Hickey hates men like Thomas Jopson.
He's known them all his life. Common as horseshit, but think themselves a cut above because some rich prick lets them lick his arse. It's pathetic. Hickey doesn't have much. Not even his name is his own, but he has his pride. That is more than a lapdog like fucking Jopson can say.
Still, these men can be useful, in the right circumstances. Given it's the captain whose arse Jopson's licking, circumstances are such he might prove very useful indeed.
Hickey's got nothing against the captain personally. The man gave him a drink not too long ago, and he's an Irishman besides. But it never hurts to know the secrets of the man in charge. Call it insurance, of a type. Hickey's never been a man to put all his eggs in one basket.
“What d'you know about Jopson?” Hickey asks, as he and Billy sit together one evening, a little apart from the others. Billy's writing something, a letter to his mother it seems, which is really fucking pointless. Hickey is whittling. It's not something he ever did before, but he's seen a few of the other men do it, and he's always been handy with a knife.
“Jopson?” Billy looks up. “Why?” There's a hint of jealousy in his voice. With another man, Hickey might have encouraged it, teased him with it, see where it brought them, but this is dear Billy. It won't bring them anywhere.
“Just wondering. Think he's a nance?” Hickey wouldn't be surprised to hear it.
“Can't be. He told us about a sweetheart he's got back home.” Dear, innocent Billy.
“He like to drink, maybe?” Billy shrugs in reply. “Be easy for him to do it, wouldn't it? What with having the keys to the captain's storeroom and all?”
“I don't know, Cornelius. Why are you asking me this?”
Hickey glances over his shoulder. Tozer and a couple of his half-witted cronies are close by, but not so close it would be easy for them to overhear, and they don't appear to be straining their ears. Still, Hickey lowers his voice. “There's nothing to lose,” he explains, “by knowing the dirt on the man who knows the dirt on the captain.”
“I don't think there is any dirt on Jopson.”
“There's dirt on everyone, Billy.” He claps Billy affectionately on the thigh. “Even Jesus Christ was fucking a doxie.”
Billy laughs, a little shyly, the way he did when he first caught Hickey's eye. Hickey thought it would be a one-off, a knee trembler in the orlop and over and done with, but Billy surprised him. He's more than that. More than anyone Hickey has had for a long time. And he's not only saying that because, for a ship full of men, the options around here are fucking dismal.
“I believe I've misplaced one of my caulking trowels.” Hickey raises an eyebrow.
Billy doesn't grasp his meaning. “That's unfortunate.”
“What say we look for it? Together, like?” Billy's not truly stupid—he'd be of no interest to Hickey if he was—just naive, and a little slow at times.
“Oh.” The light dawns. “Oh. Yes.” With a bashful smile, Billy puts his letter aside and slinks away.
When he's gone, Hickey makes few more cuts to the wood. He's not sure what he's making. Whatever it turns out to look like, he supposes.
Once a discreet amount of time has passed, he gets up and follows Billy. He casts Tozer a glance as he passes the Marines, and gets a typical scowl in return. It doesn't matter. Tozer is nothing to him. Useless. Jopson, on the other hand, is someone Hickey has to keep in his sights.
The task is not an easy one. Jopson rarely deigns to descend from on high, and when he does, it's usually to speak with Mr. Diggle, or to disappear into the storeroom where nobody else is allowed. But Hickey is a patient man, and this patience is rewarded when he eventually comes across Jopson leaning over a washbasin in the orlop.
“That's a thankless job,” Hickey comments, as Jopson pulls a sopping shirt from the basin. His sympathy is genuine. Billy spends hours washing other men's clothes and bedding in melted ice, too, and Hickey's seen his hands afterwards. Red, cracked, sore. Hickey has soothed them for him, with his mouth and his body. Would Jopson care for the same courtesy?
“I take pride in all my duties, Mr. Hickey,” Jopson replies, prim as a maiden auntie at an orgy, as he wrings out the water.
Hickey tries not to roll his eyes. “You been doing this long, then? Stewarding?”
