The conditions were perfect for the meeting. Ubiquitous witnesses
were about, yet out of earshot. Enough haze hung above to keep shadows obscure,
while the paths they had chosen seemed as random as those of any two people on their way
anywhere. All observable details of the situation put her at ease, her only remaining concern being his ability to adhere to his instructions. Widespread
reports of carousing should have exaggerated such concern, yet she chose to
attribute this behaviour to calculation—an effort to deepen his cover.
The approach was strictly copybook: He intentionally noticed
her first while making every effort to remain nonchalant, as though he were
admiring an unacquainted young lady on the street without wishing to seem unrefined.
She flexed her practised schoolgirl innocence, though as deliberately clumsily
as the behaviour of a girl of her age is expected to be in such circumstance—all
of this in an apparent effort to exaggerate a stranger’s assessment of her
youth and inexperience with male strangers in a supposed playful attempt to draw
the extra attention she might enjoy.
As they approached conversation proximity, Eloise couldn’t
help but wonder how much of this smooth professionalism and subtlety were necessarily
refocused reality, and how badly Audrey would beat the whole thing to death if
she had been assigned this meeting.
According to custom, Sole addressed her first, after seeming
to get her attention with a gentle bow: “Greetings, young lady. How might
things be thus far in your day?”
“Greetings to you, sir. I am well. And how are you?” came
Eloise’s curtseying soft-spoken reply.
“As well as can be on such a calm morn,” he intoned, his
permanent cigar never leaving his mouth almost as a reassuring advertisement
that it really was all an act.
After checking carefully behind her for anyone able to hear
their whispers, he winked at her as an all-clear, after which she did the same.
She now took charge, as he seemed to expect—though in other
circumstances he would properly outrank her. Local situational awareness was crucial
in such a complex lattice of corruption as existed here, woven into the fabric
of even polite society in such a sophisticated city. Besides, being evidently
among the many friends Eloise would always have—on the strength of her refusal
to compromise principals, ultimately to the cost of her tenure at the College—Major
Sole seemed to hold Eloise in exceptional esteem; a condition which yielded both
her appreciation and extraordinary trust.
“I have only just returned, and this meeting is Page One. My
basket was filled in my absence, yet I have no detail,” she began, pausing for
a moment to casually look about before continuing, “Any sign of Chase?”
Pretending to gesture about, he responded: “Nothing has been
observed. Everything else seems quiet; no more than the usual rumbles and
rumour. It may be early for conjecture, but Chase may have completed egress, to
what destination one can only wonder. Anything from Fitzsimmons?”
She sighed, and at length looked up at his squinting face
and whispered, “He’s here.”
“Good Heavens, no! How could I have missed it?” came his
“He was aboard the ship I arrived on. I wore a nun’s habit
and bunked with the sisters from Stonebridge; and as far as I can tell, he was
unaware of my presence—though I am uncertain. I disembarked after he was out of
sight, and haven’t had time to assign surveillance. And no, there is no one we
can trust available to deal with this. We’re on our own.”
There was a pause as both observed the approach of others.
Sole smiled and gestured toward the nearby tavern, “Perhaps the lady would care
for a strong coffee to send the chill on its way.”
“I might, at that,” she grinned and they quickly ducked
inside the Portside.
The tavern’s only staff was the bartender, so they each
grabbed a stool at the bar and ordered.
The conversation continued in hushed tones, with no fear of
appearing clandestine. Private whispers between couples in this environment
would be as common as people drinking.
He began: “Eloise, there must be someone to help us. This is
not a task within our safety criteria.”
“Cooper is gone, if he ever really was here,” she noted.
“Bligh hasn’t returned from sea,” he added.
“Audrey is… ” she began.
“Audrey,” they both completed in unison.
“Dee will not be involved. At all,” she insisted.
“Understood. She hasn’t the training,” he agreed.
She turned to him and made eye contact. “Major, she hasn’t the liability.
This is our job.”
He nodded carefully.
“I haven’t contacted Beryl yet; though I fear we may be needed
to assist in that situation as it is.”
“I have been monitoring what I can. We must hope for the
best, there,” he concurred.
”The urchins may help with information, but must never be
endangered. Which only leaves… “
There was a pause during which both instinctively shivered subtly
and scanned the room for wandering eyes, careful to note the distance to the
“We must now agree on the distinction between contacting the
militia and conversations with militia personnel,” he whispered.
She glanced up at him and said softly, “Agreed. And I think
I know who we might approach.”
Both reflexively sensing the safety time limit approaching
for street contact while in the field, he stood and faced her with a ceremonial
bow. “Do enjoy your day, dear lady. I sincerely hope that we might again meet
for such a pleasant interval.”
Eloise stood and curtseyed with a shy smile, pretending to
be embarrassed. “As do I, good sir.”
He escorted her out the door, and then bowed again and
wished her good morning before marching off into the smog.
She couldn’t help but watch him walk away then casually turn
toward the docks. She knew what he would do, but not the specifics. She would
fare better not knowing too much, and her training kept her inquisitiveness in check
and allowed her to refocus concentration where it was needed: on her own tasks.
As she slowly yet deliberately made her own way across town,
pausing before a few carefully chosen shop fronts ostensibly to inspect the
offerings, while offhandedly scanning reflections in the glass to sweep her
wake for hints of anyone in train. She found it almost disconcerting that she
could see no one following her, as though it could only mean that whoever was
tailing her was better at doing so undetected than she was at making them out. A smidge of self doubt keeps us on our toes;a glut of it is crippling, she mentally recited from her own classes and
carried on sensitively yet with purpose.
As she passed by the end of yet another alleyway she had an
odd feeling, and snapped to glance down it before shaking off her paranoia. “Perhaps
I needed whisky & lime, sooner than coffee,” she muttered to herself and
As her boot heels clopped their way into the distance, a
pair of eyes—black as the coal they purveyed—squinted out from behind a stack
of crates in the alley which had briefly chilled our passing Eloise.
“You mustn’t forget a rasp or two of good ginger root with
your lime and Jameson, dearest El,” croaked a very deep dark voice from the
grinning face carrying those coal black eyes. “There are many things you mustn’t
forget… as long as you live.”