PRELUDE TO THE BLACK COBRA QUARTET
March 24th, 1822
East India Company Headquarters, Calcutta, India.
"I can't stress how important it is that we behead this fiend." Francis Rawdon-Hastings, Marquess of Hastings, and Governor-General of India for the last nine years, stumped back and forth behind his desk.
The five officers at ease in the elegant rattan armchairs arranged before the massive mahogany expanse in the governor-general's study sat silent and still; Hastings's passage was the only movement stirring the heavy, humid air.
The old man's color was high, his fists clenched, the muscles in shoulders and arms taut. Colonel Derek Delborough, Del to all who knew him, seated at one end of the row of chairs, eyed the signs of his commander-in-chief's agitation with cynical detachment. It had taken Hastings long enough to summon him and his men, Hastings's personally-appointed special officers.
Behind Hastings, the white plaster wall was broken by two teak-framed windows, shaded by the wide balcony beyond yet already shuttered against the burgeoning heat. Hanging between, a portrait of the king, painted when he'd still been Prince Florizel and the darling of Europe, stared out over this outpost of English wealth and influence. The room was amply endowed with rosewood tables and teak cabinets, many intricately carved and inlaid, glowing in the light that seeped through the shutters to glint off myriad ornate brass fittings.
Airy, spotlessly clean, richly and exotically appointed, the room possessed a timeless serenity underlying its utilitarian function, much like the subcontinent itself, a large portion over which Hastings now ruled.
Immune to any soothing ambience, Hastings continued to pace heavily. "These depredations on our convoys cannot go on - we're losing face with every day that passes, with every attack that goes unanswered."
"I understand"- Del's own drawl was the epitome of unruffled calm, a sharp contrast to Hastings's terse tones - "that the Black Cobra's activities have been escalating for some time."
"Yes, damn it! And the Bombay station didn't think it worthwhile reporting, let alone acting, until a few months ago, and now they're bleating that the situation's beyond them." Pausing by the center of his desk, Hastings exasperatedly rifled a stack of documents, fanning out a selection before pushing them across the polished surface. "These are some of the recent reports - just so you know what anarchy you're heading into."
The four men seated to Del's right glanced his way. At his nod, they reached out and took one of the documents each; sitting back, they perused the reports.
"I've heard," Del went on, reclaiming Hastings's attention, "that the cult of the Black Cobra first reared its head in '19. Does it have any previous history, or was that its inception?"
"That was the first inkling we had, and the locals in Bombay hadn't heard of it before then. No saying it hadn't been lurking in some backwater somewhere - God knows there's enough of these secretive native cults - but there's no reports, even from the older maharajahs, of its existence prior to mid-'19."
"A de novo cult suggests the arrival of a particular leader."
"Indeed, and it's him you'll need to eliminate. Either that, or do enough damage to his forces" - Hastings flung a hand at the documents the other four were reading - "the rabble he uses to murder, rape and pillage, to make him scurry back under whatever rock he slithered out from."
"'Murder, rape and pillage' hardly does the Black Cobra justice." Major Gareth Hamilton, one of the four officers who served under Del, glanced up, his brown gaze pinning Hastings. "This reads more like deliberate terrorization of villages, which suggests an attempt to subjugate. For a cult, that's ambitious-an attempt to seize power beyond the usual bleeding of money and goods."
"Establishing a yoke of fear." Captain Rafe Carstairs, seated three seats along from Del, joined Gareth in tossing the report he'd read back on the desk. Rafe's aristocratic features showed evidence of distaste, even disgust, which told Del that the contents of the report Rafe had read were truly dreadful.
All five of them seated before Hastings's desk had seen human carnage unimaginable to most; as a group they'd served through the Peninsula campaign in the cavalry under Paget, then been in the thick of the action at Waterloo, and had subsequently taken commissions with the Honorable East India Company to serve under Hastings as an elite group of officers deployed specifically to deal with the worst uprisings and instablilites the subcontinent had thrown up over the past seven years.
Seated between Gareth and Rafe, Major Logan Monteith's lip curled as with a flick of his tanned wrist he sent the report he'd read skating to join the others on the desk. "This Black Cobra makes Kali and her thugees look civilized."
Beyond Rafe, the last and youngest of their five, Captain James MacFarlane, still faintly baby-faced even though he was twenty-nine, leaned forward and carefully laid the document he'd perused with the others. "Has Bombay no clue as to who's behind this? No trail - no associates, no area in which the Cobra has its headquarters?"
"After more than five months of active searching, Bombay has precisely nothing beyond a suspicion that some of the Maratha princelings have been drawn into clandestinely supporting the cult."
Rafe snorted. "Any fool could have predicted that. Ever since we slapped them down in '18, they've been spoiling for a fight - any fight, they're not particular."
"Exactly." Hastings's tone was acid, biting. "As you know, Ensworth is now Governor in Bombay. He's performing well in all other respects, but he's all diplomat, no military man, and he freely admits that when it comes to the Black Cobra he's in over his head." Hastings's gaze raked them, coming to rest on Del. "Which is where you gentlemen come in."
"I take it," Del said, "that Ensworth isn't going to get his nose out of joint when we ride into his patch."
"On the contrary - he'll welcome you with open arms. He's at his wits' end trying to reassure the merchants while simultaneously balancing the books for London - not easy when every fifth convoy is plundered." Hastings paused, and for a moment the strain of managing the far-flung empire India had become showed in his face. Then his jaw firmed, and he met their gazes. "I can't overstate the importance of this mission. The Black Cobra has to be stopped. Its depredations and the atrocities committed in its name have reached a level that threatens not just the Company, but England herself-not just in terms of trade, but in stature, and you've all been here long enough to know how vital the latter is to our nation's continuing interests. And lastly" - with his head he indicated the reports on his desk - "it's India, and the people in those villages, who need the Cobra removed."
"No argument there." Rafe came out of his characteristic lounge and rose to his feet as Del and the others did.
Hastings let his gaze travel over them as they ranged shoulder-to-shoulder before his desk, a solid wall of red in their uniforms. They were all over six-feet tall, ex-Guardsmen all, hardened by long years of battle and command. Experience etched their features, even MacFarlane's; worldly knowledge colored their eyes.
Satisfied with what he saw, Hastings nodded. "Your mission, gentlemen, is to identify and capture the Black Cobra, and bring him to justice. You have a free hand as to ways and means. I care not how you do it, as long as justice is seen - and known - to have been done. As usual, you may draw on the company's account, and on its troops as seems fit."
Typically it was Rafe who put their collective thoughts into words, albeit his words. "You mentioned beheading." His tone was light, his habitual ineffable charm on show, as if he were at some tea party and speaking of croquet. "With cults that's usually the most effective approach. Can we take it you would rather we went direct for the leader-or are we to play cautious and try to defend the convoys wherever possible?"
Hastings met Rafe's guileless blue eyes. "You, Captain, wouldn't know caution from your elbow."
Del's lips twitched; from the corner of his eye, he saw Gareth's do the same. Rafe, nicknamed "Reckless" for good cause, merely looked innocent, continuing to meet Hastings's cynical gaze.
Hastings humphed. "Your supposition is correct. I expect you to target the Black Cobra specifically, to identify and eliminate him. For the rest, do whatever you can, but the situation is urgent, and we can no longer afford caution."
Again Hastings's gaze raked them. "You may interpret my orders in whatever way you wish - just bring the Black Cobra to justice."
* * *
August 15th, five months later.
