(Broken Instrument) CHAPTER 2: POLEY: MAM UPSHAW


He will build a career out of cheating, though all in the name of ‘loyalty and behoveful service’ to the State.

The Reckoning

Charles Nicholl


       “All I can say is what he told me.”

        Robert Poley, short man, hard expression on his face, look in his eyes that forecast an explosion to come soon, dressed in brown and grey, made his way at a quick walk up the street. At his side was Ralph. “So tell me.”

        He’d used Ralph before, as muscle, at first. The bastard was big and broad, with hands like a smith’s hammer, and he had no hesitation in dealing out the necessary violence. But men like that were three a penny in London. What made him so very useful to Poley was the bright intelligence that lurked in the eyes hidden behind the stringy black hair.

The big man’s voice rumbled. “He only got out of Antwerp with his life. Both Duclos and Horyncx were taken. And if it was that bad in Antwerp, he didn’t want to risk Brussels. So he got himself across the Channel as quick as possible.”

Southwark was never quiet, not even at night. Taverns spilling sound as well as light from their windows and open doors,  groups of drunken men staggering from the landings on the Thames bank to the inviting bawdy houses well stocked with Winchester’s geese, all these and more kept the night lively. Poley and Ralph kept to the side of the street, out of the foetid puddles that lurked unseen amid the rutted surface. Ralph ducked his head to near Poley’s ear so that he could talk without shouting.

“I didn’t bother to get any more from him. I planted him in a room, made sure he had sufficient booze to keep him there, and then came and found you.”

“Where’s the room?”

Ralph pointed. “At Mam Upshaw’s, there ahead.”

“Right. Let’s get this sorted. You handled this exceedingly well, Ralph.”

They hurried through the crowded and smoky common room and took the stairs without breaking stride. Ralph set a shoulder to a door and it flew open, revealing Liam rising up out his bed, mouth all agape, eyes all filled with fear. Ralph was across the room in two swift strides and had gathered up Liam by his shirtfront in one big hand. The room smelled of an unemptied chamber pot and was lit by the weak light of the moon coming through the small parchment covered window.

Poley moved into the room behind Ralph and stood at the foot of the bed. “Now then, Liam. What happened in Antwerp?”

Liam’s eyes swiveled madly between the big man effortlessly holding him and the smaller man at the foot of the bed. He was clearly unsure of whom to fear more. “It was bad, Master Poley, real bad. I was right there, at Horyncx’s, getting the packet of intelligence he had for me, when they came in through the front door. No warning. Just BANG! And the door goes into flinders.”

Poley gestured at Ralph and Liam was lowered back onto the bed. Ralph stepped back and Poley moved forward, made his voice calmer and more reasonable. “Awful news indeed, Liam. And I’ll wager that’s not all the intelligence you have to impart. What happened next?”

Liam sat on the edge of the bed, stared at his boots, his voice low. “I escaped out the back, running as fast as I could. I remembered what you had told me, what to do if things went cack-handed.” He essayed a glance at Poley. “I followed your instructions, Master Poley. Truly I did!”

Poley laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. “I have no doubt that you did. From first I met you, I knew that you were someone who would keep his blood cool when everything went to hell. So where did you go to from Horyncx’s?”

“I wove through the back alleys and then through the crowds. I wasn’t followed; that I’m sure of. But it was no matter. I arrived at Duclos’ just in time to see him taken away in chains. When I asked a fellow in the crowd, all curious-like, what was this man’s crime, some heretic printer or the like, he answered that he was an English spy.”

“So now I was terrified, Master Poley, I truly was.” Liam swallowed hard and his gaze flitted between Poley and Ralph. “I know I was supposed to go on to Brussels and meet up there with him that you call Adonis, I know I was. But it was like the last time when the Inquisition came through. And you know I lost some of my mates over there when they was taken into their prisons. So I couldn’t do it, Master Poley, I just couldn’t. I got myself back across the Channel just as quick as I could.”

Poley looked considering down at Liam and stretched out the moment. Just as it looked as if Liam was going to babble something more in his own defense, he ran his hand through his hair. And at that signal, Ralph moved the interrogation along. His rumbling grind of a voice sounded almost consoling. “Can’t ask for more than that, can you, Master Poley? All in all, sounds like Liam here, did the right thing, got out with his news and bollocks intact. Had he not scarpered, we might have been kept ignorant of all the those goings-on even longer.”

