Authors: Sam Christer
To my shame, I did not see it for the playful ruse he intended. Instead, I smashed his hand away with my forearm and endeavoured to headbutt him in the face.
The old fighter stepped swiftly aside and expertly avoided the blow. His eyes widened. ‘My, he is indeed a wild one, Professor.’
‘Take care when handling him’ answered Moriarty, coolly. ‘He has killed already, Michael, and I believe is quite able to do so again.’
My eyes caught Lady Elizabeth’s. To my surprise, I saw no shock there. No judgement or repulsion. And in that second, I knew that her opinion of me was the only one that mattered.
Brannigan pushed a finger into my chest. ‘Tomorrow morning, nice and early, we’ll do some
and discover how tough you really are.’
I looked the old wrestler over again. Despite his age and weight, there was something disturbing about him. A quality not discernible in his shape or voice. It was a secret. One very dark and dangerous.
The professor broke my gaze. ‘There is a
person I wish to introduce you to.’ He stepped to one side and revealed a man in a chair. Crutches flanked both his arms and I could see he had only one leg. He was every bit as young and handsome as Sirius but the loss of his left limb, just below the knee, masked his face in what I imagined was permanent misery.
‘This is my very good friend Alex,’ said Moriarty warmly. ‘Mr Alexander Rathbone, from Boston in Massachusetts.’
Lady Elizabeth gently nudged me.
I remembered my manners, stepped forward and offered my hand. ‘Simeon Lynch, mister.’
Alexander shook it. His hazel eyes held mine only as long as necessary, then returned to introspective examination of the floor.
Moriarty led me back to the table groaning with food. ‘I know you have questions, and I promise in time they’ll be answered. But eat now. Get your strength back.’
I snatched a small loaf of bread and ripped off a chunk. The freshly-baked smell set my stomach grumbling. I was about to bite off a mouthful when he grabbed my wrist. ‘Do you not see either the servants or the plates?’
I glanced to the end of the table, where two young, black-suited men stood with napkins over forearms. One stepped forward, lifted a large white plate and asked, ‘What might I get for you, sir?’
I put my bread down on the plate. ‘That, and more of it. And some meat. As much as you can fit on there.’
He nodded and set about the task.
‘Let us sit.’ Moriarty motioned to a table laid with cutlery. ‘We always breakfast in the orangery,’ he explained as we took our seats. ‘I consider it quite the most important room in this house. Can you guess why?’
‘Because it has food and servants in it?’
‘No, no,’ he laughed. ‘It is because things
in here. When they come in, they are tiny and ugly. Little seeds and roots. We nurture them with our knowledge and skill. Raise them to their full potential.’
The waiter placed a heaped plate in front of me. My hand went again for the bread. Moriarty allowed me several mouthfuls before he added, ‘I have a good friend, a Bostonian, who says fish, meat and drink to us are like sunlight, water and good soil to plants. Basic nourishment.’ He leaned across the table. ‘You are unique, Simeon. A highly prized specimen of youth. You are what my American friends describe as “the real deal”. Rest assured, I will grow you to your fullest potential.’
His words sparked defiance in me and amid a splutter of food I told him, ‘I’m not a bleeding plant, mister.’
His eyes turned to granite and he slapped my face.
Noise in the room behind us evaporated.
Moriarty stared challengingly at me.
Instinctively, I stood in anger, my chair making an abominable raking sound on the marble tiles before it fell over with a clatter.
‘Sit back down,’ he demanded.
My hands balled into fists. Violence boiled inside me.
‘You look foolish, Simeon. Pick up your chair and be seated, before someone mistakes you for a serious threat and shoots you.’
My eyes darted across the room. ‘I see no weapons.’
‘That doesn’t mean there are none. Now
and finish your food!’
Reluctantly, I picked up the fallen chair and returned to the table.
‘Carry on!’ Moriarty shouted to the room.
His guests resumed their chatter and I resumed my assault on the laden plate.
‘We will pretend that little incident never happened.’ His eyes bored into mine and asked more questions than any words could.
He toyed with his beard while he watched me devour the food and I wondered what thoughts came and went behind his cold, unnerving eyes.
