The Earl and the Pickpocket
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Ed’s earlier anger had receded, leaving nothing to bolster his flagging courage. Adam’s eyes were still fixed on him so avidly that he blushed. There was an intensity, a pointedness about his look that for some reason unnerved him. He was curious to know more about the man whose watch he had stolen and who could sketch so artistically. He wondered why he hadn’t handed him over to the law, as others he stole from would have done. He cocked his head to one side and took stock of him. He really was a striking-looking man.
‘You’re a gentleman, I can tell, so what’s a gentleman doing in St Giles?’ he asked. ‘I don’t believe you came to take a stroll, or take the air.’ Suddenly his dark scowl vanished. He laughed out loud, a mischievous twinkle dancing in his eyes as the obvious reason occurred to him. ‘Were you looking for something that might be of interest to your habits?’ he remarked boldly. ‘If it’s a whore you’re after, there are plenty to be had, but ’tis the pox you’ll get for your sins.’
Adam caught his breath. ‘I don’t buy my pleasures—I’ve never had to. I can attract my own women—and I never barter.’ He became silent and thoughtful as he seemed to mull something over. ‘I’m looking for a boy,’ he told Ed bluntly.
After six months as a resident of St Giles, it took no straining of Ed’s mental process to conclude his companion might be one of those depraved characters who practised wicked vices.
Aware as to the tenor of Ed’s thoughts, which Adam found nauseating in the extreme—that this young lad should believe he could stoop to something so corrupt, so vile—his expression became rigid, his eyes glittering like shards of ice.
‘I do not take solace from young boys of the street. The boy I am looking for is a relative of mine. He disappeared two months ago, and I’m anxious to locate him.’
‘Why? Did he run away?’
‘No. He was taken.’
‘And you think he’s here—in St Giles?’
‘I have reason to believe so. He was last seen in the company of a man and woman. I have a network of people combing the city, but this was where he was last seen. I often come myself, but unfortunately there are places my spies and I can’t penetrate, unlike someone who is familiar with the buildings and alleyways—someone like yourself,’ he said quietly, watching Ed closely. ‘Maybe you could make enquiries—discreetly, mind.’
Ed eyed him warily. ‘I’ve got things to do. I’ve got my work cut out picking pockets.’
Adam’s firm lips twisted with irony. ‘I suppose one could call thieving a lucrative career if one is prepared to cast aside all moral principles.’
Ed wanted to shout it was his living, that the mean and filthy streets were his home, and that Jack was the wretch that made him steal and wouldn’t let him go, but all he said was, ‘It’s what I do.’
Adam sat forward and rested his arms on the table, sensing Ed had learned the hard way how to survive among the odious hovels and alleyways of St Giles.‘Come now. Let us make a bargain.’
His voice was husky and attractive, putting Ed instantly on his guard. ‘A bargain? I’ll do no bargain.’
‘Ah, lad—not so hasty. Hear what I have to say. I tell you what,’ he said mockingly, his blue eyes snapping with amusement as he reached with his fingers to chuck him under the chin. ‘I don’t think I need remind you that you have just robbed me of my watch, which is a serious criminal offence—and, as the watch is valued at more than a shilling, a hanging offence, is it not? So, I’ll do you a favour. I shall not summon the sheriff’s forces if you agree to help me.’
Ed shot him a sullen look. ‘That isn’t a favour. It’s blackmail.’
Adam arched an eyebrow. ‘You might stand to profit by it. You will be well rewarded, I promise you. You wish to change your life, you say—to improve your lot. I am offering you the means to do just that. All you have to do is keep your eyes open. The lad is nine years old, slight, with brown eyes and black hair and answers to the name of Toby.’
‘You have just described hundreds of boys in St Giles. And two months you say he’s been here?’ Ed smiled wryly, shaking his head slowly. ‘If he’s survived the life, he’ll be unrecognisable.’
Adam’s expression became grim. ‘I think not.’
‘Certain, are you?’
He nodded. ‘Born with his right leg shorter than the left and his foot turned in, he is unable to walk without the aid of a crutch. Toby is a cripple.’
Ed found this regrettable, but his expression did not change. ‘So are many others, some deformed from birth, but many of them are mutilated on purpose, usually by those who wish to capitalise on their misfortune by making them beg and displaying them to the curious.’
Taking a purse from his pocket, Adam passed it discreetly across the table. ‘Take this for now. Inside you will find five guineas. When I return four days hence there will be more.’
Ed felt the purse. Five guineas was more money than he had seen in a long time. Hope blossomed in his chest, but he’d learned not to trust the future. He looked at Adam with a sceptical eye. ‘And all I have to do is look for the boy?’
