An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 27

   

The sight of a couple of these, arrived early and trolling hopefully for customers among the home-going vendors, distracted him momentarily from his familial quandary and returned his thoughts to the earlier events of his day.

The entrance to Brydges Street lay before him; he could just see the genteel house that stood near the far end, set back a little in elegant discretion. That was a thought; whores knew a great deal—and could find out more, with suitable inducement. He was tempted to go and call upon Nessie now, if only for the pleasure her company gave him. But no—not yet.

He needed to find out what was already known about Percy Beauchamp in more official circles, before he started his own hounds in pursuit of that rabbit. And before he saw Hal.

It was too late in the day to make official calls. He’d send a note, though, making an appointment—and in the morning, would visit the Black Chamber.

THE BLACK CHAMBER

GREY WONDERED what romantic soul had originally christened the Black Chamber—or whether it was in fact a romantic designation. Perhaps the spies of an earlier day had been consigned to a windowless hole under the stairs at Whitehall, and the name was purely descriptive. These days, the Black Chamber designated a class of employment rather than a specific location.

All the capitals of Europe—and not a few lesser cities—had Black Chambers, these being the centers wherein mail intercepted en route or by spies or simply removed from diplomatic pouches was inspected, decoded with varying degrees of success, and then sent to whichever person or agency had need of the information thus derived. England’s Black Chamber had employed four gentlemen—not counting clerks and office boys—when Grey had labored there. There were more of them now, distributed in random holes and corners in the buildings down Pall Mall, but the main center of such operations was still in Buckingham Palace.

Not in any of the beautifully equipped areas that served the Royal Family or their secretaries, ladies’ maids, housekeepers, butlers, or other upper servants—but still, within the palace precincts.

Grey passed the guard at the back gate with a nod—he’d worn his uniform, with the lieutenant-colonel’s insignia, to facilitate entry—and made his way down a shabby, ill-lit corridor whose scent of ancient floor polish and ghosts of boiled cabbage and burnt tea cake gave him a pleasant frisson of nostalgia. The third door on the left stood ajar, and he entered without knocking.

He was expected. Arthur Norrington greeted him without rising, and motioned him to a chair.

He’d known Norrington for years, though they were not particular friends, and found it comforting that the man seemed not to have changed at all in the years since their last meeting. Arthur was a large, soft man, whose large, slightly protruding eyes and thick lips gave him the mien of a turbot on ice: dignified and faintly reproachful.

“I appreciate your help, Arthur,” Grey said, and as he sat, deposited on the corner of the desk a small wrapped parcel. “A small token of that appreciation,” he added, waving a hand at it.

Norrington raised one thin brow and took the package, which he unwrapped with greedy fingers.

“Oh!” he said, with unfeigned delight. He turned the tiny ivory carving over gently in his large, soft hands, bringing it close to his face to see the details, entranced. “Tsuji?”

Grey shrugged, pleased with the effect of his gift. He knew nothing of netsuke himself, but knew a man who dealt in ivory miniatures from China and Japan. He had been surprised at the delicacy and artistry of the tiny thing, which showed a half-clothed woman engaged in a very athletic form of sexual congress with a naked obese gentleman with his hair in a topknot.

“I’m afraid it has no provenance,” he said apologetically, but Norrington waved that aside, eyes still fixed on the new treasure. After a moment, he sighed happily, then tucked the thing away in the inner pocket of his coat.

“Thank you, my lord,” he said. “As for the subject of your own inquiry, I am afraid that we have relatively little material available regarding your mysterious Mr. Beauchamp.” He nodded at the desk, where a battered, anonymous leather folder reposed. Grey could see that there was something bulky inside—something not paper; the folder was pierced, and a small piece of twine ran through it, fastening the object in place.

“You surprise me, Mr. Norrington,” he said politely, and reached for the folder. “Still, let me see what you do have, and perhaps—”

Norrington pressed his fingers flat against the file and frowned for a moment, trying to convey the impression that official secrets could not be imparted to just anyone. Grey smiled at him.

