NELL KNEW THE FACE in a second, its slouch hat too: it was the man who’d saved her (Hector also, much good it did) that night in the back streets of St Giles.
‘How did you get up here without being stopped?’ was Joe’s first question when the man had entered dusted thickly with snow.
‘She’d say it was magic,’ he said pointing at Nell. ‘But magic I’ve no need of. I walk right up like a gentleman. See? – tonight I have a fine suit and a cloak.’
‘So you have,’ said Joe drawing nearer with a branched candlestick to inspect. ‘I expect you stole them,’ he added, still emboldened by drink.
‘Joe, that’s enough!’
‘Don’t mind him lady, don’t mind me – I hear worse. And kill men for less,’ he said, producing a pistol from deep in his coat. ‘You dare to speak to me like that?’ he went on as Joe backed away. ‘You address me like the shit on your shoe? Bang!’ he shouted, and Joe leapt back, his masculinity routed.
‘Won’t you sit down Mister…?’ Robert ventured, though he’d slinked to the far side of the room.
‘I won’t hear my name, not from the likes of you.’
‘If it’s money you require…’ said Joe, his voice trailing off.
‘If I’d wanted money I’d have taken it by now.’ He held the gun more loosely, then weighed it in his hand. ‘I carry this for a different reason, I hope it might save her.’
‘Olu, you know where she is?’ Nell asked him eagerly. ‘Are you the one the landlord spoke of at the Hope Tavern? – the one who used to work for a certain rich white man?’
‘I may be, what does it matter? You know me, you know how I see the world. It didn’t please me knowing she came back to you – look where it’s got her? You lose her twice, how many more times you lose her?’
‘If you know where she is, tell us.’
He remained silent, breathing hard through nostrils permanently flared.
‘I see this just how it is,’ said Joe. ‘The landlord was right after all. There is a bad apple among you and you don’t like it. Well, well well, things are not straightforward, hey? You wish they were, but they’re not. Mark my words, friend, it’s human nature, white or black.’
‘No, I don’t like it – why should I? When a man fuck his own kind, it no laughing matter.’
‘Now listen here,’ said Joe, trying to be brave.
The Negro laughed malevolently as if he’d heard it all before. ‘Ah yes, pardon me. There’s a lady present – what was I thinking of?’
‘Tell us what you know – yes?’ asked Robert seriously. ‘If you know where she is, speak – a problem shared, you know, is a problem halved.’
‘I don’t know where she is. Nor who’s holding her.’
‘But you do know something,’ Nell said. ‘Why else would you come on a night like this at such trouble to yourself?’
‘You think I care about trouble? You think I care about coming here in snow as white as you? But yes, I do know something. The question is, should I tell you? You’re all fools here, I see that now.’
‘I’m no fool,’ Nell said, ‘and you know it.’ The eye she turned on him was sharp and unflinching, enough to command respect.
‘You’re not so naïve as you were, I’ll give you that.’
‘You mean the night I came to St Giles? You forget there was one more naïve than me. One of your kind.’
He didn’t like this. ‘Be careful. He serve you loyally that is all. He thought he have no choice.’
‘And did it give him pleasure to serve?’ said Nell. ‘I rather think it did.’
‘He died for it by God! Your own father beat him to death with one of these.’ He held up the gun, wiped the stock for show, as if it were blood-stained and tough to clean. ‘Yes, you see, we hear everything that happens to one of our kind. We also hear about you and what you do to make amends. You try to bring us together, poor black and poor white, all living in shite. You expect us to be grateful for your efforts but it don’t wash, lady – how can it? What you do, you do for your own enjoyment.’
He’d struck her sorely but she pressed on regardless. ‘You’re a disappointed man, I can tell. You have found out something you find hard to swallow.’
He shifted from one foot to the other, his boots squeaking on the boards where they’d left their slushy puddles. ‘I don’t know where she is, I don’t know who’s got her but I know who does know.’
‘The bad apple,’ said Joe, ‘the chewed heel.’
‘The chewed heel,’ the man repeated with contempt. ‘A fine term is it not?’
‘What does it mean?’ asked Robert. ‘I don’t understand.’
It was canting talk for Judas, Nell explained.
‘Black canting talk, we have our own now.’
‘Black cant, white cant – what does it matter when it’s all cant? It’s the meaning that matters. Will you take a glass of port, sir?’ asked Joe, reaching for the bottle.
‘I’m particular who I drink with,’ said the man, who put away his pistol at least. ‘I should be on my way now.’
‘But you haven’t given us a name,’ Nell insisted.
‘It’s a name you already know,’ he said stiffly. ‘Both of you,’ he added, wagging his finger at Robert.
‘Caesar,’ Nell broke in. ‘Colonel Jenkins’ man.’
He didn’t answer, he didn’t need.
‘What?’ cried Robert. ‘You have proof?’
‘You have your man, I tell you. Find him and you find your girl.’
‘Not my girl,’ Joe corrected him, ‘hers. But we all want her found,’ he said before he could take offence.
‘Find her then,’ the man instructed Nell. ‘Find her a third time and keep her safe for good.’
‘Won’t you and your people help?’ she pleaded. There was a hint, just a hint, that his dark pride had been flattered.
‘Find him first, ask your colonel where he gone, and you shall see,’ he said, turning to leave.
‘Now what?’ asked Joe when he’d gone.
‘No more drink, no more talk of doxies,’ said Nell, pacing back and forth.
‘Agreed,’ said Robert. ‘I say we sleep a while and call on the colonel at cock crow.’
‘Not cock crow,’ Nell replied. ‘Now.’
Neither Robert nor Joe thought fit to argue.
My latest novel is available on Amazon:
Eagle and the Lady-Killer, sequel to An Uncommon Attorney, http://tinyurl.com/h9tqhp2