Adam nodded. ‘You don’t have to speak to him. Just tell me where he can be found and I will do the rest. You’d be a fool for certain if you didn’t accept.’
‘How do you know I won’t take your money and not come back?’
‘Call it intuition. I like your spirit. I trust you, Ed.’
Tears threatened. No one had ever said that to him before. ‘Thank you,’ he whispered. ‘I’ve given you no reason to trust me. I don’t deserve it.’
Adam grinned. ‘No, you don’t,’ he agreed, ‘so don’t let me down.’
‘I’ll try not to.’
Sensing Adam’s deep concern for the boy, Ed studied the face opposite. His hair was thick and unruly and the colour of walnuts. Dark brows and lashes defined his features in an attractive way, and masculine strength was carved into the tough line of his jaw and chin. His voice was deep and compelling, and the tiny lines at the corners of his eyes testified to his sense of humour. There was a self-assurance about him, which was slightly marred by arrogance, but as Ed looked steadily into his eyes he detected neither cruelty nor dishonesty. He was unquestionably the most handsome male he had ever seen. Deciding he liked Adam, Ed was contrite.
‘I’m sorry I robbed you. If the boy Toby is here, I’ll do my best to find him.’
‘Good.’ Adam believed him, and, if Ed didn’t come back, he knew it would be through no fault of Ed’s. He raised his flagon. ‘To success,’ he said, tossing down the contents. ‘And here, you’d better have this.’ He passed Ed the knife he’d taken from him earlier. ‘Unless you have a death wish, I advise you to keep it in your belt.’
On leaving the alehouse, after arranging to meet in the same place at noon four days hence, Adam stood and watched his young companion melt into the intricate web of narrow alleyways and yards of St Giles, silent as mist.
P ushing open the door of a vermin-infested house in a yard off Spittle Alley, Heloise Edwina Marchant stepped inside. The air was thick with stagnant odours hardly fit for a human being to breathe, and little natural light penetrated the grime-covered windows. She groped her way up the narrow, broken staircase to the landing above, closing her ears to the children screaming behind closed doors, and men and women, many of them sodden with gin, arguing loudly and bitterly because of their frustrations.
Weeks before, the sights and sounds that made up her everyday life would have sickened Edwina. Now she didn’t even turn away. The squalor of St Giles had lost all its terror for her in its abundance.
She let herself into the small room Jack Pierce had allocated to her when he’d put her to work. She often shared it with other boys who worked for Jack, until they either disappeared or went to live at Ma Pratchet’s, a gin-soaked old widow woman of gargantuan proportions by all accounts. Ma Pratchet was employed by Jack to look after the younger children he plucked off the streets, children who had been abandoned. The older, more experience boys trained them to pick pockets.
The wretched plight of these children had seared Edwina’s heart when she had first come to St Giles. She had wanted to help them all, to gather them round her and ease their suffering if just a little, but she had soon realised that, in order to survive herself, these kind of emotions would not help her.
The light from the window she had scrubbed clean fell on broken bits of furniture, a few kitchen utensils and a narrow straw pallet shoved against the wall. Pulling off her hat, she laid down on the thin coverlet, resting her head on the pillow. It was hard and smelled of poverty.
Something stirred within her—a yearning for beauty, for luxury and comfort. Closing her eyes, she did something she had not done in a long time and allowed her mind to drift, remembering a time when she had lain between white linen, fresh and sweet smelling, when there had been maids to do her bidding and pander to her every whim. Opening her eyes, she gazed up at the cracked ceiling, the thought of her former life bringing pain more intense than her physical discomfort. The memories filled her with a weary sadness, and thoughts of her father and home seemed like a faraway dream.
Perhaps it was her encounter with Adam that had made her resurrect her past and sharpen the pang of homesickness, but before she could journey too far back along that path reality rushed back at her, a harsh, ugly reality, and, with a hardness of mind born of necessity, she flinched away from memories of the life she had once known. They would not help her now, and feeling sorry for herself would do her no good.
Taking the purse that Adam had given her from her pocket, she clutched it to her breast. Five guineas made it possible for her to leave Jack and make her own way in life—to go to France and look for her mother’s people, which was what she had intended doing from the start.
No one knew how badly she wanted to escape her increasingly odious role as a thief, but every day that passed drew her deeper into Jack’s debt. She wondered if she dare keep the money and not tell him—but she dare not. Everything she stole she gave to Jack, and when he had sold it on he would give her a small portion of the sale. Silently she considered this grossly unfair, but she would never argue with Jack. Besides, if she were to find the boy Toby, she would need Jack to help her.
He was clever, was Jack—the cleverest person she’d ever met—but her meeting with him when she had arrived in London had been her introduction to the world of crime. When Jack had arrived in the city three years ago, he had been on the run from the law, and St Giles was a perfect place for a man like Jack to develop contacts and start to carve out a reputation for himself.
