Author: P Hana

Page 69


“Ooh! I think he’s dead!” An awestruck voice floated down from above, and I looked up to see a dozen prostitutes peering down like cherubim from on high.

“Get back to your rooms!” Jamie barked. There was a chorus of frightened squeals, and they scattered like pigeons.

Jamie glanced around the landing for traces of the incident, but luckily there were none—the shawl and I had caught everything.

“Come on,” he said.

The stairs were dim and the cellar at the foot pitch-black. I stopped at the bottom, waiting for Jamie. The exciseman had not been lightly built, and Jamie was breathing hard when he reached me.

“Across to the far side,” he said, gasping. “A false wall. Hold my arm.”

With the door above shut, I couldn’t see a thing; luckily Jamie seemed able to steer by radar. He led me unerringly past large objects that I bumped in passing, and finally came to a halt. I could smell damp stone, and putting out a hand, felt a rough wall before me.

Jamie said something loudly in Gaelic. Apparently it was the Celtic equivalent of “Open Sesame,” for there was a short silence, then a grating noise, and a faint glowing line appeared in the darkness before me. The line widened into a slit, and a section of the wall swung out, revealing a small doorway, made of a wooden framework, upon which cut stones were mounted so as to look like part of the wall.

The concealed cellar was a large room, at least thirty feet long. Several figures were moving about, and the air was ripely suffocating with the smell of brandy. Jamie dumped the body unceremoniously in a corner, then turned to me.

“God, Sassenach, are ye all right?” The cellar seemed to be lighted with candles, dotted here and there in the dimness. I could just see his face, skin drawn tight across his cheekbones.

“I’m a little cold,” I said, trying not to let my teeth chatter. “My shift is soaked with blood. Otherwise I’m all right. I think.”

“Jeanne!” He turned and called toward the far end of the cellar, and one of the figures came toward us, resolving itself into a very worried-looking madam. He explained the situation in a few words, causing the worried expression to grow considerably worse.

“Horreur!” she said. “Killed? On my premises? With witnesses?”

“Aye, I’m afraid so.” Jamie sounded calm. “I’ll manage about it. But in the meantime, ye must go up. He might not have been alone. You’ll know what to do.”

His voice held a tone of calm assurance, and he squeezed her arm. The touch seemed to calm her—I hoped that was why he had done it—and she turned to leave.

“Oh, and Jeanne,” Jamie called after her. “When ye come back, can ye bring down some clothes for my wife? If her gown’s not ready, I think Daphne is maybe the right size.”

“Clothes?” Madame Jeanne squinted into the shadows where I stood. I helpfully stepped out into the light, displaying the results of my encounter with the exciseman.

Madame Jeanne blinked once or twice, crossed herself, and turned without a word, to disappear through the concealed doorway, which swung to behind her with a muffled thud.

I was beginning to shake, as much with reaction as with the cold. Accustomed as I was to emergency, blood, and even sudden death, the events of the morning had been more than a little harrowing. It was like a bad Saturday night in the emergency room.

“Come along, Sassenach,” Jamie said, putting a hand gently on the small of my back. “We’ll get ye washed.” His touch worked on me as well as it had on Madame Jeanne; I felt instantly better, if still apprehensive.

“Washed? In what? Brandy?”

He gave a slight laugh at that. “No, water. I can offer ye a bathtub, but I’m afraid it will be cold.”

It was extremely cold.

“Wh-wh-where did this water come from?” I asked, shivering. “Off a glacier?” The water gushed out of a pipe set in the wall, normally kept plugged with an insanitary-looking wad of rags, wrapped to form a rough seal around the chunk of wood that served as a plug.

I pulled my hand out of the chilly stream and wiped it on the shift, which was too far gone for anything to make much difference. Jamie shook his head as he maneuvered the big wooden tub closer to the spout.

“Off the roof,” he answered. “There’s a rainwater cistern up there. The guttering pipe runs down the side of the building, and the cistern pipe is hidden inside it.” He looked absurdly proud of himself, and I laughed.

“Quite an arrangement,” I said. “What do you use the water for?”

“To cut the liquor,” he explained. He gestured at the far side of the room, where the shadowy figures were working with notable industry among a large array of casks and tubs. “It comes in a hundred and eighty degrees above proof. We mix it here wi’ pure water, and recask it for sale to the taverns.”

He shoved the rough plug back into the pipe, and bent to pull the big tub across the stone floor. “Here, we’ll take it out of the way; they’ll be needing the water.” One of the men was in fact standing by with a small cask clasped in his arms; with no more than a curious glance at me, he nodded to Jamie and thrust the cask beneath the stream of water.

Behind a hastily arranged screen of empty barrels, I peered dubiously down into the depths of my makeshift tub. A single candle burned in a puddle of wax nearby, glimmering off the surface of the water and making it look black and bottomless. I stripped off, shivering violently, thinking that the comforts of hot water and modern plumbing had seemed a hell of a lot easier to renounce when they were close at hand.

