Ian Campion was bloody tired of being poor.
Making his way through the foul and narrow streets of the rookery known as the Holy Land for the number of Irish living one on top of the other in unrelenting poverty, he wondered how he could have ever believed he could create a better life for his family here than the one they’d had in Ireland. He hated the closeness of the buildings, the crushed spirit of the people, and the soot in the air from thousands, no, millions of chimneys.
Of course, the last time he’d lived in London, he’d been on his way to becoming a man of means. He’d been a student of the law at Lincoln’s Inn and the streets he’d walked had been vastly different. His future had been full of promise until he’d returned to Dublin and destroyed everything with his pride and arrogance.
At that moment, a half dozen children in ragged clothes dashed past him on the chase for a rat one of them had spied. Their mothers sat on the front stoop sucking down gin and laughing wildly at some joke one of them had shared. They fell silent, their expressions speculative, when a a party of barefoot, unkempt sailors newly off their ship swaggered by on their way to one of the area’s many brothels. Meanwhile, in the entrance of a supposed butcher’s shop, pickpockets, lazy and in good humor from working richer areas, haggled with the “butcher” over fencing their stolen goods.
Ian walked through the party of sailors. They had the good sense to move out of his way as he knew they would.
He was a big man, a hard one, and willing to use his size to his advantage. The wide brim of the hate he wore low over his eyes added to his dangerous air. His hand rested on the strap of the leather knapsack he’d stolen off the body of a dead French soldier during the war. In it was everything he owned including the flintlock pistol that could get him transported if it was found on his person. The English didn’t feel comfortable around an Irishman walking their streets with a gun.
Not that they would need the gun as a reason to see Ian gone.
A whore sitting in the window across the street called in greeting, “Well, look who has finally returned home.” She leaned forward, her breasts practically tumbling out of her bodice. “Hey, Campion, are you going to give me a go this time?”
Ducking into the narrow, open doorway of a corner building, Ian ignored her as he always did. He didn’t consort with whores. Instead, he had a single-mindedness of purpose that over the past years had practically turned him into a monk. There was no time in his life for women or other pleasurable pursuits. Not when he had a family to support.
The rickety stairs groaned under his booted tread. Sound carried through the thin walls. A baby cried for milk. A man and woman argued, an argument that came to an abrupt end with the sound of a fist hitting flesh. A door slammed and there was silence, then crying. Ian stepped out of the way as a heavy jowled man, his eyes red from drinking, barreled past him down the stairs.
Three more flights up, Ian reached home, the floor of the flat he shared with his two sisters and their children. But what he saw made his heart stop.
The door to the flat had been broken off its hinges. It hung cock-eyed and loose, the wood splintered.
Alarmed, he charged in, his fists clenched and ready to do battle. However, instead of a deadly crime, he ran in on the sight of the little ones, Johnny and Maeve gathered around the table saying their grace before being served their supper. His sudden, angry entrance startled his sister Janet who stood over them. With an alarmed cry, she dropped the wooden platter she was holding. The supper sausages hit the floor but the children didn’t care. Immediately recognizing him, they leaped from their chairs, their arms wide.
“Uncle Ian,” they shouted in unison. Johnny tackled his knees while Maeve stretched her arms for him to take her up, which he did.
“You’re prickly,” Maeve laughingly complained, rubbing her fist against his beard stubble. “And you have a cut, too.” Maeve, no older than five but a sweet gentle soul, traced the line above his eye where Tommy Harrigan’s beefy knuckles had split the skin open.
“It’s nothing but a nuisance,” he assured her and then addressed his nephew, “Johnny, you’re growing so fast you’re about to knock me over.” He’d been gone less than a month but children changed rapidly at this age.
His words only served to make the lad determined to do more damage. There was nothing for Ian to do but set Maeve down and give her brother the quick wrestle he so dearly wanted.
Janet broke them up. “Here now, that is enough. Welcome home, brother.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek at about the same time his other sister Fiona, the oldest of the three of them, walked in the door. They were all dark-headed, the girls with eyes so blue they sparkled like jewels while Ian had the sharp, silvery gray ones of his father.
“Ian,” Fiona greeted him with undisguised relief. “I am so glad to see you home.”
