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Authors: Sam Christer

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BOOK: The House Of Smoke
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‘Good for you.’ I pushed his mutt away.

‘People call me Sebastian
the Jew
.’

‘Good for them.’

‘My name means
nothing
to you?’

‘I suppose it means you’re Jewish.’ I fastened the rest of my shirt. ‘Is that your Jew gang, mister?’ I nodded to a group of young men forming behind him.

He glanced over his shoulder. ‘Yes and no. They are my acquaintances, but they are not Jewish.’


Acquaintances
,’ I repeated sarcastically. ‘And do you intend to have your
acquaintances
beat upon me?’ I rolled up my sleeves and clenched my fists so the knuckles cracked like snapped twigs. ‘Or are they charged with picking up what remains after your dogs are finished?’

‘These?’ He laughed as they pulled their leashes. ‘The worst
licking
Dee and Dum will give you is with their tongues.’

‘Strange names for dogs.’

‘That’s because they are strange dogs. Brothers they are, like the twins Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Dogs look the same but are very different. One’s lazy and one never rests. Only thing they have in common is they can’t manage a dangerous bark between them, let alone a bite.’ His eyes assessed me in the manner a farmer might choose cattle at a market. ‘That’s an intriguing scar you have on your face.’

‘You must live a very boring life to find a scratch like that in any way interesting.’

‘On its own you might be right. But it’s not on its own. Your skin is browner than a berry, meaning you’ve not been labouring in any local factory but living rough. Your boots are fair knackered, a sure sign you’ve walked your legs short. Those clothes of yours stink worse than my mutts’ arses and your accent is not local. Not local at all. So you see, there’s a handful of reasons why your scar is interesting to me.’

I picked up my footwear and regarded him with suspicion. He was no toff, nor was he a working-class ruffian without brain or charisma. Behind him, more of his gang ominously gathered. There were now eight, maybe ten of them, I could not be sure because they were not still enough to count. ‘You’re right; I’ve been travelling a long while. Looking for work and food, that’s all.’

‘I can give you work. And shelter.’ He knelt and rubbed one of the dogs’ ears. His eyes met mine. ‘A roof, hot food and even clean clothes.’

‘And
why
would you want to do that?’

‘Because a man on the run from something that put a scar on his face might be useful to me.’ He smiled and added, ‘In return, I’d want hard graft, no cheek or any drunkenness.’

‘I am sober, disciplined and can do an honest day’s toil.’


Honest?
That’s the last thing I want.’ He looked to his men. ‘He wants
honest
work, lads.’

There was laughter but no one spoke. They knew their place. Don’t interrupt the boss. Just stand close and wait to be called upon.

I picked out a man second from the left and another, farthest right. These were the hard boys. The ones not crossing their arms and puffing out their chests to look tough. The ones who had nothing to prove.

Sebastian held out his palm. ‘Shake my hand and join us. Or else be off. And if you refuse my hospitality, then make bloody sure you stay well away. This is Scuttler turf and you’ll find we don’t take kindly to strangers around here.’

I grasped his hand. It was soft. Had never done anything more strenuous than hold a dog leash. ‘Terry,’ I said, mentioning the first name that entered my head. ‘Terry Perch. What, may I ask, are Scuttlers?’


Scuttlers?’
He smiled easily, ‘Without a doubt, they are the best group of men in
all
of England.’

He jerked the two sniffing dogs into a slow amble along the river’s edge and I followed, thinking all the time about the men behind us and whether something worse than a beating could befall me.

We halted at the rear of a large mill built of red bricks. There were endless rows of long windows and through the lower ones I saw the scaffolds of loom beams, spidery webs of multi-coloured wool, chimney spindles of wound cotton and armies of busy women.

In the cool shadows of the building, Sebastian introduced me to his men. Most were no older than me and had names I instantly forgot, save those of the two who stayed closest to their leader. Danny was my height and weight but with blond hair and blue-green eyes. He sported a wispy, waxed beard that he seemed to derive great calmness from regularly stroking. The other was a small, fidgety man they called Fingers. I guessed this was because he constantly fluttered a ha’penny back and forth across his knuckles. The coin would always tumble from the smallest to the index finger; he’d roll his hands together and repeat the dextrous manoeuvre across the knuckles of his other hand.

