The knot in the pit of my stomach was the first sign that I should
turn around and leave. Quickly. Girls like me weren’t supposed to be on this
side of town, walking down dark streets in Gucci heels and a Prada dress. Some
would say it was like I was asking for trouble.
Well, maybe I was. All I knew was that I wanted to go somewhere where nobody would find me. Not my father. Not my best friend. And definitely not Marc. I just wanted to be alone, and the slums were my best chance of finding that sense of freedom.
My steps slowed as I realized what I was doing. Where I was. I’d never been this far from home before, or this deep into the city. Someone whistled to my left, but when I looked, no one was there. Pulling my coat tighter around my body, I started walking again.
The slums were a lot worse off than I’d ever thought. I’d heard about them from my father. His company was trying to tear them down to build new housing and new shopping centers. He always talked about how dirty they were, how full of crime and dangerous. And walking down the street at midnight, I could see where he’d get that idea. It was dirty. And dark. But dangerous? Well, no one had mugged me yet.
I stopped and sat on the sidewalk, not caring that my dress was white and probably ruined. I put my elbows on my knees and buried my face in my hands, rubbing at my sore eyes. I could still feel the tear tracks on my cheeks, cold in the early November evening. “What am I doing?” I mumbled, sighing into my hands.
“I was wonderin the same thing,” someone said from behind me.
My heart leapt into my throat as I stood and spun around, nearly twisting my ankle in my heels. A hand reached out and grabbed my elbow to steady me, but released me immediately afterwards.
“Woah, woah, missy. Didn’t mean ta startle ya.” The man in front of me held up his hands, as if to make himself appear less threatening. Though, to be honest, he wasn’t scary at all. He was older, with graying hair and a kind smile. He had on a tee shirt from a band I’d never heard of and ripped jeans, but they weren’t as dirty as I’d expected. He looked nice. Like a rocker grandpa taking his grandkids to their first concert.
But I’d learned the hard way that looks could be deceiving.
“It’s alright,” I said, slipping my hands into the pocket of my coat. My fingers closed around the small cylindrical bottle of pepper spray hidden there, and the furious beating of my heart eased slightly. “I should be going.” Turning, I started back down the street in the direction I’d come. Footsteps followed me, but I forced myself to keep calm. Freaking out would not help. My grip on the pepper spray tightened, my palm sweaty against the metal tube. Why had I thought this was a good idea?
“Miss? Where you runnin’ off to so fast? We’ve only just met,” the man said, trotting so we were walking side-by-side.
I shot him a sideways glance. “I need to get home. Curfew, you know?” I smiled, like I was leaving because I had to and not because he was creeping me out.
The man checked his watch, whistling. “It’s after midnight, girlie. Some curfew ya got there. Sure you don’t wanna stay the night out here? Under the stars?” He raised his arms above his head, tipping his head back to stare at the sky. I glanced up, but I didn’t see any stars. Only thick, angry clouds, threatening rain, and the pale outline of the moon behind them.
The truth was, I did want to stay out here. At least, I didn’t want to go home. I wasn’t sure I could face my parents yet. Pretend everything with Marc had gone fine, and that there was a logical excuse for being out so late. But I had to go somewhere.
“I should really get home,” I said again, quickening my pace. My heels clicked against the street, each click followed by a thud from his boots. Stupid, stupid, Mikaela! I really needed to learn how to walk without disappearing into my head.
A hand closed around my wrist, and the man spun me around, leaning close so we were nose-to-nose. “This is a bad part of town, miss. Wouldn’t want you goin ahead an’ meetin’ the wrong kind of people, now would we?” He tugged on my arm, turning around and heading back into the Slums.
I pulled back, clenching my fingers around the pepper spray in my pocket. “Let me go. I have to get home.” I tugged on my wrist again, wishing I’d worn shoes that I could dig into the pavement and stand my ground. My heels were trying to twist underneath me, nearly sending me sprawling as the man gave a particularly hard pull on my arm.
“Come on, now. My place isn’t far. In fact, it’s right around this corner.” With one last, hard pull, he had me in an alley between two decaying buildings. He pushed me against the wall, brick digging into my back. My breath left me in a whoosh at the contact, and I’d have doubled over if he wasn’t holding me upright.
