Authors: Sam Christer
There was no answer.
His bluff had been called. I was young and fit and he clearly didn’t fancy a beating this early in the morning.
I was toying with the ring rope when Brannigan kicked my legs from under me and hurled his big old body down on me like a carriage filled with clinkers. Air whooshed from my lungs.
He hauled me upright. Grabbed me by the throat and testicles and lifted me above his head like I was a sack of flour. The pain was excruciating, but nowhere near as agonising as when he threw me into the post of the ring.
I feared he’d broken my back and was still working out how injured I was when he reached down for my wrist.
I snatched it away and rolled into the ring.
Brannigan ducked the rope.
I got to my knees.
He kicked a boot at my head.
I caught it and twisted hard.
He spun and fell.
I was on my feet before he was. But only just.
He rose in a crouch and ran at me with his head down.
I hit him with an uppercut that would have felled an elephant.
It didn’t even rock him. He ploughed into me, barged me across the ring.
When we hit the ropes on the other side he stamped his foot, shifted his weight and slammed my entire body into the ground.
I made an involuntary noise that fell pitifully short of the agony I felt.
Brannigan dragged me upright, locked his arms behind my back and squeezed. That’s all he did. But he squeezed so powerfully that I was unable to breathe. He hoisted me further up. Got a better grip. Increased the pressure and pain.
I pulled my elbows free and smashed them on the top of his skull.
He dropped me.
I doubled up. Sucked in air, while I could. The blow to the skull should have knocked him out, but it hadn’t.
Brannigan came running.
I dodged this time. Focused.
He turned, sighted me.
I stepped forward and snapped a punch into his face.
His jaw was like granite; he rubbed his chin and grinned.
I bounced to the right, smashed a left into his temple.
Pain barely registered on his face.
My right whipped out two more jabs, then came a rock-breaker of a left. His lips bust like a dropped tomato, but still he didn’t go down.
Brannigan spread his arms wide. Spat blood through busted teeth.
I bounced on my feet, kept moving.
I circled him.
He grabbed at me, missed.
I drove a fist into his face.
A second punch hit his temple. A third, the bloody mass of lips and teeth.
The old wrestler closed the space between us.
I spun away, dodging a grabbing hand, and smashed my left into his cheek.
He grabbed and held me. Butted my nose. Giant hands locked again behind my back.
My arms were trapped. My eyes streamed. Blood snotted from my nostrils.
The hurt that followed was unbearable. The best I could do was hold my breath and hope he quickly ran out of strength.
Pain tingled through my arms and chest. I blew precious air from my mouth and he shut off the last space in my lungs.
‘Should I choke you to death?’ he whispered into my ear. ‘Or bite through your neck and have you bleed out like a slaughtered chicken?’
I struggled. Kicked.
‘Choke, I think. Choking is always more certain.’
My lungs were on fire. Flames scorched my throat. The back of my eyelids blackened and I lost consciousness.
My limp body hit the ground and I was aware of nothing until a bucket of cold water brought me spluttering back to life. I raised my head and saw it had been thrown by Mr Gunn. Another followed from Miss Breed.
I gasped. Covered my face. Spluttered some more.
When I removed my hands, Brannigan was standing by my feet, urinating over my legs. ‘You owe me your life, you little bastard. Your life and your respect.’
I made no attempt to pull away. He was right. I deserved to be pissed on. The fat, old man emptying his bladder had soaked up the best of my blows. He had swallowed pain like it was naught more than sugar and could have killed me without breaking sweat.
‘You have it,’ I managed, my voice raw with hurt. And then I added the word he had wanted to hear. ‘Sir.’
He shook the last drops of his steaming urine on me, fastened up and stepped back. ‘Get out of my sight and clean yourself up. You’re a disgrace.’
Getting up was easier said than done. My ribs felt as though they had been ground into dust and I struggled to rise further than from my knees.
‘Nothing is broken,’ mocked Brannigan. ‘I was instructed not to hurt you too badly. The professor has a soft spot for you. Ain’t that so, Sirius?’
‘As soft as your heart, Mr Brannigan.’ He looked at me. ‘Either that or he simply doesn’t want the trouble of having to dispose of his ugly, useless carcass.’
