woodcut woman murder01

Into her three score years and ten she continued to pack an impressive variety of activities, all of them lucrative and most of them unlawful.

The Elizabethan Underworld

Gamini Salgado


She was dressed in red. She always was. The color was a reminder to all who knew her, who knew of her. A reminder that if any poor fucker thought to take advantage just because she was a woman, the red would flow.

Nick needed no reminder. Those last moments years ago when he realized just who he’d given his heart to, those moments were seared into his soul. Even with all the nervy work that he’d been doing this past few years, pretending to be this, that, and t’other, the Inquisition just a word away, what woke him up screaming more often than not was the image of Meg’s cleaver flashing silver through the air and Meg’s blood-splattered face, the joyful blankness of her eyes.

He’d been a young smuggler, then. Not his own ship yet, but well experienced working the different coves and beaches and warehouses on both sides of the Channel where cargoes could be brought ashore or lifted off in privacy. He’d faced down more than one crew of searchers looking for what was hidden on the ship he was working, his nerve had never cracked. He’d gotten the reputation of a smart and skilled young man, a good smuggler, a steady hand well worth having whatever the job, whatever the cargo. All this work had brought a steady flow of coin to his purse and whenever he was in London, there was Meg to help him spend it.

And coin was not all she helped him spend. She was a demon for the fucking. He was completely besotted.

To be sure, he knew that she was a criminal. He saw her familiarity with every sort of vice, her ability to turn a coin at any type of cozenage. He even was aware that she was gathering her own gang about her. But he was a young man, thinking with his prick most of the time. Because they had no immediate effect on him, her proclivities mattered naught to him. Until one day, they mattered very much.

Meg had always dressed the best her money could pay. Well, her money and Nick’s. And, even then, always in red. That day, the two of them were walking to a haberdasher she liked. She and her gang had just finished a very successful pickpocketing trawl through St. Paul’s. She had taken the lifted coins and sent her people to their favorite fence with the rings, daggers, kerchiefs, and all the rest. And now, she had her mind set on a new hat.  

The two of them were approaching the precincts of St. Paul’s and the shops surrounding it, when Meg laid a hand on Nick’s arm. “Bide a moment. There is some pressing business that I needs must attend to before indulging myself. You would be doing me a great favor if you could attend upon me and lend me your looming presence.”

He didn’t hesitate. “But, of course. Lead the way and I will be proud to stand as your strong right arm.”

Her answering grin promised all sorts of erotic possibilities. “My champion.”

This near to St. Paul’s and Paternoster Row with all its bookshops and printers, the guild hall of the Printers and Stationers had pride of place. Meg led him towards the imposing building, which looked like it might have begun as some sort of religious hall. “The printers have let us use one of their meeting rooms for this business.”

“Who are you meeting with?”

“Some gentlemen who share my profession.” Her tone was light as she walked through the main doors of the Guild Hall. There clearly wasn’t any guild event scheduled for today, but the place was busy, nonetheless, with clerks and petitioners and men of business. “We decided that this would work nicely as neutral ground.”

“I would imagine that the Printers charged you a pretty penny for the privilege.”

“Not in the slightest. Not after it came to my attention that their chief clerk likes to frequent one of the molly houses where he enjoys dressing as a woman and being fucked up the arse.”

“I can see where that would have affected the price.” They walked down a hallway and when they came to a door, Nick put away his grin and his tone became warning. “I am your champion, as you said, Meg, but you should know I’m not a well armed one at the moment.”

Meg shook her head. “It is of no moment, my dear. Your looming presence and warning glower will be all that is required to keep them in their place.”

And this was where the future Nick shook his remembering head at the prideful stupidity of past Nick and how he felt so strong and fierce as he followed Meg into the room.

It was a small room, barely enough space for the table and four chairs clustered around. Apparently Meg’s power over the clerk only went so far. There were no windows; tallow candles gave off light. The smell of the candles mixed with the smell of the two men in the room; sweat and impatience.

The skinny one with the beard and worn finery a size too big for him spoke first. “About fucking time, Meg. You called this meet, the least you could do is show up on time.” He looked at the other man, the taller one with a broken nose and killer’s eyes. “We were just about to leave, were we not, Rafe?”

“Aye, that’s the truth, John.” Rafe was bored. “I don’t even know why I decided to accept your invitation, Meg.”

Meg sat down across from the two men. Nick remained standing behind her and put on his best don’t fuck with me glower and rested his hand next to his dagger. “You’re here because we three run gangs that are successful and growing. Before long, we’re going to be butting heads over turf, and that does no one any good.” Meg folded her hands in front of herself and looked directly at both men. “You both know this to be true. And that is why I thought it would be best for us to meet, before events take an unfortunate turn.”

