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Richard Falkirk, Derek Lambert
The black carriage waited at the roadside, its whippy lines deliberately disguised by mud and shabbiness, its racing horses temporarily replaced by bowed pensioners. Inside two men waited, one with paper and pencil, the other with a watch. Between them on the leather seat, which was in far better condition than the coachwork, lay two pocket pistols.
The man with the paper spoke. 'I'm coming with you this time.' He had a quiet voice edged with London corners — The Dials, the 'dolly' shops, the gin shops — but not too sharp, as if its owner had tried to round them. His face was not quite as ruthless as the duelling scar from eye to mouth seemed to make it. His name was William Challoner; Mister to most, Bill to those for whom the scar occasionally smiled, but they were few, very few. He was forty, looked thirty-five, and there were many more scars on his body.
His companion, Harry Malt, aged twenty-five, feebly handsome and smart in his Charles Macintosh waterproofed coat, said: 'I shouldn't bother, Bill.'
Challoner stuck a pistol in his belt beneath his coat. 'I didn't know we were on such familiar terms, Malt.'
'All right, Mister Challoner then.'
Harry Malt was a professional agitator, paid to incite starving country labourers to rebellion with lies and sovereigns. When the Hussars cut down the rebels Harry Malt was far away.
Challoner was an assassin.
'What time is it?'
'Half past three.'
'Time to go.' Challoner made a pencilled note.
'You haven't come with me before.'
'Don't you trust me to carry out a little job like this?'
Challoner looked at him speculatively. At the rings on his fingers, the imitation breeding on his face. 'No,' he said. And when they were on the road he asked: 'Haven't you forgotten something?'
'My pistol.' Malt retrieved it from the coach and thrust it in his belt. 'You make me like this, as nervous as if I were in front of the beak.'
Challoner said: 'Be quiet, Malt.'
They crossed the road and entered Kensington Gardens. The air smelled of chestnuts and soot and dying chrysanthemums killed that night by the first frost. Along the pathways babies in perambulators cried while their nursemaids with 'Scarlet Fever' flirted with soldiers in red, hungry for food and other comforts in the servants' quarters.
'Here they come,' Malt said. He looked at his watch. 'Three thirty-two. Dead on time. How many more times are we going to go through this performance?'
Challoner made another note. 'This is the last time this week. Once more next week just to make sure they're keeping to their routine.'
Two hundred yards away a group of elegant people sauntered towards them in the brief butterfly sunshine. A mother perpetually worried, a German governess smelling of caraway seeds, a nursemaid, two liveried footmen and a child of six or seven with blue eyes and fair hair in ringlets. An assured child, not quite precocious.
Ten yards behind walked a man carrying a baton. Also elegant but not completely familiar with his elegance. He walked warily like a man surrounded by hidden enemies.
Challoner took Malt's arm, fingers gripping the bicep, led him into the shadows at the entrance to the Gardens. 'You didn't tell me about him.'
'Tell you about who? What are you talking about, Mr Challoner?' And as an afterthought: 'You're hurting my arm.'
'I told you there was a bodyguard. There's bound to be, isn't there. But he doesn't know anything about us.'
'Are you sure, Malt?'
'Of course I'm sure. He'd have done something by now, wouldn't he? Nobody's noticed me yet and I always make myself scarce before they reach the entrance.'
'Do you know who he is, Malt?'
Malt tried unsuccessfully to remove Challoner's hand. 'No, why should I? I can see he's a Bow Street Runner but just because I've been in trouble in the past doesn't mean to say I know them all by name.'
'Villains with authority,' Challoner said. 'A dangerous combination, my covey.'
'So he's a Runner. So what? Some people seem to be scared out of their wits by them.' Malt faltered. 'Not you, of course, Bill — Mr Challoner. But,' he hurried on, 'they're not so special, are they? A load of villains, too, by all accounts.'
'Villains with authority,' Challoner said again. 'A dangerous combination.'