Jamie groped in his sleeve and pulled out a large handkerchief, at which he squinted dubiously.

“Aye, well, it’s maybe cleaner than your shift,” he said, shrugging. He handed it to me, then excused himself to oversee operations at the other end of the room.

The water was freezing and so was the cellar, and as I gingerly sponged myself, the icy trickles running down my stomach and thighs brought on small fits of shivering.

Thoughts of what might be happening overhead did little to ease my feelings of chilly apprehension. Presumably, we were safe enough for the moment, so long as the false cellar wall deceived any searching excisemen.

But if the wall failed to hide us, our position was all but hopeless. There appeared to be no way out of this room but by the door in the false wall—and if that wall were breached, we would not only be caught red-handed in possession of quite a lot of contraband brandy, but also in custody of the body of a murdered King’s Officer.

And surely the disappearance of that officer would provoke an intensive search? I had visions of excisemen combing the brothel, questioning and threatening the women, emerging with complete descriptions of myself, Jamie, and Mr. Willoughby, as well as several eyewitness accounts of the murder. Involuntarily, I glanced at the far corner, where the dead man lay beneath his bloodstained shroud, covered with pink and yellow hollyhocks. The Chinaman was nowhere to be seen, having apparently passed out behind the ankers of brandy.

“Here, Sassenach. Drink this; your teeth are chattering so, you’re like to bite through your tongue.” Jamie had reappeared by my seal hole like a St. Bernard dog, bearing a firkin of brandy.

“Th-thanks.” I had to drop the washcloth and use both hands to steady the wooden cup so it wouldn’t clack against my teeth, but the brandy helped; it dropped like a flaming coal into the pit of my stomach and sent small curling tendrils of warmth through my frigid extremities as I sipped.

“Oh, God, that’s better,” I said, stopping long enough to gasp for breath. “Is this the uncut version?”

“No, that would likely kill ye. This is maybe a little stronger than what we sell, though. Finish up and put something on; then ye can have a bit more.” Jamie took the cup from my hand and gave me back the handkerchief washcloth. As I hurriedly finished my chilly ablutions, I watched him from the corner of my eye. He was frowning as he gazed at me, clearly deep in thought. I had imagined that his life was complicated; it hadn’t escaped me that my presence was undoubtedly complicating it a good bit more. I would have given a lot to know what he was thinking.

“What are you thinking about, Jamie?” I said, watching him sidelong as I swabbed the last of the smudges from my thighs. The water swirled around my calves, disturbed by my movements, and the candlelight lit the waves with sparks, as though the dark blood I had washed from my body now glowed once more live and red in the water.

The frown vanished momentarily as his eyes cleared and fixed on my face.

“I am thinking that you’re verra beautiful, Sassenach,” he said softly.

“Maybe if one has a taste for gooseflesh on a large scale,” I said tartly, stepping out of the tub and reaching for the cup.

He grinned suddenly at me, teeth flashing white in the dimness of the cellar.

“Oh, aye,” he said. “Well, you’re speaking to the only man in Scotland who has a terrible cockstand at sight of a plucked chicken.”

I spluttered in my brandy and choked, half-hysterical from tension and terror.

Jamie quickly shrugged out of his coat and wrapped the garment around me, hugging me close against him as I shivered and coughed and gasped.

“Makes it hard to pass a poulterer’s stall and stay decent,” he murmured in my ear, briskly rubbing my back through the fabric. “Hush, Sassenach, hush now. It’ll be fine.”

I clung to him, shaking. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m all right. It’s my fault, though. Mr. Willoughby shot the exciseman because he thought he was making indecent advances to me.”

Jamie snorted. “That doesna make it your fault, Sassenach,” he said dryly. “And for what it’s worth, it’s no the first time the Chinaman’s done something foolish, either. When he’s drink taken, he’ll do anything, and never mind how mad it is.”

Suddenly Jamie’s expression changed as he realized what I had said. He stared down at me, eyes wide. “Did ye say ‘exciseman,’ Sassenach?”

“Yes, why?”

He didn’t answer, but let go my shoulders and whirled on his heel, snatching the candle off the cask in passing. Rather than be left in the dark, I followed him to the corner where the corpse lay under its shawl.

“Hold this.” Jamie thrust the candle unceremoniously into my hand and knelt by the shrouded figure, pulling back the stained fabric that covered the face.

I had seen quite a few dead bodies; the sight was no shock, but it still wasn’t pleasant. The eyes had rolled up beneath half-closed lids, which did nothing to help the generally ghastly effect. Jamie frowned at the dead face, drop-jawed and waxy in the candlelight, and muttered something under his breath.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. I had thought I would never be warm again, but Jamie’s coat was not only thick and well-made, it held the remnants of his own considerable body heat. I was still cold, but the shivering had eased.

“This isna an exciseman,” Jamie said, still frowning. “I know all the Riding Officers in the district, and the superintending officers, too. But I’ve no seen this fellow before.” With some distaste, he turned back the sodden flap of the coat and groped inside.