'Z' is for Zanker - Prologue and Chapter One
Above his head the silver moon shone down.
Beneath his feet the grass was an argent field, the river a mirror reflecting a pewter sky pregnant with rain. He lifted his face so the cold raindrops could cleanse it, hoping to clear away the dark shadows that clouded his reason, to free himself from the demons that had marked him and sent him back to Hell. Raising his arm, the man with the short dark cropped hair pushed his sleeve back and ringed his left wrist with his fingers. It was bone-thin and marked as well – the pale gray flesh torn, ravaged by other demons that had laughed and gloated as they clapped his wrists in irons and sunk their claws into the floor of the prison to hold him there, telling him he would never escape, promising he would never see the silver moon again, never breath free air.
But he had had the last laugh.
They had built it well, the demons. A prison made of stone. Irons bars in the middle separating the screaming, shrieking women from the howling, cursing men. But the demons were not happy. Who knew of their masterpiece? Who shared in their triumph? And so, they opened the gates of the prison to the teeming masses of curious thrill-seekers who had never seen demons, or prisoners, before. He had watched them, day after day after day after day, until he became familiar with their faces. And then he knew – knew these were not men, women, and children – but only more demons in disguise. Their leering eyes and jeering voices, a different kind of torture. Different from sleeping in one’s own filth, drinking sweat and urine, breathing the scent of death and rotting flesh, but no better.
For a long time he ignored them, knowing they were there only to bring him pain. But one demon – one with a jagged scar across its face – returned each day, speaking strange words.
Zanker. Major Zanker. I have something for you.
Certain the guardian demons were testing him, Zanker ignored the scarred face at first, but it refused to go away. Finally, driven to the point of breaking, he stretched his chains as far as they would go and, denying the guardian demons’ pale silvery muscles that rippled with power and sought to hold him back, he reached the bars and the face hoping to tear it apart.
Zanker. Major Zanker. I have something for you.
The gates were closed. The crowds sent away. In the dark he opened his hand to find two objects – a silver snuff box marked with a ‘Z’ on its inner lid, and a metal file. He quickly hid both shining metal objects within the filthy rags he wore, certain that the guardian demons had seen, knowing they would take them from him if they could.
But they did not. And each day, before and after the rushing chaos of camouflaged creatures passed through, laughing and smirking and pointing at him, he pulled the two from the secret place and, holding the box close to his heart and the file in his fingers he pulled it slowly…slowly…
Ever so slowly across his chains.
Until he was free.
One of the grinning devils brought him food one night and forgot to lock the door behind it. He left the creature behind in a pool of filth and sweat and urine and blood; the demon’s pale silver form hidden within a suit of crimson red.
The scarred face he had seen day after day after day was waiting for him on the outside. His name was Merz and he was not a demon after all, but an angel. Merz brought fresh clothes, a horse, and food! More food than he could even recall existed in the world. And as he laid him down and placed a blanket over him, Merz told him his name.
Zanker. Major Joachim Zanker.
And as Zanker fell asleep the demons continued to whisper….
Zanker. Major Zanker.
We have something for you to do.
The door to their house opened and Jeremy looked up to find his father, Samuel Larkin, the mayor of Chester walking in. Outside the day had grown dark. A cold wintry rain pelted the ground. It was late February and miserable. His father looked as if the weight of the world had settled on his shoulders in just the three short hours he had been gone. Samuel tossed his black tricorn hat on the table and sat heavily in the chair across from him. As he did, one white owlish eyebrow lifted and a slight smile touched his lips.
“This is something new. An interest in literature?” his father remarked.
“It is nothing, Father,” Jeremy answered, closing the book and making as if to rise.
His father wiggled his fingers. ”Come, come. Hand it over.”
Jeremy did as he was told.
“The Bard?” His father seemed impressed. “My errant do-nothing boy reading the great William Shakespeare? What, pray tell, has brought about this sudden interest in one of the finest writers of the last and current age?”
Jeremy winced. He hated to do this to his father. “Well,” he replied sheepishly, “Elizabeth is fond of poetry….”
“I might have know it would have to do with a girl,” Samuel Larkin sighed. His father thumbed through a few pages and then began to read. “‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.’ Too true. Too true…” His father held the book for a moment and then closed it and placed it on the table. He shook his head and his face grew sad and troubled again.
