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The Wooden Rose

By EGStone All Rights Reserved ©

Drama / Romance

Prologue

In the city, getting mugged is something that is bound to happen if you are obviously wealthy in a place where people obviously are not. Having that crime prevented by an outside party, though, is rather more rare.

This story begins with a rare event and the proper ingredients for such a thing. One: wealthy philanthropist—aged 62, rather overweight and fleshy but nice and jovial. Name: Walter Smythe. Mix with: rough-and-tumble gang outcast—aged 17, rather gruff and desperate but not dangerous enough to kill. Name: unknown. Add in: homeless girl—aged 25, quiet and tough, a survivor down on her luck. Name—well, I'll just tell you what happened the night of March the 25th, on the corner of Harding and 7th, 8:53 in the evening, London Town.

It was raining. It was the sort of rain that lasted for days and was nowhere near bad enough to keep people from going about their normal lives but made everything that much more of a burden to do. People carried black umbrellas and tried to justify taking a cab, though they knew perfectly well that the rain wasn't that bad. Amongst the gloomy people, trying his best to put on a smiling, cheerful face, was Walter Smythe. He wore his nice blue trousers over his patent leather shoes, a maroon sweater and white collared shirt with dark leather jacket. His hair was gelled into place and his rather round face was set in a smiling expression that got people to grinding their teeth in annoyance. Over his head was a black umbrella.

He hummed quietly to himself as he walked to the nearest Underground Station; he had come from giving a cheque to a soup kitchen (unannounced to them, of course) and was enjoying the rain. That, I think, is what did him in.

The people huddled in alley ways or under blankets as close to buildings as they could get, looked up at Smythe, with a certain air of anger. He tried not to hand them each a ten pound note, knowing that money wouldn't help these people. They needed work. Not even he could provide that many jobs. Maybe for just one, though, he could manage to find training and work and—

Something his him from behind, causing Walter to stumble forwards, dropping his umbrella to the ground, his smile falling. A young man with greasy hair and a dark jacket ran past, clutching a very distinctive leather wallet in his hand. Spluttering, Walter began to run after him, saying, "Stop! Thief!"

Being overweight, he soon desisted running, though he called angrily after the man. A moment later and he stared in astonishment as one of the bulks of blankets that hid a homeless person, moved to trip up the thief. A grubby looking person—it took a moment or Walter to identify it as a woman—rose and lunged for the wallet, delivering a blow to the thief's head as she did so. She straightened with the wallet in hand and the young man jumped to his feet and darted off before anyone could hold him until the police came.

Generous though he was with his money and sympathetic though he was to the plight of the people on the streets, Walter Smythe was not a stupid man. He knew full well that the woman who had snatched the wallet from the thief was probably someone not to be trifled with, especially considering that none of the other people nearby made a move to interfere in any way. In fact, two or three were hurriedly picking up their belongings and vanishing into the rain. Walter knew that there was little chance of getting his wallet back at this point. He also figured that it would be safer to turn tail and flee, should this woman want to take him for more than the cash he was carrying.

So, when the woman turned and walked towards Walter, her posture straight and the grime on her face hiding any identifiable features and giving her a dangerous look, he staggered backwards, grasping for his umbrella in case he needed a weapon. Why hadn't he informed his office manager of his whereabouts? Why hadn't he taken the self-defence that his godson kept insisting that he take? Would he have time to reach the phone in his pocket before-

"Here," the woman said, holding out his wallet. Walter froze. She looked at him with serious eyes that held more pain than most people would ever see in a life-time. They were stormy and strong and lonely, a sentiment echoed by her voice. It was like a bell, solemn and ringing through the rain though the actual tone had been quiet. "Your wallet," the woman said and Walter broke away from staring at her long enough to see that she was holding out his wallet, shaking it gently as she prodded him to take it.

Tentatively, the philanthropist put his hand on the leather piece and took it from the homeless woman's grasp. He looked down at the object in his hand in wonder. A moment later, he looked up, "thank you," on the tip of his tongue. His rescuer was gone.

Only hours later, as he was pacing over the Persian rugs that covered the exotic wood of his study floor, a cut glass of scotch over ice in his hand, running the events over and over through his mind, did Walter Smythe realise just how extraordinary the events of the night had been. How often had he heard tales of people being mugged on the streets by desperate people? How often had he, himself, been warned that people weren't going to see a philanthropist but a target?

But when had he ever heard of a mugging being stopped by someone equally as desperate, equally as alone as the mugger and not even a reward asked in return? He had been saved from a considerable amount of trouble—he would have had to cancel credit cards and get replacement I.d. cards—but he would have only been out a few hundred pounds cash. That sort of money could have kept the woman in food for months. So why had she chosen to help him?