‘We have rooms below the steps,’ said Sebastian. He let the dogs off their leashes and they bounded and skidded down a steep grass bank. He motioned to a black iron staircase. ‘This way’s safer, I think.’

The ‘rooms’ transpired to be nothing more than a large, open and unused part of the lower floor of the mill. Rows of bunks had been erected in a far corner. In the centre stood rough wooden tables and benches where men gathered to eat, play cards and swap stories. The rear wall contained a polished oak door guarded by a muscular young man.

‘That’s
my
place,’ said Sebastian, following my eyes. ‘You and the boys have the run of all this, but nowhere else.’ He jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. ‘Back there, and what’s
kept
back there, belong to me. You don’t go inside. Not unless I invite you. That’s another rule.’

‘Lots of rules,’ I said, my gaze rolling over the high cold walls and long floors.

‘Only one,’ he answered. ‘Do as I tell you. If you obey that, then you’ll be fine.’

‘And if I don’t?’

His eyes grew large with excitement. ‘Then, my newfound friend, you’ll be lucky to escape with your life.’

17 Days to Execution
Newgate, 1 January 1900

Fifteen years after that warning from Sebastian the Jew, I reflected on it in the solitude of my cell.

I have known little good luck in my life. And Sebastian certainly brought me none. Indeed, had I known his true character when I met him, I swear I would have walked away from the riverbank and never darkened his turf again.

And had I done so, then my first visitor of this New Year might have been a beautiful maiden rather than a middle-aged gaoler, ruddy skinned with a thick black beard that crept high up a thin face and almost crawled into the pits of his soulless dark eyes. He let the squeaking door bang on its rusted hinges as he strode in, proud of the noise and drama of his entrance.

At the end of my bunk he stopped, kicked my feet and shouted, ‘Stand up, Lynch! Turn around and put your
bloody
convict hands against that wall!’

I was on my feet instantly. Not out of obedience, but because I sensed a chance to overpower this man, who clearly was a gaoler of authority and might have sufficient keys to afford me the opportunity of escape.

I was mistaken. He was far from alone. A gang of his loury men trailed after him and as I placed my palms on the cold bricks, a prison baton cracked the back of my legs.

I fell to my knees and through gritted teeth managed a verbal response: ‘I sense you boys have not come first footing then? No ale or gifts to welcome in the New Year?’

‘Shut your insolent mouth!’ shouted my uninvited guest. Heavy hands pushed my face into the brickwork. ‘I am Mr Tobias Johncock, the assistant keeper – or deputy governor, as
modernisers
like to say.’ He pronounced
modernisers
with contempt. ‘Turn ’im around, men. Let’s get this over with.’

They kept me on my knees but dragged me around to face him.

Johncock stepped closer and smirked wickedly. ‘I have been tasked with the pleasure of organising your
execution
.’ He spread his arms wide to his colleagues. ‘I am the man to lynch Mr Lynch.’

They gave him the laughter he craved.

I’ve ’anged more scoundrels than any other screw in London,’ he boasted. ‘And I can name all the toppers, right back to Thomas de Warblynton in the thirteen ’undreds and clumsy Jack Ketch, that blessed bungler who shamed the Duke of Monmouth with a blunt axe. Messy, messy, messy. I don’t like messy, Lynch. Don’t like it at all.’

I lowered my head. The cell’s cockroaches had gathered in one corner as though frightened of Johncock. The sight of them made me smile. Given a chance, I could kill this cocksure cove quicker than I could exterminate them.

‘Look at me!’ he shouted.

His men tugged my hair so I had no choice but to raise my eyes to his.

‘There’s fierce competition on the ’Angman’s List for the ’onour of stretching a double murderer like you.’ He reached into his tunic pocket and produced a handsome pipe. ‘The clever money is on James Billington. Though I’d top myself rather than let a northerner do it.’ He raised an eyebrow and smiled. ‘I was ’ere when Billington did that bitch Amelia Dyer. The “Angel Maker” they called ’er. She swung for the murder of only one infant but I ’ave friends in the constabulary and they say she killed ’undreds, bloody ’undreds of poor babes in arms.’

