Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Chapter 20: SHADOW PLAY

Amos Greaves went grumbling downstairs to his print shop in his dressing gown. Who could it be, this "old acquaintance" scratching at the back door at such an hour, like a brigand, upsetting his household? Refused to give a name into the bargain. His houseman was quite put out over it, would have turned the fellow off but that he let his person be searched for weapons and swore he meant no harm, only needed help. But he hid his face under a hat and kept to the shadows.

Greaves’ houseman insisted he keep his pressman, Jacob, a big, burly fellow, by his side, in case of any trouble. But men intent on mischief did not usually send servants to fetch their masters first, so at the bottom of the stairs, Greaves bade Jacob wait, lifted his small lamp higher and made his way around the silent, hulking shape of his press, and his cabinets full of metal plates and boxes of type. At the back door of his shop, he threw up the bolt, drew it open and thrust out his lamp, squinting into the dark night. A figure was waiting in the shadows.

"Mr. Greaves," said a gentlemanly voice. An English voice. "It’s very good of you to see me."

He took one step into the light and lifted the brim of his hat. Greaves blinked into a somewhat weathered face with dark, direct eyes, a familiar face he felt himself disposed to like, if only he could place it. The face of a man who had once done him a good turn.

"Jack?" whispered Greaves. "Jack, the juggling fellow."

"May I come inside?"

Greaves gestured into the dark shop with his lamp.

"Only first," and Jack nodded toward the pressman still waiting on the stairs, "send your man to bed. I come on a private matter."

"It’s all right, Jacob. You may go, now, thank you," Greaves said aloud, over his shoulder, as he ushered Jack into the shop. "I know this fellow." The door closed behind Jacob at the top of the stairs, and Greaves turned back to his visitor. "But come into the parlor, Jack, like a civilized fellow. I have an excellent madeira—"

"No, thank you, sir. I’m afraid this isn’t a social call, although I wish it was. I come on business."

"But why not come round to the front, at a decent hour?" Greaves wondered, as he led Jack to an open area at the back of the shop and set his lamp upon the make-up table. "You know my door is always open to you."

"I apologize about the hour, but it’s the sort of business that must be done in the dark," Jack replied. He set his hat on the table and gazed directly into Greaves’ curious eyes. "I am about to presume a great deal upon your good nature, Mr. Greaves. But I have nowhere else to turn."

Greaves returned that steady gaze and read something both desperately sad and chillingly resolved in those dark eyes. A look that made him ache inside because he understood it so well. The look of someone who has lost something very dear.

"Where is your charming Miss Lightfoot?" Greaves asked.

"That is the matter I've come about."

"I wish she had named me as a witness," Mr. Greaves fretted, after Jack told him the story. The kind old fellow looked every bit as distressed as Jack felt. "I should have spoken up on her behalf. It's very irregular for anyone so fair and well-spoken to be auctioned off at all. Most irregular."

"Is it?"

"Indeed, sir. Young quadroons and suchlike of any sort of breeding are often left standing on the block; remind the Creole planters too much of their own offspring. Had Miss Lightfoot only charmed the crowd, no one would have had the heart to bid on her."

Jack lowered his eyes against a bitter wave of helplessness. Tory would not have known that, of course; she would sooner spit in their eye than beg.

"But now that she is legally sold..." Mr. Greaves went on, doubtfully.

"I’m not asking you to intervene now, sir, the deed is done."

"Then what can I do to help you?"

"I need the services of a printer." Mr. Greaves nodded, and Jack went on. "Have you contracts with the township of Basseterre?"

"My boy, we are the first printing establishment on the island. We print all manner of documents for the Court House—wills, deeds, public notices, legal contracts. As well as bills, broadsheets, and pamphlets of all kinds for the private sector. As long as a thing is not downright seditious—"

"And the Court of Registrars? Do you ever print manumission papers? Certificates of freedom?"

Amos Greaves regarded him for a long, silent moment.