"Hastings did say we could interpret his orders as we wished - that we had a free hand as to ways and means." Rafe settled his shoulders against the wall behind him, then raised one of the glasses the barboy had just set on the table, and took a long draft of cloudy amber beer.
The five of them - Del, Gareth, Logan, Rafe and James - were seated around the corner table they'd claimed as theirs in the bar off the officer's mess. They'd chosen that table because of its amenities, namely that it commanded an uninterrupted view of the entire bar - the enclosed front verandah of the officers' mess - as well as the maidan beyond the verandah steps. In addition - the table's principal recommendation - with thick stone walls at their back and along one side, there wasn't anywhere anyone could stand unobserved by them, inside or out, and overhear their low-voiced discussions.
The bamboo screens fitted between the verandah's front pillars were presently lowered against the late afternoon sun and the dust stirred up by a troop of sepoys engaged in parade drills, leaving the bar wreathed in cooler shadows. A distant hum of conversation rose from two groups of officers seated further down the long verandah; the clink of billiard balls wafted from an alcove off the verandah's far end.
"True." Gareth claimed a glass. "But I doubt the good marquess envisioned us going around him."
"I can't see that we have any choice." Along with the other three, Logan looked at Del.
Staring into his beer, Del felt their gazes, looked up and met them. "If, as we believe, the Black Cobra is Roderick Ferrar, then Hastings won't thank us for bringing him the news."
"But he'll still act on it, surely?" James reached for the last glass left on the tray.
Del glanced at him. "Did you notice the portrait behind Hastings's desk?"
"The one of Prinny?"
Del nodded. "That's not company property, but Hastings's own. He owes his appointment to Prinny - pardon me, His Majesty - and knows he can never forget it. If, presuming we can find it, we take him incontrovertible proof that Ferrar is our villain, we'll place him in the invidious position of having to decide which master to appease - his conscience, or his king."
Frowning, James turned his glass between his hands. "Is Ferrar really that untouchable?"
"Yes." Del's voice was reinforced by Gareth's, Logan's and Rafe's.
"Hastings is beholden to the king," Del explained, "and the king is beholden to Ferrar senior, the Earl of Shrewsbury. Furthermore, although he's Shrewsbury's second son, Ferrar is widely known to be his father's favorite."
"Rumor," Rafe said, leaning on the table, "has it that the king is in Shrewsbury's pocke - not a situation all that hard to believe - so unless there's some animosity between Hastings and Shrewsbury that no one knows of, odds are that Hastings will feel obliged to 'lose' any evidence we find."
Logan snorted. "Hell - I wouldn't be surprised if some of the gold the Cobra is skimming off John Company's profits isn't, in a roundabout way, ending in His Majesty's pocket."
"Hastings," Gareth reminded them, "was very insistent that we 'bring the Black Cobra to justice.' He didn't instruct us to capture him and deliver him to Bombay." He looked at Del, arched a brow. "Do you think Hastings might suspect, and this - using us - is his way of gaining justice without offending his royal master?"
Del's lips twisted cynically. "The possibility has crossed my mind. Consider - it took us a bare two weeks to realize the Black Cobra either had someone in the governor's office here, or else was himself a member of the governor's staff. After that it took what? - six weeks? - of watching and noting which convoys were attacked to narrow it down to Ferrar. As the Governor of Bombay's second adjutant, he and only he had knowledge of all the convoys attacked - others had the details for some, but only he had routes and times for all. Hastings has similar information stretching back for months. He has to have at least some suspicion of who's behind the Black Cobra cult."
"Hastings," Rafe said, "also knows when Roderick Ferrar took up his appointment here - in early '19, five or so months before the first known appearance of the Black Cobra and his minions."
"Five months is long enough for a sharp lad like Ferrar to see the possibilities, make plans, and gather said minions," Logan said. "More, as the governor's adjutant, he's had easy and officially sanctioned contact with the disaffected Maratha princelings - the same hotheads we now know have secretly ceded the Black Cobra their private robber gangs."
"Ferrar," Del said, "reported to Hastings in Calcutta before joining the govenor's staff here - a position our contacts back in Calcutta confirm he specifically requested. Ferrar could have had a position with Hastings at headquarters - it was his for the taking, and what eager-to-advance-in-the-company youngster wouldn't rather work for the great man himself? But no, Ferrar requested a posting to Bombay, and was apparently quite satisfied with the second adjutant's desk."
"Which makes one wonder," Gareth said, "if the principal attraction of said desk was that it was the entire subcontinent away from Hastings's potentially watchful eye."
"So, James, m'lad" - Rafe clapped the younger captain on the back - "all that suggests that instructing us to 'bring the Black Cobra to justice,' and to use whatever means we deem necessary to do it, is very likely a shrewd politician's way of taking care of the matter." Rafe met the others' eyes. "And Hastings knows us well enough to be sure we'll do his dirty work for him."
James glanced at the others' faces, saw they all thought the same, and reluctantly nodded. "All right. So we bypass Hastings. But how do we do that?" He looked at Del. "Have you heard anything from England?"
Del glanced along the verandah, verifying that no one else could possibly overhear. "A frigate came in this morning, with a very thick packet for me."
"From Devil?" Gareth asked.
Del nodded. "A letter from him, and rather more from one of his peers - the Duke of Wolverstone."
"Wolverstone?" Rafe frowned. "I thought the old man was next thing to a recluse."
"He was," Del replied. "The son - the current duke - is another matter. We know him - or rather know of him - under another name. Dalziel."
The other four's eyes opened wide. "Dalziel was really Wolverstone?" James asked.
"The then-Wolverstone's heir, apparently," Del replied. "The old man died late in '16, after we got here."
Gareth was counting years. "Dalziel must have been retired by then."
"Presumably. Regardless, as Duke of St. Ives, Devil knows the new duke well. After reading my letter explaining our predicament, Devil showed it to Wolverstone, reasoning there could be no one better placed to advise us. If you recall, Dalziel was in charge of all British agents on foreign soil for a decade and more, and knows every trick when it comes to couriering sensitive information across the continent and into England. More, as Devil went to literary lengths to point out, Wolverstone is the peer best-placed to oppose Shrewsbury. Wolverstone owes the king nothing - if anything the shoe is on the other foot, and His Majesty is well aware of it. If Wolverstone presents evidence that Ferrar junior is the Black Cobra, there'll be nothing the king or Shrewsbury will dare do to derail the wheels of justice."
Rafe grinned. "I always knew there was a reason we agreed to form a troop with the Cynsters at Waterloo."
Gareth smiled reminisciently. "They were damned fine soliders, even if they weren't regulars."
"In the blood." Logan nodded sagely.
"And their horses were worth killing for," Rafe added.
"We covered their backs often enough, so now they're returning the favor." Del held up his glass, waited until the others touched the rims of theirs to his. "To old comrades-in-arms."
They all drank, then Logan looked at Del. "So has Wolverstone given us the required advice?"
Del nodded. "In detail. First, he confirmed that he's willing to take any proof we turn up and present it through the proper channels-he has all the contacts and the standing to do that. However, he makes it plain that to take down Ferrar junior, said proof will have to be incontrovertible. It has to be clear, instantly obvious, unequivocal, not circumstantial, not something that requires interpretation, let alone knowledge of the situation to make sense."
Gareth mumured, "So it has to be something that incontestably implicates Ferrar directly."
"Exactly." Del set down his empty glass. "Once we have that proof - and Wolverstone was very clear there is no point in proceeding without the right proof - but once we have it, then he's already put in place a…for want of a better word, campaign, a detailed plan of action for us to follow to bring the proof safely to England, and into his hands." Del glanced at the others, lips curving wryly. "Looking over his plan, it's not hard to see why he was such a success in his erstwhile occupation."
