(Fargo Adventures – 2)
LONDON, ENGLAND, 1864
THE MAN KNOWN AS JOTUN STRODE PURPOSEFULLY THROUGH the predawn fog, the collar of his peacoat up and a scarf wrapped loosely around his throat and mouth. His breath misted in the air before him.
He stopped walking suddenly and listened. Had he heard footfalls? He turned his head to the left, then the right. Somewhere ahead he heard a muffled click. A boot on cobblestone. Moving lightly for such a big man, Jotun stepped back into the shadows between the pillars of an arched gate. In the pocket of his coat, he tightened his fist around the shaft of his lead-and-leather cosh. The side streets and back alleys of Tilbury were never a friendly place, and even less so between sunset and sunrise.“Damn this city,” Jotun grumbled. “Dark, dank, cold. God help me.”
He missed his wife, he missed his country. But this was where he was needed, or so the powers that be said. He trusted their judgment, of course, but there were times when he would gladly trade his current duty for a proper battlefield. At least there he would know his enemy and know what to do with him: Kill or be killed. Very simple. Then again, despite the distance, his wife much preferred his current posting to his earlier ones. “Better to be distant and alive than close and dead,” she’d told him when he’d gotten his orders.
Jotun waited another few minutes but heard no further movement. He checked his watch: three-thirty. The streets would begin to stir in another hour. If his quarry was going to make a run for it, it would have to be before then.
He stepped back onto the street and continued north until he found Malta Road, then turned south for the docks. In the distance he could hear the lonely clanging of a buoy, and he could smell the stench of the Thames River. Ahead, through the fog, he glimpsed a lone figure standing on the southeast corner of Dock Road, smoking a cigarette. On cat’s feet, Jotun crossed the street and strode ahead until he could see more of the corner. The man was indeed alone. Jotun stepped back into the alley entrance, then whistled softly, once. The man turned. Jotun lit a match with his thumbnail, let it flare briefly, then crushed it out between his thumb and index finger. The man walked over to Jotun.
“Mornin’, sir.”“That’s debatable, Fancy.”
“Indeed it is, sir.” Fancy looked down the block, then up.
“Nervous?” asked Jotun.
“What, me? What would I have to be nervous about? Tiny fella like me walking these alleys in the dark of night. What could be wrong with that?”
“So let’s hear it.”
“She’s there, sir. Berthed as she’s been the last four days. Lines are singled up, though. I chatted up a mate of mine that does odd jobs down on the docks. Rumor has it she’s moving upriver.”“To where?”
“Millwall Docks aren’t finished yet, Fancy. Why are you lying to me?”
“No, sir, that’s what I heard. Millwall. Later this morning.”
“I’ve got a man at Millwall already, Fancy. He says they’re closed down for another week at least.”
Jotun heard the distinctive scuff of leather on brick behind him in the alley and immediately realized Fancy was sorry for a different reason entirely. Jotun took some solace in the knowledge that this little weasel of a man probably hadn’t betrayed him out of spite but rather out of greed.“Run along now, Fancy . . . Far away. Out of London. If I see you again, I’ll open your belly and feed you your own guts.”
“You won’t be seeing me again, sir.”
“For your sake, make sure of it.”
“Sorry again. I always liked-” “Another word, and it will be your last. Go.”
Fancy hurried off and disappeared into the fog.
Jotun quickly considered his options. The fact that Fancy had lied about the Millwall meant he was lying about the ship, which in turn meant she was going downriver, not up. He couldn’t let that happen. Now the question became: Was it wiser to run from the men who were coming up behind him or to fight them? If he ran, they’d chase him, and the last thing he needed was a ruckus this close to the dock. The ship’s crew was probably already on edge, and he needed to catch them calm and unawares.Jotun turned around to face the alley.
There were three of them, one a little shorter than him, two much shorter, but they all had heavy, round shoulders and bucket-shaped heads. Street thugs. Throat cutters. Had there been enough light for Jotun to see their faces, he was certain there would be very few teeth, plenty of scars, and small, mean eyes.“Good morning, gentlemen. How can I help you?”
“Don’t be makin’ this harder than it needs to be,” the bigger of the three said.
“Knives or hands or both?” Jotun asked.
“No matter. It’s your choice. Come on, then, let’s get on with it.”
Jotun took his hands from his pockets.
The big one rushed in. Jotun saw the knife coming up from the man’s waist, a well-timed slash designed to open up a femoral artery in the leg or tear open the lower belly. Jotun not only had two inches of height on the man but at least four inches of arm’s reach, and he used it, lashing out with his own uppercut blow. At the last second he let the palmed cosh swing forward. The leather-wrapped lead bulb caught the big man squarely under the chin. His head flipped up, and he stumbled backward into his partners, then dropped hard on his butt. The knife clattered across the cobblestones. Jotun took one long stride forward, cocked his knee up to waist height, and slammed the heel of his boot down onto the big man’s ankle, shattering the bone. The man started screaming.
The other two hesitated then but only for a moment. Often in these circumstances a wolf pack like this disperses once the big dog is put down, but these were men accustomed to easy fights.
The one on the right sidestepped his fallen partner, dropped his shoulder, and charged forward like a bull. The charge was a ruse, of course. There was a blade hidden in one of those hands; the moment Jotun grabbed ahold of the man, the knife would come up. Jotun took a quick step back on his left leg, coiled it, then sprung forward, simultaneously swinging his right foot forward. The kick caught the charging man fully in the face. Jotun heard the wet crunch of bone. The man dropped to his knees, teetered for a moment, then collapsed face-first onto the street.
The last man was against hesitating, and now Jotun saw what he was looking for: that watershed moment when a man realizes he’s going to die if he doesn’t make the right decision.“They’re alive,” Jotun said. “If you don’t turn around and run, I’m going to kill you.”
The man stood rooted, knife before him.
“Come on, son, did they really pay you enough for this?”
The man lowered his knife. He swallowed hard, shook his head once, then turned and ran.
SO DID JOTUN. Ran for all he was worth, down the street, right onto Dock Road, then through a line of hedges and across St. Andrews. A short alley took him to a pair of warehouses. He sprinted between them, vaulted over a fence, landed hard, then rolled to his feet and kept going until he heard the pounding of wood beneath his boots. The docks. He looked left, then right, but saw only fog.Which way?
He turned around, read the building number above his head, then turned on his heel and sprinted south for fifty yards. To his right he heard the sound of water lapping. He veered that way. A dark shape loomed before him. He skidded to a stop, bumped into the stack of crates, stumbled sideways, then found his feet. He hopped up onto the smallest crate, then boosted himself up one more level. Twenty feet below, he could just make out the surface of