“Please,” I managed to gasp out. “Please, just let me go.”
His hands started to travel my body, digging into the pockets of my coat. But I didn’t have any money. All he would find was my cell phone and my pepper spray. I felt his fingers close around mine and grimaced, pulling my hand free of his and my pocket at the same time. Praying the tube was facing the right direction, I held it between us, closed my eyes, and pushed the button.
The man screamed, instantly releasing me. I opened my eyes and found him clawing at his face with dirty fingers. He fell to his knees and I used that moment to rush past him. One of his hands reached out and grabbed my ankle, sending me to my knees against the pavement. I felt myself slide, knew my knees would be skinned, but I didn’t feel any pain. I was too aware of the heat of his hand around my ankle, of my heart beating furiously in my chest and the scream rising in my throat as he pulled me toward him.
Suddenly, I was on my back with him looming over me, his hands around my wrists. He forced my hands over my head, crushing my thin wrists in his grimy hands. “You little bitch,” he growled. “Who do you think you are? Coming out here dressed like that, just asking for something bad to happen.”
He leaned closer to my face, pushing both of my hands into one of his. His free hand moved to my waist, sliding along my side until he found the inside pocket of my coat. It was empty. Growling again, he found another pocket. Empty. “Where’s your money, princess? Huh? Where’s Daddy’s credit card and Momma’s precious pearls?”
“Please, I don’t have anything. Just let me go.” Tears were running down my cheeks at this point, and I wanted to wipe them away. But his hand still held mine in his bruising grip, and no matter how much I squirmed, I couldn’t get him off of me.
The man scoffed. “I don’t believe you. But maybe you’re telling the truth. Maybe I should just keep you as my prize, since you can’t give me anything else.” He licked his lips, leaning down and brushing his lips across my cheek.
Shuddering, I turned my head to the side, only to have him grab my chin and force me to look at him again. He opened his mouth to say something, but stopped as a loud sound rang through the alley. I cringed, closing my eyes as my ears rang. It sounded like someone had taken a steel bat to the brick wall, the sound reverberating, echoing all the way down the alley and back again.
“What the—“ The man looked up and froze, his eyes widening. He scrambled off of me, wiping his hands on his pants. “Nick! Didn’t see you there. I was just—“ He glanced down at me as I pushed myself up onto my elbows, breathing hard.
“I see what you were doing, Rodgers. Scram. You know how Dai feels about this.” The voice from behind me was strange. Quiet but harsh, like a flower with thorns.
“Right. Sorry, sir. I meant no disrespect. I just—“
“Scram!” The voice was louder this time, and the man, Rodgers, he’d been called, squeaked and ran in the opposite direction, disappearing into the darkness.
And though I’d been saved from him, I didn’t feel anywhere near safe. Swallowing hard, I pushed myself to my feet, wishing I hadn’t dropped my pepper spray. I turned around, not sure what to expect. A boy stood in the alley entrance, a bat in one hand. As I turned, he flipped it so the end was resting against the ground, his hand perched on the flat, round surface at the end of the handle. I couldn’t make out his features in the dark, but his hair was wild and he was thin.
“I don’t have any money,” I said, taking a step back. Then I remembered Rodgers disappearing in that direction, and took a step forward. I was trapped.
“Don’t want your money,” the boy said, leaning against the building.
“No jewelry, either,” I said.
“Don’t want that either.”
I could hear the smile in his voice. It made me want to punch him. “Then what do you want?” I asked, brushing my hands against my dress. It was undoubtedly ruined now, after falling and writhing on the ground. The thought of falling reminded me of my knees, and they instantly started to sting. Glancing down, I found them dripping blood. Great. My father was going to be furious.
“Well, I’d like to help you take care of those knees, for one,” the boy said. “Maybe find you a way home?”
My eyes narrowed at his words. “And why would that be what you want?”
He shrugged, swinging the bat up over his shoulder. “It’s sort of what we do.”
“We?” I asked, taking a few steps closer to him. I figured if he was planning on hurting me, he’d have done it already.
