ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 6

 

     Silently, Nonie crept forward on her stomach to join Jamie, as they peered over the rooftop’s edge into the dark street below, illuminated only by the occasional torch. Jamie whispered near her ear, “How did it all go? Do you think the mark took the bait?”

     “I couldn’t tell.”  Their faces darkened with walnut oil, they were dressed in nondescript black kaftans as they contemplated the French Embassy, located across the narrow street.  Nonie rested her chin on her hands, and revealed, “He knew who I was, which was a bit alarming.”

     Jamie stared at her in surprise. “The mark knew who you were? What do you mean—what did he say?”

     She quirked her mouth. “He said, ‘I know who you are’.”

     Incredulous, her companion continued to stare at her. “Lord, Nonie—was he bluffing?”

     “No. He does indeed know who I am.”

     They considered this in mutually dismayed silence; the only thing that kept Nonie alive was the fact that no one knew what lurked beneath her guileless, freckle-faced exterior. It was very unlikely that she’d long survive—that either of them would—once their identities became known.

     “He knows, and he hasn’t tried to kill you?”

      “No—and he had a prime opportunity, too.”

     Jamie turned his face away, so as continue his watch over the quiet street below. “He’s waiting to see what you’re after, then.”

     “As far as he knows, I’m after you, my friend. Or at least I think that’s what he thinks; he is very hard to read, that one.”

     “Well, let me know, if things turn dicey.”

     “Oh, I will; you’ll be first on my list.”

     They watched the street in silence for a few minutes, until Jamie remarked, “I wonder if our information was wrong. It’s very quiet.”

     “You do smell of fish, though; so at least there’s that.”

      He chuckled, softly.  Their information-gatherers here in Algiers were posing as fishmongers, keeping an eye on the comings and goings in the harbor.  The latest word relayed to Jamie was that a French merchant frigate was newly arrived on the evening tide, the ship not flying its insignia in the hopes of attracting as little attention as possible.  “The ship is here—I saw it myself. And it seems likely it’s here to pick up another cargo of pearls—‘les jeune filles’.”

     Nonie shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position. “Mayhap they’re having second thoughts about the whole operation, what with Napoleon doing a bit of revenge-taking.”  During the recent war, the Dey had struck a bargain with Napoleon to supply his army with food and supplies—although both sides considered it a deal with the devil. Nevertheless, the allegiance had continued until Napoleon’s defeat, and his current exile on the Island of Elba.  Unfortunately, the British had received intelligence that Napoleon’s supporters were plotting his escape, and were gathering up riches and weapons from any source that presented itself.  To this end, those supporters had struck another deal with the Dey, this time to smuggle in pearls shipped from the Orient, with the Dey keeping a respectable percentage of the profits for making the arrangements.

     Napoleon’s supporters soon learned that it was never a good idea to do business with the Dey, who had encouraged his fleet of Barbary pirates to simply seize the pearls en route from the Orient, and pretend they had been stolen.  However, in turn the Dey soon learned that that one did not double-cross Napoleon’s people with impunity; the brutal assassinations of several of the Dey’s lesser officials had sent a very strong message that this sort of behavior was not going to be tolerated. As a result, the Dey was—as far as they knew—mending his wicked ways, and once again forwarding the pearls to Napoleon’s supporters. Therefore, it was a cause of grave concern that a priceless shipment of jeune filles—the code name for the pearls—had gone missing; the alliance between Napoleon and the Dey was precarious at best, and neither side trusted the other.  On cue, Nonie had shown up with her tale of shipwreck and sunken treasure, but thus far, no one seemed motivated to act.

      They waited, their eyes straining in the darkness, but there was still no movement below.  Jamie ventured, “Do you think the mark is not coming? The place is as quiet as a boneyard.”

     Nonie knit her brow, as she took another look up the street in the direction of the palace, high atop the hill. “I know the mark went out, and is not expected back until very late—or at least, that’s what my contact told me. With the French ship newly arrived, I assumed he’d be over here, quick as a cat, to be meeting up with Le Capitaine—but perhaps I’m ahead of myself.”  The notorious Le Capitaine was a former captain in Napoleon’s now-defunct navy, a ruthless man who had made himself useful by organizing various smuggling operations at the behest of the former emperor—ill-gotten goods, that would serve to finance Napoleon’s next bid for world conquest.  From what they had been able to determine, the necromancer was in the very thick of the Algerian operation.

     Jamie reluctantly voiced an unwelcome thought. “Do you think the mark twigged us, and that’s why there’s no one stirring?”

     Nonie smiled. “I can’t imagine, Jamie—you were so convincing, I was ready to slap your cheating face. No, I think he truly believes I’m here to rescue you, and nothing more.”

     Reminded, Jamie chuckled. “That Aditi is a knowing one—I can certainly pick a mark, if I do say so myself.  This is the best assignment I’ve had in a while.”

     “Be careful or she’ll cling to you like grim death.”

     “No—as much as it pains me to admit it, she’s not smitten. I think she’s trying to make some pirate jealous.  She’s a first-rate schemer.”

     This was of interest, and Nonie glanced at him in amusement. “Well—then be careful the pirate doesn’t rise up and slit your throat, for your sins.”

