Captain Robert Frobisher strolled at his ease along Park Lane, his gaze on the rippling green canopies of the massive trees in Hyde Park.
He’d steered his ship, The Trident, up the Thames on the previous evening’s tide. They’d moored at Frobisher and Sons’ berth in St. Katherine’s Dock, and after he’d dealt with all the associated palaver, it had been too late to call on anyone. This morning, he’d dutifully gone into the company office in Burr Street; as soon as the customary formalities had been completed and the bulk of his crew released for the day, he’d jumped into a hackney and headed for Mayfair. But rather than driving directly to his brother Declan’s house, he’d had the jarvey let him down at the end of Piccadilly so that he could take a few minutes to drink in the green. He spent so much of his life looking at the sea, being reminded of the beauties of land was no bad thing.
A self-deprecating smile curving his lips, he turned the corner into Stanhope Street. Barely ten o’clock was an unfashionably early hour at which to call at a gentleman’s residence, but he felt sure his brother and his brother’s new wife, the lovely Edwina, would welcome him with open arms.
The morning was fine, if a touch crisp, with the sun intermittently screened by gray clouds scudding across the pale sky.
Declan and Edwina resided at Number 26. Looking down the street, Robert saw a black carriage pulled up by the curb farther along.
Premonition swept cool fingers across his nape. Early as it was, there was no other conveyance waiting in the short residential street.
As he continued strolling, idly swinging his cane, a footman perched on the rear of the carriage saw him; instantly, the footman leapt down to the pavement and moved to open the carriage door.
Increasingly intrigued, Robert watched, wondering who would descend. Apparently, he wouldn’t need to check the house numbers to discover which house was his goal.
The gentleman who, with languid grace, stepped out of the carriage and straightened was as tall as Robert, as broad-shouldered and lean. Sable hair framed a face the features of which screamed his station.
Wolverstone. More precisely, His Grace, the Duke of Wolverstone, known in the past as Dalziel.
Given Wolverstone was plainly waiting to waylay and speak with him, Robert surmised that Wolverstone’s status as commander of British agents outside of the isles had, at least temporarily, been restored.
Robert’s cynical, world-weary side wasn’t all that surprised to see the man.
But the gentleman who, much less elegantly, followed Wolverstone from the carriage was unexpected. Portly and very precisely attired, with a fussy, somewhat prim air, the man tugged his waistcoat into place and fiddled with his fob chain; from long experience of the breed, Robert pegged him as a politician. Along with Wolverstone, the man turned to face Robert.
As Robert neared, Wolverstone nodded. “Frobisher.” He held out his hand.
Robert transferred his cane to his other hand; returning the nod, he grasped Wolverstone’s hand, then shifted his gaze to Wolverstone’s companion.
Releasing Robert, Wolverstone waved gracefully. “Allow me to present Viscount Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty.”
Robert managed not to raise his brows. He inclined his head. “Melville.” What the devil was afoot?
Melville curtly nodded back, then drew in a portentous breath. “Captain Frobisher—”
“Perhaps,” Wolverstone smoothly interjected, “we should adjourn inside.” His dark eyes met Robert’s gaze. “Your brother won’t be surprised to see us, but in deference to Lady Edwina, we thought it best to await your arrival in the carriage.”
The notion that consideration of Edwina’s possible reaction held the power to influence Wolverstone even that much… Robert fought not to grin. His sister-in-law was a duke’s daughter and thus of the same social stratum as Wolverstone, yet Robert would have wagered there were precious few who Wolverstone would even think to tip-toe gently around.
Curiosity burgeoning in leaps and bounds, at Wolverstone’s wave, Robert led the way up the steps to the narrow front porch.
He hadn’t previously called at this house, but the butler who opened the door to his knock recognized him instantly. The man’s face lit. “Captain Frobisher.” Then the butler noticed the other two men, and his expression turned inscrutable.
Realizing the man didn’t know either Wolverstone or Melville, Robert smiled easily. “I gather these gentlemen are acquainted with my brother.”
He didn’t need to say more—Declan must have heard the butler’s greeting; he appeared through a doorway down the hall.
Smiling, Declan strode forward. “Robert—well-met!”
They grinned and clapped each other on the shoulders, then Declan noticed Wolverstone and Melville. Declan’s expression shuttered, but then he looked at Robert, a faintly question evident in his blue eyes.
Robert arched a brow back. “They were waiting outside.”
“Ah. I see.”
From Declan’s tone, Robert gathered that his brother was uncertain whether Wolverstone and Melville’s appearance was good news or bad.
Yet with assured courtesy, Declan welcomed Wolverstone and Melville, shaking their hands. “Gentlemen.” As the butler shut the door, Declan caught Wolverstone’s eye. “The drawing room might be best.”
Wolverstone inclined his head, and the butler moved to throw open the door to their left.
Declan waved Wolverstone, Melville, and Robert through; as Declan started to follow, Robert heard the butler ask, “Should I inform her ladyship, sir?”
Without hesitation, Declan replied, “Please.”
Sinking into one of the numerous armchairs spread around the cozy room, Robert was surprised that Declan hadn’t even paused before summoning his wife to attend what was clearly destined to be a business meeting—although of what business, Robert couldn’t guess.
Declan had barely had a chance to offer his guests refreshments—which they all declined—before the door opened and Edwina swept in, bringing all four men to their feet.
Fetchingly gowned in cornflower-blue-and-white-striped silk, she looked happy and delighted—glowing with an uncomplicated enthusiasm for life. Although her first smile was for Declan, in the next breath, she turned her radiance on Robert and opened her arms. “Robert!”
He couldn’t help but smile widely in return and allow her the liberty of an embrace. “Edwina.” He’d met her several times, both at his parents’ home as well as at her family’s, and he thoroughly approved of her; from the first, he’d seen her as precisely the right lady for Declan. He returned her hug and dutifully bussed the smooth cheek she tipped up to him.
Drawing back, she met his eyes. “I’m utterly delighted to see you! Did Declan tell you we planned to make this our London base?”
She barely paused for his answer—and his quick look at Declan—before she inquired about The Trident and his immediate plans for the day. After he told her of his ship’s position and his lack of any plans, she informed him that he would be staying for luncheon and also to dine.
Then she turned to greet Wolverstone and Melville. The ease she displayed toward them made it clear she was already acquainted with them both.
At Edwina’s gracious wave, they resettled in the armchairs and sofa, and the next minutes went in general converse led, of course, by Edwina.
Noting the quick smiling looks she shared with Declan, noting his brother’s response, Robert felt a distinct pang of envy. Not that he coveted Edwina; he liked her, but she was too forceful a personality for his taste. Declan needed a lady like her to balance his own character, but Robert’s character was quite different.
He was the diplomat of the family, careful and cautious, while his three brothers were reckless hellions.
“Well, then.” Apparently satisfied with what Wolverstone had deigned to share about his family’s health, Edwina clasped her hands in her lap. “Given you gentlemen are here, I expect Declan and I had better tell Robert about how we’ve spent the last five weeks—about the mission and what we discovered in Freetown.”
Mission? Freetown? Robert had thought that, while he’d been on the other side of the Atlantic, Declan and Edwina had remained in London. Apparently not.
Edwina arched a brow at Wolverstone.
His expression impassive, he inclined his head. “I daresay that will be fastest.”
Robert didn’t miss the resignation in Wolverstone’s tone.
He felt sure Edwina didn’t either, but she merely smiled approvingly at Wolverstone, then transferred her bright gaze to Declan. “Perhaps you had better start.”
Entirely sober, Declan looked at Robert and did.
Between them, Declan and Edwina related a tale that kept Robert transfixed.
That Edwina had stowed away and joined Declan on his run south wasn’t really that much of a surprise. But the puzzling situation in Freetown—and the consequent danger that had stalked them and, beyond anyone’s ability to predict, had reached out and touched Edwina—was a tale guaranteed to capture and hold his attention.
