By now the man with the hook had sat down opposite. With his head resting upon his good hand, he slipped his tarred pig-tail over his shoulder, and said, ‘Big tide tonight. A man could be twelve miles out to sea by morning.’
Struggling to hide his quaking voice, Eagle told them that his presence on the docks was known to the authorities. ‘If any harm should come to me …’
‘How would they know what harm’s come to you?’ interrupted Hook. ‘Yer’ll simply have disappeared.’
‘Not simply disappeared,’ added a man without shoes or stockings. ‘I was thinking more of an arm here ‘n’ a leg there, head down this hole, guts down another, his prick ‘n’ balls food for the gulls.’
‘So you know where he is, then? – the black boy,’ broke from Eagle in defiance.
‘We have him safe on someone’s behalf,’ said Hook.
‘How much is he paying you?’ Eagle asked. ‘Whatever it is, I’ll double it.’
‘What with?’ asked Hook, chuckling as a half-naked man tossed him Eagle’s purse. ‘See?’ he added, weighing it in his hand. ‘We have your money already. Charlie here is a fine pickpocket.’
‘Painless Charlie, we calls him,’ said the man with the scar. ‘His patients don’t feel a thing when he operates.’
‘There’s plenty more where that came from,’ said Eagle, hurriedly.
‘And where might that be then?’ asked Hook, sniffing the guineas in the purse.
‘In the bank at Leeds,’ Eagle answered, eager more than ever to please.
Only one among them had ever heard of Leeds, and he called it ‘a shit hole.’ Not that it would have helped him much if they’d all heard of it and thought well of it. Hook’s comment acted like a hammer on the last nut of hope. ‘We don’t want your money,’ he said, embedding his hook in the table again. ‘Never heard of loyalty?’
Hope was crushed like the nut: if fraternal brotherhood among Liverpool criminals was half that of canting crews in London, then he was done for, well and truly. ‘Come on, now, everyone has their price,’ he said, giving bribery one last go.
‘And everyone has to die,’ said Hook, signaling to his cronies to pull him to his feet. ‘Your turn’s come tonight, my hearty. As for yer nigger boy, who knows? This time tomorrow night he’ll be on the high seas sweating out his nigger sweat down in the hold. Why, he won’t even know he’s at sea – he’ll be swapping the cellar here for another aboard ship.’
They began dragging Eagle across the straw-covered floor to great applause, an old crone with a voice like a rook calling for his clothes when they’d finished with him. He cried out in protest, and when he saw men avert their faces he presumed they’d done so in contempt. But he had in truth become irrelevant, a fish discarded in the face of bigger ones. He was abandoned on the floor, his captors rushing pell-mell for the nearest exit, which for some meant the chimney. ‘Press gang! Press gang!’ a voice continued to call. Only now did the words register on Eagle’s brain, offer explanation for his sudden deposit on the stinking floor.
In they burst, a dozen able-seamen armed with clubs and knives, and two officers with swords. ‘Thank God!’ Eagle cried, slithering across to where a midshipman stood. ‘Take me to sea if you must, for the fate you offer is infinitely better than the one I was about to face. But before you do so, know that I am a gentleman, whose skills might be put to better use.’
The shrill laugh took him aback, as did the smell of perfume and the fullness of the tunic about the chest. His shipmates had high voices too, the truth dawning on Eagle that this so-called press gang consisted entirely of women. He had been saved from certain death by a prank, a prank sprung by fourteen downtrodden seamstresses out to teach some men a lesson they would never forget. They had done him proud with their borrowed uniforms and well-crafted disguise, and if they’d stayed long enough he would have kissed them all. But they were gone to resume the chase with all the blood-lust of a hunting pack. Left behind by himself, he located the cellar by following his nose – literally, for the stink of shit was overpowering. The source lay tied in a heap at the bottom of the steps, his badly-bruised mouth gagged with an old handkerchief. So nauseous was the smell that Eagle envied him that gag.
The frightened eyes waxed more fearful still at his approach, then showed recognition. ‘Lucas!’ cried his saviour, as a wounded groan broke from the heap. ‘My poor boy, how you must have suffered,’ said Eagle, as he fell to his knees to undo the knots. They had beaten him about the body, and in his clumsy rush to free him Eagle caused him further pain. But he had to hurry, partly for fear of the killers’ return and partly to stop himself vomiting at the smell. ‘Come on, lean on me,’ he said, as they began their ascent. ‘Better still, I’ll carry you,’ he added, scooping up his slender weight and bounding up the steps in one. ‘Steady as we go,’ he said, re-crossing the floor towards the street.
Emerging outside, they found the hunters gathered round one of their prey, who lay on the ground pleading for mercy. From fox-hounds the hunters had switched to vultures, and as they passed the howling flock it began to dawn on Eagle that they were no mere pranksters; they meant to do real harm. Their laughter was subdued, almost furtive, as they busied themselves with what they had come for: revenge. Later, Eagle would learn that they had come to avenge a friend who’d been raped by the man on the ground, a man Eagle recognised from those dirty feet protruding between the legs of the most unlikely midshipman in history. She it was who passed the shining knife to a smaller woman, who with deft movements cut from the man something which pained him exceedingly, and which, Eagle hoped, was the same precious thing he had threatened to cut from him and feed to the gulls.
‘I should do something,’ Lucas muttered, as conscience got the better of him. ‘They’re cutting him up bit by bit.’
‘Let them, he deserves it,’ urged Eagle, the passion in his voice brooking no resistance. Besides, he needed to make them safe. In short, he left them to murder him.
An Uncommon Attorney, my eighteenth-century crime novel featuring the cases and adventures of John Eagle, is available on Amazon: tinyurl.com/qylwxnq