan. Rowan Bryceton."
"And you three are.." he hesitated for a moment, looking up as if searching for just the right words "..in the business of pleasure, shall we say?"
"We're renters, if that's what you mean." The dull warning edge in my voice surprised even me.
"Yes, yes. Well, Rowan Bryceton..," my name sounded so much more exotic coming off his tongue, "..this might just be your lucky day." He said no more, and straightened up leaving me to smoke the rest of his expensive cigarette and ponder this cryptic remark. He stood a few feet off, his back against the bars, leaning. His foot tapped expectantly. Something in his demeanor stopped me from asking what he had meant.
I flicked the spent butt out into the darkness and sometime after that drifted back into sleep, Finn and Yuri still snoring beside me, oblivious.
More soon. xo.