Authors: Edward Marston
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense
With love and thanks
to my literary agent, Jane Conway-Gordon,
who liked the idea behind this book when I first pitched it to her
and who encouraged me to develop it with all guns blazing
Ned Greet was a short, slight, wiry man with long, straggly hair and the face of a startled rabbit. He was also one of the most prolific and successful burglars in London. Confident that it would never be claimed, he’d watched with amusement as the reward for his capture increased steadily in value. Most criminals in his position would have decided to lie low for a while but Greet was not going to let anything interfere with his lucrative occupation. Risk excited him. It made his blood race. As he set off into the cloying darkness of the capital that night, therefore, he was tingling with anticipatory joy. His target was a warehouse, piled high with exotic spices. Even small quantities of them would fetch a high price. Before he tried to break into the building, he walked furtively around it to make sure that no night watchmen were on patrol. When he felt that it was safe to continue, Greet used a jemmy to prise open the window at the rear of the warehouse. Climbing in was the work of seconds. Once he was there, he lifted the shutter on his lantern and let its light spill out. Temptation was all around him.
Taking a deep breath, he inhaled a dizzying compound of aromas.
What he could smell was pure profit.
Opening the large leather bag slung over his shoulder, he took out a handful of small canvas ones and began to fill each of them in turn from a different sack. Peppercorn, cassia, cinnamon, turmeric, cardamom and other spices were carefully gathered then placed into the leather bag. Absorbed in his work, Greet moved swiftly and deftly, assessing the value of his haul as he went along. He was in his element. Greet was only aware that he had company when he heard a voice behind him.
‘You won’t need those in prison, Ned.’
The burglar swung round to face a tall, lean, well-dressed man in his thirties whose handsome features were illumined by the lantern. Apparently unarmed, the newcomer seemed completely at ease.
?’ demanded Greet.
‘I’m the person who will have the supreme pleasure of collecting the reward money for your arrest,’ said the other, raising his hat in a mock greeting. ‘I could have apprehended you earlier, of course, but I’m a patient fellow so I waited until there was an appreciable sum on offer. Your career as a thief is decisively over, I’m afraid. You were too greedy, Ned, and that brought you to
Greet was shocked. ‘You’ve been
‘Let’s just say that I’ve been keeping a friendly eye on you.’
‘But I always cover my tracks.’
‘Watching you doing it has been a rare entertainment.’
Greet was cornered. He was shaken by the news that his escapades had been under scrutiny by someone else. He peered intently at the man. The stranger looked bigger and stronger than him so Greet judged that he would come off worse in a fight. Instead, therefore, he snatched the dagger from his belt and lunged. But the man was far too quick for him, shooting out a hand and squeezing Greet’s wrist so hard that he let out a cry of pain and dropped the weapon
on the floor. The man kicked it out of reach. Releasing his hold, he clicked his tongue disapprovingly.
‘That was ill-advised, Ned. Try anything like that again,’ he warned, ‘and I’ll be obliged to kill you, albeit with regret.’
Cowering before him and rubbing his wrist, Greet changed tack.
‘There’s enough here for both of us, sir,’ he said, with an obsequious grin. ‘You can take your pick. I’ll help you fill the bags. Choose wisely and we can both get away with a small fortune. Spices are rich pickings.’ He added with a gesture that took in the whole warehouse. ‘I know where to get the very best price for them.’
‘That’s of no consequence,’ said the man.
‘Why, yes, I love it as much as anyone – but what I’d like even more is the satisfaction of seeing you behind bars in Newgate. You’ll enjoy different odours there, I warrant – some of the most pungent engendered by your own miserable body.’
Greet was indignant. ‘I don’t belong in prison.’
‘Then you shouldn’t have taken up thievery.’
‘I’ve a wife and family to support.’
‘They must look elsewhere for sustenance.’
‘Look,’ said the other, panic setting in, ‘I’ll strike a bargain with you, sir. I’ll steal nothing. I leave it all for you.’