"So what are the details?" Logan leaned his arms on the table, his interest plain. The others, too, were waiting.
"We're to make copies of the proof, and then separate and independently make our way home - four carrying copies and one carrying the original. He's sent five sealed letters - five sets of instructions - one for the original, the other four for the decoys. Each letter contains the routes each of us should take back to England and which ports we should use-once we land, there'll be men of his waiting to escort us further. They - our escorts - will know where each of us is to go once in England."
Logan's lips had curved. "I take it Wolverstone's a firm believer in sharing information only with those who need to know?"
Del smiled. "The way we're to handle this, while each of us will know what we're carrying - decoy or original - and what route we'll be taking home, we won't know what any of the rest of us have, or the others' routes. Specifically, the only one who'll know who is carrying the original, and what route they'll be taking home, what port they'll be heading for, is the one of us who draws the original." Del eased back from the table. "Dalziel wants us to draw lots, then immediately part."
Rafe nodded. "That's safer all around." He glanced around the table. "His way, if any of us are caught, we can't give the others away." Both face and voice uncharacteristically sober, he placed his empty glass carefully on the tray. "After the last months of chasing the Black Cobra's gangs, seeing the results of their methods first hand…it's only wise to ensure that if they do take any of us, the others will be safe. We can't tell what we don't know."
A moment passed in silence, each recalling the atrocities they'd seen while leading troops of sowars on raids into the hinterlands and hills, chasing the Black Cobra and the robber gangs that formed a large part of the cult's forces, searching for the evidence - the incontrovertible, irrefutable proof they needed to bring the reign of the Black Cobra to an end.
Gareth drew a long breath, let it out with, "So, we find our proof, then we take it home." He glanced at the others. "On leave, or are we finally resigning our commissions?"
Rafe passed a hand over his face, as if wiping away the stark memories of a moment before. "I'll resign." He, too, glanced at the others, reading faces. "We've all been thinking about it - chatting, joking, but considering nonetheless."
"True." Logan spun his empty glass between his fingers. "And after these last months - and the months to come until we get the proof we need - by the time we do, I'll have had more than enough." He looked up. "I'm ready to go home permanently, too."
Del nodded. "And me." He looked at Gareth.
Who nodded. "I've been campaigning all my adult life - as have all of you. I've enjoyed the campaigns, but this, what we're doing here now, is no longer campaigning. What this country needs isn't military, not cavalry and guns. It needs rulers who rule, and that's not what we are." He glanced at the others. "I suppose what I'm saying is our role here is done."
"Or will be done," Del amended, "once we take down the Black Cobra."
Rafe looked at James. "What about you, stripling?"
Although he'd been one of them since before Waterloo, James was the baby of the group. There was only two years in age between him and Rafe, yet in experience and even more in temperament the difference was immeasurably greater. In knowledge, attitude, and sheer hardened command, Rafe was as old as Del. Rafe had remained a captain by choice, had turned down promotion the better to merge with his men, to inspire and lead. He was a remarkable commander in the field.
Del, Gareth, Logan and Rafe were equals, their strengths not exactly the same but equally respected, each by the others. James, no matter the actions he fought in, the atrocities he observed, the carnage he witnessed, still retained some vestige of the apple-cheeked innocence he'd had when he'd first joined them, a youthful subaltern in their old cavalry troop. Hence their paternalistic affection, their habit of seeing him as much younger, of ribbing him as a junior officer, someone whose welfare they still felt compelled to keep a watchful, if distant eye on.
Now James shrugged. "If you're all resigning, then I will, too - my parents will be happy to see me home. They've been hinting for the last year that it was time I came back, settled down - all that."
Rafe chuckled. "They've probably got a young lady picked out for you."
Entirely unruffled as he always was by their ribbing, James merely smiled. "Probably."
James was the only one of them with parents still living. Del had two paternal aunts, while Rafe, the younger son of a viscount, had countless connections and siblings he hadn't seen in years, but like Gareth and Logan, he didn't have anyone waiting for him in England.
Returning home. Only James had any real home to return to. For the rest of them, "home" was a nebulous concept they would have to define once they were back on English soil. In returning to England, the older four would, in a sense, be venturing into the unknown, yet for himself Del knew it was time. He wasn't surprised the others felt the same.
He signaled the barboy for another round. When it came, and the boy withdrew, he lifted his glass. "India has made us wealthy, given us more than we ever otherwise would have had. It's seems only right to pay the country back by taking down" - glancing at Rafe, he grinned - "by beheading the Black Cobra, and if, as it seems, that will lead us back to England, then that, too, seems fitting." He met the others' eyes. "We're all in this together." He raised his glass, held it out for them to meet it with theirs. "Here's to our eventual return to England."
"Home," Rafe echoed, as the glasses clinked.
They all drank, then Gareth, ever practical, asked, "So how are we faring getting our proof?"
They'd spent the last three months, ever since they'd convinced themselves that Roderick Ferrar, second adjutant to the Governor of Bombay, had to be the Black Cobra, trying to turn up evidence of Ferrar's secret identity, all to no avail. Each now reported their latest forays into what was fast becoming known as "Black Cobra territory," each thrust aimed at uncovering some trail, some clue, some solid connection back to Ferrar. All they'd uncovered were terrorized villages, some burnt to the ground, others with empty huts and no survivors, with evidence of rape and torture all around.
Wanton destruction, and a liking for violence for violence's sake, were fast becoming the Black Cobra cult's trademark, yet despite all the carnage they'd waded through, not a single piece of evidence had emerged.
"He's clever, I'll give the bastard that," Rafe said. "Every time we find one of his cultists, they've got their instructions from someone else, who they either don't know, or if they can point a finger, the trail only leads to some other local-"
"Until eventually you hit one who again doesn't know." Logan looked disgusted. "It's like that game of whispers, only in this case, no one has any clue who whispered first."
"The way the Indians relate to one another - the caste system - plays into the Black Cobra's hands," James said. "The cultists unquestioningly obey, and never think it unreasonable that they know nothing about their masters - just that they are their masters, and so must be obeyed."
"It's a veil," Gareth said. "The Black Cobra operates from behind a deliberately maintained veil."
"And being a cult wreathed in all the usual mystery," Rafe added, "the cultists think it only right that the Cobra is never seen, never directly heard - for all we know he sends out his orders on bits of paper passed through that damned veil."
"According to Wolverstone and Devil," Del said, "the entire Ferrar family is widely known to be viciously exploitative - that's why the Earl of Shrewsbury is in the position he's in. In that respect, Roderick Ferrar seems very much a twig off the same trunk."
"So what's next?" Rafe asked.
They spent the next half hour, and another beer, discussing the villages and outposts they thought worth a visit. "Just riding up, flag waving, will be seen as a challenge," Logan said. "If we can provoke a response, perhaps we'll capture someone with some useful knowledge."
"Getting them to talk will be another matter." Rafe glanced at the others. "It's that yoke of fear - the Black Cobra's got their tongues well-leashed with fear of his retribution."
"Which," James added, "is admittedly ghastly. I can still see the man I cut down last week." He grimaced.
"Nothing we can do other than press harder," Del said. "We need that proof - the incontrovertible evidence implicating Ferrar. Gareth and I will concentrate on trying to shake something loose through Ferrar's contacts with the princelings - we'll start interviewing those he's had dealings with via the governor's office. Given his temperament, he has to have made enemies - with luck one might talk, and resentful pricelings are more likely to than villagers."