The group was a hundred yards away now. The mother and the governess talking in German. The footmen eyeing other nursemaids abroad this chestnut afternoon — the nursemaids eyeing them back because after the soldiers you had to find security. The little girl skipped and pointed, chattering in German and English, playing with a water dog accompanying the party.
The Bow Street Runner proceeded behind them, authority and wariness sparing with each other in his bearing. He wore a broadcloth greatcoat, a tall grey hat and charcoal grey trousers fastened with straps under the instep. His face had lines of struggle upon it with humorous interludes: a handsome, successful face with traces of uncertainty lingering. The sort of face that Challoner might have possessed if things had been different.
Challoner said: 'Let's get back to the coach.'
'I usually stay a little longer to get the timetable completely accurate,' Malt boasted. 'They sometimes stop about there.' He pointed down the pathway. 'In the summer the little bitch used to ride on a donkey. That's not likely now, is it, Mr Challoner? I mean it would complicate things, wouldn't it? Too cold now for donkey-riding, I should think,' he added, worry oozing from his pores.
'Too cold to stand around here,' Challoner said. 'What's more I don't want that flash bastard with the baton to see us.'
'Why, do you know him?' Malt was inspired by the furtive intuition that helped him select doomed recipients for inducements in country inns.
'Yes, I know him.'
They walked rapidly out of the Gardens, treading the crisp leaves, reaching the coach just as Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent and her daughter, Princess Alexandrina Victoria, heir to the throne of England, reached the point where they had been standing.
Challoner snapped his fingers at the driver. 'Off you go.' He climbed inside with agility, followed by Malt.
As the old horses moved away beneath the whip which they had known all their lives Malt spoke again. But his voice had assumed the tone of a man who has discovered weakness in the hitherto unassailable. A child who has spotted a teacher's vice. 'Are you scared of that Runner, Challoner?'
Challoner looked at him and Malt knew dreadfully that he had made a mistake.
'Scared of him, Malt?'
'A slip of the tongue, Mr Challoner. But you did say you knew him ... I suppose you just didn't want him to recognize you. That was it, wasn't it, Mr Challoner? You didn't want him to recognize you.'
Challoner didn't reply and Malt thanked God.
The coach swayed past Kensington Palace towards the market gardens of Fulham.
After a while Malt, whose tongue would take him to the gallows, asked: 'Who was that Runner, Mr Challoner?'
'It doesn't matter,' Challoner said.
Five minutes later Malt tried again. 'Did you know him very well?'
'His name,' Challoner said, 'is Blackstone.' He laid his pistol on his knee and leaned forward. 'Now shut your mouth, Malt. I don't want to hear your whining voice again until we reach Fulham.'
And it seemed to Harry Malt, who had never heard of Blackstone, that the name filled the carriage.CHAPTER 2
From the half-curtained window of the Russian Hotel, better known as the Brown Bear, Edmund Blackstone gazed across the road at Nos 3 and 4 Bow Street, headquarters of the Runners, and wondered whether he should protest by offering his resignation.
At No. 4 in particular. The well-bred building in which he had first signed on for the Foot Patrol and clawed himself out of the past. Where he had been promoted to the plain-clothes Runners and acquired respect from others and himself. Until now.
He drank deeply from his pot of ale and watched George Ruthven, the Runner who had been ahead of them when they raided the Cato Street conspirators, enter the building. October sunshine lent the four-storeyed terrace house with its railinged area a delicacy belied by its history.
That house represents the only security I've ever known, Blackstone thought. Echoing with law and order (who would have thought he would ever respect that?), stern with magisterial ghosts. Henry Fielding who spawned the Runners, John Fielding, the 'Blind Beak' who could recognize three thousand thieves by their voices — so they said.
The magistrate on his dais, clerk below, the jostling throngs of spectators. And at the bar assassins, swindlers, rioters, strumpets, murderers, horse-stealers, skittle sharks and pea-and-thimble riggers, highwaymen, arsonists, footpads, receivers. From bar to sessions to gaol or transportation or gallows.
