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Authors: Sam Christer

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BOOK: The House Of Smoke
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‘Time to earn your keep,’ said Sebastian. ‘Come and join us.’

I took a seat in the midst of a pool of smoky yellow light and stumpy forest of elbows.

‘Let the dog see the bone,’ he urged his men. One by one, they moved hands, pipes and arms so I could view the plans spread across the table.

‘Goddard Grange,’ Sebastian explained. ‘Stuffed to its old woodwormed rafters with Persian carpets, Dutch oils, Roman silverware and Indian jewels.’

‘Very nice,’ I said.

‘Very
beautiful.
The lord of the manor, a Mr Wilberforce Singleton, is an antiques trader. In a few hours’ time he will be meeting a ship in Southampton and taking delivery of prized Etruscan artefacts. We, meanwhile, will be taking possession of everything of value in his lavishly furnished country home, the place detailed on the plans in front of you.’

We all scanned the large document, already marked with crosses, showing where the family silver, jewellery, oils and sculptures were located.

‘What do you want of me?’ I asked.

‘Tonight, you will be a carrier,’ replied Sebastian. ‘Joel, tell our young friend what his duties are.’

A thickset fellow with receding brown hair coughed to clear his throat and shifted his feet nervously as he spoke. ‘You waits outside, by the windows, then when the
stuffers
brings you their sacks you carries them to the carts.’ He coughed twice more then added further instructions, with the emphasis of someone who had clearly been told the procedure many times. ‘You does it
quickly
but
carefully
. No
running
or
stumbling
. No
dropping
or
throwing
sacks down – not unless coppers come and you have to leg it!’

His last remark brought laughter from the entire group. Once it had died down, Sebastian looked at me with an intensity I had not seen since our first meeting on the riverbank. ‘Can you do that, Terry? Does it fall within your abilities and your definition of
honest
labour?’

‘I can do it. And more if needs be.’

‘Needs will be. But not tonight. Tonight you start at the bottom.’

Night fell.

In an instant of near-military coordination we all moved. More than a dozen covered carts rumbled out from our riverside abode and took us miles through the deepening blackness of the countryside. I was at the back of the convoy and noticed each driver kept a good two minutes’ distance from the one in front, presumably so as not to attract undue attention. Down long unlit roads, rutted country lanes and winding hillside tracks we travelled for hours.

We halted with the same precision that had moved us. For twenty minutes or more we idled in a tired silence. Coughs were stifled with cupped hands. Patience of the highest kind was called for.

Finally the pointsmen came. Called us from the carts in whispers. We clambered out. Dropped noiselessly onto soil and grass. There was no need for prompting. Every man knew his job. We moved quickly, calmly.

Bent low and backlit by the moon, we trod carefully across the carpet of turf that rolled up to the big house.

As instructed, I watched for the swing of a lantern outside the east wing. When it came, I dashed over with my arms full. I was laden with large hessian sacks, specially made for the oil paintings. Deep bags packed with balled newspapers to swallow silver goblets, urns and plates. Soft cloth pouches for delicate personal jewellery such as bracelets, rings and necklaces.

We descended like locusts.

Within the hour we had stripped the house bare.

By the time the last of the carts had been loaded, my lungs were on fire and my legs had turned to jelly. Thick sweat greased my face and back as I walked the mile to the crossroads where I had been told we would be picked up.

Joel was already waiting with a large four-wheeler drawn by big black horses. He handed us ale then sat up top with the coachman as four of us climbed inside and exchanged excited chatter about ‘the job’.

There was more drink when we got back to the mill. Enough to float a ship. The tables in our lodgings creaked from the weight of the food piled upon them. Huge slabs of beef and pork. Great rounds of cheeses. Baskets of fruit and bread.

There were women, too. Blonds. Brunettes. Redheads. Young. Old. Tall and small. I felt too awkward to go with any of them. Their light dresses and heavy sexuality repulsed rather than attracted me.