Nodding, the boy backed up, giving me room to leave the alley. “Yeah. Me and my gang. We’re sort of the law of the Slums, I guess.”
I raised an eyebrow, stepping back onto the street and weighing my options. Blood was starting to run down my shins, but I could walk okay. I figured I could either go with this strange boy and let him “help” me, or I could just ask him to escort me to the edge of the Slums and go home to face my father’s wrath. The third option, leaving the Slums on my own, no longer seemed like a good idea.
Sighing, I put a hand to my temple. “Your gang. Law of the Slums. Wonderful.” Still, it was the better of the two options. Biting my lip, I nodded. “Okay. Take me to your leader. Or whatever.”
The boy laughed, extending a hand toward me. “The name’s Nicklaus. But you can call me Nick.”
“Mikaela. It’s a pleasure. I think.” I smiled, taking his hand. It was softer than I’d imagined it would be, and his grip was firm. He pulled my hand up to his lips, kissing my knuckles.
“Pleasure’s all mine. Now, come on. Rodger hates us. If he’d had his gang with him, you’d have been in trouble.” Nick turned, heading deeper into the Slums. I sent one last look toward the city lights, shining bright and beckoning me home, before following him.
“If he hates you, why does he listen?”
Nick shrugged. “When Dai’s around, no one questions anything. And we’ve got quite a few guys on our side. Couple girls, too,” he said, nodding in my direction. “We’re a force to be reckoned with. Single us out, though, and everyone thinks they can take us.”
“Could he have taken you?” I asked. “If his gang was there, I mean?”
Another smile crossed his features. “Let’s not worry about that. This way.”
The further into the Slums we went, the more it came alive. Which was strange, for a place presumed dead. All of the street lamps had been turned off when the Slums became the Slums, and I’d expected the streets to be dark. But lanterns hung low across the street, stretching from one building to the next and leaving us plenty of light to walk by. There were even shops, with cardboard signs posting hours of operations. The windows were boarded up and the doors were locked with heavy chains, but they were stores. Real stores. A bakery, a tailor, an old shoe store. It made sense, thinking about it. Even people exiled to the Slums needed clothes and shoes and food. I’d just never imagined there was a whole ‘nother city out here.
And it was filled with people, despite the late hour. Some were sitting on the curb, talking in loud voices with beer bottles in their hands. Kids were running through the street, dodging us and chasing a soccer ball or playing with wooden swords. I wondered where their parents were, and then I wondered if they even had parents. Some people stood in open doorways with cigarettes or coke bottles. Anyone sober enough to pay attention watched us as we passed, staring at me and then gazing at Nick.
“What is this place?” I asked Nick as we rounded a corner. It was darker here, without lanterns. There weren’t as many people, either, and I instantly felt safer. For some reason, the crowds in the Slums made me nervous. Maybe because I figured Nick could handle himself against one or two thugs, but not against an entire street.
“It’s the Slums.” Nick glanced over his shoulder, and I caught his smile in a flash of light coming from one of the windows we passed. “Not what you were expecting, Prada Princess?”
I huffed at the nickname, but my anger quickly passed. I couldn’t be mad at him for judging me based on what I wore and where I came from. I’d been doing the same thing to everyone since I made it to the Slums. “Not at all.”
We walked in silence for a few minutes, Nick whistling quietly. The sound wasn’t loud enough to echo, but it still put me on edge. I felt like I was walking into a trap, following this boy I knew nothing about to a gang of men just waiting to… I didn’t want to think about it. I focused on thinking about the fact that he’d saved me.
“We’re here,” Nick finally said, stopping in front of a large warehouse. It had windows high on the walls, these not boarded up or barred. They didn’t even look broken, from where we were standing. Bright light shone through the small windows and out into the night, but they were far too high for me to look inside.
Grabbing the handle of the door closest to us, Nick slid it to the side. It bounced along its track, stopping at the edge of the building and sliding partially back. Nick gestured inside, a huge smile on his face. Taking a deep breath, I stepped in.
The room was bright as day. It was filled with old, mismatched furniture and wooden crates. The few that I could see clearly were labeled “cans,” “pants,” and “toys.” A loft had been fashioned around the entire warehouse, but it was too high for me to see what was up there.
