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The Red Duke

by Matt Spencer

part 1 of 3

The gavel smacked and the judge pronounced “Guilty.” The Widow Lariviare looked genuinely relieved. Lawrence Walter didn’t look surprised or afraid. He merely lowered his head, never one to grovel, wallow, or tremble. He’d come to his sentencing as finely dressed as he’d gone about his under-butler duties for three years. The jurors craned and gawked in scornful awe as the guards led him away. After that, the awe died quickly, but the scorn remained.

Perhaps he’d not lived up to their expectations of a murderer. No, just a slight, plain young man, eyes quiet and thoughtful, mouth relaxed. The crowd looked back to the widow. She was small, voluptuous and rosy-cheeked in her early thirties, two decades behind her late husband. Her chin tilted high and her round hazel eyes stayed forward, burning with turmoil, only highlighting her regal presence.

In the back sat a man who’d neither craned nor gawked. To him, Madame Lariviare’s head sat far too high and far back, more than any living head should. Ah so easy, to imagine clenching his corded fingers in that fancy done-up hair, or around that slim painted neck, pulling that highborn head even further back...

Had anyone looked closer, they’d have noticed the interloper’s trousers didn’t quite match his jacket. Aside from Madame Lariviare and a few servants called to witness, he was the only one present who’d known Lawrence Walter. He doubted Lawrence had recognized him. False hair fell long around his face, obscuring the deep scar that ran temple to jawline. The hair was light brown, the better not to set off his unusually pale flesh. Tinted glasses hid blazing green eyes.

Out on the London streets, the man spirited unseen towards the widow. Her ridiculously elaborate mourning dress was an eyesore to him, along with everything else about her, though most men probably found her attractive. As she neared her carriage, he was tempted to approach and exchange words, complimenting her display on the stand.

The man she bore witness against was a pitiful object, she’d told the court, even as he was to be punished. Just see how a soul became demoralized in a life deprived of fine breeding, custom, warmth and respectability. In the end, even the privilege of serving a fine, better world had not smoothed away his base inclinations. For extending their hand in charity, those who lived within the light had been cut by the street’s sharp edge.

Aye, gain her trust, get her scent. See how well you pass for one who lives in the light.

No doubt it was quite in her nature to grovel and tremble. The finishing schools had just never taught her how.

As Madame Lariviare stepped daintily into her carriage, the man slipped back into the crowd. Aye, let her believe she’d done her husband justice. Let her carry her head high, eyes aglow with their pompous self-assurance. She was entitled, while it lasted.

* * *

After hours in The Devil’s Draft, gin splashed pale golden in a tumbler. Frederick Hawthorne watched the candlelight dance through it, then downed it.

“Thought that poor bastard got himself killed years back,” said Mickey Barrimore behind the bar.

“Got into service, actually. Fine house, near Brook Street. Came to mean about the same, turns out.” Frederick told Mickey about the trial.

“Bloody Christ... When was all this?”

“’Bout five months past.” Frederick seemed to speak more to his gin.

In the daily bloody East End toil, few single murders held anyone’s attention long. Gossip of a scandalous murder among the swells might reach the pub, but brought only shrugs from most shoulders. Two whores who’d known Lawrence had talked about it while Frederick bought them gin. He’d let them drink and go back to work, then found the prettier one later. She told what she knew in bed. As a center of knowledge, nothing beat an East End pub.

“Always liked ol’ Larry...” Mickey shook his head. “You think he killed the ol’ swell?”

“I don’t much care. Was a time he and I’d’ve died for one another. He deserves better than them swine and their simpering, shrinking judgement.”

“Aye... Bit late to brood on, though, ain’t it?”

The green eyes narrowed and blazed. “Oh is it, now?”

“Well... Poor ol’ Larry has already hanged, ain’t he?”

“Aye... Nah, though, that ain’t the whole of it. The larger bit is, I’m about to head back to the Old Search.”

Mickey’s face ran pale. “Ah, Fred, not that shyte again! Look, with things like an ol’ mate’s death hanging on your mind, you don’t need’s be throwing that old log back on the fire.”

“Oh, but I do. More than ever, I’m out to find that bastard.”

Anyone who knew Frederick well had heard of his Old Search. None, however, save Mickey and Elizabeth — she being Frederick’s sister — knew the real tale, that Frederick’s quarry was the man known as the Red Duke. By now, most East Enders had given up believing in the Duke, as they’d given up on God and the devil. Frederick believed soundly in the devil, had his suspicions about God. The Red Duke was no supposition, to Frederick or his sister.

The reality had come sharply, years back, not long after their parents’ deaths. They’d still been learning about street life and hadn’t yet taken to selling themselves. It was well before Frederick had found his first work as a barkeep and Elizabeth had found lodgings at Madam Chanfan’s brothel.

Elizabeth and Frederick had come to know the Red Duke firsthand, though Frederick would be years older and harsher before he’d fit the pieces together. The Red Duke had been the final nail in the coffin of Elizabeth’s innocence, and the beginning of the end of Frederick’s.