John leaned back in his chair. “So we butt heads. The best gang wins. That’s the way it’s always been. I see no reason to change things now.”

Rafe’s tone was still disinterested. “If you’re so worried about it coming to blows, Meg, why don’t you just surrender now?” A light came into his eyes and he leered at Meg. “I’m sure that me or John could find a position for you in our gangs.”

Meg’s skin was fair but no blush showed at all as she looked at the two men. “It’s good that you mentioned surrender, Rafe. For that is what I was about to suggest.”

“What? You’re going to surrender to us?” John’s face was a picture of surprise. “Shit, I knew that a woman has no place in our business. Too weak in muscle and spirit. I’ve always said so.”

“No, I’m afraid that you misunderstand. This meeting is to give the two of you the chance to surrender to me.”

The moment froze. John and Rafe froze. Nick froze. And then the moment broke. John laughed so hard that he bent forward and his head almost touched the table top. Rafe, on the other hand, showed anger in his face. His knuckles turning white where they gripped the edge of the table, he levered himself upward. “I knew this was a fucking waste of time.” He thumped around the table, towards the door. “I’ll tell you this for nothing, you bitch-cunt. I see you or any of yours again, I’ll fucking cut you and drop you in the river.”

Meg rose out of her chair to stand in his way, one hand on her waist and the other moving towards the small of her back.

With a teeth baring grimace, Rafe sent a heavy hand to her face.

Nick made to move forward, past Meg, towards Rafe.

And then everything happened very quickly.

Meg drew her cleaver from underneath the back of her corset. It flashed through the air. Blood painted the wall and ceiling. Rafe began to bellow in shock and disbelief. Meg stepped in close and stopped his noise with a single blow of her cleaver to his neck. More blood. This time, on the floor, as Rafe fell. Crash of chair as John leapt to his feet, blade in his fist, anger and incomprehension warring on his face. Another flash of silver. The sound of axe in wood. Meg’s cleaver buried itself in between John’s eyes.

Everything slowed back to normal. Nick stood there, rooted. The smell of blood and shit so strong in that small room that he could taste it. His heart pounded.

He watched Meg. She pulled a bodkin masquerading as a hair pin from her braid and stabbed Rafe through the ear, stopping his twitches and gurgles. Holding up her dress with her free hand and stepping delicately to avoid the puddling blood, she walked over to John. Her bodkin dipped again and then was wiped clean and restored to her braid. She wrenched her cleaver free with a splintering sound. Wiped clean on John’s doublet, it was hidden again, under her corset.

When she turned, Nick got his first clear glimpse of her face, and realized what the feeling was in the pit of his stomach. Fear. He impotently clutched the hilt of his dagger, still sheathed at his belt.

Meg was smiling with satisfaction, the smile of a worker with a job well finished. A strand of black hair had come undone from her braid and swung down next to one blue eye. Her eyes flashed with liveliness, in fact her entire body seemed to be shivering with liveliness, like a fine bred hound at the chase. She tucked the errant hair back up into her braid. “Well, that’s done. Went a bit easier than expected. Rafe had a completely unwarranted reputation as a killer.”

Nick couldn’t fathom what he was seeing. A woman killing like that and showing as little remorse as some of the nastiest life-takers in his acquaintance. A demon? Mayhap a witch? His skin crawled and his tongue was a log in his dry mouth.

Meg looked at him in askance. “What’s the matter with you? I know you’ve seen death before, you’re no whey faced virgin when it comes to murder.” Then her face cleared and she rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Oh, for the love of Christ. Not this. Why is it that every man I know has had the same reaction? I thought you knew me better, love. Yes. I killed them. Yes. It was easy. Yes. I’ve done it before. Yes. I’ll do it again.” She straightened her hat and then stood there, among the dead men, hands resting on her hips.

Nick wet his lips and found his voice. “But why?” At the sound of his voice, he inwardly winced. Such wounded bewilderment. He began to be ashamed of himself.

By the look on her face, Meg was feeling much the same about him. “Why? You great pillock, so I could take over their gangs, that’s why! Did you think it was a whim? That my monthlies had so enraged me that I must equalize my humors with a bit of murder?”

Nick held out a placating hand. “No, no, you’re completely right, my love. I was just surprised by the speed of it all, quite scattered my wits to all four quarters.” He offered his arm to her. “Shall we take our leave, then? It seems that your business is quite concluded here.”

Her face softened and she stepped over Rafe to take his arm. “Why, thank you. A capital idea.”

