Damien sat on the porch staring with scorn at the royal coat of arms hanging on Duddley’s butcher shop across the street from his own. The shield, supported by two lions and crowned with an eagle, was painted vividly on a well-worked wooden display. Underneath, in beautiful script: appointed by royal warrant to serve the palace.
“How did he do it?” Damien snapped at Margaret, his assistant, through the open shop door. “How did Duddley — of all people! — get a royal warrant?”
“What’s that, boss?” Margaret asked and popped her head up from behind the counter.
“A royal warrant! A damn royal warrant!” Damien said, lighting his pipe.
“Sir, I gotta be honest with ya, I have no idea what the hell that is,” Margaret said, scratching her head.
Damien stood up and came back inside, his pipe smoke lingering in the shop as he paced back and forth.
“It’s a sign with the royal coat of arms on it! It’s a gift from the Queen herself!”
“Eh, to hell with the Queen,” Margaret replied. “Why would you want a dumb picture of that broad’s army coat or whatever?”
Damien stamped his foot — “Watch your mouth, ya brat!”
Margaret stuck her tongue out at her boss as she heaved a pork loin onto the counter.
“And it’s a coat of arms. It’s her symbol — her personal stamp of approval! You can only display the royal coat of arms in your shop if you personally do business with the Queen herself. It’s a gift, and it makes your goods fly off the shelves.”
“Ah, it’s a business thing,” Margaret nodded as she sharpened her cleaver.
Margaret was a pretty woman, if only she gave her appearance a moment’s thought, Damien thought. She wore her red hair tangled up with a ballpoint pen most days, which she could skillfully remove, write with, and put back without untangling her bun.
Her chubby cheeks and freckles were often sloppily covered over with pig’s blood or intestinal liquid or splattered brain matter that she didn’t care to wipe off until after the butcher counter closed.
“You oughta clean yourself up once in a while, girl,” Damien said. “We’d have more regulars if my assistant didn’t look like Jack the Ripper.”
“Work is dirty. I’m a butcher, not a princess,” she grumbled as she cleaved a pig’s foot clean off the loin.
“If I was a princess you’d be doing this prep work and I’d be in a castle paying for all the pork with a dumb picture of my coat of armaments or whatever.”
Damien sighed. “Imagine — every day Duddley, that portly oaf, is shipping cutlets and loins and suckling pigs right up to the palace itself. They pay a pretty penny, I imagine. No wonder that ass has been out and about in such fancy clothes recently.”
“Fancy shmancy — If I had some royal money coming in every day, I’d buy a boat. Or a cottage down South,” Margaret grumbled.
Finished with the cleaver, she slammed the blade into the chopping block like a sword in a stone and wiped her bloody hands on her apron. “Or I’d buy myself a serva– a husband that can do all this chopping while I stay home.”
Damien puffed his pipe and watched the last sliver of sun slip down behind the mountain.
“Why don’t you run home, dearie, we’re done for the day,” he sighed.
“Yeah, I’m bushed. Want me to help close up?” she chirped.
“No, no, you go ahead. I’ll take care of it,” Damien said, emptying his pipe and picking up the broom from the corner of the shop. “No need for a young thing like you to wait around for a buzzard like me.”
“Dame, you’re only ten years older than me. Stop being dramatic.”
“Yeah, but they weren’t ten years of walking in the park,” he said with a scoff.
Damien sat in his shop with a bottle of sour wine late into the night. He’d cleaned the store from top to bottom three times, reorganized the canned goods twice, and had quadruple checked his ledgers — all the while staring across the street at the single illuminated window in Duddley’s shop.
“What are you doing over there, ya bastard?” he murmured to himself. He sipped his wine, his eyes darting from the coat of arms on Duddley’s store front to the candle light in the backroom window. “What the hell are you up to?”
It wasn’t until well into the A.M. that Damien finally spotted Duddley blow out the candle and lock up behind himself as he whistled his way off into the night.
Damien shot up to his feet, a bit uneasy after half a bottle, and grabbed his coat. Slipping out the back of his shop, he scurried around to the street and found not a soul out at such an hour.
As quietly as a man of his stature could, he pranced through the shadows and slid along the wall of Duddley’s butcher shop to the back entrance. Standing in the alleyway, he pulled a long, skinny knife from his coat pocket and shoved the blade into the lock. He began jiggling the handle.
With a snap, the blade broke off and the door swung wide open.
“I can’t believe that worked,” he said to himself. Throwing the broken blade and handle over the alley fence, he entered the shop and closed the door behind him.
The backroom of Duddley’s shop was similar to his own — a large chopping block, a dozen blades of various shapes and sizes lined up for quick access, a sink, a wooden bucket for discarded scraps.
Damien’s heart skipped a beat at the sight of wooden boxes emblazoned with the Queen’s coat of arms — he’d seen them before. It was the container Duddley offered to the royal guards in charge of picking up the royal family’s food stuffs. He was puzzled, however, by the crates and crates of corked bottles stacked neatly in the corner.
Exploring further, he found the door to Duddley’s tiny office and its attached bathroom, no bigger than a broom cupboard.
The desk was covered entirely in papers, and the floor was littered with crumpled pages. Damien picked up a handwritten message from the desk. The penmanship was shoddy, but it was embellished extensively with drawings and scribbled shapes.
My dearest love, I hope this message finds you well.
You haven’t left my mind since my last letter. Truth be told, you haven’t left my mind since the day we met all those years ago. We were kids then, of course, but even then I knew in my young heart I would love you for the rest of my life. And while I have learned much in the decades since then — changed my mind on many things and gained new wisdom — that fact was indeed eternal, etched on my heart by the Lord himself in crimson ink.
