Contraband Hearts (A Porthkennack novel)
This title is part of the Porthkennack universe.
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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.
slavery, historial slave trade
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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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.”
A Private Commission
Perry recognized the magistrate’s house from Jowan’s description. Jowan had come part of the way with him and had pointed out the tall white dwelling that stood at the entrance to the narrow headland from which the Merope Rocks stood out.
“I’ll be in the Seven Stars coffeehouse if you need me,” Jowan had said, and given Perry a nudge that he took to be sympathetic.
“Should you not be back on your rounds?” Perry muttered, more to himself than to the Cornishman, but Jowan’s good-humoured face turned confiding, and he nudged Perry’s shoulder again.
“There won’t be no smuggling on a bright day like this. Storm and dark, that’s the weather for the underhanded. But I might catch a rumour or two if I keep my ears open in the coffee shop. Many a plan goes a slip over a cup of chocolate and the latest papers.”
Well, that might be true. Perry bid Jowan farewell as he resumed the walk up to the very top of the promontory. But it also keeps Jowan indoors and off his feet, rather than patrolling the cliffs as he ought to be. A certain amount of guilt attended this thought, since Jowan had been the most pleasant of the people he had met so far. Perhaps he knew his own business best. Perry should attend to his.
Like the customs house, the magistrate’s dwelling had an official air about it. A nautical flair was apparent in the swivel guns installed front and back on the upper balcony. A flagstaff stood naked by the red-painted front door, and on the southern side of the square stone house, an orangery of many panes of green glass threw back the sun in a sheet of flame.
“Big house,” Jowan had said. “Built by Admiral Quick nigh on thirty years ago. ’Tis his son lives there now, with the admiral’s widow, and his two children. Sticklers they are. I don’t envy you. You’ll know the house by the telescope, if nothing else. He did used to like to watch the shipping, the admiral, and they kept his room as it was when he died.”
Perry double-checked, and yes, the bulky wooden tube and round golden eye of a telescope protruded from one of the seaward windows, a suggestion of movement inside the room telling him he was being examined in turn. He made another attempt to thumb the dust from his wig—or at least to spread it more evenly so it would look applied by design—then straightened his stock, his waistcoat, and his cuffs and went round to the front to pull the chain to ring the bell.
The door opened a crack. Then it closed again sharply. Perry massaged the ache in his jaw with his fingers, sighing, and knocked a second time, more firmly.
“We’re not interested,” a woman’s voice shouted. “Go away before I set the dogs on you.”
“Not interested in what?” Perry asked—this was a new permutation of an old theme.
“You’re one of them abolitionists, aren’t you? We don’t donate, and we don’t want pamphlets. We’re not interested.”
You seem keen enough to profit from Africa, Perry thought, for there were pineapples growing in frames visible in the conservatory. The inner wood of the room appeared to be teak. Ivory was inset into the door handle and the pull of the bell. But of course you have no desire to aid her. He held his tongue on the hypocrisy, however—he was himself a freeborn Englishman, son of a free man, and if his mother had come out of slavery, well, that had been a very long time ago and she never talked of it.
“I am Mr. Peregrine Dean,” he told the woman patiently. “I am employed as a riding officer, and I have been sent here by William Gwynn at Sir Quick’s bidding. Just tell him I’m at the door and see if he wants me let in.”
“How do I know you are who you say you are?”
He hoped it wasn’t going to be like this the whole time. At least the capital was cosmopolitan enough to accept that Londoners came in every shade.
“I can show you my papers.” He took them out once more, and when she opened the door a sliver, passed them through. Moments later and she pushed it wide, handing them back. His heart softened a little on seeing that she was clearly still a child—tall but gawky, all eyes and elbows, her nose smudged with boot blacking.
“I’m sorry, sir,” she said, dropping him a courtesy, “I didn’t know. You sit down here”—she indicated the row of chairs that lined the entrance hall’s right wall—“and I’ll go and get the housekeeper. It’s washday and we’re all at sixes and sevens.”
The wait was welcome at first, helping him to calm down and taking the ache out of legs that had had a rude awakening to toil after a morning in the coach. However, he’d missed his chance at luncheon, and had begun to feel hungry and ill-done-by by the time the housekeeper arrived and ushered him into a glowing, rosy room adjacent to the orangery.
