…the very different approach of another privy councillor who sponsored a spy network, the still youthful earl of Essex. Quite simply, Essex was enthusiastic about the use and importance of spies, and spent heavily in allowing his close friends the Bacon brothers, in particular, to build up a network for him in the early fifteen-nineties.
An Elizabethan Spy Who Came in from the Cold: the Return of Anthony Standen to England in 1593
“And that’s how I gained the Queen’s favor. And it was hard earned, I tell you, for winkling that Italian poisoner out of his hole was no easy task! The Queen gave me her hand to kiss and said that there was none braver.”
Molly giggled and squeezed his cock. “Why, Bob Poley, I should be honored then, that the same lips that kissed Good Bess’s hand were not ten minutes ago kissing my bubbies.”
“Oh, yes. Powerful honored, I should think.”
The main room of The Ram and Daggers was packed with men sitting at their mid day meal, making the room loud and smoky. It had all the signs of a London Ordinary: scattering of tables in the middle of the main large room, booths providing a modicum of privacy lining the walls, servers busy bringing food and drink to the tables, clearing away dirty dishes, filling empty cups, a bustling hubbub of noise. But there was one way in which the Ram differed from other London ordinaries, and that was in the attire of the servers. They were all women, young pretty ones, and their bodices were low cut. So low cut that their breasts were exposed entire. That accounted for how happy the patrons were to pay double for food that could be found cheaper elsewhere.
Poley was in his element. He had his back to a wall and a woman on his lap. To be sure, he had troubles enough to kill a stoat. He was masterless, flat-pursed, and some foul fucker was undoing all his hard work in the Low Countries.
But for all that, at this moment he had the diverting presence of Molly on his lap and the pleasant memory of their recent tumble made him easy in his bones like a cat in the sun. Despite his troubles he was not unduly worried. He had triumphed over worse. At least he was not in prison and free to confound his enemies and increase his renown. And so while to the uneducated eye, he appeared to be merely whoring around with not a care in the world, he was at the Ram with a purpose beyond the merely carnal.
He kept an eye on the door and finally saw the man he was waiting for. Arthur Gregory, a small man, balding and prim, dressed in neat brown. He had the steadiest hands Poley had ever seen, which he had to admit, was a trait to be desired in the man who was given the task by Walsingham to lift the seals on any important letters and then lay them back down again with no sign of any tampering.
Gregory looked around and spotted Poley. He made his way to Poley’s booth, his eyes ever moving from one bosom to another. By the time he got to Poley, his color was uncommonly high. He cleared his throat. “Bob.” His gaze slid from Poley to Molly, never reaching higher than her chin.
“Art.” Poley shifted Molly off his lap. “My love, I would be most appreciative if you would go and fetch us some ale and something from the kitchen.” He gestured to Gregory. “Please, take a seat. The ale here is uncommonly fine and the food not bad.”
“Yes, I truly found it so on the times that Thomas and I have met here.”
“Thomas? Thomas Phellipes?“
“Why, yes, none other. There were quite a few times when he was puzzled by some piece of business and sought my counsel. We would oft times meet here.” Gregory looked up at Molly as she laid two tankards of ale on the table. “Thank you.” He addressed her tits.
Poley picked up his tankard and hid his irritation in its depths. Now I KNOW you’re lying, Art Gregory. That smug bastard Phellipes wouldn’t ask your advice even if you held a pistol to his head. And given the way that your eyes are starting out of your head at the wares on display, you’ve never been here before. He put his beer on the table and leaned back.
“Ah, now that you mention it, he did tell me of that when we met at Sir Francis’ funeral.”
“You were there?”
“In memory of the service that I had done for both him and his daughter’s household, I was invited. It was a powerfully solemn ceremony, in the Puritan tradition.”
They toasted to the memory of Sir Francis. The look in Gregory’s eye showed that he believed Poley’s story as much as Poley believed his. Then the food was delivered to them and they set to. Molly winked at Poley from behind Gregory’s head and then went off to tend to another customer.
