… but it was van Meteren’s skillful management of the post that made him indispensable. When the artist Marcus Gheeraerts wanted to send smoked herring to Antwerp, or Ortelius wanted gifts to arrive at his sister’s house in London, they inevitably went through Emmanuel van Meteren and his formidable network of middlemen, merchants, sailors, and travelers to ensure that precious messages and gifts reached their destination.
The Jewel House
Unfortunately, the business at the Customs House had proven fruitless. There had been no sign of any Captain Barnes. There had been one other captain in from Vlissingen and he knew nothing of Moody.
Poley’s mood was dark and frustrated and to cap it off, the weather had decided to match its mood to his. The afternoon had passed in a succession of conversations, boat rides from ship to ship at anchor in the Pool, and a memorable visit to a male whorehouse looking for a Portuguese captain. And all the while the clouds had moved in from the west, wispy at first, then piling up and blotting out the light.
And now it was pissing down rain.
Lime Street during a sunny day was a pleasant prospect. It was a narrow twisting street from St. Dionysus Backchurch on Fenchurch to Cornhill and St. Andrew Undershaft and its tower that loomed over the surrounding houses. The houses were all very nice and there were no tenements.
Parts of the street were lined with walls, above which poked tree tops, in full summer greenery. And not just the usual English trees of beech and oak, but trees from foreign climes; exotic fruits and those completely unknown to him.
Other parts of the street contained shops and the Pewter’s Company guild hall. Some of the shops were apothecaries and surgeons and they were closing up, servants and apprentices raising shutters and taking down awnings as the afternoon moved into evening and the rain chased away custom.
More than any other place in London, save the Exchange, the overheard talk was in a language other than English. From his work on the Continent, Poley had French, Spanish, and enough Dutch to get by and he was able to recognize Italian when he heard it. All these languages and more caught Poley’s ear as he made his way to van Meteren’s.
Those gardens so marked by unusual greenery were the homes of those people he sought; men who studied natural history and thus had contact with scholars and travelers throughout the known world, men who could get messages and cargoes through any blockade and were not troubled by political or religious differences. To them, knowledge and discovery were greater than man made divisions. Such men formed his remaining network. And he needed to find out what information they had for him.
Many of the people living on Lime Street had been born in England but their parents had fled to England as refugees from the religious conflicts that had wracked various European nations for the last five decades.
One such was the man that Poley was going to visit. Emmanuel van Meteren was the consul for those of the Dutch nation, the United Provinces, and postmaster for both the Dutch and the naturalists in the Lime Street Ward. His parents had fled the Netherlands in the 30s and had established themselves well in London, rising high in the regard of those of their faith. It was van Meteren’s position as postmaster that made him the crown jewel of Poley’s network of agents. From his house on Lime Street, van Meteren sent and received packages from all over the Continent, including those nations at war with England. Those in his employ – merchants, travelers, factors – went everywhere.
Poley was greeted at the door by a manservant. “Master van Meteren is currently in close conference but if you leave your name, perhaps he will be able to see you.”
Poley indicated that would suit him admirably. He and Ralph were escorted into a room and were told that they could take their ease until van Meteren was able to see them. The room was decorated with all manner of curious items hung on the walls and displayed in glass-fronted cabinets. For those who knew, it all spoke of impressive wealth. Ralph carefully tucked his hands behind his back as he strolled around the room, closely examining the items. He stopped, perplexed, at what appeared to be part of a fish skeleton embedded in a rock.
Pride of place was given to the display of an incredibly detailed map of western Europe. Poley studied it closely and was not surprised to discover that it had come from the workshop of Ortelius, in Antwerp. Ortelius was the foremost cartographer of Western Europe, even so recognized by the court in Madrid. And for Poley, it was a nice piece of proof that van Meteren was a man not to be dissuaded by borders or the actions of royalty.
The wait was not all that long. Van Meteren came into the room to greet Poley. “Master Poley! Good day!” They clasped hands. Van Meteren had a slight trace of a Dutch accent, but it was almost an affection. “It has too long since I’ve last seen you.”
“I regret that the press of business has kept me from your door.” Poley gestured to the room and its treasures. “Each time I visit, your collection has grown and there are new wonders to be seen.”
“You are much too kind.” Van Meteren’s countenance sobered. “I was much saddened to hear of Sir Francis’ death. He was a great friend to our community and a true soldier in the army of the Lord.”