     “Believe me, that unhappy thought has crossed my mind.”  Carefully raising up on his elbows, he took another look around the shadowed area below. “Nothing. And here I thought we’d complete this assignment, and be back where they fight civilized wars in time for tea.”

      It was indeed disappointing, but Nonie had learned the importance of patience, in her line of work, and the importance of re-grouping. “I’ll have to drop more hints, I suppose—Lord, they’re a dense bunch.”

     “Or they’re wise to you.”

      She drew her mouth down in acknowledgment of this alarming possibility.  “Mayhap. I’d be surprised, but it’s true that the mark plays his cards very close to his vest.”

     “That he does—we found little enough intelligence on him.”

      She thought once again about the man who had been the subject of nearly every waking thought for the past two days, well-aware that this was a foolish pastime, but unable, it seemed, to help herself. “I wonder where he hails from? He’s very mysterious about it.”

     Jamie considered. “The Middle East, is my best guess. But he’s mighty good at covering his tracks—it’s as though he sprang from the bloody head of Zeus.” Jamie shifted his position slightly, never taking his eyes off the quiet scene below. “He reminds me of the Flemish mark.”

     She grimaced a bit at the memory. “That does not bode well—we misjudged that one.”

     “Lucky no one knows how badly.” 

      They both chuckled quietly, and Jamie added, “No harm done; the assignment was completed, with none to tell the tale.”

      “Not our finest hour,” Nonie agreed. “Jamie—is there any chance that we’ve misjudged this one, too?”

      Her companion glanced at her in surprise. “What do you mean?”

      Frowning, she tried to put her uneasiness into words. “It’s just—it’s just he seems too smart to be involved in all this.  And definitely too smart to be double-crossing Napoleon.”

     Jamie made a skeptical sound. “He’s the point man, Nonie; the intelligence is irrefutable.”

     “I suppose so.”

      After a few more minutes, he squeezed her arm, briefly.  “May as well pack it in—there’s nothing going forward. A shame, it is; I thought I had good information that something was going on tonight.”

     Carefully, they inched away from the edge. She contemplated their next move, and asked, “Shall I visit you again? Or do you think we risk exposure?”

     He shrugged. “Whatever you will; but I don’t think I can mention the pearls again, it would be too obvious.”

     “He’s offered to smuggle all of us out—including Aditi. I think I’ve no choice but to pretend to go along, else he may become suspicious of my motives.”

     But Jamie could not like this piece of information, and frowned. “And why would he go to the trouble?”

     She smiled. “I honestly think he feels sorry for my jilted self. That, and he wants me well-away from his operations.”

     “All right, but let’s not make the mistake of thinking any of them—any of them—has an ounce of human compassion. Remember what happened with the Saragossa mark.”

    “How can I forget?  And it is true that this mark is as subtle as a serpent.”  Except he’d brought her an orange and teased her, in his grave way, and she couldn’t seem to stop reliving every thrilling moment.   

     Lifting his arms, Jamie dropped through the trapdoor in the roof, and then stood to catch her when she followed him. “Do we have a timeline, or do we await events?”

     She brushed her hands off. “As long as the assignment is not jeopardized, let’s await events; surely someone’s interested in the stupid sunken pearls—I’ll not believe otherwise.”  And not to mention she was bound and determined to convince a certain dark-eyed man that the world would not come to an end if he kissed her—for the love of Mike, it was not as though she was angling for the position of first concubine or something; he was making entirely too much of it.

     “Off I go,” said Jamie. “Don’t forget that Le Capitaine is now here, and perfectly willing to slit whatever throats he may.  Have a care.” 

     “I will, boyo—give my love to Aditi.”

      With a chuckle, he waited a moment, listening, then slipped through the access door that led out of the building. Nonie waited for a few minutes, then followed suit, making her silent way through the twisting, ancient streets back to her building. Because she suspected that the chamber’s secret door was being watched from the tunnel side by the necromancer’s people, she’d simply had her guard let her out the door.

      As Nonie slipped back into her chamber, she asked the guard, “Have you heard any rumors?”  She’d learned long ago that it was never wise to have only one source; oftentimes it was a lower-echelon operative who came through with the best intelligence.

     “The Dey is worried,” the big man offered. “He has doubled his personal guard.”

      This was not a surprise; the poor man had heard tidings of bombardments and Napoleonic revenge, courtesy of her prophetic self. “Any Frenchmen, skulking about?”

      He thought about it carefully, and she could see he was pleased that she’d asked him.  “There was a French sea captain over at the slave markets today.”

     This was of interest, as the infamous Le Capitaine had not arrived until evening. “What did he look like?”

      The guard thought about it. “A good-looking man, brash, and with brown beard.”

      She nodded—not Le Capitaine, then.

     “Should I try to discover more?”

      The man was clearly eager to be given such a task, but she was equally eager to disabuse him, as he hadn’t been trained for that kind of covert work—and oftentimes the training alone wasn’t enough; the inclination had to be there, the ability to dissemble without a tremor. “I’m afraid you are to stay with me, so as to keep me in a whole skin.  If you do well, then you’ll be given more responsibility next time.”

      Pleased, the man asked in a low voice, “Did you find the items under the bed?” 

      “You are never to speak of the items,” she reminded him.  “Good night, now.”