Chapter One: Five Points
MacKenzie had gotten away with it once again! There were playful butterflies in her stomach. She didn’t even try to hide her smirk as she tossed the apple in the air then looked back at the grocer she’d just delivered it from. He stood, one hand on his hip in the center of Five Points, scowling and brandishing a deadly lettuce at her with his free hand. The other marketers were laughing and cheering her on. They were all too familiar with her naughty ways.
“One day you’ll be forced to pay for that cheek, young MacKenzie, you mark my words! That pretty face won’t save you forever.”
“Not any time soon, I think!” she laughed, replying as much to the crowd as to him. “Wha…?” She had run into something solid while her head was turned. A pair of very firm hands steadied her by the shoulders.
“Whoa there, little lady. You should watch where you’re going or you’ll get yourself killed.”
She looked up, up, and up some more to quite possibly the tallest man she had ever seen. He was as solid and upright as a skyscraper, with soft, gentle brown eyes under a scowling brow. His boots and manners had already suggested he was from the south, but his accent confirmed it.
MacKenzie steadied herself by grabbing his torso. “Perhaps you had better look where you’re going, mister, since you were the one ‘sposed to be watchin’ where you step!”
“You’ve got a smart mouth on you, li’l lady. Didn’t anyone ever teach you any manners?”
“Well, I don’t think it’s any of your business whether they did or they didn’t. Now you let me go, damn it!”
“Gladly.” He released her and she took a step back, conscious that he was looking her up and down like a prize sheep.
“What are you gaping at?”
“Your dress is torn.”
“You think?” Not just her dress, but her petticoats, and in several places. The fabric was altogether threadbare and there was very little original material for the multiple patches to hold onto. But none of this mattered. At last it hadn’t mattered before now.
She looked back to see her Monday morning audience had already forgotten her. “And what’s it to you if it is? You talk about my manners, what about yours? What kind of manners is it to insult a woman in public—do you want me to feel ashamed of myself? A girl can’t help being poor, can she? I surely ain’t gonna thank you for noticing.”
The stranger’s eyes turned regretful. His sudden embarrassment was strangely becoming on his handsome face. “You are right, ma’am. I apologize. Please forgive me.” He tipped his Stetson to her. “Good day to you, ma’am.”
He stepped aside and continued along the street into the heart of the market. She would have continued on her way too, but now that she had recovered her wits, she wondered what he was doing here. This was no place for a respectable gentleman, and whatever he was, he certainly appeared to be that. She took a bite from her apple and stared thoughtfully after him.
Before she knew what she was doing she was following him. This was unwise; she had already lifted his wallet, taken more from habit than anything else. The rule was, once you got what you wanted you got the hell out of Dodge. That was the only safe thing to do. Why wait around for him to discover it was missing, which he would do pretty soon, she was sure of it?
But the stranger had no business in this part of the city. Oh, there were plenty that visited Manhattan; the place was virtually bursting with these home-grown tourists. They arrived every day to see the sites. But not here. Five Points was the center of all things bad and evil, and this stranger stood out from the crowd like a sore thumb. He wouldn’t last five minutes if he ran into the wrong sort. Hadn’t she proved that already? Well, if he was such an idiot, maybe there could be some more profit in it for her.
If nothing else, her curiosity got the better of her and she followed him from a discreet distance. Keeping tabs on him was easy to do, for he towered almost a full foot over the Five Points marketers and his erect bearing made him seem even taller.
He paused at many of the stalls, but bought nothing. Odd. She chewed thoughtfully on her apple while she pondered what he was about, swerving masterfully between the traders, like a prima ballerina, rehearsing her steps. Many a dealer tried to force their wares on him, but the stranger pressed on, smiling politely to each and every one but never stopping for more than a few seconds and showing nothing but polite curiosity for whatever it was they were trying to sell.
After a five-minute walk he paused at the intersection of the streets that gave Five Points its name. This was the seediest and most dangerous area to dawdle in; thieves and assailants were all too familiar with every alley exit. They would be out and long gone before a victim ever knew what hit them. But fortunately, the stranger didn’t linger long. She watched him turn onto Cross Street and disappear inside the Old Brewery. Strange. The building was the most notorious in this part of the city; it was a tenement house now, the worst of its kind, and the word on the street was someone was killed there every single night of the week. MacKenzie had grown up on these streets but not even she had ever had the courage to venture into that dismal place. Why, she could smell the stench of death and decay from here.
