The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 110

   

“Much of a hand at whist, Colonel Fraser?” MacDonald glanced at him inquiringly. “I recommend it particularly. It shares some advantage with chess, in terms of discovering the mind of one’s opponent, and the greater advantage, in that it can be played against a greater number.” The hard-bitten lines of his face relaxed momentarily in a faint smile. “And the still greater advantage that it is possible to earn a living by it, which is seldom the case with chess.”

“I am familiar with the game, sir,” Jamie returned, with extreme dryness.

MacDonald was a half-pay officer, with neither official duties nor an active regiment. It was by no means unusual for such men to eke out their meager salary by the acquisition of small bits of intelligence, which might be sold or traded. No price was being asked—now—but that didn’t mean that the debt would not be called in later. Jamie gave a brief nod in acknowledgment of the situation, and MacDonald nodded in turn, satisfied. He would say what he wanted, in good time.

“Well, sir. I was, as ye might suppose, intrigued to learn who this Bonnet might be—and if he were indeed a golden egg, which goose’s arse he’d dropped out of.”

MacDonald’s companions had regained their caution, though, and he could learn nothing further of the mysterious Bonnet—save the effect he had on those who had met him.

“You’ll ken that often enough, ye learn as much from what men don’t say, as what they do? Or from how they say it?” Without waiting for Jamie’s nod, he went on.

“There were eight of us at play. Three were making free with their speculations, but I could see they kent nay more of Mr. Bonnet than I did myself. Two more seemed neither to know nor to care, but the last two—” He shook his head. “They became very quiet, sir. Like those who will not speak of the devil, for fear of summoning him.”

MacDonald’s eyes were bright with speculation.

“You are familiar with the fellow Bonnet yourself?”

“I am. The two gentlemen who knew him?”

“Walter Priestly and Hosea Wright,” MacDonald responded promptly. “Both particular friends of the Governor.”

“Merchants?”

“Among other things. Both have warehouses; Wright in Edenton and Plymouth, Priestly in Charleston, Savannah, Wilmington, and Edenton. Priestly has business concerns in Boston, as well,” MacDonald added as an afterthought. “Though I know little of their nature. Oh—and Wright’s a banker.”

Jamie nodded. His hands were folded together beneath the tails of his coat as he walked; no one could see how tightly his fingers clenched.

“I believe I have heard of Mr. Wright,” he said. “Phillip Wylie mentioned that a gentleman of that name owns a plantation near his own.”

MacDonald nodded in affirmation. The end of his nose had gone quite red, and small broken blood vessels stood out in his cheeks, mementoes of years spent campaigning.

“Aye, that would be Four Chimneys.” He glanced sidewise at Jamie, tongue probing a back tooth as he thought.

“Ye mean to kill him, then?”

“Of course not,” Jamie replied evenly. “A man so well-connected wi’ those in high places?”

MacDonald looked at him sharply, then away with a brief snort.

“Aye. Just so.”

They paced side by side for several moments without speech, each occupied with his private calculations—and each aware of the other’s.

The news of Bonnet’s associations cut both ways; on the one hand, it would likely make the man easier to find. On the other, those associations would complicate matters quite a bit, when it came to the killing. It wouldn’t stop Jamie—and MacDonald clearly perceived that—but it was a matter for thought, to be sure.

MacDonald himself was a considerable complication. Bonnet’s business associates would be interested to hear that someone meant to cut off their source of profit—and would be more than likely to take action to prevent it. They would also pay well for the news that their golden goose was threatened; a prospect MacDonald would naturally appreciate.

There was no immediate way of corking up MacDonald, though; Jamie lacked the means for bribery, and that was a poor recourse in any case, as a man who could be bought once was always for sale.

He glanced at MacDonald, who met his eye, smiled slightly, then turned his head away. No, intimidation wouldn’t serve, even had he a mind to threaten one who’d done him a service. What, then? He could scarcely knock MacDonald on the head, only to prevent his spilling to Wright, Priestly, or Butler.

Well, and if it could not be bribery or force, the only thing left to stop the man’s mouth was blackmail. Which presented its own complications, insofar as he knew nothing—for the moment—to MacDonald’s discredit. A man who lived as the Major did almost certainly had weak spots, but finding them . . . how much time might he have?

That thought triggered another.

“How did ye hear that I sought news of Stephen Bonnet?” he demanded abruptly, breaking in on MacDonald’s own contemplations.

MacDonald shrugged, and settled his hat and wig more firmly.

“I heard it from a half dozen different sources, sir, in places from taverns to magistrates’ courts. Your interest is well known, I fear. But not,” he added delicately, with a sideways glance, “its reason.”

Jamie grunted, deep in his throat. It seemed he had no knife with but a single edge. Casting a wide net had brought him his fish—but without doubt, it had also caused ripples that might warn away the whale. If the whole coast knew he sought Bonnet—then so did Bonnet.

