Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 70

   

He felt about gingerly but thoroughly inside the man’s clothing, emerging at last with a small penknife, and a small booklet bound in red paper.

“‘New Testament,’” I read, with some astonishment.

Jamie nodded, looking up at me with one brow raised. “Exciseman or no, it seems a peculiar thing to bring with ye to a kittle-hoosie.” He wiped the little booklet on the shawl, then drew the folds of fabric quite gently back over the face, and rose to his feet, shaking his head.

“That’s the only thing in his pockets. Any Customs inspector or exciseman must carry his warrant upon his person at all times, for otherwise he’s no authority to carry out a search of premises or seize goods.” He glanced up, eyebrows raised. “Why did ye think he was an exciseman?”

I hugged the folds of Jamie’s coat around myself, trying to remember what the man had said to me on the landing. “He asked me whether I was a decoy, and where the madam was. Then he said that there was a reward—a percentage of seized contraband, that’s what he said—and that no one would know but him and me. And you’d said there were excisemen after you,” I added. “So naturally I thought he was one. Then Mr. Willoughby turned up and things rather went to pot.”

Jamie nodded, still looking puzzled. “Aye, well. I havena got any idea who he is, but it’s a good thing that he isna an exciseman. I thought at first something had come verra badly unstuck, but it’s likely all right.”

“Unstuck?”

He smiled briefly. “I’ve an arrangement with the Superintending Customs Officer for the district, Sassenach.”

I gaped at him. “Arrangement?”

He shrugged. “Well, bribery then, if ye like to be straight out about it.” He sounded faintly irritated.

“No doubt that’s standard business procedure?” I said, trying to sound tactful. One corner of his mouth twitched slightly.

“Aye, it is. Well, in any case, there’s an understanding, as ye might say, between Sir Percival Turner and myself, and to find him sending excise officers into this place would worry me considerably.”

“All right,” I said slowly, mentally juggling all the half-understood events of the morning, and trying to make a pattern of them. “But in that case, what did you mean by telling Fergus the excisemen were on your heels? And why has everyone been racing round like chickens with their heads off?”

“Oh, that.” He smiled briefly, and took my arm, turning me away from the corpse at our feet. “Well, it’s an arrangement, as I said. And part of it is that Sir Percival must satisfy his own masters in London, by seizing sufficient amounts of contraband now and again. So we see to it that he’s given the opportunity. Wally and the lads brought down two wagonloads from the coast; one of the best brandy, and the other filled with spiled casks and the punked wine, topped off with a few ankers of cheap swill, just to give it all flavor.

“I met them just outside the city this morning, as we planned, and then we drove the wagons in, takin’ care to attract the attention of the Riding Officer, who just happened to be passing with a small number of dragoons. They came along and we led them a canty chase through the alleyways, until the time for me and the good tubs to part company wi’ Wally and his load of swill. Wally jumped off his wagon then, and made awa’, and I drove like hell down here, wi’ two or three dragoons following, just for show, like. Looks well in a report, ye ken.” He grinned at me, quoting, “‘The smugglers escaped in spite of industrious pursuit, but His Majesty’s valiant soldiers succeeded in capturing an entire wagonload of spirits, valued at sixty pounds, ten shillings.’ You’ll know the sort of thing?”

“I expect so,” I said. “Then it was you and the good liquor that was arriving at ten? Madame Jeanne said—”

“Aye,” he said, frowning. “She was meant to have the cellar door open and the ramp in place at ten sharp—we havena got long to get everything unloaded. She was bloody late this morning; I had to circle round twice to keep from bringing the dragoons straight to the door.”

“She was a bit distracted,” I said, remembering suddenly about the Fiend. I told Jamie about the murder at the Green Owl, and he grimaced, crossing himself.

“Poor lass,” he said.

I shuddered briefly at the memory of Bruno’s description, and moved closer to Jamie, who put an arm about my shoulders. He kissed me absently on the forehead, glancing again at the shawl-covered shape on the ground.

“Well, whoever he was, if he wasna an exciseman, there are likely no more of them upstairs. We should be able to get out of here soon.”

“That’s good.” Jamie’s coat covered me to the knees, but I felt the covert glances cast from the far end of the room at my bare calves, and was all too uncomfortably aware that I was naked under it. “Will we be going back to the printshop?” What with one thing and another, I didn’t think I wanted to take advantage of Madame Jeanne’s hospitality any longer than necessary.

“Maybe for a bit. I’ll have to think.” Jamie’s tone was abstracted, and I could see that his brow was furrowed in thought. With a brief hug, he released me, and began to walk about the cellar, staring meditatively at the stones underfoot.

“Er…what did you do with Ian?”

He glanced up, looking blank; then his face cleared.

“Oh, Ian. I left him making inquiries at the taverns above the Market Cross. I’ll need to remember to meet him, later,” he muttered, as though making a note to himself.

“I met Young Ian, by the way,” I said conversationally.