“What happened to the door?” he asked.
“Later,” she whispered as she gave him a sisterly kiss. “After the children have eaten.”
He pulled out the cloth pouch he wore on a cord around his neck. Taking it off over his head, he tossed it to Janet. “There’s not as much as I’d hoped there. At the fair in Birmingham I ran into a lad who was half a head taller and had a punch like a mule’s. I ended up having to give him half of what I had planned to bring home.”
“Someone beat you?” Johnny asked incredulously.
“There’s always someone that can beat you, lad. A wise man chooses his fights carefully,” Ian advised him.
“Then you shouldn’t have fought him,” Maeve said.
The common sense of her words startled a laugh out of Ian and he agreed. “Aye, and, Johnny, I have no desire to see you using your fists for a living.”
“I want to be like you.”
“And I want you to be a better man than I.” His words echoed those that his father had once said to him, words he’d not fulfilled. “Now sit up at the table and eat your dinner.”
Janet had picked up the sausages and settled the children down to their meal. A hungry child didn’t waste food, even if it had been on the floor. Besides, in spite of the squalor around them, Janet’s floor was so clean a duchess could have eaten off of it and been satisfied.
“Here.” Fiona motioned him over to the table. “We’ve some cheese and a slice of that good bread you like so much. It tastes almost the way Mother used to bake it.” At the mention of the word cheese, both children looked up longingly.
“Share it,” Ian told Janet as he tossed his hat on a nail in the wall. He took his shaving kit from his knapsack and dropped the bag on the floor by a table leg. After washing the dust of travel off his hands and face in a chipped washbasin, taking extra care with the soap to get his nails clean, he shaved. The shadow of his beard gave him a disreputable air, an air that embarrassed him, especially around the children.
Finishing the last stroke of his razor, he noticed there was one sausage left in the pan. “Where is Liam?” he asked, drying his hands on a rag. Liam was the son of Fiona and the man who had been his best friend in the world.
“Out,” Fiona said but there was a brightness in her eyes and a wariness in Jane’s Ian didn’t trust.
Something was not right.
Not touching the meager meal before him, he waited impatiently until the children were excused from the table to go play with the prized doll and lead soldiers he had brought them back from France when he’d returned from the war over a year ago. “What happened to the door?” he demanded in a low voice once the thought Maeve and Johnny were well occupied.
Janet shot an anxious look at Fiona. But her sister answered calmly, “Things have changed in the weeks since you’ve been gone. Liam is running with a bad crowd and glad I am you have returned home to set him to rights. I was out looking for him before you arrived.”
“He’s only nine,” Ian said. “He shouldn’t be running the streets.”
“Try and stop him,” Janet said, cleaning the table. “We have and naught has come of it.” She leaned close to Ian to say in an under voice, “And I worry about Johnny. Until you returned it was Liam he wanted to ape. Glad I am that you are back.”
Back to do what? Ian wanted to ask in frustration. For the past ten months, he’d been living by his wits to make money. Every time they seemed to get a bit ahead, some disaster struck like the croup that had almost claimed Maeve’s life or a hike in the bloody rent. Lately, he’d taken to traveling to village fairs looking for bare-fisted fights. The money was good and he hoped to make a name for himself and fight in London where the money was better. However, the giant in Birmingham had been a setback to his plans.
Still, he was determined to get his sisters and their children out of London. Their husbands had been soldiers like himself. They’d given their lives in England’s war against Napoleon without having anything to show for it save for widows and hungry children.
All he needed was one bit of luck, one opportunity to rise above all of this and free them from the nightmare of what their lives had become. He owed it to his sisters because he responsible for where they were now. It had been his rash actions, his foolish defiance that had cost his family their land and their fortune.
“It’s not your fault,” Fiona said quietly, reading his mind.
“It isn’t?” he asked bitterly. “If I hadn’t been such a fool–”
Janet shushed him with a pointed gaze for both of them at the children. “It’s past. Done. If it hadn’t been you, then the Humphries and the English would have found another reason for stealing out land. Even Father said so.”
Ian had his doubts.
“Recriminations are a waste of time,” Janet said firmly.
