Book 3 of the Mary, Queen of Scots trilogy
Available in paperback.
Can Frank, Susannah and Jack Downie, the best thief in London, save the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, from the wiles of Sir Francis Walsingham, the Protestant fanatic who wants her dead?
The Babington Conspiracy - and who set it up…
Straw rustled. Jack rolled out of his bed behind the counter, not quite fast enough. He yelped as a boot caught his hip. "Starvelin' pup! Lollin' about like ve Earl o' Leicester, eh? Up an' earn yer keep!" Tom. Good. Billy'd have been far worse.
Jess lay silent, frail and tiny, thumb in her mouth, smiling placatingly. After a moment Tom's thick mouth twitched in an almost shamefaced smile in answer. Tom wasn't bad, if Sal and Billy weren't about. He lifted her by her ragged shift, limp as a rag doll in his huge hand, and slung her at Jack. "'Ere, take 'er out wiv yer," he grunted. "Whined all day yestidday, she did. Mam near killed 'er. Get 'er out ve way, eh?"
Nodding thanks, Jack ducked by him, hiding his sudden hope. Joe wasn't back; he'd been taken to work outside last night. Was this their chance... Acting casual, he had squelched half across the yard when a harsh, hearty voice behind him stopped him dead. "Jacky! Jacky Daw! Where d'ye think yer off ter?"
Ivory Sal, white-haired under her unstarched cap, whip-lash tough, the ruthless mistress of the best - or worst - tavern in all the Vintry, was watching him, fists on hips. Against her stained blue gown, the thick ivory bangles and bead necklaces that gave her her nickname gleamed whiter than the teeth in her wide smile. "Ye knows better'n that. Give 'er 'ere. Now, ye whoreson knave!" Jack's gut wrenched, but he had to turn back, past Tom's glower, to ride Sal's slap and cower, half deaf in one ear.
Sal held Jess at arm's length, studying her. Jess whimpered in fear, and was cuffed casually to silence. The tall woman chuckled jovially. "'Ow old is she? Three? Don't look it. Scarce a year, she looks. Could 'elp in findin' 'er a trade."
Jack's scalp crawled in apprehension. "Trade? Wot d'ye mean, Sal?"
He'd forgotten Tom, behind him. A fist thumped his sore ear, and a hand skidded off the hair he never let grow long enough to grab. Tom was bellowing ferociously, to impress his mother and draw attention from his slip in nearly letting the children all out together. "Questions? Cheeky 'ound! Gerrout! An' don't come back empty-'anded t'day, see!"
"Now, now, Tommy!" Sal lifted a soothing hand. "'E's a good lad, our little jackdaw, when 'e keeps 'is mind on 'oppin' round the town an' bringin' nice things 'ome 'ere to 'is Aunty Sal. Bright round silver things, eh? 'E's got 'is cheesy-'ead brother an' sister to pay fer, eh? An' 'e don't forget it. There ain't nobody else'd keep 'em, but I'm soft-'earted, innit right, Jacky boy?"
It was an old routine. Jack nodded vigorously. "Nobody as good's wot you is, Sal. Thankful, me an' Joe an' Jess. Right thankful, all on us."
It was a lie, and they all knew it. One at least of the three was always kept hostage inside. Jack had run once, with Jess, but had to come back to stop Billy beating Joe to death. Sal had just chuckled, and doubled his shot to two shillings every day instead of one. Billy had enjoyed himself punishing them later, of course. It was worst when he hurt Jess.
Joe didn't blame him. Joe maybe hadn't even noticed he'd been gone. Beatings were normal for him; he neither understood nor remembered them. He laboured cheerfully, immensely strong and willing, doing exactly as he was told, having to be told exactly what to do, tunelessly humming, in any spare hour led out to earn Sal good silver hauling and hefting wine barrels on the Three Cranes Wharf on the Thames just fifty yards from the rear of the inn. He was about sixteen, but inside his mind he wasn't as old as Jess. Jack, at twelve, was the head of the family.
Worried about the baby now, he looked anxiously up at Sal, who just smiled. "Off wi' ye!" She carelessly tucked Jess under her arm. "But be sure an' bring in double today, to make up fer yestidday. I fair 'ates 'avin' Billy belt ye, even fer yer own good. 'Urts me more'n you." Jack nodded, grinning, gritting his teeth, and turned to go; last night's bruises still ached. He paid them little heed; he was used to it.
Joe was lurching up the lane with his wide, disjointed stride, humming, laden with a saggy bundle. Stolen or smuggled? Don't be nosy. Keep well out of reach of Billy, slouching behind. "Mornin', Joe! Billy!" Joe grunted happily in answer as he did to everyone, even Billy. Billy snarled.
Some day, Jack thought.