The nanny looked nervously at the growing darkness and gave a tug on William's other hand to hasten his progress. William looked back and gave a shy wave at the boy, who now clutched the marble in his grimy hands. One more street, she thought, and we'll be clear of this cursed neighborhood.
As she turned the corner and started down the narrow street that would take the pair to a much nicer section of town - one where the police were willing to patrol at night - the nanny felt a rough hand on her arm. She gave a small shriek. Two disheveled men, both unshaven, emerged from an alley. The taller one, who had been the one to put his hand on the nanny's arm, said, "What have we 'ere? A lady and a little man come to pay us a visit."
The nanny tried to brush him aside but the man tightened his grip on her arm. William stood next to his nanny, looking bewildered at the interplay among the adults. "Let us go!" she said. "You have no business with us."
"No business?" the man said to his shorter companion. "Did you hear the lady, Smitty? We got no business w' her."
"So she thinks," Smitty said. A knife appeared in his hand. He used the tip to check for dirt beneath his fingernails. Pieces of dirt rained from each finger in turn. The nanny stared in fascinated horror at the progression of the knife.
"Please, sirs, we have nothing you could want," the nanny said, pleading with her voice and eyes.
Smitty's taller companion laughed, a nasty, humorless sound. "Now that's where yer wrong, missy. Yer wee man looks like he could fetch a few bob from his mum and da...especially if we send one or two fingers back home to let 'em know we're serious." Smitty pantomimed amputating a finger, his knife swishing through the air. "And you, missy, yer a bit of a tired old chicken, but mebbe you have a bit o' life in you. Me and Smitty could have a bit o' fun with you, couldn't we, Smitty?"
The shorter man took that as his cue and stepped forward, the knife slashing through the gathering night like a specter. William tugged on his minder's hand. "Nanny, I want to go home now. Please?" Smitty snickered and said under his breath, "Not bloody likely." Smitty advanced on the nanny while his companion held her fast.
"Hey, what's all this?" boomed a deep voice. A mountainous man turned the corner and emerged into view. His mammoth arms and barrel chest marked him as a man who spent his days at hard physical work. "Smitty! What're you doing with the lady and the lad?"
"None o' your concern, Big Brian," Smitty's companion said.
"I think it is my concern, Beans." He turned to the nanny. "You'd best get along home, miss."
The nanny could hardly believe her good luck. She stammered her thanks and pulled William along with her, flying down the street and out of the Shambles.
Big Brian turned his attention from the two thugs to a small, dirty boy quietly observing the scene. The boy toyed with a marble. "Time for supper, my boy," said Big Brian and the two turned for home.