Sweet Fire – Jo Goodman

She was dead. There was no question about that. Looking at her, Nathan’s wiry young body became still as stone, and his eyes, lightly gray and ringed in blue, darkened with fear. He paused half in and out of the bedroom and wondered what he should do. He had seen dead people before, but they had mostly been drunks who slept in gutters or crept into a shop stoop huddling for warmth and never woke again. He’d once seen a man’s throat cut in a tavern brawl and two gentlemen mortally wounded in a duel. But he had never seen anything like this. “What’s wrong?” The urgent, furtive whisper came from the dark alley below Nathan. “Get on with it!” Nathan swallowed hard and tried to clear his throat. It was no good. His mouth was bone dry. He couldn’t say what was wrong so he did what he had to do. He raised the window he’d been holding a few more inches and shimmied through the opening. Snakelike, he crawled on his belly over the sill and onto the floor. The candles on the nightstand and the burning coals in the grate were a mixed blessing.

Nathan could see what he was doing, but he could also see the blood. It was on the bedding, on the brass headrails, in her honey-colored hair, and, just below where the woman’s left wrist dangled over the thick feather tick, it was pooled on the floor. The first thing Nathan did was check the door. It was locked from the inside. Satisfied he wasn’t going to be surprised, he returned to the foot of the bed, careful to stay clear of the blood. The last thing he needed was a trail for the peelers to follow. The peelers derived their name from the man who had established the law force, and they were the object of ridicule and scorn, or gratitude and respect, depending on one’s contact with them. Nathan and the company he kept held the former opinion. The peelers had played a game of tag with Nathan for over three years, ever since he’d turned eleven and earned his place as one of the best sneaksmen in all of London. Sometimes they caught him, mostly they didn’t.

Nathan didn’t like to think of the celebration on Bow Street if they pinned a murder on him. Nathan Hunter started out as a lowly puzzler, throwing muck from the street in the eyes of some unfortunate gentleman, then running away while his more experienced partner picked the poor fellow’s pocket. Nathan wasn’t satisfied with his role, for there existed among the impoverished a class system just as stultifying and rigid as the one accepted by more respected society. So Nathan worked his way up in the kingdom of thieves. From star-glazer, where he learned how to cut the panes out of shop windows and take off with whatever was behind the glass, to chiving the froe, where he cut off a woman’s pocket with a razor, Nathan showed an uncanny aptitude for his chosen career. He was possessed of a pair of the finest rum daddles in London—deft, coordinated hands that could lift a watch, take a purse, or draw out a snowy silk handkerchief without jostling the victim. Still, it wasn’t enough. He practiced the fam lay, a technique for shoplifting where the palm was dabbed with a little hot ale so that it became sticky. Something light, a diamond earbob, a ring, an unset stone, could be palmed easily in such a fashion. Nathan had done it all.

At fourteen he’d already been in jail on three separate occasions, not a bad record for a young man eager to prove his mettle and apt to make mistakes marked of inexperience. There were other sneaksmen his age who had already been to jail a dozen times, but Nathan didn’t believe they should be lauded for it. Surely, he thought, it was better not to get caught than to risk transport to Botany Bay. Each time a sneaksman appeared at the assize house to face his charges, his chances of being banished from his homeland grew greater. That thought raised goose bumps on Nathan’s thin arms. In spite of the fact that his brow was beaded with sweat, he shivered. “God! Would ye look at that!” Brigham Moore squeezed his body through the opening Nathan had left. At seventeen years and one hundred fifty pounds, Brigham was broader in the shoulders and thicker in the waist than his protégé. He was still light on his feet, but he’d never possessed the catlike quickness and agility that Nathan had. His quick wit and brash daring mostly compensated for what Brigham lacked in manual dexterity.

Tonight’s scheme had been his idea. Nathan spun on his heel and faced the window. “What are ye doin’ ’ere? Ye’re supposed to be me lookout. In or out. C’mon wi’ ye. Quick. Someone’s bound to see ye.” He turned his back on Brigham as the older boy hefted his body through the opening and closed the drapes. “Did she do ‘erself in?” Brigham asked as he came to stand beside Nathan. He couldn’t take his eyes off the dead woman.

Her open, sightless eyes held his and he imagined he saw an accusation in them. It was unnerving. “Well?” he prompted, pulling his cap lower over his sandy hair. Nathan shrugged. He wished he could find it in himself to cover the woman’s naked body. The tangled, bloody sheet left most of her exposed. There was no dignity in it, he thought. She was dead, and the first thing he had noticed after the blood were her breasts. He didn’t especially like himself for that. “Did ye do it?” Brigham asked.