‘That’s uncommonly generous of you,’ said the man, laughing, ‘but I spy a problem. These spices are not yours to give away so freely. Morally and legally, they belong to someone else.’
‘They’re yours for the taking.’
‘The same is equally true of you.’
‘No, no,’ said Greet, holding up both palms as his companion took a step towards him. ‘Consider this, sir. I can see by your appearance that you have an excellent tailor. Seize the spoils on offer here and you
can buy a dozen new suits from him in the latest fashion.’
‘I have apparel enough to content me.’
Greet was dismayed. ‘Is there
that’ll tempt you?’
‘I seek only your arrest.’
‘Then we must part as enemies.’
The burglar was like lightning this time. Thrusting a hand into an open sack, he grabbed a fistful of pepper and threw it straight into the man’s eyes, blinding him momentarily. Greet took to his heels, darting off into the gloom in search of escape. When he came to a staircase, he ran up it as fast as he could. The sound of the burglar’s feet clacking on the wooden steps told the stranger exactly where his quarry had gone. With the lantern in his hand, he set off in pursuit. Finding the staircase, he began to ascend it but he got only halfway up before he had a glimpse of a blurred figure ahead of him. Greet had a sack of flour over his shoulder and he hurled it directly at the man, catching him in the chest, knocking the lantern from his grasp and sending him tumbling backwards down the steps.
Having disabled his attacker, Greet elected to cut his losses and get out of the warehouse altogether. He blundered along the upper floor. When he reached the door through which goods were winched up from below, he flung it wide open and jumped into the darkness, landing with cat-like ease on the ground below. To his utter amazement, he heard a metallic click as the shutter of a lantern was lifted and a pool of light was created. Greet found himself staring at the person he thought he’d just knocked down the stairs.
‘That’s impossible!’ he howled. ‘You can’t be in two places at once.’
The man beamed at him. ‘It appears that I can, Ned.’
Gully Ackford handed over the money then recorded the amount in his ledger. He was a big, well-built man in his fifties with the weathered look of a veteran soldier. His craggy face wore its customary smile.
‘That’s your share of the reward, Peter,’ he said. ‘By right, you should have had more because you actually arrested Ned Greet.’
‘It was my brother who flushed him out of the warehouse. If anyone deserves a larger slice, it ought to be Paul. He still has bruises from the encounter. But let’s not haggle over the takings,’ said Peter Skillen, pocketing his money. ‘Greet’s arrest was the work of a team.
found out where the wretch lived, Jem trailed him for us, then Paul and I stepped in to catch him in the act.’
‘I’ve watched Greet for a long time. He’s like so many of his breed – a Tyburn blossom, who was always going to end up as a gallows-bird. He’ll be dancing a jig for the hangman before too long.’
Peter was sympathetic. ‘I’d sooner the fellow were transported, Gully. No man should have his neck stretched for stealing a piece of ginger and a few cloves.’
‘I disagree,’ said Ackford, firmly. ‘You’re too soft-hearted, Peter.
Thieves are vermin. If they’re not exterminated, they’ll steal the clothes off our backs. Besides,’ he went on, ‘Greet was not there for tiny samples. According to Paul, the villain grabbed enough in his grasping hands to set himself up as a spice merchant.’
‘His punishment will still be too great for the crime.’
‘Robbing the warehouse was only the latest of his offences. Ned Greet has been the busiest thief in London. We’ll be applauded for netting the rogue at last and a lot of his victims will be there to cheer at his execution.’
‘Instead of blaming the burglar,’ said Peter, wryly, ‘they should instead chide themselves for failing to protect their property with sufficient care. If people wish to keep thievery at bay, vigilance must be constant.’
Peter Skillen was a mirror image of his twin brother, Paul. They were not simply identical in outward appearances, their facial expressions and habitual gestures were also interchangeable. Their voices were so similar in timbre and pitch that even Gully Ackford – who’d known them for many years – sometimes had difficulty telling one from the other. What set them apart were profound differences of character.
‘What comes next?’ asked Peter.
