WARNING: References to violence.
Charlotte gets her revenge on Aubrey.
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London – 1839
‘I thought they’d throw him in the river,’ I said and took a bite out of my apple.
Aubrey had been hanged from a lamppost, his face so badly beaten his mother would’ve struggled to recognise him. I’d spent too much time with his face close to mine not to recognise those cheekbones, what was left of them.
Despite the dead man hanging from a lamppost the street was no less busy; some people stood around gawping, others hurried by pretending hard not to notice and others carried on regardless. Aubrey wasn’t the first corpse to dangle from a London lamppost and he wouldn’t be the last; there was no point killing a gang leader if no-one knew you’d done it.
‘Excessive but it made their point,’ I murmured thoughtfully and examined the innards of my apple.
‘This doesn’t bother you?’ John asked.
I shrugged. ‘The cogs keep turning and the clock keeps ticking.’ I could’ve killed Aubrey myself but I didn’t want to lead a gang, I had more profitable things to be doing. Leave him in the Roberts’ territory hurling abuse at an uncontrollable woman and… Well, if he couldn’t control a woman how could he control a gang?
John gave me what I assumed was supposed to be a significant look. ‘The bluebottles are too afraid to take him down.’ He nodded towards the door of The Rose and Crown pub. ‘It’s bad for business.’
‘Bluebottles’ll have him down in no time,’ I muttered and handed my half-eaten apple to a passing boy. His hands were bones, he clutched the apple to his chest like it was gold and ran off to an alley. I’d have killed my own mother for a fresh apple once, if I had a mother.
John was watching me.
‘What?’ I said.
He looked away. ‘I thought you’d cut him down.’
John shook his head, ‘You two were close once.’
I shot a look at John and he stepped back. I had never wanted to be close to Aubrey, I never wanted to be in the same room as him. Something unpleasant wriggled in his empty eye socket, the birds and the bugs were the only ones that had ever liked him.
‘He had his bad points but –‘
‘Let him rot.’ I turned my back on Aubrey’s carcass and started walking.
There was this strange lightness in my chest, a sudden relief from a pressure I hadn’t known existed.
‘He hurt you,’ Josef said, stepping out of an alley.
‘It’s none of your business,’ I shot back without sparing him a glance.
Josef drew level with me. ‘His corpse stinks of fear, he suffered.’
I pinched my tongue between my teeth then said, ‘Don’t tell Bran.’
‘I’ve no doubt Bran knows. He’s always had an instinct for these things. It made him a good priest when he was young, before…’ He shook his head. ‘Nonetheless I will say nothing, you might actually hit me if I do.’
I smiled a fraction. ‘No “might” about it.’
‘There’s the sarcastic gir – woman I’m intrigue by.’
‘Stop trying to be nice. It’s less unsettling when you’re an arsehole.’
We carried on walking in silence, dodging around people hurrying to and fro off to work their fingers away for next to no pay. I rubbed my hands together feeling calluses and the ridges of scars chafe together. There were no swirls on the pads of my fingers and I considered myself lucky to still have my fingernails, ragged as they were. I’d be glad if I never saw another hemp rope in my life.
‘Are you cold?’ Josef asked.
‘It needs to get colder than this to bother me,’ I replied and put my hands in the pockets of my jacket.
He considered me for a moment. ‘I can hear your bones creaking and smell the blood stagnating in your bruises.’
I wrinkled my nose. ‘I wouldn’t put that in a card.’
His lips twitched but didn’t muster a smile. ‘Perhaps I shall teach you meditation, maybe you’ll sit still then.’
I stopped walking. ‘What good will “sitting still” do me?’
He looked down at me, opened his mouth then closed it again.
‘Linger long and you die,’ I said.
‘And yet still you linger with Bran.’
Damn it if I didn’t purse my lips in annoyance.
He slapped my shoulder and the blow reverberated through my aching ribs. ‘You need to learn focus. You’ll need that if we ever want to turn that mess in your head into a library.’
‘Great, my mind is a mess? You’re an arsehole.’ I carried on walking. ‘Equilibrium restored.’
He laughed then sobered. ‘You know I’d never…’ He rubbed his thumb across his lips. ‘If you told me to go away and you never wanted to see me again I would respect that.’
‘Might make things difficult for Bran.’
‘Is that why…’
We went silent again, Josef trying not to smile like a boy on his birthday. I had to wonder if, in his own way, Josef was as lonely as Bran.
I tucked my hand into the crook of his arm. ‘You can walk me home, I suppose.’