It was as he sauntered over that something he was hold-ing in his other hand caught my eye, and I realized what a mistake I’d made.
It was a tiny blade and his eyes were fixed on her arm, where her purse hung on a ribbon.
Oh God, I realized. A cut-purse. Young Albert was a cut-purse.
“You little bastard,” I said under my breath, and immediately set off across the harbour after him.
By then he was halfway between us, but being small was able to slip between the seething crowds more quickly. I saw Caroline, oblivious to the approaching danger—danger that I had inadvertently sent into her path.
The next thing I saw were three men, who were also making their way towards Caroline. Three men I recognized: Matthew Hague, his skinny writing companion, and his minder, Wilson. Inwardly I cringed. Even more so when I saw Wilson’s eyes flick from Caroline to Albert and back again. He was good, you could tell. In a heartbeat he had seen what was about to happen.
I stopped. For a second I was totally flummoxed and didn’t know what to do next.
“Oi,” shouted Wilson, his gruff tones cutting across the endless squawking, chatting, hawking of the day.
“Oi, you!” He surged forward but Albert had reached Caroline and in one almost impossibly fast and fluid gesture his hand snaked out, the ribbon of Caroline’s purse was cut and the tiny silk bag dropped neatly into Albert’s other hand.
Caroline didn’t notice the theft but she couldn’t fail to see the huge figure of Wilson bearing down upon her and she cried out in surprise, even as he lunged past her and grabbed Albert by the shoulders.
“This young rapscallion has something that belongs to you, miss,” roared Wilson, shaking Albert so hard that the silk purse dropped to the floor.
Her eyes went to the purse, then to Albert.
“Is this true?” she said, though the evidence was in front of her eyes, and in fact, currently sat in a small pile of horse manure by their feet.
“Pick it up, pick it up,” Hague was saying to his skinny companion, having just arrived and already beginning to behave as though it was he who had apprehended the knife-wielding youth and not his six-and-a-half-foot minder.
“Teach the young ruffian a lesson, Wilson.” Hague waved his hand as though attempting to ward off some especially noxious flatulence.
“With pleasure, sir.”
There were still several feet between me and them. He was held fast but Albert’s eyes swivelled from looking terrified at Wilson to where I stood in the crowd and as our eyes met, he stared at me beseechingly.
I clenched my teeth. That little bastard, he had been about to ruin all of my plans and there he was, looking to me for help. The cheek of him.
But then Wilson, holding him by the scruff of the neck with one hand, drove his fist into Albert’s stomach and that was it for me. That same sense of injustice I felt at the tavern was reignited and in a second I was shoving through the crowd to Albert’s aid.
“Hey,” I shouted. Wilson swung to see me, and though he was bigger than me, and far uglier than me, I’d just seen him hit a child and my blood was up. It’s not an especially gentlemanly way to conduct a fight, but I knew from experience both as giver and receiver that there was no quicker and cleaner way to put a man down, so I did it. I led with the knee. My knee into his bollocks, to be precise, so quick and so hard that where one second Wilson was a snarling huge bully about to meet my attack, the next he was a snivelling mewling heap of a man, his hands grasping at his groin as he arrived on the floor.
Heedless of Matthew Hague’s outraged screaming, I grabbed Albert. “Say sorry to the lady,” I ordered him, with finger in his face.
“Sorry, miss,” said Albert obediently.
“Now hop it,” I said, and pointed him off down the harbour. He needed no second invitation and in a trice was gone, prompting even more protestations from Matthew Hague, and I thanked God that at least Albert was out of the picture and unable to do me in.
I had saved Albert from getting a worse beating but my victory was short-lived. Wilson was already on his feet and though his bollocks must have been throbbing something rotten, he wasn’t feeling anything at that moment except rage. He was quick too and before I had time to react had grabbed me and was holding me firm. I tried to pull away, dipping one shoulder and driving my fist up towards his solar plexus, but I didn’t have the momentum and he used his body to block me, grunting as much with satisfaction as with effort as he dragged me bodily across the harbour, people scattering before him. In a fair fight I would have had a chance, but he used his superior strength and his sudden rage-fuelled spurt of speed to his advantage, and in the next moment my feet were kicking in thin air as he flung me off the side of the harbour.
Well, I always dreamed of taking to the high seas, and with the sound of laughter ringing in my ears I pulled myself to the nearest rope ladder and began to climb out. Caroline, Rose, Hague and his two men had already gone; I saw a hand reach to help me up.
“Here, mate, let me help you with that,” said a voice. I looked up gratefully, about to clasp the hand of my Samaritan, only to see the leering face of Tom Cobleigh peering over the harbour’s edge at me.
“Well, the things you see when you’re out without your musket,” he said and there was nothing I could do to prevent his fist smashing into my face, sending me off the rope ladder and back into the water.
Tom Cobleigh had made himself scarce, but Wilson must have doubled back. Chances are, he saw to it that Hague and Caroline were okay then made haste back to the harbour and found me sitting on a set of steps licking my wounds. He passed across my light and I looked up to see him, heart sinking.
“If you’ve come back to try that again,” I said, “I won’t make it quite so easy for you this time.”
“I have no doubt,” he replied without so much as flinching, “but I’m not here to pitch you back in the sea, Kenway.”
At that I looked sharply at him.
“That’s right, boy, I have my spies, and my spies tell me that a young gentleman by the name of Edward Kenway has been asking questions about Caroline Scott. This same young gentleman by the name of Edward Kenway was involved in a fight outside the Auld Shillelagh on the road to Hatherton last week. That same day Miss Scott was also on the road to Hatherton because her maidservant had absconded and that you and Miss Scott had cause to speak following your altercation.”
He came so close I could smell the stale coffee on his breath. Proof, if proof were needed, that he wasn’t in the slightest bit intimidated—not by me nor by my fearsome reputation.