Contraband Hearts (A Porthkennack novel)
His future depends on bringing the smuggler to justice. His heart demands to join him.
Customs officer Peregrine Dean is sent by his patron to investigate rumors of corruption in the Porthkennack customs house. There he is tasked by the local magistrate to bring down the villainous Tomas Quick, a smuggler with fingers in every pie in town. Fired with zeal and ambition, and struck to the core by his first glimpse of Tomas, Perry determines to stop at nothing until he has succeeded.
Tomas Quick is an honest thief—a criminal regarded by the town as their local Robin Hood. He’s also an arrogant man who relishes the challenge posed by someone as determined and intelligent as Perry. Both of them come to enjoy their cat-and-mouse rivalry a little too much.
But the eighteenth century is a perilous time for someone like Perry: a black man in England. Two have already disappeared from the wrecks of ships. Tomas and Perry must forsake their competition and learn to trust each other if they are to rescue them, or Perry may become the third victim.
NOTE: All profits from the sales of this book are donated to the Trans Women of Color Collective.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abduction/kidnapping/hostage (actual), acceptance, angst, colonialism, duty, enemies to lovers, family, financial gap / class disparity, first love, gender roles, heritage, history, hurt / comfort, interracial/multicultural, isolation, lovable rogue, politics / power struggle, protection, racism, self-discovery / self-reflection, slave / capture (actual), trust issues
Perry Arrives on the Scene
My dear mama,
I am finally arrived in Porthkennack. I have this moment alighted from the coach and come into a fine new inn by the name of the Hope and Anchor. You will be happy to know that I have secured a room here until I can find something nearby more commensurate with my salary. I may be corresponded with, therefore. Please write, and tell me all the small doings of the family. Even though the journey was short and it has been but six days since I departed from London, it has been ample time to realize that I miss you all.
Speaking of time, as soon as I set down my luggage, I sent my regards to Mr. Gwynn at the customs house, asking when he required me to report to him, so I am writing this with one hand, while with the other I attempt to shift my travel-worn coat and neaten my bedraggled wig in anticipation of a summons. I hope you can read the terrible writing! I —
Oh, that thunder at my door must be the man already. My apologies. I will pick this up when I return.
"Yes, yes." Perry put down the inn's spluttering pen and rose to flick up the latch on his door. His room was barely large enough to house a coffin — he had been writing with his travel slope balanced on his knee, sitting on the cot-sized bed — but he hoped not to have to endure it long. "I'm coming."
"Mr. Peregrine Dean?" The man at his door backed off when Perry opened it, his eyes rounding, and his face passing through a sequence of expressions that had become familiar to Perry over the course of his working life.
"That's right," Perry said, sternly. "And you are?"
The newcomer scratched a short-shorn head of brown hair beneath a brown leather tricorn. The fair skin that showed at his wrist contrasted with the deep baked tan of his face, which nevertheless glowed across the cheeks and the bridge of the nose, either with a blush or with sunburn. His figure was both large framed and plump, his jacket brown as his eyes. A red neckerchief was tied jauntily around his throat in place of a stock, and his stunned expression was already in the act of turning into a smile.
"I'm Jowan Ede, riding officer, and your partner." He held out his hand, and said — still grinning, "I didn't think you'd be a black man."
Perry sighed internally. No doubt Jowan hoped for an explanation, a pedigree even. He could go on hoping for it, or earn it the way any friend or colleague earned the intimate details of one's life. "I didn't expect my partner to come and fetch me. That was kind of you."
"Oh, well." Jowan shrugged a shoulder as if embarrassed. "We can be efficient as you like, up at the customs house, and it ain't every day we get a recruit come in from London. Lord Petersfield, taking an interest in little old us? It's obliging, ain't it? We've got to be obliging back."
Perry's back still ached from the constant jogging of the coach. His spirits were already oppressed from having been shut up in tight confines with five other people for six long days, yet now they took a further dip. He had hoped that the supervisor of Porthkennack would have had the sense not to mention to his staff that Perry had been sent not only to fulfil a riding officer's duties, but also to keep an eye open for corruption, on behalf of the authorities in London.
