Elizabeth was following her uncle.
The remarks he had made about Jeremy and the suspicions of the townspeople frightened her. And when she saw where her Uncle John was heading – toward the current home of the British army, a camp outside of town not that far from the farm – her fright turned to horror. Elizabeth hid in the trees and watched as her uncle was stopped and approached by a red-coated sentry.
Uncle John presented a note and then was passed in as if he was an old friend.
Elizabeth had passed the day in the usual way, going to market, visiting the seamstress and posting several letters for her uncle, and then she had returned home and prepared dinner. Then she had set the table and waited for her uncle’s return. As night fell he had come and eaten in haste, and then hustled out again with no word of where he was going.
And so she had followed him.
Jeremy had been so careful to play his part well, to give no suspicion that he was anything but a callow youth with no use for a cause of any kind. What could have possibly clued those who suspected him into the charade? And who had her uncle spoken to? Was it really townsfolk as he implied, or was it rather the British soldiers with whom he now went to meet? Even though she believed in the Rebel Cause, Elizabeth had a hard time condemning her uncle for his loyalty to the king. There were many in the colonies who did not want to shed England’s yoke, who saw the Mother Country as just that – a mothering influence, a safe harbor, and a guiding hand through the storms of life. It had all seemed so abstract before she had met Jeremy and, through him, became a part of the Yankee Doodle Society. Before young men she knew began to march off to war and not come back.
Before Jeremy’s brother, Robert, had died.
Jeremy could die too.
Catching her skirts in her hands, Elizabeth rounded the tree she hid behind. It would not be easy to trail her uncle through the woods and into the British camp, but she would have to try! She had to know what he reported – and to whom. Had Uncle John believed her when she said Jeremy had no interest in the Cause? Or would he, instead, come here and report that Jeremy was a rebel? Perhaps just to get him out of her life?
She wouldn’t put it past the mean old selfish man she loved.
Elizabeth hurried forward, keeping sight of her uncle as he moved within the confines of the camp. At length, she came to place where a tumble of broken rocks blocked her view. Behind her she could hear a small waterfall dashing against even more stones. The British had wisely set up camp with the water to their backs so they had fewer fronts to guard and maintain. She would have to be careful. Beyond the rocks there were fewer trees and someone might spot –
“Well, well. What do we have here?” The voice was not deep, but it was male and resonated with power. “A tasty morsel on the hoof?”
“LaCroix, no!” The second voice was female, and French. “You know who she is. She would be missed.”
Elizabeth fell back as a tall white-haired man with feral eyes rounded the rocks and approached her. “A pity. Farm girls are always so well-fed. Plump and…juicy.”
In her short life Elizabeth had known bad men – men who despised and denied the light. Evil men who chose to walk a path that led to darkness, to an eternal night.
This man was the night.
“Who…who are you?” she asked, her voice hushed and robbed of strength.
“I might ask you the same thing,” LaCroix remarked conversationally as he began to circle her. “And what you are doing here, on my property?”
“Yours?” She shook her head. This was the wilderness. “No one owns this….”
LaCroix stepped forward and caught her wrist in an iron grip. “Oh, my dear, but I must beg to differ with you,” he snarled as he dragged her toward him, “I own everything.”
“LaCroix,” Janette interrupted, “remember your spy is awaiting your return.” The woman’s eyes flicked to Elizabeth and she saw some pity there – though whether for her current predicament or for the end about to come to it, Elizabeth did not know. “Let me talk to her. You should go.”
LaCroix paid her no mind. His grip tightened on her wrist. Elizabeth tried to turn away from his savage gaze, but he would not allow it. His Hellish eyes compelled her to look – to fall into them. “What is your name, my dear?” LaCroix asked, his tone sweetly poisonous.
“Eliz…Elizabeth,” she stuttered.
“Elizabeth, a fine name. Isn’t it a fine name, Janette?”
The woman scowled. She apparently did not share LaCroix’s fondness for teasing. “Go! Or get it over with,” she growled.
“Just trying to remember the social amenities,” LaCroix pouted. “They are so important. Without them, why, we would be – beasts!” He grinned wickedly and as Elizabeth watched, his teeth seemed to grow in length until they resembled ivory spikes. She began to shake, even as the man’s eyes turned over, golden and green.
“Who…what are you?” she asked, trembling.
“The stuff of your nightmares,” LaCroix answered, his voice pitched low. “Now, Elizabeth Coates, you will tell me what you know of Captain Yankee Doodle and his erstwhile champion, that puling French boy, Lafayette. I know you know. My men told me as much upon their return.”
He must mean the soldiers who had come to visit their farm. They had questioned her Uncle John and her, and then left without a word.
“I…. I don’t know anything,” Elizabeth answered, though it was a struggle to make certain the words she wanted came out, and not the ones he demanded.
“Then why are you here? Following your Uncle out of love for the old curmudgeon? Somehow, I find that hard to believe.” LaCroix’s grip bruised her flesh and threatened the bone beneath. “Now, tell me the truth! Who is Yankee Doodle?”