Poley finished his piece of bread and reached for his ale. “So what do you hear regarding the future of our service? Who on the Privy Council is going to take over from Sir Francis?”
Gregory preened a bit with self-satisfaction. “Well, there might be a few pieces of knowledge that I’ve picked up in my councils with them that know.”
Poley concentrated on his food to hide his reaction. You don’t have to like the baker to buy his bread. The basic rule of his tradecraft but sometimes damn hard to follow, especially when approaching the baker cap in hand and the baker being an officious smug prick. He repeated the refrain to himself over and over until he was able to master himself.
“I’m not surprised that someone of your worth has come to the attention of those who matter.” He let the insincerity of his flattery peek forth for the barest instance and inwardly grinned to see Gregory color a bit.
“Here’s what I know. It looks like there are two on the Privy Council who are interested in continuing Sir Francis’ business: Burghley and Essex. Burghley because he feels that anything having to do with overseas affairs is his bailiwick since he’s Lord Secretary and Essex because he sees it as a way to the Queen’s favor. And, from what I’ve heard, because he’s genuinely interested in it. He likes knowing the secrets.”
“Which will get it, do you think?”
“Burghley. After all, who else? He’s been at the Queen’s side since the beginning, all power that matters flows into his hands one way or the other eventually.”
“But I’ve heard he’s awfully stingy with the purse. And none of us will be able to do our jobs without gold.”
“Aye.” Gregory looked worried for a moment. “I’ve heard that as well. And you’re right. How would we be able to cozen secrets without the inducement that gold offers?”
We? Cozen? Art, you’re a fucking clerk! You’ve never worked in the field. None of those thoughts showed in Poley’s voice. “You seem to have the right of it, Art. I knew it was a good thing, inviting you here. I’m lucky that you had the time to meet with me.”
What a waste of time. The stupid turd knows nothing.
Gregory’s next words were a jolt. “Actually, I’m surprised that you have the time to meet with me, Bob, given how busy you must be right now.”
“No, not really. Pretty much at loose ends, these days. Visiting my favorite boozing kens, waiting to see who at Court might be interested in my services. Why do you think I would be busy?”
Gregory chuckled. “Oh, you’re a smooth cove, all right, Bob Poley, but it’s no use protesting. There’s few that don’t know about you and the Low Countries.”
Breathing slow and even, Poley kept a quizzical look on his face. Excitement sparked in his belly. He could feel his fingertips tingle. He knew these feelings of old. His instincts were telling him that he had grasped the first thread and that if he followed it, carefully, fully intent, he would find what he was seeking. “Among us in our business, my dealings in the Low Countries are no real secret. But I get the feeling that’s not what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, please, no need to be so coy.” A spark of vindictive pleasure crept into Gregory’s eyes. “Everyone knows that your network in the Low Countries has been rumbled with all killed.”
“I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about. I have no network in the Low Countries. I talk to some merchants occasionally, but that is all. In the interests of keeping my name clean, though, when you say everyone knows, who do you mean by everyone? Who told you this lie?”
Gregory put on a considering face. He over acts any more, I’m going to suggest he try to find work with Burbage at his theatre. “You know, I’m not precisely certain. Maybe it was the Chancery clerk I spoke to the other day when I was there inquiring about a matter. Or maybe it was old Wat, you know, him that was Sir Francis’ stableman here in the City.”
“Now you’re just fucking with me. Who told you?”
“If it’s not true, why should you care?”
“Because,” He kept his voice even and non-threatening with a supreme effort. “if someone’s besmirching my name and my talents, then I need to deal with them and put a stop to it. So tell me who.”
Perhaps his voice hadn’t been as non-threatening as he had thought. Gregory leaned back a bit in his chair and raised a placating hand. “Peace, Bob, peace. I’ll tell you. It was Rafe Caxton.”
“Who?” Poley’s bewilderment was genuine as he found himself unable to bring to mind the face that matched that name.
“Rafe Caxton. Like I said, a Chancery clerk. He’s one of the army of those who file and retrieve for the Privy Council.”
“Wait. Hold a minute. Fat man? A generation out of Cornwall?”