Blackstone glanced up and down the bow-shaped street waiting in the thin sunshine for winter when the children exploited by criminals might survive; or they might die. Soon, Blackstone thought, there would be no more rotten plums for the army of 100,000 vagrants to scavenge round the corner in Covent Garden.
He finished his ale and ordered some more. One more pot and a few pennyworth of hot gin and he would resign. Return to the only other way of making a living he knew.
He sipped his beer at the window of the inn at No. 34 managed by a Mr G. Hazard whose sign proclaimed 'Lodgings for Gentlemen'. The sign didn't mention the cell which until recently had served as an extension to No. 4 and had accommodated many who were somewhat less than gentlemen.
Ruthven came in with a Runner called Page and ordered two brandies. 'Proper brandy,' he told the girl. 'Not English brandy made from cider and molasses.'
The girl was surly. 'We'd hardly do that here, opposite No. 4, would we?'
'Nor opposite No. 3,' Ruthven said. 'That's where most of the felons' rooms are.' He gestured to Blackstone. 'And you, Blackie, what are you having?'
'Gin with some hot water,' Blackstone said.
'Don't get too groggy. Birnie says he wants to see you in fifteen minutes.'
'It's me who wants to see him.'
'Don't be so bloody prickly,' Ruthven said. He had a pleasant boxer's face on a gang-busting frame.
Page, whose speciality was pickpockets, said: 'We know how you feel.' A quick darting man was Page, although big and pale.
'You don't know anything of the sort. Birnie didn't pick you.'
'It could have been any of us,' Page said, hands running lightly over his pockets in imitation of his prey.
Blackstone pointed at Ruthven. 'Can you imagine him as a nursemaid?'
Ruthven shrugged. 'Nor you, Blackie.' He tossed back his brandy, the glass a thimble in his hand.
Page caught himself picking his own pocket and said: 'Another, Blackie?'
The girl put the glasses before them, her breasts very close to Blackstone's face.
Ruthven said: 'Who's looking after Her Royal Highness in your absence?'
'I know who isn't,' Page said. 'I'll wager it isn't Townsend.'
'You're right,' Blackstone said. The knowledge angered him even more. 'He's probably dining with the Duke of Wellington.' He thought: Why me? Why did it have to be me?
'You know,' Ruthven observed, 'you should be honoured. Guarding the future Queen of England. Has it occurred to you that you were specially picked for the job?'
'What makes you think that?'
Ruthven spoke slowly because his hands, not words, were his weapons. 'Because you have bearing.'
'Bearing be damned.' But a tiny glow of pleasure was lit somewhere.
'And you're one of the best men Birnie's got. Ask any cracksman in London. You're a ...' The dictionary closed in his mind.
'A deterrent,' Page said.
Blackstone permitted himself a smile, angry at the same time that he was so vulnerable to flatter. 'I was picked,' he said, 'as a punishment. We all know that.'
Across the road a day foot patrol passed by. Blue coats and trousers, red waistcoats, black felt hats. One stopped to talk to a girl wearing a poke bonnet and holding a parasol.
'That's what you should be worrying about,' Ruthven said. 'Not the ig ...'
'Ignominy,' Page supplied.
'... not the ignominy of looking after Princess Alexandrina Victoria. They're the bastards who'll have us all out of our jobs soon. Peel and his Redbreasts. Who does he think he's fooling?'
'A lot of people by all accounts,' Blackstone said, happy to redirect his anger. 'Birnie reckons the people will never stand for a uniformed police force. But they will. It'll be swindled through Parliament just like any other law, whether the people want it or not. And they re just the beginning' — pointing at the red-chested patrol. 'Peel pretends they're only an enlargement of Bow Street. In fact they're his advance guards. He wants to fill London with his Peelers just like he filled Ireland.'
The girl who had returned with drinks said: 'They look very smart, don't they?' one breast warm on Blackstone's cheek.
