“Isn’t that why anybody bothers with anybody else?” Charles half-growled and raised his tone on the last word. He closed his eyes, ready to pray for unconsciousness. He swallowed a mouthful of bile and turned his face away. “Everybody wants something or other.” A drop of sweat slid down his forehead.
“Your viewpoint is narrow and shaped by corruption.” The street sweeper laid down the broom. “Not everyone seeks their own gain.” A moment of silence passed. “What do you want, Charles de la Motte?”
How did he–? Charles jerked his head to confront the street sweeper and earned a sharp jolt to his injured shoulder. He grunted, waiting for the stab to pass.
Oh, that’s what the man was about. He knew Charles was the escaped French convict and sought blackmail reward. He projected a soft, mocking laugh. No point in denying his identity. “So, you do know about me.” He paused to breathe, which remained a chore. “I haven’t sixpence to my name. You might as well drag me to the authorities if you’re after money.”
Suspect merriment faded from the street sweeper’s eyes. His brow wrinkled. “What have I to do with your worthless coins? I wish to help you.”
“Help me?” Charles sputtered a laugh. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask what he’d require in exchange. But didn’t he just say not everyone sought their own gain? Did he refer to himself? And why was Charles inclined to believe him? “Are you able to set my arm?”
The hairs on the back of Charles’s neck prickled. Something odd and indescribable, like an other-worldly power, accompanied the street sweeper’s words. Almost as if they contained tangible life. A gust of wind skimmed over him, and yet it wasn’t wind. If Charles hadn’t already been lying on the ground, he surely would’ve collapsed. Drops of sweat slid into his hairline. He tried moistening his lips with a dry tongue. “Then, please. Help me.”
Strong fingers seized Charles’s elbow and shoulder, and an equally startling upward shove popped his shoulder into place. Pain and nausea evaporated. His shivers ceased. The man’s touch pierced to his marrow just as Reaper’s did, but the difference was darkness and light. And fire. Pure love burning through him, warming him to his core. Love? Was he losing his mind?
The street sweeper kept hold of Charles’s arm as he pulled him to his feet. “How do you feel?”
Blinking, Charles yanked his arm away. He stepped back on unsteady legs, his stockings snagging on the pavement’s sharp corners. “Well I . . .” He rolled his arm backward and forward. Good as new. “I no longer feel pain.” Was this some sort of elaborate trick? He drew back his head and eyed the shorter man. “How did you do that? Are you a magician? Some sort of mystic healer?”
The street sweeper kicked the broom upright and crossed his arms over the handle. His beard didn’t hide the slight smile curving his lips. Was this an amusing diversion for him? No matter what he claimed, everybody had an ulterior motive behind their actions.
“I am none of these things you assume. What has light to do with darkness? Yes, I have healed your body. I would also heal your soul and spirit, if you will let me.”
“My soul and what?” Charles thrust his head forward and bit back a laugh. “You’re aware of my name, but it appears you haven’t heard the tales about me.” He grinned. “I’ve committed offenses large enough to turn the English king’s head and earn me a traitor’s . . . um.” Wait, what? Charles shook his head, and his smile slipped. Why was he saying these things? “I thought that the reason you bothered with me.”
The street sweeper sighed. His shoulders drooped. “I have not only heard, I have seen.” Sadness weighed his quiet words.
There was no way this London sweeper had seen him do anything. Charles crossed his arms and lifted his chin. “Indeed? Name an incident.”
The street sweeper held his gaze steady despite unshed tears shining in his dark eyes. “I will not. The time to stand as your judge will come, but I am here now as your friend.”
What a jest. The fool puffed himself up as an expert of things he knew nothing about. He might even be a little crazy. Perhaps he fished for information. And Charles had just said too much. “Thank you for helping me, but we’re certainly not friends.” He passed the street sweeper and headed down the shadowed street. Puddles soaked his stockings. A cat leaped from a wall to his left.
“We might be friends.”
Charles stopped, then turned toward the street sweeper with a mocking chuckle. “Did you know why I fell? I’m training to steal something of value. Most likely, I’ll either be dead or imprisoned again before the month is out.”
Sympathy filled the street sweeper’s eyes. “You look at me with loathing, and yet you loathe yourself.”
Charles sneered at the Jew. “You don’t know anything about me.”
“I know that you loved Jeanne-Marie.”
Charles froze, mid-turn. He curled his fingers. That name was sacred. Whether the man had healed him or not, Charles wouldn’t suffer to hear it upon another man’s lips. How did the street sweeper know her name? Charles had always used her pseudonym “Meg” when in England. He’d even called her Meg in private. Unless he’d slipped and called her Jeanne-Marie as she lay dying in his arms? But this man hadn’t been aboard his ship. Perhaps one of his crewmen had talked.
Charles strode forward and halted in the man’s space, nearly chin to Jewish nose with him. His muscles twitched. The street sweeper didn’t back away. Didn’t even seem tense. Either the man was too trusting, or he knew his way around a fight.
“I want to be your friend.”
A sense of victory and satisfaction at having figured out the man’s angle diluted Charles’s anger. He widened his stance and crossed his arms. “Ha! See? You did help me for something.”
Jesus shook his head and released a heavy exhale. “Why won’t you believe what I say?”
“What’s in a friendship with me? Huh? You’re a Jew.” He poked his finger in the sweeper’s chest. “Aren’t you?”
“You are right in saying that I am a Jew, but wrong to assume I’ve healed you in order to gain your friendship.”
“A Jew and a Frenchman, friends?” Charles snorted. “Are you in some sort of trouble?”
“No. But you are, Charles. That’s why I want to be your friend. I care about what happens to you.”
Charles’s attempt at a mocking laugh came out nervous. “What’s your name, Jew?”
Charles threw his head back and roared. Though a Jew, he was quite a humorous fellow. He gripped Jesus’s shoulder. “Alright, henceforth I’ll consider you my friend, but I doubt we’ll see each other again.”
Jesus’s lips curved in a knowing smile. “We certainly will.”
“De la Motte!”
Charles started at Reaper’s deep gravely voice, coming from behind him.
Reaper stood at the far end of the block. His skull-topped cane caught the light from a street lamp. “Come along. We have work to do.”
“Don’t go back to Reaper,” said Jesus, his smile gone. “Something bad may happen to you.”
Charles glanced from Reaper to Jesus. “He saved me from an ugly death, and gave me a job and place to stay.” He stepped back and narrowed his gaze. “How do you know his name anyway? You street sweepers must know everybody. Why doesn’t intelligence workers ever think of street sweeping for a spy’s cover?” He turned with a chuckle, reaching for his tricorn but not finding it. “A good night to you, Jesus.”
Sadness weighed in Jesus’s eyes. “Grace and peace to you, Charles.”
An odd farewell, but he’d heard stranger. The sweeps of the broom continued behind him as Charles as made his way to Reaper.