"I have the plates on hand," he spoke, at last. "Although I am very much afraid the trade is far more brisk in runaway notices, these days. Do I understand that you wish me to print a forgery?"

"I do," Jack replied soberly. "But not a lie. She was born free in America. She has never been a slave in her life. Until now."

He had to turn quickly away, to conceal sudden, angry tears. "I have no right to ask you this—" he muttered.

"On the life of my daughter, sir, you have every right."

"You must understand what a dangerous undertaking this is," Jack cautioned, focusing again on the business at hand.

"I understand what it is to lose someone precious," replied Mr. Greaves. "I lost the woman I loved to an enemy I could neither see nor fight. I would have done anything, risked anything, to have her back. I might have lost my daughter as well, but for you."

He slid off his stool and reached for a leather apron on a peg.

"We must work quietly, so as not to alarm my household any further. Tell me, Jack, have you ever operated a press?"

The document was drying on the table under the lamp and Greaves sat puffing thoughtfully on his pipe when Jack finally put the pen away. He had written in the names Greaves had given him of a magistrate and secretary who might have signed the thing five years ago, and were no longer in town to be questioned. But when it came time to fill in the name of the bearer, Jack balked. It seemed pointless to make it out for Hecate the slave, a creature who did not exist. She might have even changed her name again, since then. But did he dare write in "Tory Lightfoot," the name by which she had been known in the pirate trade? In the end he left it blank. He would fill in the name when he saw her again, when he knew for certain who she wanted to be.

"I wonder how the auction in question occurred without my knowledge," Mr. Greaves mused. "I never miss an auction, you know, I have so many establishments to operate, and they are constantly in need of competent labor. I am certain I should have recognized Miss Lightfoot. When do you say it was held?"

Jack felt inside his shirt and withdrew the tattered public notice Alphonse had found. Mr. Greaves frowned at it and squinted at the date.

"Why, yes, I remember now," he exclaimed, suddenly. "The damnedest piece of foolishness it was! I was up on Monkey Hill all that morning, at the Fairhaven estate, to straighten out some nonsense with the book-keeper. Blasted fellow turned up drunk as a lord, claimed to have lost his account books. You know, rotation of the field hands, who was off ill or on leave, head count of the livestock against theft, all that sort of thing, place grinds to a halt without 'em. Fellow led us a merry dance all round the place the whole morning, looking for 'em. Then they turn up pretty as you please in an old watch hut at half-past two in the afternoon, well past my dinner hour, I can assure you. Miserable waste of half the day, it was, and I despise waste."

Jack steeled himself against another useless wave of anguish. But for a foolish accident, Tory might have had a champion in the crowd on the day of her worst humiliation. "Could your people not have handled the matter?"

"Why, that was another odd thing. It was none of my people sent for me. No, an officer came round before breakfast and told me he’d heard there might be trouble on my estate, and hadn’t I better go up? Well, a man never knows what is meant by 'trouble,' it might be a runaway, or a rising, or an attack of the borer worm. Or it might be nothing at all, as it was in this case."

"But it must have been something, to alert the military," Jack frowned.

"Oh, it wasn’t an officer of the regiment, but of the local constabulary," Greaves corrected him. "The chief constable, it was. You know, that green-eyed fellow, behaves as if he’s got a ramrod up his backside."

Jack held himself very still. "I know him."

"Most thorough in his duty, or so the Deputy Provost Marshall tells me, so I supposed the fellow knew what he was about."

He knew what he was about, all right, Jack thought. This entire business must have been his doing from the start. No doubt he thought himself damned clever for the way he’d arranged it; he was probably laughing over it still. But he would not laugh much longer. And Jack sighed inside. It had been a long night already, but it was not over yet.

Stephen Raleigh was up late over his private accounts in the sitting room of his lodgings. He'd been at it until the figures swam in his head, and he still could not make it come out right. Hannibal, his only slave, was not bringing in the revenue he ought, given the expense of his upkeep. Damned rascal must be cheating me, Raleigh growled to himself, and I’ll not have it.