“Father? Sir. What is it?”
“Do you remember Goodwife Abigail Edwins?”
“Certainly,” he said with a nod.
The older woman had once been a neighbor. But more than that – something less than four months before they had been imprisoned together, in Chester, by Major Joachim Zanker, a Hessian soldier and madman known for his brutality and unpredictable nature, who had been put in temporary charge of the town. Major Zanker was determined to root out the identity of Captain Yankee Doodle who had humiliated him by destroying his self-proclaimed impregnable ammunition stores. Zanker had taken ten hostages, willy-nilly, from the town, and threatened to kill them if the name of the rebel leader was not revealed.
Jeremy and Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s uncle, John, had been among them.
He had meant to step forward and reveal himself. It was beyond his conscience to let so many innocent townspeople die for his secret. But Elizabeth’s quiet words had made him wait and in the end, General Lafayette had effected their release. The Frenchman, along with Henry and Isak, carried out a campaign of terror on the Major, using Lafayette’s knowledge of the demons in Zanker’s past. Lafayette had regretted driving the man over the edge, but there had been little choice.
The last time they had seen Zanker, one of Lord Howe’s officers had ordered him bound and loaded into a carriage, and taken back to Bedlam, the British madhouse from which he had been freed as a boy.
“What about Goodwife Edwins, Father?”
Samuel Larkin rose and crossed to where they kept a pitcher of water. He spoke as he poured himself a drink. “She’s dead.”
His father turned and looked at him. “And what is worse, it appears she has been murdered.”
“Murdered?” Jeremy was shocked. “Here, in Chester?”
“There were marks of a garrote around her neck.” His father sat back down. The water went untouched as he placed his head in his hands. “What is this world coming to, Jeremy, when a good woman cannot sit in her own home with her door unlocked in the early evening? They found her at her spinning wheel.”
“And her husband?” He remembered that when they had shared a cell in Zanker’s prison Goodwife Edwins had mentioned her husband who ran the Chester livery.
“He is away. Helping with the war effort, as are so many. A letter will be sent.”
They sat in silence for some minutes. At last Jeremy asked, “Is there anything I can do to help you, father?”
“No… No.” Samuel Larkin took a sip of the water and forced a weak smile.
“Well then, I will be going,” he said as he rose from his chair.
His father’s aspect darkened. “And where will you be gadding off to, young sir?”
Jeremy shrugged. “I was going to meet some friends at the tavern.”
“I would prefer you stay home tonight, if the matter is not one of…import.” His father said it in such a way as to suggest nothing he ever did was.
In reality he was planning on meeting with Henry at his shop to talk over the finer points of explosive detonators and fuse timing, but it could wait. It looked like his father needed him tonight. “I do not have to go. Would you prefer I stay?” He picked up the book he had been reading. “Perhaps I could read to you from one of Shakespeare’s plays.”
His father nodded as he rose to his feet and headed for his favorite chair by the fire. “Make it a comedy. It has been a very long day.”
Jeremy read until his father fell asleep and then crept quietly out of the room. Opening the front door, he stepped outside to clear his head. While they sat together, enjoying a rare blend of Shakespeare’s genius and one another’s company, he had slowly rung the whole tale from the mayor of Chester. This was not the first murder. Three days before, Master Herbert Thomas, a farmer, had been found dead in the wood near town. It was thought to be an accident. It appeared Thomas had stumbled into a trap and, catching his neck in a noose intended for a wild beast, been hanged.
Herbert Thomas had been one of Major Zanker’s hostages as well.
Before falling asleep his father had leaned over and touched his hand. Jeremy, be careful, he warned.
Jeremy shook his hair, freeing it of some of the ice-cold rain, and placed a hat on his head. Joachim Zanker was a broken man, he had seen it himself, and by now was imprisoned far away in England. Or so they had been told. Their operatives had watched the major being placed temporarily in a harbor-side prison once used for privateers and pirates. He was to board a ship to England before the end of the year. Jeremy wondered now if Zanker had ever made it to the ship. He would have to speak to one of the general’s men when he had a chance and see if they could confirm it.
If not for the fact that both Goodwife Edwins and Master Thomas had been ‘hung’ he might have dismissed both deaths as coincidence. Involuntarily Jeremy’s hand went to his neck. It had been intended for Zanker’s noose as well. As had Elizabeth’s and her uncle’s. And while he did not want to frighten or worry his father, he could not go to his warm bed and sleep a peaceful sleep until he had warned them.