“Welcome to our humble abode,” Nick said, plopping into a chair near the entrance. He sat sideways, swinging his legs over one arm and leaning against the other, clasping his hands behind his head.
I nodded, stepping further into the room. My heels clicked against the concrete floor, and suddenly several people peeked over the edge of the loft. One, a girl a little older than me, rolled her eyes and disappeared again. Another, a young boy, was rubbing tiredly at his eyes.
“Who’s that, Nick?” the boy asked, his voice tiny and slurred.
“Just a stray, Eddie. Go back to bed. Tell Dai to get his butt down here. And Vince, too.”
Nodding, the boy disappeared. A few minutes later, a boy leapt from the balcony. I shrieked, covering my mouth with my hand, but Nick only laughed as the boy grabbed a rope hanging from the warehouse ceiling and swung down it, landing heavily in front of me. The rope swung back toward the loft and another boy jumped down, landing beside the first.
I took a few hurried steps back, nearly stumbling in my heels. Nick reached out and steadied me, chuckling under his breath.
“Prada Princess, meet Dai and Vince. Dai is our resident leader, and Vince is our….medic, you could say.” Nick gestured to the two boys in turn, first to Dai. He was tall and well built, with thick arms and long legs. His hair was dark and curly, messy on top of his head and hanging in bright green eyes.
Vince, the second boy, had bright red hair, brown eyes, and an average build, much like Nick’s. But he was taller than the average height boy who’d brought me here, and he appeared older than the other two. Maybe in his late twenties instead of his teens.
Now that we were in the light, I took a closer look at Nick. Blond spiky hair, blue eyes. Dimples when he smiled. Not bad looking, for a criminal.
“What happened to her?” Dai asked, his eyes trailing my body.
“Did she hit her head?” Vince asked, stuffing his hands into his pockets and leaning toward me.
I huffed, crossing my arms over my chest. “No, she didn’t hit her head. She got attacked.” Shaking my head, I let my arms drop back to my side. “And then she made a horrible decision and followed a strange guy into a warehouse full of more strange guys.”
Dai’s lip quirked, like he was holding back a smile.
“Feisty,” Vince said, straightening with a chuckle. “What’s your name?”
“I like Prada Princess myself,” Nick said, standing and stretching. His long arms nearly smacked me, and I took another step back. “You guys got this from here, right? I assume Princess here will need someone to get her home after ya fix her up.”
Vince nodded. “Yeah, we got her. Go get some sleep. Send Ollie down for her shift.”
I almost wanted to object. I didn’t know any of these people, but Nick was the one who’d saved me. For some reason, the thought of him disappearing into the loft made me anxious. He flashed a grin at me as he left, grabbing the rope near the loft and pulling himself up with more strength than I’d imagined he’d have in his thin arms.
As soon as he disappeared into the loft, the girl from before reappeared, sliding down the rope instead of making it swing and jumping from it. Her hair was hidden beneath a black beanie, her eyes lined with dark makeup. She was the scariest one of all of them, and I stepped to the side as she passed, not wanting to be in her way. She didn’t say anything. Just left the warehouse, sliding the door shut behind her. But I didn’t miss the glare she sent my way just before the door slammed closed.
The sound made me jump, and I spun back around to face Dai and Vince. “So…” This wasn’t me. I didn’t go to warehouses in the middle of the Slums in the middle of the night with a bunch of strangers. I was starting to wonder if I would have been better off braving the Slums alone after Nick saved me. At least then I only had a few blocks to go before the Slums were behind me and I was on my way home. Now I had no idea where I was, and I was closed in an old warehouse in the middle of nowhere. No one knew where I was. I had my cell, but I doubted it would get service in the full metal building. Even if it did, Dai or Vince could snatch it from me before I even made a call.
“Why don’t you take off your coat,” Dai said, motioning for me to take the chair Nick had just left. I plopped into it, leaving my jacket on. My phone was in my pocket. I didn’t want to hand it over, but I didn’t want to look nervous, reaching for it and clutching it while handing over my jacket.
Dai raised a brow but shrugged, and Vince took a step forward. “So, what happened? You said you were mugged?”
