The Clandestine Meeting
Three men were huddled over a small table in the Inn; their heads close together as they discussed something that they did not wish to have overheard.
The oldest of the three, perhaps sixty years of age, was dressed better than the others, but not so well-dressed as to draw attention to himself. One appeared to be favoring his shoulder and rested his arm on the table to ease some discomfort from it.
In that smoky and noisy atmosphere, with people coming and going, strangers were not out of place. A large and friendly dog meandered about the room, clearing up any scraps fallen from a fork, or deliberately dropped by those eating there. Bright sun, lancing through the dirty windows, sent sharply delineated beams of light cutting through the dust of that room, stirred up by constant activity. The young women who waiting on table, flitted from table to table with trays laden with food or drink. Their voluminous skirts stirred up more of the dust as they dexterously avoided the familiar hands of patrons known to them.
After one young woman had left flagons of beer for the three, the older man spoke quite animatedly, but in a low voice, to the man opposite him, the man he knew as ‘Josh’. His anger was not well concealed, but he chose his words carefully in case they were overheard.
“I pay well to have five men do a job of seeing to one man, and then I find you do the wrong man. It was also the wrong ship, I might add.” His breathing was labored, and he occasionally put a handkerchief up to his face as he coughed into it and then dabbed at his brow. The room was hot, and the atmosphere was close, with the too obvious sickening stink of the unwashed.
“I told you what ship he would be on. It was a man-o-war, The Selena, and not only that, but you tell me now that two of you later wound up dead. It should have taken no more than two of you to put paid to him if you had done it right. I warned you of him, but it seems you did not believe me.” The man he spoke to, responded with ill-concealed anger.
“I knew about him already, even before you said anything. We had nothing to do with that first one at the dock. He slipped. I saw him. Besides, we knew it weren’t him. Penfield was still in the Mermaid when that happened. Then, we thought we had at least an hour or two, with him going off to see about some other clothing, or a horse, to head north. Except he caught us off guard taking off like that before we was properly organized, and with all his clothing provided by that other poor soul, and driving his horses and carriage.
“I sent the others off after him and stayed only to round up another and tell him we were on the road. We caught up with him at Litchfield, as I thought we would when he stopped at the Inn there for lunch. Then, when we did at last catch up to him, after he set off on a less direct road than the one we believed he would take, he seemed to have more guns about him than any of us had and was better able to use them. He cut two of us down, and one of them was a relative of mine. I’ll not be able to face his mother easily after this, and not sure what to tell her.” He shook his head.
“You’ll think of something, I’m sure.” The older man did not sound sympathetic. “What did you do with the…?” He waved his hand. They knew what he referred to.”
“Never you mind that. They’re safe and out of the way, and they won’t be found easily. The horses are out of the way too, so nobody is likely to question anything. We paid their bill with the widow and told her they’d had to go back to Lunnon. As long as she’s paid, she’s not about to ask questions.
“Penfield was not quite as you described him when he left the dock. He didn’t look like no ship’s captain to me. He was dressed like a gentleman driving a chaise, and we had a devil of a time catching up to him. He sent those tits along at a nice clip. And then he goes and cuts down Jacko with that saber of his.” He looked around to be sure no one was paying attention. “But that was his own fault. I told him not to get too far ahead of us, but he wasn’t about to listen to me. Damned near took his head off with that sword. I could see that plain enough when I came up on him later. Blood everywhere. Broke his neck when he fell. Just as well and serve him right. Then Penfield shoots Horace between the eyes at 30 yards or more, and then wings Packi here, at a much longer range, and then Sparrow too. Who carries pistols like that I wonder, both of ’em double barreled barkers. We were lucky to get out of there. He might still have had a shot in his second gun.” The old man fidgeted to hear such a tale. Nothing had gone as easily as it should have done.
“Keep your voice down, and no names. I told you who he was and what ship he was on. I told you he was dangerous. I told you he was known to be a good shot. I told you he was very handy with a saber. What did I not tell you about him?”
“You didn’t tell us he’d be driving a carriage with horses like that or would take off so fast from the dock. Or take another road off the main track.”