‘Need you ask? What comes next is the joy of spending that money I’ve just given you. If you’re short of ideas on how to do so, I daresay that Charlotte will provide some suggestions.’
Peter grinned. ‘My wife has a gift for shopping tirelessly – even if it’s to buy things of which we have no need whatsoever.’
‘Then give her free rein. When that bounty is fully spent, there’ll be plenty more to make our purses bulge. As our fame spreads, commissions will begin to flood in. Banks are always in search of our talents and there is unlimited work guarding the more fearful
members of the aristocracy. We’ll never starve, Peter.’
They were in one of the rooms at the rear of the shooting gallery owned by Ackford. Used by a variety of clients, it offered instruction in shooting, archery, fencing and boxing. Ackford was an expert in all four disciplines. Among his most regular customers were the twin brothers, who liked to keep their fighting skills in good repair in case they were needed. As a young soldier, Ackford had tasted defeat at the hands of American rebels at Yorktown. Against Napoleon’s armies, by contrast, he’d savoured victory in a British uniform. Peter and Paul Skillen valued his experience. He was a demanding tutor and a man with a rasping authority when it was necessary to impose his will.
‘What will your brother do with his share?’ asked Ackford.
‘I daresay that Paul will spend every penny at some gambling haunt.’
‘What if he
at cards for a change?’
‘That’s as likely as his finding the woman of his dreams.’
‘But he already
found her. The trouble is that she married
‘Oh, I think he’s outgrown that disappointment,’ said Peter with a smile. ‘When Charlotte was no longer available, he quickly discovered willing substitutes and has been working his way through them ever since. They change so fast that I can never remember their names.’
‘Paul needs to settle down.’
‘He has done so frequently, Gully – but never for very long.’ They shared a laugh. ‘Don’t try to change my brother. That’s beyond the capability of any man. It would be like telling the moon not to shine or stopping the flow of the Thames. Paul is a force of nature. He’ll go his own way regardless.’
Paul Skillen looked through the front window in time to see a figure hurtling towards the house. He identified Jem Huckvale by his speed rather than by any physical features. Short, compact and holding on to his hat with one hand, Huckvale was known for his prowess as an athlete and his skill at weaving through a crowd at full pelt. He would never walk if he could trot, and he would never do that if he could run flat out. When he reached the house, he paused to catch his breath then rang the bell. A servant admitted him then showed him into the drawing room.
‘Come in, Jem,’ said Paul, embracing him warmly. ‘I hope that you’ve brought what I am expecting.’
‘I have, indeed,’ replied the other, taking a fat purse from his coat pocket. ‘Gully has divided the reward and I’m delivering your share.’
‘Then you are doubly welcome.’
‘He sends his regards.’
Receiving the purse from him, Paul tipped its contents onto a table and spread out the banknotes and sovereigns. He lifted a handful of coins and feasted his gaze on them before letting them cascade back down on to the pile. Huckvale, meanwhile, had removed his hat and stood waiting politely. As well as being Ackford’s assistant at the shooting gallery, he was a trusted messenger with wings on his heels. Though he looked to be no more than fifteen, Huckvale was ten years older but the freshness of his face and his small physique disguised his true age.
‘This will help me to pay off my debts,’ said Paul, counting the money.’ He looked up. ‘Has Gully given you your share?’
‘Yes, and it’s far more than I deserve.’
‘No modesty, Jem – you played your part as well as any of us. Once we’d found out where Ned Greet lived, you shadowed him for weeks. That was dangerous work and should be recognised with payment.’
‘It’s a privilege to serve you and Peter,’ said Huckvale, admiringly. ‘My needs are limited and my wages at the shooting gallery are more than enough for me. Being able to work alongside you and your brother is the real recompense.’
‘There’s always so much excitement.’
‘Is that what you call it?’ asked Paul with a hollow laugh. ‘There’s no excitement in being knocked down a flight of stairs by a bag of flour, I do assure you. It was a miracle that I came off with nothing worse than bruises.’
‘We caught him, that’s the main thing.’