Liam nodded his head so fast, snot flew from his nose. “That’s it! That’s why I came back and didn’t go on to Brussels!” He gazed at Ralph with a look so pathetically grateful, disgust almost overwhelmed Poley’s anger. None of his feelings touched his face or voice.

“That’s a good point, Ralph. Liam has indeed brought us worthwhile intelligence. The Spanish have taken two of my agents and I need to start finding out how that happened. So, to work.” He gestured to Ralph and turned to go. “Sorry about bursting in like that, Liam.”

“Think nothing of it, Master Poley! It is no matter! I’ve given you every right to be angry at me, fleeing Antwerp as I did, without completing my mission.” Relief clogged Liam’s voice, thick and glutinous.

It was with no little flare of sadistic humor that Poley stopped halfway to the door. He spoke without turning to look at Liam. “One last thing troubles me, though, Liam. Perhaps you can set my mind at ease. And that’s why you didn’t come and tell me right away? Why did I have to come to this Southwark hole and winkle the tale out of you myself?”

“I was so very afraid!”

Poley’s teeth flashed unseen in a grin of mirthless satisfaction. “Yes, I can believe that. But afraid of what, Liam? Or afraid of whom? You’re safe here. No chance of the Inquisition capturing you in London.” He turned to look at Liam. “So why did you not follow instructions and come to me right away?”

There wasn’t much light, but enough for Poley to see Liam swallow convulsively and sweat to break out on his brow. “I swear, Master Poley, I swear. I was just afraid. I was going to come to see you but I just needed to get my courage back.”

“You’re lying. About what, I don’t know. But there’s something that you’re not telling me.” Poley turned his gaze to Ralph. “Hurt him.”

Liam wailed and tried to cast himself out the window. Ralph effortlessly grabbed him and bent one arm up behind his back. Liam screamed and pissed himself.

“Take this the fuck outside.” The voice came from behind Poley and made him turn with a snarl. When he saw who stood in the doorway, he quickly made the expression on his face more agreeable. It was the big man holding the lit taper who drew the eye first but he was just one more big bastard that Ralph could easily sort out. No, Poley immediately drew his mind away from violence because of the woman standing in front of the ox. Mam Upshaw tapped a gnarled oak club into her palm, small piggy eyes steady and cold above a delicate mouth, graying blond hair escaping from underneath her bonnet. A ferocious pair of tits strained the front of her dress behind a stained apron.

It wasn’t the club or the ox in the hall, who looked to be Danny, one of her many sons, that stopped Poley from launching into a high handed shit fit. Here in Southwark, Mam Upshaw was a person of consequence, gnarled fingers into many pies. Piss in her soup, he could count on any number of obstacles in his way, the next time he had to work south of the river.

A short bow and he strode forward. “Mistress Upshaw, I beg your pardon for this disturbance. I would not have conducted my business here, but I am charged by the Privy Council to get to the bottom of this matter.” He rubbed his fingers together. “This will not take long and I am certain that those in Westminster to whom I report would be greatly appreciative of your understanding.”

Tap, tap, tap, went the club. No hint of give in her voice. “Who the fuck are you?”

“I am a humble servant of her Majesty.” Poley tried to assume an appropriately humble mien, hard to do with his humors roiling with anger and impatience.

“Easy to say. Hard to prove. What stops me from calling the Watch and having you all taken from here?”

Poley thought from a moment. He didn’t want to use this name, but he saw no other choice. “Meg will vouch for me. She and I have done business and she knows whom I work for. You know Meg, I’m sure.“

“Aye, that I do. And I know that she’s not a name to be mentioned lightly. If I ask her about you and she finds out you’ve been bandying her name about, you’ll be fed to the pigs.”

Poley made one last effort to gather up his quickly fraying patience and kept his voice level. “I know that. You know that. So why don’t you accept me as who I say I am and let me get on with my business?”

Danny made to move forward. “Let me thump him, Mam. I’ll knock some truth out of this lying buggermaster.”

Ralph was suddenly at Poley’s side. “You can back off now, my son. You and me, we’ll let the wiser heads talk this through. Nothing is solved by us getting all violent-like.”

Mam Upshaw’s hand on Danny’s arm forestalled his rush to come to grips with Ralph. “What makes you think I give a fuck?”

“Surely you do not wish to be an enemy of her Majesty? You may think that her writ does not run into these corners of Southwark, but I assure you, it does.”

A calculating look. “Aye, true enough. But I’m going to need something for my trouble, beyond just the words of some pursuivant.”