"True." Logan exchanged a look with Rafe and James. "Meanwhile, we'll keep on stirring up dust in the villages and towns."
"If nothing else," Gareth said, "that should keep the fiend's focus in the field, not closer to home, and give Del and me a bit of cover."
James pulled a face. "You'll have to count me out for the next few weeks - apparently I've drawn a duty-mission. The governor has requested I take a troop up to Poona and escort his niece back to Bombay."
The others all made commisserating noises as pushed back from the table and rose.
Rafe clapped James on the shoulder. "Never mind - at least you'll get a chance to put your feet up for a few days. And most of the memsahibs and their darling daughters are spending the monsoon season up there. Who knows? You might even find some engaging distraction."
James snorted. "What you mean is that I'll have to attend formal dinners and make small talk, then dance with giggling girls who bat their lashes, while you and Logan have all the fun chasing the Black Cobra and routing cultists. Thank you, but I'd rather be doing something useful."
Rafe laughed and slung an arm around James's shoulders. "If Logan or I get any cultists to talk, you'll be back in time to help follow up."
"Yes, but just think how boring my next weeks are going to be." Together with Rafe, James headed for the archway leading outside. "I'll deserve something extra-promising when I get back."
Smiling at James's angling for his pick of the missions when he returned from Poona, Del ambled beside Gareth and Logan as they followed the other two outside.
* * *
September 2nd, 18 days later
A hot, dry wind blew relentlessly across the maidan, swirling the dust kicked up by the sepoys practising formation marching as the sun slowly bled in the west.
On the verandah of the barracks, Del sat in a low slung wooden chair, feet up on the extendable arms, glass in hand as, with Gareth similarly at ease beside him, he waited for the others to join them. Logan and Rafe had been due to return from their most recent sorties today, and James was expected back from Poona. It was time to take stock again, to decide what next to try.
Logan had ridden in with his troop half an hour ago. Covered in dust, he'd reported to the fort commander, then crossed to the barracks. Climbing the shallow steps to the verandah, he'd shaken his head grimly before Del or Gareth could ask how he'd fared, then gone into the barracks to wash and change.
Del watched the sepoys drilling tirelessly on the parade ground, and felt the weight of failure drag. The others, he knew, felt the same. They'd been pressing relentlessly - in Rafe's case, increasingly recklessly - trying to pry loose the vital evidence they needed, but nothing they'd learned had been sufficient to meet Wolverstone's criteria.
What they had learned had confirmed that Ferrar and no other was the Black Cobra. Both Rafe and Logan had found ex-cultists who once had been high in the organization, but had grown jaded with the Cobra's vicious rule and had successfully fled the Cobra's territory; they'd verified that the Black Cobra was an "anglo" - an Englishman - moreover one who spoke with the refined and distinctive accents of the upper class.
Combined with their previous grounds for suspicion, as well as the documents and guarded comments Del and Gareth had managed to tease from various Maratha princelings, there was absolutely no doubt that they had the right man.
Yet they still had to prove it.
A heavy bootstep hearalded Logan. He slumped in a chair alongside them, let his head fall back and closed his eyes.
"No luck?" Gareth asked, although the answer was obvious.
"Worse." Logan didn't open his eyes. "Every village we rode into, the people were cowering. They didn't even want to be seen talking to us. The Black Cobra has them in its coils and they're frightened - and from all we saw, with good reason." Logan paused, then continued, voice lower, eyes still closed, "There were examples of the Black Cobra's vengeance impaled outside most villages - women and children, as well as men."
He drew a shaky breath, then sat up and scrubbed both hands over his face. "It was…beyond ghastly." After a moment, he glanced at the other two. "We have to stop this madman."
Del grimaced. "Did you see Rafe?"
"Only early on. He headed further east, up into the hills. He was hoping to find the edges of the Cobra's territory, to see if any village was resisting in the hope they'd trade information for assistance."
Gareth humphed. "Searching for a fight, as always." It was said without rancor.
Logan looked out across the maidan. "Aren't we all?"
Del followed his gaze to where, far beyond the open fort gates, a dust cloud drew steadily nearer.
By the time the cloud had passed through the distant gates, it had resolved into Rafe at the head of the troop of sowars he'd commandeered for his mission.
Just one look at Rafe's face as he drew rein some yards away to spare them the inevitable dust was enough to answer their most urgent question. He hadn't fared any better than Logan in gaining evidence of the Black Cobra's identity.
Handing his reins to the sergeant, Rafe walked to the verandah, weariness-nay, exhaustion-in every line of his long frame. Eschewing the steps, he came to the railing beyond which they sat, crossed his forearms upon it and laid his tousled and dusty blond head on his arms. His voice reached them, muffled, strangely hoarse. "Please tell me that one of you found something - anything - we can use to stop this fiend."
None of them replied.
Rafe's shoulders slumped as he sighed, then he lifted his head and they saw his face clearly. Something more than dejection haunted his eyes.
Rafe dragged in a breath, glanced back to where his troop were dispersing, nodded. "At one village where the elders had already bowed to the Black Cobra's demands - did you know he's taking half - half! - of what they scratch and eek out of their fields? He's literally taking food from the mouths of babes!"
After a moment, he went on, "There was nothing for us there, but one of the younger men lay in wait for us as we were riding on-he told us of a village further east that was resisting the fiend's demands. We rode there as fast as we could."
His gaze on the maidan, Rafe paused. His voice was lower, gruffer, when he went on, "We were too late. The village had been razed. And there were bodies…men, women, and children, raped and mutilated, tortured and burned." After a moment he continued, voice still lower, "It was hell on earth. There was nothing we could do. We burned the bodies, and turned back."
None of the others said anything; there was nothing they could say to take the haunting vision, the knowledge, away.
Eventually Rafe drew a massive breath, and turned to face them. "So what's happened here?"
"I returned empty-handed," Logan volunteered.
Del glanced at Gareth, then offered, "We've learned more - been told much more - but it's all hearsay. Nothing we can put before a court - nothing good enough to take home."
"That's the positive side," Gareth said. "On the negative, Ferrar now knows beyond doubt that we're watching him. Investigating him."
Logan shrugged. "That was inevitable. He couldn't be oh-so-clever and yet miss the fact we're here, on Hastings's direct orders, and with no mission we've seen fit to divulge."
Rafe nodded. "At this point, it can hardly hurt. Perhaps knowing we're after him will make him careless."
Del humphed. "So far he's been unbelievably shrewd in keeping everything unincriminating. We've turned up even more of those documents, more or less contracts he's enacted with various princelings, but the cheeky sod always uses his special Black Cobra seal on the correspondence, and he signs with a mark, not a signature."
"And his writing is English grammar-school-standard," Gareth added. "It could be any of ours."
Another moment of glum resignation passed, then Rafe asked, "Where's James?"
"Not in yet, apparently," Del replied. "He's expected today - I thought he'd be in earlier, but he must have been held up."
"Probably the lady didn't approve of riding above a sedate canter." Rafe managed a weak smile, then turned back to the maidan.
"There's a troop coming in," Logan said.
The comment focused all eyes on the group approaching the gates. It wasn't a full troop, more a mounted escort riding alongside a wagon. It was the slow, steady pace the small cavalcade held to, as much as the somber deliberateness of the sowars, that told them this wasn't good news.
A minute ticked past as the cavalcade drew nearer, cleared the gates.
"Oh, no." Rafe pushed away from the railing and started across the maidan.