Jamie looked startled. “He came here?”

“He did. Looking for you—about a quarter of an hour after you left, in fact.”

“Thank God for small mercies!” He rubbed a hand through his hair, looking simultaneously amused and worried. “I’d have had the devil of a time explaining to Ian what his son was doing here.”

“You know what he was doing here?” I asked curiously.

“No, I don’t! He was supposed to be—ah, well, let it be. I canna be worrit about it just now.” He relapsed into thought, emerging momentarily to ask, “Did Young Ian say where he was going, when he left ye?”

I shook my head, gathering the coat around myself, and he nodded, sighed, and took up his slow pacing once more.

I sat down on an upturned tub and watched him. In spite of the general atmosphere of discomfort and danger, I felt absurdly happy simply to be near him. Feeling that there was little I could do to help the situation at present, I settled myself with the coat wrapped round me, and abandoned myself to the momentary pleasure of looking at him—something I had had no chance to do, in the tumult of events.

In spite of his preoccupation, he moved with the surefooted grace of a swordsman, a man so aware of his body as to be able to forget it entirely. The men by the casks worked by torchlight; it gleamed on his hair as he turned, lighting it like a tiger’s fur, with stripes of gold and dark.

I caught the faint twitch as two fingers of his right hand flickered together against the fabric of his breeches, and felt a strange little lurch of recognition in the gesture. I had seen him do that a thousand times as he was thinking, and seeing it now again, felt as though all the time that had passed in our separation was no more than the rising and setting of a single sun.

As though catching my thought, he paused in his strolling and smiled at me.

“You’ll be warm enough, Sassenach?” he asked.

“No, but it doesn’t matter.” I got off my tub and went to join him in his peregrinations, slipping a hand through his arm. “Making any progress with the thinking?”

He laughed ruefully. “No. I’m thinking of maybe half a dozen things together, and half of them things I canna do anything about. Like whether Young Ian’s where he should be.”

I stared up at him. “Where he should be? Where do you think he should be?”

“He should be at the printshop,” Jamie said, with some emphasis. “But he should ha’ been with Wally this morning, and he wasn’t.”

“With Wally? You mean you knew he wasn’t at home, when his father came looking for him this morning?”

He rubbed his nose with a finger, looking at once irritated and amused. “Oh, aye. I’d promised Young Ian I wouldna say anything to his Da, though, until he’d a chance to explain himself. Not that an explanation is likely to save his arse,” he added.

Young Ian had, as his father said, come to join his uncle in Edinburgh without the preliminary bother of asking his parents’ leave. Jamie had discovered this dereliction fairly quickly, but had not wanted to send his nephew alone back to Lallybroch, and had not yet had time to escort him personally.

“It’s not that he canna look out for himself,” Jamie explained, amusement winning in the struggle of expressions on his face. “He’s a nice capable lad. It’s just—well, ye ken how things just happen around some folk, without them seeming to have anything much to do wi’ it?”

“Now that you mention it, yes,” I said wryly. “I’m one of them.”

He laughed out loud at that. “God, you’re right, Sassenach! Maybe that’s why I like Young Ian so well; he ’minds me of you.”

“He reminded me a bit of you,” I said.

Jamie snorted briefly. “God, Jenny will maim me, and she hears her baby son’s been loitering about a house of ill repute. I hope the wee bugger has the sense to keep his mouth shut, once he’s home.”

“I hope he gets home,” I said, thinking of the gawky almost-fifteen-year-old I had seen that morning, adrift in an Edinburgh filled with prostitutes, excisemen, smugglers, and hatchet-wielding Fiends. “At least he isn’t a girl,” I added, thinking of this last item. “The Fiend doesn’t seem to have a taste for young boys.”

“Aye, well, there are plenty of others who have,” Jamie said sourly. “Between Young Ian and you, Sassenach, I shall be lucky if my hair’s not gone white by the time we get out of this stinking cellar.”

“Me?” I said in surprise. “You don’t need to worry about me.”

“I don’t?” He dropped my arm and rounded on me, glaring. “I dinna need to worry about ye? Is that what ye said? Christ! I leave ye safely in bed waiting for your breakfast, and not an hour later, I find ye downstairs in your shift, clutching a corpse to your bosom! And now you’re standing in front of me bare as an egg, with fifteen men over there wondering who in hell ye are—and how d’ye think I’m going to explain ye to them, Sassenach? Tell me that, eh?” He shoved a hand through his hair in exasperation.

“Sweet bleeding Jesus! And I’ve to go up the coast in two days without fail, but I canna leave ye in Edinburgh, not wi’ Fiends creepin’ about with hatchets, and half the people who’ve seen ye thinking you’re a prostitute, and…and…” The lacing around his pigtail broke abruptly under the pressure, and his hair fluffed out round his head like a lion’s mane. I laughed. He glared for a moment longer, but then a reluctant grin made its way slowly through the frown.

Loading...