Authors: C. S. Quinn
‘You’re a thief taker?’ The gambler with the skull-plate was glaring.
Charlie swallowed. He could already sense the outsized guard bristling.
‘You had John Noilly hanged for murder,’ said the man with the eye-patch, waving a knowing finger. ‘Little Kitty from hereparts was the girl killed.’
Charlie let his eyes slide to the open water of the Thames. Two swift movements would be all that was needed to dive into the safety of the river.
Unexpectedly the man leaned over and gave Charlie a well-meant thump on the back. ‘God bless you,’ he said. ‘Kitty was one of ours, and our sort never sees justice left to the likes of the Watch.’
Charlie felt a rush of relief.
The eye-patch leaned over and scooped up the dice, all business now that he had decided to accept the newcomer. ‘We start a new round. Main number is six,’ he said, hurling the dice down with a clatter.
Charlie instantly discerned the fall of loaded dice. His eyes followed the sleight of hand. The eye-patch and the skull-fracture were fleecing the younger men. Charlie breathed a little easier. If the men were cheating, then he could follow the course of their feints to stay in the game.
They played for an hour, during which time Charlie was careful to win and lose evenly, following the loaded dice as it feinted between the players.
‘The Catholics are the cause of it,’ the eye-patch was saying. ‘They touch their rosaries and are forgiven murders. Now they throw fireballs.’
‘They spread lice with their long hair and fancy clothes,’ agreed skull-plate, spitting. ‘This city is a stinking hole. The King should do something. Pull down the old wood buildings. Stop the smithies and their sparks. But he is cock-deep in whores whilst Londoners are up to their ears in shit.’
to rule,’ said eye-patch, ‘but it is the guilds who run this city.’ He rubbed his thumb and finger together. ‘Money,’ he clarified, ‘is London’s King.’
He licked his finger and raised the eye-patch to reveal a scarred pink socket.
‘Tried my hand at carpentry,’ he said, ‘without thinking to join the city guild. The Carpenters’ Hall sent men. Said I must apprentice with them or trade outside the city.’ He tapped his missing eye. ‘Words were exchanged,’ he concluded.
‘I always thought to join a guild,’ agreed skull-plate wistfully. ‘The barber-surgeons maybe. Learn the secrets of a craft.’
‘I should like to see you in a honest trade,’ laughed the eye-patch. ‘With all the ragged apprentices.’
‘I would buy guild membership,’ retorted skull-plate. ‘I almost had the fee once.’
‘Stick at stealing and gaming, my friend,’ said eye-patch with a wink of his good eye. ‘It suits you better.’
Charlie was steeling his nerve to ask about Lily when one of the players called for drink.
A female voice sounded behind the gamers and Charlie froze. But when he risked a glance upwards, he was disappointed to see an ordinary-looking girl lugging a small barrel of sherry on her hip. She made a little shriek as one of the gamers ventured a hand up her calf and stepped hastily away from the group.
Charlie watched her go. ‘What is become of the other girl?’ he asked conversationally. ‘The one who played her hand here? By the name of Lily.’
The temperature of the gaming den seemed to drop by several degrees.
Charlie pretended to scrutinise the dice whilst studying their reactions. The older men wore practised poker faces but their affected nonchalance didn’t seem to be hiding a great deal. One of the younger pickpockets knew something though. He had visibly twitched at the mention of Lily.
After a long pause the eye-patch spoke up.
‘That was when old Mooney ran the place,’ he said, his eyes fixed on the falling dice. ‘Lily brought ’em in off the streets. Drunk ones. Rich ones. She was a demon player and robbed ’em blind. Things is different here now. We play a straight game for our kind alone.’
‘Where is Lily now?’ asked Charlie.
The eye-patch sucked at his teeth. ‘Last I heard ’a Lily Boswell, she was on the hunt for some treasure,’ he said slowly. ‘That’s how I heard it.’
‘That’s not right,’ corrected the skull-plate. ‘It’s a ghost she chases. A man who can’t be killed.’
Charlie logged this. ‘Do you know where she is now?’
The eye-patch shook his head. ‘You are best leaving well enough alone, lad.’ He gestured to the skull-plate. ‘See Lister? He got a knife in his belly courtesy of that one.’
The skull-plate nodded aggrievedly and they both returned to play without elaborating.