If it was Zanker, then it was by God’s grace that Lafayette was away in New York. Even though the general was nearly out of his mind sequestered in Albany awaiting a decision on the invasion of Canada, it meant he was safe. If Major Zanker had truly returned to Chester to finish what he had begun, the madman must remember how it ended – with him humiliated and driven from power due to the courage and knowledge of the Marquis de Lafayette.
Pulling his collar tight against the winter chill, Jeremy stepped into the street and headed for Elizabeth’s uncle’s house. It wasn’t a long walk. He would easily be back before his father awoke.
The older man need never know he had gone.
As Jeremy stepped into the street a gangrel figure peeled itself from the shadows masking the western face of the house. The man hesitated, waiting until the youth had rounded a bend, and then moved into the street to follow. As he did the pale circle of light cast by the street lamp struck his face momentarily, revealing a grisly visage, twisted by a ravenous sneer and struck diagonally across with a puckering scar. As the stranger moved into the shadows, the brisk north wind that had chilled Jeremy carried his accented voice forward – chiding, arguing, pleading with no one but himself.
Behind the man, in the dust, trailed a sturdy length of rope.
Early the next morning Elizabeth Coates was roused from sleep by a frantic rapping at their door. She threw on her bed-jacket and tied her hair up quickly and went downstairs to answer the summons. Opening the door she found Jeremy’s father, Mayor Larkin, standing on their stoop. It looked as if he had not slept a wink, and his hands nervously ran a constant course around the brim of his black tricorn hat.
“Mayor Larkin, did you walk all the way here? How can I help you?” she asked.
He met her eyes with a guarded look. “Elizabeth. Good morning to you. May I come in?”
She nodded and stepped aside to allow him access. “My uncle is not yet up. Would you like me to wake him?”
“Actually, I have come to speak with you. Elizabeth, forgive me, as this is most improper.” Mayor Larkin seemed to steel himself and then asked, quietly, “Was my son here last night?”
“I saw Jeremy toward sundown….”
“No. I mean, during the night.”
“Mayor Larkin!” Elizabeth paled at the suggestion. “I assure you, sir, that I would allow no such thing….”
“Elizabeth!” her uncle John called from upstairs. “What is it?”
“The Mayor come to call,” she answered. “Mayor Larkin, is Jeremy missing? Do you not know where he is?”
He shook his head. “No. And I am frightened.” His pale blue gaze settled on her face. “And for you, and your uncle as well.”
“What is this, Samuel? What do you mean rousing God-fearing hard-working citizens at this God-forsaken hour?” Elizabeth’s Uncle John stomped down the stairs to join them. “Does this have something to do with that good-for-nothing boy of yours?” he asked as he wrestled into his coat.
The Mayor’s gaze remained on her. “No. No, John. I came because I am concerned about Elizabeth – and you.”
“Why?” As usual her uncle’s first reaction was suspicion. “We have done nothing wrong!”
“Nothing but to escape a madman’s noose,” Samuel Larkin said softly.
“What?” Elizabeth asked.
“Please, Elizabeth, John…sit. Let me explain.”
Ten minutes later the Mayor was done and the three of them sat in stunned silence. At first her uncle had challenged everything Mayor Larkin had to say, insisting he had not even been there that day in the town square when Major Zanker had threatened to hang them all, then he had raged and blustered, and then finally fallen very, very silent as he considered his own mortality. The two of them had never spoken of the decision he had made that day when he told Major Zanker that he would act as his spy – that he would in fact spy on his fellow townspeople in order to buy special favor for himself – and for her.
The day when her Uncle John would have willingly sent Jeremy to the gallows.
Elizabeth had forgiven him as the Good Book demanded – but she had not forgotten.
“And you say Jeremy is missing?” she asked as a sudden chill, which had nothing to do with the weather, snaked down her spine.
“I told the boy to stay put. When I found him missing, I thought perhaps your lovely charms had made him go against his better judgment – if my son has such a thing! But if you have not seen him….” Mayor Larkin rose slowly, moving as if he had aged ten years since entering their house. “Elizabeth, I fear the worst. I am an old man. I cannot bear to lose my youngest son.”