She stopped him just outside the polished teak door and whispered, “Sir Lazarus Quick, Mrs. Damaris Quick—that’s his mum—and Miss Constance. Master Clement’s out riding.”
Then, taking a deep breath, she announced him. “Mr. Peregrine Dean of the customs service, sir,” and he followed as if into a ball. There was even a footman into whose hands he could have thrust his overcoat, if he had been wearing one.
His first impression was overwhelming pinkness, as though his eyes were closed and a bright sun beat upon them, but by degrees the details became clear. The dazzling light of the sea burst through the many windows of the orangery and streamed upon a chinoiserie wallpaper on which salmon-pink dragons floated amid rosy clouds whose colour was echoed by upholstered chairs of pink velvet with gilded legs like curlicues of flame.
In this warm celestial setting, the Quick family themselves emanated a jarring chill. The old lady on the sofa in the centre of the room wore a sack-back gown of silver blue, paired with exuberant swan-patterned lace of an extraordinary daintiness, and topped with a long string of pearls like winter moons.
The man who stood behind her must be Sir Lazarus Quick. He was much more austere—all his garments as iron grey as his hair and his jutting eyebrows.
Only the young woman who sat by the window seemed to match the room’s floating romanticism—a pink ribbon wound in her blonde hair to match the pink of her sash, a few ringlets en déshabillé around her delicate face, and her eyes rarely straying from the window as she petted the white cat in her lap.
“You are Mr. Peregrine Dean?” the old lady asked, thunderous. “I hope Gwynn is not practicing upon us.”
Her voice was so sharp that Perry didn’t dare sigh. These were people of quality—people it would benefit him to befriend. “I am, ma’am. Those who know me well call me Perry. I understand you requested Mr. Gwynn to send you one of his men—he sent me.”
“Gwynn does not employ a blackamoor.”
“As of today he does, ma’am. I am newly arrived this morning.”
“Extraordinary.” She raised her eyebrows at him and fell silent.
“The man who was sent was a particular protégé of Lord Petersfield,” Lazarus Quick slipped into the silence left by his mother. Perry couldn’t tell from the tone if he was being accused of a lie or not, but it seemed likely.
“I had supposed that information to be of a delicate nature, sir. Not to be widely spread about. Yet now I’m here, it seems everyone is aware.”
“Do you call us ‘everyone’?” Lazarus demurred. His voice had a whispering quality like the scratch of snake scale over stone. “Do you mean to suggest this information is such as should have been withheld from the magistrate of the county? Or that I am a person who could not be trusted with it?”
Perry raised both hands to his jaw and rubbed the hinges. He would break his teeth on his pride one of these days, but he had still rather have it than not.
“My apologies,” he managed again, “that was not what I meant. Of course it was important for you to know. In that light, yes, I have been fortunate enough to gain Lord Petersfield’s patronage. My father is a sailor on a London pilot boat. He saved Lord Petersfield from a gang of footpads at the docks—saved his life, indeed—and in gratitude Lord Petersfield took an interest in me and my career. I consider any debt to have been wholly reversed by now, such that I could never repay him for his kindness toward me. I am eager to show him that his trust in me is not in vain, and if there is corruption here, to unveil and end it.”
Over the course of this speech, some of his anger had joined his passion and hope and made his voice ring. When he finished, even languid Miss Constance was looking at him, her fan tip pressed to the end of her nose, the peach silk standing out vividly against her dark-blue eyes.
Damaris huffed and rearranged the folds of her apron with ring-encrusted fingers. “I’m glad to hear you speak with such conviction,” she allowed. “Our purpose in calling you here was to make you acquainted with the greatest ruffian of the town. A man whose involvement in large-scale smuggling goes totally unchecked. He is clever and ruthless, and we believe he is not only a wholesale smuggler, but a pirate and a murderer also.”
“And he tarnishes our reputation.” Constance rolled her eyes and offered this bored observation in a sweet mew of a voice. Her father’s frown in return just provoked a tiny smile. “Oh, you can’t claim our dislike for him is not personal. It’ll be obvious as soon as you tell him the name.”
“I’m not trying to claim I am indifferent to his insult to us in particular,” her father bristled, drawing himself to even greater heights of rigidity. “But you should not pretend to know anything of this matter. Stick to your painting, my dear, and refrain from further interruption.”
