The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 138

   

Roger had collected two stools and an upturned bucket. I took the latter and shoved it modestly into the shadows, leaving Jamie and Wylie to seat themselves within easy strangling distance of each other. Roger himself retired discreetly into the shadows beside me with the crumb cake, looking interested.

Wylie accepted the jug of coffee stiffly, but a few deep swallows seemed to restore his composure to a noticeable degree. He lowered it at last and breathed audibly, his features a little more relaxed.

“I thank you, sir.” He handed the jug back to Jamie with a small bow and sat bolt upright on his stool, tenderly adjusting his wig, which had survived the evening’s adventures, but was much the worse for its experiences. “Now, then. May I inquire the reason for this . . . this . . . unspeakable behavior?”

“Ye may, sir,” Jamie replied, drawing himself up straight in turn. “I wish to discover the nature of your associations with a certain Stephen Bonnet, and your knowledge of his present whereabouts.”

Wylie’s face went almost comically blank.

“Who?”

“Stephen Bonnet.”

Wylie began to turn toward me, to ask for clarification, then recalled that he was not acknowledging my presence. He glowered at Jamie, dark brows drawn down.

“I have no acquaintance with any gentleman of that name, Mr. Fraser, and thus no knowledge of his movements—though if I did, I greatly doubt that I should feel myself obliged to inform you of them.”

“No?” Jamie took a thoughtful sip of coffee, then handed the jug to me. “What of the obligations of a guest toward his host, Mr. Wylie?”

The dark brows rose in astonishment.

“What do you mean, sir?”

“I take it that you are not aware, sir, that Mrs. Innes and her husband were assaulted last evening, and an attempt at robbery made upon them?”

Wylie’s mouth fell open. Either he was a very good actor, or his surprise was genuine. Given my acquaintance with the young man to date, I thought he was no kind of actor.

“I was not. Who—” A thought struck him, and bewilderment vanished in renewed outrage. His eyes bulged slightly. “You think that I was concerned in this—this—”

“Dastardly enterprise?” Roger suggested. He seemed to be enjoying himself, relieved of the boredom of guard duty. “Aye, I expect we do. A bit of crumb cake with your coffee, sir?” He held out a chunk of cake; Wylie stared at it for a moment, then leaped to his feet, striking the cake out of Roger’s hand.

“You blackguard!” He rounded on Jamie, fists clenched. “You dare to imply that I am a thief?”

Jamie rocked back a little on his stool, chin lifted.

“Aye, I do,” he said coolly. “Ye tried to steal my wife from under my nose—why should ye scruple at my aunt’s goods?”

Wylie’s face flushed a deep and ugly crimson. Had it not been a wig, his hair would have stood on end.

“You . . . absolute . . . cunt!” he breathed. Then he launched himself at Jamie. Both of them went over with a crash, in a flurry of arms and legs.

I leaped back, clasping the coffee jug to my bosom. Roger lunged toward the fray, but I snatched at him, catching his cloak to hold him back.

Jamie had the advantage of size and skill, but Wylie was by no means a novice in the art of fisticuffs, and was in addition propelled by a berserk rage. Given a few moments more, Jamie would have him hammered into submission, but I was not inclined to wait.

Monstrously irritated with the pair of them, I stepped forward and upended the coffee jug. It wasn’t boiling, but hot enough. There were simultaneous yelps of surprise, and the two men rolled apart, scrambling and shaking themselves. I thought I heard Roger laugh behind me, but when I whirled on him, he had assumed a look of straight-faced interest. He raised his eyebrows at me, and crammed another chunk of cake into his mouth.

I turned back to find Jamie already on his feet, and Wylie rising from his knees, both soaked with coffee, and both with expressions implying that they intended to resume proceedings at the point where I had interrupted them. I pushed my way between them and stamped my foot.

“I have bloody well had enough of this!”

“I haven’t!” Wylie said hotly. “He has impugned my honor, and I demand—”

“Oh, to hell with your beastly honor—and yours, too!” I snarled, glaring from him to Jamie. Jamie, who had evidently been going to say something equally inflammatory, contented himself instead with a resounding snort.

I kicked one of the fallen stools, and pointed at it, still glaring at Jamie.

“Sit!”

Plucking the soaked fabric of his shirt away from his chest, he righted the stool and sat on it, with immense dignity.

Wylie was less inclined to pay attention to me, and was carrying on with further remarks about his honor. I kicked him in the shin. This time, I was wearing stout boots. He yelped and hopped on one foot, holding his affronted leg. The horses, thoroughly roused by the commotion, were stamping and snorting in their boxes, and the air was full of floating chaff.

“Ye dinna want to trifle with her when she’s in a temper,” Jamie told Wylie, with a wary glance at me. “She’s dangerous, aye?”

Wylie glowered at me, but his scowl altered to a look of uncertainty—whether because of the empty coffee jug, which I was now holding by the neck like a club, or because of his memories of the night before, when he had discovered me in the midst of Betty’s autopsy. With an effort, he swallowed whatever he had been going to say, and sat slowly down upon the other stool. He pulled a kerchief from his stained waistcoat pocket, and blotted a trickle of blood that was running down the side of his face from a cut above the brow.

