Authors: Sam Christer
It was my birth.
In that sedated nightmare I heard my mother’s screams. Saw her eyes become fixed and dead. Watched her corpse carried from the tavern to a wagon. Heard it rumble over the cobbles, off to the pauper’s pit where rotting strangers were piled high upon each other then all were mounded in earth. I heard my own infantile screams.
And a voice from the present not the past: ‘Wake up! Wake up! C’mon now.’
The raggedy errand-boy-come-woman slapped my face.
My eyes blinked open.
A lantern swung.
‘He’s coming round,’ she said to someone.
‘Get him out of the carriage.’ Moriarty sounded far, far away.
‘Watch his head,’ the girl warned.
Strong hands slid me out of the vehicle and into the crisp air. My heels banged the footboards of the carriage. I heard my drug-numbed feet being dragged through gravel.
‘Bring him inside,’ Moriarty commanded. ‘Downstairs. Let him sleep it off.’
More hands now. Scooping up my feet. Lifting me. Floating me again. Down, down, down. Flickering lamps. Feet clapping stone steps. The air stale. My body rising and falling. Different smells. A match. Candle wax. The creak of a door.
‘In here. Put him in here until morning.’
Stillness. Flatness. Groans and sighs of men, relieved to be free of carrying me. Their hands disappeared. Light faded. Cool sheets comforted my face. Darkness took me again.
I knew his tricks and powers all too well. Darkness was a conjurer. A demon. He would throw blankets over lovers and soil over the dead. Here, in prison, he was busily employed as the most terrible of torturers.
By keeping out light, he helped the turnkeys crush our spirits and made it all the more difficult to devise ways to escape.
Even in the new cell, where I recovered from my beating, Darkness stood guard from the end of the turnkeys’ night rounds until slivers of morning light were smuggled through my window bars.
Asleep, I either dreamed of escape or became a child again. I was reacquainted with Mario the Italian organ grinder, who worked a street corner near where I was born and would play every day except Sundays. Once more, I held out my hands for sweets wrapped in cut-up newspaper and played with wooden toys that other boys had grown out of. I looked into the faces of the mother and father I had never known. I grew up with them. Grew old with them. Placed grandchildren in their loving arms.
In the cold, black, early hours of the third day of the new century, I woke in the midst of a dream so vivid that I still imagined myself surrounded by the people in it. They seemed to have fallen noisily from the realms of my imagination and now, as my eyes opened, they stumbled, disorientated around the darkness of my cell.
Feet crept across the stone floor. I smelled sweat and tobacco.
This was no dream.
My mind checked off what I knew. No keys had been heard turning in the lock. No screw had broken my sleep with his booming voice. No doctor had demanded a light to inspect his patient.
I did not sit up or cry out. Did not let, whoever lurked in the pool of shadows beyond my bed, know that I was awake and aware of them. The fingers of my right hand slowly stretched out for the chain that tethered my wrists.
I heard a whisper.
One whisper equalled two people, or else a dangerous imbecile talking to himself in the darkness.
Cloth brushed my knuckles. The unseen intruder was beside me.
I sat bolt upright.
Desperately, I cast the loop of the wrist chain in the direction of the whisper. Metal clanked bone and a man cried out.
I pulled quickly. A gasp came from the darkness.
Flesh pressed against my fists. The chain was around a throat. Choking noises from the mouth of my haul.
Metal clattered nearby and someone else cried out. The second man had fallen over my slop bucket.
I held tight on the chains between my hands. The man caught in them grunted. I dragged him up the bunk until he lay across my chest, facing the ceiling. Desperate hands clutched at me. His body weight shifted, his back arched.
He jerked. The fight went out of him.
His body turned limp.
The cell door opened and yellow light from the landing flooded the room.
I slackened my hands and saw the top of the man’s head as he slid off me and flopped onto the floor.
I lay back, exhausted.
Evidently, I still hadn’t recovered my strength from the thrashing Johncock’s men had dispensed. Seconds passed. Then what seemed a minute, or even more.
Why had no gaolers come?
Surely the fall of light into my cell had been caused by a screw opening the door?