“Aye, that’s the man.”
“What? That wanker? And you believed him?”
“He did seem to know what he was talking about, Bob.”
“Well, of course he seemed to know what he was talking about! He tells everyone that he went to Cambridge and studied with the great and mighty there. Putting forth a believable line of bullshit is what he’s been doing all his life. But now, tell me all he said. I need to know for it touches directly on my personal honor.”
Gregory shrugged a bit. “I recall not much more than what I’ve said. You were running a network in the Low Countries and the Spanish rolled it up entire. All your men either dead or captured.” He furrowed his brow for a moment. “He did mention Antwerp and Brussels in particular. But then he would, wouldn’t he, if lying? The two largest cities, of course there are English spies there.”
“There, you see? You have the truth of it.” Poley’s confident tone hid his inner excitement. How does Caxton know so much? He’s not the one behind my defeats, doesn’t fit Liam’s description. Have to question Caxton as soon as possible.
Gregory finished his beer and leaned back, considered for a minute. “Here’s something I’ll give you for free. Guess who approached me not ten days ago?”
“All right, I’ll play. Who?”
Gregory took his time answering, brushed the crumbs from his front, fussed with his doublet, ignored a bare breasted woman carrying a tray of mugs, all signs that he was worried. And the name he dropped made Poley know he had good reason to be. “Oliver Streight.”
Poley froze and then leaned forward intently, kept his voice low with an effort. “Ollie the Straight? From Mad Meg?”
Gregory leaned forward to match Poley, his fingers knotted together on the table. “The very same. Came up to me outside St Paul’s, smooth as butter, doffed his hat, addressed me as Master Gregory. And asked me if I’d like a position seeing as how my previous employer, bless him – that’s what he said, Bob, bless him – had passed from this earth.”
“Did he say what kind of job they had in mind?”
“Nothing specific, just that someone with my skills could find a lucrative position with one such as his mistress.”
“Fuck me rigid. Not only does that crazy perverted bitch know that Sir Francis is dead but she also knows what you did for him. How in the name of the sodomized Pope would she know that?”
“I’ve no idea, Bob. Maybe Sir Francis used her and her people for jobs on occasion? But I really don’t give a toss how she knows. All I want to know is what I should do now.”
“That’s easy, Art. Find a position and find it soon. And make sure it’s with someone with enough clout to make Meg swerve off. Crookback Cecil or that mollyboy Bacon are both likely choices.”
Gregory stared glumly at the tabletop. “Fuck. I guess you’ve the right of it. But it does make my piss run cold to know that I’ve come to the attention of Mad Meg.”
Seated as he was with his back to wall, Poley had a good view, deliberately so, of everyone entering and leaving the tavern. A big shape caught his eye, entering with the sunlight behind him. He nodded minutely to Ralph and the man nodded back and then ducked back outside.
Poley stood up and scattered some coins on the table, making free with them to hide that they came from a diminishing supply. If Gregory had gotten in the habit of running his mouth, better that the news be that Bob Poley was flush with coin and not desperate. “I’m off. Art, thank you for meeting me and passing on the news. I’ll be sure to inform you if I hear of anything that might be to your benefit. And good luck with the Mad Meg affair. I hope you get out from under that cunt’s eyes soon enough.”
Gregory barely looked up, lost as he was in his worries.
Poley grinned at Molly and tipped his hat at her as he walked towards the door. She mimed a kiss at him and then turned to another customer. He left the Ram and Ralph fell into step next to him. “How now, Ralph?” Recent events had left him a good mood. Fucking Molly and the first bit of intelligence to lead him towards the enemy agent.
“Well enough. You?”
“Not bad. Not bad at all. I did as you suggested and put Moody into play. What a line of bullshit I had to lay in the ear of my contact in the Tower to get him out. Hopefully, he’s across the Channel and looking for Nick Applethorpe. Though there’s niggling voice in the back of my mind that tells me I might need to put a watcher on Moody.”
Ralph shrugged. “He’s a completely untrustworthy piece of shit. A watcher sounds like a good idea.”