“Ah, well,” she said to herself. “Let the others have him then. I’m not going in there.”
She tossed her browning apple core into the street and turned her skirts back to the market. His wallet felt heavy in her pocket and she was eager to examine its contents properly. But not here. Not in this godawful place amid these jacketed barbarians. Though most knew who she was, everyone to a man would happily slit her young throat just to rob her of her bounty. Better she retreat to her room and examine her prize in private. And if a few more wallets should attach themselves along the way, all the better for her!
Chapter Two: The Old Brewery
Jed Whistler would have sat down if there had been anywhere for him to sit but there wasn’t. He twirled his hat in his hand and stood awkwardly as he drank the scene in. If there was a hell on earth, this was it. Although the sun was shining brightly outside, all the closed shutters around him made this room as dark as night. There were bodies wall to wall, both male and female. At least they were alive, judging by all the groaning and snoring coming from the floor. And oh, the stench! He was used to the stink of cattle but there was nothing so disgusting as the rank aroma of the mighty unwashed. These, he assumed, were the night workers, the poor immigrants with neither hearth nor home, forced to live like animals in this godforsaken hell-hole. He tried to imagine his sisters in a place like this, but it was too unthinkable, and he duly banished the thought from his mind.
The young boy who had let him in rubbed his eyes and stared at him blankly, no doubt eager to rejoin the stinky mass of bodies on the floor and go back to sleep.
Jed scratched his arm. Real or imagined, if he hung about here much longer he would catch some goddamned thing or other. Better get on with it. “I’m looking for Raj Maljandra. They told me I could find him here.”
The boy had no curiosity about who ‘they’ were, but he apparently knew who Jed was talking about. He hurried off toward a very unsafe-looking wooden stairway at the back of the room. The boy had said nothing, but Jed assumed he had meant for him to follow him, so that’s what he did.
The boy weighed next to nothing and almost flew up the rickety treads but Jed was more cautious. He had to be at least five times the youngster’s size, and he seriously doubted whether those stairs could hold his bulk. Like it or not, he had to climb them. He had promised his sister that he would do this, and he never reneged on a promise. Even one as odious as this.
He held his breath with every step, but despite the odd groan and crack, the stairs supported him all the way to the top. The sleepy boy stood at the end of a long passageway, still rubbing his eyes, evidently waiting for the stranger to catch up. Jed walked that passage with almost as much care as he had the stairs, but at last found himself standing in front of a closed door. The young boy pointed to it, then ran away back down the hall.
An acrid, eye-watering stink hung in the air, but as he got used to it he sensed an underlying warmth to the aroma that was quite soothing. At least it masked the stench exuding from the floor below. Without further delay he opened the door. The sooner his business was concluded the better.
The blankets strewn on the floor suggested that the room had many occupants at one time, but for now there was only one man inside. He was sitting at a table that served as a desk. On the surface was an assortment of jars of varying shapes, sizes, and colors. The man was dressed in some kind of orange tunic; he held a small jar of yellow powder in one hand and was writing something with the other. He looked up just as Jed walked in.
The man’s eyes narrowed. “Who wants to know?”
“I do. I’m Jed Whistler from Houston. My sister, Valerie, sent me.”
His eyes opened up a little and he sat straighter in his chair. “Ah, very good. What can I get for her?”
Jed hid his surprise that his sister knew a man like Maljandra, and pulled a piece of paper out from his pocket. He crossed the room and handed it to Raj. The Indian man looked at it, put his forefinger to his lip, and nodded. “Yes, I have that. One moment.” He stood up and wandered over to a shelf and began examining the labels on a dozen bottles. Jed had no idea what ‘that’ was. All he knew was his sister had said she needed it, and that was enough for him. And he could hardly expect her to venture to such a place on her own. That was out of the question. He’d looked at the words scratched on the paper over a dozen times and had made nothing of it. All that money he’d spent on her schooling… But at least Raj knew what she meant, and that was all that mattered.
After no time at all, Jed was handed a smallish pot, about the size of a tangerine, containing a jet-black powder. “Take this to her. She will like this, I think. It will ease her discomfort somewhat.”