“If I may make so bold…” Nick gestured to the side of his face. “You have a bit of… a small splash…”

She licked a finger and rubbed the indicated area on her face and then turned to him. “All better?”

He nodded. “All better.” And they left the room.

Nick blinked the past away. “You look good, Meg.” In the buffeting of memories, that was all he could think of to say, standing in the doorway like a lump. But she did look good. The clothes were red, that hadn’t changed, but they were of a much finer fabric and were probably made for her, no more hemming and adjusting clothes bought at the used shops. Her face was still unlined and unpoxed. Her hair was still the solid sable of a raven’s wing.

She shook her head. “And you look like shit, Nick. Are we going to stand out here in the hallway and exchange pleasantries?”

“No, of course not.” He shook his head and stood aside. “I apologize. The memories have made me stupid.”

Meg entered alone. Ollie stood guard outside as Nick closed the door.

She had never been one to waste time with pleasantries. “Because of what we had in the past, Nick, I’m going to do you a favor and not lie to you. It wasn’t just your message that brought me here. I know the trouble that you’re in and my people have been on the look out for you.” She took in the room with a swift glance. “Where’s the cove who came to London with you?”

“He’s out on his own business, which I trust not at all.”

“All the better.” She turned to him, looked him straight in the eyes for the first time. “We need to get you out of here.”

He made to move towards her. “Meg, I’m -”

She stopped him with an outstretched palm. “Hush. None of that now. We haven’t the time for it. You’ve wandered onto the killing floor and I needs must get you off of it before the hammer comes down.” She made for the door. “Follow me.”

Just as the changing direction of whitecaps on the waves warned him of weather approaching, her words and actions brought him the same sense of warning. He stood firm, didn’t follow her. “Just what are you saying, Meg? How much of my business do you know?”

“A great deal. More than you would expect. But enough of this. I can tell you more as we walk.”

It was with a sense of foreboding that Nick followed her out the door and into the hallway. Ollie preceded them down the stairs. Nick stared at the back of Meg’s neck and made sure that he knew where all his blades were. “A word in your delicate shell-like, Meg. I’m not the same man you knew all those years ago. My time on the Continent has changed me.”

Her steps paused not. “Is that supposed to be some sort of warning, Nick? I could say the same about myself.”

“Not a warning. Just a statement of fact. And I need no warning about you, Meg. I left all my illusions in that little room at the Printers Guild House.”

At that, her steps did pause for a heartbeat and her head cocked to one side in thought. “What room? Oh, that! Christ on the Cross, Nick, I’d completely forgotten about that. Many years, many bodies in the past.”

They walked out through the common room, the patrons still quiet and carefully only looking at the table tops and the floor. Ollie gestured and two runnagates carrying hefty staves peeled themselves off the walls and went out the door first. Ollie ducked his head out, took in the scene, then looked back at Meg and nodded.

Nick held the door open for Meg and hoped that his gesture for her to proceed him was on the right side of mocking. It was full dark but not too late and the streets of London weren’t as crowded as during the day, but there were still a good number of people out. Apprentices with the evening free, husbands and wives returning from an evening service at the church around the corner whose bell was just ringing, strolling vendors, men heading to or from an evening’s entertainment, all of these people kept the streets busy. Ollie kept a bully boy up front and one in the back while walking just in front of Nick and Meg, but far enough away to give himself a reasonable excuse for not hearing the words passing between them.

“So, where are you taking me, Meg?”

“Not taking you, just keeping you safe. We need to get back onto my turf; I couldn’t bring too many of my mob here, onto Pickering’s patch.”

“Fine. Then who are you keeping me safe from?”

“I would think that you would know better than I.”

Nick let some of his frustration show. “Fuck, Meg, you’re not a gypsy fortuneteller and I’m not in the mood to play the question game! How much do you know?”

She left him off the hook. “Bob Poley works for me now. With Walsingham dead -”

“He what? Bob Poley? Works for you? Since when?”

An upraised hand forestalled any more questions. “With Walsingham dead, he needed a new patron and so I made my approach. I figured that his need would be a fine opportunity for me to get closer to Westminster. I figured correctly, for it took only a small amount of persuading on my part. I’d judge him not entirely broken to the harness but he’s been useful already. So he asked me to help him out with an intelligencer on the run. Truth be told, I came close to shitting myself when he said your name. Is there anyone else I should be looking out for?”  