To cover his consternation, he attempted once more to brush road dust from the sleek black strands of his wig. But the summer had been hot, the coach had thrown up a cloud of choking dirt as it rolled, the windows down so they could breathe, and the pomade with which the wig had been dressed had been sticky. Now the wig looked like a mouse that had got into the flour bin. A punctilious appearance being ruled out, he would have to be friendlier if he was to present himself as an innocent colleague and not a snitch.
"What do you think?" he asked. "You must know Mr. Gwynn — will he be most insulted by a bare head or a dirty wig?"
"He won't rightly care." Jowan's grin had made itself so much at home on his face it had drawn pale lines in his suntan. A good-humoured man, then. One who could be talked round. "Though I wouldn't keep him waiting any longer."
"I shall pretend the colour is the latest fashion." Perry slapped the dirt from his coat and donned it, jammed his gritty wig back on his sweating head, and closed the door behind him. "Lead on."
A sharp scent of sea hit his nose as he followed Jowan out onto the stone sets of the street outside the inn, and the water's glister closed off the horizon on every side. A reek of oily fish joined the odour as Jowan led him between flowerless cottages whose doors were packed around with empty barrels. Women in greasy stays were hauling the barrels up with brawny arms, and piling them atop carts as their children danced in and out of the wheels.
"'Tis pilchard season." Jowan caught him staring. "The boats'll be coming back in an hour or so, and then there'll be a grand rush to salt 'em and pack 'em and get 'em sent over to Spain, where the papists do like 'em for their dinner."
At least Jowan did not seem like the kind of man to resent Perry for doing a job he had been sent to do. He might be obstructive, but would hopefully not be violent. Perry tried not to shout, though the racket of the wagon wheels and the clatter of empty barrels made it necessary to raise his voice. "All these barrels going to and fro must make it hard to distinguish contraband from lawful goods."
Jowan paused and gave him a slightly condescending laugh. "You've no idea. Oh you've no idea at all."
"I've worked five years at the London dockside," Perry protested — he would not be thought ignorant as well as prying. "I know plenty of the tricks. You are not getting a booby for a colleague, I can assure you."
Jowan snorted. "How you do talk." He chuckled. "Just like a gentleman."
Since it was Perry's ultimate goal to become a gentleman, the man's amusement rankled. "My patron made sure I had an excellent education," he snapped back, as Sangraal Street ran out ahead of him, leaving them both on the breast of a headland fraught with toothed brown rocks.
"Well, don't be too smug about it," Jowan replied, as they both contemplated the view, "the lads won't like that neither."
A promontory surrounded by jagged islands stood out against the foaming seas to Perry's left — though islands might be taking it too far. The largest would barely have supported a house on top, and was crowned with a bare two visible trees.
Beneath Perry's feet, the land tumbled down in shards where every shadow might be a cave. From the end of the headland, the sea stretched to the horizon, a wonderful blue green close at hand, and far off a dazzle of light blended seamlessly into the sky. Changes of colour showed currents and sandbanks. Shadows on the seabed suggested wrecks, and yet the surface of the sea was crowded with sails.
A naval second rate glittered at anchor far out in the bay, as slighter ships — brigs and cutters — slipped around her. Closer to, the harbour was filled with smaller boats spaced in precise measures from one another, linked with long nets that bulged and writhed with glistening silver fish.
"Them's the seine nets," Jowan volunteered, following his gaze. "On a good year, a man can make a fortune from pilchards — take 'em up by the thousand hogshead, in a season that lasts July to October. See the little hut?" He pointed out a small white building — scarce more than a roof over a seat — close at hand to them, at the top of the cliffs. "That's where the huer sits, searching for the shoals. When he spots them, he gives a shout, and all the boats set out at once. We get a bit of peace when the pilchards are running, mostly, cause all the smugglers that can afford it own pilchard boats as well."
