In 1585, the ports again linked England and the Netherlands by becoming, as so-called cautionary towns, the security guaranteeing the Treaty of Nonsuch, a political and military alliance between England and the United Provinces. In return for English troops and money, the Dutch surrendered Flushing and Brill (Vlissingen and Brielle) to English control as a gesture of good faith.
Historical Dictionary of the Elizabethan World
They arrived in Vlissingen that afternoon on a small ship flying the flag of Holland, one of the United Provinces. The ship carrying Helmsley and Jean was loaded with timber to sell in the port. Its cargo was part of a stockpile used by agents of Hugh Owen to provide cover for their exit from Spanish Flanders. The papers that the captain carried proved that the ship and its cargo and its passengers all hailed from Emden, carrying a load of Baltic timber.
The trip, short as it was, had been a nightmare. Driven by the urgent need to catch that fat bastard Nick, Helmsley had forced the captain to lift anchor the moment he had received the finished papers from de Langhe. Unfortunately, that storm that he had observed massing in the west had been a very slow moving one. The rain lashed them with cold flails and only by laboriously tacking back and forth down the Scheldt had they managed to defeat the strong wind blowing from the west. One small blessing was that the storm had driven all the blockading ships into shelter, so they made their way into the North Sea unimpeded. The storm had finally blown past during the morning and now the midday sun was only intermittently obscured by fast-moving fluffy clouds. The wind blew the sea into whitecaps.
Vlissingen was a small but relatively important port, the main town on one of the small islands that clustered in the mouth of the River Scheldt. The town itself was well protected by sloping walls built in the modern manner with star shaped bulwarks at regular intervals used as gun platforms. There were no wharves outside the walls. All ships entered through the King’s Gate and then found wharf space along one of the several canals that spread through the town.
The ship that they were on entered without incident. There was a brief wait outside the walls with other ships until the harbormaster’s representatives signaled that they could enter. Going through the King’s Gate, Helmsley looked up at the English flag flying from the wall. In his guise as an English Protestant mercenary returning from Bohemia, he saluted the flag. Once the ship was inside, the pilot steered it to the right, going up the canal for a short bit, before bringing it into the wharf, where it was made fast.
The minute that the ship was secure, Helmsley lifted his pack and, gesturing for Jean to follow, went ashore. To the Customs clerk, who was seated at a makeshift desk at one end of the dock, Helmsley presented his papers and spoke in English. “Captain Thomas Featheridge. Returning to England from Prague via Emden. This is my man servant.”
The clerk glanced at Helmsley, took in the travel-worn clothes, the well used sword and dagger at his belt. He saw the pistol case that Jean was carrying under one arm. Helmsley had left his crucifix and St. Christopher medal with Verstegan back in Antwerp. He withstood the clerk’s scrutiny, confident that there was nothing to raise a question that he might not be who he said he was, a common English mercenary, a frequent enough sight throughout Europe, especially here in the Low Countries.
The clerk lowered his gaze and unfolded the travel document. He scooped up, without pausing, the Hanseatic groschen that Helmsley had secreted in there before the ship had made dock. “Everything appears to be in order. Be warned, this city is under English law. You may carry your weapons, but duelling and brawling are strictly forbidden by order of the Governor.” He signed and stamped the travel document and handed it back to Helmsley.
“I understand. Thank you.” He tipped his hat to the clerk and moved off into the town.
Vlissingen was a smuggler’s city, a border city, a port. People of all persuasions passed through it in numbers. In other words, a perfect city for intelligence gathering. Helmsley had been here several times and was very familiar with it, from the Governor’s House down to the lowest stew where toothless whores fucked for pennies and hard spirits.
The tavern that Moody had specified was of a middling sort, not too grand, but well off enough that the rushes were replaced regularly. Helmsley had done business there more than once; it was popular enough that people entered and left it with sufficient frequency to provide good cover. As they approached it, he turned to Jean. “Go around and enter through the back door. Follow me when I leave with Moody.”
Jean nodded once and disappeared down the alley next to the tavern.
Helmsley waited for several minutes across the street from the tavern, keeping an eye out on those who entered and left. As he observed, he had the twitchy feeling that he was being watched himself. When enough time had passed for Jean to get into position, he walked across the street and entered the tavern.
The establishment was sparsely populated this time of day; the midday meal crowd had left and the evening crowd had yet to move in. Who remained were a mix of the serious drinkers and men intent on business, meeting over drinks to discuss cargoes, routes, re-insurance rates, and joint ventures. From the smell, the midday meal had been some sort of fish stew, not badly prepared, a bit heavy on the onions, perhaps. Jean had already found a seat at the back and was negotiating with the serving girl. Helmsley surveyed the room as he headed towards to the bar and tried to match any of the faces to the description of Moody provided to him by Verstegan. No one seemed to match.
