Authors: Cora Harrison
Cora Harrison is the author of many successful books for children and adults, including the
series set in Ireland. She lives on a small farm in the west of Ireland with her husband, her German Shepherd dog called Oscar and a very small white cat called Polly.
Find out more about Cora at:
For Noah, Peter, Abe, Alexander, Joel and Reuben
First published in Great Britain in 2010
by Piccadilly Press Ltd,
5 Castle Road, London NW1 8PR
Text copyright Â© Cora Harrison, 2010
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner.
The right of Cora Harrison to be identified as Author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN: 978 1 84812 082 2 (paperback)
eISBN: 978 1 84812 217 8
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
Printed in the UK by CPI Bookmarque, Croydon, CR0 4TD
Cover design by Patrick Knowles
Cover illustration by Chris King
Table of Contents
Alfie gulped nervously and looked around. Night was falling and the fog was thicker and more yellow than ever. One by one, the costermongers were blowing out the torches in their stalls. The unsold fruit and vegetables had been packed into carts and wheeled away. Soon the entire square would be emptied of people. Those who were still there turned their gaze away uneasily from the sight of a twelve-year-old boy in the vicious grip of the most feared and hated person in the whole of Covent Garden market.
Mary Robinson, known as the Queen of the Costermongers, was the tallest, widest, strongest
woman that Alfie had ever known. She always dressed in a man's overcoat and a man's hat, and under her calf-length gown she wore a pair of men's trousers. Her voice was like a man's also, deep and hoarse, and she had the strength of the strongest dock labourer. Now she took hold of Alfie and shook him, knocking his head against the wooden struts of a nearby stall until he began to see stars in the fog surrounding him.
âI've got you now,' she hissed, holding his throat with one large rough hand while rummaging in his pocket with the other. âSo it's you that's been spreading this poison among the stallholders, you pestilent little beast. Don't think that I don't know where you live, neither!' She had taken the leaflets from his pocket, screwed them viciously into the shape of a corkscrew and thrust it at him like an accusing finger. Alfie knew what was printed on them.
DO NOT ALLOW MARY ROBINSON TO CHEAT YOU.
SHE LENDS YOU EIGHT HALF-CROWNS ON MONDAY.
SHE TAKES BACK NINE HALF-CROWNS ON SATURDAY.
MARY ROBINSON MAKES A FORTUNE EVERY YEAR
WHILE YOU AND YOUR CHILDREN STARVE.
âI'll kill you,' she spat. âI mean it. No one will miss a slum kid like you. It's going to be a frosty night tonight â your body won't be the only one to be swept up by the street cleaners in the morning and no questions asked. Come on, answer my question. Who got those leaflets printed? Don't tell me any lies, neither. I've my fingers on your throat and you wouldn't be the first that I have choked the life out of.'
She was in earnest, this Mary Robinson. Alfie knew that. He cast a quick, desperate glance around to see if his cousins Tom and Jack were near, but no one was around except his blind brother, Sammy. Sammy sang for the stallholders and their customers, and charitable people put a few coppers into the bowl at his feet. Now, however, there was no one left to sing for, and Sammy waited patiently for Alfie to lead him home.
The woman saw his glance and Alfie heard her chuckle. âAnd he's your little brother, isn't he?
Perhaps I'll choke the life out of him first. Let you watch him die! Have you ever heard a man die from strangulation? I have, and I'll tell you that it's not an easy death. A boy would be quicker, but he'll suffer just as much.'
And then she was walking over towards Sammy, dragging Alfie along, her hard fingers still at his throat, the first finger and thumb pressing in so that he could not yell, could not even whisper, could not warn Sammy, could not tell him to run. Desperately, he reached up and clawed at her hand.
âI'll tell you,' he managed to say, his breath wheezing like that of an old man.
âThat's better. Seeing a bit of sense, are you?' Her grip eased a little, just a very little, just enough so that he could gasp out the name.
âWho's Mr Elmore?' Once again the grip tightened warningly before release.
âHe's the teacher. The teacher at the Ragged School, at St Giles.'
âI know him. The son of the goldsmith in Ludgate Hill, son of a rich man. So that's who is trying to rob a poor woman like me! Well, Mr Elmore won't see you again, and he won't see that blind brother of
yours neither. He'll just be a burden on the parish when you're dead, so I'll get rid of him as well as you.'
And then Alfie knew that it was all over. He had betrayed Mr Elmore for no reason. He was still going to die and so was Sammy. He had broken his promise to his dead mother to look after his blind brother. That was his last thought as the life was slowly squeezed out of him and a deadly faintness came over him.
And then there was a whistle. A sharp, high whistle and then a note: just one note. A note pitched almost impossibly high. A boy's voice. Sammy's. His whistle, too. Sammy could not see, but his hearing was pin-sharp. He knew that Alfie was in danger and he had called for help.
Then a bark. A deep bark. A scrabble of paws on the cobbled surface of Covent Garden. A shout of warning from one of the costermongers. Another bark, a whole series of barks and then, from deep down in the chest of a large dog, an angry growl.
The grip on Alfie's neck slackened. He opened his
eyes. Mary Robinson was no longer holding him. She wasn't even looking at him. She was staring fearfully ahead.
âHelp!' she screamed. One of her helpers approached with a torch and then another. The pitch on the torches flamed up and lit the scene.
It was Mutsy! Faithful Mutsy. Mutsy, who had followed Alfie home one day from Smithfield market to make his home with the four orphan boys and to love and protect them. He was a very large, very hairy dog with enormous paws and a heavy fringe of hair hanging down, a dog who made most people smile, but there was nothing comic about him now. Every fibre of his body bristled with menace.
Step by step, he advanced on Mary Robinson. Each hair of his coat seemed to be standing on end, making his body appear almost twice as big as normal. His brown eyes, usually so soft and loving, were now hard, and fixed on Mary Robinson's face. His lips were stripped back from his teeth.
Pace by pace, his huge paws moved threateningly across the ground.
âHelp!' screamed Mary Robinson again. âPolice! Help!' Her loud harsh voice rang through the square. She let go of Alfie. Quickly, she snatched a torch from
one of the men and threatened Mutsy with it. The big dog did not flinch, though. Still he growled, standing so close to his owner that Alfie could feel heat from Mutsy's body against his bare leg.