“Ye ’ave a way with a razor.” “Don’t be daft. O’ course I didn’t do it. I found ’er like this.” “So ye weren’t losing yer nerve. I wondered when I saw ye ’esitate in the window.” Nathan didn’t make a reply. The shock of finding the room occupied, and occupied by a body, was finally wearing off. Nathan realized he’d already spent too much time doing nothing. “I could use yer ’elp,” he said, dragging his eyes away from the same vision that held Brigham captive.

With an effort he hardened his heart. “Quit starin’ at ’er and ’elp me get’er trinkets.” Taking a cotton drawstring bag from beneath his jacket sleeve, Nathan went to the vanity and quickly surveyed the available booty. He passed over the perfumes and creams, knowing he couldn’t get much for them, and settled instead on helping himself to a pair of pearl drop earrings, a cameo brooch, three gold sovereigns, and a few farthings. He held up a locket to the candlelight, examined it, and made out the fine engraving on the golden face: BAO. A feeling of sadness washed over him, though he couldn’t have said whether it was pity for the woman whose life had been so brutally ended, or if he pitied himself for not being able to take the locket. “Don’t ye want it?” Brigham asked. “It’s engraved. Wouldn’t take the peelers long to trace it back ta ’er and then ta us.” “Take the chain then.

It’s worth somethin’.” Nathan found himself strangely reluctant to do that. He glanced over his shoulder at the woman. She wasn’t looking at him any longer. Her eyes were closed now. He picked up the locket, tore the chain free, and dropped it in his bag. “Did ye touch ’er?” he demanded. “I shut ’er lids,” said Brigham. “I didn’t like the way she was lookin’ at me.” “Don’t touch ’er again.

” He looked down at Brigham’s feet. “Look! There’s blood on yer stockings.” There was a trace of disgust in his sigh as he turned his attention back to the vanity and rifled the dead woman’s jewelry box. “See what’s in ’er wardrobe. ’Ave a care not to take anything too personal.” Nathan wondered what was wrong with his mentor. Usually Brigham confronted danger with clear-headed calm. Nathan had noticed that Brigham was peculiarly excited about what he’d seen, his green eyes feverishly bright. Nathan’s stomach was churning with equal parts disgust and horror. Brigham seemed more fascinated than frightened.

“What do ye suppose ’appened?” asked Brigham. He picked through the gowns in the wardrobe, looking for something that might be valued in the thieves’ market. Nathan didn’t want to speculate, at least not out loud. He was certain of several things, and none of them were particularly comforting. The woman hadn’t killed herself, although he was fairly certain it had been meant to appear that way. After all, her wrists were slashed. But there wasn’t a razor blade, a knife, or broken glass in sight. It was hardly likely that she had cut her own wrists then taken the time to put away the object she’d used. Nathan had already seen that the blood was largely confined to the area of the bed. She’d never made it farther than the edge of the feather tick.

Above the deep slashes on her wrists were faint markings that looked as if they had been made by a rope or shackles. Nathan recognized them because he’d known the feel of rope and irons each time he visited prison. She’d been bound, probably gagged, and then brutally cut. He wondered if her murderer had watched her bleed to death. It was a certainty the murderer had used the window to exit since the door was locked from the inside, and just as certain that he hadn’t left long before Nathan arrived. The candles hadn’t been gutted, the coals glowed, the blood was still dark crimson, not black, and when Nathan had been close to the bed he could feel the dead woman’s body heat. Nathan thought back to what he’d been doing a half hour ago. While he’d been waiting for Brigham to meet him in the alley behind King Street, this woman was being murdered. If Brigham hadn’t been late Nathan might have very well surprised the murderer. He didn’t have any illusions that he could have saved the woman.

He wasn’t particularly strong or menacing. It was far more likely that he would have been easy prey himself. Brigham closed the wardrobe and handed Nathan some lace trimming and handkerchiefs that he’d pilfered. “She’s kind o’ pretty, don’t ye think?” he said, keeping his voice low. “She’s dead.” “Sure. But before that.” When Nathan didn’t answer, Brigham went on to examine other parts of the room. He found a Bible in the nightstand drawer. “Here,” he said, tossing the book to Nathan.