Jed examined the contents of the pot somewhat quizzically. “I’ll take your word for that, sir.” He tipped his hat, and was on the point on leaving when Raj coughed.
“Are you not forgetting something?”
Jed turned back, confused, but he caught Maljandra’s meaning when he held out his dry hand to him. “Oh. Yes, sure. The payment. How much…?” Even as he spoke his hand was patting for his wallet. He always carried it inside his right lapel, but it was not there. He patted the other side, then his breeches, but though he checked them all, he couldn’t find it. “Well, doggone, where is…” The words hung poignantly in the air when the thought hit him like a thunderbolt. “The girl!”
“What girl?” asked Raj.
“I just ran into a little lady out in Five Points. Why, damn it, she must have lifted it the second I bumped into her.” His arms dropped apologetically to his sides. “Well, I don’t know what to say, Raj. I find myself in a most embarrassing predicament.”
The Indian shrugged and returned to his place at the table. “If you were here for any other person than your sister I would turn you out on the street. But she was kind to me once, and her credit will always be good here. Tell her she can pay me double next time.”
Jed bit his lip, disconcerted. His situation left him embarrassed beyond measure. He’d been brought up old-school, and being unable to pay, even when it wasn’t his fault, cut him to the quick. But what could he do? He pocketed the powder and tipped his hat respectfully. “Thank you kindly, sir. I’ll pass on your good wishes.”
Raj said nothing but nodded his head. His attention returned immediately to the yellow powder and so Jed left the room, closing the door quietly behind him.
All the way down the stairs, all he could think about was that young girl. He was no fool; he knew what this place was like. But dammit, he’d been a sucker for a pretty face and she’d wrong-footed him entirely. And yet he had been the one to see her coming, not the other way around. To take his wallet she would have to be lightning fast. Could she have done it? Really?
He thought hard about his journey through the market. Had he run into anyone else there? He didn’t think so. Darn it, it had to be the girl. No one else had come remotely near him.
But whoever it was who took it, he now had a new problem to deal with. How was he going to get by in this hell-hole without a nickel or dime on him? Sure, his ticket home was safe in his hotel room, but that wouldn’t help him eat tonight. If he could only find the girl, he’d take it back from her. And at least he might get the satisfaction of putting the little miss over his knee for all the trouble she’d caused him. Now that would be worth it, if nothing else.
As Jed stepped back out onto Cross Street the sun hit him full in the face, momentarily blinding him. He covered his eyes, but moved on quickly. It would not be wise to linger in this place.
He patted his coat pocket. The powder was secure, and he’d make damned sure no light-fingered ruffian would steal that from him. He didn’t know exactly what it was, or why this was the only place Valerie could get it, but that was her business. If it eased her suffering in any small way he was happy.
Jed sighed. All in all this had been a most unsatisfactory excursion. He didn’t like New York at all, and if he never came back in his life, that would be a day too soon for him. But he owed this much to Valerie, and at least in that regard his trip had been a success.
All the back to his hotel Jed thought about the thief. God, she had been quick with her fingers. There was definitely no one like her back home on the ranch. He grinned, but the thought of her back there disappeared as swiftly as the earlier thought of bringing his sisters here. It defied imagination.
Oh, how he would love to find her again. Girls like that though, they knew how not to get caught. It would be like looking for the needle in the proverbial haystack.
Jed had been walking back through the market for some time now and was just a few feet away from where he’d first run into her. He paused and looked around the place. There must be a way to find her—there just had to be. But in his heart he knew there was as much chance of that as any of these kind tradesman buying his supper tonight. And then he reached the greengrocer’s stall, attended by a sour-looking man with a rat-like face. He was gruff with his customers, perhaps still reeling from his encounter with the light-fingered urchin earlier in the day. A huge Texas smile lit up his handsome face. Well, well, Jed thought. Seems there might be a way to find that sweet little lady after all. He guessed the greengrocer was the kind to harbor a grudge, and wouldn’t mind ratting out a girl who had humiliated him in public. And he was right.
Chapter Three: MacKenzie’s Place
MacKenzie sat cross-legged on her bed, counting her loot. As she’d hoped, a few more wallets had attached themselves to her throughout the course of the day, so she’d have no problems making rent this week.