By the time Edwina concluded with a reassurance that she’d taken no lasting harm from the events of their last night in Freetown, Robert no longer had any doubt as to why Wolverstone and Melville had been waiting on the doorstep to waylay him.
Melville huffed and promptly confirmed Robert’s assumption. “As you can see, Captain Frobisher, we are in desperate need of someone with similar capabilities as your brother to travel to Freetown as fast as may be and continue our investigation.”
Robert glanced at Declan. “I take it this falls under our…customary association with the government?”
Wolverstone stirred. “Indeed.” He met Robert’s eyes. “There are precious few others who could do the job, and no one else with a fast ship in harbor.”
After a second of holding Wolverstone’s dark gaze, Robert nodded. “Very well.” This was a far cry from his usual voyages ferrying diplomats—or diplomatic secrets of whatever sort—back and forth, but he could see the need, could appreciate the urgency. And he’d sailed into Freetown before.
He looked at Declan. “Is this why there were no orders waiting for me at the office?” He’d been surprised to learn that; the demand for his services was usually so great that The Trident was rarely free for more than a few days, and Royd and his Corsair often had to take on the overload.
Declan nodded. “Wolverstone informed Royd the government would most likely need to call on another of us once The Cormorant got back, and fortuitously, you were due in. I received a missive from Royd, and there’s one waiting for you in the library—we’re free of our usual business and are to devote our services to the Crown.”
Robert dipped his head in acknowledgment. He tapped his fingers on the chair’s arm as he sifted through all Declan and Edwina had revealed, adding in Wolverstone’s dry comments and Melville’s few utterances. He narrowed his eyes, in his mind studying the jigsaw-like picture he’d assembled from the facts. “All right. Let’s see if I have this straight. Four serving officers have gone missing, one after another, along with at least four young women and an unknown number of other men. These disappearances occurred over a period of four months or more, and the few instances known to have been discussed with Governor Holbrook, he dismissed as due to those involved having gone off to seek their fortune in the jungle or elsewhere. Some such excuse. In addition, seventeen children from the slums are also missing, apparently disappearing over much the same period, with Holbrook brushing their vanishing aside as children running off—nothing more nefarious.
“Currently, there is nothing to say if Holbrook is trying to suppress all interest in this spate of missing people because he’s involved, or whether his attitude springs from some other, entirely noncriminal belief. Regardless, Lady Holbrook has proved to be definitely involved, and it’s doubtful she’ll still be in the settlement, but you would like me to verify whether Holbrook himself is still at his post. If he is, then we presume him innocent—or at least unaware of whatever is driving these kidnappings.” Robert arched a brow at Wolverstone. “Correct?”
Wolverstone nodded. “I haven’t met Holbrook, but from what I’ve been able to learn, he doesn’t seem the type to be involved. However, he might well be the type of official who will refuse to react until the unpalatable truth is staring him in the face—until circumstances force him to it.”
Robert added that shading to his mental jigsaw. “To continue, in the case of the missing adults, there are reasonable grounds on which to believe that they’re being selected in some way and that attendance at the local priest Obo Undoto’s services in some way facilitates that. We know nothing about how the children are taken, other than that it’s not through any connection with Undoto’s services.”
Declan shifted. “We can’t even be sure the missing children are being taken by the same people or for the same reason as the missing adults.”
“But given that young women have been taken as well as men,” Edwina put in, “there has to be a possibility that all the missing, children as well as adults, are being…used in the same way.” Her chin firmed. “By the same villains.”
Robert paused, then said, “Regardless of whether the children are going to the same place, given the priestess’s claims—none of which have yet proven unfounded, so let’s assume she spoke true—Undoto and his services are clearly the obvious place to look for the beginnings of a trail.”
No one argued. After a second of considering the picture taking shape in his mind, Robert went on, “If I’ve understood correctly, the vodun priestess Lashoria, Reverend Hardwicke, and even more his wife, an old sailor named Sampson, and Charles Babington are people you”—he glanced at Declan and Edwina—“consider safe sources.”
Both nodded. Declan stated, “They’re potential allies and might well be willing to play an active hand in helping you learn more.” He met Robert’s eyes. “Babington especially. I believe he has a personal interest in one of the young women who has gone missing, but I didn’t get a chance to pursue that or him further. But he can command resources within the settlement that might prove useful.”
Melville cleared his throat. “There’s also Vice-Admiral Decker. We have no reason to imagine he has any involvement in whatever heinous crime is under way in the settlement.” He all but glowered at Declan. “I gave your brother a letter enabling him to call on Decker’s support. I believe I worded it generally, so it will apply to you as it would have to him.”
Declan dipped his head. “Decker wasn’t in port while I was there. I still have the letter—I’ll give it to you.”
Robert wasn’t fooled by Declan’s noncommittal tone; he wouldn’t be tripping over his toes to ask any favors of Decker, either. Indeed, he hoped the vice-admiral remained at sea throughout his visit to the settlement.
“Regardless,” Wolverstone said, “I cannot stress enough how critical it is that whatever occurs while you’re on this mission, you must not at any point do anything to alert the perpetrators to any level of official interest. We must protect the lives of those taken—sending in a rescue team who find only dead bodies isn’t something any of us wish to even contemplate. Given that we cannot be certain who of those in authority in the settlement is involved, and conversely who is safe to trust, every action you take must remain covert.”
Robert nodded curtly. The more he heard—the more he dwelled on all he’d learned—remaining covert first to last seemed his wisest choice.
“So, Captain,” Melville said bracingly, “we need you to go into Freetown, follow the trail your brother has identified, and learn all the details of this nefarious scheme.”
Melville’s expression was a blend of belligerence and something much closer to pleading. Robert recognized the signs of a politician facing a threat beyond his control.
Before he could respond, Wolverstone softly said, “Actually, no.” Wolverstone caught Robert’s gaze. “We cannot ask you to learn all the details.”
From the corner of his eye, Robert saw Melville’s face fall as he stared at Wolverstone, who, in this matter, was effectively his mentor.
As if unaware of the angst he was causing, Wolverstone smoothly went on, “From what your brother has said, and from all I’ve learned from others over recent days, given that those effecting the kidnappings are slave traders, then I gather that in Freetown, as generally in that region, the slave traders will be operating out of a camp. They will hold their captives at that camp until they have a sufficient number to take to whoever they’re supplying. Further, the camp will almost certainly be outside the settlement’s borders, somewhere in the jungle, possibly some distance away.”
Wolverstone glanced at Declan, who, his expression impassive, nodded.
Imperturbably, Wolverstone continued, his gaze returning to Robert’s face, “Consequently, this mission is highly unlikely to be accomplished in only two stages. There will be however many stages we require to learn what we need to know, all without alerting the villains involved. Your brother”—he paused, then inclined his head to Edwina—“and Lady Edwina got us the first vital clues. They identified Undoto’s services as being a part of the scheme and gave us the connection to the slave traders. They also confirmed that those in high places in the settlement are involved, something we must strive never to forget. If Lady Holbrook was suborned, almost certainly others will have been as well.”
Wolverstone’s gaze cut to Melville, but although he looked dejected and, indeed, disgruntled, the First Lord made no attempt to interrupt.
“Therefore,” Wolverstone continued, “your mission must be to confirm the slave traders’ connection to Undoto and, by following the slavers, to identify the location of their camp. Your orders are specifically that. Locate the slavers’ camp, then return and report. You must not follow the trail further, no matter the temptation.”
Wolverstone paused, then added, “I appreciate that, very likely, that will not be an easy directive to follow—it’s not one I take joy in giving. But in order to mount a rescue of all those taken, it’s imperative we learn of the location of that camp. If you go further and are captured yourself… Put simply, all those missing can’t afford that. If you are taken, we won’t know until your crew return to tell us. And once they do, we’ll be no further forward than we are now—no nearer the point of knowing enough to effectively rescue those taken.”
