“What do you plan to do about Ian?” I asked, once we had made our way back to the path.
“I’ll need help,” he answered briskly. “I mean to come up the river with Innes and MacLeod and the rest. There’s a landing there, no great distance from the refinery. We’ll leave the boat there, go ashore and deal wi’ Hercules—and Atlas, too, if he’s a mind to be troublesome—break open the cellar, snatch Ian, and make off again. The dark o’ the moon’s in two days—I wish it could be sooner, but it will likely take that long to get a suitable boat and what arms we’ll need.”
“Using what for money?” I inquired bluntly. The expenditure for new clothes and shoes had taken a substantial portion of Jamie’s share of profit from the bat guano. What was left would feed us for several weeks, and possibly be sufficient to rent a boat for a day or two, but it wouldn’t stretch to buying large quantities of weapons.
Neither pistols nor swords were manufactured on the island; all weapons were imported from Europe and were in consequence expensive. Jamie himself had Captain Raines’s two pistols; the Scots had nothing but their fish knives and the odd cutlass—insufficient for an armed raid.
He grimaced slightly, then glanced at me sidelong.
“I must ask John for help,” he said simply. “Must I not?”
I rode silently for a moment, then nodded in acquiescence.
“I suppose you’ll have to.” I didn’t like it, but it wasn’t a question of my liking; it was Ian’s life. “One thing, though, Jamie—”
“Aye, I know,” he said, resigned. “Ye mean to come with me, no?”
“Yes,” I said, smiling. “After all, what if Ian’s hurt, or sick, or—”
“Aye, ye can come!” he said, rather testily. “Only do me the one wee favor, Sassenach. Try verra hard not to be killed or cut to pieces, aye? It’s hard on a man’s sensibilities.”
“I’ll try,” I said, circumspectly. And nudging my horse closer to his, rode side by side down toward Kingston, through the dripping trees.
THE CROCODILE’S FIRE
There was a surprising amount of traffic on the river at night. Lawrence Stern, who had insisted on accompanying the expedition, told me that most of the plantations up in the hills used the river as their main linkage with Kingston and the harbor; roads were either atrocious or nonexistent, swallowed by lush growth with each new rainy season.
I had expected the river to be deserted, but we passed two small craft and a barge headed downstream as we tacked laboriously up the broad waterway, under sail. The barge, an immense dark shape stacked high with casks and bales, passed us like a black iceberg, huge, humped, and threatening. The low voices of the slaves poling it carried across the water, talking softly in a foreign tongue.
“It was kind of ye to come, Lawrence,” Jamie said. We had a small, single-masted open boat, which barely held Jamie, myself, the six Scottish smugglers, and Stern. Despite the crowded quarters, I too was grateful for Stern’s company; he had a stolid, phlegmatic quality about him that was very comforting under the circumstances.
“Well, I confess to some curiosity,” Stern said, flapping the front of his shirt to cool his sweating body. In the dark, all I could see of him was a moving blotch of white. “I have met the lady before, you see.”
“Mrs. Abernathy?” I paused, then asked delicately, “Er…what did you think of her?”
“Oh…she was a very pleasant lady; most…gracious.”
Dark as it was, I couldn’t see his face, but his voice held an odd note, half-pleased, half-embarrassed, that told me he had found the widow Abernathy quite attractive indeed. From which I concluded that Geilie had wanted something from the naturalist; I had never known her treat a man with any regard, save for her own ends.
“Where did you meet her? At her own house?” According to the attendees at the Governor’s ball, Mrs. Abernathy seldom or never left her plantation.
“Yes, at Rose Hall. I had stopped to ask permission to collect a rare type of beetle—one of the Cucurlionidae—that I had found near a spring on the plantation. She invited me in, and…made me most welcome.” This time there was a definite note of self-satisfaction in his voice. Jamie, handling the tiller next to me, heard it and snorted briefly.
“What did she want of ye?” he asked, no doubt having formed conclusions similar to mine about Geilie’s motives and behavior.
“Oh, she was most gratifyingly interested in the specimens of flora and fauna I had collected on the island; she asked me about the locations and virtues of several different herbs. Ah, and about the other places I had been. She was particularly interested in my stories of Hispaniola.” He sighed, momentarily regretful. “It is difficult to believe that such a lovely woman might engage in such reprehensible behavior as you describe, James.”
“Lovely, aye?” Jamie’s voice was dryly amused. “A bit smitten, were ye, Lawrence?”
Lawrence’s voice echoed Jamie’s smile. “There is a sort of carnivorous fly I have observed, friend James. The male fly, choosing a female to court, takes pains to bring her a bit of meat or other prey, tidily wrapped in a small silk package. While the female is engaged in unwrapping her tidbit, he leaps upon her, performs his copulatory duties, and hastens away. For if she should finish her meal before he has finished his own activities, or should he be so careless as not to bring her a tasty present—she eats him.” There was a soft laugh in the darkness. “No, it was an interesting experience, but I think I shall not call upon Mrs. Abernathy again.”