Narrowed eyes locked on the cavalcade, Del, Gareth and Logan slowly came to their feet, then Del swore and the three vaulted over the railing and headed after Rafe.
He waved the cavalcade to a halt. As he strode down the wagon's side he demanded to be told what had happened.
The head sowar, a sergeant, dismounted and quickly followed. "We are very sorry, Captain-sahib - there was nothing we could do."
Rafe reached the tail of the wagon first, and halted. Face paling under his tan, he stared at what lay in the bed.
Del came up beside him, saw the three bodies - carefully laid out, but nothing could disguise the mutilation, the torture, the agony that had preceded death.
Distantly conscious of Logan, then Gareth, ranging behind him, Del looked down on James MacFarlane's body.
It took a moment to register that beside him lay his lieutenant, and the troop's corporal.
It was Rafe - who of them all had seen more of the Black Cobra's lethal handiwork than any one man should ever have to bear - who turned away with a vicious oath.
Del seized his arm. Simply said, "Let me."
He had to drag in a breath, physically drag his gaze from the bodies before he could raise his head and look at the waiting sowar. "What happened?"
Even to him, his voice sounded deadly.
The sowar wasn't a coward. With creditable composure, he lifted his chin and came to attention. "We were more than halfway back on the road from Poona, when the Captain-sahib realized there were horsemen chasing us. We rode on quickly, but then the Captain-sahib stopped at a place where the road narrows, and sent us all on. The lieutenant stayed with him, along with three others. The Captain-sahib sent the rest of us all pell-mell on with the memsahib."
Del glanced at the wagon bed. "When was this?"
"Earlier today, Colonel-sahib."
"Who sent you back?"
The sowar shifted. "When we came within sight of Bombay, the memsahib insisted we go back. The Captain-sahib had ordered us to stay with her all the way to the fort, but she was very agitated. She allowed only two of us to go with her to the governor's house. The rest of us went back to see if we could help the Captain-sahib and the lieutenant." The sowar paused, then went on more quietly, "But there were only these bodies left when we reached the place."
"They took two of your troop?"
"We could see where they had dragged them away behind their horses, Colonel-sahib. We didn't think following would do any good."
Despite the calmness of the words, the outward stoicism of the native troops, Del knew every one of them would be railing inside.
As was he, Gareth, Logan, Rafe.
But there was nothing they could do.
He nodded, stepped back, drawing Rafe with him.
"We will be taking them to the infirmary, Colonel-sahib."
Yes." He met the man's eyes, nodded. "Thank you."
Numbly, he turned. Releasing Rafe, Del led the way back to the barracks.
As they climbed the shallow steps, Rafe, as usual, put their tortured thoughts into words.
"For the love of God, why?"
* * *
The question rebounded again and again between them, refashioned and rephrased in countless ways. James might have been younger than the rest of them, but he'd been neither inexperienced, nor a glory-hunter - and he wasn't the one they called "Reckless."
"So why in all hell did he make a stand, rather than at least try to escape? While they were moving, they had a chance - he had to have known that." Rafe slumped in his usual chair at their table in the officer's bar.
After a moment, Del answered, "He had a reason - that's why."
Logan sipped the arrack Del had ordered instead of their usual beer. The bottle stood in the center of the table, already half empty. Eyes narrowed, he said, "It had to have been something about the governor's niece."
"Thought of that." Gareth set down his empty glass and reached for the bottle. "I asked the sowars - they said she rode well, like the devil. She didn't hold them up. And she tried to veto James's plan to stay behind, but he pulled rank and ordered her on."
"Humph." Rafe drained his glass, then held out his hand for the bottle. "So what was it? James might be lying in the infirmary very dead, but damned if I'm going to accept that he stayed back on a whim - not him."
"No," Del said. "You're right - not him."
"Heads up," Rafe said, his gaze going down the verandah. "Skirts on parade."
The others turned their heads to look. The skirts in question were on a slender young lady - a very English lady with a pale, porcelain face and sleek brown hair secured in a knot at the back of her head. She stood just inside the bar and peered through the shadows, noting the groups of officers dotted here and there. Her gaze reached them in the corner, paused, but then the barboy came forward and she turned to him.
But at her query, the barboy pointed to them. The young lady looked their way, then straightened, thanked the boy and, head high, glided down the verandah toward them.
An Indian girl swathed in a sari hovered like a shadow behind her.
They all rose, slowly, as the young lady approached. She was of slightly less than average height; given their size, and that they were all looking as grim as they felt, they must have seemed intimidating, but she didn't falter.
Before she reached them, she halted and spoke to her maid, instructing her in soft tones to wait a little way away.
Then she came on. As she neared, they could see her face was pale, set, features tightly, rigidly controlled. Her eyes were faintly red-rimmed, the tip of her small nose pink.
But her rounded chin was set in determined lines.
Her gaze scanned them as she came to the table, circling, not on their faces, but at shoulder-and-collar-level - reading their rank. When her gaze reached Del, it stopped. Halting, she lifted her eyes to his face. "Colonel Delborough?"
Del inclined his head. "Ma'am?"
"I'm Emily Ensworth, the governor's niece. I…" She glanced briefly at the others. "If I could trouble you for a word in private, Colonel?"
Del hesitated, then said, "Every man about this table is an old friend and colleague of James MacFarlane. We were all working together. If your business with me has anything to do with James, I would ask that you speak before us all."
She studied him for a moment, weighing his words, then she nodded. "Very well."
Between Logan and Gareth sat James's empty chair. None of them had had the heart to push it away. Gareth now held it for Miss Ensworth.
"Thank you." She sat. Which left her looking directly at the three-quarters empty bottle of arrack.
With the others, Del resumed his seat.
Miss Ensworth glanced at him. "I realize it might be irregular, but if I could have a small glass of that…?"
Del met her hazel eyes. "It's arrack."
He signalled to the barboy to bring another glass. While he did, Miss Ensworth fiddled below the table's edge with the reticule she'd been carrying. They hadn't truly noticed it before; Miss Ensworth was neatly rounded, softly lush, and none of them had noticed much else.
Then the boy delivered the glass, and Del poured a half measure for her.
She accepted it with a strained almost-smile, and took a small sip. She wrinkled her nose, but then gamely took a larger dose. Lowering the glass, she looked at Del. "I asked at the gate and they told me. I'm very sorry that Captain MacFarlane didn't make it back."
His face like stone, Del inclined his head in acknowledgment. Hands clasped on the table, he said, "If you could tell us what happened from the beginning, it would help us understand." Why James gave up his life. He left the last unsaid, but the others clearly heard it. He suspected Miss Ensworth did, too.
She nodded. "Yes, of course." She cleared her throat. "We started very early from Poona - Captain MacFarlane was very insistent, and I wasn't averse, so we left at sunrise. He seemed keen to get on, so I was surprised when we ambled at a quite ordinary pace at first, but then - and I realize now it was as soon as we were out of sight of the town - he dug in his heels and from then we went at a cracking pace. Once he realized I could ride…well, we just rode as fast as we could. I didn't understand why - not then - but he was riding alongside so I knew when he saw the riders chasing us - I saw them, too."
"Could you tell if they were private militiamen, or were they robbers?" Del asked.
She met his gaze directly. "I think they were Black Cobra cultists - they wore black silk scarves tied about their heads and wound around their faces. I've heard that's their…insignia."
Del nodded. "That's correct. So what happened once James spotted them?"
