Cooper pulled the door open slightly and considered the apparition on his stoop.
“Ah, good day to you, sir. I am here representing the Royal Navy, and wish to interview you about any knowledge you may have regarding impropriety at sea. As a seasoned captain and owner of a shipping concern, your input should be warmly invited indeed.” At this, the man paused to smile, or possibly grin, and cocked his head to one side as though he was confused by not being instantly invited in. “I wonder sir, if we may continue our repartee indoors?”
Realizing his shock may be taken as a suggestion of guilt, Cooper shook off his surprise and smiled, swinging open the door to the modest house. As the man stepped inside, Cooper accepted his gloves and hat, setting them on the coat rack as the man shed his cloak and wiped his boots.
Showing his guest into the parlour, Cooper excused himself to light the stove and prepare the kettle, seizing the brief opportunity to collect his wits. As he fumbled, struggling to remain calm, the visitor spoke up to hasten the proceedings.
“You are of course, Leeward Cooper, present owner of J Mindt Tea Importers. I trust trade is brisk?”
Pausing briefly to consider his answer, to ensure he put no foot wrong, Cooper replied vaguely: “One does try to compete, Mister?…”
He recognized the name instantly: Wadavyu Dunne was a fellow reformed privateer, taken into employ by the Royal Navy to strengthen the desperate effort to eradicate smuggling activity in and out of British ports. The pressure to extract every penny of tariff and minimize import of contraband had become the focus of the new Navy, in the years spent attempting to extricate their public image from the sordid debauchery of privateering. Quarrels with both the United States and France had been largely resolved, and no enemy to battle on the seas—neither nation nor rogue—left little justification for their continuing massive budgetary allowance, particularly as the sense became abundant that the Empire had possibly reached its expansive limits.
To his mortification, Cooper readily perceived that such a man as this made no visit without cause.
Taking one last moment to collect himself, Cooper approached the sitting area with freshly-brewed aromatic tea and his wife’s favourite China, possibly duping himself into aspiring to dazzle his guest with finery.
Making his sternest effort to remain calm, he took up the scalding vessel and delicately poured Dunne’s cup precisely two-thirds full. Making sideways eye contact as he set the pot down, Cooper carefully asked if Mr Dunne’s business also went well.
“Confidentially, I feel quite certain that we’ve made headway versus the largest offenders. Most investigative work now is best invested against the smaller chaps, who account for an ungodly quantity of revenue lost to the crown. Luckily for me, these are the fiercest challenges. I do enjoy a good chase,” he grinned and winked, pausing to sniff and then carefully sip his tea.
Cooper wondered if the sniff was to detect the presence of some ill, poison perhaps. He considered his own teacup while the implications of the notion settled on him.
At some length, Dunne continued: “Do pass on my compliments to Mrs. Cooper, this China is exquisite. And you’re selected a fine tea; I shall make no effort to speculate from whence.“
Cooper now wondered if the reference had been a search for weakness, any clue about the tea business or slip regarding the real cargo aboard J Mindt ships.
Cooper intimated that the tea was a personal blend chosen for his wife’s tastes, unfortunately not intended for commercial sale.
Dunne carried on. “Ah, shame that. It is delightful. But as to the smuggling business, there will always be those tempted by the darkness, human nature is irrepressible to be sure, in both its strength and potential for moral fault. I’ve always been fascinated by the study of the human psyche. Such work can be of benefit to those in my field, there can be little doubt.”
Cooper answered without thinking, “Most certainly, I should think.”
Dunne glanced sideways at Cooper, studying him. Cooper realized the remark had possibly been somewhat of a test, possibly indicating Dunne’s awareness of his earlier career in psychological study, the vocation which had led disastrously to his seeking an escape in the merchant navy. Was he imagining it? He became aware that he hadn’t noticed whether Dunne had at any time addressed him as ‘Doctor’ Cooper.
It took all his effort to refrain from throwing open the window to alleviate the heat searing his soul, the suffocating terror of all this uncertainty. Was he caught? Could this really be the grand entrance of doom? After all the endeavour to morph their sordid past into a simple, safe, average life in this charming city, was the charade beginning to unravel?
Cooper found himself failing to resist the imperative to peer out the window to verify what he couldn’t help feel certain lay out there: at least two constables, likely smoking pipes and conversing quietly, awaiting the signal to enter.
It was beginning to grow too much. As he wrestled with the decision to pour out his confession, to draw all suspicion away from his beloved Jasmine, Cooper inexplicably noticed a book open on the table. It was a collection of Poe, open to the last page of ‘A Telltale Heart.’ It was an irrefutable, crystalline message to his soul. Closing his eyes and drawing a solid breath to bolster his resolve, he was interrupted by Dunne setting his cup down and standing abruptly.
“Well, good sir, I’ve engaged you for enough of this fine day. Thank you ever so much for the superb tea. If at some point you are made aware of any sound information in our aid, please forward whatever you are able to Naval Intelligence. Anything helps, be assured.”
Cooper was now firmly in shock, clinging to the hope that his spectacles hid the mixture of fear and careful relief, barely able to move his legs as he rose to offer Dunne his gloves and hat, holding the man’s cloak as he turned into the sleeves.
Thusly prepared for the damp, chilly streets, Dunne turned back to offer a nugget of insight: “These times do find this city thick with treachery. One is prudent to guard ones secrets most carefully. But moreover, the soul can only bear so much burden. Travel lightly, good sir.”
Opening the door and straddling the threshold, he paused, perplexed.“I did arrive in company of two constables, but they are of course off savouring some distraction; a skirt, one shouldn’t wonder. “ He shook his head, grinning, and leaned in close, confidingly. “Do you know they are completely hopeless. They expended such effort arguing over who should chase down a pickpocket who ran right past them that the lucky little blighter got away!”
He chuckled to himself as he stepped down into the walkway. “Amazing times, [i]Mister Cooper[/i],” he winked as he walked cheerfully away, the emphasis unmistakable. “Amazing times!”