(Broken Instrument)CHAPTER 18: NICK: GREAT-THIRST


If on both sides trade with the enemy on payment of heavy duties was much better than no trade with the enemy, the prospect of trading at war prices without paying those duties was still more attractive, and the smuggler was everywhere at work. On both sides every variety of fraud was practiced to evade payment and to deal in prohibited wares.

The Scheldt Question To 1839

  1. S. T. Bindoff


The bells in the steeple above Nick tolled and he roused himself from the doorway where he’d spent a most uncomfortable night. Time to push off. The tide will turn and start ebbing in a few hours. If he’s in port, Great-Thirst will be grunting his way out of a whore’s bed and gathering his crew.

Next to the gate leading out to the Houc Quay wharf on the River Scheldt was The Beggar. Old, probably there when the walls first went up, probably there when people first started shipping cargo along the river. And it was probably a dirty disreputable drinking hole then. At the door, underneath the weathered carved bar’s namesake, Nick stood aside to let two drunken longshoremen stagger out, then entered the low, dim room. He moved quickly to the bar, not wanting to be lit in the doorway any longer than necessary. The barman stared at him expressionlessly through a fringe of long greasy hair.

The place was a fetid pit. The floor had never been swept, and there were piles of unidentifiable garbage in the corners, colonized by mice and roaches. Bad smells, sour beer, piss, spew. Light only entered the boozer warily, as if afraid of being beaten and left for dead. It was all very familiar to Nick.


Without saying a word or changing expression, the barkeep pulled a mug worth of beer and slid it across the bar to Nick. He took a sip of the brew, found it sour but palatable, then turned to look at the people. There, at a table by the far wall, was the man he sought, a skinny man with his long legs stretched out underneath the table.

It was the question of all who knew him: “Where the fuck does he put it all?” No belly on him to speak of, but Nick had personally seen him drink ten mugs of ale, follow them up with five small cups of some flammable Irish drink, and stay sober enough. Sober enough to pilot a small skiff out of the east English fens where they were running a load of grain out to Antwerp and make the trip without a mishap. Friendly, yet cold blooded. He was dressed in a curious mismatch of stained finery and working clothes; a nice velvet doublet, now spotted with drink and food, leather breeches, and heavy boots. Sword and dagger at his belt.

He sat alone, lost in thought, occasionally drawing patterns in the spilled liquid on the table top. He looked up, alert enough, when Nick approached.

“Damn my eyes! Been a long time since you hove across my bow, Nick!” Great-Thirst had the sense not to use any of the last names that he knew Nick had used in the past. He pulled a battered metal cup from inside his doublet and threw it on the table. Poured out a generous tot from the clay bottle at his elbow. “Here! Get some of this down your neck!”

Nick drained the cup and immediately doubled over coughing as the raw spirits burned their way down through his chest. His coughing did some nasty things to the stitches in his belly. “You fucking ass bandit. Your taste in grog is as cheap as ever.” He hacked out a final cough and spat something lumpy onto the floor.

Great-Thirst tossed back another cup and wiped his mustache. His eyes were bloodshot but his gaze was keen and unyielding. “You’re not here just to insult my taste in drink, Nick. Out with it. What’re you into this time?”

Nick met his gaze without flinching. “This is me calling in that favor. You know the one; from when that pack of inbred marsh-walkers were going to slit your throat and take your cargo. That one. Are you going to break your word and leave me high and dry?”

The smuggler’s knuckles briefly whitened around his cup. “You’ve a high handed way of asking for something, you know that, Nick? It’s not generally a done thing to come into a man’s boozer and call him a cowardly lying cunt. You need to ask yourself, what’s the profit in raising my ire?”

“You’re not wrong.” Nick grimaced at the table, not meeting his gaze this time. “I cry your pardon. I’m beset on all sides and it’s made me short tempered and I ran my mouth without thinking.” He got up out of his chair and Great-Thirst tensed briefly. “Allow me to go get another bottle and start this conversation anew, this time with my wits and manners about me.”

He spent the time spent walking to the bar and acquiring another one of those clay bottles getting a grip on his temper. He didn’t let himself acknowledge just how much his temper was due to his growing fear about his health. The wound wasn’t healing and now he could feel some sort of ague creeping into his bones, undoubtedly from spending last night out in the open, all sweaty from the fighting at the dock.

He made his way back to the table and placed the bottle down. “Great-Thirst, you sea-dog son of the devil! It’s been too long since I last laid eyes upon you. How goes things with you?”

Great-Thirst cocked one eyebrow at Nick. “I’m doing tolerably well, Nick, thanks be to God. And how is it with you, my old friend?”

Nick airily gestured. “Oh, Fortune’s tides wash me to and fro, but never quite dashing me on the rocks. You know how it is.”

“Indeed I do, indeed I do.” Great-Thirst placed his cup on the table and leaned forward. “I accept your apology, Nick. I forgive you for acting like a diseased pustule. Now to business. What can I do for you?”  

“I need passage to England. And I need for no one to know.”

“Easily done. I don’t usually go about proclaiming my cargo and its destination.”