I ate greedily with my fingers not the dainty knife and fork, for fear that any moment the food might be withdrawn. By the time my plate was empty I had so much in my mouth it took me an eternity to chew and swallow it.
Moriarty watched, with what appeared to be a mixture of amazement and disgust.
‘You are fed, so let us leave things there, for today,’ he announced. ‘Go to your room. Rest. Think of what has been said. Contemplate the new you that has the opportunity to rise from within your old life.’
I rose, still chewing strings of meat caught between my teeth, and nodded politely.
Judgemental heads turned as I walked out of the orangery. This was no place for me. That Elizabeth woman was achingly beautiful but I vowed once I had my strength back, I would flee this dreadful place faster than a fox spotting a farmer with a gun.
Back in the room where I had regained consciousness, the bed had been remade in my absence, and the chamber pot, bowl, jug and soap all renewed.
A book had been left on a table. I supposed it to be some American nonsense that Moriarty wished me to ingest. A plain card on the top of the volume bore a handwritten note, which thanks to some basic schooling I was able to read.
Read what you can, when you can. A day without reading is a day of decay. Yours
I turned the card, desperate for more words from her, but there were none, only the title of the book:
Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem
, by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
One look inside filled me with despair. I was used to rhymes and simple stories. Bible passages and prayers. Nothing like this. Clumps of long, intense words knotted my brain. Words and phrases I had never heard of hit me like intellectual slaps –
tainted sepulchre – roseate morning – celestial coursers.
I threw the book on the bed.
Maybe I would get round to trying it again. Maybe I wouldn’t. If I did, then it would be solely to please Elizabeth and have her think kindly of me.
‘Open door, cell five!’
The alarming cry from the guard set off a stampede of heavy-footed gaolers down the corridors of the condemned wing. Whistles blew. Gates to the rest of the prison clanked shut and were locked down.
At first, they thought I had escaped then when a young screw poked his head into my cell he saw only the crumpled body of my attacker on the floor and shouted, ‘He’s dead! Lynch is dead. Someone’s offed him!’
The poor fool almost died of shock when I spoke from the depths of the shadows that covered my bunk. ‘Actually, I am very much alive. That corpse is someone else.’
The gaoler fled in terror. I should have guessed the next wrong assumption would be that the death had occurred as the result of some bold escape plan I had hatched and bungled. Older and meatier screws rushed in, brandishing sticks and fists but little intelligence.
‘I am chained!’ I shouted, raising my hands so they could see the manacles.
The action spared me a beating but still they bundled me face down onto the floor and pinned me with knees while they checked my restraints were secure and satisfied themselves that I was no danger to them. For once it was a relief to hear Johncock’s voice.
‘Boardman, Baker, get off him! Sit the bastard prisoner up so he can explain himself.’
Weight shifted off my shoulders and legs. Boardman, a screw in his late thirties, face ablaze with untrimmed red whiskers, turned me over and sat me up. He had hands as hairy as a chimp and I recognised him as one of the men who had previously beaten me. I also recognised the younger screw, Baker. He was a leathery strap of a lad, with the eyes of a rat and the smell of a skunk. He pulled at my chains and told Johncock, ‘The manacles are intact, sir. They’ve not been unlocked.’
Johncock raised his boot and inspected the sole. ‘Messy,’ he declared, pulling a sour face. ‘Messy, messy, messy.’ He rubbed his boot on the floor and then on my blanket. ‘Show me the dead man’s face, Baker.’
The younger turnkey angled the corpse’s head for the assistant keeper, but I could not see it, nor did I hear Johncock mention a name. All I could discern was that he wore no wrist or ankle restraints, meaning he was a trustee, a class of prisoner used by the gaolers for cleaning work, slopping out and any other chores they were too lazy to do themselves.
Finally, Johncock turned to me. ‘Why was this fellow in your room, Lynch? What happened here?’