"I've got to find her," Walter murmured to himself, sipping absently at his drink. "I've got to help her."

He pulled out a pen and paper, both monogrammed WS, and started writing a description of the woman to give to the police. He paused. Dark grey eyes, dark hair, voice that sounded like a bell. That was all he remembered. Surely there had to be something more. But no matter how many times he went through it, Walter couldn't remember anything else about her. It was as though blinders had been placed on his vision and his memory and he didn't notice anything but the way that she brought down the thief and the astonishment he had felt when she handed him the wallet. And the whole thing had only taken seconds, so there wasn't much material for him to run through.

He would simply have to go back there and ask around, see if he could figure out who it was that had helped him. Because she deserved his thanks, even if she didn't want it. And if there was one thing about Walter Smythe that people needed to understand, it was that he was a determined old bugger and he was going to give his help whether people liked it or not. In this case, it never occurred to him that maybe this woman didn't want to be found.

It took him two days to organise a search party through his office manager, sending out notifications to the soup kitchen and requesting any witnesses to the mugging on that night. He went back to the street where it happened three times, all at different times of day to see if he could find someone who knew something about her.

Each time, he opened his wallet and gave out money and received nothing for it. The homeless were unwilling to talk or they all had severe memory loss. Finally, a full week after the mugging, Smythe was inches away from giving up. He was interviewing a man with a thick, gnarled beard and eyes that looked right through you.

"Why is it you're so eager to find this person?" the man asked after pocketing twenty pounds. He shifted slightly so that he could pull his ragged blanket over his shoulders and looked up at Walter with the sort of expression that demands an answer.

"Because she helped me. I want to return the favour," Walter answered, stuffing his wallet unceremoniously into his jacket pocket. He was getting grumpy at this point and it seemed that this latest interview would lead him nowhere. "I'm not going to buy her out of the life, set her up as a mistress to one of my sons, anything like that. I just want to give her the chance to learn a trade and work, to set up a life for herself."

"And you think that she wants this?" the man said, curling his lip into a sneer.

Taking a deep breath and exhaling like a smoker who had long since quit, Walter Smythe shrugged. "I don't know. I just want to have the chance to offer it to her. But if you don't want to help, then it looks as though I'm wasting my time. Good afternoon." The philanthropist turned to leave, his office manager standing by a car that was more than conspicuous in the street.

"Wait," the man called out. Suddenly more hopeful than he had been in the last few days, Smythe wheeled about, raising his eyebrows expectantly. The man appraised Walter carefully. He jerked his head backwards in a nod of acceptance. "I can tell you where she'll be, but you have to do everything else on your own."

"Where," Walter asked eagerly, pulling out a piece of paper and his monogramed pen, nearly trembling with excitement.

"Corner of Yates and Fair," the man answered. "She normally haunts that area. But be careful. She's not someone to be trifled with. And if you choose to go there, I would suggest not dressing like you own the world. Some of the people around those parts won't take too kindly to that."

With a flurry of enthusiastic thanks, Walter pressed another twenty pound note into the man's hand and rushed off to the waiting car. His office manager, a skinny man in a well-tailored suit with dark hair swept back with nary a hair out of place, slid in next to him. Smythe relayed the information given to him and told the driver to head over to Yates and Fair, but park a block or so away. He didn't want to scare this woman off, after all.

"Mr. Smythe," the manager said, "I don't think it's a good idea to be going right now. You should take the warning that this man gave you seriously."

"What? Oh, don't worry about that," Walter answered. "Graham, you're a good manager and you'll probably go far, but when it comes to things like this, I know what I'm doing."

Graham didn't say anything. The street corner where this woman was to be found wasn't too far away and almost before the car had even stopped, Walter was bounding out and hurrying over to the area where people were gathered, Graham reluctantly following behind. They stood off to one side, Smythe searching the people for any sign of his rescuer. He spotted a couple of people arguing, another standing by and he started with surprise as he realised that the woman he was seeking was one of the arguers. She was holding her hands slightly raised, her feet spread in a balanced position. She looked as though she were going to fight her assailant.

Without even a pause to consider his own safety, Walter rushed forwards, "Excuse me! Miss! Excuse me!"

The people not involved in the argument took one look at Walter and thought, 'prey' then saw Graham strutting along behind him and bolted. It took only a couple of minutes before the entire area was cleared of people but for the three people that Walter was currently standing in front of.