“Almost mugged, I guess,” I said, glancing down. My knees were a mess of shredded skin and blood. Grimacing, I looked back at Vince. “I don’t have any money on me, or any jewelry of any value. I had pepper spray in my pocket, but it didn’t last as long as I thought it would.”
“A lot of people out here are used to the effects, sadly. There are a lot of criminals in these parts.”
I nodded. That was nothing I hadn’t already known. But people being used to pepper spray? What did they do? Build up a tolerance to having a burning substance in their eyes? “Good to know.”
“If you really want to hurt someone, go for a knife next time,” Nick called from the loft.
“Go to sleep,” Dai called back, and I heard the hint of a chuckle from Nick. “Don’t listen to him. He uses a baseball bat as his weapon of choice, and he’s never even used it on anyone.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” I wasn’t sure what to make of these people. They were from the Slums, a place I’d been raised to fear. But they were kind, and funny. Dai didn’t look like a criminal. He had perfect posture and a calm demeanor.. Nick was just funny, but not wild or dangerous. He hit a wall instead of hitting the man attacking me.
And Vince? I studied him as he crossed the warehouse, going to a small cabinet at the back of the room. He came back with a small white box with a red cross on it. Kneeling in front of me, he grabbed the back of my knee and straightened my leg, causing me to wince. “Sorry,” he muttered, leaning close to my leg. “It doesn’t look like you have any gravel stuck in your legs. No deep cuts, either. Some antiseptic and a couple of band aids, and you should be fine.” That said, he set to work cleaning the cuts.
“Who are you guys, really?” I asked, glancing at Dai. I needed to talk, to ignore the sting the alcohol sent across my knees. I wasn’t used to being hurt. I’d been walking in heels since I was twelve. I never fell. And the more I thought about my skinned knees, the more I thought about how I’d gotten them, and the fact that I’d almost died in the Slums, and the more anxious I became.
“We’re just a bunch of people living in the Slums who don’t want other people getting hurt out here,” Vince said, sticking two band aids on my knee before moving on to the next one.
“But why? Why are you even in the Slums?” It was obvious they didn’t belong. Their attitudes, the way they spoke. Even the way they dressed. Slum clothing, but perfectly put together. Like they were used to having more.
“That’s not something you need to know,” Dai said, sitting in a chair close to mine. “Just know that we’re here to protect people who wander in. People who can’t protect themselves.”
“I’m not weak,” I said.
“I never said you were.” His half-smile was back, but it was different this time. Not quite a happy smile. More the type you gave someone when you didn’t know what to say.
“I’m not.” I didn’t know what to say, either. So we sat in silence while Vince worked. I could hear humming coming from the loft and wondered if it was Nick.
When Vince finally finished, he stood, brushing his hands off on his pants, leaving dark stains across them. “Done. I think you’ll live.” He winked, packing up his first aid kit and bringing it back to the cabinet. Before I could thank him, he grabbed the rope and climbed back into the loft, disappearing from my sight.
Dai stood, motioning for me to do the same. I followed him to the door, and then out into the night. While Dai shut the door, I pulled my phone from my pocket to check the time. Nearly 2 a.m. My father was going to kill me. Sighing, I slipped the phone back into my pocket.
“You okay?” Dai asked, making his way to my side.
I nodded. “I’m fine.”
He looked like he wanted to argue, to ask more, but he pursed his lips instead. “Let’s get you home.”
We walked in silence, back to the street with all the lanterns. It was completely dead now, devoid of people aside from those who slept on stoops. It seemed even the Slums had a system of who had a home and who didn’t. When we reached the edge of the Slums, I stopped. Dai turned, raising a brow.
“This is far enough. I can get home on my own from here.”
“It’s the middle of the night, Mikaela. You can’t wander around the city by yourself. I don’t mind walking you home. This is sort of what we do.”
I didn’t miss the way he said my name. I also didn’t miss him practically telling me it was his job to walk me home. “I said I’m fine. Thank you for your help, Dai. And please tell Nick and Vince thank you for me, as well. But I’ll just call a Taxi on the next block. I’m fine.” Without waiting for him to reply, I started down the street. I wasn’t sure if I was happy or upset that he didn’t follow.
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