The celebrations grew noisier by the hour and by the glass. Once singing began there was no stopping the Scuttlers. They mangled many music hall numbers, belted out bawdy shanties. And more than once, they roared at the top of their voices a song I’d heard during my days in London:

Up and down the City Road

In and out the Eagle

That’s the way the money goes

Pop goes the weasel!

Tankards rose and clanked together on the final line. Ale had to be downed in one and was followed by riotous cheering. The only voice missing was that of Sebastian.

Nor was he present the following morning, when even the sound of bird song was too loud for our delicate heads.

Not until late afternoon, when the last of the drunks were sober again, did he return. On seeing him, the older men roused themselves from their seats and headed over like moths to a flame. He in turn welcomed them to the warmth of his guarded quarters.

I counted the time that passed, mere minutes, before one by one they returned to the main room. All were smiling. The younger ones were then called through. They returned in similarly happy spirits. None flaunted the money they had been given, but from their excitement it was apparent they had been paid well for their labours.

I was not. Not a penny. My name was never called.

The moneyed men spent the night discussing what they would do with their newly acquired clink. There were clothes and women to be bought. Debts needed settling. Dreams to be chased.

I went to bed and dwelled on the events of the day but not the fact that I had been excluded from the payout. This, I assumed, was simply part of my initiation. I had to earn my way in.

So be it.

No, my mind was on other things.

I was focused on the easy success of the burglary and the many questions it raised.

The whole caper had been aided by architectural plans of the house and precise information about when it would be deserted, save for a dithery old butler, sleepy cook and young housemaid who most sensibly did not put up any resistance. I thought it quite strange that the owner had left no beefy brutes to guard his goods and concluded that Sebastian had either paid them off or had his men tackle them before we arrived.

None of the coachmen who carried away our haul had been known to any of us in the mill, except to Sebastian and possibly Danny. Yet they were allowed to drive away with the haul in the dead of night. To where? Some industrial warehouses, dockside sheds or farm outbuildings? I had no idea. Did Sebastian have even more Scuttlers working for him? Men other than those I slept and ate with every day? Or was
he
in fact working for someone else? I felt certain that the latter was the case, although it occurred to me there was another distinct possibility.

Perhaps
nothing
had been stolen. Things might simply have been
moved
to another location. Sebastian could have been hired by the owner to empty the house while he was away, so he could fraudulently claim money from some big London insurance company.

The real reason never materialised. Not that I cared. In the months that followed, I was given a fair share of coin as I graduated from carrier to stuffer, then from stuffer to lifter, and from lifter to breaker. Finally I made it to pointsman, the role that under Danny’s tutelage involved coordinating all ground operations, transport, men and timings. It made a welcome change to use my brain rather than my fists. Nevertheless, I was wary of going soft, of losing my physical strength and the protection it afforded me.

Every morning I would train hard. As soon as light broke through the big mill windows I would rise and begin a two-hour regime. At first, it involved nothing more sophisticated than a long run then sessions of lifting and squatting with heavy rocks. And shadow boxing.

I had boxed, during my childhood in a London workhouse, so I always finished with furious bouts with my silhouette. Initially, some of the other men came and laughed at me. Then they wanted to join in. Sebastian got us gloves and we began to spar. There were even calls to stage matches between ourselves and take bets, but for reasons that will soon become apparent, this was something that I refused to take part in.

Often I would swim in the river at the back of the mill. I had taught myself to do it after escaping from London, venturing deeper and deeper into streams, rivers and canals and then panicking my way back to dry land via a mixture of sinking and swimming.

One day, I was emerging from a post-run dip in the river when I saw Sebastian approaching with his dogs. It was unusual for him to be about so early in the day.

‘Good morning!’ I shouted, still dripping water while I grabbed a towel.

Normally he had a smile for me, but on this occasion only a hardened stare. ‘Get yourself dressed, then come to my room, immediately.’ He turned and tugged the dogs around to follow him. Dee and Dum yelped objections at having an anticipated walk curtailed so abruptly.

I towelled dry, dressed and made my way into his sitting room. It was, as always, in virtual darkness bar a crack of light through the curtains. Sebastian was in his wing-backed chair, looking through the gap into the daylight. ‘You need to pack your belongings and leave, Terry. And you need to do it now.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I told you to.’