“No…. No! I won’t….” Elizabeth was panting. “I can’t….”
Janette stepped up and placed her hand on the man’s. “LaCroix! You are hurting the girl,” she chastised him. “Release her and go on your way! You are a beast!”
The white-haired man looked surprised – and amused. “Why, Janette, I do believe you are developing a conscience. Tsk. Tsk. You have spent far too much time with Nicholas.”
Elizabeth didn’t mean to. But her eyes betrayed her – and the man known as Nicholas Knighton.
“Ah. I see you have met Nicholas. And I see he has had the usual affect.” LaCroix made a face, as if he had consumed something sour. “It seems no woman – alive or dead – is immune to dear Nicholas’ charms. Are you jealous, Janette?”
The French woman made a disparaging sound. “Would I be jealous of a rack of lamb?” She rolled her eyes. “Now, let the child go!”
LaCroix pursed his lips and looked like a little boy gone bad. Then he opened his hand, so dramatically that Elizabeth fell to the ground. As she lay there, in a heap, the woman bent down and took hold of her arm and helped her to sit.
“Pay him no heed,” Janette said softly, caressing her hair. “LaCroix is une brute! Are you all right?”
Elizabeth nodded as the other woman knelt by her side and placed a comforting arm about her shoulders. “Yes. Thank you.” She glanced back at LaCroix then, and found him gone. “Where did he…?”
“Forget him. Lucien has other business to attend to.” Janette smiled sweetly. “Do you think you can stand?”
She wasn’t sure.
“Take my hand.” Janette gripped her fingers and pulled her to her feet. “Such a pretty thing,” she said as she shifted Elizabeth’s hair back over her shoulders and straightened her shawl.
And then the woman licked her lips.
Elizabeth shuddered. “I should be going.”
“Why? There is no one at home. Is there?”
Not her uncle, Elizabeth thought, who was probably even now meeting with that evil man. “Well….”
“Or a husband? Surely one so pretty as you is not without a lover. Oui?” Janette asked with a smile.
“Yes…no!” Elizabeth had begun to shake again. “I have a beau.”
“I know you do. Mayor Larkin’s handsome son, is it not? Jeremy, I believe?”
“How do you know?”
Janette’s smile darkened into a sneer. “I know everything, my dear, because I make it my business to know. Also, I am of old acquaintance with your votre amour’s père.”
“You speak some French then? There is more to you than it seems. You are no simple peasant girl lusting for a romp in the hay with a feckless young man. You have plans. Ambitions….secrets.” Janette drew close. The sneer grew menacingly as she ran her finger down the flesh of her neck. “How shall we discover them, I wonder?”
“I have no secrets,” Elizabeth answered. Her heart was pounding in her ears and she had begun to feel unnaturally sleepy.
“Just enough, I think, to make your secrets mine,” the French woman whispered in her ear and then she kissed the nape of her neck. “And to control you.
“I wonder, my dear, have you ever thought of wearing a scarf?”
He couldn’t get them from his mind – the deaths. The death of the young woman found with her throat torn out in an open field here in Chester, and the deaths of all those young people so long ago in England, when he had been a lad about Jeremy’s age.
Samuel Larkin was sitting before the fire awaiting his wayward son’s return. Jeremy was often gone for days, but he usually left a note – some sign – of when to expect his return.
This time there had been nothing and he was worried.
Jeremy was a curious lad, shiftless to be certain, and yet with a certain seriousness that sometimes suggested another reason for that laziness. Perhaps it had to do with losing his mother at an early age, or with being the youngest. Maybe he had felt himself no more than a shadow cast by his brother’s brilliance. Had he, as their father, favored Robert? Samuel searched his own soul and was certain he had not. But whatever it was, Jeremy seemed lost. Lost and vulnerable.
Just like all of those young people so long ago.
Samuel had been a strong healthy lad with flaxen hair himself then, self-assured and certain of his own future, working at an inn to pay for his eventual passage to the New World. The colonies called out to him – not as they did to so many, for money and the acquisition of land, but for the possession of something far more precious – personal freedom. His sons would never have believed that it was liberty that had called him to America’s distant shore. By the time Robert and Jeremy knew him, he had grown into an old man – set in his ways and unwilling to change as were so many in this land once known as the ‘new’ England. But when young, he had been much like both boys – fiery, hot-tempered at times, and more than willing to take a chance.
And he had taken one with Jean Du Charme.
Jean had come into the inn one night in the company of two men, one older and white-haired; the other blond and about her age. She introduced them as ‘family’. Soon the younger one drifted off, charmed by, and charming a young barmaid into showing him one of the back rooms. The white-haired man watched them both with pride and then left the inn to hunt – as he put it – other game.
Jean had laughed and danced, enthralling every male in the establishment with her winning smile and slender, delectable shape. Samuel had been waiting tables and when he came to hers, she looked over the shoulder of the man whose lap she occupied and winked at him brazenly. Jean smelled of bergamot and the promise of other foreign, forbidden things. Later a note was slipped to him. Jean invited him to meet her outside under the great larch that towered over the stone building, amidst a nest of budding heather and the heady scent of possibilities.