Not that it was much of a place to hold onto. MacKenzie looked around at the damp, gray walls she called home. Perhaps they had been nice once, though she really doubted it. But the space was altogether her own and that was rare in these parts. Pickings had been slim of late, and Paddy, her overweight and slimy landlord had suggested she pay her dues in other ways. No way. She’d take her chances at the Old Brewery before she’d let that happen.
Of all the wallets she’d nabbed, the southerner’s had been the fattest. Curious, MacKenzie opened it up fully and brought it to her nose. The leather was top notch, and the stitching along the edge was the best she’d seen in a while. Quality. She’s gotten lucky all right.
MacKenzie thumbed through the thick wad of notes in the sleeve then pulled them out. Fifty whole dollars. Wow—not bad, not bad at all. The man had been rich! After checking the others she found there was more in this one than all the others combined. She put the few coins in her pocket and hid the notes inside her bodice. She suspected her fat landlord snooped around her room whenever she left it. She’d caught him sniffing her pillow once. Disgusting.
The walls in this room were thin as paper, and MacKenzie heard someone shuffling about outside her door. There was nothing unusual in this. The building was full of people. Paying no attention to it, she got off the bed and opened up the window. The heat was stifling. Beads of sweat trickled down her neck and caused her bodice to stick to her skin.
Someone was fumbling with the doorknob, and she rolled her eyes as a chunky key clunked around in the lock. “Damn it, Paddy, I’m paying for privac—” Her heart stopped beating. She had expected her sweaty tormentor, but the second the door opened Paddy stepped aside to reveal the tall southerner, his face a picture of anger and exultation. “Holy cannoli!” she cried. “What on earth are you doing here?”
MacKenzie staggered back toward the window, and her gaze fell on the empty wallets still scattered accusingly on her bed. His eyes followed hers and narrowed as he turned back to her.
“That’s what I thought. At least you’ve spared me the trouble of finding the proof of my suspicions.”
Instincts brought on by twenty years in the street taught her to fight. “Now you just wait there a minute, big man. There’s no proof in the world that anything in here is yours. Get the hell outta my room before I call the cops on yer.”
Paddy, who was still lingering outside in the hallway, took umbrage at this idea for some reason. He raised his hand in a placatory gesture. “Come, come, now, Ms. MacKenzie, there’s no need for that. Now just you calm down and be reasonable. All ya need do is return this gentleman’s money and that will be an end to it, I swear it. Whaddya say?”
“Hell, no, I ain’t giving nobody nothing. Get the hell out, both of you. You ain’t got no business intruding on a lady, not when she’s resting in her own room. Get yourselves gone and quick before I start screaming!”
Paddy began to sweat and nervously fingered his grimy shirt collar. “Now, now, girl, there’s no call for that. Be reasonable, yes, be reasonable. This man only wants what’s right, and so you be a good girl and return his property to him.” As he nodded down toward the wallets, seeing so many wallets on the bed seemed to give him another idea, and his eyes grew greedy, no doubt with thoughts of his back rent.
He wet his lips suggestively, and the creepy look on his face made her skin crawl. “Or perhaps, if you’ve spent the money already, you can find another way to repay the gentleman? I’m sure he’s a reasonable man, and, well, you’re a very pretty girl, MacKenzie, yes you are, indeed.”
The way Paddy rubbed his hands together made her want to retch. MacKenzie snatched one of the wallets and hurled it right at him. “Why, you son of a bitch!” Her aim was true, and it smacked him dab on the nose.
“Hell, there’s no need for that!” Paddy cried, wiping his nose on the back of his hand to check for blood. “The girl’s insane. Do whatever you want to, mister, I ain’t got no time for this. You’re on your own, MacKenzie, and after this you’re out, ya hear me, out! I want you gone within the hour. You and your dandy man! Or I’ll be the one calling the cops!”
“You wouldn’t dare!” MacKenzie said. But he was heading back down the passage as fast as his short, stumpy legs could carry him. Her attention returned to the stranger, who had stood by quietly throughout the entire exchange.
“Now don’t you start!” she continued. “Why don’t you get yourself gone just like he suggested?”
The southerner removed his hat, closed the door, and sat down on the edge of her bed. “I’m not going anywhere, missy.”
“Now just you wait a cotton-picking minute. What on earth do you think you’re doing on my bed?”
“Waiting for you to give me back my money.”
“Like the man said, I spent it already.”
