Sneak Peek: Fit for Freedom
A sequel to Defying Conventions
The odor was as foul as it always had been: a pungent mix of liquor, sweat, carcasses, bird scat, and blood. For his part, Nat Aldridge didn’t see the appeal at all. A crowd of unwashed, shouting men, throwing away their hard-earned money betting on which of a pair of gamecocks could kill the other. At this particular ring the fowl were not equipped with the metal spurs typical elsewhere. What possible interest such a stipulation could add to the bloody affair did not occur to Nat. He would be the first to admit he was a ruffian, but he reasoned that he had seen enough blood-soaked ground during the war. Only Mr. Tobin’s business was enough to force him into such a pit of foolishness and gratuitous carnage.
Gazing across the pit, he spied his mark, who stuck out like a silver spoon in a pile of horse dung. With all the noise and shadows and putrid air, it was an easy matter to work his way around the ring and sidle right up next to the man without being detected. He put his pistol in the man’s rib cage and then, at a serendipitous lull of near-silence in the commotion, cocked the hammer.
“Good evening to you, Mr. Smith.” Nat sensed the tightening of every muscle in the man’s body. “Or shall I call you--”
“Please don’t!” the man pleaded with a gasp.
“You know precisely why I’m here then and who’s sent me don’t you . . . sir?”
The man managed a nod.
“You know, you really should be more careful. The next time you want to blend in with the masses, you should consult an expert such as myself. Step over here with me for a trifling moment then, sir--that is, if you don’t want your bowels splattered across the pit like that cock’s about to be.”
They turned to go, Nat keeping the barrel of the pistol pressed firmly into the man’s side and the other hand clamped on the opposite shoulder. As they left, a raucous cheer, followed by a groan of similar volume, went up from the crowd. Nat’s prediction about the fate of the gamecock had come true, it seemed.
Stepping outside into the muggy air of the spring evening, Nat released the man who, wisely, did not try to run.
“Turn out your pockets . . . if you please,” Nat said, lowering the pistol.
“There’s no need for that,” the man said flatly. Reaching into his vest he retrieved a well-worn, leather billfold, and pulled out several notes. “I believe that will cover the balance, will it not?”
Nat counted the bills one at a time. “Yes, that will do.”
The man stepped to one side to return to the pit, but Nat blocked his way with a hand to the chest.
“While I have your attention, let me give you a bit of advice.”
The man seemed as annoyed as he was frightened, but did not resist.
“This is no way for a young gentleman to conduct himself, now is it, sir? In fact, were a certain magistrate who lives quite near to the City Tavern to discover that you had been so badly delinquent in the payment of so many debts--especially debts owed to such a well-respected man as Mr. Tobin--why, that magistrate might be forced to reconsider whether a young gentleman was a fit suitor for his one and only daughter. Wouldn’t you say so, sir?
The man gave Nat a look that could not be mistaken: given the chance he would have strangled Nat on the spot, even in broad daylight, had he not been sure that he would be dead before he even put his fingers on the older man’s throat.
“Quite right,” he hissed through gritted teeth.
Nat stepped aside. His message had been received clearly. Whether the arrogant young fop would actually heed the warning was another matter altogether. His rushing back into the noxious miasma of the cock fight did not bode well.
Nat stuffed the wad of notes in his pocket before turning to head back to Mr. Tobin’s office. The businessman always seemed to keep late hours recently. That suited Nat since he most often found it to his advantage to carry out his duties under cover of darkness. Of course, presenting the notes directly to Mr. Tobin was unnecessary; he could just as easily wait until morning and give them to the counting clerk.
Nevertheless, for as little as they had in common in terms of upbringing and other life experiences, Nat always found his employer’s conversation engaging. No one would ever see them as equals--not even Nat’s closet full of nice clothes would transform him in the eyes of many--but during these nocturnal dialogues he almost felt as if they were equals, as if the subtle but persistent prejudices that attached themselves to his previous condition of poverty hid themselves at least until the sun returned.
He turned a corner and was met with the sound of singing. It was a bawdy tune that remained familiar to him; he had sung it many times. Tonight the discordant, ale-soaked notes floated across the street to his ears from an establishment every bit as familiar to him as the song itself: The Dancing Rooster tavern. Stepping into the street, he hummed a few bars of the chorus and could almost taste the bitter ale that had drenched so many of his nights and days in years gone by. He had been miserable through all of it; he knew that now. But there had always been moments when it had felt truly good, when he had felt at home. Every so often he still wondered whether he could regain that feeling, whether all it would take would be the short trip to the bottom of a few frothy mugs.
A horse clopped by within inches of his face and Nat awoke from his reminiscence. He gazed once more at the warm glow from the hearth that had always made the Dancing Rooster seem irresistibly enticing and then continued on his way. Perhaps there would be a day when he could safely set foot in all the old places he used to go, but it would not be tonight. It would not be any night that he was working for Mr. Tobin. He had promised that much and he meant to keep his promise.
I’ll begin to publish the rest of this novel in parts, starting in July. Although you can probably read this one as a standalone story, if you’re interested in seeing what happened to these characters before, you can read the previous short novel in this series, Defying Conventions, here.