"We rode even faster. I assumed we would simply outrun them - we'd seen them on a curve so they were some way back along the road - and at first that's what we did. But then I think they must have cut across somewhere, because suddenly they were much closer. I still thought we could outrun them, but then we came to a spot where the road passes between two large rocks, and Captain MacFarlane stopped. He gave orders for most of the sowars to go on with me and make sure I got to the fort safely. He and a handful were going to make a stand and hold the cultists back."
She paused, dragged in a breath, then remembered the glass in her hand and drained it. "I tried to argue, but he would have none of it. He drew me aside-ahead-and gave me this." From beneath the table, she drew out a packet - a blank sheet of parchment folded and sealed about other documents. She set it on the table, pushed it toward Del.
"Captain MacFarlane asked me to bring this to you. He said he had to make certain it reached you, no matter the cost. He made me promise to get it to you…and then there wasn't time to argue." Her gaze fixed on the packet, she drew a shaky breath. "We could hear the cultists coming - ululating, you know how they do. They weren't far, and…I had to go. If I was going to bring that to you, I had to leave then…so I did. He turned back with a few men, and the rest came with me."
"And you sent them back when you came within sight of safety." Gareth spoke gently. "You did the best you could."
Del put a hand on the packet and drew it to him. "And you did the right thing."
She blinked several times, then lifted her chin. Her gaze remained fixed on the packet. "I don't know what's in that - I didn't look. But whatever it is…I hope it's worth it, worth the sacrifice he made." At last she lifted her gaze to Del's face. "I'll leave it in your hands, Colonel, as I promised Captain MacFarlane I would."
She pushed back from the table.
They all rose. Gareth drew back her chair. "Allow me to organize an escort for you back to the governor's house."
Gareth's gaze touched Del's, and he nodded. No sense taking any unnecessary chances with Miss Ensworth.
Their interaction had passed over Emily Ensworth's head. She nodded graciously to Gareth. "Thank you, Major."
Then she inclined her head to Del and the other two. "Good evening, Colonel. Gentlemen."
"Miss Ensworth." They all bowed, waited as Gareth led her away, then resumed their seats.
They stared at the packet lying on the table before Del. Without a word, they waited for Gareth to return.
The instant he did, Del picked up the packet. Removing the outer sheet, he laid it flat, revealing it was blank. It had been wrapped around a single document, a letter, the seal already broken.
Del unfolded the letter, briefly scanned. After a quick glance around, he leaned on the table and, voice low, read the contents aloud.
The letter was addressed to one of the more influential Maratha princelings, one Govind Holkar. It began innocently enough, with nothing more sinister than social news revolving about what was loosely termed the younger Government House set. But after those first paragraphs, the tone of the letter changed to one of offer, a blatant inducement to persuade Holkar to commit more men and resources to the Black Cobra cult.
The further he read, the more Del frowned. Reaching the end, he concluded with, "And, as usual, it's signed with the mark of the Black Cobra."
Letting the letter fall through his fingers to rest on the table, Del shook his head. "This isn't anything more than we've already got - than James knew we already had."
Gareth reached for the letter. "There has to be something more in it - something concealed."
Del sat back, feeling oddly dead inside, and watched while Gareth silently went through the letter. Then Gareth raised his head, grimly shook it. "If there is, I can't see it."
Logan took the letter, read it, then, with a swift shake of his head, passed it to Rafe in his corner.
It didn't take Rafe long to scan the single sheet. He slumped back in his chair, the letter held in one hand at arm's length. "Why?" He shook the letter. "Damn it, James, why did you give your life for this? There's nothing here!"
Rafe flung the letter toward the table. It flipped, and landed upside down. He scowled at it. "That's not worth -"
When he said nothing more, Del glanced at him, and saw him staring as if mesmerized at the letter. As if it had transformed into their nemesis.
"Oh, lord," Rafe breathed. "It can't be." He reached for the letter.
For the first time in all the years he'd known him, Del saw Rafe Carstairs's hand shake.
Rafe lifted the letter, held it closer to his face, staring….
"It's the seal." Voice firming, Rafe leaned forward and turned the letter, held it so the seal, largely intact, was on a level with the others' eyes. "He's used his own seal. Bloody Ferrar finally made a mistake, and James - youthful-sharp-eyes-and-even-shaper-wits James - caught it."
Gareth reached out and took the letter. He was the most familiar with Ferrar's seal; he'd been the one to go through the man's desk. He studied the imprint closely, then looked up and met Rafe's eyes. Nodded. "It's his." The suppressed excitement coming off both of them was palpable.
Del asked, "Could he say someone had stolen the seal and used it to implicate him? One of us, for instance?"
A slow smile spread across Gareth's face. He looked at Del. "That won't wash. It's a seal-ring, and it never leaves Ferrar's pinky. In fact, short of him losing the finger, it can't. All the clerks and secretaries at Government House know that - he makes quite a show of his lineage and its accoutrements. The whole office knows about his seal-ring - and there's not another like it in all of India."
"Could it have been duplicated?" Logan asked.
Gareth handed him the letter. "See what you think. And anyway, why would anyone bother?"
Examining the imprint, Logan grunted. "I suppose that's why people use seals, but you're right - this has curlicues, swirls, and they look like they're cut to different depths. It wouldn't be easy to duplicate."
"It doesn't matter," Rafe said. "What matters is that we know that's real - and so does the Black Cobra." He met the others' eyes, excitement plain in his. "And I've just realized the true beauty of Wolverstone's plan."
Del frowned. "What? Beyond being the most effective way for us to get this back to England."
Rafe checked their surroundings, then leaned in, forearms on the table. He spoke soft, low, quickly. "He told us to make copies, and then separate and head home. What do you think Ferrar's going to think - and do - once he learns we've done that - as of course he will. You said it yourself - he knows we're investigating him. Suddenly, without warning - worse, immediately after James's death at the hands of the Black Cobra - we up stakes, resign - something we've been thinking of, but no one else knows that - and to cap it off, we all head home by different routes. What will he think? What will he do?"
Logan had caught his enthusiam. "He'll think we've found something that incriminates him."
"And he'll come after us, and by that very action prove the validity of our evidence." Del nodded. "You're right." He looked at the others, met each gaze. "Gentlemen, thanks to James, we have our proof. Thanks to Devil Cynster and Wolverstone, we have a plan and know what we have to do. Thanks to Hastings, we have the freedom to do as we wish. I vote we follow the plan, carry out our last orders, and bring the Black Cobra to justice."
While Del had been speaking, Rafe had recharged their glasses. They each claimed theirs.
"To success," Del said, raising his glass.
"To justice," Gareth offered, putting his glass alongside.
"To James's MacFarlane's memory." Logan raised his glass to the other two.
They all looked at Rafe.
Who raised his glass to theirs. "To beheading the Black Cobra."
They clinked, then drained their glasses.
Setting them down with a snap, they rose and left the bar.
* * *
September 14th, twelve days later.
They met in the back room of the Red Turkey Cock, a smoke-filled tavern down a minor side street in one of the seedier native quarters of Bombay.
The tavern's back room was a small square chamber with no window, the only entrance the doorway behind the scarred bar through which they'd entered. Logan, the last to arrive, let a bamboo screen rattle down to the floor behind him, a sufficient impediment to interested eyes. With Gulah, a massive ex-sepoy, manning the bar, and the otherwise flimsy walls reinforced by countless boxes and crates stacked against them, they weren't too worried about interested ears.
"I don't think I was followed." Logan sounded disappointed as he slipped onto the last of the four ricketty chairs set about a square wooden table.