Wolverstone glanced at Melville; when he looked back at Robert, his features had hardened. “Running a mission in successive stages may seem like a slow way forward, but it is a sure way forward, and those taken deserve our best attempts to successfully free them.”
Robert met Wolverstone’s gaze; two seconds ticked past, then he nodded. “I’ll locate the slavers’ camp and bring the information back.”
Simple. Straightforward. He saw no reason to argue. If he had to sail to Freetown and do this mission, he was glad enough that it should have such a definite and definable endpoint.
Wolverstone inclined his head. “Thank you.” He looked at Melville. “We’ll leave you to prepare.”
Melville rose, as did everyone; he offered Robert his hand. “How long before you and your ship will be ready to depart?”
Robert gripped Melville’s hand. “A few days.” As hands were shaken all around and they moved toward the door, Robert thought through the logistics. He halted at the doorway and spoke to all. “I’ll send The Trident to Southampton to provision from the stores there. I imagine I’ll be able to set sail in three days.”
Melville humphed, but said no more. From his expression, Robert surmised that the First Lord was even more deeply troubled by the situation in Freetown than Wolverstone.
Then again, Wolverstone had no real responsibility to shoulder in this instance, while Melville… As Robert understood it, as First Lord, Melville had his neck metaphorically on the block, at least politically, and possibly even socially.
Robert returned to the armchair opposite the sofa. While Declan and Edwina farewelled their unexpected guests, he swiftly reviewed all he’d been told.
When Declan and Edwina reentered the drawing room and resumed their seats, he looked from one to the other. “All right. Now tell me all.”
As he’d assumed, the pair had a great deal more to impart to him of society in Freetown, of all the characters who had played even small parts in their own drama, of the sights, sounds, and dangers of the slums, and so much more that, he knew, could well prove helpful, and perhaps even critical, once he was on the ground in the settlement.
The hours slid by unnoticed by any of them.
When the clocks struck one, they repaired to the dining parlor and continued their discussions over a substantial meal. Robert grinned when he saw the platters being brought in. “Thank you,” he said to Edwina. “Shipboard food is good enough, but it’s nice to eat well when one can.”
Eventually, they returned to the comfort of the drawing room. Having exhausted all the facts and most of the speculation applicable, they finally turned to the ultimate question of what purpose lay behind the strange kidnappings.
Slumped in the armchair he’d claimed, his long legs stretched out before him, his booted ankles crossed, Robert tapped the tips of his steepled fingers to his chin. “You said that Dixon was the first to vanish. Given he’s an engineer of some repute, assuming he was chosen for his known skills, I agree that that suggests the enterprise our villains are engaged in is most likely a mine.”
Lounging on the sofa beside Edwina, Declan nodded. “At least in those parts.”
“So what are they mining?” Robert met his brother’s blue eyes. “You know that area better than I. What’s most likely?”
Declan twined his fingers with Edwina’s. “Gold and diamonds.”
“I assume not together, so what’s your best guess?”
“If I had to wager, I’d go for diamonds.”
Robert had a great deal of respect for Declan’s insights into all matters of exploration. “Why?”
Declan’s lips twisted. He glanced at Edwina. “I’ve been thinking about why those behind this have chosen to take young women and children—what uses they might have for them. Children are often used in gold mines to pick over the shattered ore—they’d be just as useful in mining for diamonds, at least in that area. But young women? They have no real role I can think of in gold mining. But in mining for diamonds in that area?”
Gripping Edwina’s hand, Declan looked at Robert. “The diamonds there are found in concretions, lumped together with other ore. Separating the ore from the stones is fine work—not so much precision as simply being able to work on small things. Young women with good eyesight could clean the rough stones enough to reduce their size and weight so that the final product, while keeping its value, would fit into a relatively small space—easy to smuggle out, even by mail.”
Declan held Robert’s gaze. “If I had to guess, I would say our villains have stumbled on a pipe of diamonds and are busy retrieving as many stones as they can before anyone else learns of the strike.”
* * *
Later that same day, in a tavern in Freetown located on a narrow side street off the western end of Water Street—an area frequented by clerks and shopkeepers and others more down-at-heel—a man rather better dressed than the other denizens sat nursing a glass of ale at a table in the rear corner of the dimly lit taproom.
The tavern door opened, and another man walked in. The first man looked up. He watched as the second man, also better dressed than the general run of the tavern’s clientele, bought a glass of ale from the man behind the counter, then crossed the room to the table in the corner.
The men exchanged nods, but no words. The second man drew up a stool and sat, then took a deep draft of his ale.
The sound of the door opening reached the second man. His back was to the door. He looked at the first man. “That him?”
The first man nodded.
Both waited in silence until the newcomer had bought an ale for himself and approached the table.
The third man set his glass down on the scarred surface, then glanced around at the others in the taproom before pulling up a stool and sitting.
“Stop looking so damned guilty.” The second man raised his glass and took another sip.
“All very well for you.” The third man, younger than the other two, reached for his glass. “You don’t have an uncle as your immediate superior.”
“Well, he’s not going to see us here, is he?” the second man said. “He’ll be up at the fort, no doubt busily sorting through his inventory.”
“God—I hope not.” The younger man shuddered. “The last thing we need is for him to realize how much is missing.”
The first man, who had silently watched the exchange, arched a brow. “No chance of that, is there?”
The younger man sighed. “No—I suppose not.” He stared into his ale. “I’ve been careful to keep everything we’ve taken off the books. There’s no way to see something’s missing if according to the books it was never there.”
The first man’s lips curved without humor. “Good to know.”
“Never mind that.” The second man focused on the first. “What’s this about Lady H? I heard through the office that she’s decamped on us.”
The first man flushed under his tan. His hands tightened about his glass. “I was told Lady H had gone to visit family, and for all I know, that might still be the case. So yes, she’s gone, but as she knows nothing about my connection to our operation, she didn’t see fit to explain her reasons to me. I asked around—indirectly, of course—but apparently Holbrook doesn’t know when she’ll be back.”
“So we might have lost our ability to vet our kidnapees?” The second man frowned.
“Yes,” the first man replied, “but that isn’t what most concerns me.” He paused to take a sip of his ale, then lowered the glass and went on, “Yesterday, I heard from Dubois that Kale claims he lost two of the three men he sent to the governor’s house to fetch some lady Lady H had sent word to them to come and get.”
The third man looked puzzled. “When was that?”
“As near as I can make out, it was fifteen nights ago. Three days before Lady H sailed. I spent the evening in question dealing with dispatches, so I knew nothing about it at the time.” The first man paused, then more diffidently went on, “From what I could gather, it was Frobisher’s wife, Lady Edwina, who came to see Lady H that evening, but I can’t be certain Lady Edwina was the lady Lady H called Kale to come and get, and I see no point in asking too many questions of the governor’s staff.
“According to Dubois, Kale said that the lady his men picked up was drugged and asleep. All his man—the one who survived—could tell him was that the lady had golden hair. In their usual team of three, Kale’s men wrapped her in a rug and carried her out through the slum behind the house, but then they were attacked by four men—sailors, according to the survivor. The sailors killed two of Kale’s men and took the lady back. Kale’s third man ran, but then doubled back and trailed the sailors to the docks. He saw them get into a tender and be rowed off, but in the dark, he couldn’t tell which ship they boarded.”
The second man continued to frown into his glass. “If I’m remembering aright, Frobisher’s ship was in the harbor that night. It wasn’t there the next day—they must have left on the morning tide.”
The first man humphed. “Word is that they—Frobisher and Lady Edwina—were on their honeymoon and were headed to Cape Town to visit family there. If that’s so, then even if it was Lady Edwina who Lady H drugged—God alone knows why the silly bitch would do such a thing, but if she did—I can’t imagine we’ll hear any more about it.”
