ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 23

 

      “What’s it to be—pistol, or rifle?” Jamie and Nonie were on the safe house rooftop across from the French embassy, and Jamie was looking over the various weapons that had been hidden in a canvas bundle under the catch-basin.

      With a practiced eye, Nonie gauged the distance from the roof to the street below, and decided, “The rifle. It’s a bit too far for a pistol—I learned my lesson with the Flemish mark.”  That was another target she was merely supposed to nick; instead the wretched man had dropped like a stone with a ball through his temple, and they’d been forced to improvise from then on out, with only mixed results.  As Jamie had noted, the Flanders assignment was not their finest hour, but despite that blot, their record was an impressive one. 

     During their wild and ragged years abetting the remnants of the Irish rebellion, they’d discovered that Nonie had remarkably good eyesight, and remarkably steady hands; the combination made her a lethal and respected sharpshooter—so much so, that a price was finally placed on her head by the frustrated British authorities.  When she was inevitably captured, rather than a hangman, she became acquainted with a grey-eyed man who asked, very calmly, if she thought she’d be willing to eliminate certain enemies of the crown who were deserving of such treatment.  She would be well-compensated, on the understanding that she would never be officially recognized; assassins were not considered honorable players, in the arcane rules of warfare.

     In the end, it had been a simple decision.  Tanny had been ignominiously killed, and Nonie was tired of being poor and glad that she was good at something—even something that would have horrified Tanny, had she ever known. And indeed she excelled at her craft; she and Jamie had an chalked up an impressive tally of successful assignments without a drop of remorse—only a great deal of satisfaction that another evildoer had been vanquished, in what seemed like a never-ending list.  The necromancer was right, when he made that wedding-night observation; she was good at what she did because she did not care deeply about anything.  When he’d voiced the thought aloud, however, it resonated within her to such an extent that she began to think that perhaps she wasn’t as far gone as she’d previously thought—irony of ironies, she definitely cared deeply about the Barbary mark.  

     With practiced movements, Jamie unsheathed the flintlock rifle from its oilcloth carrier, and inspected it.  They’d visited America, on a brief assignment there, and discovered that the Americans had created a rifled flintlock that was miles more accurate than the traditional British musket, due to the innovation of spiraling grooves within the weapon’s barrel.

     Satisfied, he handed it over to Nonie. “What did the Dey have to say this morning?”

     Nonie quirked her mouth. “It was all very smoky.  The mark is up to some scheme that involves setting the Dey against the Agha and the Frenchman—with me in the middle—but he avoided speaking English, so as to plague me to death.”

     “Sounds perfect,” Jamie remarked, as he lifted his head slightly, to peer down the street.

     “It couldn’t be better—truly. The Dey was saying publicly that Le Capitaine must mend his manners.”  She practiced sighting the rifle, and smiled. “The mark has convinced the Dey that I’m having premonitions of his death.”

     Jamie met her eyes, and chuckled.  “Has he? Lord, they all deserve each another.”  

     “Villains, through and through.”  Carefully, she rested the flintlock’s barrel on a tile near the roof’s edge.  “Speaking of villains, does Le Capitaine travel with a large contingent?”

      “At least two guards, sometimes more. He’s a cautious one, and small blame to him; a knife in the back is a commonplace around these parts.”

     “Or a knife in the eye.”

     With a grin, Jamie’s gaze met hers.  “Little does he know—shall we tell him where his eye rests now?”

     “We should not; let’s not give him any reason to pay a visit to the Cat n’ Fiddle.”

     Cautiously, he began to inch away from the roof’s edge. “I’ve put a rope coiled next to the balustrade, as a secondary escape route.”

     She nodded. “Many thanks; although I hope it doesn’t come to that—hard to climb whilst wearing a sack.  The assignments are so much easier when I can pose as a boy.”

     Pausing, he considered this.  “Do you want to switch clothes?”

     With a smile, she declined. “As much as I would pay money to see you in swathed in this potato sack,  I think it best I stay within it—no one here would consider a mere female to be a suspect; easier to exit.”  

     “Good point,” he agreed, and tucked a pistol into his waistband.   

      “What is our timeline?”

     “Ibram is at the bay, monitoring what’s going forward.  He will walk through below when the others are heading this way so as to give us a signal. If his head is uncovered, they’ve brought up the pearls.”

     “How much does Ibram know?” She was inclined to be cautious; she would not be at all surprised if the necromancer had replaced her old contact with one more to his liking.