I was wrong. I pulled myself upright. The dead man lay partly in shadow, his face obscured, but I could see that it was not
who had killed him. A metal shank had pierced his chest and blood was emptying from him like an uncapped mountain spring. A shank that undoubtedly would have pierced my heart, had I not by chance hauled the intruder across my body as I snared him with the chain.
‘Door open!’ shouted a screw in a panic. ‘Cell five is open!’
Whistles blew. I braced myself.
All hell was about to break loose.
The surroundings I opened my eyes to, that first morning in the house of Brogan Moriarty, were by far the grandest I had ever seen. Foolishly, I did not realise that it was but a well-furnished prison and I no more than a pampered inmate.
‘Good morning,’ said a male voice from somewhere beyond my view.
I lifted my head from the pillows, and as I did so it ached like I had been punched. My fingers fell on crisp white linen. Across the room, I saw a fine wooden dresser topped with a free-standing mirror, a painted washing bowl and a large willow-patterned water jug.
‘Are you feeling sick, or dizzy?’ asked an elderly man as he walked into view. Slightly hunchbacked and bespectacled he had white hair and a well-trimmed, wispy white beard. Kind eyes in a wrinkled face. He was dressed in a brown and red chequered waistcoat with brown trousers, the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up over his bony elbows.
He sat on the bed and, while introducing himself, stared curiously into my eyes. ‘I am Dr Reuss. I need to look you over.’ He took my wrist and flipped out a gold pocket watch. ‘Relax. Let me and my ticker here see how your ticker is fairing.’
For a good minute, I watched him watch me and his watch.
‘You are fine,’ he concluded and returned the timepiece to his waistcoat. Without further comment, he stood and left.
I listened to his footsteps in the corridor. They were joined by lighter ones. Voices mingled and hushed. Confidential tones became mere murmurs. I strained but could not hear what was being said.
Dizzily, I made my way to the bowl and jug. Poured water. Checked it didn’t smell strange, then lowered my face and splashed it, cupping cool handfuls to assuage my stinging eyes and aching brow, finally drinking what was left in the jug.
Very briefly, the foggy pain disappeared from inside my head. I took a white towel from a brass rail and looked out of the large window as I dried myself.
Grass. Endless grass. There were gardens within gardens. Trim hedges, like mazes, separated roses and fruit trees, gravelled pathways, fountains and ponds, summerhouses, vegetable plots and lawns. Lawns that stretched further than my eyes could see. Out on the horizon were all manner of large, small, flat and jagged hilltops. But no houses, factories or chimneys billowing smoke.
This was not the worst place to be in. Not at all. Once I had my bearings, and perhaps a sack full of stolen property to sell, then I would leave much richer for the experience.
My thoughts were still forming when Sirius Gunn appeared in the doorway. ‘So, you are awake,’ he declared with a grin on his clean-shaven face. ‘Our little Briar Rose has finally surfaced from sweet slumber.’
‘It is the tale of an innocent princess woken after a sleep of a hundred years.’
‘I am not a princess and not one for stories. Where am I?’
‘You are in the county of Derbyshire. More specifically, a place of great natural beauty known as the Peak District. Now gather your ignorance and follow me.’ He headed out of the door.
I wished I had the strength to catch him and break his perfect nose. But I hadn’t. I was weaker than a newborn deer. My legs wouldn’t lock or move without immense effort. Muscles had mutinied and my feet dragged lamely.
By the time I had navigated the corridor and climbed a steep stone staircase, my face glistened with sweat. Around the corner, Gunn leaned on a wall, a smirk pinned to his face. ‘Do you want me to carry you, old boy?’
‘Die and go to hell.’ I slapped a steadying hand on the wall.
’ He laughed sarcastically. ‘You and I are already
hell.’ He stepped towards me. ‘Do you not have any idea
you are here, Lynch? Who the professor is? Why you were chosen?’
…’ I struggled to catch my breath, ‘because you and that American bastard drugged me and I had no choice.’
‘He’s not American, you idiot. His mother was American and he is infatuated with the damned country, but he’s British. Now get a move on, you ignoramus.’
He walked away and I shouted after him, ‘Call me that in a few days’ time, you foppish ponce, and I promise you won’t look so handsome then.’