A man came down the stairs; suppressed amusement shaped his shoulders and lent a dangerous cast to his eyes. The hair and face matched the description. Helmsley turned away and signaled the barkeep. “Beer.”
The keep pulled a pint and as he slid it in front to Helmsley, there was a voice at his elbow.
“Richard Helmsley, unless I’m much mistaken! What fortune to meet you here!”
Helmsley didn’t look up from digging in his purse for coin to pay for his drink. “I’m afraid you are. Mistaken, that is. I’m Captain Featheridge. Never heard of this Hamslay.” The correct coin finally discovered, he laid it in front on the barkeep. Only after he raised his beer and took a long swallow, rather good, nicely hoppy, did he turn to look at man next to him It was the man from the stairs, of course.
He smiled unrepentantly at Helmsley. “Of course! My mistake. I’m terrible with faces. Why, I could never even recognize my own father! My name is Moody, Michael Moody.” He signaled the barkeep for one of what Helmsley was having. “From your carriage and title, may I assume that you are a fighting man?”
Helmsley shrugged and let the situation play out. “I am, indeed. I have had the recent honor of fighting on the side of the Godly in Bohemia.”
“Why, that is capital news!” Moody took a drink from his own mug. Despite some enthusiastic throat movements, Helmsley could see that the level in his mug actually went down by very little. “Here I have been searching for someone with military skills who might be interested in a money-making opportunity and here you are, drinking right next to me.” He smiled engagingly at Helmsley. “Would you like to return to England with a full purse of coin?”
Helmsley finished off his beer. “I’ve been a mercenary long enough to learn that one can never have too much money. So, yes, I’m listening, Master Moody.” He turned to face Moody directly and leaned one elbow on the bar. “But here’s another thing that I’ve learned in my years. If someone fucks you over, you deal with them quick and bloody. Do we have an understanding, Master Moody?”
“A most clear and complete understanding, Captain.” Moody stepped away from the bar. “But such a business proposal as I have might be best undertaken away from any listening ears.”
“Just so long as it’s my military skills we’re discussing.” Helmsley cocked an eyebrow at Moody. “I’ve done many a thing in the past years, but never yet sold my arse. And I don’t plan on starting now.”
“And I assure you, Captain, that despite how well you fill out your hose, I have not yet descended to pimping.” And without further badinage, he led the way out the door. Helmsley followed, espying from the edge of his vision Jean scattering a few coins on the table and following, clutching a bottle in one hand.
The two of them proceeded down the street, which was busy with carts and people. There were a string of chandlers’ shops, doing a steady business with sailors buying gear for future voyages, both for themselves and for their ships. Moody turned down a narrow passageway between two of them and Helmsley followed him to where it ended on a disused wharf. Glancing behind him as he went down the alley, he saw Jean finding a seat on a pile of cordage and taking on the semblance of a drunkard completely intent on his bottle.
On adjacent bollards rested a seagull and a cat, each resolutely ignoring the other while keeping an eye on the canal water below. Moody looked into the canal as if to spy what had caught the animals’ attention and spoke without turning to Helmsley. “In our business, it’s not the height of wisdom to use false identities so frequently. There’s an ever increasing chance that someone will match your face to a certain name and become confused if you show up wearing a different name.”
“Faith, I had no idea!” Helmsley took on a tone of admiring awe. “I’ll be sure to keep in mind such sage advice.” He folded his arms and steadily regarded the other man. “Now if you’d care to cease with the mummery and get to business?”
“Certainly.” And for a moment, Moody’s true eyes peeked out from behind the mask of his face. As blank and self-interested as a shark’s. “I have something for sale. Something, or since you wish to get to business and be precise, I have someone to sell. Someone who I believe Hugh Owen will pay a great deal for.”
Helmsley made sure that his face was mask-like as well. “Price will depend on who you have.”
“He goes by Nick Crossby and until a short while ago, he worked as an intelligencer for your master, Hugh Owen. A short while ago, Master Owen discovered that Nick actually worked for Walsingham and the English. You want him in order to discover how much he knows. And you need to catch him before he can reach the safety of what remains of Walsingham’s organization in London. That is who I have.”
“You’re well informed. How do you come by such detailed knowledge?” Helmsley played for time while he considered how much to pay Moody.
“You’re playing for time. I wonder why. Could it be to allow your scrofulous henchman back there time to get here and cut the location from me?”
Not a flicker of eyelash betrayed Helmsley’s chagrin. “Not in the slightest. My question was not idle. I need to know in what direction knowledge about Crossby is flowing.”
“The question is easily answered. I received the knowledge about Crossby from the man who hired me.” A brief pause for effect. Helmsley made a mental note that Moody had a taste for mummery, a weakness to be exploited at some future moment. “Robert Poley.”