"I don't think I was either," Gareth said. "But in this district, four anglos like us will be noticed and remembered - the Black Cobra will hear about our meeting without a doubt."
"Ferrar knows something's up." A grim smile curved Del's lips. "He knows we've resigned, and isn't swallowing the gossip that we're all devastated because of what happened to James. He's been asking questions about our plans for the future."
"Perhaps he'd like to recruit us?" Rafe said. "Come to think of it, that's a tack we never tried."
"Because he'd never believe it. The man isn't just a cold-blooded killer -"
"Torturer, maimer, fiend," Rafe supplied.
"- he's clever, and cunning, and a great deal too powerful. So" - Del looked at Gareth - "are we ready to move against him?"
Gareth reached down, lifted a woven basket from the floor beside his chair, and set it on the table. His chair squeaked as he reached into the basket and lifted out four wood-and-brass cylindrical scroll-holders. "As ordered. The subcontinent's version of a diplomatic pouch."
The scroll-holders were identical, each about ten inches long and a bit more than two inches in diameter. Formed from strips of rosewood clamped together by brass bands, their lids were secured by a complicated set of brass levers of varying length and thickness.
They each took a holder, fiddled. "How do you open them?" Logan asked.
"Watch." Setting the basket back on the floor, Gareth picked up one holder and deftly moved the six levers, one after the other. "It has to be done in that order, or the metal teeth inside don't disengage. Try it."
They all practised. Gareth insisted they worked at it until they could open and close the holders by touch alone. "You might need to at some point - who knows?"
Rafe reached across and took the holder Gareth held, compared it with the one he'd picked up. "They truly are identical."
"I don't think anyone could tell them apart." Logan looked at Del, then Rafe. "So we have the holders. Now for what goes in them."
Del drew the sets of instructions Wolverstone had sent from his pocket. "Five packets." He separated out one with "original" scrawled across a corner. "That one goes with the real letter. These" - he fanned out four identical packets - "are the decoys' instructions. But we only need three."
Now that James was gone.
They all looked at the four letters. Rafe sighed. "Shuffle the four, I'll select one, and we can open it and see what form of instructions we're going to find when we open our own sets later."
"Good idea." Del shuffled the four packets, held them out, Rafe drew one and handed it to Logan.
Logan took it, opened it, scanned the sheets inside, then handed them on to Gareth. "Comprehensive, but not specific, of course. The route we should follow, but no dates, no specified modes of travel. He does specify which English port we're supposed to head for - Brighton, in this instance. Apparently we'll be met by two men, Dalziel's ex-operatives, who will have our route through England and our ultimate destination, neither of which are included here."
Del nodded as he received the sheets from Gareth. He scanned them, then handed them to Rafe, who exchanged them for four slim packets he'd pulled from his inside coat pocket. "The three copies and the original." Rafe cast a cursory glance over the now-to-be-discarded set of instructions while Del and the other three carefully unfolded and compared the copies and the original.
Reaching the end of the instructions, Rafe looked up. "We should destroy this."
Logan held out his hand. "I'll burn it." Rafe handed the folded sheets over.
Del and Gareth had lined up the four scroll-holders across the table. They laid one instructions packet, and one letter before each holder, making sure the original letter with its incriminating seal was paired with the appropriately marked instructions.
"As per Wolverstone's directions," Del said, "I sent him word we were putting his plan into action. It went ten days ago by fast frigate, so he'll know we're heading home in good time to have his men waiting at the ports."
Rafe reached out, drew the nearest scroll-holder, letter and instructions to him, and set about opening the holder. "Now we do as he suggested and draw lots-in this case, scroll-holders." He proceeded to carefully roll the letter and instructions and insert them into the holder.
The others followed suit, smiling faintly, all knowing that Del had been about to try to pull rank and argue that he should take the original.
Reclosing his holder, Rafe asked, "Where's that basket?"
Gareth hauled it back up. Rafe took it, dropped the scroll-holder he'd packed inside, then collected the holders from the others as they reclosed them, sealing in the letters and instructions.
"Right." Rafe stood, closed the top of the large basket with his hands, then shook and rattled the holders, mixing them. With one last flourishing swirl, he set the basket down in the middle of the table and sat again.
"All together," Del said. "We reach in, each takes a holder at the same time, whichever is closest." He met the others' eyes. "We don't open them here. We leave this room together, but from the moment we pass through the door of the Red Turkey Cock, we go our separate ways."
That morning, they'd moved out of the barracks. Over the years, each had gathered small households who traveled with them; those households were now packed and waiting, ready to leave, but all in separate locations.
They exchanged one last glance, then sat forward, reached into the basket. They waited until each of them had grasped one of the cylindrical holders, then, as one, drew them forth.
"Right," Rafe said, his gaze locked on his holder.
"Wait." Gareth swept the empty basket from the table, and replaced it with a bottle of arrack and four glasses. He splashed pale amber liquor into each glass, then set the bottle down.
They each took a glass and rose.
Del held his out. "Gentlemen." He looked at each of them in turn. "To our continued health. God speed, and may luck be with us."
They knew the Black Cobra would come after them; they knew they'd need all the luck they could get.
Gareth raised his glass. "Until we meet again."
"On the green shores of England," Logan added.
Rafe hesitated, then raised his glass. "To the death of the Black Cobra."
They all nodded, then drank, drained their glasses and set them down.
They turned to the doorway. Lifting the bamboo screen, they ducked beneath it, walking out into the smoky bar.
Picking their way past ricketty tables, they reached the open tavern doorway, and moved out onto the dusty steps.
Del halted and held out his hand. "Good luck."
They all shook hands, each with the other.
For one last instant, they stood and simply looked at each other.
Then Rafe stepped down into the dusty street. "May God and St. George be with us all." With a last salute, he walked away.
They parted, each disappearing by a different route into the bustling city.
* * *
September 15th, two nights later.
"We have a problem."
The voice fitted the setting, the clipped, aristocratic accents appropriate to the beauty, the elegance, the wanton luxury pervading the enclosed courtyard of the discrete bungalow tucked away on the fringe of the fashionable district of Bombay.
No one seeing the house from outside would look twice. The street frontage was unremarkable, like many others nearby. But on entering the front foyer, one was struck by a sense of subdued elegance, yet the front reception rooms - the rooms those who called socially might see - were nothing more than quietly refined, restrained, and rather spare.
Not quite soul-less, yet the chosen few who were invited further quickly sensed a different ambiance, one that filled the senses with ever increasing richness.
It wasn't merely a show of wealth, but a deliberately sensual display. The further one penetrated into the private rooms, the richer, more wantonly yet tastefully luxurious the furnishings, the more artful, and graceful, the settings.
The courtyard, surrounded by the private rooms of the owner, was the apogee of restful, sensual delight. A long tiled pool glimmered in the moonlight. Trees and shrubs lined the whitewashed walls, while the open windows and doors gave access to mysteriously dark and inviting comforts. The exotic perfume of a temple flower tree wafted in the night breeze, the shed blossoms lying like snippets of the costliest silk scattered on the stone paving.
"Oh?" A second voice answered the first through the cool dark.
The speakers were on the extended open terrace that jutted from the owner's private sitting room into the courtyard. The second speaker reclined on a sofa piled with silk cushions, while the first paced the edge of the terrace, his bootheels creating a quiet tattoo - one that held a certain tension.
A third man watched silently from an armchair beside the sofa.
The night's shadows cloaked them all.
"Damn Govind Holkar!" The first speaker paused to rake a hand through thick hair. "I can't believe he left it this long to send word!"
"Word of what?" the second asked.