‘What have I done wrong?’

A voice that wasn’t his replied, ‘Nothing.’ It came from the darkness at the back of the room.

‘What’s going on?’ I moved towards Sebastian but he shook his head to warn me not to.

‘What is
going on,’
continued the man’s voice
, ‘
is that you are leaving here to work for me.’ He spoke without class or accent, English but with an almost foreign drawl that was beyond my ability to place it.


I
choose who I work for,’ I protested.

The speaker appeared inchoately in the shadows. ‘Not any more.’

I didn’t answer. The man stepped into the table light.

He was only slightly smaller than me. I put him around forty but he could have been older. Brown hair, eyes the colour of roasted chestnuts, a dark beard speckled with grey but well-groomed enough to reveal gentle cheekbones and a powerful neck. A richly tailored woollen suit of chequered browns fell from broad shoulders and tapered at a waist that had probably once been as firm as his shoulders but was lost now to little exercise and lots of food.

Cradled in his hand was a stout unlit pipe, trimmed in silver with some form of crest embossed on it. He thumbed tobacco into the bowl and smiled at me. ‘I think I’ll call you Simeon.
Simeon Lynch.
That, after all, is your real name, isn’t it?’

I turned and ran.

The door I had come through was now locked. The handle twisted hopelessly in my fingers and would not open. I spun towards the window – if necessary, I’d hurl myself through the glass.

Sebastian stood and with one tug of his hand, those soft, quiet dogs, now growled menacingly and strained on their leashes. The stranger calmly lit his pipe. White spirals rose and swirled. Behind him appeared two more men. All hope of escape had been crushed.

Those chestnut eyes followed me through a cloud of newly exhaled smoke. ‘Please do not inconvenience us by running around any more, Simeon. It is both fruitless and childish.’

‘My name is Terry,’ I insisted. ‘Terry Perch. You’ve got the wrong person, mister. That
Simeon
– he’s not me.’

‘Tut. Tut. Tut.’ He shook his head and walked nearer. ‘I know exactly who you are, young man. Know it better than
you
do.’ His hand gripped my bicep. Seized me like an iron clamp. ‘You were born in a cankerous hovel in London and your mother, a local harlot, died while bringing your wretched body into this world.’

I tried to hide my fear but there was something about him that chilled my bones and silenced my tongue.

‘Don’t you want me to say more, Simeon? More about her? About you? About what you have done and why you ran away from London?’

‘No!’ I snapped. He had made enough revelations to set my heart racing. It was beyond me how he knew these things and the very fact that he did made me feel all the more vulnerable.

‘A wise choice,’ he said, unhanding me. ‘There are indeed parts of your life best not spoken about.’

‘Who
is
he?’ I asked Sebastian.

‘He’s not police,’ he said reassuringly. ‘Not the Old Bill.’

‘Most certainly not,’ confirmed the stranger. ‘My name is Moriarty. Professor Brogan Moriarty.’

16 Days to Execution
Newgate, 2 January 1900

When I regained consciousness, I felt the full pain of the beating Johncock’s men had meted out.

I also realised I had been moved to a different cell. Dressings had been fixed to my head, arms and legs. Poorly applied, I might add. One had sagged and obscured the vision of my left eye, causing me to blink repeatedly as it rubbed against my lid and lashes. My arms felt inordinately heavy, so it came as little surprise to discover my wrists and ankles clasped in chains. They were fixed, I imagined, to sturdy rings set in the floor, though I had no more than a meagre view of the ceiling and a far wall. I was spread-eagled on a hard bunk, and my throat felt as though hot tar and broken glass had been poured into it.

For the rest of the day, I drifted in and out of consciousness and must have been in that amorphous antechamber between worlds when I heard keys rattling and the door creaking open.

I braced myself for another ordeal. Perhaps new guards arriving to administer a fresh beating. I had even heard tell of doctors using experimental drugs on prison patients to control them. But the footsteps were from soft shoes, not prison boots. The voice was richer and more cultured than that of a turnkey.

BOOK: The House Of Smoke
8.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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