The taproom fell silent as the tall figure filled the doorway. Everyone knew who the new arrival was. A frisson of fear ran around the smoke-filled bar. Robert Mason. He was sharp as a tack and as slippery as an eel. He looked at you like he could see into your soul and found it wanting. He was colloquially known as Black Bob, although no one knew whether that was due to the colour of his hair or the colour of his soul.
No one spoke as Mason’s boots rang out on the stripped wooden floorboards. He sat down in one of the snugs in the furthermost corner of the smoke-filled taproom and waited for Sally, the resident barmaid of the Crow and Crosskeys, to make her way over to him.
Mason unholstered his musket and placed it gently on the tabletop where everyone who cared to look could see it. He couldn’t have repulsed any overtures of friendship or curiosity more clearly had he erected a huge sign saying, “FAKE AWAY OFF CULLEYS.”
“Ya better put that stick away afore the crushers drag you off to be crap’d.”
Mason looked up to see the curvaceous Sally, hands-on-hips, bosom bubbling over her bodice, her white frilled cap doing a jig in time with her head as she nodded at the firearm on the table.
Mason grinned up at her. “Crap’d?”
“Crap’d stretched, scragged, hanged, Cap’n, hanged.”
Robert Mason was not a captain, he had never seen military service, nor did he intend to, but Sally referred to him as Captain because he always wore a long frock coat, double-breasted, adorned with brass buttons. The coat was of dark blue fustian, warm in winter with deep inside pockets, capable of hiding a whole army of firearms and a blade or two. One of these blades he withdrew and laid it on the table, keeping the musket company.
“What’s that for? Chivving?” Sally nodded at the weapon, making her cap dance once more.
“Cutting! Lord love us, ya ain’t half hard to talk to.” Sally slid her well-formed backside into the seat opposite Mason. She looked pointedly at him across the tabletop leaning on her forearms to afford him a better view of her cleavage, the saucy minx.
Mason had an oval-shaped face with two eyes the colour of ocean spray on either side of a knife blade nose. A wide, mobile mouth sat above a slightly cleft chin. Lucy thought he was a brutal but good-looking man, shame about how he earned his coin.
“Ya carry on the way you are an’ ya going to end up dancin’ at the end of Jemmy Botting’s rope.”
Mason smiled at her earnestness. “I have no intention of meeting with Mr. Botting or any of his associates."
Botting was the zealous overseer of Newgate Gaol and took great relish in personally taking charge of every hanging conducted there.
“They don’t like scamps, no matter how much of a swell ya are.” Sally nodded sagely at him.
“They’ll have to catch me first, dear heart, and considering I have one of the fastest horses in England, my chances of being hanged are very slim.” Mason smiled reassuringly at Sally.
“Ever been to a scraggin’ Cap’n?”
Mason shook his head, his eyes never leaving her face.
“Good business, they are, Cap’n, some punters’ll pay ten shillings to see a cove get his neck stretched, and the local places put on a good breakfast after, devil’s kidneys are the go, folks love a good devilled kidneys after seein’ a long drop.”
Mason, who had been feeling quite hungry up to that point, felt his stomach begin to do slow somersaults. As a rule, he was not a squeamish man, but he preferred a quick death to a drawn-out one, slowly strangling at the end of a newly cut rope. If the condemned were lucky, they could pay a few pence to the hangman who would swing on their legs, quickening their demise.
Mason cleared his throat meaningfully. Sally, misinterpreting the cough, said, “Alright, Cap’n, I’ll get something to wet ya whistle,” and sliding her bottom out of the seat, sashayed her way back to the bar, the optics gleaming in the candlelight.
Mason mused on the night’s happenings in the wake of her departure. Only one paltry coach making its way into London. He had sat for hours on the city road, watching the sunset in a bruised sky, the last vestiges of light reflected in the mighty Thames as it made its sulky way past Putney and into the heart of the seething metropolis.
He had almost begun to give up hope of anything when he heard the faint clop of hooves in the distance, and his mare, Bess, pricked up her ears.
“I know, Girl, I can hear it too,” he murmured, stroking her neck.
She whickered back at him by way of reply – Mason could feel her begin to fidget with the knowledge that some action was about to take place.
As the modest-looking carriage pulled by two horses lumbered into sight, Mason knotted the reins behind Bess’s neck, pulled his handkerchief up over the lower half of his face, drew both muskets out of their hiding places, checked the priming and cocked them. He nudged the mare forward with his knees, but she was an old hand at this and barely required any instructions.
“Halt and stand! Your money or your life!" he bellowed, pointing both pieces at the driver, who, at first glance, appeared to have nodded off, but his head snapped up at Mason’s shout, jerking on the reins, see-sawing them in his panic. The horses reared, stamping, and the hapless driver took a few minutes to get them back under control.
At this fracas, a grey wigged head appeared at one of the sash windows, hastily withdrawing when it espied Mason.
By this time, the horses were under a tight rein, and with one firearm pointed at the driver, Mason extended the barrel of the other musket to tap gently on the carriage’s window.
LEARN MORE AND FOLLOW ELLIE ATKINSON