Poley bowed his head for a moment. “His death was a blow to us all. But the war still goes on.” Raising his head, he looked at van Meteren and noticed several things. The Dutchman’s voice was over-loud, forcedly casual, the fingers of his left hand were twisting the ring on the middle finger of his right, and though the room was moderately cool from the weather outside, his brow gleamed in the candlelight. Poley’s anticipation of putting a part of his plan in motion died in his chest. He shot a meaningful glance to Ralph and the big man drifted to cover the door. “And since the war goes on, I was hoping to conduct some private business with you this evening, Master van Meteren.”
Van Meteren swallowed and pasted a smile on his face. “Yes, I think that might be best. Please follow me to the sitting room.”
When van Meteren ushered Poley and Ralph into the room, all the treasures displayed around the room were invisible to Poley. He had eyes only for the man standing in front of a cabinet displaying an elephant’s tusk. He knew then why van Meteren was so nervous.
Denby broke off his study of the ivory and turned to the two men. “Ah, now this is a happy chance! Surely it is a sign of God’s favor of my cause that you are here just as Master van Meteren and myself were discussing you.”
Poley turned to van Meteren, but before he could speak, Denby raised a languid hand. “Now before you begin to make any wild accusations about my loyalty to Her Majesty, please know that Master van Meteren has good reason not to listen to the yappings of masterless dogs.”
Poley took an instant to compose himself and discard several gambits. His tone was politely inquiring. “I am very sorry to hear that, Emmanuel. What has transpired? You know that it has never been my intention to cause you any distress in your business affairs.”
Van Meteren moved to the other side of the room and addressed a display of ancient coins. “I had a cargo coming in from the Low Countries. You can imagine my shock and dismay when this gentleman from the Privy Council gave me the courtesy of a visit and informed me that my cargo had been seized at the Customs House. He was quite understanding when I explained that I am often taken advantage of by the greed and perfidy of those who work for me in other countries.”
Poley nodded soberly. “Aye, you have been the victim several times in the past, I well know. Will you be able to recover your cargo?”
There was a faint gloating tone in Denby’s voice. Poley added another mark to the tab the fucker was running. “I’m afraid that my responsibilities to the Privy Council make it impossible for me to to allow that. And now, Master van Meteren has learned a valuable lesson about the danger of untrustworthy people who would call themselves his friends.” Denby idly turned his hand in the candlelight and examined the stitching on one of his gloves.
For the first time, Poley began to be honestly worried. Denby had many advantages and was making very good use of them. And he was smarter than Poley had anticipated. It was a master stroke, to ferret out the people who had helped Poley in the past and to ensure that they were unable to do so now. And Denby moved fast. So he’d have to move faster. Though, at the moment, he was damned if he knew what to do. Getting the fuck out would be a good first step. “Master van Meteren, I will not trouble you any more during this unfortunate time. I pray that your difficulties will soon be resolved. A good night to you.” He bowed to van Meteren, ignored Denby, glanced at Ralph, jerked his head to the door, and exited.
Denby’s voice, amused and mocking, trailed behind him. “Please remember, Poley, I will not be so gentle in my chastisements next time.”
A moment later, Poley and Ralph were back out in the wet and the dark. Poley settled his hat on his head and worked the collar of his cloak up over his neck to fend off the worst of the rain. But after that, he stood there, motionless. It had rained enough that the gutter in the center of Lime Street was running, flushing the day’s garbage and shit down towards the Thames. He hunched his shoulders and stared sightlessly at the flowing detritus.
After a minute or two, Ralph laid a consoling hand on his shoulder. “If you want, I can kick the door down and have Denby looking at his guts in a trice. There’s none in that house with the bones to stop me.”
With that, Poley gave off his mute reflection and came back to his senses. “I thank you for that kind offer, Ralph, I truly do, but it would give us nothing but a momentary satisfaction. I have no doubt that he’s planned for that eventuality and we’d find ourselves dancing the hempen jig ‘fore his blood dried.” He started off down the street, trying to avoid the worst of the muck. “Come, let’s get ourselves someplace warm and something seriously potent in our guts and make some new plans.”
“I know of a place that would suit us.”
“Then lead on!”
“So I take it that you have not given up?”
