Posted on 2012-10-31
An inquisitive person could walk into any brothel, gambling house or moneylender in East London and they would be told that Henry Crawford has his rooms in Penny's House of Repute just over the bridge in Southwark. "Of course," the proprietors of such notorious businesses might add, "if you're looking to get money back from him, it will be the place where he most certainly won't be."
At this moment though, even if I was not exactly without debts, at least none of them were pressing. I would have to travel incognito for a while from tomorrow on but today, I was able to kick back in my offices. The large red circle around tomorrow's date on the wall calendar though warned me not to get too comfortable. It meant that a week from now at the latest, Charles Muchaver's burly, heavy-set debt collectors would come looking for me. I had some preparation to do if I wanted to evade them. They were the kind that had an unhealthy humour. Slamming my head against the wall was their idea of a good joke. But Chuck and I went back a long way and I had always paid him back, even if later than we agreed on. So far he hadn't set his worst guys on me. Which I knew because I hadn't woken up dead with the fish yet.
Still, it was better to be safe than sorry and I never knew when Chuck's patience would run out. If I didn't get a big job very soon, I needed to prepare for evacuation. But somehow crime had been on a lull lately. Nobody needed a good thief at the moment. My money venues had all dried up.
I was pondering where to go to ground when Penny let her into my office. She was the kind of lady you don't often see this part of the town. The women around here usually tried to wear as little as possible. She had gone the other way and layered up. Demurely covered from head to toe, her clothes left everything to the imagination, if your imagination is vivid enough to push aside the strong vibe of 'sensibility' the clothes broadcasted. Clunky walking shoes, sturdy long skirt that covered her to the ankles and a sensible cotton blouse over which she wore the dullest cardigan I had ever seen; all of this in the colour range from dirt-brownish grey to greyish dark brown. But as I looked into her eyes, I saw a fierce determination that showed me this woman was not quite the little mouse her clothes proclaimed her to be.
"Henry Crawford?" asked this vision in wool and cotton. "My name is Fanny Price. Pleased to make your acquaintance."
"Ah," I said because my imagination had just conjured up her body underneath all the ill-fitting garments and it was a pleasing sight to behold. She waited with an expectant expression on her face. "Oh yes, have a seat, please. Now, what brings you to my humble abode?"
"You are the brother of Mary Crawford, aren't you?" she said. "I want you to retrieve some money she stole."
Well, I certainly hadn't expected that. "And what makes you think I would do that?"
"Because the woman she stole it from is looking for it." She paused and looked at me intently. "Does the name Aunt Norris ring any bells?"
That name rang a lot of bells and none of them good. "Forget it, lady," I said. "I've stayed under that woman's radar so far and I want that to continue."
"She's your sister!" protested Miss Price.
I glared at her. "Miss, you have no right to lay any claims on how I spend my time. Nor has my sister. In fact, my sister has taken great pains to assure me that she never wants to see me again. And right now, I'm inclined to honour her request and if that includes spending my time as far away from Aunt Norris as possible then so much the better."
"But ..." she seemed at a loss for words at the lack of brotherly concern. Her gaze skittered worriedly around the room before coming back to rest on me with new resolve. She leaned forward. "I'm prepared to offer you a substantial sum in exchange for your work."
"That's hot money and I'm not getting burned," I said and ignored as her eyes began to plead. Dang, but her eyes were pretty. If I wasn't careful, I'd be agreeing to whatever she said just to gaze into them a little longer.
"It's really a very substantial sum I'm offering," she said with a slight, hopeful quiver in her voice.
Carefully not looking into her eyes, I said, "Lady, you're very eager for someone who has nothing to do with the stolen money. You've no reprisals to fear. And yet, you're here. Why? What's your connection to Mary?"
She suddenly leaned back in her chair. "Frankly, it's because she is engaged to Edmund Bertram."
"But," I said, "isn't he-"
"Yes, he is the nephew of Aunt Norris. But more importantly, he wants to quit the family business and start living clean. He wants to go into politics."
"That's not really cleaner than the Bertram's crime syndicate."
"Eddie wants to do good. He wants to help people. He's a good man. He would never abuse his position."
"He is engaged to Mary," I felt the need to remind her because I knew that tone of voice. It meant love.
She looked at me chastisingly. "I'm well aware of the fact. The family only allowed Eddie to go into politics because Aunt Norris was in favour of it. If she finds out his fiancée stole the money, she'll retract her support for him and who knows what she'll do to Mary. If any of this gets to the public, his career would be shot before it really took off."
"Sorry, darling. I'm still not doing it."