“Come off it, Arthur,” he said. “If you want to know what I know about our mysterious Mr. Beauchamp—and I assure you, you do—you’ll show me every word you have about him.”

Norrington relaxed a little, letting his fingers slide back—though still with a show of reluctance. Cocking one eyebrow, Grey picked up the leather folder and opened it. The bulky object was revealed to be a small cloth bag; beyond that, there were only a few sheets of paper. Grey sighed.

“Poor protocol, Arthur,” he said reprovingly. “There are snowdrifts of paper involving Beauchamp—cross-referenced to that name, too. Granted, he hasn’t been active in years, but someone ought to have looked.”

“We did,” Norrington said, an odd note in his voice that made Grey look sharply up. “Old Crabbot remembered the name, and we looked. The files are gone.”

The skin across Grey’s shoulders tightened, as though he’d been struck with a lash.

“That is odd,” he said calmly. “Well, then …” He bent his head over the folder, though it took a moment to subdue his racing thoughts enough to see what he was looking at. No sooner had his eyes focused on the page than the name “Fraser” leapt out of it, nearly stopping his heart.

Not Jamie Fraser, though. He breathed slowly, turned the page, read the next, turned back. There were four letters in all, only one completely decoded, though another had been started; it bore someone’s tentative notes in the margin. His lips tightened; he had been a good decoder in his day, but had been absent from the field of battle far too long to have any notion of the current common idioms in use by the French, let alone the idiosyncratic terms an individual spy might use—and these letters were the work of at least two different hands; so much was clear.

“I’ve looked them over,” Norrington said, and Grey looked up to find Arthur’s protruding hazel eyes fixed on him like a toad eyeing a juicy fly. “I haven’t officially decoded them yet, but I’ve a good general idea what they say.”

Well, he’d already decided that it had to be done, and he’d come prepared to tell Arthur, who was the most discreet of his old Black Chamber contacts.

“Beauchamp is one Percival Wainwright,” he said bluntly, wondering even as he said it, why he kept the secret of Percival’s real name. “He’s a British subject—was an army officer, arrested for the crime of sodomy but never tried. It was thought that he’d died in Newgate awaiting trial, but”—he smoothed the letters and closed the folder over them—“evidently not.”

Arthur’s plump lips rounded in a soundless “O.”

Grey wondered for an instant if he could leave it there—but no. Arthur was persistent as a dachshund digging into a badger sett, and if he discovered the rest of it on his own, he would at once suspect Grey of withholding much more.

“He’s also my stepbrother,” Grey said, as casually as possible, and laid the folder on Arthur’s desk. “I saw him in North Carolina.”

Arthur’s mouth sagged for an instant. He firmed it up at once, blinking.

“I see,” he said. “Well, then … I see.”

“Yes, you do,” Grey said dryly. “You see exactly why I must know the contents of these letters”—he nodded at the folder—“as soon as possible.”

Arthur nodded, compressing his lips, and settled himself, taking the letters into his hands. Once determined to be serious, there was no nonsense about him.

“Most of what I could decode seems to deal with matters of shipping,” he said. “Contacts in the West Indies, cargoes to be delivered—simple smuggling, though on a fairly large scale. One reference to a banker in Edinburgh; I couldn’t make out his connection exactly. But three of the letters mentioned the same name en clair—you will have seen that, of course.”

Grey didn’t bother denying it.

“Someone in France wants very much to find a man named Claudel Fraser,” Arthur said, and raised one brow. “Any idea who that is?”

“No,” Grey said, though he certainly had the glimmer of an idea. “Any idea who it is that wants to find him—or why?”

Norrington shook his head.

“No idea why,” he said frankly. “As to who, though—I think it may be a French nobleman.” He opened the folder again and, from the little bag attached to it, carefully removed two wax seals, one cracked almost in half, the other largely intact. Both showed a martlet against a rising sun.

“Haven’t found anyone yet who recognized it,” Norrington said, poking one of the seals gently with a podgy forefinger. “Do you, by chance?”