Oh how I miss you. I miss your beautiful cherry lips. Your icy blue eyes. I miss your round butt and I miss the way your corset pushes your breasts up into such soft, tender–
I’m sorry, my love. You know how I get. If anyone found out about our correspondence, let alone my lustful yearnings, we’d have hell to pay — worst of all if it was your husband! Lord, that man scares me, even if you swear he is none the wiser.
My love, I must confess, our separation and only sporadic meetings have begun to truly hurt me. I want so badly to live my life with you as a proper wife, a proper partner. But what would the people say if —
“You bastard!” Duddley bellowed as the door to the office flew open.
Damien scrambled to put the paper back but it was too late — Duddley charged at him and grabbed him by his wrists, throwing him down to the floor and rearing his fist back for a sledgehammer-strength blow.
Damien, his arms thrown up to cover his face, lay on his back like a turtle unable to turn over, helpless.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry, Duddley! I’m sorry!”
Duddley, his fist still cocked, began to tear up before the anger dropped from his face and streams began to flow over his cheeks. “Oh, what’s the point? What difference does it even make?” He sobbed.
Damien scrambled to his feet and dusted himself off. “I, uh –”
Duddley continued sobbing.
Damien headed for the door but stopped himself. His hand on the archway, he turned back.
“I’m sorry Duddley. You’re right, I’m a bastard — a right bastard going through another fella’s affairs like that.”
Duddley continued sobbing, offering no reaction. Damien turned to face him, no longer on guard, but in a genuine state of fear for his own soul.
“Duddley, you can go to the sheriff tomorrow and tell him what I’ve done, breaking into your shop like this, going through your belongings. And I won’t lie, I won’t protest. I’ll confess.”
The sobbing continued.
“And if you do, I wouldn’t blame you for it, and I wouldn’t tell a soul about your — er — romantic entanglements. Adultery is a sin, of course, but so is coveting thy neighbor, and Lord knows I ain’t fit to throw the first stone.”
Duddley began to calm himself. His sobbing became less rhythmic. He wiped his eyes on his jacket sleeve.
Damien continued, the weight leaving his chest — “the truth is, Duddley, I didn’t come to take your money or steal your deed or your money. The truth is, I came here because I was jealous of that damn royal warrant. Like a petulant child, I thought you must be up to something or other to get that thing.”
Duddley looked up at him. “The warrant?”
Damien felt the shame wash over him. “Aye, the warrant.”
Duddley once again mopped the tears from his eyes. His breathing slowed down, and his face lost its beet red color. “This was over the warrant? Dear Lord, well I guess you got your answer, then, Damien.”
“Yeah, now you know.”
Damien held out his hands and shook his head. “Duddley, I ain’t learned a damn thing except that you’re in the throes of an illicit affair with an adulterous woman…. No offense.”
Duddley grinned. “Damien, I never cared for you much, but since we’re in a bit of a bind here, can you promise me you won’t tell anyone about my lady if I don’t tell the sheriff about your heist here?”
“Of course,” Damien replied.
Duddley’s grin became a full-faced smile. He snatched the love letter and shoved it into his pocket — “Come on then, ya dumb bastard! Lemme show you how I earn a royal warrant.”
Damien followed Duddley to the ice box where the rotund butcher pulled out a freshly killed suckling pig.
“This is tomorrow’s order.”
The two of them set about prepping the hog with seasoning, oil, and herbal rub. They laid it out on a platter and garnished it elegantly. Duddley pulled a fresh, red apple from behind the counter and shoved it in the animal’s mouth.
They stepped back and looked at it. Duddley beamed proudly.
“No offense, Duddley, and I mean it,” Damien said. “But this pig ain’t any better than the hogs I serve to the local city council. I don’t see what about this gets you the Queen’s business.”
Duddley walked to the crates of glass bottles and pulled a cork out of one with a pop.
Pulling the rolled up love letter from his pocket, Duddley slipped it into the bottle and recorked it. Then, taking the apple out of the dead pig’s mouth, he shoved the bottle down its throat and pulled out his hand empty. Placing the apple back in place, he turned to Damien.
Damien’s mouth hung open. “You can’t be serious… You — and the Queen — and the love letters — the affair?”
“That, my friend, is why I get the Queen’s business.”
Margaret came to work right on time as usual, her bag of clothes and purse in her scraggly leather bag. Damien waved at her from his smoking chair as she stepped up onto the porch.
“Morning, Dame!” she chirped. “You don’t look like you slept well at all. Bags under your eyes as dark as coal.”
“Aye, long night.”
“Up thinking about Duddley’s royal army coats again?” she teased. “Jealousy driving you mad?”
Damien smiled. “Nah, Margaret. I decided last night that stuff like that don’t mean anything. It’s the same as any other industry. Ya gotta know the right people, grease the right palms, whisper sweet nothings to the right string-pullers.”
Margaret hugged him tight — “that’s right, boss! It don’t mean anything!”
She got down on one knee and rummaged through her bag, pushing aside her apron and work trousers. “Buuuuuuut….”
She pulled from the bag a wooden panel the size of a cutting board and placed it on top of the shop door. Before Damien could ask a question, she pranced inside.
Damien stood puffing his pipe and examining the new sign.
On the board was a poorly painted shield supported by two pigs and crowned with a tenderloin — best butcher in the kingdom by decree of Margaret (the assistant!)