"Fine," she said. "I didn't want to do this but you leave me no choice."
She took an envelope out of her handbag and slid it towards me across the table. I glanced at the contents. The envelope contained eight pictures that showed me, in rather graphic detail, in bed with Julia Bertram. I looked at her again. "How did you get these?"
"I was Julia's confidante for a while. She left them behind when she fled to the continent."
"Let me guess, I get the pictures' negatives after I've helped you." I couldn't believe she had come prepared to blackmail me.
"And if you refuse, I'll get those pictures to a certain MP who is still trying to find out who to blame for Julia's running off."
"But that wasn't me," I protested. "I saw her no more than twice. I didn't run off with her."
"Oh, I know that and you know that," she said with an airy smile, "but I don't think he cares about details like that."
A word to the wise: Don't have an affair with a shady politician's mistress. It's going to come back and bite you in the arse.
"Alright, I'll do it," I said and glared at her. "You're one harsh lady."
She smiled as if I'd paid her a compliment.
Miss Price had told me that Mary and Eddie were volunteering at the Royal Northern Hospital, so that's were I went. I wasn't too keen on talking to Mary. The last time we had met face to face, she'd thrown a book at my head and then thrown me out of her life. But here I was, on the steps of the Royal Northern, waiting for her to come out.
I was lucky. Mary left the building for lunch with a couple of friends, probably co-volunteers, soon after I had taken up position. She stopped short when she saw me. Gesturing to her friends to go on, she came over to me.
"What are you doing here?" she asked instead of a greeting. "I told you I didn't ever want to see you again."
"Believe me, I would have avoided this if it had been possible. But circumstances ..." I trailed off.
"For one, that briefcase full of money that you appropriated," I said. "Mary, are you stupid? Stealing from her! What were you thinking!"
"Oh, stop worrying. She's got it back."
"Then why are her two pet enforcers shadowing you?" I asked and discreetly pointed to a car that was parked behind her further down the road.
Mary snapped her compact mirror open and peered into it. When she saw the two men in the car, she paled. "Why would she do that? She's got her money back."
"What did she say to you when you gave the briefcase back?" I asked. Aunt Norris, I had heard, was the master of threatening while appearing all friendly.
Mary hesitated. "Well, I didn't give it back in person. It's more like she got it back herself."
"It was gone this morning, wasn't it," Mary exploded. "I thought she'd had it stolen back."
"Mary, if she'd reclaimed the money, you'd know about that; trust me on that. Because she'd make dang sure you'd be fully aware of it and possibly also fully aware of how much you stealing the money displeased her. There's no way you would be standing here talking to me if she knew with absolute certainty."
Mary paled even further. "Then it was stolen by someone else? What should I do?"
She grabbed my arm and held on with bone-crushing force. "Henry, you must help me. Please. Please, help me."
"You know me, Mary, I'm a crook for hire." Just because I was already working the case didn't mean I couldn't try to get a little money out of it.
"You want me to pay you? We're family!"
"Family that you like to pretend you don't have."
After having extorted at least the promise of payment from Mary, I went to gather some information, the best place for which is Blackfriars Bridge and its surroundings. It was where one could usually find Harry 'Fingers' Sloane 'round this time of day. Fingers was a pickpocket though he did other jobs as well when the money was right. He and I had done a little breaking-and-entering in our time and I had learned back then that Fingers knew everything there was to know about anybody. He hoards information on the off chance that it might save his life. If anybody knew what was going on, he was the man.
Fingers was leaning against the railing of the bridge, staring out over the Thames, thoughtlessly munching on a sandwich. He was on a break.
I sidled up to him and leaned against the railing, too, though staring out at the traffic over the bridge. "Hey, Fingers," I said.
"Well, if that isn't good ol' Henry," said Fingers, his weaselly mien grimacing into a sardonic grin. "Already in trouble? I heard Muchaver wasn't going to go after you until next week."
"He can certainly try," I said. "But that's not why I'm here. Have you heard anything about a briefcase full of money?"
"You mean, Aunt Norris' briefcase full of money. Yes, heard about that. Also heard that it got stolen from the broad who stole it in the first place." He turned his head to me. "Have you got yourself embroiled in that business?"
"Not voluntarily," I admitted. "I was tasked with finding and returning it to Aunt Norris."
"You're now a private eye, my boy?" Fingers snorted. "Turning on the straight and narrow?"
"Don't be ridiculous. I'm as crooked as you are and that won't change."
"Don't get all snooty with me. I was just kidding," said Fingers, this time grinning all over his face. "Well, I heard that Aunt Norris is furious and about to take steps to interrogate her nephew and his fianc&eacut;e." He shrugged, "Of course, she won't find out more than that they don't have the money anymore."