“Why then?” Mickey blurted. “It’s that uppercrust tart, ain’t it? You’d like to get at her, show her what’s what for puttin’ your mate’s neck in the noose. But you can’t, any more than you could’ve saved ol’ Larry, so it’s back to that old grudge.”

“Let’s have us more gin, Mickey.”

Mickey poured the drink. “Bloody hell, Fred! What makes you think you’ll finally catch up with him this time?”

“Don’t forget, it’s been some years, and I’ve learned a trick or two. That, and well, before, I’ve always had a feeling that word gets around to the Duke when someone’s after him, no matter how quiet I keep things. An’ every time, he figures he won’t like what I have to say.”

“Now where might he get that in his head?”

“Pour yourself one.” He waited ‘til Mickey complied. “Thing is, this time ‘round, I fancy he’ll be a touch more cooperative. Fact, I think he’ll rather like what I have to tell him.”

“You mean you ain’t still after him for, well, the old grudge?”

“This is all about grudges, make no mistake. Just not in the Duke’s disfavor, for the moment.”

* * *

Frederick had sought out the Nickels Street whore to clear his brain. The last two days had been long, with little reward. His feet felt done in, beaten through his soles by half the East End’s sidewalks. After all the businesses he’d called on, he began to wonder if the Duke had truly skipped out on London.

To hear the local tales, half the dens of Limehouse had the Duke between them and the police, which only began matters. Clearly the man was of high birth. It was where he’d gone from there — or who, or what he’d become — that no one agreed on. To hear one soul tell it, the Duke was still very much the toast of every elite London engagement, though the swells didn’t know of his East End business, any more than the East Enders knew his true name. Others claimed the Duke was a prodigal or a bastard, obviously schooled in business, for such were the talents on which he’d built his reputation. Maybe his original fortune still sustained him, or maybe he’d squandered it all long ago, before building his new one on the backs of the destitute. Perhaps his noble parents still lived and he blackmailed funds from them. Frederick wished only to know where the man was now.

Yesterday he’d called on his list of places rumored to be in the Duke’s employ. He never gave the same name twice, and he never asked about the Duke outright. Just general questions about the proprietor, and how was business these days, and when would the boss be around, and where might one go to make business deals with the management, and so forth. He’d revisited those places today under a new set of names. Not even the same workers from yesterday recognized him, for he’d dressed much as he had for court months ago. A third through the day, he’d changed back into common clothes, exchanging the long, silky wig for more coarse, ragged hair, though he’d gone without the tattered old waistcoat in which he was widely recognized.

Later, to further cover his path, he donned a third disguise. When he headed home, he was Frederick Hawthorne again. And Frederick Hawthorne felt sore, slicked and soiled with other names, other identities.

So he’d gone to Nickels Street for a woman. He didn’t need to tread the glistening, rain-slicked cobblestones long before a fitting girl crossed his path. Rouge and powder-colored, her angled face beneath a lush clump of black curls only made the pallor of her neck, shoulders, and swelling breasts more apparent. The frilled, frayed corset of a dancing girl hugged her torso, with a makeshift skirt wrapped several times and tied at the waist. She came towards him and extended her arm, as opposed to standing against the wall, leering, tugging the skirt suggestively.

Frederick liked this about her, for an early childhood spent in relative middle-class comfort had infused him with a few standards in spite of himself. Tonight there’d be none of the usual romance, leading her back to the pub, sitting and drinking, play-acting a proper set of lovers. Her expression was hard and sullen, but when he regarded her with his burning green eyes, her face nearly trembled. The effect was almost girlish. He liked this, too.

They rented a doss towards the end of the block. The walls were green and splotched with rot, and the floor stains loosed all sorts of repugnant smells. Hopefully they’d find no similar stains on the bed. The girl stepped into a corner, her hands working the strings of her corset. Frederick came up behind her, pressed the length of his body against hers, and caught her hands. Close like this, her scent was thick and fine enough to drown the surrounding odors.

“Not so business-like,” he growled in her ear.

“Got your own word for it, then?”

“Not at all.” He nuzzled her neck and shoulders. “I’d never think to so impose.”

Frederick wasn’t sure how things went from there, when she’d turned around, or how she’d gotten him out of his clothes so fast. He was on his back, and hot bourbon spilled between his lips from a little metal flask she held. The flask’s gleam was like her eyes: cold, smooth, promising, but also rich, sour and burning like the liquid within. She was stronger and more insistent than he’d have guessed. He ran his palms up her smooth stomach, over her breasts, so she gasped and sighed, then he growled as his fingers closed ruthlessly on her shoulders. Still she kept him pinned, burning inside her. He tried to at least pull her down or sit up for a kiss, and found he couldn’t move.

“Poor lad... Run off your feet all day, and still you’d have all the work. Ought to put more trust in your ladies.”