“Take this.” Nathan fumbled the Bible, scooping it up a moment before it thudded to the floor. He glared at Brigham. “Ye lookin’ to get caught? Someone might o’ ’eard this if it fell.” “Who’s to ’ear? I told ye she lives alone.” “The housekeeper.” “Gone tonight. Gone every Friday. I wouldn’t ’ave suggested it otherwise.” Nathan breathed a little easier.

He opened the Bible. The woman’s name was written on the frontispiece. Beth Ann Ondine. Another shiver of sadness and sympathy traveled down Nathan’s spine. He set the Bible aside. “What’s wrong with it?” Brigham asked. “I don’t want ta take it. It should be buried with ’er.” “Oh, for God’s sake. Do ye think she cares about that?” “I do,” Nathan said quietly.

Brigham’s tawny brows knitted. He fixed Nathan with a sharp glance and detected a trembling in Nathan’s taut body. His jaw was set stiffly, as if to hold himself in check, and his bony chin poked out defiantly. Brigham set out to bring him down a few notches. “That Bible will bring a few shillings.” “We’re doin’ all right without it.” “What about those pistols we ’ad our sights on? Wouldn’t ’ave to steal ’em. We’d each ’ave our own pops and a galloper. A cinnamon stallion for me and a wild black rogue of a ’orse for ye. Highwaymen we’d be, and none’d be lookin’ down their noses at us.

Flash as Dick Turpin in our finery, kissin’ the ladies and cullin’ the gents of their trinkets.” Nathan shook his head stubbornly. The Bible wasn’t worth so much as all that and it wouldn’t have mattered if it had been. “I’m not takin’ it.” “She’s a whore, Nath. That Bible’s fer show, naught else.” A whore? Brigham had never said anything about their mark being a whore. Besides, a whore didn’t have pearl earrings, exquisite brooches, or expensive gold lockets. “These baubles don’t belong to an ordinary whore,” Nathan said, then added, “And it doesn’t matter what she was. She’s entitled to a Christian burial just the same.

” He hoped it was so. He knew it was something he wanted when his time came. If God could accept a whore, then surely He would accept a sneaksman with rum daddles. “I didn’t say she was ordinary, but she’s a whore just like any o’ them waterfront doxies. She’s a rich gent’s mistress and that makes ’er a whore.” Nathan’s heart hammered in his rib cage. A rich man’s mistress! The peelers would be everywhere looking to catch the murderer. Almost against his will he heard himself asking for a name. “Lord Cheyne.” Nathan closed his eyes briefly, shaking his head.

He repeated the name under his breath then swore softly. “Wot was goin’ through yer mind when ye thought o’ this mad scheme? Lord Cheyne’s mistress! It’s Botany Bay for sure if we’re caught. It won’t matter if anyone believes we done ’er in or not!” “Don’t worry. I tell ye, we’re safe enough. ’E won’t be ’ere for another hour or so. Never comes before ten bells on a Friday night.” As far as Nathan was concerned they had already stayed too long. He was known for the speed of his heists as well as the cleanness of their execution. Tonight’s caper was one unwitting blunder after another. “Let’s go.

I ’ave all we need.” He headed for the window but stopped when he saw Brigham drop to his hands and knees near the bed. “What are ye doin’?” he demanded nervously. “C’mon, Brigham. Don’t play—” Brigham made one sweep beneath the bed with his outstretched hand. “I thought I saw…” He paused, his fingers touching something cold and wet. A moment later he was smiling triumphantly, holding up a dagger. The hilt was encrusted with seed pearls. The blade was crusted with blood. “Put that back!” Nathan said, nearly stamping his foot in frustration.

He raked a free hand through his dark hair, his expression frankly disbelieving. Brigham paid no attention. “Would you look at this! It’s beautiful!” He examined it in the pool of flickering candlelight. He felt Nathan come up behind him. “Give me yer bag,” Brigham said. Used to taking orders from Brigham, Nathan responded to his tone without thinking. He watched as Brigham took out one of the handkerchiefs he’d stolen and used it to wipe blood off the dagger. “What are ye goin’ to do wi—” “I want it,” Brigham said firmly. “I’ve never seen the like before.” Nathan’s gray eyes widened and he offered a protest.

“It’s what was used to kill ’er. Ye can’t be thinkin’—” “I want it,” Brigham said again. And that, Nathan supposed, was that. He shifted uneasily on his feet as Brigham stuffed the lace-edged handkerchief into the bag and followed it with the dagger. The bag was unceremoniously jammed into Nathan’s hands, just as Nathan had known it would be. He might be an accomplished sneaksman, but Brigham was still older, still more experienced, and still the leader. It was up to Nathan to take the lion’s share of the risks. He said somewhat sulkily, “Don’t know what good it is. Ye don’t know ’ow to use it. Not a dagger like that.

