It was a hanging offense if he got caught. Jem knew that. But he also knew he could get half a crown for the act and sleep with a full belly tonight. Now he just had to decide if the gent in the fancy waistcoat was a real customer or a troublemaker setting him up to take a fall. Another glance at the expensive carriage waiting on the street convinced him the dark-haired man was the former. A beak wouldn't get that elaborate in his attempt to set up a whore. He might approach him in a tavern or on the street and whisper a furtive request, but wouldn't hire a rich man's carriage to complete the ruse. Would he?
Jem looked into the man's eyes, trying to read them, but it was a dark night. The fog rose along with the stench from the rubbish in the alleys and crept out to claim the London streets. A man could hardly see his own hand, let alone a stranger's face, in the swirling gray.
"Will you take a ride?" the man asked again. Street slang decoded the words to mean the cove wasn't just seeking fast relief. This wouldn't be a quick tour around a couple of streets and back again. The man wanted a full ride.
Jem decided he'd give it to him. He shrugged. "Cold night. Aye, I'll take a ride with you."
The gentry cove nodded and gestured for Jem to go first into the carriage. He climbed the step and slid across the seat, breathing in the delicious aroma of leather, tobacco, and wealth. He'd wished for shelter from the frigid wind, and it appeared his wish had been granted for now. No fool, he'd take a little warmth while he could get it.
He looked out the small window at the street he knew so well--or what he could see of it through the fog and the night. The buildings looked different from this high perch, more squalid and decrepit than he'd realized. His heart beat faster; Jem was both excited and nervous at the prospect of an evening spent somewhere better. Sure, it was only for a few hours and only because this man wanted to bugger his rear. But for a few fleeting moments he'd be out of this hell and in a warm place. Maybe even a plush hotel room.
Jem studied his temporary employer as the man climbed into the carriage and sat across from him. It was as dark as the inside of a slut's cunny, but Jem could make out a few details of the man's face and figure. He was of medium height and build, not too old, but no youth either. His dark hair was cut short and brushed straight back from his high forehead. The style wasn't the high pompadour currently in fashion for society fops, nor was his cravat so elaborate that it forced his chin up. In fact, if Jem had to guess the man's status or profession, he might have said the clergy from the plainness of his dress.
"What's your name?" The low voice floated to him in the intimate darkness of the carriage like a seductive caress. Jem's cock hardened in his breeches. Tonight would be no chore at all. He'd enjoy being fucked for his supper.
"You call me whatever you like" was his stock answer.
There was a long pause before the man spoke again. "I'd like to know your name."
"Jem." He didn't ask for the man's name. It wasn't his place. Jem patted the seat beside him. "Do you want to come over here? I can make it a pleasant ride to wherever you're taking me."
The movement of the man's head shaking was almost indiscernible in the shadow. "No. I'd prefer...to take some time and learn a little about you."
"Fair enough." Jem bobbed his chin. "I'm a working lad. Live in Southwark, will probably die here. I've tried my hand at a number of different business ventures and found my current occupation the most lucrative."
He grinned, enjoying the sound of his own voice. He loved to mimic the swells' speech and mannerisms--his way of taunting them and showing his disdain.
"How old are you?" was the next question.
Knowing most customers liked to at least pretend they were plowing virgin territory, Jem subtracted half a dozen years from his age. "Thirteen."
His host chuckled softly, clearly not fooled into thinking week-old haddock was freshly caught. "Is that so?"
"All right. Fifteen," Jem lied again. Nineteen wasn't nearly as attractive to prospective customers. "But those extra years bring experience from which you'll greatly benefit, sir."
Another breathless laugh. Not actual amusement, and Jem wondered what the man's problem was that he had to talk and laugh instead of getting straight to work. To the good part.
"What's funny, then, sir?" Jem didn't like the frisson of fear that ghostly laugh gave him.
"Nothing at all, I expect." The voice was soft yet clipped, the voice of authority. The dark figure in the corner shifted. The gent added, almost silently, "I am quite glad one of us has some experience."
Jem wanted to laugh, make a ribald comment, but he wouldn't because he wasn't supposed to have heard.
The carriage jolted, and he grabbed for a hold. He was thrown toward the other man, knocked against the hard warmth of him. The gentleman grabbed him easily and hauled him upright, then almost threw Jem back onto the seat--away from his corner. A swell though he was--no doubt about that--the man had some muscle on him, and he moved fast for one who'd been drinking. For the instant he'd been against him, Jem dragged in a lungful of air and caught the scent of brandy.