‘Ignore him,’ said Miss Breed, helping me to my feet. ‘He’s either all charm or all hate. There’s no in between with Mr Gunn.’
He tipped his hat at us and walked off towards Brannigan, who had also turned his back and was now a good five yards away.
‘Let me help you inside.’ She draped my arm over her shoulder and allowed me to lean on her for support.
To my embarrassment, Miss Breed guided me all the way to my room and even to my bed. I made a pained noise as I sat on the mattress and slowly leaned back. She lifted my feet, unhooked my boots and then tugged at the bottom of my urine-stained trousers.
‘No!’ I shouted. ‘I am quite capable of doing that.’
‘I don’t think you are.’ She grinned, then yanked them all the way off.
I grabbed a sheet to cover my embarrassment.
It seemed to amuse her. ‘If it makes you feel better, Mr Brannigan pissed all over Sirius during their early days together.’
.’ She threw the trousers down near the window. ‘If you like, I can make you a poultice.’
‘It is a medicament of bread and herbs …’
‘I’m not hungry.’
She laughed. ‘It’s not to eat, you idiot. It’s for your chest. You put it against your ribs and it draws the bruising out and takes the pain away.’
‘I don’t want the pain to go away.’
‘That doesn’t make sense.’
the pain. Need it to remind me how much harder I have to try tomorrow, when I take that old beast down.’
‘You don’t fight him again.’ She moved closer to me. ‘No one fights Michael Brannigan twice.’
‘Then you are even more stupid than I thought.’ She started to walk away then turned. ‘Do you know who he is? Why you, me and Mr Gunn are here?’
‘No. I don’t know. We are all criminals, I suppose. Rounded up by an even greater rogue.’
She shook her head in dismay. ‘You need to do some thinking. Grasp what we have all done and what unites us. Then you will know why you must never challenge Michael again.’
‘Why don’t you save me all that trouble and just tell me?’
‘Because that’s not my place.’
‘Excuse me, miss,’ said a woman’s voice from the doorway. ‘The professor has sent me for
‘He is all yours,’ answered Miss Breed, stepping aside. ‘I am quite done with him.’
A young maid in a black and white uniform with a frilled apron and cap entered the room. Over her arm lay a long flannel robe in a dark chocolate colour, trimmed with gold piping.
‘I am sorry to disturb you, sir. I am Jane, one of the Between Maids.’ She had a voice as soft as the dimple on her chin. She laid the robe on the bed. ‘The master says you are to wear this while I fetch your soiled clothes to the bathhouse and leave them there to be laundered.’ She nodded politely. ‘I will wait outside, sir, while you dress.’
Jane left and I struggled to my feet. The beating was already stiffening my joints and putting on the robe, which was a good few inches too large, was an agony. I tied the belt then gathered the soiled garments and joined her.
The route she took was long and led to the end of the west wing, where she relieved me of my soiled clothes and opened a door. ‘This is the bathhouse, sir. I will leave you here.’
I thanked her and walked into a room filled with steam. Through the mist I discerned the outline of various tubs. Plungers. Roll tops. Slippers. All on a raised wooden platform.
Out of the fog came a voice and a small moustachioed man. ‘Please be careful, sir.’ He took my arm. ‘I am Bailey, head of Heating, Bathing and Laundry. Watch your step there. That’s it. Take it slowly. We have four sunken baths, two cold and two hot, and you almost took a very chilly dip.’ There was a hint of glee in his voice as he guided me along the platform. ‘The professor told me you were to be soaked in hot seaweed for twenty to thirty minutes to help you recover from your altercation. After that, you must use the plunge pool to cleanse and close the pores. Here, let me help you in.’
He stopped beside a cast-iron tub that brimmed with foul-smelling green-black water. ‘You won’t be needing that robe, sir.’
I took it off and handed it over.
‘Thank you.’ He extended an arm for me to steady myself as I raised a leg and stepped in.
‘Lower yourself slowly now, sir. Enable your flesh to become accustomed to the temperature.’
The water was surprisingly hot. I inched down until my back rested on the rear of the tub and I managed to stretch.
