(Broken Instrument) CHAPTER 31: POLEY: FIND THEM!

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At nightfall each householder was supposed to hang up a lantern for the benefit of the passers-by; but even when this ordinance was strictly observed these very primitive affairs, with their thick, discoloured horn panes and their guttering candles, did little to reveal either the condition of the path underfoot or the lurking assailant, crouching in the deep shadow, and as willing to cut a throat as a purse.

Elizabethan Life in Town and Country

St. Clare Byrne


Poley was standing so close to Ollie that he could smell the blood dripping from him. “Where’d this happen?”

“Rafe Peckingham’s inn on Cateaten, just by Moorgate.” Ollie swayed a bit. “We’d picked up your man and were out on the street, heading here, when they jumped us. Meg had gotten your note and figured this was the best place to bring him.”

Poley’s mind began to move very fast. Very fast indeed. It was going to be resolved one way or another this very night. He spent not a second despairing on how close he’d gotten to resolving this.

Ralph got a shoulder under Ollie’s arm and walked him to a nearby empty table. He got Ollie laid down and began to pull his shirt aside to see how bad the damage was. Kate was there at his side with rags and water.

Ollie was being taken care of, wouldn’t die soon. The next action was clear. In a few swift strides, dodging the people standing around gaping, Poley was in front of Barnstable. There was a worried look on his face and he opened his mouth to spout something worthless and timewasting. Poley forestalled him with an upraised palm. “The moment’s on us, Art, and it’s lying there bleeding on that table. What’s it going to be? Let some traitorous bastards do Her Majesty grave harm or be a hero? Decide now. In or out?” Poley kept his gaze locked on Barnstable’s, gave him nowhere to turn. He knew that the decision was going to go his way before any words were spoken, when Barnstable closed his eyes for a second.

Barnstable opened his eyes, drained his mug, returned Poley’s gaze. “In. What do you need?”

“Get back to the Tower as fast as you’re able. Get a group of Warders together. No uniforms, but armed. I’ll meet you at the Tower Gate. We’ll sweep west up along Thames Street.”

“How will you know where to look?”

“Please take no offense, Art, but the longer you stand around asking questions, the more chance there is of failure. As fast as you can, Art, and I’ll meet you at the Tower Gate.”

Barnstable nodded and with no further questions, quickly left the alehouse.  

Poley went back to the table where Ollie was laying. The cut along his ribs was bloody but not serious. He had a cut on one arm and broken fingers on the other. The stab wound low on his belly was the worst. Poley looked at Ralph who was standing back to let Kate wrap bandages around the rib cut. “How bad is he?”

“He’s not going to be dancing a fucking volta anytime soon, I’ll tell you that. But I sniffed hard at the belly wound and smelled no shit. So he’s a luckier bastard than he deserves to be.”

“We’re all luckier than we deserve to be.” Poley put his hand on Ralph’s arm and looked close at him. “It all happens tonight, my friend, and I won’t be able to do it without you. I’m going to need all your strength and bastard cunning. Can I count on you?” He didn’t like the calculating gleam that flashed in Ralph’s eyes before the big man nodded, but he didn’t let it worry him. That would be a problem for another time. “Good man!” He released Ralph’s arm and turned to Kate. “Get some broth and spirits. We need to get Ollie on his feet as quick as can.”

Kate gathered up the bandages and bloody rags. “I’ll go see what’s on the hob.”

Poley looked at Ollie. His color was bad but his eyes were alert and the bandages weren’t seeping blood. “We two need to work together. We both want these fuckers who took our people. I’ve just arranged for a heavy mob from the Tower. Can you get to your people and have them start looking? I’m fair certain those that took Meg are still inside the walls. They’ve probably have gone to ground somewhere.”

Ollie’s voice was low but matter of fact. “They’re dead. Still walking around but dead. I get up off this table, there’s no place in London safe for them. No hole deep enough. They’ve taken the Queen. We’ll burn this fucking city to the ground if we have to.”

Kate came up with a bowl and a cup on a tray. “Here, get some of this down you.” She gave him the cup and then supported his head as he took the spirits and then the broth in rapid sips.

It was all coming together. Poley made his thoughts slow down and calmed his impatience. To move too fast at this juncture would mean something important would be overlooked and all would fail. “Ralph, you go with him. I’ll be coming west along Thames Street with Barnstable’s men. Send messengers there to meet me when you have any information.”

“I’ll do that. I have some ideas of my own where they might have gone. Remember, we’re up against Denby. And he’s a nob from out in Sheepfuckershire. He doesn’t know London. I’ll check the obvious places first. Probably some liberty, thinking he’s so fucking clever.”

