The Notorious Scoundrel

By: Alexandra Benedict

Chapter 1





London, 1826

“I think he wants to stab us, Eddie.”

Edmund Hawkins set down the glass of gin and eyed the ne’er-do-well with a baleful expression. The bearded ruffian puffed out his chest in anticipation of a brawl; however, he quickly slunk off under the younger seaman’s glare.

Edmund might be four-and-twenty years of age, but he had lived a life as hard and dangerous as any cracks-man or murderer in the flash house, and his deadly stare—and meaty fists—proved it.

“He won’t stab us,” Edmund said with quiet confidence. “He’s changed his mind.”

Quincy chortled. He rubbed his eyes, red and swollen with fatigue. “We must be getting old. There was a time we would have started a scuffle with a brute twice our size.”

“Aye, I remember.” Edmund studied his brother, two years his junior. Quincy’s mussed, curly black hair and dark blue eyes matched Edmund’s own visage, yet the men’s temperaments differed considerably. “Perhaps we’re wiser now.”

Quincy humphed and tapped his thumb in an impatient manner across the grimy tabletop.

“You’re restless,” said Edmund.

“Aren’t you?”

He shrugged. “I’m home now.”

Edmund had entered the notorious public house, filled with all sorts of scheming criminals, putting the stresses at sea behind him. It was in the notorious public house he was most contented, for there was no hypocrisy within the establishment, just life in gruesome detail. It was where he belonged.

“What’s there to be restless about?” he wondered.

“Everything.” Quincy rubbed his tanned chin. He glanced at the table, then back at his kin. “Do you think we’ve made a mistake?”

Edmund understood his brother’s meaning, for he had wondered the same thought himself for many months now.

“I dunno. Maybe.”

Quincy sighed. “It’s not how I imagined it to be.”

Six months patrolling the coast of West Africa as privateers in the Royal Navy’s African Squadron had not produced the desired results for adventures. The endless, uneventful patrols stripped a mariner of all enthusiasm and spirit. The heavy rains and tremendous heat maintained the body in a constant state of discomfort. And when a ship was spotted, heavy in the water with her human cargo, there was often nothing they could do about it, even with a letter of marque authorizing them to stop any vessel suspected of slaving, for most British ships traveled under foreign papers and raised foreign flags, preventing the seamen from legally boarding them and confiscating the slaves.

Edmund swigged the gin. He remembered the first time he had sighted a British slaver. He remembered the thrill of the battle as the enemy vessel had put up a valiant fight to keep her precious cargo. She had lost, however. Edmund, Quincy, and a few other tars had boarded the ship as the prize crew, and had prepared to sail her into Freetown, where an Admiralty Prize Court had been established to deal with the illegal trade…but when he’d first entered the slave decks to release the shackled captives, he had been overwhelmed by the gruesome images: images that haunted him still.

“It can’t be guns and glory all the time, I suppose.” Edmund moved the glass across the table in an absentminded fashion. “We should enjoy the respite. We’ll have to set sail again in a few weeks.”

“I can’t sit here anymore.” Quincy lifted from his chair. “I’m off to my favorite haunt. Care to join me?”

“No.”

“Suit yourself.”

Quincy departed from the flash house in quick strides.

Edmund frowned. He was worried about his younger brother. Quincy’s favorite haunt was the opium den, and ever since he had tasted the seductive smoke from the Orient, about a year ago, he had grown more and more attached to the substance.

Edmund downed the rest of the gin and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. The door opened and the room soon filled with other nefarious characters.

He watched the spry figures order a round of spirits from the barkeep. The level of noise inside the public house increased dramatically, and it wasn’t difficult to overhear the men’s boisterous exchanges:

“A den o’ sin, ye say?”

“The most wi’ed in London.”

“Where is it?”

“Cove’ent Garden. There’s a coat o’ arms wiv a bull’s head above the door.”

“Well, what’s it li’e inside the club, ye ol’ bugger?”

“How the bleedin’ ’ell should I know?” He pointed at his coarse features. “Can’t ye see me blag eye?”

“Oh, it’s fer gen’lm’n.”

“Aye, the gatekeeper thought me a mudlark and trounced me.”

A barmaid delivered the ordered drinks then.

“Fanny ’ere will get ye a cold fish to put o’er that blag eye, ’iggins.”

Higgins snorted. “I’ll just get me wife to sit on it.”

The men guffawed.

The jaded Edmund half listened to the gossip, for there were many such establishments within the city, and all boasted similar lurid entertainments. However, the clubs tended to exaggerate their sinful amusements in the hopes of luring rich, young, and bored aristocrats within their walls. A fancy whorehouse might be a “den o’ sin,” but the most wicked in London? Edmund doubted the claim. And yet his brother had deserted him for more insalubrious pursuits, and he had little else to occupy his time.