“You should have anticipated all of that. What in hell made you ride up behind him and give him warning of it all? Why didn’t you wait for him and ambush him? I told you where he was going. The five of you might then have worked together and have achieved something.”
“You told us who he was, right enough, but you did not tell us exactly where he was going, except that he was heading north, or we would have been ready for him. By the time we found out what road he had taken, he was ten minutes ahead of us. If you’d told us more about him and where he was headed, we could have got ahead of him and blocked the road. The five of us might have had a chance then. That, was my plan. So, you see it warn’t all our fault, but was as much yours.” He pulled a pipe from his pocket and began to suck on it noisily.
“I’d like to know why you want him out of this world.”
The old man pursed his lips and bit back his anger as he scowled at the other. “Why? I don’t pay you to wonder about such things.” The man he was speaking to reached out and took him by the wrist and spoke to him. He tried but could not break free.
“And who are we workin’ for?” He glared at the old man. “I don’t like to be on the wrong end of a pistol when it’s not in my own ‘and or have someone ready to slash at me with a saber. I had enough o’ that on the Polestar.”
The older man wrenched his arm free and straightened his sleeve. “I don’t pay you to know that, either. I wouldn’t like to be blackmailed after this, whether you succeed or fail, for I know all about the likes of you.”
His audience bristled, but they had to be careful to not attract the wrong kind of attention. “Not near as bad as I don’t like it. And I don’t like what you are insinuatin’. What is to stop us finding out the hard way who you are? I’d bet you was some relative of his and expect to step into his shoes.”
The old man gave nothing away in his expression. He had dealt with others like this before. “Merely the pistol I have pointing at your middle, right now, under the table.” That caused them to hesitate. He had one of his hands out of sight below the edge of the table, soon followed by the other. They were dealing with a knowing cove.
“You can’t shoot us both.”
“Maybe not with my first shot. But I will get one of you. And which one, you will not know. And then I have another pistol too. Better if you relax, play it safe and not be stupid. It can still be achieved.” Josh had a grim look on his face. He had not liked the way any of it had gone.
The older man continued. “You have a chance to correct it, and to earn the rest of that money. You know where he was headed now, so there is nothing to stop you spying on him and waiting for your chance. He will have to go back to the city soon enough. I heard he has another ship waiting for him when he does, so you will have several opportunities, and you know him by now. Unfortunately, you lost the element of surprise when you bungled everything. With any luck he might believe you were intending to rob him.” He could not believe how badly they had failed in what should have been a simple task, and had paid a high price for it, while making everything much harder.
“And what about the money we was promised?”
“I told you I’d give you a quarter at first, and the rest when it was done. And that was between the five of you, so I would say you three are now almost twice as rich as you started, and you’ll be even richer when you finish what you should have done.”
“It doesn’t work that way. Dead men get paid too. For their families. And who’s to say we’d ever see you again. Who’s to say once we do this thing for you that you might ever come by this way again?”
“You have my word as a gentleman!”
The man he was addressing, snorted in derision. They didn’t like that at all but could say nothing. “What you paid, was never enough to get killed for. I’d like half now. At least half.”
The old man had expected that, considering their loss, and the obvious danger that they now faced. They also knew too much about him. “Yes, I thought you would.” He reached into his pocket and took out a small pouch which soon disappeared under the large hand of the other man.
“That’s the last, until you are successful. I’ll know when you are. Leave your mark. And then the next night or even the one after, I will come here, or someone else will, and pay you the last of it.”
“Or not bother to come. Or bring the law with him.”
“Don’t be stupid. And risk having my own interest discovered considering how much you already know of me? You will be well paid when you succeed. There will not only be the rest of what I will owe you then, but I will double what I originally agreed to.” That caught their attention and appealed to what was likely to work best upon them; their greed. “I stand to gain substantially from his death, indirectly.” They doubted that. It was more direct than indirect, else he wouldn’t be risking what he did, except the risk was all theirs to take.