How could a slave bred to the boating and fishing trades fail to earn a profit in a bustling port town like Basseterre? Raleigh took such care to job him out on day-long fishing excursions, or even longer coasting voyages, when it was the business of the hirer to provide food and shelter. But Raleigh would have his reckoning; he’d cut the fellow's rations in half and double his jobs out until he showed a profit. Insolent cur, giving himself airs because of his lighter complexion. Lighter than pitch, perhaps, yet not so light as an Irish ha'penny, and worth less. All darkies were one to Raleigh, and the only way to deal with the damned—

He looked up at a sudden, odd sound, peered into the darkness beyond the candle on his writing table. Wretched dark, it was. He half-turned in his chair toward the doorway that led to his bed-chamber, and the blackness increased. Had he not left another candle burning on the nightstand by the bed? That was his usual custom. What sort of ill wind could have blown it out? Weren't the shutters closed?

He sat very still, gazing into the darkened doorway. He was overtired tonight, he might have forgotten...then something creaked. His shutters? A floorboard? Raleigh’s eyes narrowed. It had better not be that rascally Hannibal trying to sneak back into the house, after he’d been jobbed out overnight to Trent on that little business up the coast. But these rooms were on the top floor, and Hannibal would never bestir himself to climb; he was far too lazy, like all of his race. But what, then? Or who?

Raleigh stood up, grasped the candlestick, and thrust the light into every dark corner of the sitting room. Night shadows danced crazily along the walls. Through the doorway into the bed-chamber, he could swear he saw another shadow, more substantial.

"Who’s there?" he demanded.

"Only shadows," came the soft reply. "Shadows of your past."

The fine hairs chilled on the back of his neck, but he fought down his alarm. Irish Jimmy Reilly had believed in ghosts and banshees, but Stephen Raleigh would have none of them.

"Is that you, Hannibal? I swear, you’ll feel the lash for this!"

"You can’t lash out the past, constable. Although you’ll wish you could."

"Who are you? Show yourself like a man!"

There was a rustle in the shadows beyond the darkened doorway and something thumped onto the rag carpet spread over the threshold. Raleigh held out the candle, then started so violently, he nearly dropped it. A skull! He could see round, empty eye holes. No, half a skull, brown with age. Half a face...a mask. A Harlequin mask.

"You," he breathed, glancing up again into the shadows. A malicious smile tugged at his mouth. "Come after your darky slut, have ye? Well, you’re too late, mountebank. She’s far away where you’ll never find her, I’ve seen to that."

"Ah. I thought I recognized your delicate hand in this affair. Thank you for confirming it."

Irritation flared up in Raleigh’s belly, but he forced it back down. He would not give way to his anger, not again. What could this fellow do to him, after all? "If you mean to intimidate me—"

"Frightened of shadows, constable? You must have a great deal to fear in your past."

Even in the dark Raleigh felt himself turn so white with rage he thrust the candle away from his face. "You’ll get nothing from me," he spat into the darkness, his eyes darting in and out of the shadows. Damn the fellow, his voice seemed to come from a different direction every time he spoke. "I’ll never tell you where she is."

There was an eerie laugh in the dark that made his scalp crawl.

"Oh, I know where she is. I have other business with you."

"What business?"

"Your future, constable. As long as my friend is safe, you are safe. If I find she has been harmed in any way, you will answer to me. If she dies, you are a dead man."

"You are in no position to threaten me!" Raleigh exclaimed.

"In the event, I’ll be in the best possible position. A man with nothing more to lose. The same cannot be said for you, I believe."

Raleigh had returned the candlestick to the writing table; his eyes were growing more accustomed to the dark. He slipped away from the table and moved through the shadows to the doorway.

"You had better pray to whatever gods will have you that she’s well," the disembodied voice continued. "Otherwise, you’ll have your reckoning. You can’t outrun your past."

Raleigh saw a flicker of movement across the room, in the looking-glass near the bed. The fellow must be right against this wall. Raleigh eased himself around the door frame, then lunged for the shadows. "I should have killed you when I had the chance!"