“Good. Those are good ideas, Ralph. Run with them, see where they take you, let me know.” Poley listened to Ralph with half an ear. His ideas were good, but Poley’s mind was already concentrating on the next steps. He wanted Ollie on his feet and off to get the rest of Meg’s mob out on the streets before he left to meet up with Barnstable.

Soon, but not soon enough for Poley’s burning impatience, Ollie drained off the last of the broth and handed both bowl and mug back to Kate with muttered thanks. He very slowly and carefully eased himself up to a sitting position on the table. Ralph gave him a spare doublet and he buttoned it up over his bandages with fingers that shook very little. His color was good, not very pale, and his eyes were alive with determination. With Ralph standing close to give a hand if needed, Ollie eased to his feet and stood steady. “Doesn’t matter where they’ve gone to ground. Me and the boys will find them. Have your heavy mob ready, Poley.” He looked at Ralph. “Give me a blade, big man.” He took the offered dagger and stuck it at the small of his back. “We’re off.”

With Ralph close behind, he made for the door. Poley watched, the pieces of his plans in motion.

Ollie dropped dead in the doorway. Gave one gasp and collapsed like an unstrung puppet.

Ralph dropped to one knee by the body and turned him over. Even from middle of the room, Poley could see the blood flowing from the belly wound. In his mind’s eye, Poley saw the web of his plans start to collapse. He frantically began patching. “Ralph! Leave him! You go to Meg’s people, get them on the chase, tell them what’s happened, promise them anything.” He headed to the door. “Kate! Take care of the body!” He stopped by Ralph, stood aside to avoid the spreading pool of blood. “Meet me on Thames Street with news.”

Ralph nodded, rose, and left. Kate stopped Ralph just before he exited. “You bring her back safe, Ralph, you hear me? Bring her back safe!” Poley heard what Kate said, but didn’t pay heed, his mind too busy trying to make plans.

Just as Poley reached the door, he stopped short, almost tripped over his own feet. Then he turned to the forgotten man. The man who wasn’t part of the circle of people clustered around Ollie’s body, all busily flapping their gums at each other, mindless as geese at a fair. No, the forgotten man was sitting at a far table, quiet, blending in, busy eyes not missing a thing. Poley dodged around a man who was telling his neighbor, with a great waving of arms, that the watch should be called immediately. A few swift paces took him to the man’s table. Moody raised his eyebrows inquiringly. “You’re coming with me, Michael.”

A measured sip of ale. “Am I?”

“You are. I’m not letting you out of my sight and you undoubtedly know things that will be helpful tonight. So get off your ass and come with me.”

“And if I decide that there are better things that might occupy my time this night? I don’t really see how you’re going to force me to come along with you, as your dog has already left.”

It had been a very long day, with at least one attempt on his life, and it looked like there were many more hours in front of him. Poley’s temper slipped its leash. With one hand he reached across the table, grabbed Moody by the front of his doublet, pulled him close. His other hand held his dagger right at Moody’s eye. “You give me any more shit, I’ll fucking drop you right next to Ollie.”

Moody slanted his eyes down to focus on the blade. “A compelling argument. Do I have time to finish my ale?”

Poley shoved him back in his chair, then poured his ale out on the floor. “No. Now move your ass.”

Poley headed towards Aldgate. His pace soon set his heart hammering in his ribs and his breath to tasting like metal in the back of his throat. He barely noticed. The streets were dark, fitfully illuminated by the moon ducking from out behind clouds. On some of the houses, flickering candles or lamps edged closed shutters. He splashed through a puddle of something, noisome liquid coating his hose from the knees down. He barely slowed. He kept Moody beside him, yanking on his arm whenever his pace flagged. He knew that Moody would bolt at the first sign of inattention.

I’ll get Barnstable and his men. Ralph will convince Meg’s mob to start looking for her. His point about Denby’s lack of knowledge is a good one. Can I contact someone at the Customs House to find out if there are any suspicious ships set to sail on the morning tide? They’ll have Nick clapped in some hold and heading out to sea first thing. Some place close to the river, then? Below the Bridge? Can’t risk moving him far in the day light.

The London Wall bulked large in the dark and Poley didn’t go through it, but turned right, down Hounds to the Tower Gate. He wasn’t running anymore. A stitch in his side made its presence strongly known and he slowed to his fastest walk. A part of him was amazed at the difference night made on getting around London. During the day, he’d be dodging carts and people and animals, never achieving more than a brisk walk, if he was lucky. Of course, during the day, he wasn’t at as serious risk of being robbed.