“Yeah. Well. Easily promised. That might help. And if you feel the need not to come, I’m sure we’ll be able to find you after a few discreet inquiries.” He looked across the room at a youth sitting out of the way across the room with a large book open in front of him. He saw the youth nod. He had captured a likeness of the older man that would serve its purpose if he thought to try and cheat them. He already knew a great deal about him from his limp; a ring on his finger; his horse, unheated in his journey here, so he lived not so very far away; and there was another man by the door ready to bump into him as he left, and lift his wallet or his gun, or something that might identify him further. He had dealt with the shabby gentility before and knew enough not to trust them.
The old man had a dangerous look on his face at hearing that, though he had expected that it would not be easy. Once they had done what he wanted, they could be taken care of. “I would not trespass there if I were you. That is very dangerous ground. You know what is required. I shall now leave. Do not try to follow me.” He could play his own games. “Do you see the man over by the fire, looking this way?”
“Yeah.” The man he addressed, Josh, smiled. He knew this game.
“Well there are two more like him in this taproom and they know what to do if you stand up and try to follow me. So finish your ale.” He stood up and left.
He had not been comfortable meeting with them again, but they had left a mark where he had told them to, to let him know that they would be there that night, and he had showed up, so he would likely do the same on another occasion. He obviously had too much to gain to let it go. Or too much to lose.
He wouldn’t show up again until the job had been successful.
“Josh looked across at his wounded friend. You heard him, same as I did. He wants it done and done soon. He wants it done so bad he tipped his hand as to who he is, the old fool. He’s related to that other cove and expects to step into the lap of luxury when he’s dead. He’s a relative of his I would say. A close relative, and likely to inherit when that other man’s dead.” His wounded friend had something to say on that.
“If we had any sense we’d scarper back to London and forget this. I prefer life, to what I faced when I felt that bullet hit me. No point in being richer if we’re dead, and I have a feeling we could wind up dead after this, no matter which way it goes. I’ve been in some tight places with some strange people who would cut your throat for a shilling. That old man scares me more than any of them. That look in his eyes. One eye looking at you and the other looking god knows where. Taint of the devil, that. I don’t trust him. He might have too much to lose to let us live and maybe try and blackmail him. Cagey old dodger that one!” His friend agreed.
“I don’t trust him either, but we can’t easily back out now. We have cash in hand but lost too many men to get it. I’ll have to think about whether or not I’ll stay or go. No point in telling him that. I wouldn’t put it past him to tip off the local justice or magistrate about us or hire another to see us gone. At least we got some of the gelt.” He re-thought after a few moments. “No, I’ll stick with it. I’ll see what I can do for a double reward, like he promised. But I’m not inclined to persist too far. I’ll give it one last try, and it’s better if I do that myself, as I should have done the first time.”
His friend had a more sober view of things. “Don’t count on getting the rest of it. He told us that to try and keep us on the end of his line. We now will have to work a lot damned harder to get anything out of this. There were five of us at one time, remember, and it seems I’ve been riding over half the county in the last few hours, and all I’ve got out of it is a dead brother, a friend gone the same way, me with a ball in my shoulder, and Sparrow flat on his back for week. And all of that after he’d said it would be none too difficult if we took him by surprise. Pity he didn’t warn us that he was a crack shot with those damned pistols of his and was familiar with close-in saber work either.”
Josh corrected him. “He did warn us, but we let the money nudge us off track. You forgot, was all, and so did I. And look what it cost us. I’d like to know who that old buzzard really is, and then after it is all over we really could blackmail him. Penfield, eh? He doesn’t want him dead for no reason except money. I’ll bet you ten sovereigns on that. Maybe I should approach that young cove we thought to take down and let him know what I know.”
“And be dead for certain after that.”
“Aye. You’re right. Ten sovereigns you might never see, I’m thinking. However, I might give it another try one of these dark nights now that I know who we’re after and where he lives. No harm in asking around a bit, first. What we couldn’t achieve in daylight, and in the open, I might still do in the dark and where I won’t be expected. No harm in looking it over I would say, but he will be more than ready for me now, and more than he was, and he was too damned ready, even when he wasn’t ready.”