Poley had an immediate vision of the few coins in his purse and Mam Upshaw’s likely reaction if he were to offer them to her. And besides, he wasn’t going to pay some raddled Southwark hag for the privilege of doing his business. “Do you think that I carry coin on me when coming this side of the river to do my business? Do I look like I was dropped on my head as a babe? Get me some paper and ink. I’ll write you out a note that you can take up to Westminster to get redeemed for coin.”

“Pen? Ink? A note?” Mam Upshaw’s voice became more venom filled with each word and her knuckles went white where she held the club. “You’ve got some fucking cheek, you piece of shit. You come to my house, cause trouble, then try to buy me off with some promise of jam tomorrow? Now who looks like they was dropped on their head? Aye, you work for Westminster, sure enough, no one else would be so stupid as to suggest such a thing.” She spit on the floor in front of Poley’s feet. Danny dragged up an inarticulate growl from deep inside his chest, the urge to damage whoever caused his Mam this kind of upset clear on his face. This caused Mam Upshaw to go from anger back to calculation. Nothing to be gained in causing trouble for someone working for the powers up in Westminster. Her face screwed up sour. “Fine. Do what you needs must. But try to keep the noise down and if you kill him, do it out back. Don’t leave me with a corpse on my hands.” She turned to go, chivying Danny in front of her.

Liam let out a wail and stretched forth his undamaged arm. “Please, Mistress! Have mercy! Succor me, I beg of you! In Christ’s name do not leave me here!”

She ignored Liam; glanced back over her shoulder to Poley with a face like flint. “I said, keep the noise down.”

Ralph grabbed Liam by the throat and muscled him against the wall. “You heard the lady, whoreson. No talking less asked a question.”

Liam gabbled so fast spittle sprayed on Ralph’s face, who took it unblinking. “I swear, I swear, I swear it’s like I said, it’s true, true…”

Ralph laid a hand almost tenderly on Liam’s face, palm closing the working jaw, the horny thumbnail coming to rest right at the edge of his eye. “Liam, Liam, Liam. Do you think that I’d even stop to think about taking your eye? Gouging it clean out of your head and wiping it on the coverlet? Do I look like the kind of cove who’d lose even a wink of sleep over that? And would I stop at one eye?”

Liam rolled his eyes towards the threatening thumb but was so terrified that only mute whines dug their way out of his throat.

“Your days are about to become as dark as your nights, Liam, unless you answers Master Poley’s questions.”

“Liam.” No response from Liam, his gaze still trapped by Ralph’s threat. Poley made his voice louder, sharper. “Liam!”

Liam pulled his eyes away from Ralph’s thumb and fixed his gaze on Poley. His voice was barely a whisper, clotted with tears and pain. “I swear, Master Poley, I swear, I swear…”

“And I don’t fucking care what you swear, Liam. I want to know the truth.” Poley leaned back against the wall opposite and folded his arms. He gestured with his eyes and Ralph released Liam’s face and moved a little way from Liam. “Let’s start at the beginning. Did you get the packet of intelligence that Horyncx was to give you?”

Liam said nothing for a few heartbeats, just stood there, rubbing his face where Ralph had placed his hand, smearing snot and tears across his blotched face. Ralph made a low noise in his chest and began to move forward. Liam jerked his hands down. “No, no. No, Master Poley, he didn’t have time to give it to me. He was saying that it contained the most important intelligence and then he went to fetch it and then the door came down and then I ran.”

“That’s what he said, precisely? The most important intelligence? Think hard, Liam, remember it clearly. Is that what he said? Was there anything more, anything at all?”

“And then he said something else, as he was leaving the room, to go into the back, something like intelligence this pure could only come from one place.”

“This is good, Liam. You’re doing brilliantly. Now we come to the matter of you arriving in London. Why did you not come directly to me?”

Liam clutched his arms around himself and huddled inward, looked at the floor, his voice a low mutter. Poley leaned close, straining to hear over the sound of a drunk outside the window professing in song that his love was pure and like unto a summer day. The fa-la-la chorus was interrupted by the sound of spewing. “I came into Southwark late. I had landed at Gravesend and rented a nag. I thought not to disturb you until the morning. I admit it, I was reluctant to come to you with such bad news.”

Poley kept his voice low and nonthreatening. “I understand. By my count, that was two days past. What stopped you from coming to me the next morning?

“This man. I was coming to see you, I was, just past the Bridge, when two bravos came up beside me and pushed me into an alley. They was much like him.” A flicking glance towards Ralph underneath lowered brows. “They leaned in close, on either side, and said someone wanted a word.”