Charlie’s attention settled back on the young pickpocket. He was a shambling sort of youth, gangly and awkward, with long limbs splayed at odd angles. The boy had been worrying a coin in his hand and now he stood.
‘I have business to attend,’ he muttered, in a tone casual enough for Charlie’s practised ear to sound an alarm. The boy knew something.
Possibilities raced through Charlie’s head. He’d have to bide out his time and follow the gambler. Perhaps he could question him in some safer part of London.
But he needn’t have dwelt on any of these options because the young gambler, for all his gracelessness, was more astute than Charlie had given him credit for.
The boy lurched with sudden speed through the sacking doorway. The other gamblers looked up only briefly, as if this turn of events were an hourly occurrence. Neither did they seem particularly shocked when Charlie abandoned his winnings and raced out after him.
The boy was already far ahead into the thick of the crowd as Charlie burst from the tailor’s shop. Cursing, he forged forward in pursuit. They dodged past tattered stalls and heaps of wares. People were packing up, leaving the Bridge, Charlie noticed. The fire must be serious then, if stall holders and shopkeepers were deserting.
The boy pushed through a group of courtesans bartering with a ribbon seller and made it off the Bridge. Charlie followed.
The wind had picked up. And as Charlie broke into the loud daylight of King William Street, he froze in horror.
The Pudding Lane fire, which had been dying back, was a sky-high sheet of flame. Fire had engulfed Fish Street. The Fishmongers’ Hall blazed high, dropping hot cinders on to the dry roofs of Swan Lane. Two young cinder thieves were dancing through the flames, pillaging ceremonial fish carvings and candlesticks.
A ragged line of firefighters were assembled, ferrying slops of Thames water into the angry maw of the fire from a few small buckets. Elsewhere more innovative locals were tossing milk and beer towards the burning bakeries.
Ahead of Charlie was a blazing curtain of flame. The escaping boy cast a brief, terrified glance back, and then ran for a narrow gap in the fire. He made it through with Charlie hot on his heels. But as the boy’s skinny frame vanished into smoke, the flame billowed wider in a sudden gust of wind.
Charlie hesitated. The battered leather of his close-fitting coat was thick enough to deflect flame. Fastening the row of tiny buttons, Charlie steeled himself and plunged towards the flames. A rush of hot air enveloped him and he emerged, dark-blond hair singed and scalp sweating, the fire behind him.
He was just in time to see the boy turn right, towards Leadenhall Street. Despite Charlie’s rapid pace the boy, animated by fear, was proving a fast competitor.
Charlie slipped into the more considered pace of the long distance runner. The boy seemed to be slowing now, ducking through the maze of smaller alleys rather than maintaining a straight sprint. But as he turned back out through Bishops Gate and fled north, Charlie realised he was heading towards Leadenhall Butchers’ Market.
Ordinarily this would have been an expert move. The boy could slip into the sea of animals and traders. But with the fire so close it marked desperation. The market would be chaos.
A wall of noise hit Charlie as they spun through Bull’s Head Passage. Spurred by the fire, traders were deserting with their stock. A mayhem of sheep and cattle coupled with the men shouting, cursing and hitting at the herd with sticks poured forth in a torrent. Smoke and ash whirled in the air, whipping the animals into a terrified frenzy.
During the pursuit the boy’s shirt had ridden up and was flapping loose in the breeze, and Charlie was within a few yards of grabbing hold of it. But his target swerved suddenly, heading towards the cattle herd. The boy hesitated, judging his point of entry. Then he plunged into a maelstrom of hide and hooves.
The boy vanished for a moment, before reappearing bloodied and filthy on the market side. He paused, locking eyes with Charlie, and then raced into the market building.
Charlie watched for a moment. In his panic the boy had flung himself through where the herd was thinnest. A better place to cross was the most crowded, where animals moved slowest.
Charlie scanned where the cows were bottle-necked, pitching against one another in their haste to move forward. There was a windowsill at waist height.
In two moves Charlie had one foot on the sill and another on the flat back of a jostling cow. The animal bellowed in outrage, twisting so Charlie had to fight to keep his balance. He stepped both feet on to the terrified cow, and in an ungainly four-limbed manoeuvre, he began stumbling over the backs of the cattle, in the direction of the market entrance.