“How can you even ask that? No, if anything I am now doubly determined. This will end with you wetting your knife in Denby’s throat, but before that happens, he’ll go to Hell knowing that I’ve been the author of the destruction of all his plans.” Poley pulled his cloak tighter and stuck his hands in his armpits; the wind casting rain against his face had turned chill. He raised his voice to reach Ralph’s ears over the sound of the wind. “Right now, I see that the biggest problem is that Denby knows where I’m likely to go next. Because he’s so closely placed to the Privy Council, he’s had the opportunity to study all my past actions taken for that august body. He knows all my contacts and who I’ve used them in the past. That’s how he got to van Meteren before I did. So the plans that I make must use resources that I’ve never touched before.”
Ralph glanced back at Poley. “I might be able to help you with that. There’s those who would like a word with you and would be willing, I have no doubt, to help you in return for your consideration.”
“Well, I like the sound of that. You’re my strong right arm, Ralph. Couldn’t be doing this without you.”
“Aye, right enough. I’m a man who pays his debts.” The big man’s shrug was barely visible in the gloom. “Any road, we’re here. This is the tavern.”
In a short while, the two of them were seated at a table next to the fire, cups in front of them, cloaks drying. Poley took a healthy draught from his cup and felt it spread tendrils of warmth through his chest. “Christ, that’s the stuff! Just what I needed.” He waited until Ralph took a drink and then leaned forward and lowered his voice. “I’ve still got that letter of credit on me. First thing I need to do is to change it into ready coin. I was going to have van Meteren do it, but that bastard Denby put paid to that idea.”
Ralph glanced up, not at Poley but off to the side, towards the barman, who nodded back at Ralph. The big man then looked at Poley. “Might be that I can solve that problem as well. Let’s go meet the person who wishes to be your friend.” He got up from the table.
“Aye, no time like the present.” Poley got up as well; made sure that he was holding his cup in his left hand. He rolled his head to loosen the muscles in his neck and noted that the rough fellows seated at the other tables in the establishment were all very carefully not looking at either him or Ralph. He took another swallow of his drink and knew that the dagger resting at the small of his back would be small comfort if things were to go bad. He was relatively sure that Ralph was not about to betray him, but there was some scheme afoot, that he had no doubt.
They made their way up a stairway. Ralph laid just one heavy knock on a door and then went through without waiting for an answer. Poley followed close upon his heels.
When he saw who waited for him in the small room, he spared a thought for Arthur Gregory and their conversation at the tavern some days previous. I should have paid him more heed. Stands to reason, if she’s after him, she might be after me. And too late for me to take my own advice.
Her shrike, which she was rarely without, perched hooded on a bed post and stirred as they entered, glared sightlessly at them from behind embossed leather. Its owner muttered to it soothingly and passed a calming hand down its back. Then the crime queen of London turned and faced the two men.
Denby was dangerous. She was deadly. Poley swept into a bow without pausing, without mockery, without anything but the utmost seriousness. “Milady Meg. You had only to ask and I would have attended upon you immediately.” He straightened and glanced sidelong at Ralph for an instant. “There was no need to suborn my man here.”
She was dressed in red, as was her habit. This gown was slashed with black along the sleeves and the stomacher was picked out in small pearls and finely carved buttons. Her black hair was braided and coiled under a stylish hat adorned with a feather. There was an old scar running from the left corner of her mouth to her hairline by her ear. A thousand London rumors claimed to know the how and the why of that scar but no one with any wits believed any of them. Power and authority rested on her shoulders like an unseen cloak.
She smiled and waved a dismissive hand. Her fingers were bare; no one who killed with their hands ever wore rings. “Please do not blame Ralph. I merely thought it would be best if I were introduced to you by someone you trust. I fear that had I approached you directly, you would have bolted and I would have spent a great amount of time chasing you to ground.”
Poley decided to cast the dice. He had very little to lose and much to gain. Meg was a source of power and wealth in London and, because he had been involved with overseas intelligence work in recent years, a source that he had not been close to. Denby would not be aware of her power and reach. “I think that you will find that I am no Arthur Gregory, my lady. I will be most happy to listen to whatever you have to say.”
“So Master Gregory told you that he’d been approached by Oliver. That’s good. Then there’s no need to be coy.”
“Yes, let us be direct, if it please you.”