     But it appeared that Jamie was of the same mind. “Not much; I don’t like working with youngsters—they can’t be trusted.”

     She smiled. “We were youngsters, not so very long ago.”

     “We were different; we knew we could trust each other.”

     This was inarguably true, to the extent that there was literally no one else they did trust. Although nowadays, this was not quite accurate; she trusted Tahriz enough to tell him about—about what had happened to her.  I do trust him, she admitted. I shouldn’t, but I do, and if he winds up betraying me, it would be—it would be very hard to recover from such a blow. 

     Impatient with herself for making such a shocking admission, she quickly teased, “Best grab a fistful of pearls for Aditi, whilst you have the chance.”

     He shook his head. “There’s no point; I wouldn’t be able to tell which ones are real, and which are fake.”

     “Neither can Aditi,” she pointed out fairly.

     Jamie glanced at her in amusement. “She’d probably strangle Saba with them—she caught the two of us talking, and was not happy.”

     Nonie hid a smile at this revelation; that the steadfast Jamie, a veteran of many a false role, could not seem to hold his position, now that Saba had come onto the scene. “Where’s Aditi’s pirate? Let him take her off your hands, so that Saba has a clear field.”

     Jamie glanced up, casting an expert eye over the street below. “The pirate—whoever he is—is nowhere around, I’m afraid.  I’ll get Aditi back to India where she belongs, and then call it even.  She’ll land on her feet—she’s that type of girl.”

     “More properly she’s the type of girl who lands on her back.”

     He glanced at her, as though weighing what he wanted to say.  “Speaking of which; Saba is rather a puzzle.”

     “Is she? How so?”

     Hesitating, Jamie confessed, “I told her that if she wanted the necromancer to set her aside, she’d best be certain she didn’t become pregnant, in the meantime.”

     Keeping her face carefully neutral, Nonie nodded. “That seems wise.”

     “I got the impression—well, she was flummoxed.  Almost as though she doesn’t—” His voice trailed off, and Nonie stepped in.

     “No—I don’t think she does. In fact—” frowning, she tried to put her vague suspicions into words.  “I think there is something odd about the whole household. The wives and the concubines may serve an altogether different purpose—spies, perhaps.”  She added delicately, “Best be careful what you say to her.”

     He made a wry mouth. “Don’t worry—I’m not that stupid. As far as she knows, she will be a missionary’s wife.”

     With some surprise, she met his eyes. “You’ll marry her? Truly?”

     He looked a little embarrassed. “Would you mind?”

     “Of course I wouldn’t mind—what a bloody nodcock you are, Jamie O’Hay. I was only thinking of the next war, and what it would mean.”

     “Oh, don’t worry; I wouldn’t leave you without support, Nonie.”

     “I’d hate to have to train another flanker,” she admitted. “You are the greatest, and the best.”

     “I would say the same, Nonie.”

     They watched the scene below for a moment.  Now that the heat of the sun was dissipating, the foot traffic had picked up, which was going to make her job a bit more difficult. “I’ll be needin’ you to block out the bystanders, when the time comes.”

     “Done—and Tanny would be very unhappy, to hear you dropping your ‘gs’.”   With a grin, he pulled out another object from his satchel—a small stone flask, with a cork stopper. “For luck.”

     Laughing, she took the flask from him.  “Jamie, you are a saint—and I won’t even ask how you managed it, here of all places. Sláinte.”   

     “Sláinte.”  They took turns taking a pull of whisky, and as Jamie wiped his mouth on his sleeve, he asked, “Do you ever think about going back to Ireland?”

     “No,” she replied. “You?”

     He looked into the distance for a moment. “I don’t know—ever since I met Saba, I’ve been thinking about how I’d like to show it to her.”

     “Then you should.  I just don’t know if I could bear it,” she admitted.

     His gaze returned to hers. “I’d be dead a hundred times over, if it weren’t for you.”

     “Jamie,” she said softly, placing her hand over his. “I could certainly say the same. I want nothing more than your happiness, so please don’t be thinking that you are bound to me in some way.  Go, and take pretty Saba to Ireland with my blessing; only don’t go until the crows are picking at Napoleon’s carcass.”

     Lord, I’m a bleater.” His grin was now firmly back in place.

     With mock exasperation, she exclaimed, “Lord, man; next you’ll be weeping at the stile. Take hold of your sorry self.”