” Brigham raised one brow. “I could slit yer throat easy enough.” Then he laughed lightly, putting his arm around his young accomplice’s shoulders. “But where’s the profit in that? Ye’re still the best, Nath. None of the other boys can ’old a candle to ye.” He felt the stiffness ease out of Nathan’s thin frame. “That’s better. If it’ll make ye feel more the thing, it’s not a dagger at all. It’s for opening letters.” He pointed to the escritoire in the far corner.

It was littered with correspondence. Nathan thought about that. He wondered if Miss Ondine had been surprised while she was sitting at her desk, answering an invitation or writing a letter to her lover. He wondered if she had tried to fend off her attacker with the opener and found it turned against her. He banished the thoughts with difficulty. “Let’s go,” he urged again. “All right.” Brigham’s arm dropped away from Nathan and he started for the window. “Blow out the candles. Darkness will help cover us.

I’ll go first.” Brigham raised the window and put one leg over the sill. He turned to see what was holding up Nathan and caught the sheen of tears in the boy’s clear gray eyes. “Ye wanted to go,” he said harshly. “Let’s go. Don’t turn soft-hearted and cotton-headed on me now.” “She could ’ave been me mum,” Nathan said softly, rooted to the spot. “Or mine. She was a whore after all.” Nathan was moved by Brigham’s bitterly cold tones.

Sucking in his lower lip and bracing his shoulders, he stayed by the bed long enough to cover Beth Ann’s lifeless body with a sheet, then he followed Brigham out of the room. At street level the boys disappeared into the shadowed, dangerous alleys that were their home. TWENTY-THREE DAYS later the peelers nabbed Nathan while he was working the crowd at Vauxhall Gardens. It would have ended with a light jail sentence if it hadn’t been for the cameo brooch they found concealed in the heel of his shoe. They recognized the quality of the ivory cutting, the fineness of the gold filigree, and knew it fit the description of a particular piece of jewelry missing from the home of Miss Beth Ann Ondine. He was tried at an assize in London for the murder of Miss Ondine. Some days he saw Lord Cheyne sitting at the back of the crowded courtroom, trying to express disinterest in the case when it was obvious, at least to Nathan, that his lordship was a broken man. Beth Ann was loved, he thought, and he wanted to scream from the stand that he hadn’t killed her, that he was wrongly accused. Yet he said nothing of his innocence, protesting it not to his solicitor or to the jury. There was no question of ever raising Brigham’s name as his accomplice and Nathan did not expect Brigham to step forward and clear him.

Yet that was precisely what Brigham attempted to do and for his pains was clapped in irons and tried for his part in the robbery. His sentence was four years. Nathan got twenty. They were both sentenced to hard labor in Australia and thus exiled from England forever. “Looks like we napped a winder this time,” Brigham said, using the slang expression for transportation. He raised himself to the iron bar window of the cell he shared with Nathan and looked at the scaffolding in the courtyard. “Goin’ across the world, we are. Under it, too. Van Dieman’s land I ’ear it called.” Nathan knew what his friend was seeing beyond the confines of their cell.

He had watched men work on the gallows while he was waiting for his trial. Without Brigham’s help he might have been taking the walk to the noose himself. Transportation was not as popular as it once was and the crime of which he was accused was particularly heinous. The jury had had no doubt he was guilty, but perhaps the judge had. All things considered, the sentence was a reprieve of sorts. “Why did ye do it?” he asked, moving out of the shadow Brigham cast across the damp stone floor. “Ye’re me friend, ain’t ye?” Brigham answered simply. “Couldn’t let ye go to the bay alone, could I? Who’d look after ye if I wasn’t around?” He lowered himself to the floor again. A smile touched his mouth as he tilted his head at a rakish, cocky angle. “Besides, there’s gold ta be ’ad in Botany Bay, or ain’t ye ’eard?” “I ’adn’t ’eard.

” “Well, I ’ad. Jimmy Faughnan got ’imself sent off as soon as the news came in. No shame in that. He’ll do his time then ’ave the last laugh when he strikes it rich. Just the way we will.” Nathan said nothing. He had wondered how the cameo found its way to his shoe and why the peelers singled him out at Vauxhall Gardens. Now he knew.

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