The mocking tone sent a fever through his brain, then the words registered. Run off your feet all day... Nah, no great deduction there. He must have been visibly worn when—

But there went his thoughts again, lost inside her, and her hands still glided over his scarred chest and arms, and he didn’t mind anymore. Not till the cold sharp steel pressed his chest. Bloody hell, there was his own pocketknife poking the skin just above his heart! She eyed him with kittenish mischief as she gripped the handle between her teeth. Her thighs gripped his like steel, and her slim, delicate hands gripped his wrists.

Frederick had no delusions when it came to the physical strength of women. Likely his own sister could easily best most of the Devil’s Draft’s toughs in an honest brawl. But he also knew his own strength. No man or woman should be able to pin him this easily. He pushed with his wrists, but her arms were like a pair of weighted iron rods. And there was that deadly point, with which he’d so often struck outward, that razor edge he’d spent hours sharpening, now ready to plunge into his heart. When had she fished it from his trousers?

“What in the bleeding—?”

Between her parted teeth, the whore said what Frederick managed to interpret as, “Nothing but a lady doing her work for a gent.”

He wanted to buck his hips, throw her off. If he did, though, the commotion would send the blade right into him. Instead he snarled, “This ain’t what I bloody well paid for!”

“Nuh...” She made an effort to get the words past the knife handle. “Itch what quite another gent paid fuh... one muh befitting shuch a title.”

“The Duke, eh?”

When she nodded, the knife’s tip wiggled in his chest like a bird’s beak. “He takesh an interesht in thsem takesh interesht in ’im.”

“I suppose having me killed is good business sense.”

“Dependsh on what you’f tuh shay to him.”

Despite his circumstances, Frederick lit up with anticipation. The Red Duke, after all this time! He behaved uneasier than he felt. “I suppose we’ll be on our way, then?”

Her hands tightened on his wrists. “Nah jusht yet.” Her hips moved again. “The Duke ain’t the only one who’sh paid me fuh uh job. An’ you’fe made an impression on me. God help you if you don’t liff up to it now.”

The steel tip pressed crueler against Frederick’s chest. To the whore’s visible surprise, he grinned. She’d gotten his blood racing properly enough, might well be the last woman with a chance to do so. All things considered, liffing up to it wasn’t difficult.

* * *

Frederick made the journey blindfolded, but his nose told him he was near the docks. The air was full of salt and sweat and blood, of sea beasts hoisted and rustled from the depths, to flounder on the cooking decks of schooners before being turned inside out on the shore, their innards bathing the walkways where sailors and dockers toiled. Whenever such men got as far inland as The Devil’s Draft, Frederick could smell it on them, see flecks of blood on their clothes, sometimes see muddy red traces left on the floor from their boots. He was led inside somewhere, and the smells of the docks were replaced by more festering, claustrophobic odors. His crotch still ached, much of his energy still spent. The whore pulled off the blindfold, revealing what barely passed for a tavern.

“It’d seem the Duke ain’t kept up his old standards,” Frederick muttered.

“Quiet, you,” said the whore. Again, Frederick felt his own knife pluck his ribs.

They’d come arm and arm like any man and woman strolling together. But every step of the way, he’d felt that inhuman strength in her arm, strapping him to her side as though with heavy chains, reminding him who led whom. He wore a wide brimmed hat, pulled low to hide the blindfold.

“This ’im?” rasped the bony old man behind the bar.

“Who else’d ’e be? Go pass the word to the boss.”

“Who’ll mind the pub?”

“You, once you’ve followed instructions. Till then, mind your orders.”

The old man scuttled crab-like towards a ramshackle door at the far end of the room. One leg was shorter than the other so he hopped more than walked. One of his arms hung bone-thin, seemingly useless, while the other stayed constantly bent upwards, the hand outward and half-open, hooked claw-like. He disappeared through the door, and Frederick scanned the rest of the pub. Candles lit the room, yet it felt darker than the night outside. All the windows had been boarded over. The walls must have been thin as stripped bark, the cracks letting in rivulets of moonlight, somehow merely accenting the gloom.

Behind the stained rotted bar hung several uneven, rickety shelves that barely supported the scant whiskey supply. A reeking barrel sat atop the bar, the tap facing inward. Leaky spots glistened on the wood in the candlelight and moonbeams. The customers were broken old men who’d once been sailors and dockers, some old in actual years, others broken prematurely at sea or in boxing rings. Most half-sat, half-slumped in stupors around the room at small tables, over ale pots and tumblers.

Soon the barman returned, followed by two tall strapping men, dockers by their looks. Frederick tried calculating how long the little man had been gone, wondered how large a building this hovel led off into.

“Where’s the boss?” asked the whore.

The larger man approached. “Below, as usual. You expect him to come up this way, greet you proper?”

“I expected to take this one directly to him.”

“He told you to bring the man here, and so you have. Back to Nickels Street with you!”

Frederick wondered if the docker’s strength had been magnified like the whore’s. If not, did the clod have sense to mind? Frederick looked at the dumb blocky face and doubted it.

“Fine, then.” The whore shoved Frederick forward.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by Matt Spencer

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