“Not if we’re lucky about it, no,” Jamie agreed.
The men left me by the riverbank to mind the boat, and melted into the darkness, with instructions from Jamie to stay put. I had a primed pistol, given to me with the stern injunction not to shoot myself in the foot. The weight of it was comforting, but as the minutes dragged by in black silence, I found the dark and the solitude more and more oppressive.
From where I stood, I could see the house, a dark oblong with only the lower three windows lighted; that would be the salon, I thought, and wondered why there was no sign of any activity by the slaves. As I watched, though, I saw a shadow cross one of the lighted windows, and my heart jumped into my throat.
It wasn’t Geilie’s shadow, by any conceivable stretch of the imagination. It was tall, thin, and gawkily angular.
I looked wildly around, wanting to call out; but it was too late. The men were all out of earshot, headed for the refinery. I hesitated for a moment, but there was really nothing else to do. I kilted up my skirts and stepped into the dark.
By the time I stepped onto the veranda, I was damp with perspiration, and my heart was beating loudly enough to drown out all other sounds. I edged silently next to the nearest window, trying to peer in without being seen from within.
Everything was quiet and orderly within. There was a small fire on the hearth, and the glow of the flames gleamed on the polished floor. Geilie’s rosewood secretary was unfolded, the desk shelf covered with piles of handwritten papers and what looked like very old books. I couldn’t see anyone inside, but I couldn’t see the whole room, either.
My skin prickled with imagination, thinking of the dead-eyed Hercules, silently stalking me in the dark. I edged farther down the veranda, looking over my shoulder with every other step.
There was an odd sense of desertion about the place this evening. There were none of the subdued voices of slaves that had attended my earlier visit, muttering to one another as they went about their tasks. But that might mean nothing, I told myself. Most of the slaves would stop work and go to their own quarters at sundown. Still, ought there not to be house servants, to tend the fire and fetch food from the kitchen?
The front door stood open. Spilled petals from the yellow rose lay across the doorstep, glowing like ancient gold coins in the faint light from the entryway.
I paused, listening. I thought I heard a faint rustle from inside the salon, as of someone turning the pages of a book, but I couldn’t be sure. Taking my courage in both hands, I stepped across the threshold.
The feeling of desertion was more pronounced in here. There were unmistakable signs of neglect visible; a vase of wilted flowers on the polished surface of a chest, a teacup and saucer left to sit on an occasional table, the dregs dried to a brown stain in the bottom of the cup. Where the hell was everybody?
I stopped at the door into the salon and listened again. I heard the quiet crackle of the fire, and again, that soft rustle, as of turning pages. By poking my head around the jamb, I could just see that there was someone seated in front of the secretary now. Someone undeniably male, tall and thin-shouldered, dark head bent over something before him.
“Ian!” I hissed, as loudly as I dared. “Ian!”
The figure started, pushed back the chair, and stood up quickly, blinking toward the shadows.
“Jesus!” I said.
“Mrs. Malcolm?” said the Reverend Archibald Campbell, astonished.
I swallowed, trying to force my heart down out of my throat. The Reverend looked nearly as startled as I, but it lasted only a moment. Then his features hardened, and he took a step toward the door.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded.
“I’m looking for my husband’s nephew,” I said; there was no point in lying, and perhaps he knew where Ian was. I glanced quickly round the room, but it was empty, save for the Reverend, and the one small lighted lamp he had been using. “Where’s Mrs. Abernathy?”
“I have no idea,” he said, frowning. “She appears to have left. What do you mean, your husband’s nephew?”
“Left?” I blinked at him. “Where has she gone?”
“I don’t know.” He scowled, his pointed upper lip clamped beaklike over the lower one. “She was gone when I rose this morning—and all of the servants with her, apparently. A fine way to treat an invited guest!”
I relaxed slightly, despite my alarm. At least I was in no danger of running into Geilie. I thought I could deal with the Reverend Campbell.
“Oh,” I said. “Well, that does seem a bit inhospitable, I admit. I suppose you haven’t seen a boy of about fifteen, very tall and thin, with thick dark brown hair? No, I didn’t think you had. In that case, I expect I should be go—”
“Stop!” He grabbed me by the upper arm, and I stopped, surprised and unsettled by the strength of his grip.
“What is your husband’s true name?” he demanded.
“Why—Alexander Malcolm,” I said, tugging at my captive arm. “You know that.”
“Indeed. And how is it, then, that when I described you and your husband to Mrs. Abernathy, she told me that your family name is Fraser—that your husband in fact is James Fraser?”
“Oh.” I took a deep breath, trying to think of something plausible, but failed. I never had been good at lying on short notice.
“Where is your husband, woman?” he demanded.