"Didn't mean to launch myself at you, sir. Not unless invited," he said and waited for the man's laugh, which didn't come.
Jem wondered if he should mention money now or suggest the man might be hungry, because he sure as hell was gutfoundered and wouldn't mind stopping for a bite. He wasn't fool enough to bring up the matter. It was up to the gentleman to set their course. Jem repressed a sigh.
"Have you ever been out of London?"
Not a moment of his life, but why did the gent care? What was his game? "Naturally I got the country estate," Jem said. "Hunting, shooting, and what have you, all the livelong day. Cows," he added. "Sheep."
"Jem." The voice was softer than ever. "Is that short for Jeremy?"
Fine, there wouldn't be jesting, and a well-developed sense of self-preservation told Jem to stick to the truth as much as possible. "Naw. Just Jem." No last names shared between men like them.
Near the middle of the night, rumbling through the streets muffled in fog, the dark interior of the carriage--anything might happen. They slowed. Over the thud of the horses' hooves and rumble of the wheels, Jem heard his own breathing coming fast. And he felt the slight rise of fear in his gut. He was no coward, but something about the unknown, very still gentleman in the corner of the carriage touched nerves in the most unlikely places. For instance, his cock was growing even harder.
The peculiar etiquette of the situation said he shouldn't ask, but he did anyway. "Where're we off to, then, sir?" He was pleased by his attempt at cheery nonchalance.
"My home. We're nearly there."
Not married, then. Or the cat was away and the mouse was playing. Only this was no mouse. The carriage stopped, the door opened, and for the first time, Jem saw the coachman. His smile froze. "Gawd," he whispered.
The devil had been driving them. A huge, hulking devil with a great scar down his face. Two great scars. Part of an ear was gone. Jem had seen plenty of mangled and scarred souls in his time--who hadn't?--but this one would have sent the children running and screaming even before he'd lost chunks of his face. He loomed over them.
"Badgeman." Jem's host ignored Jem as he spoke to the coachman. "Take my...guest round to the kitchen. I think it best that he bathe. Some of Jonathan's clothes will fit him, I believe."
The devil driver grunted and stood back. The gent stepped out. He nodded at the hideous coachman. Their faces were easy to make out by the oil lantern. They wore the same grim expression. Blank. Dark. Jem could read nothing warm or good in those two.
Jem swallowed hard and wondered if this was the moment he jumped out and ran to freedom. But curiosity, an empty stomach, and the knowledge that he carried a handy little knife kept him still. And desire. Don't forget that, he mocked himself. He'd been in a state of semiarousal since getting into the big rattling carriage.
Before he could slide out of the carriage, the driver ordered "wait." The door slammed shut. Jem clutched the knife and sat forward in the dark. He didn't have to wait long. The carriage lurched. The horses walked forward for less than thirty seconds.
When the door opened again, the monster stood outside, haloed by fog, his boots and the bottom of his long black greatcoat surrounded by the stuff so he looked as if he were rising from the swirling smoke of hell.
Jem tucked away the blade and stepped out as if he were royalty exiting a coach in front of a cheering crowd. He had an unfortunate method for facing fear: annoy whoever provoked it. At the moment it felt as if he had no choice. "Mr. Badger," he drawled and bowed.
"Badgeman," the man rumbled. "Come, then." He turned on his heel and strode toward a door.
Jem looked the building up and down. Large, granite, imposing. And this was the servants' entrance. "So, Badger." He did a passable imitation of cheeriness. "How many men have you two lured into this den of yers? Regular activity, is it? Once a week you two go out, pick up an unsuspecting young cove, and bathe him?"
The groom turned and stared at him. "Never before."
Jem believed him. Poor Badger fretted over his employer for good reason, then. "Ah, that's why you're worried? You're the monster, not me. I ain't out to harm your master."
"Worried about you?" For the first time something like a smile twisted the man's face. Only one side. The other side of his mouth was cut by a scar that ran from his cheek to his chin. The cut must have hit something that made it impossible to smile.
"Then you always look like you lost your best friend? You and your master?"
The single eyebrow went up. Badgeman didn't move for a moment, and then he said, "Badajoz. 'Tis the anniversary."
