He hit her hard in the stomach.

Stauria staggered back against the wall and slumped to the street, the wind knocked out of her. No breath to cry out. No breath to cry at all.

He never hit his girls in the face. They weren’t saleable with black eyes and missing teeth. Though in this case, it hardly mattered. He wouldn’t be seeing any profit from this one for weeks.

She’d avoided him for days. He knew she wasn’t working—even she wasn’t stupid enough to work and cheat him out of his cut. But that isn’t the point, is it? There was a certain discipline that had to be maintained with these women. They weren’t permitted to avoid him. They weren’t permitted to not work.

So he’d gone looking for her, his anger rising the longer he searched.

When he found her, she was filthy and starved. Been sleeping under bridges, he guessed. He grabbed her stick of an arm and pulled her over against the wall, out of the flow of foot traffic.

He didn’t even have to look closely to tell why she’d dodged him. Her neck and arms were covered in a splotchy rash. Her eyes had a dull, fevered look. He took her jaw between his fingers and forced open her mouth to confirm the white patches on her tongue. He felt for the swellings under her jaw and in her armpits.

He pushed her against the wall in disgust. He called her a few choice names. And then he hit her. Hard.

He leaned against the wall as Stauria writhed on the ground, thinking of his options. The men who paid for her services were smart enough to know these particular symptoms. It didn’t matter how dark or drunk, they wouldn’t touch her like this. Which meant she wouldn’t be working for a few weeks, until the symptoms faded.

He thought about boarding her at the brothel, keeping her in a back room where she wouldn’t frighten the customers. But as he looked down at her, he wondered if she were worth it. There wasn’t much left. There hadn’t been for some time. Maybe he should just cut her loose. Look for someone fresher.

He felt her hand on his boot. “Please,” she croaked, knowing what he was thinking. “I won’t be a bother.” He kicked her hand away.

“You worthless slut,” he swore under his breath. “You’re actually costing me coin now.”

She sat up against the wall, her breath coming easier. “I’ve fattened your purse a’ plenty.”

“Not lately. And not again, I think.”

“Just a place to bed and a little grub. Until I can trick again and pay you back.”

“And who’s gonna pay the wine bill?”

“I won’t drink. I swear it! Not a drop.”

He would have laughed at that had he possessed a sense of humor. Instead, he stood awhile longer, calculating his costs against future profits, staring down at her from time to time with cold disdain. Finally, he pushed himself away from the wall.

“A bed. And one meal a day. You can go begging for the rest if you get hungry. Empty the slop buckets. Sweep the floors. Change the beds. And whatever you do, stay out of sight! Just looking at you makes me want to swear off women.”

“Yes, yes!” Stauria was almost sobbing with gratitude. “I’ll do anything.”

“Oh,” said her pimp as he moved away, “I think you’ve already proven that.”

[Next Chapter]