The third man stared at the first. “But…surely Frobisher will lodge some sort of official complaint with Holbrook?”
The first man grinned. “I doubt it. Lady Edwina’s the daughter of a duke—very highly placed within society in London. I really can’t see Frobisher wanting to draw attention to his wife being in the hands of the likes of Kale’s men, in the night, in the slum, no one else about. Not the sort of thing he’d want known about his wife.”
“I agree.” The second man nodded. “He’s got her back, and by the sounds of it, no harm done. He’ll leave it at that.” He paused, then added, “If Frobisher had wanted to make anything of it, he wouldn’t have sailed without pounding on Holbrook’s desk. He didn’t, so I agree—that’s that.” He cut a glance at the third man. “No need to borrow trouble on that account.”
The first man leaned his chin on one hand. “And I don’t think we need to fear Lady H giving us up to anyone, either. She has far more to lose than we do. The only reason she agreed to Undoto’s suggestion was for the money—that’s really all she cared about. And if it was Lady Edwina she tried to drug and send off to Kale, then once she learned that Lady Edwina had been rescued, I can quite understand Lady H wanting to make herself scarce. I would, too. But if that’s the case, it’s better for us that she’s taken herself off—we wouldn’t want her to be waiting here to be asked any awkward questions if any are ever directed this way.”
The second man grunted. “She doesn’t know enough to point the finger at us, anyway.”
The first man dipped his head. “True. But she might have pointed at Undoto, or given up her contact with Kale, and that might have started things unraveling… No. Overall, we should be glad she’s gone. But if she has done a flit for good and all, then the one thing we do need to work on is how to cover for her expertise.” The first man looked at the other two and raised his brows. “Any notion how we’re to vet those we take to make sure their disappearance doesn’t set off any alarms?”
Finally, the second man raked his hand through his thick black hair. “Let’s leave that for now, but keep alert for any possible other way. As of this moment, Dubois has enough men for his needs.”
“But he says he’ll need more,” the first man countered. “He said Dixon’s not far from opening up the second tunnel, and once he does, if we want to increase production like we’ve promised our backers, then Dubois will need more men.”
“So he’ll need them soon, but not immediately.” The second man nodded. “No need to panic. We’ll find a way.”
“What about women and children?” the third man asked.
“Dubois said he has enough of both for now.” The first man turned his glass between his hands. “He won’t need more until they start hauling rock from the second tunnel.”
The three fell silent, then the second man humphed. “I hope Dixon can be trusted to do what’s needed.”
The first man’s lips quirked. “Dubois was very confident that in order to keep Miss Frazier safe and unmolested, Dixon will perform exactly as we wish.”
The second man grinned. “I have to say that Dubois’s notion of using the women’s safety to control the men has proved nothing short of inspired.”
The first man grunted and pushed away his empty glass. “Just as long as the men don’t think ahead and realize that, when we have all we need from them, it’s all going to come to the same thing in the end.”
* * *
A gray dawn was breaking far to the east as Robert steered The Trident down the last stretch of the Solent. The day was overcast and blustery, the waves a choppy gray-green, but the wind gusted from the northeast, which made it damned near perfect sailing, at least to him.
He’d risen in the small hours and had jockeyed The Trident into position to be one of the first ships to heel out on the surging tide. With the way clear before the prow, he’d called up the sails in rapid succession. Ships like The Trident were best sailed hard, with as much canvas flying as possible; they were designed to race over the waves.
The buoys at the Solent’s mouth came into view, rising and falling on the swell. Robert corrected course, then, as the first of the Channel’s rolling waves hit, swung the wheel. He called rapid sail changes as the ship heeled; the crew scurried and shouts flew as the sails were adjusted, then The Trident was shooting into the darker waters of the Channel, prow unerringly on the correct heading to take them out into the Atlantic on the most southerly tack.
Once the ship steadied, he checked the sails, then, satisfied, handed the wheel to his lieutenant, Jordan Latimer. “Keep her running as hard as you can. I’ll be back for the next change.” That would come when they swung even further to the south to commence the long haul to Freetown.
Latimer grinned and snapped off a salute. “Aye, aye. I take it we’re in a hurry?”
Robert nodded. “Believe it or not, The Cormorant made the trip back in twelve days.”
“Twelve?” Latimer let his disbelief show.
“Royd put a new finish on the hull and fiddled with the rudder. Apparently, if running under full sail, it shaves off nearly a sixth in time—Declan’s master reported The Cormorant was noticeably faster even on the run from Aberdeen to Southampton.”
Latimer shook his head wonderingly. “Pity we didn’t have time for Royd and his boys to doctor The Trident before we set out. We’ll never make it in twelve days.”
“True.” Robert turned to descend to the main deck. “But there’s no reason we can’t make it in fifteen, as long as we keep the sails up.”
If the winds held steady, they would. He went down the ladder to the main deck, then paced along the starboard side, checking knots, pulleys, and the set of the spars, listening to the creak of the sails—the little things that reassured him that all was right with his ship.
Halting near the bow, he glanced back and checked the wake, all but unconsciously noting the way the purling wave broke and the angle of the hull’s canting. Seeing nothing of concern, he turned and looked ahead to where, in the far distance, the clouds gave way to blue skies.
With luck, when they reached the Atlantic, the weather would clear, and he would be able to cram on yet more sail.
The ship lurched, and he gripped the rail; as the deck righted, he leaned against the side, his gaze idly sweeping the seas ahead.
As he’d predicted, it had taken three days for The Trident to sail from London to Southampton and to be adequately provisioned from the company’s stores there. Add fourteen more days for the journey south, and it would be eighteen days since he’d agreed to this mission before he sighted Freetown. Fourteen full days before he could start.
To his surprise, impatience rode him. He wanted this mission done and squared away.
The why of that had been difficult to define, but last night, as he’d lain in his bed in the large stern cabin—his cold, lonely, and uninspiring bed—he’d finally got a glimpse of what was driving his uncharacteristically unsettling emotions.
After three full days spent with Declan and Edwina, he wanted what Declan had. What his brother had found with Edwina—the happiness, and the home.
Until he’d seen it for himself, until he’d experienced Declan’s new life, he hadn’t appreciated just how deeply the need and want of a hearth of his own was entrenched in his psyche.
Put simply, he envied what Declan had found and wanted the same for himself.
All well and good—he knew what that required. A wife. The right sort of wife for a gentleman like him—and that was definitely not a sparkling, effervescent, diamond-of-the-first-water like Edwina.
He wasn’t entirely sure what his wife would be like—he had yet to spend sufficient time dwelling on the prospect—but he viewed himself as a diplomat, a man of quieter appetites than Royd or Declan, and his style of wife should reflect that, or so he imagined.
Regardless, all plans in that regard had been put on hold. This mission came first.
Which, of course, was why he was so keen to have it over and done.
He pushed away from the side and headed for the companionway. He dropped down to the lower deck and made his way to his cabin. Spacious and neatly fitted with everything he needed for a comfortable life on board, the cabin extended all the way across the stern.
Settling into the chair behind the big desk, he opened the lowest drawer on the right and drew out his latest journal.
Keeping a journal was a habit he’d acquired from his mother. In the days in which she’d sailed the seas with his father, she’d kept a record of each day’s happenings. There was always something worthy of note. He’d found her journals as a boy and had spent months working his way through them. The insight those journals had afforded him of all the little details of life on board influenced him to this day; the impact they’d had on his view of sailing as a way of life was quite simply incalculable.
And so he’d taken up the practice himself. Perhaps when he had sons, they would read his journals and see the joys of this life, too.