‘No, Jem, we made good money for doing so. That’s what is really important.’
‘Peter says that we’re helping to cleanse the city of crime.’
Paul shrugged. ‘If my brother wants to view it as a moral crusade, so be it. I take a more practical view. Every time we deliver a villain to the magistrates, we get paid for our efforts and that enables us to indulge ourselves. Peter, of course, has turned his back on the multiple pleasures of the capital but I intend to enjoy them to the full – and that costs money. Unbeknownst to him, Ned Greet has both cleared my debts and supplied me with the requisite funds for gambling anew.’
‘Greet has other thing on his mind at the moment, Paul.’
‘Yes, he’s having nightmares about Tyburn!’
His harsh laughter echoed around the room. Like most people, Huckvale couldn’t tell the twins apart simply by looking at them. It was only when they began to express a point of view that he saw how dissimilar they really were. Peter was calm, reasonable and compassionate. His brother, on the other hand, was a man of trenchant opinions, reckless, irresponsible and wayward in his private life. Huckvale was devoted to both of them but – without really
understanding why – the one he really idolised was Paul Skillen.
‘News of the arrest is in the newspapers,’ he said.
Paul curled a lip. ‘I make a point of not reading them.’
‘It’s a way of building our reputation.’
‘That will please Gully.’
‘It pleases everyone who wishes to uphold the law.’
‘I can think of a notable exception, Jem.’
‘Oh – who might that be, pray?’
‘I’m talking about the man who’s been hunting Ned Greet as long as we have.’
‘He’ll have seen the fellow as his legitimate prize. After all, Micah is a Bow Street Runner. He thinks that gives him a monopoly on justice. Our success will make him seethe,’ said Paul with wicked satisfaction. ‘Micah Yeomans will be livid when he realises that we are the best thief-catchers in England.’
‘The scheming devils!’ roared Yeomans, holding the newspaper with trembling hands. ‘The Skillen brothers have had the gall to do our job for us. They’ve caught Ned Greet.’ Scrunching up the newspaper, he flung it aside. ‘Why didn’t we get to him first?’
‘We were too slow,’ said Alfred Hale.
‘I blame you for that.’
‘I did my best.’
‘Patently, it was woefully inadequate,’ said Yeomans with withering scorn. ‘We keep a whole army of informers. Why could none of them earn their money and tell us where Greet was hiding?’
earn their money,’ suggested Hale. ‘Ned paid them more to keep their mouths shut than we paid them to keep their eyes open.’
‘Then how did those loathsome twins manage to track him down?’
‘That’s a secret I’d love to know, Micah.’
‘You failed me again, Alfred. You’ve no right to call yourself a Runner.’
‘I strive to please.’
‘Ha! There are times when your incompetence
Hale was about to point out that Yeomans had been equally incompetent when he remembered what happened when he last challenged the senior man. It was safer to accept the rebuke and lower his head to his chest.
Nature had been unkind to Yeomans, giving him a face of unsurpassable ugliness with a misshapen nose competing for dominance against a pair of huge, angry green eyes, two monstrous bushy eyebrows and a long slit of a mouth from which a row of yellow teeth protruded. Even in repose he looked grotesque. When roused, as he was now, Yeomans was positively fearsome. A former blacksmith, he was a big, hulking man with powerful fists that were well known in the criminal fraternity. Hale was a solid man of medium height but he looked puny beside his companion. Both were in their forties with long, distinguished records as Principal Officers of Bow Street. They hated rivals.
‘The Skillen brothers live off blood money,’ said Yeomans, contemptuously.
‘We’ve had our share of that in the past,’ Hale reminded him.
‘Hold your tongue!’
‘It’s true, Micah.’
‘We have legal authority. They are floundering amateurs.’
‘Then why do they always show us up by harvesting our crop?’
‘They’ve trespassed on our land far too long,’ said Yeomans through gritted teeth. ‘It’s time to teach them a lesson, Alfred. Nobody can steal from us with impunity, least of all that pair of popinjays.’ His eyes blazed. ‘I want revenge.’