"I'm grateful for your local knowledge," Perry offered, feeling somewhat guilty for his snappishness. He followed Jowan down the cliff path, to where the rocks gave way to the sands of Polventon Beach, and a hub of grand buildings indicated recent government interest in the doings of the town.
"No one's more local than me, my lad," Jowan agreed, guiding him to the customs house, a purpose-built modern building with its name on an arch between its pleasing bow windows. A single cannon stood in front of it, and in a courtyard within the arch, integral stables stood neatly empty. Jowan seemed to droop a little, relaxing, as he entered the shade of its walls. "Locals are wise to all the tricks and the characters from birth, right? That's why there's not normally a call for bringing in London boys. What do you know about this town, eh? About who's a villain and who's just got caught up in something 'cause they don't want no harm to come to their old mum or dad? You're like a newborn babe here. You need to listen to me."
He flung out this last observation as they passed through a door on the inner side of the customs compound, between the stables and a large building that must be a warehouse. Inside, the white walls and unvarnished wooden floors reflected their footsteps as though they were accompanied by drums, and when they passed through the main room, where three officers were filling in reports at battered desks, Perry felt the stares like the threads of a net closing around him.
They were at least no better dressed than he — two of them without wigs and the third wearing an obviously secondhand physician's bob. His practiced eye summed them up swiftly as grimy ordinary men — the sort that practiced ordinary forms of corruption and lasciviousness and thought themselves no worse than the rest of the world for it.
"So that's the snitch?" someone whispered behind his back as Jowan opened the inner office door.
"They'll have the very dogs reporting on us next."
Perry's face set hard. His pressed lips went cold as he fought the urge to turn around and demand satisfaction for that remark. It wouldn't do to start his career here with duelling or brawling. But his blood was still up as he walked into the supervisor's office, and he was pricklingly aware that Jowan had left the door open. Presumably so all the men behind him could listen in.
The supervisor was a corpulent red-faced man whose clubbed hair was thinning on top. He wore a flowered waistcoat that suggested he did little crawling around in ships' cargoes. "You are Peregrine Dean?" he sputtered, his eyes round and horrified as he got a good look at Perry. "No. Some wag is trying to pull one over on me."
"I assure you, that's not the case." Perry took his birth certificate and his letter of introduction from Lord Petersfield from his breast pocket and offered them as proof. Watching Gwynn pour over them, his nicotine-stained finger smudging the letters, skewered Perry's jaw with pain as he ground his teeth to stop himself from urging the man to be more careful. "I am here to take up the post of riding officer, as has been agreed."
"And to report back to Lord Petersfield as regards the corruption of my officers and department." Gwynn scowled at him as though he were a carcass crawling with maggots.
Perry's jaw gave another throb. "That, sir, was meant to be information confidential to you. Not to be shouted out loud with the door open and half your staff listening in."
"Do you criticise me already, young man, before you have had even one day in practice?" Gwynn rose, hands braced against his desk, and his face as red as Jowan's with humiliation, or rage, or fury.
Do not do this, Perry's inner councillor told him. Your patron is relying on you. Be a man and keep it under control. Be graceful in comportment, gracious in manners, gentlemanly in the face of adversity.
Perry unclenched his fists and took a long, deep breath in and out. "Forgive me, sir." He dropped his gaze. Zeal is excellent, but be aware of the golden mean — if your passion gets in the way of doing your job, it is too much. If he was going to be proud, it should be pride based in his achievements — in his ability to clean up corruption, to please his betters and prove that he belonged among them. That he could be trusted to handle great things with tact and discretion appropriate to the higher ranks. "I did not mean to imply that. I apologize for speaking out of turn."
Gwynn's ruddy face paled, though his eyes continued sour. "I'm glad to hear it," he said, taking his seat once more. "I have no need for a man so far away from his native haunts, so unfamiliar with the native dodges. But it just so happens that our local magistrate — with whom we cultivate the strongest of ties — requested yesterday that I put a man at his disposal. He can have you. Report immediately to Sir Lazarus Quick, and ask of him what use you can be."