Jopson straightens up, pushing a lock of hair out of his face, and hangs the shirt on a cord stretched across the orlop. “Is there something I can help you with?”
Hickey puts on his most charming smile. “Just having a chat.”
“I don't have time for that. Neither, I suspect, should you.”
Hickey grits his teeth. “Right you are.” You insufferable bastard, he adds to himself. “I shall bid you good evening, then, Mr. Jopson, sir.” Hickey nods. Jopson doesn't say anything, but Hickey can feel his eyes on his back until he's out of sight.
Life never hands anything to men like Hickey. What it does is occasionally present opportunities that, thanks to his keen eye and quick wit, he can turn to his own advantage. Meeting the original Cornelius Hickey was one such opportunity. Another comes several weeks after his encounter with Jopson, and it comes thanks to Billy.
Darling Billy. Not the handsomest fellow Hickey's ever had, not by half, but he is eager, and he is useful.
“Here.” He sidles up to Hickey as Hickey loiters in a corner of the ship. He's meant to be caulking, but he has a reputation as a slow worker. It's a reputation he's happy to embrace.
“What's this?” Hickey looks at the scrap of paper Billy presses into his hand.
Billy glances around, although they are quite alone, and hisses, “I found it whilst I was...dusting Lieutenant Little's cabin.”
“Poking about, you mean? Naughty, naughty, Mr. Gibson.” He clucks his tongue even as he grins with pride. A grin which grows ever brighter as he reads the note.
The handwriting is appalling. Barely legible, and squeezed onto a too-small piece of paper. Hickey has to hold it up to the Patent Illuminator to make out the words.
You are my North Star, my midnight sun. My mind spins with thoughts of you, my heart overflows with love.
Hickey lets out a laugh. “How fucking romantic.”
Billy holds out his hand to take the paper back. “I need to return to my duties at once. But I wanted you to see it.”
“You did right.” Very right. Hickey allows a sultry look to creep onto his face. “I look forward to meeting with you later, Billy, to show you the depths of my gratitude.”
Billy's cheeks turn red. He darts forward and presses the chastest of kisses to the corner of Hickey's mouth. Then, he's gone again, leaving Hickey alone with his thoughts. And what fascinating thoughts they are.
Now, then, he wonders with glee, just who might it be that admires the lieutenant so ardently?
It could be nothing, a note from some lady friend left ashore. No doubt this would be Little's excuse were the paper to be discovered, but Hickey dismisses the idea out of hand. That atrocious penmanship does not belong to a woman, even a poor one. Nor does it belong to an officer, well bred and well educated as they are. Most of the men below decks are about as literate as a fence post, although there are a few who have their letters. The Hartnell brothers, that Hickey knows of. Magnus Manson. Davey Leys. Hickey can't imagine any of them stirring Little's blood. Even if they did, it is next to impossible to get a lieutenant alone. Hickey contemplated seducing a senior officer when he first came aboard. Lieutenant Irving has an air of barely contained desperation about him which Hickey thought he might exploit, but there is simply no chance to mix with men of that class, not in any way that is conducive to fostering intimate relations.
Who is permitted in officer country, then, but is not one of them? Hickey smears caulk haphazardly near the required seam, and the answer presents itself, neat and tidy as a package on Christmas morning. A steward, surely. One of Billy's comrades-in-arms. Mr. Genge, perhaps Mr. Armitage, maybe even the self-satisfied Mr. Jopson. Whoever it is, Hickey is going to ferret the man out, and exploit the situation for his own gain.
That is the plan. Before Hickey can put it into action, there is the run in with Lieutenant Irving, and the subsequent falling out with Billy. Losing him means losing access to the officers and their cabins. At the same time, Genge and Armitage start treating Hickey decidedly coolly, whilst Jopson continues to look at him, on the rare occasions they cross paths, like something Neptune left on the floorboards.
