Beyond the Western
VICTORIAN LONDON 1837
Lyman Dunnock sprinted past the gospel grinders gathered around a coin-pot under a dying gaslight, their bells tinkling eerily in the pre-dawn London fog. On the opposite street corner, a cluster of wretched three-penny uprights cackled and cursed the missionaries, bitter that the Salvation-Sallies had run any late-night business away. He huffed around a dim corner and flattened a gaggle of charity workers like they were frumpy bowling pins, righted himself, and hurdled down a black alley over an obstacle course of slumbering tosspots. With a last burst of speed, he popped out the opposite end through a troop of slumming mandrakes posed on a stairwell as they spouted witty verse in their parrot-colored neck scarves and billowy French sleeves.
Two blocks later, he entered the first filthy whorls of the rookery, the dark alleys that looped like guts to nowhere, a putrefying maze of narrow backstreets that the sun never reached. To Lyman, the dangerous streets were like garden paths through the blackened tenements, and policemen and interlopers pursuing the young street toughs gave up in frustration when they arrived at this realm.
He stopped, sides heaving, catching his breath as he strained to hear the shout of any pursuing bobbies, or the lecherous pantings of the old silversmith himself, Boggins. He heard nothing beyond the usual sounds of the Limehouse slum, his home until he had been apprenticed to Boggins four years ago, at age nine, and away from his flashhouse family. He'd missed Duncan and Cedric, Petunia, Georgie, the others, even Frankie a wee bit. Boggins had allowed him rare visits home, but now he was back, at least for a while.
No one lifted the soot-covered rag curtains to peer out the iron-barred windows as he ducked under the banners of drying, yellow clothes on the lines that stretched from building to building, carefully avoiding the prismatic sludge puddles and cinder-heaps. Hearing no pursuers, he walked casually and listened to the night-music coming through the windows. Slurred shouts and smashing bottles, heavy blows landing. Snoring and rutting. Screaming children and sobbing wives. Safe now, Lyman waved at the look-outs for Castle Blackheart, adjusted the heavy sack slung over his shoulder, and entered the flashhouse.
“Well, Halloo! Look who’s here! What a wonderful surprise. What brings you home?” shouted Duncan, Lyman’s closest friend since beyond remembering. The cavernous room was filled with his family, the orphaned and abandoned crib cracksmen, snakesmen, dippers, fanners, and any other child who had nowhere to go.
“I think I killed old Boggins,” said Lyman.
“Wot? Wot? You killed him? You murdered him, you mean?” shouted Duncan.
“Almost certain,” said Lyman. “He weren’t breathin’ that I could tell when I made my exit.”
“And there was those that doubted the size of my chuckaboo’s chestnuts,” said Duncan. “Ol’ Boggins learning the hard way, apparently.”
“Where is he?” asked Cedric the Fierce, older, stronger and with a love of violence the others didn’t share.
“In the shop. I was pinching a bob, just adding an odd coin to my savings, as I do from time to time, preparing to take my leave in just a few weeks," said Lyman. “I knocked over a tray of silver and the old bastard was out of bed and on me before I could run.”
“It ain’t ‘cause of all them ‘orrid, unnatural liberties he took with ya?” asked Frankie, always nosy about everything, especially liberties of any sort.
“That was coming soon enough,” Lyman said. “But I overheard him telling the peelers I was the one pushing fake silver, and claiming it were completely unbeknownst to himself, wot’s really doing it. That old swindler’s been passing poor silver for years. They all know that, but they make a fine penny looking the other way.”
“He was setting you up?” snapped Duncan. “It’s lucky for him if you already killed him, or I’d slay the old pederast myself.”
“I weren’t about to do a Newgate swing in Boggins’ place, as has been the fate of some snidesmen of late," said Lyman. "The Queen don’t approve of no silver forgers but her own.”
“What’s in the bag?” Cedric asked. “It jingles like treasure.”
“And treasure it is,” said Lyman, upending the burlap bag and clattering a dozen silver goblets, teapots, and candelabrums across the floor. “I grabbed this much on the way out, and, if Boggins is dead, they’ll be plenty more. I’ll split it, but I’ll need a good share, and you’ll need to keep me hid until I could get away clean to Addiscombe.”
