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Authors: Sam Christer

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BOOK: The House Of Smoke
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Once we had downed tools on the Friday evening I told him, ‘I’m going into town. I need that drink after all.’

‘Yow’ll find all yow wish for in the Bull Ring,’ he advised. ‘An’ if yow sees a quiet woman there, one what down’t want to be gittin’ married, then be a mucka an’ bring ’er ’ome for me.’

‘I shall.’

He shook my hand and we parted on good terms.

As I made my way towards the bright lights, I realised that until that night, I hadn’t been off the grounds of the asylum since starting work. It felt like a holiday to be free of trees, grass and most of all the sight of the big brick walls of the hospital and nearby gaol.

As night unfolded, the taverns teemed with happy drunk men and carelessly dressed women. Unwisely, I lost track of both time and the amount of ale and gin I consumed.

The hour must have been very late when I downed my last drink and stumbled into the virtually deserted streets. Sensibly, the masses had made their way home, which was where I was headed once I relieved myself of the excess liquid straining at my bladder.

A few meandering minutes away from the flickering gas lamps brought me to an alleyway and the blessed relief my body craved. Leant against a wall in urinal bliss, I heard a rough voice shout, ‘Lissen to that. Sounds like there’s a cheeky stallion pissin’ on our patch.’

Two, maybe three men laughed. One added. ‘A pissing
mare
, more like. A stallion wouldn’t hide ’imself in the dark. ’e’d want to show off all ’e’d got.’

More laughter. Different voices. I was sobering up and realised I had underestimated the number of strangers. There were four, maybe five men, not three.

I finished and buttoned myself up. I was growing more alert by the second. Maybe relieving myself had restored my faculties.

Boots moved on cobbles. My eyes adjusted to the light. Street lamps cast shadows into the alley and I saw their outlines. Big men, huddled together, all with caps, and sticks in their hands.

The sight made me smile, not tremble. I knew their business better than they did. One would step forward and show his mettle. The weaker ones, the followers, would stay a safe distance away until they were sure the fight was won, or necessity demanded they all piled in mob-handed.

I opened my hands and raised them to show I had no weapon. ‘Lads, if it’s clink you are after, then you are out of luck. The last of it was drunk more than an hour ago and just pissed out on my boots.’ I swayed a little. Gave the impression I was an easy cove. ‘I don’t want no trouble; I just want to walk on home.’

‘’Appen yow do,’ said a shadow. ‘But from the way yow speak, it sounds like yow’re a very long way from home.’

‘Too far away for yowr own good,’ added another. The laughter that followed was thin. A cold broth of bravado and evil intent.

I focused on the task presenting itself. Moonlight lay to my right. I shifted away from it so less of me would be visible. The big silver crescent smiled coolly in a puddle on the cobbles at my feet. I edged further into the darkness.

A big hand hit the middle of my chest. Pulled me back into the light. ‘Now then, where do yow think yow’re goin’?’

‘Teach ’im a lessin, Billy,’ shouted a crony. ‘Crack the basta’d, then we’ll tip ’im up an’ empty ’is pockits.’

Billy was apparently the brave one. Gangly, but not without muscle or nerve. He had a firm grip and spoke calmly. ‘Yow can go on ’ome, once yow’ve paid a toll.’

I looked down at his clenched hand. It was a tough man’s hand. Even in the moonlight I could see knuckles chequered with cuts and scars. I felt my heart beat against his other pressed palm. ‘Toll?’ I asked.

‘Yow’z on a
toll road,
moy friend. Meanin’ yow’z ’as to pay.
Or
suffer the consequences.

The shadows around him chuckled and closed in on me.

‘Take your hand away,’ I whispered to him.

The shadows mumbled.


Please,
’ I said more forcefully.

‘An’ if I don’t?’

I leaned into his fist so he felt me push back and Billy the Brave did what I expected him to do. The very thing he shouldn’t have done. He gave me a good hard shove.

Or, at least he tried to.

I slapped both my palms over his fingers, so he couldn’t remove them, then I bent quickly. He had a choice: fall to his knees or have his wrist broken.