Today, he wrote of how dark it had been when they’d slipped their moorings and pulled away from the wharf, and of the huge black-backed gull he’d seen perched on one of the buoys just outside the harbor mouth. He paused, then let his pen continue to scratch over the paper, documenting his impatience to get started on this mission and detailing his understanding of what completing it would require of him. To him, the latter was simple, clear, and succinct: Go into the settlement of Freetown, pick up the trail of the slavers, follow them to their camp—and then return to London with the camp’s location.
With a flourish, he set a final period to the entry. “Cut and dried.”
He set down his pen and read over what he’d written. By then, the ink had dried. Idly, he flicked back through the closely written pages, stopping to read entries here and there.
Eventually, he stopped reading and stared unseeing as what lay before him fully registered. Unbidden, his gaze rose to the glass-fronted cabinet built into the stern wall; it contained the rest of his journals, all neatly lined up on one shelf.
The record of his life.
It didn’t amount to much.
Not in the greater scheme of things—on the wider plane of life.
Yes, he’d assisted in any number of missions, ones that had actively supported his country. Most had been diplomatic forays of one sort or another. Since his earliest years captaining his own ship, he’d claimed the diplomatic missions as his own—his way of differentiating himself from Royd and Declan. Royd was older than him by two years, while Declan was a year younger, but they were both adventurers to the core, buccaneers at heart. Neither would deny that description; if anything, they reveled in being widely recognized as such.
But as the second brother, he’d decided to tread a different path—one just as fraught with danger, but of a different sort.
He would be more likely to be clapped into a foreign jail because of a misunderstood insult exchanged over a dinner table, while his brothers would be more likely to be caught brawling in some alley.
He was quick with his tongue, while they were quick with their swords and fists.
Not that he couldn’t match them with either blades or fists; growing up as they had, being able to hold his own against them had been essential—a matter of sibling survival.
Thoughts of the past had him smiling, then he drew his mind forward, through the past to the present—then he looked ahead.
After a moment, he shut the journal and stowed it back in the drawer. Then he rose and headed for the deck.
Given how boring his recent life had been—more like existing than actively living—perhaps it was a good thing that this mission was not his usual diplomatic task. Something a little different to jar him out of his rut, before he turned his mind to defining and deciding the details of the rest of his life.
A fresh and different challenge, before he faced a larger one.
Climbing back onto the deck, he felt the wind rush at him and lifted his face to the bracing breeze.
He breathed in and looked around at the waves—at the sea stretching forever on, as always, his path to the future.
And this time, his way was crystal clear.
He’d go to Freetown, learn what was needed, return to London and report—and then he would set about finding a wife.
“Good morning.” Miss Aileen Hopkins fixed a polite but determined gaze on the face of the bored-looking clerk who had come forward to attend her across the wooden counter separating the public from the inner workings of the Office of the Naval Attaché. Located off Government Wharf in the harbor of Freetown, the office was the principal on-land contact for the men aboard the ships of the West Africa Squadron. The squadron sailed the seas west of Freetown, tasked with enforcing the British government’s ban on slavery.
“Yes, miss?” Despite the question, not a single spark of interest lit the man’s eyes, much less his expression, which remained impersonal and just a bit dour.
Aileen was too experienced in dealing with bureaucratic flunkies to allow his attitude to deter her. “I would like to inquire as to my brother, Lieutenant William Hopkins.” She set her black traveling reticule on the counter, folded her hands over the gathered top, and did her best to project the image of someone who was not about to be fobbed off.
The clerk stared at her, a frown slowly overtaking his face. “Hopkins?” He glanced at the other two clerks, both of whom had remained seated at desks facing the wall and were making a grand show of deafness, although in the small office, they had to have heard her query. The clerk at the counter wasn’t deterred, either. “Here—Joe!” When one of the seated clerks reluctantly raised his head and glanced their way, the clerk assisting her prompted, “Hopkins. Isn’t he the young one that went off God knows where?”
The seated clerk shot Aileen a quick glance, then nodded. “Aye. It’d be about three months ago now.”
“I am aware that my brother has disappeared.” She failed to keep her accents from growing more clipped as her tone grew more severely interrogatory. “What I wish to know is why he was ashore, rather than aboard H.M.S. Winchester.”
“As to that, miss”—the first clerk’s tone grew decidedly prim—“we’re not at liberty to say.”
She paused, parsing the comment, then countered, “Am I to take it from that that you do, in fact, know of some reason William—Lieutenant Hopkins—was ashore? Ashore when he was supposed to be at sea?”
The clerk straightened, stiffened. “I’m afraid, miss, that this office is not permitted to divulge details of the whereabouts of officers of the service.”
She let her incredulity show. “Even when they’ve disappeared?”
Without looking around, one of the clerks seated at the desks declared, “All inquiries into operational matters should be addressed to the Admiralty.”
Her eyes narrowing, she stared at the back of the head of the clerk who had spoken. When he refused to look around, she stated in stringently uninflected tones, “The last time I visited, the Admiralty was in London.”
“Indeed, miss.” When she transferred her gaze to him, the clerk at the counter met her eyes with a wooden expression. “You’ll need to ask there.”
She refused to be defeated. “I would like to speak with your superior.”
The man answered without a blink. “Sorry, miss. He’s not here.”
“When will he return?”
“I’m afraid I can’t say, miss.”
“Not at liberty to divulge his movements, either?”
“No, miss. We just don’t know.” After a second of regarding her—possibly noting her increasing choler—the clerk suggested, “He’s around the settlement somewhere, miss. If you keep your eyes open, perhaps you might run into him.”
For several seconds, her tongue burned with the words with which she would like to flay him—him and his friends, and the naval attaché, too. Ask at the Admiralty? It was half a world away!
Thanking them for their help, even if sarcastically, occurred only to be dismissed. She couldn’t force the words past her lips.
Feeling anger—the worst sort, laced with real fear—geysering inside her, she cast the clerk still facing her a stony glare, then she picked up her reticule, spun on her heel, and marched out of the office.
Her half boots rang on the thick, weathered planks of the wharf. Her intemperate strides carried her off the wharf and up the steps to the dusty street. Skirts swishing, she paced rapidly on, climbing the rise to the bustle of Water Street.
Just before she reached it, she halted and forced herself to lift her head and draw in a decent breath.
The heat closed around her, muffling in its cloying sultriness.
The beginnings of a headache pulsed in her temples.
She’d come all the way from London determined to learn where Will had gone. Clearly, she’d get no help from the navy itself…but there’d been something about the way the clerk had reacted when she’d suggested that there was a specific reason Will had been ashore.
Her older brothers were in the navy, too. And both, she knew, had served ashore at various times—dispatched by their superiors on what amounted to secret missions.
Not that she or their parents—or even their other siblings in the navy—had known that at the time.
Had Will been dispatched on some secret mission, too? Was that the reason he’d been ashore?
“Ashore long enough to have been captured and taken by the enemy?” Aileen frowned. After a moment, she gathered her skirts and resumed her trek up to and around the corner into Water Street, the settlement’s main thoroughfare. She needed to make several purchases in the shops lining the street before hiring a carriage to take her back up Tower Hill to her lodgings.
While she shopped, the obvious questions revolved in her brain.
Who on earth was the enemy here?
And how could she find out?
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A BUCCANEER AT HEART
THE ADVENTURERS QUARTET VOLUME 2
(Follows directly on from the first excerpt - if you haven't yet read that, you can find it HERE, read, then return)
“Good morning, Miss Hopkins—you’ve been out early!”
Aileen turned from closing the front door of Mrs. Hoyt’s Boarding House for Genteel Ladies to face its owner.
Mrs. Hoyt was a round, genial widow and a redoubtable gossip who lived vicariously through the lives of her boarders. Her arms wrapped around a pile of freshly laundered sheets, Mrs. Hoyt beamed at Aileen; with frizzy red hair and a round face, she filled the doorway to her rooms to the left of the front hall, opposite the communal parlor.
Having already taken Mrs. Hoyt’s measure, Aileen held up a small bundle of brown-paper-wrapped packages. “I needed to buy some stationery. I must write home.”