"Oh." Jem had no idea who or what a Badajoz was, although the word sounded familiar. "Anniversaries are the devil, ain't they? Hardly bear it when that date rolls round again. All them bad memories. Or do I mean good ones?"
"Shut it," Badgeman said without heat. "Wait out here." He went inside the building, and Jem leaned against the wall. He shoved his trembling hands into his tattered waistcoat pockets.
Softly, so none of the neighbor houses could hear, he began to whistle a bawdy song. Quality didn't usually bring a man like him home. Didn't want to shit where they lived, so to speak. It was a dangerous proposition to let a street lad in. The servants might gossip about what their master was up to, or the dirty rascal might nick the best silver. Lord Muckety-muck was either a naive fool or confident that Jem wouldn't dare cross him.
A chill breeze cut through his coat, and Jem hunched his shoulders, shivering. One more minute; that's all he'd give, and then he was leaving, even though it meant hoofing it all the way back to Crowder Street.
The back door opened, and the mountain filling its frame beckoned him. "Come in. Your bath's ready."
Jem made a show of sniffing himself. "What, am I a little too rank for his lordship?"
"In here." The Badger directed him through the entryway to the kitchen. A fire burned low on the hearth, and a copper tub filled with steaming water stood before it. Jem had never had more than a quick scrub in a basin of water in his entire life, unless one counted an occasional swim in the Thames on a hot summer's day.
He stared at the water, then at the coachman or manservant, whichever he was. "You want me to get in that?"
The big man had taken off his coat and wore only his shirtsleeves and braces. He folded his arms over his chest. "Strip."
"With you watchin'? Are you gonna scrub me too, while the master looks on? I'd have to charge extra for that."
It was like talking to a rock. The man showed no expression. "Take off your clothes, and wash yourself. There's soap and a rag on the stand by the tub and a towel to dry off with after."
Jem considered for a moment, but just then, the wind rattled the windowpane, and he knew he didn't want to go back out into the cold just yet. He'd see how this played out and hope he didn't find himself later with his throat cut, dead in an alley. He shrugged off his coat, let it drop to the floor, and began to unbutton his shirt.
Old Badger gazed off into space, not watching him. He was there to guard the silver, no doubt. Wise decision.
Jem took off his shoes and breeches, and when he was completely naked, he padded across the cold flagstones to the bath and tested it with one hand. The water was deliciously warm. He glanced over his shoulder at the servant, but the man was still giving him privacy by ignoring him completely.
Gingerly Jem stepped over the edge of the tub, and his leg sank into the water. He paused for a moment, almost afraid to take his other foot off the floor. But he couldn't hang there forever, so he took the plunge.
As he sank into the water, the level rose until he was covered nearly to his neck. Once he'd adjusted to the heat and the odd sensation of floating, he found it heavenly. He reached for the flannel, wet it, and rubbed it over the soap. He scrubbed his face and rinsed it with a quick dip, the suds stinging his eyes. Then he washed the rest of his body leisurely, resuming his whistling as he soaped and splashed.
"The hair too. Master don't want your fleas hopping through his house."
Jem kept his mouth shut for once and did as he was told, submerging his head completely underwater and scrubbing his hair with the soap. Wasn't his place to argue if his customer wanted him clean, and truth to tell, the bath wasn't so bad. The heated water relaxed his muscles till they felt like jelly and warmed him to his very bones.
"Hurry along now," Badger urged as the water grew colder.
Jem reluctantly rose, toweled off his torso, then stepped out of the water, leaving a puddle on the floor, and dried his legs. He slung the towel around his hips and stared at Badgeman. "Now what?"
"Clothes are there. Put 'em on."
Jem picked up the trousers from the pile on the wooden chair. They were smooth broadcloth, finer than any fabric that had ever touched his body. The shirt was soft linen, white and as clean as snow before chimney soot got mixed up in it. So he was playing a role, then, maybe the part of someone Lord Fancy had loved and lost, which would explain all the talk about anniversaries. He'd give the gentleman his money's worth, put on his best impression of gentry, talk high-class, and pretend the bath had washed the stink of the gutter from him.
When Jem had dressed from his skin out, including slipping his feet into high, buckled shoes that were a bit too tight, he turned to Badgeman and drawled in a nasal tone, "Very well, then. I'm ready to meet his lordship. Lead on, sirrah."