Billy made another wrong decision. He stood tall and brave. His bone broke with a sickening crack and he doubled up in pain.

I held on to his busted hand. Stepped over it. Twisted his arm and dislocated his shoulder.

Billy screamed like a trapped animal and I confess my brain fizzed with excitement. I had missed the mental relief of being in a fight. The primordial rush of crushing another predator.

‘So who’s next then?’ I swaggered challengingly into the moonlight. ‘Who fancies a little of what Billy just got?’

I took their silence as submission, which was almost as stupid a mistake as the one Billy had made.

Almost in unison, they took off their caps. Respectfully, I thought. As though a priest or someone of great standing had entered their purview.

Then they let out a roar and rushed me. A callow youth swiped with his cap. I raised a forearm and felt the peak slice my jacket.

Now I understood: some form of blade was concealed beneath the stiffened fabric. This changed things. Not only was I outnumbered but these boys were more dangerous than I’d anticipated. I crunched an elbow into the face of a man to my right. Instinctively, my cut-throat razor clicked open in my hand – a fellow had crept noisily behind me and I slashed his leg with it. He squealed loudly.

Someone shouted, ‘’Enry? Yow all right, ’enry?’

I slipped deeper into the darkness. Heard the others rush to their friend’s aid. Their preoccupation provided me with the opportunity to shift, unseen, along the alley wall and disappear into the street beyond.

I ran hard. Put as much distance between the gang and myself as quickly as I could. It wasn’t long before I heard police whistles and the clatter of carriages and hooves. They were heading in the opposite direction to me but I still stepped back into the shadows and waited until silence returned.

Once I felt safe, I moved again. A street-corner gas lamp cast a golden sheen across a cobbled junction. I stopped there, panting for breath, and looked myself over. There was blood on my hands, glistening as black as tar. My jacket had been ripped by a blade. My cheek stung from a cut. I put a finger to it and then licked fresh blood from the skin.

The whistles came again. They were closer now. The coppers had probably reached the gang and been redirected. I took deep breaths then took to my heels again.

Only when I came to a canal basin did I slow to a walk. Barges lined the water’s edge but those lingering on them were either asleep or too drunk to care about me. On the towpaths, I saw only men too inebriated to make it to their crafts, or those who had stopped to spend the last of their pay with dollymops too ugly to work in the light of the taverns.

Off the back of a barge, where no interior light shone and no sound of life could be heard, I lifted a swill bucket from a hook and pumped fresh water into it. There was enough illumination from the moon to clean myself as best I could.

The rest of the journey back to the asylum was reassuringly uneventful. No sooner had I curled up in my pile of sacking inside the shed than I fell into a deep sleep.

The following day was one of silent reflection. I couldn’t get the encounter with the razor-capped gang out of my head and I spent the morning lost in my thoughts as I chopped wood for old Ralph.

‘Yow’re very quiet today,’ he observed. ‘Cat got yow tongue? Or yow feelin’ badly from the ale?’

‘I was just thinking things over.’


Things
to do with that cut on yow face?’

It looked worse than it was. A raw red line that was really no more than a deep scratch had drawn blood and was trying to scab. Still, it ran from the middle of my cheek to the lobe of my left ear and would be visible for some time. ‘Had a bit too much to drink and caught myself on a bush last night. Nearly took my eye out.’

‘And this
bush
,’ Ralph said sceptically, ‘woz it overchargin’ yow? Or woz it someone else’s
bush
an’ yow got a good beatin’ for messin’ with it?’

‘I’m not like that.’ I downed the axe and glared at him. ‘I’ve never been with a woman like that, and I’d certainly never hurt a woman. Never.’

‘I’m glad to ’ear it.’ He could tell I was offended. ‘So tell me then, wot’s the matter with yow?’

I moved more wood into position to be chopped, then decided I would tell him. ‘The first bit was true. I took a drink too much. Then I got cornered by some gang demanding money from me.’

‘Lads yow’r own age?’

‘About that.’

‘Dressed smart, with caps?’ he said knowingly.

