This was not a fashionable card room like Button's or Willis's, where men of prominence and position might lose a thousand guineas at a sitting without a care in the world, or, at least some of them might be free from such practical worry. A scarred table, nevertheless, showed the evidence of recent card play: a dingy glass bottle, several glasses, a scattered pack of dishonest cards, subtly marked, and a triumphant winner currently unable to rise. A battered lantern wearing the patina of years of soot and greasy filth was hung from a nail driven into a wooden beam of the low ceiling and illuminated this scene. A snort and sleepy burble escaped the lips of the slumped and very intoxicated, tall, boney form of General Aubrey as he shifted, nearly asleep, or rather, as he drifted slowly into an alcoholic stupor, in a heavy, ragged chair of the last age. His gnarled and long-fingered hands, clutched at his waistcoat, with a seeming iron grip, held a leathern bag containing heavy gold coins and folded, engraved, bank notes. His suspicious, bleary eyes opened periodically to reveal a wicked and still dangerous fraction of consciousness. Two figures studied him from a doorway.
The General, who had just reaped a windfall of money from a deeply complicated and fraudulent Stock Exchange manipulation, set in motion by enemies of his son, a Naval Post Captain, and his particular friend Dr. Stephen Maturin, and more importantly, traitorous enemies to England herself in her war with Napoleon, was in hiding. He had profited from these converging streams of greed and hate and treason by a lucky stroke when Captain Aubrey happened to see him go into Button's while looking from his window at his club across the street. Filial duty had compelled Captain Aubrey to copy out the list of stocks to discreetly invest in, given to him by the friendly stranger named Palmer.
Palmer, an agent of this vile plot, had used confidence tricks common only to criminals of the highest sort and to the most devious intelligence services, to create the illusion of being under great obligation to Captain Aubrey. He had taken the bait, this list of stock investments offered with utmost gratitude, like an innocent babe, while on a post-chaise trip coming up from Portsmouth, returning to London from a trip to the South Sea. The General and his cronies, flash, stock-jobbing characters, when handed the same list, had seized upon the corrupt scheme with zeal and milked it for all they could before having to duck out of sight when finally the scandal broke. They had known instantly how to proceed with it.
The General, as a Member of Parliament, was immune to arrest for nearly any crime except treason or setting fire to Westminster, but he and his friends thought it wise to change their appearance and disappear for the time being. Now the friendly stranger Palmer was a faceless corpse which would soon be pulled from the river, and his son had been arrested and was being held at Marshalsea, the naval prison. Well, Jackie was always a fool, the General might have thought had he been capable, and that buffoon Cummings too, caught like bewildered hares.
He was brought to this shabby card house and brothel by his former adjutant Coleman, south of the river and ironically not far from where his son Jack was housed at Marshalsea, to celebrate as invisibly as possible while a coach was engaged for their small traveling party to quietly depart London. Coleman had been with the General for longer than Killick had been with Captain Aubrey, and they were much the same size, so the borrowed clothes, which might have been stolen from a scarecrow, made the General seem not out of place there. He was himself an accomplished cheat at cards and enjoyed play with like-minded scoundrels who were attempting to cheat him. And what he had won at cards might have seemed a small amount to the couple stock-jobbing fellow accomplices travelling with him, but yet perhaps had been an uncomfortable and unexpected reckoning from the men trying to cheat them.
"I 'eard one of them call 'im General," whispered the gaunt looking whore to the shabby man next to her in the doorway.
"Aye, 'tis Wellington himself, home to take the waters," he whispered back softly. "Hush, now. Soon, soon."
"Proper flats he made us look like, Stingley says to me," whispered the whore a few minutes later, "readin' the painted ladies like a bloody newspaper."
"Coney catcher in gull's clothing, Molly girl. Used our own deck to pick our pockets, d'ye see. As neat a job as ever I've seen. Ooh, and knew how to lose like a lord, didn't 'e, and still fill his purse. Could have taught Wicked Will a trick or two, had they not hanged 'im."
"I kept his glass filled, I did, him and his rum pair of hounds."
"Softly, dearest. Sweet slumber may yet save him a broken neck."
"The barrow is ready, under the stair."
They stared intently. The General blinked once more and then, at last, began to snore loudly. After a long pause, the two figures began to advance slowly and quietly from the darkened doorway. From below came the sound of the door being flung open and a pair of loud footsteps coming up the stairs. In a flash, the man turned and disappeared down a dingy corridor. Molly girl stepped quickly into the room, gave a vicious tug on the bag the General clutched and failed to pull it from his grasp. She fled through an adjoining doorway as the General kicked over the table in a reflexive response, awaking with a roar.
"General Aubrey, the coach is here. We must fly," shouted Coleman, coming up the stairs, as the General staggered to his feet.
© 2004 Keith Peterson