He had convinced her there was no safer place to hide than the alleyways of London town, and so desperate had she been to escape her past and recoup the money she’d had stolen from her on her journey south from Hertfordshire that she had believed him. At first it had been frightening to be so far away from what she knew. Everything was so different, but she’d willed herself to think of the present and put past and future away if she hoped to survive.
Though eighteen years old, she had masqueraded as a lad since running away from her uncle’s house. Being slight, with features that could pass as a boy’s, and cutting off her copper tresses, which would have proved a liability she could ill afford, had lent well to her disguise. Until the day came when she had enough money to enable her to go France, this was a time for survival.
Not even Jack knew her secret. It had been Jack who had taught her how to steal, and right lucky it was for him that she’d proved a natural-born pickpocket. She’d learned fast to develop and hone her skills. She was agile, her fingers small and quick, her mind alert. She hated doing it, but she didn’t tell Jack.
He became angry when she didn’t steal enough, and she was afraid of his anger. Once, she had sold her spoils to another receiver, praying Jack wouldn’t find out, but he did, and his wrath had been terrible. Now she knew better than to try to deceive him, which was why she would have to hand over the five guineas. She felt her cheeks burning—they always did when she was angry, or ashamed—and she was ashamed now, ashamed for putting her trust in Jack in the first place.
Being a master of manipulation, he played on her desperation, and he knew how to use the right combination of charm and menace to ensure her absolute loyalty. They said he was evil, said he was dangerous. They said Jack had killed a man.
He lived alone above a pawnbroker’s shop on Fleet Street, but he was never really alone. Others, vulnerable like herself, worked for him, and he carried them around in his head—moving them around like chess pieces as he played his deadly game. He controlled them all. No one could stand against Jack. He had many friends in St Giles, but few were cleverer, bigger, stronger or more terrifyingly ruthless than Jack.
Hearing heavy footfalls on the stairway, she got up and lit her one remaining precious candle—the rats had made a meal of the rest—watching as the meagre yellow flame cast a soft glow around the cheerless room. She started when the door burst open to admit Jack. A man of medium height, thickset and with heavy features, he wore a tall, battered black hat, and the crow’s feather stuck into its brim hung limp like the tattered lace at his wrists. His stained dark-green velveteen coat, which strained across his bulky shoulders, had seen better days.
‘So here you are, Ed,’ he muttered. Pulling out a chair, he sat down, stretching out his legs, his thick calves encased in wrinkled, dirty grey stockings. Placing his hat on the table, he combed his sparse brown hair over his shiny skull, and his deep-set black eyes under bushy brows had a hard glitter when they fastened on her. ‘Wondered where you’d got to. It’s been a bad day,’ he growled in a deep voice. ‘Hope you’ve got more for me than the other lads—a fine watch, perhaps, or a jewelled snuff box…a pretty fan, even, or a lady’s purse.’
‘No, nothing like that today…but I do have a couple of lace handkerchiefs—and some money.’
Jack’s face jerked sideways and his small black eyes fixed her with an investigative stare. It was the quick, sharp movement of an animal watching its prey. ‘Money, you say! How much?’
‘Five guineas—and there will be more if we help the man who gave them to me to find a boy he’s looking for.’
Jack’s heavy brow creased in a frown. ‘Boy? What boy?’
‘His name’s Toby.’ Edwina gave him a full description of the boy as Adam had given it.
Interest gleamed in Jack’s eyes. ‘Who is this man? What’s his name?’
She shrugged. ‘Adam. That’s all I know.’
‘How much will he give for the boy?’
‘He didn’t say—only that he would be generous.’
Jack considered this and nodded. ‘I’ll ask around. Is this man trustworthy?’
‘Yes, I’m sure of it. He—he’s nice.’ Taking her courage in both hands, she said, ‘After this I will make my own way, Jack. I told you from the start that when I have enough money I will go to France to look for my mother’s people.’
This didn’t suit Jack at all. ‘So, you’re scheming and plotting to run away from me, are you, Ed?’ he thundered.
‘No. I’m being straight with you. I don’t want to do it any more,’ she said in a rush, before her courage failed her.
‘Not do it?’ Jack echoed incredulously, jerking his body in the chair. ‘After I went to the trouble of teaching you all you know? Not do it?’
Edwina shook her head, gulping down her fear of him. ‘I’ve thought about it a lot, Jack. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful—but I want to stop. I don’t want to go on stealing.’
Jack was watching her closely through narrowed eyes. He had dozens of boys working for him. He was their absolute master and he demanded loyalty. They had to steal when he bade them, or be hanged for refusing after Jack informed them on about some former crime. He would also reap the forty pounds’ reward the government offered for anyone providing evidence that would convict a thief.