“No,” Grey said, his throat gone suddenly dry. “But you might look into one Baron Amandine. Wainwright mentioned that name to me as—a personal connexion of his.”

“Amandine?” Norrington looked puzzled. “Never heard of him.”

“Neither has anyone else.” Grey sighed and rose to his feet. “I begin to wonder whether he exists.”

HE WAS STILL WONDERING, as he made his way to Hal’s house. The Baron Amandine might or might not exist; if he did, he might be only a front, disguising the interest of someone much more prominent. If he didn’t … matters became simultaneously more confusing and simpler of approach; with no way of knowing who was behind the matter, Percy Wainwright was the only possible avenue of approach.

None of Norrington’s letters had mentioned the Northwest Territory nor held any hint of the proposition Percy had put before him. That was not surprising, though; it would have been extremely dangerous to put such information on paper, though he had certainly known spies do such things before. If Amandine did exist, and was directly involved, apparently he was both sensible and cautious.

Well, Hal would have to be told about Percy, in any case. Perhaps he would know something regarding Amandine, or could find out; Hal had a number of friends in France.

The thought of what Hal must be told reminded him abruptly of William’s letter, which he had nearly forgotten in the intrigues of the morning. He breathed strongly through his nose at the thought. No. He wasn’t mentioning that to his brother until he’d had a chance to speak to Dottie, alone. Perhaps he could contrive a private word with her, arrange to meet later.

Dottie proved not to be at home, though, when Grey arrived at Argus House.

“She’s at one of Miss Brierley’s musical afternoons,” his sister-in-law Minnie informed him, when he inquired politely how his niece and goddaughter did. “She’s very sociable these days. She’ll be sorry to have missed you, though.” She stood on tiptoe and kissed him, beaming. “It’s good to see you again, John.”

“And you, Minnie,” he said, meaning it. “Is Hal at home?”

She rolled her eyes expressively at the ceiling.

“He’s been at home for a week, with the gout. Another week, and I shall put poison in his soup.”

“Ah.” That reinforced his decision not to speak to Hal of William’s letter. Hal in good spirits was a prospect that daunted hardened soldiers and lifetime politicians; Hal in ill health … Presumably that was why Dottie had had the good sense to absent herself.

Well, it wasn’t as though his news would improve Hal’s mood in any case, he thought. He pushed open the door to Hal’s study with due caution, though; his brother had been known to throw things when peevish—and nothing peeved him more than bodily indisposition.

As it was, Hal was asleep, slumped in his chair before the fire, his bandaged foot on a stool. The smell of some strong and acrid medicine floated in the air, overlying the scents of burning wood, melted tallow, and stale bread. A congealed plate of soup sat upon a tray at Hal’s side, untasted. Perhaps Minnie had made her threat explicit, Grey thought with a smile. Aside from himself and their mother, Minnie was likely the only other person in the world who was never afraid of Hal.

He sat down quietly, wondering whether to wake his brother. Hal looked ill and tired, much thinner than usual—and Hal was normally lean to start with. He could not look less than elegant, even clad in breeches and a worn linen shirt, bare-legged, and with a ratty shawl draped about his shoulders, but the lines of a life spent fighting were eloquent in his face.

Grey’s heart contracted with a sudden, unexpected tenderness, and he wondered whether, after all, he should trouble Hal with his news. But he couldn’t risk Hal being confronted unexpectedly with the tidings of Percy’s untimely resurrection; he would have to be warned.

Before he could make up his mind whether to go away and come back, though, Hal’s eyes opened abruptly. They were clear and alert, the same light blue as Grey’s own, with no sign of drowsiness or distraction.

“You’re back,” Hal said, and smiled with great affection. “Pour me a brandy.”

“Minnie says you have the gout,” Grey said, with a glance at Hal’s foot. “Don’t the quacks say you ought not to take strong drink, with the gout?” Nonetheless, he rose to his feet.

“They do,” Hal said, pulling himself upright in his chair and grimacing as the movement jarred his foot. “But from the look of you, you’re about to tell me something that means I’ll need it. Best bring the decanter.”

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