They stood aside to let a coach carrying the Essex coat of arms go past. “But to have a watcher, I must have coin. That’s an ever pressing worry; but for another time. How goes your search?”
“I might have something. I did as you suggested and asked around where Liam was attacked. I found an old gran who saw the whole affray. She gave a fair description of the man who was bossing around the two bravos.”
“That’s a piece of good news to go along with what I’ve learned. I just had Art Gregory tell me of some clerk up in Whitehall who has been spreading word of my misfortunes. I mean to visit him and find out how he knows so much about that which he is supposed to know not. Your company up the river to Westminster would be greatly appreciated.”
Ralph shrugged. “I’m doing naught pressing this day. Though I would think that you would be able to put the frighteners on a poor clerk without my aid.”
They made their way towards the river. They walked down a street lined with small shops, mainly stationers, overflow from the main trade around St. Paul’s. At the end of the street, they reached the wide stone stairs that went down the bank and disappeared beneath the brown river water. Luck was with them and there were no other persons looking for passage on the Thames.
Poley stood on the step just above the water and yelled. “Oars! Oars!”
In response to Poley’s repeated cries, a wherryman rowed his craft to the stairs. He expertly brought it to a stop and looked up at Poley. “Where to?”
“Westminster. The Whitehall stairs.”
“Five? Well, I’ll wait for the next oarsman, since you’ve clearly just escaped from Bedlam.” He made to look around over the river, as if to get the attention of another wherryman.
The oarsman was unconvinced, his face set in a mask of unconcern. “It’s up against the current, powerful hard rowing. And two passengers, one really fucking big.”
Poley gestured at the waves lapping at the stairs. “But the tide’s coming in! Tuppence.”
He shrugged. “Makes so little difference, might as well not even be happening. But I’ll be generous for ‘tis St. Jude’s day, the patron of those in need. Three pence.”
“You’re next to being a pirate but I’ve got no choice.” Poley gingerly stepped into the boat and sat down on the cushioned bench. Ralph followed him and the boat rocked as he sat down across from Poley. The oarsman pushed off from the stairs and began to send them up the Thames with powerful strokes of his arms.
There weren’t any big ships on the river this side of the Bridge but a great number of other smaller craft moved over the river’s surface. Barges carrying goods from further inland, other wherries and passenger craft going across the river in either direction, a luxuriously bedecked boat trailing laughter and music from one of the noble houses lining the Thames going in the same direction as Poley, towards the royal palace at Westminster.
He observed and catalogued, but not with his full attention. Finally he looked at Ralph and gave voice to the thoughts rumbling around in his head. “How am I to get a position when it’s being spread all over town that I can’t handle my networks?” He gestured at the passing scenery. “Look at those mansions on the bank; Somerset, Russell, Durham. I’ll never see the inside of any of those if I don’t deal with this shit. And there’s Bedlam, like a rotten tooth in a beautiful smile. The footpads and thieves living there will be the only ones to welcome me.”
Ralph grinned at him. “Not to worry, Bob. You’ll fit right in. Be welcomed with open arms, no doubt.”
“Fuck you, you great lumpkin. I ever find myself there, I’ll know that I’m well and truly deep in the shit.” Poley sat and brooded for a few more minutes, staring sightlessly at the ripples of the boat’s passing and the drifting turds. Then, the broad outlines of his next few moves clear in his mind, he focused back on the big man. He kept his voice low, making sure his words stayed between him and Ralph, never reaching the boatman. “When we’ve finished with this Caxton, remind me that I need to send letters to the Governor at Vlissingen to find if Moody’s been spotted there. It’s too much to hope for that he’ll send me word on his own accord. It’d be best if I didn’t have to cross the Channel to deal with things personally, but I might have to.”
With a final and finely judged pull of his arms, the boatman brought them neatly against the stairs leading from the Thames up into the sprawl of buildings that was the center of the Queen’s bureaucracy. “Whitehall. And you owe me thruppence.”