Bailey bent low so his head was level with mine. ‘There are two doors, which I don’t believe you can see from your perspective, but they are in the far corner. One leads into the Turkish bath, quite the professor’s favourite. The other is to the laundry, where Jane has taken your clothes.’ His chest filled with pride. ‘I have to say, we have made quite an astonishingly economic use of the heat provided to the bathhouse, for the hot water pipes go into the room next to the mangles and they provide a wonderful way to dry the wet washing. Within the next month or two, we will be fitting cast-iron heating appliances imported from America and then we will be able to heat every room in this fine dwelling.’
I am unsure whether I fell asleep during that declaration or whether Mr Bailey sensed my lack of interest and simply wandered quietly away. But slept I did. Not for a long time, but sufficiently for the sludgy bathwater to have cooled and for the prescribed time to have expired.
When I awoke, the great domestic orator ushered me to the plunge pool and after the briefest of teeth-chattering dips, he provided me with thick white towels to dry myself. ‘You will find clean clothes in your room, sir, and Lady Elizabeth awaits you in the drawing room.’
‘Lady Elizabeth?’ I used the edge of the towel to wipe water from my face.
‘Yes, sir.’ He smiled. ‘It seems you have more than one lesson to learn today.’
Baker and Boardman took great delight in roughly bundling me back to my old cell. In truth, old red-beard and his chum all but dragged me there, as I still had problems with my right knee following the last assault.
Only when I was settled again did I remember how badly the old part of the gaol stank. My resting place must have been close to a service opening of Newgate’s sewers, and like some incontinent old drunk it was forever leaking the foulest of odours.
Peculiarly, I felt some satisfaction at being back in my original cell. A little familiarity apparently afforded considerable comfort. The blanket on the bunk had remained ruffled, exactly as I had left it, and I discerned the unique smells of my body as I settled beneath it and hoped to sleep away my pains.
It seemed that no sooner had sleep come than bright light and the noise of keys in the cell lock woke me. Crisp winter sunshine cast shadows of window bars across the floor, slim soldiers of Dark and Light standing side by side for inspection.
Boardman was still on duty and yawned out the reason for his appearance. ‘You have a visitor, Lynch. Move your sorry bones.’
My attention drifted past him to the man a pace behind, a fellow holding a handkerchief to his face to mask the smells.
‘Mr Holmes here has come to interrogate you,’ continued Boardman. ‘Ain’t that so, Mr Holmes?’
The detective stepped forward. ‘The keeper has requested that I ascertain the facts behind this morning’s death and I believe you are integral to that process.’ He faced the gaoler. ‘Is Lynch wearing the same attire and restraints as he was in the refractory cell?’
‘He is, sir.’
‘Very good.’ He turned to me. ‘Could you please stand up and extend your arms?’
‘I need water and food. Before I do anything for anyone, I need to drink and eat.’
Holmes regarded me for a moment and then nodded. ‘He does indeed require refreshment. Dry skin. Crusted lips. Words ill-formed because of a sticky mouth. This man is dehydrated and needs sustenance, gaoler. Replenish him and I will return.’ Holmes spun on his heels and left.
Boardman gave me a hateful look and followed, slamming the door in protest.
An old orderly duly appeared and delivered a bowl of gruel, mug of weak tea and chunks of stale bread. He stayed until I had wolfed it all and then cleared everything.
A few moments later, Holmes returned. He was alone and had evidently instructed Boardman to wait outside.
‘Are you now able to comply with my former request?’
I stood and stretched out my arms as previously instructed.
He ran his hands around the manacle cuffs, inspected the chain then the lock and made several tutting noises. He stood back and studied my tunic, plucked at the cloth around my waist, knelt and examined my trousers.
As he did all this, I wondered whether the famed detective was more valuable to me alive than dead, for at this moment he afforded me a clear opportunity to kill him. Moriarty had once tasked me with this very chore but other events had taken priority. Now all I had to do was loop that chain around his neck and strangle him to death.
Holmes pulled at my ankle chains and then stood up. He extended his left hand and showed me a spring knife that had been concealed there. ‘You made a wise decision. I would
have killed you had you tried to overwhelm me.’ He flicked the blade back into its steel body casing. ‘Sit down, please.’