"But who has it now?" I asked.
"I don't know. All I know so far is that it was done in the early hours by a single person. But nobody knows who that was." He frowned as if this lack of information was personally insulting. "Maybe it was somebody new."
"If you find out anything," I said.
He interrupted me, "Yes, yes. I'll give you a call. Now, shoo. I have some work to do."
I made my way back to Penny's. Fingers hadn't been the fount of information I had hoped he'd be but he wasn't my only source. It was time for some quality time with my telephone. I might have to hit upon everybody who owed me a favour.
When I entered Penny's house, I was stopped in the hall by one of the girls who said, "Henry, there's a man here to see you. Penny's cleaning him up in the kitchen so he doesn't drip blood all over the carpets."
Usually, it was me being banged up and dripping all over the place. This was a welcome change. I strolled to (into) the kitchen.
A man roughly my age sat meekly on a kitchen stool as Penny wielded gauze, disinfectant and iodine.
"What I don't understand," he said, "is why it's called Penny's House of Repute. Shouldn't it rather be-" He broke off with a little painful yelp as Penny swiped over the wound at his temple rather viciously. She hates that question and everyone asks it sooner or later.
"I know very well that it is supposed to be ill repute but I'm having none of that," she said indignantly. "My girls are all healthy, thank you very much, and if that is your attitude, young man, then you can leave right away."
"I'm sorry," said the chastised young man.
Penny was satisfied. "There, you're all done now. Come, you can wait for Henry in his rooms." She noticed me in the doorway. "Oh, no need to wait. There you are, Henry. Here is Edmund Bertram come to see you, luv."
"Thanks for stitching me up, Mrs Malone," said Bertram very mannerly.
Penny was already fluttering about the kitchen. "It was no trouble at all, dear. You just run along with the boy and I'll be by in a few minutes with tea."
In my office, we quickly got the 'Call me Henry - call me Eddie' niceties out of the way, and settled down with the tea provided by Penny.
"You look like you've been run over by a bus," I remarked.
Eddie grimaced. "Aunt Norris' henchmen were more of a freight train."
"Ouch. Is Mary alright?"
"They didn't touch her. She's fine. She told me you had talked to her about the money," said Eddie over the rim of his cup of tea.
I nodded. "I had hoped to talk some sense in her. Didn't know the money had been stolen again already."
"I didn't even know it had been in our flat," said Eddie. "Being beat up wasn't the nicest way to learn about that. Still, I got off lightly. It was just a warning. They actually dropped by to issue an ... invitation. Mary is to meet with Aunt Norris at seven tonight on Southwark Bridge and return the money."
"Uhm, I see a slight problem there," I said.
Eddie sighed. "That we don't have the money? Yes, that's a bit of a drawback. I tried to tell Mary that we should just leave town but she wouldn't be persuaded. She's hell-bent on going."
"Has the woman lost her mind? Aunt Norris is going to make minced meat out of her."
"I know. Believe me, none know that better than I," said Eddie unhappily and I was reminded that we were talking about his family here. Of course, he would know, probably in all the gory detail. Eddie put his cup on the table and continued, "She wouldn't listen to me. I wish she and Fanny had never talked about that cursed money in the first place."
"Fanny told her about the money? Fanny Price?" I asked. "She didn't tell me that."
Eddie looked at me in surprise. "You know Fanny?"
"She's the one who came here and convinced me to look into this business," I said. Apparently, Fanny hadn't kept information from only me. "She seemed very worried about what would happen if the money didn't reappear."
"She's probably blaming herself for mentioning it, poor dear," said Eddie with a smile.
Well, that was a fond smile if I have ever seen one. "What exactly is your relationship with Fanny?"
"Ah, uhm, she's been with the family for ten years now." The man practically squirmed in his seat. "One evening - that was before I knew Mary, mind you - when we both had too much drink ... well ..."
Sometimes, not saying anything makes people fill the void with their own words.
"I took advantage of the situation," said Eddie. "When I woke up next to her the next morning and realised what despicable thing I had done, I was mortified. Of course, I apologised and she's been so nice about it, but I knew I had to atone for my misdeeds."
I raised my eyebrows.
"That day I volunteered at the Royal Northern where I met Mary." He smiled briefly at that but quickly a frown returned to his brow. "I hope that one day the good I've done will outweigh the bad."
"Well," I said, because it seemed appropriate for the situation, and groped for something else to say. Edmund Bertram was obviously a very moral young man. Even though his morals seemed a little off-kilter. "What had Fanny to say to you taking these steps?"