“Here’s the rub. It’s important that we don’t stop at Vlissingen.  I need to get straight into England. ”

“Now that’s a taller order than just sneaking you aboard and delivering you to England. What about the forts at Lillo and Liefkenshoek just downriver? I generally put in at Lillo for the required inspection by the Dutch. I’ve got a man in Customs House there and for a fee, I don’t have to unload my cargo as everyone else does.”

“I know. Working with Grotius – “

“That cold-blooded whoreson.”

“Aye, true enough, but he knows his business just as well as you know yours. And working with him, I saw how it was done and so I know full well what I’m asking. And I’m prepared to pay for your inconvenience.”

“Why not just hide below decks? I’ve got some spaces in the hold that are very tucked away.”

“I can’t take the risk of being spotted. And my coin isn’t so limitless that I can afford to bribe every official from here to Albion.”

“But you do have enough for me, don’t you, Nick? And you know full well that the price went up considerable when you said no Vlissengen.”

“I’ve got the money. I’m never coming back here and I’ve called in all debts.”

Great-Thirst just stared at him, considering. Nick tamped down on the urge to babble and plead, took a consoling mouthful of the harsh spirit.

“I have a vague idea of who you work for, Nick.” He held up one hand to forestall Nick’s denials. “I have a vague idea and have no wish to know more. But I can guess what drives your fervent desire to  leave Flanders and return to England. And so I can guess the danger that you’re in. And yes, it’s similar to the danger that I was in back in the fens. Your ballocks are on the line just as mine were back then.”

Nick felt relief pass through him like warm piss down his leg. Did his be-damned best to not let anything show. “So we have a deal?”

“Indeed we do. I pay my debts, no whoreson has ever accused me of doing otherwise.” Great-Thirst tossed back the last of the booze and got out of his chair. “Let’s go get you settled on board the Primrose.”

Nick finished his drink and clambered to his feet. In the short moments of the conversations, the spirits had gone straight to his head. He felt old and creaky, unsteady. So the violence took him unawares.

Great-Thirst made his way towards the tavern’s door with Nick trailing along in his wake. Picking his way around the scattered tables, the smuggler moved past two men sitting close together conferring in low voices. Without pausing his stride, he picked an unoccupied bench and broke it over the head of one of them. When the other one flung himself back in shock, Great-Thirst hooked his chair out from underneath him with one booted foot. He then proceeded to kick the man into a moaning supine heap. By the time Nick had drawn a dagger, it was all over.

Great-Thirst grabbed his arm. “Get your wits about you, for fuck’s sake. I saw them come in directly after you. They never took their eyes off you. Let’s get you off this killing floor.”

In response, Nick tucked away his dagger at the back of his belt with a trembling hand. Then had to pause to cough hard and long. The gobbet that he pulled up from his lungs and spat on one of the supine bodies was thick and chunky. He wiped his lips and sighed. “Right. I need to get on board before I fall over.”

Great-Thirst led him stumbling through the alleys that ran through the neighborhoods that infested the poorer sections of Antwerp down by the river. They walked for a while, from what Nick could tell, heading upriver, towards the Citadel that anchored Antwerp’s eastern side. Great-Thirst kept up a fast pace, not running, but definitely not letting anything slow him down and Nick’s breath had begun to rasp in his chest by the time they reached the wharf that was Great-Thirst’s destination.

Nick looked around and got his bearings. He’d been correct, it was Hout Quay, up by the Citadel. He’d loaded and unloaded cargoes here in the past. Great-Thirst turned to him. “Stay here out of sight until I finish up the loading.” The smuggler cast an experienced eye on the men working on the dock. “Shouldn’t be long. Even less time when I go kick some asses. Try not to die before I get back.” With that, Great-Thirst strode away, yelling at the sailors and longshoremen.  

Nick didn’t even bother to reply but just wearily leaned back against a stack of barrels and waited for his heart to slow down and his breath to come easier. After a worryingly long interval, he felt well enough to take a professional interest in the ship that was going to get him to England.

Great-Thirst always named his ships The Primrose but this was one that Nick hadn’t seen before, though he recognized the type. Evidently business had been good for the smuggler, for this was a ship of a new type, just starting to be seen more and frequently in these waters. It was a fluyt, a cargo vessel from the Amsterdam shipyards. It had a narrow deck but the expansive cargo hold bulged out just above the waterline, making her look fat, broad bottomed. It had two masts, set far enough apart to accommodate the large hatch in the middle of the deck. That hatch was currently wide open and crane was at the moment maneuvering a net of sacks down into the hold through the hatch.  

True to his word, Great-Thirst got his men moving faster and soon the crane had lowered its last net of sacks into the hold. He paid off the longshoremen and the customs official and chivied his men aboard. As the casting off process began, he whistled shrilly from where he stood on the foredeck and waved to Nick. Nick clambered to his feet, groaning, and moved as fast as he could, which wasn’t very, to the gangplank.

Later, in the process of losing his grip on his senses in a nest of sacking tucked away belowdecks, Nick had enough strength for one final thought. I wonder just how he’s going to fuck me over?

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