Page said: Popinjays.'
'Could you see me in a pretty red waistcoat?' Ruthven asked the girl.
'Not really,' the girl said. 'But then I could never imagine Blackie as a nursemaid.' She removed her breast and herself to a safe distance.
'She hears too much, that one,' Ruthven said.
'Don't worry,' Blackstone said. 'She'll keep quiet.'
'You sound very sure of yourself,' Page said.
Blackstone shrugged and took out his gold Breguet watch. 'I'd better be getting over there, I suppose.'
'One more for the road,' Ruthven said. 'Where's everyone else, by the way?'
'There are only eight of us,' Page said. 'Townsend's about his own business somewhere. That only leaves four. Wheeler's on duty in the House of Commons. Sayer's at the Bank of England while they pay out the dividends. Handley's on the murder down at Fetcham and Chandler's guarding His Majesty at Windsor, seeing that he doesn't get too drunk and fall in the river or marry Mrs Fitzherbert again or do any stupid thing that comes into his head.'
'Poor old Prinny,' Ruthven remarked.
Page said: 'He should have stayed Prinny and not become King of England. Still,' he conceded, 'he's given us some sport in his time.'
'And his wife,' Ruthven added. 'You were on that, Blackie, weren't you?'
Blackstone said he was. Remembering the rioting at Queen Caroline's funeral when arrangements had been made to ship her body from Harwich because she had asked to be buried in Brunswick. But, fearing demonstrations for a popular Queen and against an unpopular King, the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, had diverted the procession at Hyde Park. But the mob had got wind of it and stopped the cortège. For one and a half hours the crowd fought until the Bow Street Magistrate, Sir Robert Blake, was forced to call in the Life Guards. But this made the fighting more savage. Blake was sacked and Richard Birnie got the job as chief magistrate and London's unofficial police chief.
'Stirring times,' Ruthven said. 'You became a Runner just at the right moment, Blackie.'
Page said: 'If it wasn't for the Monarchy, God bless 'em, we'd be without jobs. The last King as mad as a hatter. This one a drunken sot. They say he couldn't even speak when he got to Dublin. The next one a good-hearted simpleton who's already lived in sin for twenty years. And the next ...' he looked at Blackstone, hands fluttering at his waistcoat, '... the next one rather depends on you, Blackie.' He sipped at his brandy like a bird pecking. 'What's she like.'
'She's all right,' Blackstone said. 'She'll be a good Queen if she reaches the throne ...'
'Which she will because Sweet William won't last all that long. Is there any doubt in your mind about her safety, Blackie?'
'No doubt,' Blackstone said.
'You don't sound too sure.'
Ruthven asked: 'What does she think about becoming Queen?'
'She doesn't know,' Blackstone said.
'Poor little girl,' Ruthven said.
Blackstone stood up and stared across at the lighted frame of No. 4 with the smaller No. 3 shouldering it in the terrace. The evening was smoky and cruel: a knifing night, an assassin's night.
'You'll have me in tears soon,' Blackstone said.
'Or Birnie will,' Ruthven told him. 'You're three minutes late. Come back and tell us what happens.'
As he walked out the girl called out: 'Don't forget to change the nappies, Blackie.'
He crossed the street slowly, feeling the cruelty of the evening. Somewhere near the Market a woman was selling 'lily-white vinegar', her cry a plea in the acrid dusk. Somewhere beneath the streets the tosher-men were ending the day's work combing the sewers for valuables. Somewhere in a workhouse the child of a starving mother was being delivered still-born. Smoke and gaslight and sharp stars.
The carriages of the rich trotted by, wheels clattering on the cobblestones. Back to coal fires freshly bellowed, the Morning Herald, a glass of whisky, pigeon pie, bed warmed, a glance at the children, nurserymaid overpaid at £7 a year: the hostile night cut off by the closing front door. But some of the privileged will be robbed this night, Blackstone thought. And one or two will have their throats cut.