He nodded. She was right. It was their future that should concern him. “What of the door?”
Johnny, whom they had thought wasn’t listening, was the one who answered proving Janet’s concerns right. “A man came looking for Liam. A big, ugly man. Mama wouldn’t open the door and he broke it in. He woke me up. Maeve, too. She cried but I didn’t.”
“You cried, too,” his sister answered. Janet hushed them.
Anger made Ian dangerous. “Did he find Liam?”
“Not that I know,” Fiona said. The tight clasp of her hands in her lap belied her external air of composure. “But, Ian, I can’t find him.”
“He didn’t come home at all?”
“No.” The word cut the air. Her jaw tightened as she said, “The landlord wants to charge the price of five doors for the damage.”
The money in the cloth purse now seemed a pittance. “I’ll take care of it,” Ian promised, his temper rising. He’d shake the bastard by his neck until he came to his senses.
Suddenly, there was the sound of footsteps running up the stairs and then a pale faced Liam appeared in the doorway. Ian recognized the hardened expression of a boy being forced to grow up too fast.
Fiona was up from her chair and ready to throw her arms around him but Ian demanded, “Where have you been?”
Liam shrugged off a reply and his mother, something he wouldn’t have done several weeks ago. Instead, he said, “There is gent here in the neighborhood to see you, Ian. He’s been asking for you at Boney’s.” Boney’s was the pub around the corner and not a place for young boys. His voice was also losing the soft lilt of their native country and in its place was the edge of the streets.
Ian rose to his good six feet and more. “Didn’t I tell you to stay away from the pubs?”
Liam’s chin came up, before he hesitated and then bowed his head slightly, an acceptance of his uncle’s authority.
But for how much longer?
“What does the man want?” Ian asked.
“I don’t know,” Liam answered. “He’s on his way here right now. He’s driving a big coach and his horses–! Gawd, Ian, you ought to see them. Matched grays. They are the handsomest I’ve ever seen.”
There was a movement, a shadow by the door. His reflexes honed by years of war, Ian pulled Liam and Fiona behind them and faced the door just as a gentleman dressed in a green striped coat with a cherry vest moved with the silence of a cat to stand in the doorway. He wore his impossibly black hair combed forward into curls fringing his forehead. His hat was a green silk to match his coat. “The boy is a good messenger,” the gentleman said. “They told me at the pub if I were to follow him, I would find you.”
“What do you want me for?” he asked the man coldly.
“‘Tis not I who want you, but my employer, Dunmore Harrell. You have heard of him?”
Who hadn’t heard of “Pirate” Harrell, the Scotsman who had made a fortune for himself in trade through hard work and unorthodox investing and was now accepted in the highest circles? Harrell had even married the widow of a duke. There was not a man who wanted to make something better of himself who did not admire him.
“What does he want with me?” Ian asked.
“My name is Parker and we have a job for you, Mr. Campion. We’ve heard you are a man with a talent for doing what is necessary.”
“And how did you here that?” Ian asked, wary and all too conscious of Liam listening. There were things he’d had to do to earn money he’d rather not have his family know.
Parker sensed his reticence. He looked Ian right in the eye and said, “From your satisfied employers of course.”
Ian weighed the risk. It would do not harm to listen to what the man had to say. “My service doesn’t come cheap and I’ll not do anything illegal,” he lied.
The foppish Parker smiled. “We didn’t think you would, sir. As to the particulars, perhaps you will be kind enough to step downstairs with me? A coach awaits to take us to see Mr. Harrell.”
Fiona placed her hand on Ian’s arm. “Be careful, brother,” she whispered. She claimed she had the gift of the sight and although Ian often had his doubts concerning her supposed powers, he was not one to ignore good advice.
“Should I not go?”
Her sudden urgency made him pause. She squeezed his arm. “Go. You must go.”
Ian didn’t like his sudden doubts but he forced them aside. What harm was there in hearing what a man like Harrell had to offer? Had he not just been wishing for a piece of luck?
He covered her hand with his. “I’ll be back shortly. Hand me my knapsack.” Reaching for his hat, he turned to Liam. “Watch the family-and that means you don’t go out.”
The lad nodded solemnly.