     Suddenly, Jamie lowered his head, his hand shading his eyes. “There he is.” 

     They watched silently as Ibram walked down the narrow street, his head uncovered.

     “All right,” she said. “Let’s put the cat amongst the pigeons.”

     Gathering up the satchel, Jamie crept backward on his belly, as Nonie lay prone and carefully sighted down the rifle. They had a routine—although sometimes they altered it, it was never a good thing in this business to be too predictable—which meant Jamie would be on the ground to create a loud diversion from the other side of the street, so that it was unclear from whence the shot had come.  He would then add to the general confusion, so that she could exit undetected.  They were a good team; it was a shame he’d lost his bite for it.  On the other hand, not a soul could complain; they had successfully completed many an assignment—none of which they could ever speak of again. It was a strange life, but it suited her; she would never be one to settle down in domestic tranquility with—with anyone in particular. Not that he was a likely candidate, what with his faux wives, and mysterious lightning-weapons.  It was only—it was only that she hadn’t met anyone she could even imagine settling with, and she could imagine it with him. She could imagine it very easily.

     There—the French contingent was approaching, and she needed to concentrate, as they began to unload at the embassy’s entrance. Le Capitaine was easily distinguishable from the others, as he emerged from a sedan chair, and with a deliberate movement, Nonie rested her cheek on the warm wood. Think to murder me, do you; you have another think coming, my friend. 

     Carefully she sighted—she didn’t want to wound him too severely.  Any second, now.

     There was a loud clatter across the way, as a bench stall collapsed, and an instant later she squeezed the trigger. Startled, her target had turned toward the noise, and she winged his upper arm—let him think the last-moment movement saved his life.

     Immediately, she scrambled backward on her knees and elbows, then slid the musket under the catch-basin and made for the trapdoor on the rooftop, crouching low. 

     As the commotion from the street could be heard rising up behind her, she lifted the hatch, and was confronted by the sight of a man, ascending the ladder. Almost immediately she recognized Jamil—the necromancer’s guard—who froze, as he met her eyes.

     There was no chance he didn’t recognize her, and after a second’s hesitation, she made a pretense of capitulating. “All right, step back; I’m coming down.” She swung her legs around to sit on the edge of the opening, and as he turned his head aside to make his descent, she kicked him as hard as she could with both feet.  As he fell backward, she slammed the hatch down, and secured the lock, listening as he tumbled down the ladder below.

     Leaping to her feet, she fled to the balustrade where the rope lay waiting, then tossed it over and shimmied down, hand over hand, with her feet braced against the wall, hoping no one would notice the unusual sight.

     Fortunately, the noise and shouts from the street continued; bless Jamie, who would continue with his ruckus-raising until he was given an all-clear signal.  After landing on the packed dirt, she turned to hurry away, putting her fingers to her mouth to blow two shrill whistles—hopefully, he could hear it. Keeping her head down and her veil up, she began to walk with a measured pace, but then she saw a man step out of the shadows to face her, a small distance ahead.  Another one, sent by my wretched husband, she thought in annoyance, but then recognized him as one of the Agha’s men—apparently, every man jack was keeping track of her whereabouts.

      Thinking that she’d best find a place to make a stand, she ducked into a likely door, slamming it shut behind her. Unfortunately, the door didn’t have a lock, and she looked around for a brace of some sort—it appeared she was in a storage room, with various misshapen items stacked up high in the dimness. 

      With a quick movement, she pushed a small wooden crate against the base of the door—knowing it wouldn’t hold for long— and then lifted her kaftan and darted toward the back of the room, looking for another exit, as she heard her pursuer pounding and shoving on the door.  Stumbling over another low crate, she barked her shin and stifled a curse, as she gave the walls an assessing glance—bad luck; no windows, and the back exit was blocked by bags of grain, stacked atop each other.  She’d no choice but to prepare an ambush for her pursuer—an unwelcome complication; but no one should be allowed to connect her to the Frenchman’s shooting.

     Scrambling atop a packing crate, she leaned back against the wall in the darkness, holding her breath as the door was forced open, and a shaft of light shot across the center of the room.

      She was startled to hear a whispered voice, descending from the rafters above her. “Miss Rafferty.”

     With some surprise, she looked up to see Jamil, holding a hand down to her.

     “Come along,” he whispered in English. “I will see you back.”

     After deciding there was nothing for it, she put her hand in his, and allowed him to launch her upward.