Johncock pulled tobacco from a pouch and pushed it into the pipe’s bowl. ‘Then there was the “Ripper” ’anging. A doctor he was. Went by the name of Thomas Cream. Stood right on the traps where you’ll be quivering.’ He stretched out his arm to demonstrate the next movement in his tale. ‘Billington was pulling the lever when Cream shouted “I am Jack the—”.
Boom!
The traps rattled open and ’e swung. Never got a chance to complete what ’e wanted to say. If ’e ’ad, it might’ve been the confession of the century.’

Johncock struck a match. The acrid smell brought relief from the putrid stink of the cell. He took several quick, short draws to raise a red crackle in the pipe bowl, exhaled and announced, ‘I ’ear you’re an ’andful, Lynch. Got a bit of a temper on you. Now that’s
not
desirable in a prisoner. No, no, no. Not desirable at all.’ He checked the tobacco was lit, then added, ‘I thought it of mutual benefit to pay you a visit and explain my ground rules. They are very simple. You give me no trouble and I give you no beatings. Because I promise you my beatings will cause you twice the pain of any trouble you inflict upon me.’

He nodded to his men and walked away. A cloud of tobacco smoke rose as he neared the doorway. His men had landed the first of their blows before he reached the corridor outside. A knee hit the side of my skull. A kick followed to the ribs. A stick set fire to my spine.

I could not manage to stand, so I grabbed a leg and upended one of my attackers. Others rained blows on me. I, in turn, inflicted maximum distress on the fellow I had brought down. His shrieks of agony alerted Johncock, who whistled down the gallery for more men.

They came piling into the cell, flailing sticks. I knew I had little time before they overwhelmed me and absolutely no hope of overcoming them all.

I got up on my toes but they beat me into a wall. A hand snagged my wrist. Someone pulled at an ankle. Boots piled into my stomach and genitals. My right arm was twisted up my back. A big skull butted my face.

Johncock shouted, ‘Come away! Leave ’im now. Much as I’d like to kill the bugger we ’ave to save that joy for the ’angman.’

Voices shouted around me. Feet slapped stone. Keys jangled.

I slipped into blackness. Drifted in time. Back to my youth, to when I was free. When I first met Sebastian the Jew and he warned me about life and luck.

Manchester, 1884

I settled easily with the Scuttlers and quickly found them to be a gang unlike any other I had encountered.

They stole for a living. Nothing unusual about that. They were capable of extreme and cold-blooded violence. Again, commonplace. What made them different was Sebastian. He was organised. Controlled. Calm. From my experience, gang leaders tended to be the toughest and loudest, the biggest and most brutal, the braggarts and the bullies.

Sebastian was none of these.

I doubt he had ever thrown a punch in his life. He led through intelligence and cunning. Was quietly spoken yet always had everyone’s attention.

An insight into the small man’s power came soon after I arrived. He had departed early in the morning, without his animals or any of his men. When he returned in the middle of the day he was smiling broader than a loom beam. He was well dressed, in green check tweed and polished brown boots. Tucked beneath his arm and balanced in his hand was a long, rolled-up, beige document tied with ribbons.

Heading directly to his private rooms, he motioned to Fingers and Danny to follow him, which they duly did. The rest of the afternoon was spent behind closed doors with them and other men who, one at a time, were also summoned into his sanctuary.

By early evening, the only people left in the big room were me and a dim-witted scrag of a boy called Zack.

‘What’s going on back there?’ I asked.

‘Dunno,’ he shrugged. ‘They never tell me nuthin’.’

Zack got told plenty, just not anything he wanted to hear. His role was to clean and empty things. Sort out the piss pots. Unblock the shit pits. Sweep the floor. Wash plates and cutlery.

‘But what do you
think
they’re doing?’ I pressed. ‘They’re up to something, aren’t they?’

‘Work,’ he offered. ‘They’re
up to
work.’

Work, I took to be thievery and the exact details most probably lay on that big roll of paper Sebastian had carted in.

After a time, Danny appeared in the doorway. ‘Terry, you’re wanted.’

I rose quickly and covered the twenty yards to Sebastian’s quarters at a pace indecently close to running.

His quarters were handsomely decorated but dark except for splashes of light thrown upwards by the gas lamps. Instead of the bare bricks present in the rest of the mill, the walls were panelled in cheap oak, punctuated with oils depicting hunting scenes. There was a small, open fireplace, stacked with fresh coal, and a long and heavy trestle table flanked by pew benches that looked as though they’d been stolen from a church.

BOOK: The House Of Smoke
4.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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