A cry of fury went up from one of the drovers, and Charlie ducked a flying stick. As he reached the edge of the tussling herd, all the cattle-herders were roaring obscenities. Charlie dodged a calloused fist, slid down the final cow and sprinted into the market building.
Charlie scanned the wide expanse of Leadenhall. Under the market’s majestic medieval beams, the boy was nowhere to be seen.
The high wind whipped through the market corridors, channelling vast plumes of smoke through the walkways. Charlie coughed, squinting to see through it.
At the periphery were a few remaining animal pens, their livestock crammed in so tightly that hooves lifted from the ground. Deeper in, a handful of traders were hastily concluding their business. They made a tableau of stench-laden scenes, scraping guts, boiling bones, or cutting the throats of animals into tin buckets. Gore-splattered boys, ferrying buckets of blood to be boiled into black puddings, made rapidly back and forth.
With no sign of the escapee, Charlie’s gaze dropped to the ground. The market floor was littered in muck and straw and dappled with the endless footprints of the traders and customers. A mix of prints from both bare and shod feet had been pressed into the slurry.
Forcing himself to slow, Charlie took in the array. Making a mental grid system of the market floor his eyes tracked systematically along the sludge-covered pathway. And then he saw it. The far-apart tracks of feet which had sprinted.
Quickly, he homed in on the prints, picking up the trail. At one point the boy seemed to be heading out towards the city. But a smeared imprint showed him veer back towards the bone boilers and pudding makers.
Now the trail ran out, dropping to a walking pace and muddied among the feet of the hard-working pudding boys.
Turning into the reeking smoke of the trade Charlie made his way thoughtfully along the stalls, as if making a selection of the best producer. A man carrying a pail of intestines looked across at him in annoyance.
‘You’ll not get a pudding here now,’ he said. ‘All will likely be burned to the ground by tomorrow.’
Charlie ignored him, cruising slowly along the row. He was greeted by a variety of confused or annoyed glances – each vendor clearly thinking along the same lines as the first. But as he suspected there was a pudding-maker who did not look up. A man who seemed all too well engaged in his business of adding the oats and bran to the blackening pails of liquid.
Charlie eyed him for a moment before stepping forward and sliding his last half crown carefully on to the well-worn wooden counter. ‘I’ll not hurt the boy,’ he said, dropping his voice to an almost indiscernible whisper. ‘I mean only to return some property.’
The vendor’s head remained carefully down, and Charlie kept an anxious eye on the gleaming array of cleavers arranged around the stall. Then the man looked up, passing his hand unconsciously over his forehead to leave a bloody smear. Something in Charlie’s expression must have convinced him, because he slowly slid the coin into his fist. Then with a tiny motion the man nodded to the back of his shop. Silently, Charlie moved past him.
A small fire filled the back room with the stench of boiling bones, and a stack of carcasses in various states of being skinned were heaped towards the back corner. Charlie surveyed the scene. One of the glassy-eyed cows seemed to be breathing of its own accord.
In a lightning movement, Charlie pounced, throwing his arms around the twitching carcass. Inside the animal something struggled violently, and the boy’s face emerged from beneath the head of the cow, where the flesh had been slit stomach to sternum.
‘You know something of Lily Boswell,’ said Charlie as he wrestled to contain his hostage. ‘She has information for me.’
The boy’s tussling lessened slightly. ‘I don’t know her,’ he said, eyeing the fleshy prison. ‘God’s truth.’
‘You don’t have to lead me to her,’ Charlie said. ‘Only tell me where she is.’
‘She will kill me.’ The boy was struggling again. ‘Those gypsy girls grow up hunting with bows and knives.’
‘And I will kill you if you do not tell,’ said Charlie gruffly. ‘So you may die now for certain, or later for maybe.’
The boy hesitated and Charlie shook the carcass, causing the cow’s head to nod in violent agreement.
‘Tell me where she is.’
‘I don’t know, I swear it,’ said the boy.
Charlie lowered his voice.
‘Do you know who I am?’
His captive shook his head.
‘I am Charlie Tuesday, the thief taker. You have heard what people say? That I have a sense for when people are lying.’
The boy swallowed.
‘Lie to me again,’ said Charlie evenly, ‘and you will join this pile of carcasses.’