As soon as he saw the sign in the window, Benjamin Barker knew something was wrong.
Mrs. Lovett's pie shop was always open for business, even on Sundays. But there it was, a small yellowing scrap of parchment across which was scrawled the single word, "Closed."
Ben pushed the door open and peered around the shop's poorly-lit interior. "Mrs. Lovett?" No answer. Perhaps she was in the kitchen.
He crossed the room in several long strides and ducked through a small door behind the counter. There she was, slumped face-down over the cutting-board, a fine layer of flour covering her clothes and hair.
"Mrs. Lovett!" Benjamin ran to his neighbor's side, thoroughly alarmed. "Is there some emergency? I saw the sign in the window and-" At this point he noticed the empty bottle of gin clutched in her left hand. His face softened as he knelt beside her and pried the bottle from her vice-like grip.
"You shouldn't drink, Mrs. Lovett," he chastised gently. "Not with a baby on the way--"
She looked up at that, and he could see that her cheeks were blotchy, her eyes rimmed with red.
His face fell. "Oh no," he breathed, stricken. "No, not again."
She sniffed and nodded. "That's the fourth one," she whispered, and hiccuped. "Looks like the good Lord never intended me for children."
"I don't believe that for a minute." Benjamin gripped her firmly by the shoulders. He spoke softly but decisively, his eyes locked on hers. "Eleanor Lovett. You are one of the warmest, kindest, most unselfish women I have ever known, and you would make a fine mother." He searched her eyes beseechingly. "Please don't ever doubt that."
Mrs. Lovett drew a deep, shuddering breath as she took her neighbor by the hands. His hands were so gentle, and so warm... "Mr. Barker--"
Just then Lucy's voice came floating down the stairwell. That hideous, hideous voice, like the chiming of church bells. "Ben, come quick! Johanna's crawling! I set her down for a moment and she just took off!"
Benjamin half-stood and made as if to dash from the room, but he hesitated. "Mrs. Lovett..."
Her face twisted and she managed to quirk her lips into a crooked half-smile. "Don't worry about me, love. Your daughter needs you."
He didn't need telling twice. "Remember what I said, Mrs. Lovett!" he called over his shoulder as he vanished from view.
Her hands still felt warm where he had touched them. Only when the clatter of his footsteps had receded did she allow herself to cry again.