“That one who was with me, yes, I don’t trust him an inch. He says he’s working for Poley as well, but I know full well he’s got some other game running.” Nick spat. “And then there’s an Englishman, well dressed, poncy a bit, with a French manservant who looks like his ancestors fucked dogs. A mangy bastard but a full killer nonetheless. They were on my trail in the Netherlands and it’s not impossible that they followed me here.”

Meg called out to Ollie who dropped back to be at her side. She passed the description of Helmsley and Jean on to him, told him to make sure the rest of the boys knew.   

Nick felt tight muscles loosen for the first time in a long long time. It was almost over. His lightness of spirit reflected in his voice. “So, do you still run your thieves and beggars out of that warehouse down by Three Cranes?”

She smiled in fond memory. “Aye. Though we’re getting too many for that place. I’ve been thinking that I’ll have -”

A man stepped out of a group of passing roisterers and slid his dagger into the throat of Meg’s bully boy walking in the front.

Before the bully boy’s body hit the ground, Ollie was in close and killed the attacker with a blade through the eye.

The people on the street scattered, yelling and screaming, and revealed several more muscled thugs coming towards them from an alley. Ollie moved towards them, blades in both hands.

There was a muffled yell from behind. Nick spun and saw the rear guard go down from a blow to the back of the head. The loose way he hit the dirt, Nick figured he’d never see the man get up again.

Behind the cosher was a well dressed man. When Nick saw who was standing with the well dressed man, he realized that this wasn’t some affray of Meg’s that he’d found himself in the middle of.

Rage spilled forth. “You didn’t bring enough fucking men, Dick!”

Helmsley didn’t seem worried. “Oh, I think I brought just the right number.”

Nick spun to grab Meg and get the hell out of there. He had no doubt that Helmsley hadn’t counted on Ollie the Straight. What he saw made him realize that maybe Helmsley had.

True to expectations, Ollie had carved his way through the bravos like a knife through butter. Bodies were strewn about and blood spilled through the dust in rills and puddles. All but one of the attackers were down. Unfortunately, the last one was Helmsley’s man, Jean, who was proving to be more than a match for Ollie. Just as Nick was preparing himself to move forward to help Ollie, Jean, wielding some sort of big fucking knife, sliced up Ollie so bad he dropped his main blade. Then he buried his knife into Ollie’s side. Ollie collapsed.

Nick caught Meg’s hand as it went to the small of her back. He pulled her close and hissed into her ear. “Too many of them. Wait for a better moment.”

Though it made the skin on the back of neck crawl, he turned his back on Jean and looked at Helmsley and his companion.

“Now what?”

“Now you’re -”

Helmsley was interrupted by the other man “Now you taste the fruits of your betrayal, you vile heretic!” The bastard was taking the time to declaim. “Now you will know just how pointless it is to resist the power of the one True Church!”

Nick could see the man’s remaining bravos start to look around nervously for the provosts. This had been an exceptionally bloody piece of business right out in the open and the authorities wouldn’t be long in coming. The longer they stayed here listening to this piece of cracked Bedlam trash, the better his chances were. “Betrayal? Who is it that you think I’ve betrayed?”

“You know full -”

This time, it was Helmsley who interrupted the other man. “This can wait, Denby. We’ve got to get them off the street.” His gaze shifted to over Nick’s shoulder, ignoring the stifled rage in Denby’s face. “Jean. Search Nick. Take extra care, he has the habit of concealing daggers on his person.”

Unfortunately, Jean was both quick and thorough. He found all of Nick’s weapons. The only glimmer of hope was that he didn’t touch Meg but instead looked inquiringly at Helmsley.

He shook his head.  “Bring her along. No need for any more killing.”

This brought about another apoplectic outburst from Denby. “She’s just a whore, some damned sinner who would be better off dead.”

Fortunately Meg’s whisper went unheard by all except for Nick. “You’ll wish you’d killed me afore I’m done, you little shit.” Her next words were meant for all their ears and clotted with fearful sobs. “Please please please don’t kill me. I don’t know nothing. Oh, please be merciful. I’m begging.” She even made to fall to her knees. Jean gripped her arm and held her upright.

Helmsley shook his head. “No time. Please, I beg of you, Master Denby, follow my lead in this, for I am experienced in such matters.”

Denby looked very dissatisfied, the very picture of a boy told to stop pulling the wings off flies. “Oh. very well. Then let us go to our place of refuge with all possible haste.” He headed back down a nearby alley.

Helmsley gestured to the bravos and followed Denby. Two of them each grabbed one of Nick’s arms and hustled him along in Denby’s wake, with Jean herding Meg along close behind them.

Nothing to be done now. But watch for the slightest chance and take it. Fuck. I think my stomach wound is starting to go bad again.

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