Perhaps this was a bad thing; or perhaps it was not. If Brianna were to hear of it—she had been outspoken in her desire that he leave Bonnet to his own fate. That was nonsense, of course, but he hadn’t argued with her; only listened with every appearance of consideration. She need know nothing until the man was safely dead, after all. If an unwary word were to reach her before that, though . . . He had only begun to turn the possibilities over in his mind when MacDonald spoke again.

“Your daughter . . . that would be Mrs. MacKenzie, would it?”

“Does it matter?” He spoke coldly, and MacDonald’s lips tightened briefly.

“No. To be sure. ’Twas only—I had some conversation of Mrs. MacKenzie, and found her most . . . charming. The thought of—” He broke off, clearing his throat. “I have a daughter, myself,” he said abruptly, stopping and turning to face Jamie.

“Aye?” Jamie had not heard that MacDonald was married. Quite possibly he wasn’t. “That would be in Scotland?”

“In England. Her mother’s English.” The chill had painted streaks of color on the soldier’s weathered skin. They deepened, but MacDonald’s pale blue eyes stayed steady on Jamie’s, the same color as the hazy sky behind him.

Jamie felt the tightness down his backbone ease. He lifted his shoulders in a shrug, and let them fall. MacDonald nodded infinitesimally. The two men turned, without discussion, and started back toward the house, conversing casually of the price of indigo, the latest news from Massachusetts, and the surprising clemency of the weather for the season.

“I had spoken with your wife, a little earlier,” MacDonald remarked. “A charming woman, and most amiable—you are a fortunate man, sir.”

“I am inclined to think so,” Jamie replied, darting a glance at MacDonald.

The soldier coughed, delicately.

“Mrs. Fraser was so kind as to suggest that you might consider providing me with a letter of introduction to his Excellency, the Governor. In light of the recent threat of conflict, she thought that perhaps a man of my experience might be able to provide something in the way of . . . you see?”

Jamie saw fine. And while he doubted that Claire had suggested any such thing, he was relieved to find the price asked so cheap.

“It shall be done at once,” he assured MacDonald. “See me after the wedding this afternoon, and I shall have it in hand for ye.”

MacDonald inclined his head, looking gratified.

As they reached the path that led to the necessary houses, MacDonald nodded farewell and took his leave with a raised hand, passing by Duncan Innes, who was coming from that direction, looking drawn and haggard as a man will whose bowels are tied in sheepshank knots.

“Are ye well, Duncan?” Jamie asked, eyeing his friend with some concern. Despite the coolness of the day, a faint sheen of sweat shone on Innes’s brow, and his cheeks were pale. Jamie hoped that if it were an ague, it wasn’t catching.

“No,” Innes said, in answer to his question. “No, I am . . . Mac Dubh, I must speak to ye.”

“Of course, a charaid.” Alarmed by the man’s appearance, he took hold of Duncan’s arm, to support him. “Shall I fetch my wife to ye? D’ye need a wee dram?” From the smell of him, he’d had several already, but nothing out of the ordinary for a bridegroom. He didn’t appear to be the worse for drink, but was plainly the worse for something. Perhaps a bad mussel at last night’s supper. . . .

Innes shook his head. He swallowed, and grimaced, as though something hard was stuck in his throat. He drew air through his nose then, and set his shoulders, steeling himself to something.

“No, Mac Dubh, it’s yourself I am needing. A bit of counsel, if ye might be so kind . . .”

“Aye, Duncan, surely.” More curious than alarmed now, he let go of Duncan’s arm. “What is it, man?”

“About—about the wedding night,” Duncan blurted. “I—that is, I have—” He broke off abruptly, seeing someone turning into the path before them, heading for the necessary.

“This way.” Jamie turned toward the kitchen gardens, which were safely enclosed in sheltering brick walls. Wedding night? he thought, both reassured and curious. Duncan had not been married before, he knew, and when they were in Ardsmuir together, Duncan had never spoken of women as some men did. He had thought it only a modest constraint at the time, but perhaps . . . but no, Duncan was well past fifty; surely the opportunity had occurred.

That left buggery or the clap, he thought, and he’d swear Duncan had no taste for boys. A bit awkward, to be sure, but he had full faith that Claire could deal with it. He did hope it was only drip, and not the French disease, though; that was a cruel plague.

“Here, a charaid,” he said, drawing Duncan after him into the shelter of the onion beds. “We’ll be quite private here. Now, then, what’s your trouble?”

40

DUNCAN’S SECRET

FATHER LECLERC SPOKE NO ENGLISH, with the exception of a jolly “Tally-ho!” which he used alternately as a greeting, an interjection of amazement, and an exclamation of approbation. Jocasta was still at her toilette, so I introduced the priest to Ulysses, then escorted him to the main parlor, saw him provided with suitable refreshment, and sat him down to make conversation with the Sherstons, who were Protestant and rather bug-eyed at meeting a Jesuit, but so eager to show off their French that they were willing to overlook Father LeClerc’s unfortunate profession.

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