A fine watercolour view of Barras Bay as it might be seen from an upstairs window of this very house hung above the mantel. Perry flicked his eyes to it, wondering if that was Constance’s work—the painting of which her father spoke. She was talented, if so.
When he looked back, Lazarus’s eyes were trained on him, steely like the rest of him. “This smuggler we speak of has been so successful that the small independents of the town now contract with him. He has influence over the miners and the townsfolk. This is not a jug of spirits forgotten in the galley, nor even one or two barrels hidden among the mackerel. The man is making himself into a power to challenge the authorities. I don’t think I need to tell you how dangerous that is, in this time where the poison of rebellion against all God’s anointed leaders is also being smuggled over from France.”
Perry nodded, letting his eyes fall closed on the confession that he had some sympathy with the ideals of the revolution himself. “The man’s name?” he asked, gently.
Damaris scoffed again. “He calls himself Quick.” Her thin face was all cheekbones, hatchet edged with the sharpness of her gaze. “Tomas Quick. He has not the slightest right to the name. He simply chose it to mock us and to bring our family into disrepute—that is what Constance meant by saying our dislike was personal. This man is traducing our good name. But our dislike is also rational. The rogue has his claws in everything that goes on in Porthkennack, yet he is as slippery as a handful of frogspawn and as impossible to hold—”
“If you could bring him to trial successfully, you would succeed in something the customs service here has been trying to do for the past ten years,” Lazarus Quick urged, all the distance and superiority in his voice having burned away in favour of zeal. Perry recognized with a thrill that for this moment, the magistrate was treating him as a valued colleague, as an equal.
His thoughts took flight into a future where he also lived in a house like this, where his word was law, where his order kept the streets safe, and defended the honest citizens from those who would prey on them out of selfish strength.
He could not quite see himself with a wife, a daughter. But if he, too, could become a magistrate, he could reinterpret the harshest laws to defend those men like him, who only wanted to privately love another man. Hell, once he had enough power, high enough rank, he could change the laws from the inside. All through doing good and doing it excellently.
He was rather getting ahead of himself, though. One step at a time.
“What do you say, Mr. Dean? Will you take down this villain for us?” the magistrate asked.
Perry had to smile. “If he is as bad as you say, sir—and I have no doubt of it—I will be delighted to. You may confidently leave it in my hands.”
The Enemy Is Glimpsed
“You will, I think, need more tangible authority than your own word,” Lazarus Quick had said to Perry later. Once he had pledged himself to their cause, the ladies had withdrawn, and Perry had followed the magistrate through to his study, a sumptuous room in shades of indigo and silver that put him in mind of a moonlit night. Here, despite the scorching heat outside, a fire burned in the grate and Perry’s travel-worn clothes prickled on him, reminding him that he had not had a change of shirt for days.
Lazarus settled into his imposing chair and uncapped an ink-bottle in the shape of a schooner, pulling pen and paper before him and beginning to write. Perry did not tug at his collar, and if he found himself gazing wistfully at the firmly closed windows, it was easily passed off as a natural curiosity over the doings of the port. Admiral Quick’s house commanded an excellent view of the shipping just approaching the point, and a better angle to see the rocks lying beneath the water than Perry had seen before.
“So here.” Lazarus shook sand over his note to dry the ink, tapped it off, then passed it to Perry. “A note in my hand to say you are in my employ and are to be obeyed with the alacrity with which a man should obey me. If you need to take charge of the customs cutter, the Vigilant, in order to intercept the rogue at sea, you will show this to her captain.”
Even his eyes were grey, as he levelled them firmly on Perry’s face. “I hope I do not need to stress what a high degree of trust I am placing in you.”
Despite being stifled, the flush of warmth within Perry’s breast at this was pleasant—barely arrived and he was already in the confidence of the highest authority. Why would that not feel pleasant? “I am sensible of the great honour you do me, sir, and I will not fail you.”
“Good.” Lazarus’s prim little smile looked out of place on his mouth. The worry his face fell back into seemed habitual. “I feel it only right to stress to you that the man is dangerous. I did not wish to urge this in front of the ladies and frighten them, but you should go armed, for Tomas so-called Quick carries both blade and pistol. Though we cannot prove it, I believe he has murdered upwards of a dozen men. Let your zeal be tempered with caution, therefore. It will not do to find evidence against him if it is only to take it to your grave.”