Mrs. Hoyt nodded approvingly. “Indeed, dear. If you want a lad to run your letters to the post office, you just let me know.”
“Thank you.” With a noncommittal dip of her head, Aileen walked on and up the stairs.
Her room was on the first floor. A pleasant corner chamber, it faced the street. Lace curtains screened the window, lending an aura of privacy. Before the window sat a plain ladies’ desk with a stool pushed beneath it. Aileen laid her packages and reticule on the desk, then stripped off her gloves before unbuttoning her lightweight jacket and shrugging it off. Even with the window open, there was little by way of a breeze to stir the air.
She pulled out the stool and sat at the desk. She opened her packages, set out the paper and ink, and fixed a new nib to the pen, then without allowing herself any further opportunity to procrastinate, she got down to the business of informing her parents where she was and explaining why she was there.
She’d been in London staying with an old friend, with no care beyond enjoying the delights of the Season before returning to her parents’ house in Bedfordshire, when she’d received a letter from her parents. They’d enclosed an official notification they’d received from Admiralty House, stating that their son Lieutenant William Hopkins had gone missing from Freetown, and that he was presumed to have gone absent without leave, possibly venturing into the jungle to seek his fortune.
Her parents had, unsurprisingly, been deeply distressed by that news. For her part, Aileen had considered it ludicrous. To suggest that any Hopkins would go absent without leave was ridiculous! For four generations, all the men in her family had been navy through and through. They were officers and gentlemen, and they viewed the responsibility of their rank as a sacred calling.
As the only girl in a family of four children, Aileen knew exactly how her three brothers viewed their service. To suggest that Will had thrown over his position to hie off on some giddy venture was pure nonsense.
But with both her older brothers at sea with their respective fleets—one in the South Atlantic, the other in the Mediterranean—as Aileen had been in London, her parents had asked if she could make inquiries with a view to discovering what was going on.
She’d duly presented herself at Admiralty House. Despite the family’s long connection with the navy, she’d got even less satisfaction there than she had at the naval office here.
Goaded and angry, and by then seriously worried about Will—he was younger than she, and she’d always felt protective of him and still did—she’d gone straight to the offices of the shipping companies and booked the first available passage to Freetown; as she’d brought ample funds with her to London, cost had not been a concern.
She’d arrived two days ago. She’d had plenty of time on the voyage to plan. Although her station and family connections meant that there was almost certain to be some family from whom she could claim support and a roof over her head while she searched for Will, she’d decided on a more circumspect approach. Hence, Mrs. Hoyt’s Boarding House, which was located on Tower Hill, the province of local British society, but below the rectory rather than above it. The houses of those moving in what passed for local society were located on the terraces higher up the hill.
Aileen had no time for social visits. Her sole purpose in being in the settlement was to find out what had happened to Will—and, if at all possible, rescue him.
At twenty-seven years of age and as naturally inclined to command as her brothers, she’d seen no reason not to come to Freetown and see what she could do. She was as capable as her brothers, and the other two were not in any position to help Will at that time.
There was also the underlying niggle of knowing that if she hadn’t been the only one of their brood available and, moreover, already in London, her parents would never have turned to her for help.
She was the girl in the family. No one expected her to contribute to anything in any way. She was supposed to be decorative rather than effective, and the only expectation anyone seemed able to credit her with was to make a comfortable marriage and keep house for some husband—most likely another naval officer.
In her heart, she knew that such a future was unlikely to ever come to pass. Aside from all else, her temperament and the odd itch beneath her skin—the same impulsive longing for adventure that had compelled her to set sail for Freetown—made her unsuitable for the position of meek and mild wife.
Even as she sent her pen scratching across the paper, she felt her lips quirk. Meek and mild was not an epithet anyone had ever applied to her.
After outlining her decision to come to Freetown and her intention to discover where Will had gone, she devoted several paragraphs to describing the settlement and where she was staying with a view to easing her parents’ minds, then briefly outlined what she’d ascertained from her first inquiries.
Yesterday—her first full day in the settlement—hoping to gain some casual insights before she called at the naval office, she’d sought out the usual taverns around the docks where naval officers were wont to congregate. There were always certain establishments that attracted their custom, and while in general she would never have ventured into a tavern alone, in those places that catered to naval officers, her family’s connection to the service—and the Hopkins name was well known throughout the navy—gave her a degree of protection.
She’d relied on that, gone in, and as she had hoped, she’d found several old sailors who knew her brother and had shared drinks and tall tales with him. She’d reasoned that if Will had been sent ashore on some mission that involved the settlement, then these were the men from whom he would have first sought information.
If Will had asked questions, she wanted to know what about.
And she’d been right. According to the old sea dogs, shortly before he’d disappeared, Will had asked questions that circled two subjects. First, an army officer called Dixon, who was stationed at Fort Thornton, which squatted at the top of Tower Hill. That was puzzling enough, but Will’s second area of interest had been some local priest who held services in the settlement. Apparently, Will had attended several services, possibly as many as three.
Of all her brothers, she knew Will the best, understood him with the greatest clarity. That he’d voluntarily attended a church service meant he’d gone for some reason that had nothing to do with religion.
She lifted her pen and read over all she’d written. After a moment’s deliberation, she decided against sharing her intention to rescue Will; there was no need to add to her parents’ anxieties. Instead, she concluded with a less stressful repetition of her intention to discover where Will had gone. She ended with a promise to be in touch in due course.
While she sanded the sheet, then sealed her missive, she debated her options.
She set aside the letter, then glanced at the small clock on the mantelpiece. Lips firming, she pushed back from the desk and walked to the low chest that served as a dressing table. In the mirror above it, she considered her reflection, then grimaced and started unpinning her hair.
As she did, she considered the image the clerks at the naval office had seen. A gently bred English rose with pale skin and roses in her cheeks. Her face was close to oval, her nose unremarkable, her forehead wide. Her bright hazel eyes were her best feature, large and fringed with long brown lashes and well set under finely arched brows; other ladies might have used them more, but she rarely thought of it. Her lips were well enough—pink and softly plump—but they were usually set in a firm if not uncompromising line above her distinctly determined chin.
Her hair was a pleasing but unusual and distinctive shade of copper brown. It normally fell in glossy waves, but at the moment, her tresses were frizzing almost as badly as Mrs. Hoyt’s in the unrelenting humidity.
With her pins removed, she wielded her hairbrush with grim determination. Eventually, she managed to rewind and refasten her hair in a passable chignon.
She put down the brush, twisted side to side examining her handiwork, then she nodded to herself in the mirror. “Good enough.”
Good enough to pay a call at the rectory.
She resettled her skirts of pale bone-colored cotton, then put the matching jacket on again, but in a concession to the heat, left it open over her neat white blouse. After sliding the cords of her reticule over her wrist, she picked up the letter and headed for the door.
From Mrs. Hoyt, she’d learned that the Anglican minister’s wife was a Mrs. Hardwicke, and that Mrs. Hardwicke could be found most mornings at the rectory. Aileen felt sure that the minister’s wife would know about the other priest’s services.
Pausing with her hand on the doorknob, she hesitated. “There’s also the army officer, Dixon.” As far as she knew, Will had no friends in the army.
For a second, she debated—rectory or fort? Then she firmed her lips and opened the door.
She would post her letter and then call at the rectory.
One question at a time. Step by step, she would hunt Will down.
And then she would get him back.
* * *
Two days later, Aileen filed out of the rustic church in which the local priest, one Obo Undoto, conducted his services. Hemmed in between two other ladies, she was carried forth on the tide of the emerging congregation, which then spread across the dusty area before the church.
