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Authors: C.C. Humphreys

Jack Absolute

BOOK: Jack Absolute
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Critical acclaim for C. C. Humphreys

BLOOD TIES

‘With
The French Executioner
Humphreys established himself as a quality purveyor of historical crime fiction with a heady blend of historical detail and
vigorous action … This unusual storyline is dispatched with consummate skill, and the conflict between father and son has
an intelligence and sophistication that transcends the narrative’

Good Book Guide

‘C. C. Humphreys excels as ever in the throat-in-mouth action and knows instinctively how to keep a reader pasted to the page
… This novel shows a writer reaching ever upwards and I can’t wait for Humphreys’ next novel. If you like Bernard Cornwell’s
Grail Quest
series, you’ll love
The French Executioner
and
Blood Ties.
To my mind, Cornwell is good, but Humphreys is better’

Sally Zigmond,
Historical Novels Review

THE FRENCH EXECUTIONER

‘Falling somewhere between the novels of Bernard Cornwell and Wilbur Smith, C. C. Humphreys has fashioned a rollicking good
yarn that keeps the pages turning from start to finish’

John Daly,
Irish Examiner

‘… how he fulfills his mission is told with enormous zest in this splendid, rip-roaring story … a fine addition to the tradition
of swashbuckling costume romance of which Robert Louis Stevenson is the incomparable master’

George Patrick,
Hamilton Examiner

‘Don’t miss this wonderful saga of magic and heroism … if you can find a first impression, hoard it and wait till it rises
in value like a first edition
of Lord of the Rings.
This is as good. For sheer pleasure I’ve read nothing to match it all year’

Russell James,
Crime Time magazine

JACK
ABSOLUTE

C. C. HUMPHREYS

To Philip Grout, director and actor,
who cast me as Jack Absolute
and has been both friend and mentor ever since

‘Delivered from a neighbour [France] they have always feared, your other colonies will soon discover that they stand no longer
in need of your protection. You will call on them to contribute toward supporting the burden which they have helped to bring
on you; they will answer by shaking off all dependence.’

COUNT VERGENNES

‘Of all the means I know to lead men, the most effectual is a concealed mystery.’

ADAM WEISHAUPT
, Founder of the Illuminati

‘There is one thing that I dread and that is … their spies!’

GEORGE WASHINGTON

JACK’S JOURNEYS MAY
to
NOVEMBER
1777

Contents

Critical acclaim for C. C. Humphreys

Map

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Author’s Note

Copyright

– ONE –
An Affair of Honour

The snow lay deep over Hounslow Heath and the light was failing fast. They were already late, a double annoyance to Jack Absolute;
not only was it considered ungentlemanly to keep people waiting for such an affair, it also meant that by the time the ground
had been reached, the Seconds introduced, the area marked out and the formalities dealt with as to wills and burials, it would
be too dark for pistols. It would have to be swords; and by the look of him, his opponent was in fighting trim. If he wasn’t
twenty years younger than Jack he wasn’t far off and, as a serving cavalry officer, would be fencing daily; while it was five
years at the least since Jack had fought in such a manner. With a variety of other weapons, to be sure. But a tomahawk or
a Mysore punch dagger had a very different feel to them than the delicate touch required for the small sword. Of course, one
could only be killed with the point, it had no cutting edge. But the point, as Jack knew all too well, was all that was required.

As his feet slipped yet again on the icy bootprints of those that had preceded him, Jack cursed.
How large will the damned crowd be
?
The affair could hardly have been announced more publicly, and many would choose to attend such a fashionable fight. Money
would already have been staked. He wondered at the odds. Like an older racehorse, Jack had form. He had
‘killed his man’ – in fact, in the plural, several more than these gentlemen of London could know about. But his opponent
was certainly younger, probably stronger, and above all, inflamed with the passion of wronged ardour. He fought for a cause.
For love.

And Jack? Jack fought only because he’d been too stupid to avoid the challenge.

He sniffed. To top it all, he suspected he was getting a cold. He wanted to be warm in the snug at King’s Coffee House, a
pot of mulled ale in his hand. Not slip-sliding his way across a frozen common to maiming or a possible death.

‘Is it five or six duels you have fought, Daganoweda?’

Jack, whose eyes had been fixed on the placing of his own feet, now glanced at the speaker’s. Their nakedness seemed like
vanity, especially as Jack knew his companion had a fine pair of fleece-lined boots back in their rooms in St Giles. However,
Até would never pass up such an opportunity to display the superior toughness of the Iroquois Indian. The rest of him would
probably have been naked too had Jack not warned him that ladies might attend. The concession had been fawn-skin leggings,
beaded and tasselled, and a Chinese silk vest that scarcely concealed his huge chest, nor obscured the tattoos wreathed around
his muscles. Midnight-black hair fell in waves to his almost bare shoulders. Just looking at him made Jack shiver all the
more and he pulled his cloak even tighter around him.