Even though he was sparing no thoughts to being robbed, so much more was roiling his brain, Poley was glad to see the torches above the Tower Gate, He forced himself into a trot. The Yeoman watching him from the circle of light made no move towards Poley, just stood there with his thumbs tucked into his belt.

Poley wasted no time with greetings. “Where’s Barnstable? Is he getting the rest of the men? How many has he gathered?”

The Yeoman took the time to clear his throat and spit. “Lieutenant,” The emphasis was heavy. ”Lieutenant Barnstable said for me to tell you this. There’ll be no men. He said, you come into the Tower Liberty and you won’t leave any time soon. And he said something else.” He spat again and considered for a moment, his jaws working in thought. “He said, he probably won’t tell the Privy Council what you’re up to.”

Poley stood there. He heard the torches crackle, the Yeoman breathing snot-clotted through his nose. His mind was blank. He felt stunned yet awake, all his plans in ruins.

The Yeoman stared at him blank faced. “And now something from me personal. Piss off out of here.” He took a step towards Poley. “Get.”

Poley turned on his heel and walked away. The impact of his feet on the road felt very far away. Operating on instinct while his mind tried to come to grips with the enormity of the disaster, he kept to Thames Street. He tried to come up with alternative plans for finding Nick and taking down Denby but nothing occurred.

It was the padsman’s overeagerness that gave Poley his warning. The club was swung too early and Poley caught a glimpse of it. He got his left arm up in time and he felt the blow all the way down to the bottom of his spine. His instinctive grab at the club proved that his arm wasn’t broken. The thought of being brought down by an inept mugging fanned the embers of his anger into incandescent rage. He hauled on the club with all his strength and the lurker slammed right into Poley’s waiting knee. The man bent double and released the club. Poley let loose with a stream of incoherent obscenities and didn’t stop battering the crumpled form until the club broke in his hands. He cast the pieces onto the body and tried to get his breath back.

He glared at Moody. “Your help was appreciated and noted.”

Moody shrugged. “You seemed to have not needed it. And now what? Without your Tower help and with your footpads scattered, do you have a chance to catch Denby before your agent’s gone?”

The fog had lifted from his mind and Poley was filled again with determination. “It’s not over yet. Now, keep up!” He began to run down Thames Street.

The cranes on the river’s edge by the Customs House were silent, no rumbling screech. The ships floating at anchor in the Pool were dark shapes except for lanterns hanging watch on their bows. The sounds of his racing footsteps echoed in counterpoint to the lapping of the Thames against the wharves at Billingsgate.

He paused when he came upon the Bridge. Stood there in the middle of the street, the crossroads of Thames and New Fish Streets, trying to get his breath back, looking up ahead, hoping to catch sight of Ralph. There was no sign of the big man. Poley started running again.

It was late enough that even the whores of Bush Lane had gone home for the night, so it wasn’t the usual importuning voice that came out of the shadows. “Bob! Hold up!”

Poley staggered to a stop and turned to stare at Ralph coming towards him. The moon broke free of the clouds and he got a good look at the big man’s face. He tried to stave off the inevitable bad news with a feeble jest. “Ralph, I had no idea that you were so hurting for coin that you’ve been reduced to whoring.”

Ralph just shook his head. “Those fuckers. With Meg taken and Ollie dead, all they can think of is who’s going to be the next leader of the gang. Horsehead Charlie practically started drooling at the thought and Smashmouth Jane immediately began saying that it should be another queen. When that mollyboy Jimmy said that there was no better queen than he, I got the fuck out of there before I started killing people.” He looked down Thames Street towards the Tower. “The Yeomen following you?”

Poley kept his words swift, allowing no time for wasted recriminations. “Been cast adrift also. No help from the Tower. Just you and I. And that’ll be more than enough.” He began to pace, to keep his legs from cramping. His body was telling him in no uncertain terms that his recent bout of running had been a terrible idea. “Been thinking. You were right. Denby’s a Westminster clerk. A bit of knowledge of London but he won’t know the true bolt holes. One thought I had is that he might go to the most recent place he’s heard of because that would be freshest in his mind.”

Ralph nodded. “Go on. What do you think that would be?”     

“I heard about this just a few weeks past when I went up to Westminster and the Privy Council just after Sir Francis died. There was a crew of smugglers who were getting seized Catholic goods and religious shit out of the country and using an old mansion as a storage space. The Privy Council wanted to know if these smugglers were bringing priests in as they were taking goods out. Denby could have noted the mansion.”

“Sounds like the very place. Where is it?”

“One of those decaying mansions on the riverside between Bridewell and Water Lane, just outside the walls.”

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