(Broken Instrument) CHAPTER 14: HELMSLEY: SET THE TRAP


To circumvent these problems a canal was dug to link Brussels via the River Rupel, thus establishing a direct link with the Scheldt and with Antwerp. The canal was finished in 1561 and shortly afterwards most of the docks were dug.

Living in Brussels


He’s right there. Right there on that barge, eating his bread and cheese, that fat bastard. Helmsley drew back from the shutters in the lockmaster’s office and his hand tightened on the hilt of his sword. I could take him right now and be back in Brussels back in Master Owen’s favor by sunset tomorrow.

“No.” Jean’s voice was as matter of fact as always, but with an undercurrent of discomfort. “Not enough men. Tough fucker. Remember the market.”

Helmsley spun to face him. “But he’s right there!” He heard the whine in his voice and got a grip on himself. It was wrong of him to show such lack of composure in front of Jean. He took a deep breath. “You’re right. What do you suggest? Where can we get more men?”

“Breda Piet’s in Antwerp.” A spasm of pain passed over Jean’s face. “Pardon.” He hurried through the back door of the office in the directions of the jakes. Bad meat at mid day had done for him.

Helmsley stared unseeingly in the direction of Jean’s exit, putting it together in his mind. Once he was certain of the pieces, he left the commandeered office by the front door and went into the main room. He took a position by the shuttered main window overlooking the canal. There was a huddle of men around the lockmaster, discussing things, occasionally laughing, enjoying the warmth of the nearby fireplace. From outside came the sound of squealing gears and pouring water as a barge moved through the locks. Helmsley caught the eye of the lockmaster and jerked his head towards the window.

The man, short and stout with competent hands and eyes, dressed in clothes that showed both wealth and work, made his excuses to the other men and came over to Helmsley. The papers that Helmsley had shown him, complete with signatures and seals from the higher reaches of the Brussels government, had compelled his cooperation and he clearly figured that being helpful would result in Helmsley’s quickest departure.

Helmsley pointed to the barge where Nick was sitting. “That barge, there. I’ll need to talk to its master.”

The lockmaster looked to where Helmsley was pointed, narrowed his eyes to see through the gathering darkness. “That one there? The one with the fat man sitting by the fire pit? That’s the Phillipa. Van Rupel’s her master. I think I see him coming here. You’ll want to use my office?”

“Yes. Thank you. Your understanding is much appreciated. I should be troubling you no more, soon enough.”

“Always glad to do my duty to the Crown.” He turned away.  “I’ll get him into my office as soon as he gets in.”

Helmsley put out a restraining hand. “Before you leave, can you tell me, is there a post house in town?”

“Indeed there is, Mynheer. Down by the old gate. You’ll recognize it by the large stables.” With that, the lockmaster turned and went back to the group of men clustered around the fireplace. Helmsley noticed that he positioned himself so that he could keep one eye on the door.

Satisfied that the man knew his business, Helmsley left the main room and went back into the office. Rummaging around on the lockmaster’s desk, he found paper, ink, and quill. He sat, thought for a minute, getting all the pieces right in his mind, and then began to write.

As he was finishing up, Jean came back in through the rear door. He swilled from his flask, swished the spirits around in his mouth, then spat back out the door. “Both ends.” He announced. “Better now.”

Helmsley blew on the ink and then folded up the paper. He used one of the candles to seal it and then handed it to Jean. “Get this to the post house and have it to Antwerp as quickly as possible.” He dug in his purse and accompanied the letter with some coins. “I’ve told de Langhe to get Breda Piet to Hoch Quay to meet that barge with sufficient men.”

Jean nodded. “Should work.” He took the letter and coins and, without further words, left.

The door was scarce closed behind him when the front door of the office opened and the lockmaster ushered in a man. “This is the man you wished to see, Mynheer. Barge master van Rupel of the Phillipa.”

“It’s Captain van Rupel. And what’s this all about?”

The lockmaster nodded at Helmsley. “He’s all yours.” He closed the door behind him when he left.

Van Rupel’s brows and the corners of his mouth both drew down in a great frown. “What the hell’s this? Who the fuck are you?” He took a step back towards the door.

Helmsley stood and put out a forestalling hand. “It would be best if you sat down, Captain. We have much to discuss and not much time to do it in.” When van Rupel made no move, just stared mulishly, Helmsley pointed at the chair in front of the desk and hardened his voice. “Sit. Down. You’re in a lot of trouble but still have the chance to save yourself.”

That got van Rupel moving and he sat, though his face still showed obstinacy and suspicion. “What trouble? I’ve done nothing wrong! My cargo is only bales of paper and I have all the right documents!”

“I’m not talking about your paper, flour, and hides. I’m talking about your passenger. The one that Mynfrau Cornieliuszoon made you take. The fat man. That’s what’s got you in all this trouble.” Van Rupel made to open his mouth and Helmsley talked right over him. “Now think before you speak. I’m coming directly from the Court at Brussels, with the full authority of the Captain General.” Helmsley nudged his papers on the desk so that the full light of the candles fell upon the seals. Van Rupel looked at them and sat back in his chair, began to gnaw at his lower lip. “That’s the weight of trouble that’s hovering right above you, right now. You help me, and all this trouble goes away.” Helmsley pulled the papers back towards himself, out of the light.

“What can I do? I’m just a barge captain!” Van Rupel’s voice had taken on a querulous tone. “I don’t even carry a sword. You want me to have a go at some big fat fucker who’s put men in the ground? That just gets me dead.”

“Nothing so drastic or bloody. I just need you to take him some place. You won’t have to draw your knife. He won’t know a thing. You do this and you never see me again.”

Van Rupel folded his arms and continued to gnaw at his lip. “I’ve got no choice, do I?”

“None whatsoever.” Helmsley made his voice cordial. “Here’s what you have to do.”

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