But he embraced only air and shadows, stumbling against the wall as a shape flew over him toward the unshuttered window.

"Aye, but as you say, it’s too late now."

Insolent humor in the fellow’s voice, as insolent as the darkies he was so fond of. The nerve of the beggar.

"All this bother," Raleigh baited him, "for a mongrel whore—"

The blade whined so close to his ear, and struck the wooden wall behind him with such a shuddering crack, Raleigh stumbled again. Paralyzed with panic, he could not comprehend things as quickly as they happened, a knee in his back, forcing him to his own knees, a hand like iron yanking up his chin, the resonant sucking sound of the wood paneling releasing the blade above his head and the snick of steel across his throat. Dull steel, not the keen edge. The voice in his ear was a deadly whisper.

"Look to the shadows, constable. Pray you see me no more."

He was kicked flat on his face, the light went out through the doorway behind him, and there was a movement at the window. Then Stephen Raleigh was alone in the dark in his rooms.

He was on his feet in another instant, shaking with humiliation and rage. He barked his shin against the bed frame in the dark, and swore as he fumbled on the nightstand for his whistle to call the watch. He rushed to the window, flattened the shutters all the way back, stuck his head out into the night, and blew his whistle for all he was worth.

The high, piercing shriek of it startled Jack. He slipped on a roof tile, but caught himself at the edge of the roof, swung his body over the side, locked his knees round an upright post underneath and shinnied down to the balcony on the floor below Raleigh’s window. He raced to the corner of the balcony, hopped over the railing, and climbed down the flowering wooden trellis to the street.

But a shrill answering whistle sounded in the shadows just ahead; staccato footsteps told him at least two men were running toward him through a side-street. He dared not run back toward the front of the house, and risk Raleigh seeing where he went; he could only fling himself into the shadows across the street, and try to feel his way along in the dark for some welcoming crevice.

He thought he saw a blackness deeper than the wall, and heard a hiss. The footsteps pounded nearer, and Jack dove into the utter black of a narrow passage between two buildings. Small, powerful hands gripped his arm and his collar, dragging him deeper into the passage.

"I knew you would get into mischief without me," Alphonse grumbled, as Jack sank into a crouch to catch his breath. "But I never thought even you would be foolhardy enough to jeopardize our purpose here by making idle threats—"

"There was...nothing idle about 'em," Jack panted.

Two watchmen raced past their hiding place and rounded the corner for the front door of Raleigh’s lodging house.

"Forgot about the damned whistle, is all," Jack added, turning to rest his back against the wall.

"Tell me you have not placed violent hands upon an officer of the law," Alphonse prompted.

"Only one hand, to show him what I might have done. What I will do, if anything has happened to Tory."

"But now that he knows you are in Basseterre—"

"But we are shadows only, mon ami. And by tomorrow, we’ll be gone. There is no evidence that I was ever here," Jack added, patting the place in his shirt where he’d tucked in his battered mask. "And the rest I’ll leave to the chief constable’s own fear."

"Fear?" echoed Alphonse. "The man’s a jackal. Fear of what?"

"I don’t know, but he fears something. Something in his past, I saw it in his face. It doesn’t matter what it is. Anyone consumed by that much hatred must have some very deep secrets to hide. Let 'em gnaw away at him for awhile. It’ll be far worse than any vengeance I could devise."

Alphonse was looking at him in an odd way. "What an interesting crew of cut-throats you must have been," he observed, "tormenting the delicate mental states of your victims."

"Piracy is a far more honest trade. I’ve learned cruelty in the civilized world."

"You do not know what it is the constable fears?" Alphonse pressed on. "It might be useful."

"It makes no odds to me what it is." But Jack had noticed one useful thing. A glint of gold in a box on Raleigh’s nightstand, just before he blew the candle out. A gold ring, bearing a crest with two entwined 'R's.

(Top: Pressman 19th Century engraving, artist unknown. Hand-colored by Lisa Jensen.)