Ed was good, the best he’d got, but Ed was no fool, and that was the curse of it. Jack knew nothing about him, about who he was or where he had come from. He wasn’t interested in that, but Ed was good at picking pockets and Jack was thinking of moving him on to work with the older youths; no matter how many high-falutin ideas he had about going to France, he had no intention of letting the lad run out on him.
‘Don’t think you can run out on me. It’ll do you no good. We’re in this together.’ Clutching the purse, he folded his arms on the table. ‘Sit down. I think you and I should have a little talk. I’m disappointed in you, Ed. I thought you and I understood one another. It seems I was wrong.’
Edwina faced him across the table, seeing his true character much more clearly now since she had got to know him. She feared him, and knew him to be deadly. He spoke softly, but she could see his anger simmered. He sat regarding her with dilated nostrils and heaving breast. She held her hands in her lap so he wouldn’t see them tremble. She had turned pale, and she knew that if he roared at her and she broke down and cried he would have the mastery of her.
Taking a deep breath, she looked at him directly. His rugged features were impenetrable, but there was a pitilessness there that repelled her. ‘We do understand one another, Jack. I want to end it, that’s all.’
‘So, you’ve had enough of picking pockets. Ungrateful wretch, that’s what you are—and there was I, thinking you were fond of me.’
‘I—I needed you Jack.’
‘And now you don’t? Is that what you’re sayin’?’ His eyes narrowed suspiciously and he leaned across the table, his face close to hers. ‘Hope you’re not playin’ a double game with me, boy, and keepin’ some fancy trinkets for yourself. If you are, I’ll tell you this: I’m the boss in this game—always have been and always will be. My God, I’d like to see the lad who dared to double-cross me.’
Edwina raised her head resolutely, choosing to protect herself from Jack’s closeness as much as to hide her fear. Her pride ached, but the fear of what lay in store for her if she remained stealing for Jack threatened to reduce her to a trembling, shaking coward. ‘I haven’t, Jack. I’ve always been straight with you.’
‘You’ve had an easy time since I took you in and set you to work, and you ought to go down on your knees and thank me for it. I’ve always had a soft spot for you, Ed,’ he said, ‘you’ve got spirit and pluck. Because I liked you and you were cleverer than the other lads, because you were quick to learn and kept your mouth shut, I’ve treated you like a lamb and let you alone to do pretty much as you please, and if you hadn’t had that honour you’d have perished before now.’
‘And I’m grateful, Jack. But I need more money if I’m to make my own way.’
Jack glared at her, leaning forward. His face was vicious, and his breath stank of sour rum. His deep, grating voice filled the silence that had fallen between them. ‘Are you telling me you’re not getting a fair deal?’
‘Apart from that time when I took my spoils to another fencer—what you give me scarce covers the food I eat. You haven’t been over-generous, Jack,’ she said accusingly, emphasising the words to defend her actions, as she fought to prevent the shattered fragments of her life from slipping into an abyss.
Fire blazed in Jack’s eyes. ‘You young whelp. I’ll bring you to heel or hand you in,’ he threatened savagely. ‘Do you think you can stand against me with your damned impudence? I haven’t heard the others complaining.’
‘No, because they fear you,’ she told him truthfully.
‘No harm in that. That way they’ll do as they’re told.’
‘I know,’ she said, standing up, her voice threaded with sarcasm. ‘Charity and sympathy are not in your nature, are they, Jack?’
‘What’s charity and sympathy to me?’ A sneer twitched the corner of his surly mouth. ‘They can be the ruination of many a good man.’ Scraping his chair back, he stood up and eyed the youngster narrowly, thoughtfully. ‘I’ll give you more,’ he offered suddenly—after all, a tasty morsel had been known to keep a whining dog quiet.
‘It’s too late.’ Edwina was adamant. She had come this far and would not back down now. ‘I’ve made up my mind. I’ve had enough.’
Jack blustered angrily, making Edwina’s cheeks flame considerably as she listened to the curses and insults he flung at her. She wanted desperately to retaliate, to tell him to go to the devil and be done with it, but she knew the folly of doing that. It was far better to let him say what he had to and let him go. Then she could think what to do.
He grasped her shoulder and twisted her round, thrusting his face close. ‘Listen to me, boy, and listen well. Don’t try to run from me, because if you stray I swear I’ll find you and break every bone in your body.’ Seizing her wrist, he doubled her arm behind her back. He laughed caustically when she cried out from the pain of it, thrusting her from him so forcefully that she fell against the table and toppled a chair over. ‘That’s a foretaste of the punishment you can expect if I have to come lookin’ for you.’
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