Eddie was silent for a long while. "Now that you mention it, I don't know. She left London to see her family for a while. When she came back I had already met Mary and we never talked about it."
"You didn't offer to marry her? I hear it's the usual way people atone for missteps like this."
"Fanny wouldn't want that, I'm sure," he said and proved to me that he had not only off-kilter morals, but was blind as well. "Fanny would want to marry for the right reasons; not because of one accidental night."
He smiled pensively at the table. "It's rather like Fanny to go and hire someone to help Mary and me."
"Yes, there's Mary," I agreed. "Going to that meeting without the money is suicidal."
"I know. It's why I've come here," said Eddie. "I have to go back to the hospital for the afternoon. Can you find the money until seven?"
I wasn't any closer to finding the money than when Fanny Price had come to my office, but I was beginning to have a suspicion about that.
"I'll try my best," I said. "In the meantime, keep trying to persuade Mary to stay away. Maybe she'll listen after all."
It was a misguided hope because none knew better than I how pig-headed Mary could be.
Fingers hadn't called but I felt he could give me some intel after all. I trudged to Blackfriars again.
"I've got no real news for you," he said as soon as he saw me. "Can tell you nothing."
"I'm not here about the money. Can you tell me anything about Fanny Price? She works for the Bertrams, I think."
"Dowdy? Little mouse-ish? Always looks prim and proper? That her?" he asked.
"To a t," I said. "How long has she been with the Bertrams and what's her position?"
He thought for a while. "Seems like she's been around forever. At least ten years, I'd say. The Bertrams took her in one day. Not sure why or for what but they're treating her like nothing more than an indentured servant. She does a lot of message runs for them. If you ask me, she's the best of the lot. The Bertram girls are a bunch of hussies and nothing good ever came from them and the boys ... well, the eldest has a conscience and the younger would rather go into politics. Rubbish the whole lot of them. And pretending to be better than the likes of us. As if. They make their money from crime just as we do. The Price girl though ... she's got a clever head on her shoulders and she doesn't take on airs. Wouldn't be surprised if she knew more about the business than the Bertram kids together."
"Where's she from?"
"Not from London, that I know. South. Somewhere by the sea. I forgot where." Fingers shrugged.
I could practically feel the light bulb going on above my head. "By the sea? She wouldn't be one of the Plymouth Prices?"
"Might be. Mightn't be. Told you I don't remember."
"Thanks, Fingers, that was exactly what I was looking for," I said and bounded off to the Northern Royal again. I was running out of time.
"Mary, please be sensible," I said. "This whole thing is a set-up. Nothing good will come off it."
We were seated at a rickety table in a corner of the hospital's cafeteria and I had been trying to talk some sense into Mary for fifteen minutes already.
"We won't find the money and if you go there without it, you're as good as dead. What do you think will happen? That Aunt Norris will pat your cheek and tell you it's alright? She won't. She's taken over ruling the Bertram syndicate with an iron fist ever since old Bertram went overseas. She didn't get where she is now by being forgiving."
Mary looked at me, her eyes as big as saucers. "I don't care. I don't care what happens. I just want them to stop beating Edmund."
She had not taken the warning well. She had always tried to get away from the strata we were born into and finding out that her new life was her old life had shaken her badly.
"They won't stop until they have the money, Mary," I said, not uncaring about her feelings.
She shook her head. "Yes, they will. Aunt Norris must stop. I'm sure she will. I'll make certain she will."
"No. Stop telling me what to do. It's my fault, so the penance must be mine, too. You go back to your filthy little life of filthy small crime. Go and con someone into giving you money. In fact, here, have mine." She threw a wad of pounds on the table and surged up out of her chair. "Just go away and leave me be!"
I watched her storm out of the room. There was no way I was going to let her go to that meeting alone. The money she had flung on the table was enough to get my gun back from the pawnbroker. Well, that would come in handy.
Southwark Bridge may be the least used bridge spanning the Thames but that didn't mean I could just whip out my gun and shoot people. Nevertheless, the weight of it in its shoulder holster felt comfortable. If worse came to worst, I could use it as a last resort.
I arrived early but I wasn't the first. Three cars were already parked in the middle of the bridge. I recognised several of the Bertram's henchmen idling around the cars. Off to the side, hands folded demurely in front of her, eyes lowered, stood Fanny Price.
"Good evening, Miss Price," I said as I walked up to her. "I'm surprised to see you here."
"Aunt Norris insisted I accompany her. She doesn't like to let me out of her sight," Miss Price said. "She says I'm not trustworthy."