He stopped and walked back. ‘You are about to be educated, Simeon Lynch. Those rough edges
be knocked off you and your coarse ways smoothed out into something resembling pleasantness. Now come along! They’re waiting for us. And try to speak politely, or I’ll have your filthy mouth washed out with carbolic.’
It took him less than twenty steps to reach a room, open a dark oak door and disappear inside. I was pained to follow.
Gunn was already in conversation with Surrey Breed and several others by the time I dragged myself through the doorway. It was an airy room with a chessboard floor of black and white marble. Most astonishingly, the rest of it seemed to be made entirely from glass. Aside from a small wall no more than two feet high, there appeared to be no bricks, only glass and metal frames that held interlocking panes. And there were plants and fruit trees. So many that it looked like an entire garden had been dragged inside the house.
I spotted Moriarty. He was smartly dressed in a dark suit with a white, wing-collared shirt and red bow tie. One hand was occupied with a glass of water while the other stroked his well-trimmed beard. He was holding sway near a long table covered in white cloth and stacked with food and drink. Large glass jugs of milk, water and fruit juices. Baskets of bread. Plates of meat, cheese and fish.
Standing incongruously beside him was a large, bald, broad-shouldered man in his mid-forties who wore nothing more elegant than an old grey shirt, baggy trousers and unpolished boots. I supposed that at one point he might have been an athlete of sorts, but not now. Bouldered biceps had sagged. A strong torso turned into a barrel for beer. His form did not warrant further attention because opposite him stood the prettiest woman in all of Christendom.
She was tall and in her early thirties. Blue eyed with strawberry-blonde hair tied back beneath a wide-brimmed off-white hat pinned with flowers. A blue day dress emphasized her narrow waist and generous bosom, then flowed to the floor in a flurry of frills and pleats.
Looking at her made my heart feel like it had been trampled on by stampeding horses. Never had I felt like this. Such emotional churnings and excitement were alien to me.
‘Chan!’ shouted Moriarty to the bald man. ‘That bloody interferer will be the death of me!’ His voice boomed with anger and frustration. ‘He is a godforsaken reptile! He and that odious offspring of his are getting above themselves.’
Before the fellow could reply, the woman leaned close to Moriarty, whispered and looked in my direction. He glanced at me then beckoned with his free hand, ‘Simeon, come in. Don’t hang back there. You need to be introduced.’
I walked further into the room and did my best to conceal the apprehension growing inside me.
‘Good to see you up and about!’ Moriarty grabbed my shoulder and deftly angled me towards the whispering lady. ‘Elizabeth, my dear, this is Simeon Lynch, the new fellow I told you about. And Simeon, this
creature is Lady Elizabeth Audsley. She will be in charge of your
This was clearly not the moment to question what was going on, to argue that I did not want ‘education’; I simply wished to rob him blind and be on my way.
‘Simeon!’ he snapped.
I had never met a lady before. She had offered her hand and I had not responded. Once Moriarty shouted, I gripped it firmly and shook so vigorously that she was caused to yelp like a kicked puppy.
‘Not so hard, sir, I pray.’ She pulled away from me and nursed her fingers.
My face reddened.
‘He has much to learn,’ said Moriarty in mitigation for my behaviour. His hand grabbed my shoulder again and turned me to face the inappropriately dressed man at his side. ‘This, Simeon, is your
tutor, Mr Michael Brannigan. You may do to
hand as you wish, for Michael was once a champion wrestler and remains stronger than all of us put together.’
The bald man stepped forward and challengingly presented his palm.
I took it, knowing he would endeavour to balance my indiscretion by deliberately crushing my bones until I begged for respite.
I was not disappointed. Brannigan closed his fingers like the jaws of a metal vice tightening on soft wood.
Only, I was not soft.
Our eyes locked. My hand returned his pressure in more than equal force. Veins on his arms bloated with blood. His face flushed red as he squeezed to his maximum.
Brannigan turned his head to the watching crowd. ‘The youth has the strength of a man,’ he grinned at them. ‘Wonder whether he has the courage as well.’ With his free hand, he feigned a punch to my chin.