“You should enjoy the novelty, if nothing less.” Her look of amusement never reached her eyes. “Given the work that you do, you must encounter directness so very rarely.” She sat down on the bed. With any other woman, alone in a room with two men, it would have been an invitation, a step towards some sort of bed-dance. With Meg, the move was of a queen settling on her throne. Sex was the farthest thing from Poley’s mind. “So. To business. You have a certain skills, rare and gained through your own abilities. With the death of Sir Francis, you have lost your patron. By entering my service, you gain a patron, wealth, and protection. Also, I have no objection, in truth I encourage it, to you taking another patron who will give you the kind of work that you are used to doing. The only thing that you must remember is who owns your foremost loyalty.“
Poley tempered his feeling of triumph with the fear that Meg engendered. He paused for a moment to consider her proposal and kept a professionally blank face. “All those who matter in London know of you, Milady, and know of the importance that a place in your service holds.” Years of dissembling and courtly flattery allowed Poley to spin his lies without pause. In truth, Meg was only known and feared among the lower classes and some of those who did the actual business of running the city. For instance, the Lord Mayor doubtless had not the slightest idea of her existence, but there were clerks and secretaries in his service who knew of her and her doings, likewise, those given the task of enforcing the Queen’s justice on the whores, thieves, and smugglers of London were familiar with Meg. “Unlike Arthur Gregory, whom your man Oliver Streight recently approached, I am neither a coward nor an idiot.” Another bow. “I am honored to have you as my patroness and to take my place in your service. I stand ready to serve you in any way that I can.”
Meg tapped her finger against her mouth for a moment in thought and then got to her feet. “I am well pleased with this decision of yours.” She offered a hand. Poley bowed and brought it to his lips for a brief and respectful kiss. “I have no task for you at the moment but I take comfort in knowing that you stand willing to aid me.”
Remembering the bill of credit in his purse, Poley seized the moment. “If it please you, Milady, there is a small matter which you could help me with.”
She said nothing but merely cocked an eyebrow at him.
“I have recently come into possession of a bill of credit and I was wondering if you could help me turn it into ready coin. I am in dire need of the coin to pursue my job as an intelligencer. And with the coin, I would be able to be much more effective as your agent.” He shut up before he began to babble.
“I might be able to help you with that. Let me see the bill.”
Poley opened his purse and handed her the folded parchment. Meg opened it and rapidly passed her gaze over it. She reached the signatures at the bottom and raised her head to look directly at Poley. “You have this from Alewife Harvey? She gave this to you freely? The full fifteen pounds?”
Poley kept his voice steady and clear. He ignored the mutter from Ralph that fifteen was a great deal different from five. “Yes, she did. She believes that I am using it to obtain for her the position of Brewmistress to the Court.”
“I… see. And do you intend to do as you say?”
“If the opportunity arises for me aid her in such a way, I will, of course, do my utmost to secure her such a position.”
Meg looked at him in such a way as to clearly tell him that she knew what he wasn’t saying. After a minute, during which Poley kept a politely inquiring look upon his face, she nodded. “I’ll give you ten pounds for this letter. You can tell Albert at the bar downstairs that I’ve told him to give you that amount.”
Christ on the Cross, it’s just like working for Walsingham! The Puritan spymaster and the crime queen, both only giving as little money as they can. “You are most generous, Milady. I await word from you as to what duties I might perform for you while in your service.” Another bow, answered by a nod from her, and he was out the door with all his parts attached. Ralph followed and closed the door behind them. Poley took a moment to breathe deep and calm his nerves.
He wasn’t given much time as Ralph loomed in front of him, close in the narrow hallway. “What’s this about you promising Mistress Harvey and then doing naught?”
Poley blinked, a bit incredulous. “What the fuck are you on about? Of course I lied to her. I needed the money; she had it, so I said what was needed. I’ve done the same many a time in the past to many a different person and you’ve never uttered any word of protest. Been happy to help spend the coin on occasion, as I recall”
The big man squeezed his fists and relaxed them. “Just doesn’t seem right, this time.”
“What’s this all about, Ralph? Why do you care how I make use of Kate Harvey? You and her, you have some sort of understanding?”
“No. Just doesn’t seem right. Never mind.” Ralph turned and headed towards the staircase. “Let’s get your money and get out of this place.”
Poley took a moment to gaze narrowly at Ralph’s back, and then shook his head dismissively. He followed the big man, his head filling with schemes on how to best use the money to bring Denby down. Of Meg, he spared no further thought. She would be a problem for another day and he would deal with her then.