"He lost my last letter - the one I sent over a month ago trying to persuade him to give us more men. That letter."
"By lost, you mean…?"
"I mean that it went missing from the desk in Holkar's room at the governor's palace in Poona while that damned hound of Hastings's, MacFarlane, just happened to be there, waiting to escort the governor's niece back to Bombay."
"When did this happen?" The second voice was no longer so languid.
"On the second of the month. At least that's the day Holkar realized the letter was gone. That was also the day MacFarlane left Poona with his troop and the governor's niece at dawn. Holkar sent his cultists after them -"
"Don't tell me." The until-then-silent man's baritone rumbled, a contrast to the others' lighter voices. "They killed MacFarlane, but didn't find the letter."
"Exactly." The first speaker's voice dripped frustrated ire.
"So that's why we killed MacFarlane - I did wonder." The second speaker's cool tones showed little emotion. "I take it they didn't learn anything pertinent from him before he died?"
"No. But one of the sowars who made a stand with him eventually revealed that MacFarlane gave the governor's niece a packet before sending her on." The first speaker held up a hand to stop the others interrupting. "I got word from Holkar only this morning-immediately he realized the letter had reached Bombay, he decamped to Satara, then he sent me word."
"We can deal with Holkar appropriately later," the second speaker put in.
"Indeed." Anticipation colored the first speaker's voice. "We will. However, once I knew about the letter, I had Larkins see what he could ferret out from the governor's staff. Apparently, Miss Ensworth, the niece, was greatly distressed when she rode in, but later that afternoon, she took a maid and went to the fort. The maid was overheard saying that, on learning at the gates of MacFarlane's death, the lady searched out Colonel Delborough, found him in the officers' bar, and gave him a packet."
"So there's no reason to pursue this Miss Ensworth. Even if she read the letter, she knows nothing of any worth."
"True." The first speaker added, "And that's just as well because she's about to return to England."
The second speaker waved. "Ignore her. So Delborough has the letter, and Holkar is therefore compromised. All his own fault. We'll just have to find another source of men, and the way our recruitment efforts have been progressing lately, I can't see Holkar as any great loss."
Silence fell, but it was strained, pregnant with unresolved tension.
The first speaker broke it. "That's not why we have to get the letter back."
The man with the deeper voice spoke again. "Why bother? It's not as if Delborough can make anything more of it than of the other missives of ours his little group has gathered. They don't contain anything to link you, personally, with the Black Cobra. Any suspicion he bears is simply that-suspicion. Suspicion he won't dare air."
"It's not what's in the damned letter that's the problem." Again the first speaker raked a hand through his hair. He turned from the other two, pacing again. "It's what's on the damned letter. I sealed it with my personal seal."
"What?" The second speaker's voice was incredulous. "You can't be serious."
"I am. I know I shouldn't have done it, but what chance was there this letter of all letters - going to Poona - would end back in Bombay, in Delborough's hands?" The first speaker spread his arms. "It's bizarre."
"But what possessed you to write a letter from the Black Cobra and use your own damned seal?" The baritone's accents were sharply condemnatory.
"It was necessary," the first speaker snapped. "I had to get the letter off that day, or we would have lost another week - you'll remember we discussed it. At the time we were desperate for more men, Delborough and his cohorts were making life difficult, and Holkar seemed our best bet. We agreed I should write, and it was urgent. But the Poona courier decided to leave early - the officious beggar actually had the gall to stand in my doorway and watch me finish the letter. He was itching to leave - if I'd ordered him out, told him to close the door and wait outside, he would have left. He was looking for any excuse to go without my letter."
Still pacing, the first speaker twisted the signet ring on the little finger of his right hand. "Everyone in the office - the damn courier included - knows about my seal-ring. With him standing there, I could hardly reach into my pocket, draw out the Black Cobra seal and use it - with him watching my every move. In the circumstances, I decided using my own seal was the lesser of all evils - it's not as if Holkar doesn't know who I am."
"Hmm." The second speaker sounded resigned. "Well, we can hardly allow you to be exposed." The second speaker exchanged a glance with the baritone. "That would definitely put a dent in our enterprise. So" - gaze reverting to the pacing man, the second speaker briskly stated - "we'll just have to locate Delborough and get this incriminating letter back."
* * *
September 16th, the following night.
"Delborough and his three remaining colleagues, together with their households, left Bombay two days ago."
Silence greeted the first speaker's terse announcement. Once again the three conspirators had gathered in the night-shrouded courtyard - one on the sofa, one in the armchair, the other pacing the terrace above the glimmering pool.
"Indeed?" the second speaker eventually said. "That's disturbing. Still, I can't see Hastings acting -"
"They haven't gone back to Calcutta." Reaching the end of the terrace, the first speaker swung back. "I told you a week ago - they've resigned! They are, by all accounts, heading back to England."
Another lengthy silence ensued, then the baritone inquired, "Are you sure they're even bothering with this letter? Easy enough to miss a seal, especially if concentrating on the information inside. They've laid hands on similar letters before, and known well enough such documents would get them nowhere."
"I'd like to believe that - that they've given up and are on their way home - believe me, I would." The first speaker's agitated pace didn't ease. "But our spies have reported they met in a back room in some seedy bar in town two days ago. When they came out, each was carrying one of those wooden scroll-holders the locals use to ferry important documents - and then they parted. Went their separate ways. Those four have been together since long before they reached these shores - why would they each go home by completely different routes?"
On the sofa, the second speaker sat straighter. "Do you know which way each has gone?"
"Delborough's done the obvious - he's taken a ship of the line to Southampton. Exactly as if he were simply heading home. Hamilton took a sloop to Aden, as if he were ferrying some diplomatic communication along the way - but I've checked, and he isn't. Monteith and Carstairs have vanished. Monteith's household is due to leave shortly on a company ship for Bournemouth, but he's not with them and they don't know where he is. Their orders are to go to an inn outside Bournemouth and to wait there until he comes. Carstairs has only one man, a Pathan who's as loyal as they come, and they've both disappeared. I've had all the passenger lists, and the crew lists, combed, but there's no sign of anyone who might conceivably be either Monteith or Carstairs leaving Bombay by sea. Larkins believes they've gone overland, or at least by land to some other port. He's put men on their trail, but it'll be days, perhaps weeks, before we hear if they've located them."
"What orders did you give those you sent after them?" the second speaker asked.
"To kill them, and anyone with them, and above all, to retrieve those bloody scroll holders."
"Indeed." A momentary pause ensued, then the second speaker said, "So we have four men heading to England - one with the original document and three presumably as decoys. If the letter with your seal gets into the wrong hands in England, then we'll face a very serious problem indeed."
The second speaker exchanged a glance with the man in the armchair, then looked at the first speaker. "You're right. We have to get that letter back. You did precisely right in loosing our hounds and sending them on the hunt. However…" After another glance at the other man, the second speaker continued, "I believe, in the circumstances, that we should head home, too. Should our hounds fail us, and Delborough and the other three reach England's shores, then given the bounty the Black Cobra brings us, it would be wise for us to be there, close to the action, to ensure the original letter never gets into the hands of anyone likely or able to interfere with our enterprise."
The first speaker nodded. "There's a fast frigate just in from Calcutta. She'll be sailing the day after tommorrow for Southampton."
"Excellent!" The second speaker rose. "Secure passage on it for us and our staffs. Who knows? We might reach Southampton in time to welcome the importunate colonel."
"Indeed." The first speaker smiled thinly. "I'll take great delight in seeing him receive his just reward."
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