Sir John Franklin is killed, and they are besieged by the demon bear. Hickey does what no one else seems capable of: he brings the girl responsible for the madness where she belongs, onto the ship, only to have Crozier react with unconscionable cruelty to this entirely sensible act. After that, Hickey's focus is too much on surviving, and on exposing Crozier for the buffoonish tyrant that he is, to concern himself overmuch with the question of who Lieutenant Little is fucking.
Hickey hates Jopson. That hasn't changed. But he has to admire him, as well. He used their drunken bastard of a captain like a thrupenny doxie, and now Jopson's wearing a dead lieutenant's uniform. He should thank me for affording him the chance, Hickey thinks, gazing at the canvas ceiling of the tent. Jopson doesn't seem inclined to gratitude.
“I've shot smaller hawks than you,” he tells Hickey, still so bloody smug. Perhaps he has. But Hickey is very skilled at fishing.
“How does Lieutenant Little feel about your promotion, by the by?” Hickey's tone is conversational, friendly. The bait is rancid but sometimes, Hickey has found, that brings in the biggest pikes. “Proud of you, is he? Or is he one of those men who only wants you if you make him feel superior?”
Jopson says nothing. Hickey wants to look, to check his expression, but that would spoil the game. He keeps his gaze trained on the ceiling, and his hand tucked in the waistband of his trousers. “Big fellow like that, bet he's got a cock that fills you up right nice. Unless he likes it the other way about. Yes, I can see him eager to bend himself over a table. Seems just the sort.” He hears Jopson's boot slide against the stones. “Whatever would the captain think, if he knew the two of you have been at it for years? Or does he know already?” Hickey affects a gasp, then lowers his voice. “Does he like to watch?”
“Stop that filthy blathering,” Jopson barks.
“Filthy? I find it quite sweet. 'You are my North Star, my midnight sun. My mind spins with thoughts of you, my heart overflows with love.' How beautiful.”
A pause. Brief, but there, and it affirms everything. “I wouldn't have taken you for a man to recite poetry, Mr. Hickey.”
“And I wouldn't have taken you for a man to write it, Lieutenant Jopson. Seems we were both wrong.”
The barrel of the gun is rammed, hard and cold, into the soft tender place beneath Hickey's jaw. “I'll shoot you right here, you bastard.”
“By all means. Shoot an unarmed man in his bed. That is bound to impress him.” Does he mean the captain or Lieutenant Little? Either of them. Both. “I'm sure he thinks you are an angel fallen to Earth. It will be good for him to know the truth. That you clawed your way up from Hell, just like I did.”
“You and I are nothing alike.” Jopson's face comes into view. It's scowling, scarred and afraid. Hickey can see it in his eyes. He should be afraid of Hickey. All of them should be.
“It's a compliment, Jopson.” And genuine. Stabbing a man or fucking him. Two sides of the same coin. Divergent paths that nevertheless head towards the same destination: out.
The gun barrel bites as Jopson shoves it in, then pulls it away. He returns to his perch.
“You are a vile villain, Mr. Hickey. You always have been. The most pleasurable moment of my life will be when I put the noose around your neck.”
“Dear me. I wouldn't tell Lieutenant Little that, it might make him jealous.”
Hickey knows what he's going to say when he's standing on the gallows. He's going to tell the truth about Crozier, and make sure everyone knows just what kind of man they're foolishly trusting to get them home. He might mention the illicit affair between Little and Jopson. He might not. Point is, the decision is his.
There's dirt on everybody. Hickey remembers telling Billy that, once. Everybody but Hickey himself. Hickey was cleansed, wasn't he? Born anew, and he's got the scars on his arse to prove it. He's cleaner than Jopson, cleaner than Crozier. Cleaner than Billy. Cleaner than the whole bloody lot of them. Soon, he will ascend to his rightful place above them all.
“Don't lower that gun, now,” Hickey says. “I know how you take pride in all your duties, Lieutenant Jopson, sir.” He smirks up at the canvas as Jopson's burning, impotent rage washes over him, silent and seething and the warmest thing Hickey's felt in years.