I looked over to the cars. Aunt Norris was sitting in the middle one, suspiciously glaring out at us. "I'm beginning to think she might have the right of it."
"What do you mean?"
"You love Edmund Bertram, don't you?"
The question shocked her enough to look at me. "I don't know what you mean."
I smiled into her wide eyes. "If I hadn't been certain before, your face has certainly given it away now. It must have torn you up that he chose to ask my sister to marry him instead of doing the right thing and marrying you."
"How?" she stuttered. "How do you know about that?"
"Eddie told me about it."
Fanny paled. "He said he would never tell a soul."
"Don't you know? I'm a crook and a thief and a conman. I don't have a soul," I said. "You talked to Mary about the money so she would steal it, didn't you?"
"I just wanted Eddie to see that she's unsuitable for him," she said, her eyes glistening wetly. "She's not the perfect wife for him. She's just as crooked as the world he wants to leave behind. Why couldn't he see me? I didn't want anything to happen to Mary."
"Well," I said as I frantically searched for a handkerchief. Crying or nearly crying women make me nervous. "That didn't work out too well. What's going to happen tonight?"
"I'm not sure, but I made certain that every of the men coming tonight," she said as she nodded towards the henchmen milling about, "would answer to me in an emergency. I truly don't want anything to happen to Mary." She turned her big eyes on me and gave me a quivering, watery smile.
Curse those eyes.
"Then let's hope for the best," I said as Big Ben tolled the full hour in the distance.
Mary appeared on the last toll of seven. She calmly walked up the bridge from the north end and stopped several feet away from the cars. One of the thugs hurried to the middle car and opened the door for his boss. Aunt Norris unfolded from the backseat and stood glaring at Mary.
"Well," she said and her voice was like a whip slashing, "have you brought the money?"
"No," Mary said. "But I've brought something else."
Before either of us could react, Mary had drawn a snub-nosed revolver out of her coat pocket and shot Aunt Norris.
After a shock second, the thugs reacted as they were trained to do and bullets hailed down on Mary.
Next to me, I heard Fanny cry out but it was already too late and I could do nothing but watch as Mary crumbled unto the pavement.
After that, time speeds up in my memory. The next moment, I was kneeling by Mary's side imploring her not to die for I don't know how long and suddenly Eddie was there and huddled her broken body to his. I later learned that he had come with Mary but that she had made him stay out of sight. I looked up to see that Fanny hustled the thugs into cramming Aunt Norris' body into the boot of one car and then sent most of them away taking the body with them. She remained with three thugs and one car. Her cool gaze rested upon Eddie who was sobbing over Mary's body.
I slowly got up and walked over to her.
"Where's the money?" I asked.
She smiled. "I was wondering whether you would find out. It's in the car."
She opened the boot, took out a silver briefcase and handed it to me. "Consider it payment for your handiwork. The negatives of those photos are in the case as well."
"I did nothing," I said.
She still smiled. It was chilling seeing her so serene after the chaos of the last few minutes. "I beg to differ," she said. "If you hadn't told Mary about the thugs shadowing her, she wouldn't have informed Eddie of them and he would not have tried to confront them. Had he not been beaten up, who knows, Mary might not have done something stupid."
In that moment, I hated her. I wanted to get out my gun and shoot the cursed smile from her cursed face.
"I wouldn't recommend you doing something drastic now," she said and her smile turned frosty. "Leave that gun in its holster. Enough blood has been shed today. You don't want to add yours, do you? There's enough money in that case to pay off all your debts and live very comfortably for the rest of your life."
Her words numbed me to the core. I looked back at Eddie still cradling Mary and swaying to and fro in grief.
"Eddie had nothing but good words when he talked about you," I said. "Can he have been so much in error?"
"I reconnected with my heritage when I visited my family a while ago," she said, also looking at him.
"The Prices of Plymouth," I murmured.
"Indeed," she confirmed. "They made me realise that I would never get what I wanted if I didn't ascertain my right to have it."
She turned to me again, shrugged and said lightly, "They also want a foot down in London. I was happy to open up opportunities for them."
"What will you do now?"
She looked at Eddie again. "I will marry him in due time of course."
"Of course," I repeated. The sheer cold-bloodedness of her actions made me nearly tremble.
"And take over the handling of the Bertram syndicate."
At a nod from her, two thugs went over to Eddie and bundled him and, because he wouldn't let go, Mary's body into the back of the car. Fanny Price gave me one last nod, sat in the front passenger seat and the car sped off into the night.
Only the pools of blood where Aunt Norris and Mary had fallen remained; and I - cold, numb and alone with a briefcase full of blood money.The End