He looked around her small room. “On what exactly?”
MacKenzie followed his gaze. His eyes scanned the walls and fixed on an old photograph. It was a picture of her mother, when she was roughly the same age MacKenzie was now. Impatient for him to leave, she squared her hands on her hips.
“A new hat! Look, it’s none of your business what I spent it on. Point is it’s gone and there’s nothing you can do about it, so get yourself up and leave, why dontcha?”
He moved his own hat a few inches behind him but instead of leaving, as she’d requested, he uncrossed his legs and appeared to be making himself more comfortable. He unbuttoned his jacket and pushed the fabric to one side.
“Damn it, well, if you ain’t leaving, I most certainly am!” MacKenzie began to storm off but a long, muscular arm caught her as she passed by and before she knew it, he had pulled her down over his knee. “What the—!”
“If you won’t return what is mine, you give me no choice but to thrash the truth out of you.”
Did he say thrash? “You wouldn’t dare!” Yet he held her there in a most undignified position, and though she twisted and squirmed he had her tight and she was unable to wriggle free. “Damn it—let me go.”
“I’m going to ask you one last time, little lady—where’s my money?”
“I told you, I spent it!”
He sighed. “Well, you asked for it! For that little lie you’re going to get a sound walloping.”
MacKenzie barely caught her breath. Before she could protest again, a heavy hand hit her rear end hard. She didn’t think he would really do it! Stunned into silence, there was nothing she could do while five hard ones cracked across her skirted backside. But then her senses returned, and she fought hard against him, kicking out her legs but to no avail.
“Dammit, you let me go, mister!”
“I see you’re a hard nut to crack. Well now, shall we try this again, little lady?”
“You can beat me as much as you want, you won’t be the first! But I tell you I don’t have it.”
“You don’t, huh? Well, if that’s how you wanna play it.”
MacKenzie tried to get up but she was no match for his bulk. The hand that wasn’t spanking her had her pinned down good and proper. And this time he wasn’t messing around.
“What the…?” Before she knew it, her skirts were over her head and his spanking hand grabbed the top of her undergarments. Without a care for her chastity or propriety, the great hulk of a man pulled down her pantaloons, exposing her bare backside to anyone who happened to have a view of it.
She squirmed and fought hard, fearing for her honor and good name, when another resounding smack made her bare bottom cheeks flare up and sting from the pain. Oh, the shame of it! No man had ever touched her body before; she prided herself on her purity—a rare thing indeed in these parts—and without so much as a ‘by your leave,’ this man had exposed her femininity and was abusing her however he thought fit. She was terrified and bewildered at the same time. How easily this had happened. Prone as she was, he could do anything he wanted to her.
Oh, dear God, how I must look! MacKenzie thought. As she endured the pain of each well-aimed stroke, all she could think of was her bottom and pussy, high up in the air. She was painfully conscious of every smack to her cheeks. Every slap landed a little differently, and every time she experienced a raw tingling sensation.
And he could see all of it, was touching her just as he wanted, and worse—she could feel herself getting wet! He had to be aware of this—how could he not be?
“You’re a stubborn little lady,” the man said. “Anyone else would be crying out by now. But you brought this on yourself, and I ain’t stopping until I get what I want.”
No way was she going to give him the satisfaction of crying out. She was stronger than that—he’d soon see! But this time, as his hand caught the sensitive folds between her legs, MacKenzie couldn’t help herself. She gasped and bit her lip. Along with the pain there was an unexpected jolt of pleasure. His hand raised and came crashing down once more. The heat seared in her cheeks and, as mad as it was, she realized she liked the sensation of his hand on her backside.
But what did this mean? Was she not as pure as she’d always thought she was? Was she a bad woman after all, just like all the sluts that paraded on the street corners, flashing their wares at any man who glanced at them? Oh, dear God, no! And yet she could not deny the tickling sensation between her thighs. She wasn’t just wet—she was excited.
Jiminy Cricket, what would he think of her?
“Go to hell!” MacKenzie said. Dear God, she prayed he wouldn’t realize the effect he was having on her. And even though it hurt like hell, she still had some pride left.
So, she fought against him even harder, but as she wriggled to free herself, a ten-dollar note flew out from the top of her bodice and landed accusingly at his feet.