"Now, that's my lad. Look at all that silver," whistled Duncan. "Never a finer gent have I seen, providing for us in this way."
“Ya think the mighty East India Company will hire a common murderer and robber?” said Frankie.
“The Company is the common murderers and thieves,” said Duncan. “They make the worst of the warm organ reapers look like harp-strumming angels.”
Duncan shouted and clapped his hands. The circle of grimy children, ages ten to six, ended their dice games, collected the pots, passed the brandy and waited for instructions. Lyman sat down and showed the nippers how to properly use the jeweler’s files. Most already knew how, and the soot-covered urchins were quickly at work christening jack, removing any link to Boggins.
“How certain are you he’s dead?” asked Frankie.
“Very nearly. I hit him good, but he wouldn’t stay down, not until I bashed him with a bun warmer,” said Lyman. “I should have given him a few taps with the ball-peen to settle the issue. The bun warmer was sturdy, but perhaps not sturdy enough for the task at hand.”
“We need to go back, tonight,” said Duncan, the strategist of the house. “Before someone else notices. Or if he’s alive, and sends the peelers after my chum. As Lyman stated, there’s piles of silver in that shop, more than just wot he has brung us now. Not to mention, if we get to him before he goes foul, the docs at St. Bart’s will pay a handsome finder’s fee.”
“Them ghouls and their body snatchers is gruesome,” said Frankie. “Resurrection men, indeed. You’d never catch me doing such a thing.”
“Duncan’s a hunnert percent right. Some depraved, low-life thief might sneak in there and take wot is rightfully ours,” said Cedric the Fierce, settling the issue.
“We’ll bang on the doors until the skulls of Enon Chapel roll down the hill,” said Duncan. “If he answers the door, he ain’t dead, clearly. If he don’t, likely he’s passed on.”
“Wot if he answers and ‘e’s half dead?” said Frankie, always challenging, because he could not quite be the muscle, nor the brains, of the gang.
“I wouldn’t ever expect my chum to leave a job half done, and don’t expect to find it in such manner,” said Duncan. “But, we’d be poor mates if we didn’t finish a job if he’d somehow neglected a detail.”
"And if he's merely surly?" asked Frankie.
" 'At would be an orful state for him to be in when he meets his maker," said Cedric. "Let's pray it ain't so."
They hurried to the silver shop, and when there was no response to the pounding at the front door, Lyman led the others in the back.
“E’s dead, all right,” said Duncan. “But you’ve left a clue.”
Lyman looked down at the dead man. A Coat of Arms was stamped deep into the fat skin of Boggins’ bald forehead. The tell-tale bun warmer.
“Will they look at him and say this is the diabolical work of our favorite lad, Lyman?” asked Duncan. “We’ve no choice but to dispose of the body now."
“Oh, do be quiet, Duncan, you idiot,” said Lyman. “I pray they never question you about my activities.
“Now, Lyman, you know I’d turn states evidence against me own dear mum before I’d point the crushers towards my best chum.”
“You sent your own dear mum to the gallows for the murder of your lordsman, which you yourself had committed,” said Lyman.
“It wasn’t like that at all, and you know it,” said Duncan. “We both done it, the same, equal. My coming forward wouldn’t have kept the rope from around her neck. I never enjoyed it, and am bothered by it to this very day.”
“Nobody faults you,” said Cedric. “But it was only last Yule season.”
“Exactly. Leave the tykes a poor Christmas?” said Duncan. “Who woulda took such good care of me siblings as I?”
“Send some nippers to the hospital to see Sawhappy and Fondergin,” said Cedric, as the crew gathered the silver. “Let them know we have a new admission.”
“Why even bother?” said Lyman. “You’ll have all that silver.”
“Two quid is two quid, is why,” said Frankie. “For those wot’s too good to remember the rough life.”
“Besides which, we’re helping all mankind and such persons," said Duncan. “Someday, one of them stiffs we take them doctors will provide the answer to some ‘orrid disease.”
“Them two ain’t ever sober enough to spell ‘orrid disease,” said Cedric as they dumped the fat silversmith’s body into a loose-wheeled, manure-caked cart. “I hate to think about it, them two showing no respect for the dead that way.”
They filled their burlap sacks until they bulged, and made their way through the fog.