The Hat Man
The Hat Man
Mistwart Port in late spring:
The crew of the pot-bellied coaster began to disperse as darkness fell, their pockets full of coins. The ship’s unsavoury cargo lay stacked on the dock, awaiting both the dawn and an unsuspecting buyer.
Jack watched his fellows go as he scratched under an armpit, trying to catch one of the ‘flea cargo’ he had acquired. He sighed, long and hard, his lips vibrating. The journey had been a long one and, for the main part, boring. He was tired... yet Jack knew that now of all times he could not let down his guard. He thought on the thick bladed knife tucked into the rear of his belt, nodded his readiness to no one but himself and shuffled off after the rest of the crew. He had learned that in his chosen profession it paid to blend into the background. To be no more noticeable than the contents of the street’s drainage ditch. Jack’s business demanded that he travel without causing a ripple and without being remembered.
As Jack passed the high-sided southern brigantine that had accompanied the coaster in on the evening tide, he spotted something that was far from unnoticeable. It was neither the large raw-boned horse nor the man who was bent, checking the creature’s girth, which stood out like a sore thumb...
It was the man’s hat. It drew Jack’s eyes like a magnet; it was very unusual, to say the least. The brown felt confection was wide-brimmed to the point of foolishness and adorned with the largest, thickest white feather Jack had ever seen.
As Jack inched past the line of men unloading the brigantine, the captain’s voice came from the gangplank, calling to his former passenger, “You are sure you will not join me?”
“My thanks, but no. I have much to do before dawn,” the Hat Man replied in a thick, strange accent. He gave his horse a pat and stood upright, the flare from the dockside torches barely penetrating under the absurd hat
“You’re sure? Perhaps it would be better to leave things till the morning?”
“You need not concern yourself with me, old fruit. None will give me more than a passing glance.” And, as he uttered these nonsensical words, the stranger nodded to the captain and led his mount away from the gently swaying ship.
Jack snorted at the man’s naivety, dismissing him from his mind. He had his own business to do this night. He began to make his way to the squat, ramshackle inn on the corner of Lavender Alley and Mason Street.
He fingered the knife in the back of his belt, then slipped into the Cock and Bull tavern. Trying to stifle a cough and failing, he spluttered; turned red and cursed. So much for sneaking in unnoticed, he thought. The thick smoke-ridden air had grabbed his lungs, in an effort to make the organs pay to breathe. Jack had spent the last two weeks living and sleeping on the deck of the coaster, which, as foul as she was, smelt of roses compared to the inn.
As he slid into the far corner of the overflowing taproom, Jack scanned the sea of faces, seeking his contact. Finally, his eyes met a pair of thick lashed, blue ones. The contact swayed towards him through the throng, the tankards in her two fists echoing her every movement.
“Ale?” the barmaid lisped, as she leaned forward.
“Don’t mind if I do.” Jack promptly slipped his hand down the front of her dress into her full cleavage.
“Bastard!” the maid screeched.
One of her tankards struck Jack squarely on the side of the head and he rolled with the blow, spluttering through the shimmering veil of spilt ale. He plunged towards the sodden reed-covered floor amid a hail of laughter. His head rang, but his fist held tight to the missive. Carefully, he began to crawl, inching his way through the maze of legs. He half rose to his feet and scrambled through the door after a portly chandler. The man did not notice Jack skimming behind him and the outer wall. The Chandler’s attention was on the laces of his britches, as fumbled them open barely in time.
Jack felt a damp spray, hit the back of his neck, as Chandler soaked the inn’s wall. He cursed again, muttered promises to himself about a bath and headed into the establishment's stable yard. Jack hunkered down in the lee of the half-rotten stables and peeled open his orders. But there were not further instructions on the paper. It was an urgent appeal for him to contact his superior in the area. Jack felt a chill, which had nothing to do with the encroaching night, or the former contents of the chandler's bladder, and made quickly to move on.
“Pardon?” the foreign voice he had heard on the docks echoed in the yard, sounding slightly amused.
Jack glanced round, curious, wondering why, what and hoping to hell what was plainly coming, would not roll him up in its wake.“I said to move away from that there hoss.”
“Indeed? And why should I?”
“Because it’s ours.”