‘Yes.’

‘Yow needs steer clear of the likes of them. Bad news theys are. Bad news indeed.’ He planted a foot on his shovel, and drove it into the soft soil of a small vegetable bed he’d been working all week. ‘They’re Blinders. Yow’re lucky they didn’t take yow’r eye out.’

I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly. ‘Blinders?’

He removed his own cap and ran a filthy finger around the well-worn peak. ‘They gets their name coz they sews sharp metal into ’ere. Then they blinds people like yow by slashin’ ’em in the eyes.’ He looked more closely at my cut. ‘Inch or two different an’ yow’d be needin’ a stick an’ a dog.’ As an afterthought he asked, ‘Did they take yow money?’

I didn’t answer. Didn’t want to give away that they’d come off worse than I had. That the police may well be looking for me.

‘I thought so. Explains them sour looks. Anyroadup, don’t go askin’ me for money. I’ve none to give.’

‘I wasn’t going to.’

‘I’m relieved to ’ear it.’ He studied my cut a little more. ‘Did they beat yow bad?’

‘Not so much.’ I put my hand to the cut. ‘Just this and some bruises. Once I turned my pockets out they left me alone.’

He nodded. ‘Yow did right. Money can be replaced. An eye can’t.’ He put his cap back on, then had another thought. ‘Yow best make sure yow stay out of trouble.’ He nodded towards the prison. ‘I’m not gowin’ in there on account of yow. I’m not goin’ in there for no one.’

‘I understand.’

He turned and looked me over. ‘Thinkin’ on it, any lad wot comes away from a scrap wit’ the Blinders, bearin’ only a scratch, ’as to be more ’n’ lucky.’ He studied me again and didn’t like what he saw. ‘I’m owld enuff to smell badness a mile away. An’ standin’ ’ere right now, yow stinks of it.’

I said nothing, just picked up the axe and sank it into the oak.

Old Ralph put his hand on my shoulder and stopped me swinging again. ‘I reckons it’s time yow moved on, no offence.’

‘None taken.’ I knew he was right. I needed to put miles between myself and the trouble snapping at my heels. ‘Guess I’ve got some money coming?’

Ralph paid me to the end of the week, we shook hands and I walked away without a word or a backward glance. But even as the miles between Birmingham and me opened up, I sensed I wasn’t done with the Blinders. A grudge as strong as steel swords had been forged between us and blood would be shed again. Of that, I was certain.

PART TWO

The charge is prepared, the lawyers are met,

The judges all ranged, a terrible show

The Beggar’s Opera
, John Gay

Derbyshire, September 1885

I was infatuated with Elizabeth and knew it, but being young and immature, there was simply nothing I could do, except suffer.

The blessed woman was on my mind from the very second that I woke. She occupied all my final thoughts before sleep and attended my every dream. And in that phantom world, she looped her arm in mine and I was not the fool of the drawing room who used the wrong words and lied about what he knew – I was her protector, her guardian, her lover.

Until Elizabeth, there had been no woman who had turned my head and set my heart racing. Not even a little. While boys and men around me had slept with all manner of girls and women, I harboured no such desires. I was curious about the fairer sex. But every time I looked at an elegant lady in the street or a laughing harlot in a tavern my mind would fill with notions of my birth mother and then a terrible flood of childhood memories would extinguish any sparks of passion.

To distract myself from Elizabeth, I wandered around Moriarty’s mansion. Never had I been anywhere as luxurious as this, unless carrying a sack to stuff with silver.

From an upper landing window, I watched deer amble in a distant field. From another, I saw a great owl settle on the slated roof of a private chapel, built I later learned, to stop bodysnatchers stealing any Moriarty corpses and selling them to medical schools. And from a third window, I followed fast-moving water as it broke white on rocks and tumbled around the sharp bend of a river.

What I did not see was any other house or sign of civilisation. Moriarty’s home was isolated. Hidden. And judging from the number of men patrolling the distant hedges and fences, it was a fortress.

BOOK: The House Of Smoke
10.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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