“Spent it, huh?” In a flash he had her right-sided and indifferent to her dignity, slipped his hand down the front of her bodice. Once more she struggled, conscious of his large fingers rummaging down her soft cleavage, fishing around for whatever he could find down there.
His search was perhaps a little more invasive than it needed to be, as he fished around for everything that was his. As his fingers roughly scratched a nipple, an unexpected jolt of excitement went through her, and once again, she was aware of how wet he’d made her. Damn his impudence!
But by and by, he at last fished all the notes out. “My, my, my, look what I found!” he said triumphantly. He let her go, stashing the notes carefully inside his jacket pocket.
“Now you wait, mister, those notes ain’t all yours. Some of them are mine!”
“No doubt lifted the same way as all the rest.”
“How I came by ‘em ain’t none of your business, now is it? Give me my money back!”
Jed paused for just a moment, and once again took a good hard look around the room. He shook his head, but counted out exactly fifty dollars and threw the rest of the money back on the bed.
“Keep it then, though I doubt it will bring you much happiness.”
“I’ll take that if you don’t mind. Back rent.” Paddy swept in and out of the room before she had a chance to object. MacKenzie could only watch with horror as her hard-earned stash was stolen right from in front of her. She found her voice at last.
“Wait! No! That’s mine!”
“Not any more it ain’t,” said Paddy, with a sinister chuckle. “It’s mine. Now git the hell out of my property. I don’t wanna see your face round here no more!”
The two men exchanged knowing glances, and since the large Texan didn’t appear to object, Paddy pocketed the notes and left the room.
MacKenzie was bewildered. In the last few minutes she’d been subjected to more abuse than she’d ever had in her life. Dazed, she backed up against the wall as she tried to recover her wits.
The moment Paddy was gone, the Texan flicked aside two of the wallets on the bed before identifying his own. He then stuffed the notes back inside it and secured the wallet in his breast pocket. His business concluded, he stood up and tipped his hat to her once more. “I’ll be seeing ya,” he said politely.
The Texan just had his hand on the door handle when at last MacKenzie came to her senses and lurched forward. “No, wait!” Her empty belly had more control of the moment than she had. “Don’t go.”
He turned, and she rewarded him with her most tantalizing smile, hoping against the odds he would show her a little kindness and leave her with the price of a meal. He clearly misinterpreted her meaning, for he looked from her to the bed and back again. The Texan said nothing at first, but he didn’t leave either.
“No, no. I mean… Hell, look, mister, I ain’t eaten a thing since that apple, and my belly’s screaming for something to eat. That’s all I’m asking.” She looked purposefully at the bed herself. “And nothing more. I might be a thief but I ain’t no whore. You can ask anyone.”
He winced at the word. “I didn’t imagine you were.” All the same he turned to leave again, but then he paused. Once again, his eyes swept around the room then landed back on her. He bit his lip. “I’m not giving you any money, and I don’t hold with the way you make yours—but I don’t like the idea of you being out on the streets and all without a nickel to your name. I ain’t saying I’m responsible for that—no, I kinda think you brought that on yourself, little lady—but I won’t see you starve either, I wouldn’t do that to a lame coyote.”
“So what then.”
“Get your things and come with me.”
She hesitated, unsure of what he had in mind.
“It’s okay, I’ve no agenda. I’m kinda hungry myself, so if you come along, I’ll buy you a hot meal—but on one condition.”
She paused. Of course there had to be a catch. “Yeah, what’s that?”
“You promise to keep your slippery hands off my wallet.”
What choice did she have? As of now she was out of her bed and board. In time she’d be able to lift a few more wallets, she was sure of that, but right now she needed feeding, and since he was offering… “Oh, okay then, it’s a deal. But give me a minute to get my things.”
MacKenzie wasn’t kidding about the minute. The first thing she grabbed was the photo of her mother. Other than that, she wrapped a few clothes in a blanket but that was it. The Texan raised his brows in surprise. “I like to travel light,” was all she said. The truth was, there had never been any point to keeping anything precious in this place. She wasn’t the only light-fingered urchin in the building, and anything of value would have disappeared in less than a heartbeat. So a single minute was all it took to gather everything she owned.
The Texan walked out into the passage, and without so much as a backward glance, MacKenzie followed him out of the building. She would take what she could from the Texan, and after that, well, she would worry about that when he was gone. For now, she just needed to eat.