She saw him to the door and watched the mayor walk slowly down the lane toward town. As she lingered there, thinking, her uncle barked at her to start breakfast, calling her away. Otherwise she might have remained there until he vanished. Turning with a sigh, Elizabeth headed for the hearth and started the days’ chores, but neither her mind nor her heart were in it. As soon as Uncle John was fed and had begun his daily rounds, she would seek out Henry or Isak and see if they knew where Jeremy was.
If they did not….
Major Zanker had been a hard man, and when he had broken they had all thought it would be for good, that he could not recovery – would never return. If he had, was he healed and whole, or completely mad? The major had said he would hang her first, and then her uncle. If Zanker was here and fulfilling his promise to kill the hostages, then something had changed.
Elizabeth started the eggs and bacon frying in the three-legged spider and then went to the far cupboard where her uncle kept a spare pistol. Making certain he was engaged in reading the paper, she slid the drawer open and slipped the pistol into one of the baskets she kept hanging on the wall and used to go to market. There was powder and shot in another cupboard near the door. She would get those next. She had little experience with weapons, but Jeremy had made it a point to show her how to load and fire one.
Now she knew why.
“Elizabeth! The eggs are burning!”
Placing the basket on the floor near the hearth, she tossed a linen towel over the pistol and bent to tend the already charred eggs and meat. “Forgive me, Uncle. Breakfast will be ready in a moment.”
The handsome young Frenchman dismounted and walked boldly toward the gate in the wooden fence that opened onto the yard of a dark rustic tavern set in a pocket of trees which was teeming, both inside and out, with what good, honest men often referred to as ‘disorderly persons’. In other words, brigands, liars, and thieves. As he reached the gate another horse was put to heel with a sharp command close by his dappled gray, and an older, harried-looking man with sandy hair leapt off its back and bounded after him, catching his hand just as it lifted the latch.
“Sir,” Sergeant Daniel Boggs insisted in a fierce whisper, “you can’t go in there!”
The Frenchman, who was in reality the darling of the Rebellion and, according to Sergeant Boggs – who loved him dearly – at times a bit of a willful child, cocked his head and wagged his finger in his face. “Ah, ah, ah, Daniel…. What are you to call me?”
The older man sighed. He shook his head. “I can’t.”
Lafayette frowned. “And, if I say the fate of the men shivering and starving for the American Cause is dependant on it?”
“You’re not being fair.”
“Say, it, Daniel.”
“Sir…it’s just not done!”
“Oh, all right!” The tough frontiersman glanced from side to side. “You can’t go in there, Gilbert.”
Lafayette touched Boggs’ arm and the two of them stepped away from the gate to allow a slightly stewed patron to exit. “Zheel -bare, not Gil- burt. You make me sound like an Englishman,” Lafayette laughed.
Sergeant Daniel Boggs shook his head again. “That could never happen.”
“I think I have been insulted,” the general said with a mock frown. “If we are – how you say – traveling ‘incognito’, then you must remember not to call me ‘sir’. We are fellow travelers. Adventurers. Scoundrels in search of a quick Louis,” he rubbed his fingers together, “or several thousand.”
Daniel Boggs ran a hand over his face. “How I ever let you talk me into this, I’ll never know.”
Lafayette threw his hands into the air. “You and I both know that New York has turned out to be a waste of both my time and my talents. What good does it do me to sit in a room and twaddle my thumbs while rich men bicker and jostle for power, and the poor soldiers who look to me to lead them, die from lack of clothing, shoes, and meat!”
Lafayette scowled at him for real this time. “I have petitioned mon General Washington to allow me to return to Valley Forge.” Then the dimpled smile flashed. “I would imagine we just missed the letter granting permission by a few hours.”
Boggs fixed him with a fatherly eye. “His Excellency is going to have your French hide…sir. Zheel-burt.”
Sergeant Boggs took his arm and moved him out of the way of a tavern patron who was heading for the area of the fence they occupied, his face a ghastly green. They halted under one of the trees. “I agreed to the return to Valley Forge. This,” he pointed at the tavern which had obviously seen far better days, “is not Valley Forge. And that man casting up his accounts is not General Gage.”
“I am sure General Gage would be quite insulted if you suggested it was.” When Sergeant Boggs refused to fold, the young Frenchman sighed. “You know why we are here, Daniel,” he said, sobering. “The soldiers.”