Perry had cherished a somewhat ill opinion of the Quicks thanks to their chill reception, but this warmed his heart. To receive both trust and consideration so far away from home and so early in the process of proving himself was a boon. If anything, the caution just spurred him on. “I am equal to the challenge, sir.”
“Excellent.” Lazarus broke out the awkward smile again and rose to indicate the door. “Then I look forward to hearing from you soon.”
Having arrived as a disrespected foreigner, Perry retraced his path into town as a trusted agent of the magistrate. He had been given no timescale but soon, so he considered returning to the inn to unpack a few things from his trunk, discover where he could have his clothes laundered, and perhaps take a bite of lunch. But all of that seemed tedious and time-wasting, and he wanted to get started on the important task that had been entrusted to him.
He could at least find out what this Tomas Quick looked like, where he lived, and who his principal friends and neighbours were. Which boats did he have a share in, and which was his own principal vessel? If Perry did nothing more today than learn to identify his prey by sight, that would be a start.
* * * * * * *
Down in Constantine Bay, the boats were landing pilchards by the hogshead. Pilchards in great sleeting mounds lay aflap on the sandy beach and in the hollows of the road beyond. The dazzle of them under the bright summer sun was dizzying, and the beach was packed like the commons of a popular play with the whole village out to process the catch.
Fishwives stood ankle-deep in the slurry of fish, their bare arms white to the elbow with salt and their hands red, chapped, and oddly delicate as they placed each individual small fish in a radiate design—each layer of pilchards a sunburst, heads to the centre, tails outward, beneath a layer of salt.
Perry stood next to a woman in a green skirt for some minutes, waiting for her to notice him. But in that time her focus never shifted from the fish, and at length he reached out and tapped her elbow, which was gritty with salt and slime.
“What is it? Can’t you see I’m busy?” She shrugged her arm out of his grasp and turned her head minimally to put him in the corner of her eye.
“I need to talk to Tomas Quick,” he said, trying to sound like he meant no harm. “Which is his house?”
“Phew!” She gave a long, tired exhale through her teeth and straightened up to regard him more closely. He hoped the news that there was a new black riding officer in town had not yet had time to spread, and perhaps it hadn’t, because she smiled. “New crewman, are you? All right, then.”
She tucked an errant strand of light-brown hair back beneath her yellowed bonnet and nodded to the cluster of cottages that rose from the stone on the other side of the beach—a mile of fine yellow sand and frantic fish packing in between. “’Tis beyond the bay over there. Blue painted door and a big glass lantern outside like something you’d see in church. You’ll know it when you see it.”
He considered trying to interrogate her further but she had already turned back to her work. So instead he said, “Thank you,” and began to pick his way through the tumbrels, barrels, fishwives, fish piles, seabirds, thieving cats, gossiping sailors, children, and beggars of the beach.
On the western side, the ground finally regained its firmness. Perry struggled up a loose sand dune, barely kept in shape by pale dry grasses, and then to stone and saxifrage. Here a row of whitewashed cottages faced inward toward the land, the walls of their back gardens towards him. He found a cut-through between two of them, heat coming off its stones.
A black cat lying on the rounded cope of the wall to his left leaped down as he passed and disappeared into a yard full of white cloths—sheets, petticoats, shifts, and shirts—enough washing to clothe a regiment.
When Perry emerged from the cut-through, he found a pretty gate in a low fence in front of a yard full of laundry, and behind it a cottage with a blue-painted door, over which the incongruous shape of a moorish lantern—shards and stars of blue and clear glass in a lattice of silver—glittered in the sun.
The white fabric of the laundry clapped against the ropes on which it hung as the breeze skirled in from the sea. Used to London’s grime, something in Perry exalted unexpectedly at the smell of distance and wildness, at all the blaze and gleam of light.
He pushed open the gate, coming through into a small front yard, bare but for the linen, with only a patch of yolk-yellow marigolds eye wateringly bright beneath the water butt. The cottage itself looked as though it had once had barely two rooms—one up, one down, but recent prosperity had led someone to build it outward in all directions. There might now be four rooms upstairs and four down. A particularly flat stone in the corner of the yard suggested to Perry’s experienced eye the presence of a cellar also. But it was still not the fortress nor the palace he had half expected.
