A Bad Man's Song

By: Andy Monk

In the Absence of Light

Book Two

Chapter One

Finding the Lady

The Old Dick Whittington Tavern, London - 1687

Crispy Pete sat back and folded his arms across his scrawny chest, “Pick a card, Billy Boy, show me where that lady’s hiding.” He revealed the blackened tombstones of his teeth with an encouraging grin.

Daniel took another slow, careful sip of the ale he’d been nursing for the last hour as Billy Bottles hunched forward, frowning deeply. He nodded at each of the cards Crispy Pete had moved around the beer stained table top in a blur of motion a moment before.

“Tricky…” Billy muttered, scratching behind his ear. Being a young man of limited vocabulary, Billy pretty much categorised everything as being either “tricky” or “easy.”

Daniel’s attention was momentarily distracted as Emma, one of the barmaids, passed by clutching a collection of empty mugs in each hand. Billy had often used the latter of his two adjectives to describe her, the word usually accompanied by a boyish snigger. Regulars often talked luridly of her and the other girls that worked in the tavern, even the ones who weren’t as pretty as Emma. However the ferocity with which she’d slapped Daniel’s face when he’d drunkenly tried to fondle her heavy and well-advertised breasts indicated it was better to take those lewd tales with a hefty dose of scepticism.

Only when her swaying hips had disappeared around the corner of the bar did his attention return to the table. Billy was helping his concentration by taking a big greedy swig of beer, fat heavy drops trickling through the soft bristles that patchily covered his chin. Daniel looked down at his own drink and wished he could be so wasteful. Billy always had more money than him, even though they both had to resort to doing whatever they could to make a few coins. They laboured in the market and on whatever building sites required casual men, failing that the wharves around the Pool of London often needed to hire day labourers. Neither of them was apprenticed and so could only do the most menial of work, fetching and carrying mostly. It was casual, irregular hand to mouth work, but they were young, healthy and strong, and being local boys they were usually hired in preference to the Irish and Scots immigrants who formed the bulk of London‘s unskilled cheap labour.

Billy was a powerful brute of a lad who could carry bricks and timber on his back all day without breaking sweat. Although a couple of summers of labouring had bulked him out with muscle Daniel was still a much slighter build, and if it came down to a choice between the two, they’d always pick Billy. Besides, Daniel was known to have a lot of learning in him, and there were plenty who would hold that against a man.

“C’mon Billy Boy!” Crispy Pete chided, clamping the long slender stem of a clay pipe between his lips, “you never usually take this long to get your hands on a lady!”

Billy’s shoulders shook as he let out a deep rumbling guffaw and nodded his head vigorously enough for the limp, greasy rat tails of his hair to dance about his shoulders, “Billy’s good with the ladies!” He declared, glancing at Daniel for confirmation.

“They love those big muscles,” Daniel agreed.

Billy Bottles flexed his arm theatrically so that his biceps bulged beneath the dirty grey cotton shirt he wore under his faded red waistcoat. He turned his head towards the bar to check if any of the serving girls were looking. While his head was turned Crispy Pete glanced at Daniel and rolled his eyes.

Daniel didn’t smile back.

“Girls too busy today,” Billy decided, propping up his chin with his hand.

“Then let’s find the lady here then, eh Billy Boy?”

“Tricky…” Billy’s brow folded back into its natural furrows once more.

“You can do it, Bill,” Daniel encouraged, almost wishing he would.

“Yeah, this time…” Billy finally reached out to place a thick grubby finger on the left-hand card of the three that lay face down on the table, “I watched real careful this time. That pretty lady is here.”

Billy flipped the card over to reveal the Ace of Diamonds.

“Damn it!” Billy said though he uttered the words with incredulity rather than anger, “I was sure I got her this time!”

“The Queen of Hearts is a deceitful little doxy,” Crispy Pete grinned leaning forward to reveal the Queen had been the right-hand one all along. He swept Billy’s penny from the table and added it to the pile he had already won off of him, “Maybe you’ll be luckier next time?”

Billy finished his drink before rising unsteadily to his feet, “Need a piss first.”

Crispy Pete laughed once Billy was out of earshot. “Oh, you done well bringing this one to me Danny boy. I do believe I could live off this one for a good long time.”

“Perhaps you’ve taken enough of his money for now?”

“Don’t you mean we?” Crispy Pete replied, taking a few coins from his pocket and sliding them across the table, “your cut Danny boy as agreed; more to come, especially if you find me some more meat heads like poor old Billy.”

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