Poley dug the coins out of his purse and paid the boatman. That done, Poley got out and followed Ralph up the wet stone stairs.
There was the usual crush of courtiers, favor seekers, litigants, lawyers, pimps, and business men coming up and down the stairs. The two men eeled through the crowd, stopping once to make their bows to Thomas Gresham as he passed in a cloud of clerks and merchants. They went through the arched gateway and into the courtyard of Westminster palace.
The crowd was as great there as on the stairs. He and Ralph stood for a bit, upwind of the great fountain in the center of the courtyard as the breeze driven spray was chilly. He looked around at all the men in the yard. It was a crush but not as bad as sometimes he’d seen. The courts weren’t in session so there were fewer lawyers, litigants, bribable jurymen, and pen pushers than at the busier times. But Westminster was still the center of power in England, the Queen held her court here, the Privy council met here, laws were written here, wars were declared here, and so it drew men like a corpse drew flies. Men dressed in their best, men dressed in what they hoped were their best, artfully darned and mended, the overt beggars, and the hidden beggars.
Poley spotted a pair of confidence men he knew, Jack Brugham and Foul Neil, engaging a merchant in conversation. The merchant was from out of town, maybe Bristol, and the pair of swindlers were promising him introductions and advice on how to navigate around the mysteries of Westminster. And now they were suggesting retiring to a nearby tavern to make further plans. Neil caught sight of Poley as they ushered the merchant away and tipped him a wink. Poley hid a grin, and nodded back, grave as a Puritan.
Ralph leaned in close to Poley’s ear. “Do you know where to start looking for this Caxton? I’m seeing a whole shitload of clerks around here.” He looked ill at ease, a scarred bull-baiting mastiff forced among well-fed lap dogs.
Poley took extra care to make his voice confident, keeping Ralph steady. “Art Gregory said that Caxton is a Chancery clerk. That fits with what little I remember. We’ll start here, then go into Westminster Hall, then head across the street to the Chancery We’ll run him to ground shortly, no worries.”
Then a clerk he knew came into sight and Poley made his way towards him. “Tom Stafford! It’s good to see you. How fare you?”
Tom turned and squinted at Poley. “Bob Poley! I’m doing all right, getting by, you know how it goes. And you?”
“Tolerably well. Are you still clerking for the Exchequer?”
Tom lifted a satchel of documents. “Indeed I am. I’m taking these down to one of the Chancery Inns by the City, Lyon’s Inn down on the Strand.”
“I was wondering if you could help me. Are you acquainted with a Rafe Caxton? He’s a Chancery clerk. Might be one of them that works for the Privy Council and its secretaries. Stout. Cornish.”
Tom pondered for a bit. “I think I know who you mean. You’re right, if we’re thinking of the same man, he’s an assistant to one of the Privy Council secretaries. This time of day, he should be around the other side of Whitehall.”
“Capital! I knew you’d be the one to ask.” Despite Ralph at his back, clearly itching to get a move on, Poley kept a pleasant smile on his face and just changed his position to get the sun out of his eyes. “What’s the gossip these days?”
Tom shifted his parcel of documents to his other arm. “France, in the main. What with the French king’s victory against the League at Ivry, the big question is whether or not the Queen will continue to support the King with troops and money.”
“And what do they think she’ll decide?”
“Oh, there’s this faction that says she will and there’s this faction that says she won’t. My personal opinion, for what it’s worth, is that she’ll wait to the very last minute to make a decision and that it’ll be the decision that costs her the least money.”
Poley chuckled appreciatively. “I’ve no doubt that you’ve the right of it, Tom. Her Majesty and her government never have been free with coin for as long as I’ve been employed by her.”
“And how goes it with you, Bob? Still a pursuivant? Have you found another patron now that Sir Francis has gone on to his just reward?”
“No new patron as of yet, but with both Lords Burghley and Essex wishing to take up where Sir Francis left off, well, I’m sure that I’ll not be lacking for long.”
“Really? Both of them?” Tom lifted his eyebrows at Poley. “I had not heard that. I had just assumed that Lord Burghley would take over Sir Francis’ duties as chief intelligencer.”