Perry wiped his palms on the skirts of his coat and considered whether he should have brought his pistols out of his trunk before coming here. No, this was a courtesy call, just to look and go away, just to let Quick know the game was on.
His knock brought light footsteps and the sound of two bolts sliding back—they locked up tight. The woman who opened the door made him step back a pace, his heart rattling as though a foreign queen had opened the door, terrible and beautiful. Tragic.
He blinked at his own flight of fancy, but even with his eyes cleared, the woman in this modest Cornish cottage was an orchid in a milk pail. She was as tall as he and extremely slender, her face so pale he could see the blood flush up into her cheeks, presumably because his speechlessness embarrassed her. She wore a bronze-coloured house dress, a tall turban of gold silk and earrings of gold and carnelian that were almost the same colour as her brows and eyelashes. He registered the creases around her blue eyes, the slight sag of her ivory throat, and the swollen knuckles of her work-roughened hands a moment later and was knocked again to realize she must be twice his age. A notable beauty once and still stately to the core.
Fortunately, she appeared to have been equally surprised by him. She recovered only a moment first. “Yes? Can I help you?”
Perry cleared his throat, inwardly congratulating himself that he was not a man to desire women, and fortunately his mind remained clear. “I’m looking for Tomas Quick? You’re his wife?”
She laughed. “I’m his mother, dear: Zuliy. But you’ve just missed him. The tide’s turned, the boats are floating. He’s gone this very moment to the north steps to cast off the Swift. If you run like the wind, you may catch him.”
He had followed the gesture of her right hand and was running up the street toward the tip of the promontory before he fully registered that she had not come into the sunlight, nor had she let go of the door—if he had kicked it, she could have slammed it in his face. Was that a personal modesty, or a perpetual readiness to delay the law long enough that her no-good son could slip out the back door?
Curiosity piqued, almost excited by the thought, he sprinted over the rough ground at the edge of the promontory and almost fell headlong down the stairs carved into the sheer rock. Throwing himself backwards as soon as he noticed the cliff, he tumbled—rather shaken—to his arse and had to scrabble up to hands and knees to peer over the edge, where the stair, cut into the cliffside, went down like a ladder.
Below, the sea was indeed coming in. Its waves already lapped the bottom step of the stair, so shallow as yet that the pebbles were visible moving beneath it.
A hundred feet further down the beach, however, a handsome cutter had been lying on its side, but it was already rocking itself upward as the waves lifted it. Green livery—a wide green-and-gold stripe beneath its gunwales. It wasn’t yet upright, but already two men on the windlass were winding up its stern anchor.
A boy by the wheel, with wide voluminous petticoat breeches was— But no, that was a girl, barefoot and brown armed, apparently reading a chart. The aft main and top sails, above and below the gaff, were already lowered, helping to heel the cutter upright and the jib and staysail were ballooning out to catch the wind.
She would be under way in moments, and even as Perry realized this, he saw the man he had come to interrogate, breast-deep in the water below the hull. The man seized a rope tossed down to him and swarmed up the side, throwing himself over the gunwale with a glittering spray of water. He must have been barely fifty yards ahead of Perry, before Perry balked at the stairs. Now he was as out of reach as if he had been in Antarctica.
Almost as soon as her captain was on board, the cutter was upright. Quick balanced with practiced ease on the heaving deck, and—looking back—caught Perry’s eyes to give him a contemptuous grin.
Perry’s heart, so rattled by the man’s mother, now stopped altogether. Someone had already talked. It was certain as death that Quick already knew Perry was after him, and this was his challenge.
Perry stared down the hot gaze as he would have stared down the barrel of a duelling pistol. He wished he was close enough to see better, and yet he already knew he would never forget this distant glimpse against the immensity of sea and sky: The man’s vivid face and his flame of red-gold hair. The insouciant outright fucking mockery of his smile, bright under a slew of freckles, brown as pebbled stones. These things would always be with Perry now until he could wipe that grin off with the back of his hand.
You think you can defy me? His pride exalted, almost like joy at the prospect of the fight. This was to be personal was it? Bring it on.