Boggs placed a hand on his shoulder. “You are not responsible for every soldier under your command.”
Lafayette’s dark brown eyes were haunted. “Am I not? I ordered the man shot.”
“He was caught stealing.”
“Food, Daniel. And shoes. Things he should have had anyway.”
“Discipline must be -”
“…maintained if the army is to survive. I know.” Lafayette waved his hand in dismissal and turned away. “I know.”
The young Frenchman returned to his horse and rummaged in his saddlebag to hide his tears, even though he knew Sergeant Boggs knew they were there and did not think him less the man for them. New York had proved to be a disaster. Nothing had been accomplished by his presence there.
Nothing good at least.
While there, he had been forced to discipline a young soldier under his command. The man had been caught, as Daniel said, stealing. He had had to order his execution. Then, within the same week, a major – who had permitted his soldiers to build fires where they could be seen by the enemy – had been put on report by another general, but the major had only been reprimanded and let go. Mon Dieu! Such injustice tore at the fabric of his heart. He had complained bitterly to the Commander-in-chief, pouring his feelings out in a letter, but he knew what his Excellency’s answer would be. What he had done was right in the eyes of military justice. It did not matter what the other officer had done.
But it did matter. It mattered to him.
He had spoken to the soldiers in the young man’s regiment. He had been married, and had two daughters.
Just like him.
Lafayette secured the flap on his saddlebag and drew a deep breath, pulling himself together. Then he turned back. “Yes, Daniel?”
“I understand how much that boy’s death hurt you. But, sir, coming here,” he nodded toward the tavern, “placing yourself in jeopardy is not going to bring him back or change what happened.”
On the long road from Albany, New York to Southeastern Pennsylvania, near Exton, they had run across a group of volunteer soldiers from Connecticut. While they shared a meager supper with them the young men had admitted with chagrin that they had been robbed. The patriotic women of Hartford had taken their jewelry and sterling silver and melted it down into ingots which were intended for Washington’s army to purchase much needed supplies and uniforms. They had carried four bags with them. The soldiers were very young. They had taken precautions, but had fallen afoul of two con men traveling the road who had appeared friendly and had offered to share their meal – and then plied them with rum. When the soldiers woke up, the bags containing the ingots were gone. Never having liked drink much himself, Lafayette found such a thing hard to comprehend.
Sergeant Boggs had watched him with growing concern as he asked the soldiers if there had been anything unusual about the men. One – hauntingly similar to the young man he had had executed – told them he had noticed something about the smaller of the two that had made him uneasy. When asked what it was, he had a hard time defining it. The soldier said the man had a frightening face – scarred and twisted – and that he had a curious habit of staring at his left hand and sometimes rebuking it, as if the appendage wasn’t a part of him.
Later, as they rode together and talked, his sergeant and aide, Daniel Boggs, had dismissed the man’s tale. Lafayette had not. In France those who were considered lunatics were seldom confined, and were often allowed to wander the streets and towns. When he was a child in Auvergne, he had known a woman who claimed the hand she had was not her own, but that of a demon. She said it made her do things she was ashamed of.
Many years later he heard she had been drowned as a witch.
That evening, as they drew near Chester, they had camped beside the road. As the cold, crisp morning dawned, a courier for General Washington had overtaken them. They shared a cold breakfast with him and he told them he had just left the ‘Born on Newgate’ inn near Chester, which was a well-known hangout for thieves and malcontents. He had been sent there to meet with another courier to exchange intelligence and messages. The inn was dark and few within would pay attention – or remember they had been there. Without their asking he had begun to describe the tavern’s nefarious inhabitants. He was good at mimicry and keep them well entertained. Then, suddenly he sobered, and began to describe a man who had frightened him.
A small feral-looking man with a scarred face, who spoke to his hand.
“You do realize, Zheel -bare,” Boggs said, getting it right at last, “that this man has to be unbalanced. If we do find him, he will be dangerous.”
Lafayette nodded. But the image of that young soldier, driven to desperation to feed himself, haunted him and compelled him to continue the hunt in spite of the danger. Compelled him to find the missing gold and silver and to bring it to his general.
“He may be, Daniel,” Lafayette said as he pushed back his dark brown jacket to reveal the elegantly appointed flintlock pistol tucked in his belt. “But then, so am I.
Continued in Chapter Two