“The way I figure it, Lord Essex saw how highly the Queen thought of Sir Francis and the services he provided her.” Poley leaned in close to Tom. “So his Lordship is thinking that those services AND the best pair of legs in the kingdom will ensure that he’s never far from her thoughts.”
Tom sniggered and dug Poley in the ribs. “And not far from her bed, either!”
The two men chuckled ribaldly.
“Well, it’s been good talking with you, Bob, but I now must be off. Good luck with your search for a new patron. But I’ll wager that you’ll have no problem finding one, since it seems that you’ve not lost your touch for coming up with the tasty morsels of intelligence.”
Poley and Ralph made their way to the buildings pointed out by Tom. In his career as an intelligencer, Poley had been in and out of Westminster enough times to become familiar with its byways and people. He also fit in, looking like some clerk or minor lawyer.
Poley, taking the lead, walked down a path between two walls and turned the corner. Before them was a lawn, coming on nicely green, and beyond it, a low, wide building running back into a warren of other buildings. “Here ‘tis. Used to be a stable, during the time of Her Majesty’s father, then turned into a space for clerks and lawyers when the Chancery expanded. An odd bit of magic this, with the horses gone, the amount of shit has increased tenfold.” He spotted two men coming out of the main door of the building and pointed them out to Ralph. “There, those two. A bit of luck might have just walked our way. Do you think that the fatter of the two is our man?”
Ralph came around the corner behind Poley and looked in the direction he was pointing. He dropped a heavy hand on Poley’s shoulder and leaned in close. “Mayhap. But that cully next to him? In the black doublet? He’s who that gran described, right down to the clothes.”
“What say you?” Poley looked close at the man indicated by Ralph. “What? Him? He’s just some Court fop, here to lord it over the clerks.”
Ralph shrugged phlegmatically. “Might be. Might not. She had a pretty keen eye on her, that gran, and a sharp mind. I had her describe other people on the street as we stood there, and she was a shrewd judge. And to have the clerk who’s guilty of knowing more than he should in here in the company of him who also knows more than he should and is dangerous with it…” Ralph let his voice trail off meaningfully. “But let’s first find out if the fat one is this Caxton we’ve been seeking.”
Poley nodded decisively. “Aye. Right enough.” He pasted a pleasant inquiring expression on his face and strode forth, across the greensward, towards the two men. Inwardly, he was awash with elation and caution. Could it be this easy? To just stumble upon my quarry at the first attempt? Can’t just take him here, if he is indeed the traitor that I’m seeking, the one who betrayed my networks in Flanders.
In mock relief, he grabbed Ralph’s arm as he and Ralph approached the two of them. “See, I told you that this was Rafe Craxton! And you didn’t believe me.” He let go of Ralph’s arm and turned to the fat man, all the while observing his companion sidelong. “It is Master Rafe Caxton, is it not? Why I have heard so much of you from such notables!”
The fat man blushed, burningly clear against his fair skin, the red extending up into his thinning blond hair. “I, yes, well, yes, I am Rafe Caxton.” He fumbled with the satchel of papers he held in his hands. “Notables, you say? Speaking of me?” His watery blue eyes blinked rapidly.
“Oh, yes! And most complimentary as well, I must say. Your fine legal mind, your grasp of details, your memory were all topics of recent conversation.”
An uncertain smile began to creep across his face. “Well, I don’t like to brag, but, yes, I am the most gifted among those who work in the Chancery.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Poley saw a small smile briefly quirk the lips of Caxton’s companion. “Which made it all the more surprising when I heard that it was you who was running off at the mouth, telling such lies as would get you called Tom O’Bedlam!”
Caxton’s mouth dropped open and he clutched his satchel to his chest to ward off Poley’s vehemence. “I have no idea… I have never… Who are you to …”
Poley leaned in close and bared his teeth in something resembling a smile. “Oh, that’s right. I haven’t introduced myself. My name is”
“Robert Poley.” The man standing next to Caxton stepped forward. His voice was smooth and amused, redolent with position and wealth. “I do have that right, do I not? Robert Poley, late of the service of Sir Francis Walsingham, pursuivant, intelligencer.”