As matters had transpired, she hadn’t had to ask Mrs. Hardwicke for information; when she’d called at the rectory, she’d found a small gathering of ladies taking tea. At Mrs. Hardwicke’s invitation, she’d joined the group. After the introductions had been dealt with, the conversation had turned to events occurring in the settlement—and a Mrs. Hitchcock had mentioned that Undoto’s next service would be held at noon two days hence. Later, Aileen had left the rectory with Mrs. Hitchcock and had asked for directions to the church, which Mrs. Hitchcock had readily given, along with a recommendation that she would find the service diverting.
When Aileen had walked into the rectangular church just before noon, she’d had to hunt to find a seat; she’d been astonished by how full the church had been. People of all races and of a wide range of social classes had crammed the pews—Europeans of all nationalities primarily to the left, with local natives and others of the African nations mostly to the right.
Her surprise had lasted until she’d heard enough to appreciate the tenor of Undoto’s offering. In a voice full of thunder and brimstone, with a showman’s zeal, he delivered something more akin to a stage performance than a conventional religious experience. Given the dearth of entertainment she had by then noted in the settlement, the crowd packing the church wasn’t such a wonder. Anything to fill the boredom that many, of necessity, had to bear.
None of which explained why Will had attended. Most likely more than once. She knew beyond question that Undoto’s performance wouldn’t have appealed to her younger brother as a way to pass his time.
She’d spent the majority of the service surveying the congregation and everything else she could see, searching for some sign of what might have drawn Will to the place, but she’d seen nothing and gained no clue to that mystery.
As she slowly wended her way through the crowd now thronging the forecourt, she noticed an old man—a grizzled old tar if she’d ever seen one—ponderously stumping away from the church. He leaned heavily on his cane; he had lost one leg and had an old-fashioned wooden peg leg.
Instantly, Aileen knew who among all the congregation Will would most likely have approached. Her younger brother had always been fascinated with old tales of the sea.
She changed tack and went after the old man. As she drew level, she glanced at his face and discovered he was one-eyed, too. “Excuse me,” she said. “I wonder if I might speak with you.”
The old sailor glanced at her in surprise. But the instant he took in her face and her attire, he halted, politely raised his cap, and, planting his cane, half bowed. “Of course, miss.” His eyes crinkled at the outer edges as he set his cap back on his head. “Old Sampson at your service. Always happy to have a chat, although what a lady like you might want with an old sea dog like me, I can’t imagine.”
She smiled. “It’s quite simple, really. My brother was here”—with a wave, she indicated the church—“some months ago, and I’m quite sure he would have spoken with you. He’s mad for tales of seafaring, and you look like you could tell quite a few.”
The old sailor folded both hands over the head of his cane. “Aye.” He nodded. “You have that right. I’ve sailed all of the seven seas in my day. Ain’t nothing I like better than to remember those days. Rip roaring, they were. But what’s your brother’s name?” Before she could answer, he added, “I pride myself on learning the name to go with every face I see, at least among the Europeans.”
Excellent. Aileen’s smile brightened. “His name is William Hopkins. He’s a lieutenant currently serving with the squadron here.”
“Will Hopkins? Sure and I remember him. Interesting lad—keen to hear my stories.”
She beamed. “I was sure he would have asked.”
“So how can I help you?” Sampson arched his bushy brows. “Young Will hasn’t been by for some time, and truth to tell, I never did understand why he came. Lads like him can usually find enough to interest them in the settlement without resorting to Undoto’s histrionics.”
“I can imagine.” With three brothers, she certainly could. “But Will has disappeared, it seems, and I’m here to see if I can find any trace of where he might have gone, or why.” She saw a frown form in Sampson’s eyes. She tipped her head, regarding him more closely. “I gathered that Will came to more than one service.”
“Aye.” Sampson nodded, but his expression had grown absentminded, as if the news that Will had disappeared had triggered thoughts of something else. “He came three times.”
“Do you recall if he met with anyone after the service—perhaps some young lady? Or was he watching someone?”
Sampson shook his head and answered in a distracted fashion, “Not that I saw. And I sit on a stool in the back corner, so I see most things.”
With the obvious excuse discounted, Aileen concluded that Will’s purpose in attending the services—three of them—had to have been connected with his mission. Whatever that mission had been.
She raised her gaze to Sampson’s face, only to discover he’d refocused on her and was now regarding her with some concern. “What is it?” she asked.
He frowned. “It’s possible I shouldn’t tell you this, but there were others asking questions—a captain and his crew, not navy, but I got the impression they was…authorized, if you get my drift. A couple of weeks ago, they were here asking about people—officers—who’d apparently attended Undoto’s services and then…vanished. They didn’t mention your brother by name, but if I recall aright, they said there were two navy lieutenants among the missing.”
Her heart leapt. “This captain and his crew—are they still here?”
The worried look in Sampson’s eyes increased. “No. I heard they’d sailed off in something of a rush. Some say to Cape Town, but others as saw them go say they left under oars at night, and the tack they took out of the estuary lay to the north.”
For a second, Sampson searched her eyes, then he drew himself up. “If you’ll pardon the liberty, miss, this Captain Frobisher was a sharp sort, and he and his crew knew what they were doing. They came asking questions about people who’d gone missing, and they must have found something—something of the sort to send them packing, possibly back to London.”
Sampson glanced swiftly around, then shifted closer and lowered his voice. “It’s true there’s something havey-cavey going on in the settlement. Seems there’s more missing than a handful of officers. But whatever’s going on, it’s dangerous enough to have a captain of the likes of Frobisher playing cautious. You need to take that on board. Asking questions about those who’ve gone missing might end with you going missing, too.” He shifted back and looked her in the face. “Trust me, miss, you need to back away and leave this to those trained to handle such things.”
The possibility that, contrary to all appearances, someone—most likely someone in authority in London—was pursuing those missing, Will included, came as a huge relief.
However, they—whoever they were—weren’t here, and she was.
And Will was still missing.
She’d held Sampson’s gaze while those thoughts flitted through her mind; his worry remained plain to see. She drew breath, hesitated, then inclined her head. “Thank you for the warning, Mr. Sampson. Rest assured, I’ll pay it due heed.”
No need to tell him that learning that Will had, indeed, been on some mission and had subsequently disappeared, and that others had disappeared as well, had only made her more determined than ever to find her missing brother and, if possible, rescue him, too.
* * *
The obvious first step was to learn more about the mission Will had been pursuing.
Other than attending Undoto’s church, the only oddity she’d heard of in Will’s behavior before he’d disappeared had been his interest in Dixon, the army officer stationed at the fort.
Given the time-honored tensions between army and navy, Will’s interest in Dixon had to have been work related—ergo, mission related. Presumably, he’d gone to speak with Dixon, which made Dixon an obvious person for her to speak with, too.
Her hopes of gaining some insight into the nature of Will’s mission were riding high as she toiled up the final stretch of road that led to the open gates of the fort, with its guardhouse built against the palisade to one side of the entrance.
On gaining the cleared area before the gates, she paused and looked back. Perched on the crown of the hill above the harbor, the fort commanded an arresting view over the settlement and the ships clustered before the docks to the wide blue sweep of the estuary beyond. She took a full minute to savor the sight.
Three days had passed since she’d spoken to Sampson outside Undoto’s church. She’d spent those days alternating between vacillation and action. On the vacillating side, she’d found herself entertaining nagging doubts along the lines that perhaps Sampson was right, and she and her family would be better served by her retreating and then waiting to hear through official channels…
Every time she’d got to the “waiting to hear through official channels” part, her thoughts had come to an abrupt halt, and she hadn’t been able to follow that line any further.
She would never convince herself that waiting for someone else—especially someone with official authorization—to rescue Will was a viable alternative.
Her actions had been more to the point; she’d gone back to the taverns she’d previously visited and tried to learn more about Dixon. She’d reasoned that the more she could learn about him before she faced him, the better placed she would be.