“I would like,” he said, with exquisite politeness, “to know what is going on here, please.”

He had lost his wig; it was lying on the floor in a puddle of coffee. Jamie bent and picked it up, holding it gingerly, like a dead animal. He wiped a smear of mud off the side of his jaw with his free hand, and held the wig out, dripping, to Wylie.

“We are in agreement, then, sir.”

Wylie took the wig with a stiff nod of acknowledgment and laid it on his knee, disregarding the coffee soaking into his breeches. Both men looked at me, with identical expressions of skeptical impatience. Evidently, I had been appointed mistress of ceremonies.

“Robbery, murder, and heaven knows what else,” I said firmly. “And we mean to get to the bottom of it.”

“Murder?” Roger and Wylie spoke together, both sounding startled.

“Who has been murdered?” Wylie asked, looking wildly back and forth between me and Jamie.

“A slave woman,” Jamie said, with a nod toward me. “My wife suspected ill doing in her death, and so we meant to discover the truth of the matter. Thus our presence in the shed when you came upon us last night.”

“Presence,” Wylie echoed. His face was already pale, but he looked slightly ill at the recollection of what he had seen me doing in the shed. “Yes. I . . . see.” He darted a look at me from the corner of his eye.

“So she was killed?” Roger came into the circle of lantern light and set the bucket back in place, sitting down at my feet. He set the remains of the cake on the floor. “What killed her?”

“Someone fed her ground glass,” I said. “I found quite a lot of it still in her stomach.”

I paid particular attention to Phillip Wylie as I said this, but his face bore the same expression of blank astonishment as did Jamie’s and Roger’s.

“Glass.” Jamie was the first to recover. He sat up on his stool, shoving a disordered hank of hair behind his ear. “How long might that take to kill a body, Sassenach?”

I rubbed two fingers between my brows; the numbness of the early hour was giving way to a throbbing headache, made worse by the rich smell of coffee and the fact that I hadn’t gotten to drink any of it.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It would go into the stomach within minutes, but it might take quite a long time to do enough damage to cause major hemorrhage. Most of the damage would likely be to the small intestine; the glass particles would perforate the lining. And if the digestive system were somewhat impaired—by drink, say—and not moving well, then it might take even longer. Or if she’d taken a lot of food with it.”

“Is this the woman that you and Bree found in the garden?” Roger turned to Jamie, inquiring.

“Aye.” Jamie nodded, his eyes still fixed on me. “She was insensible wi’ the drink then. And when ye saw her later, Sassenach—were there signs of it, then?”

I shook my head.

“The glass might have been working then—but she was out cold. One thing—Fentiman did say she woke in the middle of the night, complaining of griping in her guts. So she was certainly affected by that time. But I can’t say for sure whether she’d been given the ground glass before you and Bree found her, or whether perhaps she roused from her stupor in the early evening, and someone gave it to her then.”

“Griping in the guts,” Roger murmured. He shook his head, mouth grim at the thought. “Christ, what a way to go.”

“Aye, it’s black wickedness,” Jamie agreed, nodding. “But why? Who should wish the woman’s death?”

“A good question,” Wylie said shortly. “However, I can assure you that it wasn’t I.”

Jamie gave him a long stare of assessment.

“Aye, maybe,” he said. “If not, though—how came ye to the shed last night? What business might ye have there, save perhaps to look upon the face of your victim?”

“My victim!” Wylie jerked bolt upright, stiff with renewed outrage. “It was not I in that shed, red to the elbow with the woman’s gore and snatching bits of bone and offal!” He snapped his head to the side, glaring up at me.

“My victim, indeed! It is a capital crime to defile a body, Mrs. Fraser. And I have heard things—oh, yes, I have heard things about you! I put it to you that it is you who did the woman to death, for the purpose of obtaining—”

His words ended in a gurgle, as Jamie’s hand jerked his shirtfront tight and twisted it hard about his neck. He punched Wylie in the stomach, hard, and the young man doubled up, coughed, and spewed coffee, bile, and a few more disagreeable substances all over the floor, his knees, and Jamie.

I sighed wearily. The briefly warming effects of the discussion had faded, and I was feeling cold and mildly disoriented again. The stench didn’t help.

“That’s not really helpful, you know,” I said reprovingly to Jamie, who had released Wylie and was now hastily removing his own outer garments. “Not that I don’t appreciate the vote of confidence.”

“Oh, aye,” he said, voice muffled in the shirt as he pulled it over his head. He popped out, glaring at me, and dropped the shirt on the floor with a splat. “D’ye think I’m going to sit idle and let this popinjay insult ye?”

“I don’t suppose he’ll do it again,” Roger said. He stood and bent over Wylie, who was still doubled up on his stool, rather green in the face. Roger glanced back over his shoulder at Jamie.

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