‘I don’t know. I woke and he and another man were near my bunk.’ I nodded to the corpse. ‘That one attacked me. I held onto him to protect myself and I surmise his runaway friend stabbed him by accident.’
do you?’ He laughed at me. ‘Proper gentleman you think you are with your
.’ He stepped over the blood and kicked my leg. ‘Well, I
there was no other man. There was only you. You, this dead fellow and some ill-conceived notion to escape that went fatally wrong.’ He put his boot up on my bruised ribs and pressed. ‘Now, speak with honesty, Lynch, or so help me God, I will kick the words out of you a syllable at a time.’
‘Do you really think I would still be in this stinking hole if another convict had been able to open the door for me?’ I winced through a sharp pang of pain and added, ‘Had I been in possession of that shank and been fit and able to spring to my feet, then I promise you it would be sunk in one of your men’s chests, not that dead imbecile’s, and I would be free by now.’
Johncock glowered at me. He knew I was telling the truth. If I had been stronger and that passing turnkey had come five minutes later, there would have been a lot more blood on the cell floor than the spatter he had walked in.
‘Get him out of here.’ The assistant keeper banged his knee into my face as he walked past. He stopped in the doorway and told his men. ‘Put Lynch back in his original cell; we’re done mollycoddling him. Then lock this door. Don’t move the stiff until I’ve got to the bottom of what happened here.’
Moriarty’s grizzly companion, the fat, old wrestler Michael Brannigan, came for me just after dawn. As I guessed he would. Men like him know the rewards that the element of surprise can bring.
But I had been ready for such an eventuality. I had risen a good hour earlier, washed and changed into the clean clothes that had been left in my room for me, and I was sitting on my bed full of smiles.
He held the door open and smirked. ‘So, you can dress yourself. That at least is something. Now are you ready to do some work?’
‘You would be well-advised to show me some respect.’
‘Is that right? Even the young and ignorant, like me, know respect is
, not freely given.’
He headed out of my room and I followed, feeling much stronger than yesterday. Last night, I had eaten well. Stayed clear of ale and wine. And aside from a fevered dream about Lady Elizabeth had managed a refreshing seven hours of sleep.
Brannigan took me past storerooms and larders, out of a tradesman’s door and beyond the entrances to coal bunkers an ice house that was in the process of being filled with fresh produce. We walked briskly around the side of what I saw for the first time was a splendid three-storey Jacobean mansion. The walls were made from a fine blue-grey stone, matched with golden brown lintels and steps. Carefully trimmed ivy aspired to grow higher than the bedroom windows where it had been halted by diligent gardeners. Above tall windows perched grim gargoyles, their ever-open eyes keeping vigil over the vast grounds beneath them.
Presently, we came across a warped and weathered barn with a broken roof through which the sky could be frequently spied. Skipping ropes lay coiled like sleeping snakes on a straw-covered stone floor. Behind a stack of hay bales stood a slackly roped-off ring.
Brannigan caught my stare, looked across to the arena and laughed. ‘That’s not for you. Not unless you want to die before breakfast.’
I walked towards it. ‘I am a young and fit boxer and you are a fat and old wrestler. I know washerwomen who could beat you as easily as their clothes.’
He had been in the process of heading away from the ring but turned now and approached me. ‘They haven’t told you about me, have they?’
‘What is there to tell that your fat stomach and wasted arms haven’t already said? Age has caught up with you and made you half the man you were. Am I right?’
‘You’re as cheeky as fuck. That’s what you are.’ He looked me up and down. ‘Boxer are you? Self-taught?’
‘I was trained by one of the best.’
‘Where would a toerag get such tutorage?’
‘In the workhouse, by a great fighter of African descent.’
? Now you’re havin’ a bleedin’ joke.’ Brannigan spat on the ground. ‘I am a
.’ He punched his heart with pride. ‘That makes me tougher than any bloody African, or for that matter a mouthy piece of London shite like you.’
‘Then let’s see.’ I pointed to the ropes. ‘Or have we got up this early just to swap insults?’
‘We got up to train you, and we should get on with it.’ He flapped a hand dismissively at me. ‘You’re not ready to fight me. Happen you never will be.’
I turned and walked to the ropes. ‘I’m getting in the ring. Follow me and fight, or else be off and feed that fat gut of yours somewhere I can’t see you.’