Poley swung to face him, aware of Ralph standing at his shoulder. He drew himself up and moderated his tone, smoothed his face. “I have had the honor of serving Her Majesty in the way that you describe but I’m afraid that you have the advantage of me.”
The man still had his smirk spread across his face. Poley mastered the urge to remove it with his fists. “Yes, I suppose I do. In so many ways, actually. But no matter. I am inclined to be sporting in this. My name is Adam Denby.” His bow was a masterpiece of mockery.
Poley’s returned bow was perfunctory, almost insulting, mechanical, while his eyes catalogued Denby’s clothes. “Denby, Denby… No, I am afraid that I am unfamiliar with that name. Dorset, by your accent.” And then Poley’s eye lit on the badge securing Denby’s half-cloak and he realized just how challenging this was going to be. “But you seem to have overcome your provincial upbringing. I see that you are in the service of the Cecils.”
“Such powers of observation.” Denby’s mocking tone showed that he had recovered from the sting of being revealed as having come from Dorset. “No wonder the Moor set you on the weak and pathetic.”
Poley essayed a thrust. “I would not describe those who plotted to kill her most gracious Majesty to be weak and pathetic. Traitors, yes. Servants of the Bishop of Rome and his pernicious teachings, yes. But weak, no. I feel pride in my small service in bringing such vermin to justice.” Poley judged himself to have scored a touch when he saw Denby’s hands clutch into fists at his sides. To add salt to the wound, he turned from Denby, dismissing him and turned back to his confrontation with the fat man. “Master Caxton, you needs must understand something. England has enemies and I fight against them. And, yes, sometimes I meet with setbacks in that fight. I make no apologies for that and merely strive to do better next time. But to have my failures made into common gossip only gives aid to the enemies of Her Majesty. And there is a very specific legal term to describe those who give aid to England’s enemies. Perhaps your fine legal mind, so admired, can tell me what that term is? Hmmm?”
Caxton’s throat moved convulsively and his eyes darted everywhere, seeking escape. “Traitors.” His voice was a hoarse whisper.
Poley leaned his ear towards Caxton. “I’m afraid that I did not catch that, Master Caxton. What is the term used to describe someone who gives aid to England’s enemies?”
“Traitors.” His voice stronger, though not more above a whisper.
“Aye. Traitors. And I hunt traitors. Please ask Master Denby here, where those I hunt, like Arthur Babington, end up.”
“That’s enough, Poley. You’ve made your point.” Poley took some small pleasure in the thread of annoyance that wove through Denby’s aristocratic tone. “Master Caxton is a friend of mine and I won’t have him bullied by some gutter scraping. You might wish to be careful about who you accuse of being a traitor. I’m certain that my patron, Lord Burghley, would not take kindly to such an act coming from a masterless man such as yourself.” A raised eyebrow. “You are masterless, are you not, with the death of Walsingham? You’re nothing but some yapping stray cur.”
Poley opened his mouth to retort, but Denby stopped him with a languidly raised hand. “Oh, I suppose that I shall be generous and call you better than some cur. You are more like to a sheep dog, are you not? Running around, trying to keep your flock safe. Not doing such a good job of it lately, are you, though? Why, your flock of fine Flemish sheep has quite disappeared.” Denby tutted in mock sympathy.
Poley made sure that his tone matched Denby’s mock disinterest. “A comparison closer to the mark might be that of a shepherd. A shepherd who has, as you say, lost some of his flock to some beast, but now sets traps to catch the beast. That beast’s days are numbered and the number is a very small one.” He tilted his head in polite inquiry. “But I must ask, how is it that you are so familiar with the state of my Flemish flock?”
As he’d hoped, Denby couldn’t resist the opportunity to gloat. “Why, who does not know of your failures as a shepherd? Here in Westminster, here in London, even over the water in Flanders, all know of your ineptitude. And perhaps they are so familiar with your doings or lack thereof because I have been unable to keep such happy news to myself. Does that answer your question, you pestiferous cur?”