“That bastard. He’s still an intelligencer even though Walsingham, his patron, is dead?”
“Indeed he is. And it’s this same lack of patron that drives him so strongly now, I reckon. He needs a prize to bring to the doorstep of any who might employ him. A prize and not the news of networks destroyed and spies taken. And I have that prize.”
“So you say. You make some rather bold claims for someone who was just recently enjoying the hospitality of the Tower.” Helmsley noticed the slight narrowing of Moody’s eyes. “Oh, yes, I have my own sources of information, my own files. And they all say the same thing about you. Not. To. Be. Trusted.” With each word, Helmsley jabbed a finger at Moody. He wanted to see what Moody looked like angry.
He merely pulled a sad face, more mummery. “Ah, me. What am I to do against such vicious lies? I suppose I must go find some other buyer for my goods.”
Helmsley changed the jabbing finger to an interposing hand. “What I mean is that I need proof.” The hand slid inside his doublet and came out with several folded pieces of paper. “I’m not handing over these letters of credit just on your word.” He noticed Moody’s eyes fix on the paper and a sliver of relief went through him as he realized that Moody could be caught through his greed. “We both are in the same business and we both know that trust has no place in our business. Take me to Nick Crossby and you’ll have this money.”
“And do those letters contain the amount that I want? I sent a very specific sum to Master Owen. Has he agreed to pay me that?”
Helmsley weighed his next words. Moody would of course rise to anger but Jean being in the alley meant that he could not leave and take his knowledge with him. He felt confident that after some bargaining his chase would finally be over. “No. You know that he wouldn’t. Your demands were much too high. However, he has generously agreed to pay you some of what you asked.”
Moody’s response showed that while he was completely treacherous, he was not to be underestimated. There was not the slightest hint of anger in his voice, merely an edge of anticipation. “I see. I wish I could be surprised, but I am not. I learned long ago the harsh lesson to never believe in the promises of the powerful.”
Helmsley kept the anger in his voice as he felt the momentum shift from him. “A most powerful tale of woe. Now take me to Crossby and get paid!”
“Not quite yet. I have some knowledge that might make you agree to my original price. You see, Crossby is not traveling alone. He is accompanied by a packet of papers written in cipher. He thinks it hidden in the seams of his cloak, but I unstitched the seams and had a most cunning herbwife stitch them back up when she was done with his wound. Ah. I thought so. You know full well of what I speak. So that is what I am selling. Crossby and the packet. For the full price, mind you.”
“Remind me to never play cards with you, Moody. You always seem to have something up your sleeve.” Helmsley forced rueful admiration into his voice. “You make sense regarding the combined worth of Crossby and his companion. Take us to them and I shall pay you all that you request.”
Now Moody took on an air of diffidence that made Helmsley realize that his earlier hopes of an easy resolution were the hopes of a drooling fool. “I would like to do as you desire, but there is one last matter.”
“Moody. Please understand me. You have something valuable to sell. But in the end, you are not necessary. I can get to Crossby myself, without your help, without paying you. So, fucking with me is a very stupid thing to do.” Helmsley dropped hand to sword hilt. “Tell me what this one last matter is.”
Either brave, stupid, or mad, Moody was unaffected by the Helmsley’s anger. His voice remained calm, almost bored. “Crossby is not here.”
Helmsley’s frustration boiled over and his sword point was at Moody’s throat. With one ear, he heard Jean’s bottle shatter as it hit the ground and he knew that Jean was at the alley mouth, ready for what might come next. “You’re being stupid, Moody. And I care not why. Tell me where Crossby is.”
“London. Hiding in a place of my choosing.”
“You fucking piece of shit. You said you had him here.”
Moody looked down at the sword point at his chest disdainfully. “I said that I could deliver him and those very important documents to you. I did not say that he was here in Vlissingen.”
“The more you weasel and cut your words like a lawyer, the less I trust you. And I never trusted you in the first place. So I am to go to London on just your word?”
“You were headed there anyway, were you not? Your current name indicates that your pursuit was going to take you across the Channel.”
“I go to London and what then?”
“When you arrive in London, I will contact you and you will find Crossby.”
“What will stop him from going straight to Poley once he arrives in London?”
“At this point, he trusts no one. And with some carefully chosen words, I have made sure that his mind has been made even more wary.”
“And he trusts you? I find that very hard to believe.” Helmsley’s sneer was mingled anger and frustration. He lowered his sword and sheathed it. He achieved some small sliver of satisfaction in seeing Moody relax. He hadn’t been as calm and sure as he had appeared. “I’ll expect word from you in London.” Without further word he turned and strode away from Moody.
Jean stared at him questioningly.
Helmsley replied to the unasked words. “It could have gone better. We’re off to London.”
Jean shrugged. “I’ll find passage.”