‘Six duels, Atédawenete. As I am sure you well remember. Including the one against you.’

‘Oh,’ Até turned to him, his brown eyes afire, ‘you count a fight against a “savage”, do you? I am honoured.’

The Indian made the slightest of bows. Iroquois was a language made for irony. Jack had had too much cognac the night before
– the first error in an evening of them – and a duel of wits was one conflict he could live without today. So he reverted
to English.

‘What is it, Até? Homesick again?’

‘I was thinking, brother, that if this young brave kills you – as is very likely since he is half your age and looks twice
as vigorous – how then will I buy passage to return to my home across the water, which you have kept me from these eleven
years?’

‘Don’t concern yourself with that, brother. Our friend here will give you the money. It’s the least he can do. He owes me
after all, don’t you, Sherry?’

This last was addressed over his shoulder to the gentleman acting as his First-Second, as the hierarchy of duels had it. The
dark-haired young man was struggling to keep pace with his taller companions, his face alternately green and the palest of
yellows. The previous evening, Richard Brinsley Sheridan had drunk even more cognac than Jack.

‘Ah, money, Jack, yes. Always a wee bit of a problem there.’ Though he had left Ireland as a boy, a slight native brogue still
crept in, especially in moments of exertion. ‘But, of course, you’ll be triumphant today, so the need will not arise. And
in the meantime, can you and your fine-looking friend speak more of that marvellous language? I may understand not a word,
but the cadences are exquisite.’

Jack pulled a large, soiled square of linen from his pocket and blew his nose hard. ‘Careful, Até, you’ll be in one of his
plays next. And we all know where that can lead.’

The playwright wiped an edge of his cloak across a slick brow, sweating despite the chill. ‘How many more times can I apologize?
As I said, you were thought dead and thus your mellifluous name was free to appropriate.’

‘Well, I may be dead soon enough. So your conscience may not be a bother too much longer,’ Jack muttered. He had caught sight
of movement through a screen of trees ahead.

If the crowd’s big enough
, he thought,
perhaps even the incompetent Watch might have heard of it and turn up to prevent
this illegality.
Once he would have objected vigorously to any attempt by the authorities to restrict his right to fight. Once … when he was
as young as his adversary, perhaps. Now he could only hope that the Magistrates’ intelligence had improved.

But no reassuring Watchmen greeted Jack, just two dozen gentlemen in cloaks of brown or green, a few red-coated army officers
and, in the centre of the party, wearing just a shirt, the man who had challenged him – Banastre Tarleton. Jack was again
startled by his face. The youth – he could be no more than eighteen – was possessed of an almost feminine beauty, with thickly
lashed eyes and chestnut curls failing to be constrained by a pink ribbon. But there was no hint of a lady’s fragility in
his movements, laughing as he lunged forward with an imaginary sword.

He looks as if he is on a green about to play a game of cricket
, Jack thought, and wondered if it was the cold that made him shrug ever deeper into his cloak. He glanced around the circle
of excited faces that turned to him. No women, at least. Not even the cause of this whole affair, that little minx, Elizabeth
Farren. The hour was too close to the lighting of the footlights at Drury Lane and her show must go on. Yet how she would
have loved playing this scene. The sighs, the sobs wrenched from her troubled – and artfully revealed, carefully highlighted
– bosom, as she watched two lovers do battle for her. She would be terribly brave one moment, close to fainting the next.

An actress. He was going to be killed over an actress. It was like one of Sheridan’s bloody comedies, not dissimilar to the
one in which the playwright had made him the unwitting star. It was an irony perhaps only an Iroquois could fully appreciate.
For if Sheridan hadn’t used his name in
The Rivals
, if Jack hadn’t then felt it necessary to watch some posturing actor play ‘him’, if he hadn’t succumbed, yet again,
to the effects of brandy and the actress playing the maid, and if she wasn’t already beloved by this brash, stupid, handsome,
young officer …

Até and Sheridan had moved across to commence the business, and Jack noted the two men with whom his companions were discussing
terms. One, an ensign in the resplendent, gold-laced uniform of the Coldstream Guards, was talking loudly and waving his arms
about. Yet it was the other, Tarleton’s Second-Second, who held Jack’s attention. He was standing behind and slightly to the
side, his will seemingly focused, not on the details of the duel, but entirely forward on to Jack, just as it had been the
previous night, when his soft whispers had urged Tarleton on. This man had the sober but expensive dress of a rich cleric,
the long, pale face of a scholar. And looking now at the man he’d heard named the Count von Schlaben, even in the poor light
of a winter sunset, Jack could see that this man desired his death as much as the youth who had challenged him; perhaps even
more. And in that moment of recognition, Jack knew that there was more than actresses involved and that honour was only a
small part of this affair.

BOOK: Jack Absolute
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