Ah. The shape starts to become clear. I thought there was something missing in all this. Someone stirring the pot. I’ll have you, you fucker. “And who was that someone, Liam?”

“Some gentleman. Not too fancy, but had money, you could tell. Didn’t like putting his feet among the filth in the alley.”

Poley kept his voice even, so as to not have Liam lose his new found composure. “Now that’s a nice bit of recollection. Well done. What did he look like?”

“A bit taller than me. Blonde. One of those little beards. Nice clothes. Two rings.”

“Would you know him again, if you saw him?”


“And what did he say? Why did he have those two pieces of muscle nab you?”

“He said it would be best if I were to clear out of London, go somewhere else, maybe Bristol, and leave my current employment far behind me and forgotten.” Liam straightened and life entered his voice, though he still did sniff back blood. “Well, I told him that my employment was none of his concern and who the fuck was he to tell me what to do.”

“Good man!”

“Well, he didn’t take to kindly to that. He had those two oxen give me a right thumping. Not used to the business, though. Was not used to seeing violence done right in front of him. Saw that in his eyes. Then he bent down to where I was kneeling, cradling my cods, said that I was employed by a mindless git – his words, Master Poley, his words -”

Poley nodded in understanding and gestured for him to continue.

“Employed by him who played at spies but was no match for someone superior in all ways. And since I was employed by one such, that made me less than low. But even one as low as myself was worthy of mercy and so he was being merciful and sparing me and giving me the chance to leave with my life.” Liam raised his gaze to look directly at Poley. “To tell the truth, Master Poley, I think he was fair cracked. Almost like one of them preachers who get all invaded by the Spirit, like. Or maybe a crazed dog. His eyes were flat stones, nothing behind them, and his voice was all trembling. By that time I was more scared of him than of the bravos.”

“And then he said that all my employer had built up was to be torn down and that he was the Samson who did it. What just happened in the Low Countries was just the start of his successes.”

“He did say that? He knew about my agents being taken and he took responsibility for it?”

“Aye. Just as I related. Well, I slobbered out something fearful and agreeing, didn’t take too much acting on my part, I’ll tell you that.”

No, I’ll wager it didn’t.

“So he had his men give me another kicking, then minced out of the alley. By that time I didn’t know what to think, so I hid out in the Alsatia liberty. All this is much above my head. I just wanted to hide until it all passed. I was there when your man found me. He can tell you that.”

“And so he did.” Poley moved away from the wall and towards Liam. He clapped the man on the shoulder, getting a small piece of satisfaction from the way he cringed from the hand. “You did well, Liam, in observing that man and telling me what he told you. This is valuable intelligence that you’ve brought me.” Poley moved away from Liam and towards the door. “Now get the fuck out of London.”

Liam’s face became a study in incomprehension and fear. “But why, Master Poley? I told you everything I know! I did, I swear it, everything, every last word!”

“I know and I don’t care. You’re a worthless little shit and I can’t use you anymore. Now take that fucker’s advice and go to Bristol or someplace. I see you in London again and I’ll kill you.”

As Poley left the room with Ralph following, he heard Liam break into a torrent of abuse aimed at Poley. Liam’s imprecations and insults faded away as Poley and Ralph clattered down the stairs and into the clamor of the main room. Poley ducked a nod to Mam Upshaw on the other side of the room as he and Ralph passed through and out onto the street. She spit on the floor in response.

“With Duclos and Horyncx gone, I have only one intelligencer left in the field. And I need to know if he’s been taken and, if not, why not?”

“This is the one you call Adonis?”

“Aye. I need to send someone across the Channel and I need to do it right quick.”

“I can think of someone. But you’re not going to like it.”

        “Oh, and are you under the impression that there’s any part of this that I do like? Go on, say your name.”

        “You need someone you’ve worked with before. Someone slippery yet knowledgeable enough to ferret out what’s going on in the Low Countries. And he’s close at hand.” Ralph tilted his head in the direction of across the river. “Very close at hand, in fact. And undoubtedly willing to listen to any offer you might make.”

        The name that Ralph suggested rose through Poley’s mind like a bubble though a puddle of spew. “You’ve been hit on the head one too many times, that can be the only reason why you would suggest I go to that fucking cunt. You are correct in saying that I have worked with him. And that is why I will never go to him with something like this.”

        Ralph shrugged. “You know who I’m talking about, then.”

        Poley swore impotently under his breath. “Of course, I fucking know who you’re talking about!”

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