“One thing to keep in mind, though, is that some dogs have got teeth.” Ralph had had enough of this byplay and moved in close to Denby. His tone was light, which told Poley that he was on the verge of an explosion. “Teeth and they don’t let go ‘til their prey is down and bleeding. You best take care that you don’t get bit.”
“Oh, really!” Denby’ laughter was light and disbelieving. “It talks! Stands quite upright and talks! Tell me, does it know any other tricks besides insulting its betters? You might want to teach your pet manners, Poley, before someone does it for you.” And his hand lightly dropped onto his sword hilt.
And the moment hung on a knife’s edge. Poley wasn’t carrying a sword, just a few necessaries tucked away here and there. Ralph was similarly unarmed, not that it mattered, given the man’s speed and fearlessness. They could do it, leave this bastard broken and bleeding on the grass. But to kill a gentleman here, in the heart of governmental power, and not just a gentleman but a client of the Cecils, the most powerful family in the kingdom, well, that would be rankest stupidity. Neither Poley nor Ralph would survive the investigation into Denby’s death. The fact that he was a clear traitor would not matter a whit. All these considerations flashed through Poley’s mind. And he opened his mouth to tell Ralph to back down as Denby smiled, all teeth and mad dog anticipation, and edged his sword out, an inch or two. That small precise sound sounded louder than it was in the tension and it cut through the quiet of the yard. Everyone froze and the moment teetered.
At that precise moment the door behind Denby and Caxton flew open and a flood of black gowned clerks poured out of the building. They filled the air with talk and shouts; all of them eager for their lunches. The tension snapped.
Poley turned to Ralph and pitched his voice low under the noise of the crowd. “Let’s be away. We have what we came for.”
The big man’s shoulders relaxed and the air of imminent violence surrounding him blew away. “Aye. Right enough.”
Poley saw Denby realize that the moment had passed. He reseated his sword and guided Caxton away. But not before he looked back over his shoulder and smiled at Poley.
Smile now, you fucker. Enjoy it while you can. His inner braggadocio didn’t dispel what he knew in his bones. This would be some of the most difficult work that he’d ever had to do. Not only was Denby rich and protected, but with Sir Francis dead, Poley was completely alone and armed with only the resources he could conjure on his own. He hid his disquiet in a joking aside to Ralph. “Be sure to return to your gran with an extra reward. She has the finest eyes in England.”
The weak essay at humor failed and died against Ralph’s scowling face. “That bastard as good as admitted he’s the one who’s working against you. Fucking Papist traitor! And you want to laugh?”
Up ahead, Poley could see Charing Cross, visible through the maze of buildings and pathways. Before he and Ralph emerged into the bustle and noise of that crossroads, he pulled Ralph aside into a doorway. “Do I want to laugh?” Poley kept his voice to a low enraged monotone. “Do I look like I fucking want to laugh?” He stared unflinching up at the taller man, directly into his eyes. “That fucking piece of shit is not only a traitor, he’s mucking about on my patch. So I’m going to do him up right good and proper. But it’s going to take a nice bit of close work, Ralph, make no mistake.” Poley relaxed and leaned back against the wall. “Aye, he’s got money and position, which makes him a difficult target. But I’ve a fair bit of cunning. This is my meat and drink. He’s just a crazed amateur, thinking he’s a hard man. Well, we’ll show him hard, won’t we, Ralph?”
“Aye, right enough. Fucker’s a dead man walking.”
Poley pushed himself off the wall, shook himself, reseated his hat, breathed deep. “Right. I’ve got some glimmering of idea of how to go about this, but I’m going to need money.” He moved off towards the street, Ralph at his side. “A name occurs, that I might cozen some coin from. The Alewife Harvey. Remember her?”
“Aye.” Ralph’s face was an expressionless slab.
“Last I heard, she was doing well. She’s a place to start.” Poley nodded decisively. “And then there’s that bastard Moody, chasing my last agent. I hope that he finds Nick still alive.