Unfortunately, that tack had proved futile. For the same reasons she hadn’t expected Will to be acquainted with an army officer, none of those he had drunk with knew much of Dixon, either.
Just that he was stationed at Fort Thornton.
And now she was there.
She turned away from the vista and walked the last yards to the guardhouse and the pair of middle-aged guards taking the sun at their ease beside it.
They straightened as she neared. Both respectfully touched a hand to their hats.
“Miss,” said the younger with a nod.
“Ma’am,” said the older, straightening even more.
Aileen halted before them and smiled. “Good morning. I would like to speak with an officer by the name of Dixon. I understand he’s quartered here.”
Both guards looked at her, then to her surprise, the pair exchanged a sidelong glance.
The older refocused on her. “I’m afraid, ma’am, that that won’t be possible.”
Before she could formulate an appropriate response, the younger guard blurted, “He’s not here, you see. Gone off to seek his fortune in the jungle, they say.”
The older guard cut his junior a chiding look. “Don’t believe—much less repeat—everything you hear.” Looking back at Aileen, he said, “Captain Dixon was here—he should still be here—but he went missing some months back, and no one’s seen hide nor hair of him, nor heard anything about him since.”
“He’s vanished?” She fought to rein in her shock. Battled to keep her expression uninformative.
Nevertheless, the older guard frowned in concern. “Why did you wish to speak with him, ma’am?”
She met his shrewd eyes. She couldn’t think of any reason to lie. “I believe my brother, a lieutenant in the navy, came to speak with Captain Dixon. This would have been some months ago—possibly three months or more.”
“I remember that!” The younger guard beamed at her. “Thought it odd that one of the navy bas—ah, officers wanted to speak with one of ours.”
“So he—my brother—and Dixon met?”
The younger guard shook his head emphatically. “Couldn’t. Dixon was already gone. Would have been a good five weeks before. I remember we told your brother that. Had quite a jaw about it, now I think back. About what Dixon vanishing like that might mean.”
The older guard was regarding her closely. “Why don’t you ask your brother about Dixon—about what he was after him for—when the squadron sails in? Should be in a week or so, I gather.”
Aileen met his eyes, then grimaced. “Would that I could. Sadly, my brother has vanished, too.”
“Cor!” The younger guard’s eyes rounded. “Mercy me! Whatever’s going on?”
The older guard narrowed his eyes on his junior. “Told you. Don’t know what’s going on, but it’s not what it looks like.”
* * *
A week later, late in the afternoon, Aileen threw a shawl about her shoulders and left the confines of the boardinghouse to walk in the public gardens behind the rectory. She’d found the little oasis of civilized peace just a few yards up the road and down a short lane six days ago, and it had quickly become her favorite place for thinking.
As the sun began its final descent toward the western horizon, a cooling breeze often lifted off the harbor and estuary beyond, sweeping up the hill with gentle grace, refreshing and renewing the air after the stifling, muggy heat of the day.
Pacing along the lightly graveled path, Aileen made for her favorite bench. Situated beneath the spreading branches of a tall, shady tree, the bench was unoccupied, as it usually was. She’d seen only a handful of people using the gardens, and most of those were nursemaids or governesses with their charges; at this time of day, they were busy elsewhere, doing other things.
Amid the leaves of the old tree, long brown seedpods hung, dry now, and in the stirring of the breeze, they added their soft rustle to the evening’s chorus. She found the already familiar susurration welcoming. She sat, letting the fine shawl fall to her elbows so she could better enjoy the coolness on her skin.
She scanned the short stretch of lawn below and saw only a single couple who were already heading home. She watched them go, then she raised her gaze to the wider vista of the harbor and its ships, and the estuary beyond. From there, she could even see the opposite shore, so distant it was nothing more than a thick band of jungle green edging the water.
This was a very foreign land.
She told herself that. Told herself it was no real surprise that finding any trace of Will months after he’d disappeared would take time. More, that any trail wouldn’t easily be uncovered.
In search of that trail, she’d returned to sit through two more of Undoto’s performances. She’d spent both observing closely, searching for some hint of what had sent Will there—desperately hoping for some inkling of what he had gone there to find. Other than feeling faintly disturbed by the tenor of the services, she’d learned nothing more.
She’d spoken with Sampson again, but perhaps unsurprisingly given his earlier concern, he’d been discouraging.
His attitude had only added to her welling despondency.
She’d expected to get somewhere by now.
Glumness dragged at her. Instead of giving in to it, she focused on the scene before her. A ship—sleekly hulled and sporting three towering masts—was sliding gracefully up the estuary. Even from this distance, she could make out the tiny figures of sailors scrambling high on the spars, furling a quite staggering array of sails.
The sight of the ship held her transfixed. As she watched, it smoothly slid past the mouth of the harbor and continued up the estuary, still well out from shore.
She wondered why the ship wasn’t turning in. As far as she knew, there was no other settlement—certainly not a settlement of the size to which such a ship might sail—farther along the estuary’s shores.
She continued to trace the stately passage of the ship. Watching it was curiously soothing.
Courtesy of her brothers’ incessant obsession, she was more than passingly acquainted with the latest designs in sailing vessels. In the sleek lines of the ship nosing down the estuary, she thought she detected the telltale shape of the new ships out of the Aberdeen shipyards. Clippers, as people were starting to call them, because under full sail—which was how they were designed to be sailed—the hull rose and sped across the water, clipping the waves.
She imagined how fast the ship before her might go if all the sails she could see were set before a good wind.
It would fly.
Will would have loved it.
“Will will love it one day.” She frowned at herself, at the unintentional surfacing of her deepest fears.
The best way to eradicate fear was to face it. She didn’t want to, yet she forced her mind to consider the unthinkable.
She still couldn’t believe it. Will isn’t dead.
He’d gone missing, but he was somewhere, and still alive.
He was findable. In turn, that meant he could be rescued.
She would do it.
She would not give up—she would never give up—on Will.
Finally, the ship she’d been watching turned its prow toward shore. It came in a short way, then anchored just inside a cove two bays to the east of the harbor.
She wondered why the captain had chosen to avoid the harbor proper. “Perhaps they’re only anchoring for the night, or to take on water.”
Regardless, she’d seen enough; she had more pressing matters to address.
Eschewing the sight before her, she turned her thoughts inward. Doggedly, she retrod—yet again—all she’d learned. Now that she’d worked out why Will had gone to see Dixon—because Dixon had already disappeared and Will had wanted to learn more—that left Will’s attendance at Undoto’s services as the one peculiarity she had yet to explain.
She decided that was a clear enough sign. Either something happened at the services that Will had seen but that she had yet to notice, or…
She couldn’t think of anything that or might be.
Frowning, she refocused on her surroundings and realized the light was fading. In the tropics, night descended like a curtain falling on a stage—with brutal finality and quite surprising abruptness.
She rose. The temperature had started dropping with the setting of the sun. She flicked her shawl about her shoulders and set off at a brisk walk for the lane, the road, and Mrs. Hoyt’s Boarding House.
As she entered the lane, her senses came alert. Pure habit; she didn’t expect to meet with any difficulty in that area.
Nevertheless, as she emerged onto the road by the rectory, she recognized that, with the falling of night, the atmosphere in the settlement changed.
It wasn’t only the view, the surroundings, that grew darker.
She set off along the rough pavement toward the boardinghouse. Lights were already burning on the front porch, and a welcoming glow shone through the parlor curtains.
Then she nearly tripped as her mind connected her recent thoughts. She halted and stared ahead as she realized…
“I might have been looking in the right place, but at the wrong time.” She breathed the words as the possibilities firmed in her mind.
In this place—as in any other rough and dangerous place in which predators lurked—time of day made a very real difference to what anyone watching might see.
Her heart lifted. She stepped out, her stride firmer, more decided—even more determined.
She’d been watching Undoto during the day. She needed to watch him during the evening and night.
True evil walked in darkness, after all.
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