The woman, now that he had a better chance to look at her, was fairly fit for someone on the streets. She was of average height, but her frame—though skinny, as most of the homeless were—was trim and reasonably well-muscled. Her hair was brown and tied back in a severe bun, though several strands had escaped. She sported one black eye and a bruised lip and there were blood-spots on her clothes.

"Can I help you?" the man with whom she had been arguing asked.

"Oh, I want to talk with her," Walter said, pointing at his target. At that moment Graham walked up to his boss' shoulder, looking so annoyed and harsh that the two men took one look at him and followed the example of the other people. They scampered. The woman was about to do the same, edging away, looking around for the best possible escape route. "Wait, please," Walter said, holding up his hands to show he meant her no harm.

"What do you want?" she said, her accent a completely neutral Londoner's accent, giving no indication as to her birth-place or status. The fact that she didn't talk with the cockneyed lilt of the streets was in of itself a surprise.

"You helped me. I mean, about a week ago, you gave me back my wallet," Walter said, noting that she stepped back at the words 'you helped me.' He knew that there was some sort of taboo in the streets about helping people, especially in the way of investigations.

"What of it?" she said, taking another step back and putting her hands up again as though she were expecting a fight.

"I wanted to express my thanks," Walter said. This made her pause and then she started to laugh. It was a dry, cynical laugh that send shudders down Walter's spine and he found that he was the one inadvertently backing up.

"I doubt that you went to all the trouble to find me, a week later, just to say 'thanks'," she said. "So what is it you want? You think that I can do something else for you? Get you drugs, maybe? Sleep with you? Well, you've got something else coming if that's what you think-"

"No, I wanted to offer you a job," Walter said, the words coming out so rapidly they could barely be understood. She paused. He recognised that this was perhaps his only chance to win her over and tried to explain everything as quickly as possible. After a moment, she shook her head and held up her hand.

"Slow down," she said. "I can't understand you."

"I want to offer you job training in whatever field you want. I can't guarantee that you'll get work once you've completed the training, but I want to give you the opportunity. If you don't want to do anything with it, fine," Walter said, looking tentatively at her.

"Why? All I did was get back your wallet," she said, lowering her hands. This, as far as Walter was concerned, was a good sign. She didn't look as though she wanted to beat him off and run away. He might actually have a chance.

"Exactly. You gave me back my wallet, which was noble in of itself, fully aware that I was someone who could probably do without. You didn't even think about it, you just did it because it was the right thing to do," Smythe said. "I want to reward that."

She looked hesitant, as though what he was saying couldn't really be true. But he didn't vanish and she didn't walk away. Eventually, she held out her hand, looking frightened. Walter understood that, at least. He wasn't giving her a sure-fire way to get off of the streets. He was giving her a chance to get herself off the streets. And not only was that not easy, it was altogether possible that it wouldn't work out at all. But, despite these misgivings, she held out her hand and Walter shook it.

"I'm Walter. Walter Smythe," he said, pulling her gently in the direction of his car. She went, still tense and wary but willing.

"Gwen Townsend," she answered. "Lieutenant Gwen Townsend, formerly of the Army."

"You're military? How did you end up here?" Walter asked. He opened the door of his saloon car for her and she hesitated a moment before sliding inside. The car smelled of fresh leather and wealth and she fidgeted uncomfortably, obviously trying not to touch anything for fear of getting it dirty.

"Life," was her reply. Walter didn't probe any further. Graham got into the front passenger seat and directed the driver back to the main office building, nursing a headache and hoping that this person cleaned up soon. The smell was beginning to get to him.

"So, what field do you want to train in?" Walter asked, the shock of having Gwen be military subsiding as his excitement in this new project took over. "You can do anything you want."

"Anything?" she said, drawing her eyebrows together. The philanthropist nodded, his round face splitting into a wide grin.

"Anything at all," he answered.

"I've always," she started then frowned and shook her head. "No, never mind."

"What? This is no time to back out now."

"It's just not practical," Gwen said. "If this is going to be something to do for the rest of my life, it needs to be practical."

"Miss Townsend. Gwen. If I believed as you did, I wouldn't be here today. My entire fortune and life has been built on doing things that are certainly important and innovative but not practical. Trust me." Walter leaned forwards, searching her face for a hint of what it was that she could want to do.

"I've always wanted to be a chef," she said finally, ducking her head and refusing to meet Walter's gaze. So she missed when he leaned back in his eat and grinned like a little boy at Christmas. He knew exactly what he was going to do.

"It just so happens that I know a chef. He runs a cooking school out of a restaurant—The Wooden Rose—and he owes me a favour," Walter said. Startled, Gwen looked up at him, checking to see whether he were serious. When there was no sign of deception discovered, Walter saw something rare and wonderful. She smiled.

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