It took Samuel more time to fulfill his duties than he had hoped, and by the time he arrived at the trysting place, she was gone. A single red rose lingered with her scent, coupled with another note that invited him to meet her the next night to walk and talk beneath the moon.
The next evening Jean was subdued. She spoke of the deaths occurring in the shire and clung to him, as though frightened whatever monster prowled the woods and back alleyways would claim her too. The creature, it seemed, preyed on the young – if not always on the innocent. Three young women – a barmaid, a miller’s daughter, and a strumpet – and two working men had died in the last two weeks. It was a plague of sorts….
Perpetrated, no one knew, whether by beast or man.
That night they shared a few caresses and a quick kiss, and then she fled into the night saying her family would miss her, but promising that she would seek him out again.
Over the next three weeks he saw Jean perhaps a dozen times. The image of the last was burned forever into his heart. The townspeople had at first grown suspicious and then frightened, and then become terror-stricken as more and more deaths occurred. As usual they sought a reason why they were so cursed. And one was lit upon –
The strangers in their midst.
Jean was coming to see him, but did not make it to the meeting place. He became worried and sought her out, and found her on the road – surrounded by angry, violent men who accused her of a heinous evil. That of being one of the Vampiri – the walking dead – and of living off of their children’s blood. Samuel defended her at the cost of his own reputation – and possibly his life. He too was threatened. But as he was right in calling them ‘cowards’ and ‘fools’ and would not bend to their illogic, the men turned and departed with their tails between their legs. But they swore as they did that they would return another time, another day.
For both of them.
Jean had not thanked him but clung to him, resting in his strength. He spoke to her of his dreams for the two of them, of his hope for his journey to America, and of the life he planned to lead there – with her, if she would have him. As the moon waned and the pale threads that heralded the morn streaked the sky, Jean placed a finger on his lips, calling him to silence, and kissed him.
And was gone.
He never saw her again.
In time the villager’s anger waned even as the moon. The killings stopped and all things returned to normal. Samuel worked harder than ever to earn the money for his passage over, eager to be free of the past and the stigma of his choice as soon as he could. He left the town and tried not to think of her again. Marriage came along. And his sons. And soon Jean was no more than the unfulfilled dream of the younger man he had been.
Samuel Larkin rose from his chair, disturbed. He couldn’t quite remember, but he was certain Jean had returned and come to him, here, in this house. Of course, he acknowledged with a rueful smile, it had to have been nothing more than a dream. Still, dreams were often a reflection of reality, and now he wondered if his fears had not materialized as a warning.
The woman, Jeanette, had shown a pointed liking for Jeremy. Far from jealous, at this point Samuel Larkin was simply a father, worried for his son. His Jean’s arrival had heralded doom for his boyhood village.
Now he prayed this Jeanette’s presence did not spell the same for his boy.
Elizabeth looked down at her slippered feet. She was on a path, a well-worn path that seemed familiar, and yet she had no idea of where she was. She glanced around, for some reason expecting to find a waterfall and a jumble of broken rocks lying close by, but there was nothing. Nothing but trees. Advancing a few steps, Elizabeth turned in a circle, completely lost.
“Hold!” The voice that addressed her was young, but commanding. “Who goes there?”
Elizabeth jumped. She turned toward the sound, but found the answer caught in her throat and she could say nothing.
“I said….” A young soldier stepped out of the underbrush, brandishing his rifle. As he pointed it at her, he demanded, “I said, ‘Who goes – ’” The young man’s face lit with a smile as he recognized her. “Miss Coates. Why didn’t you say who you were? The others are already in the camp with the General. Have you come to join them?”
He knew her. Elizabeth squinted. Who was he? What was his name? “Jenkins?” she asked, unsure.
The young man, barely more than a boy, nodded. “Yep. Keeping watch as usual.” He glanced behind her, as though waiting for someone else to appear. When they didn’t Jenkins asked, surprised, “You’re not out here on your own, are you, Miss?”
She shook her head and forced a laugh. “I had an escort,” she lied, though she had no idea why she did. “They let me off back a ways. I didn’t want to set off an alarm, so I left them behind.” Elizabeth frowned. She hadn’t been alone.
But who had been with her?
“Waiting for you then, are they? That’s a good idea. The woods is no place for a lady alone, especially with all the strange doings going on nowadays. Did you hear what happened to the General?”
A shiver shook her and she pulled her shawl close. “The General?”
“Wounded, he was. Here.” Jenkins touched his throat. “And found wandering in a daze. No one knows just what happened.” The young sentry drew closer and lowered his voice. “Some think it has to do with whatever happened to that young woman – the one with her throat ripped out. Have you heard? There’s been two more.”
“Two more?” she squeaked.
“Women. Murdered. One in Marcus Hook, and one halfway between here and there. There’s something evil afoot, Miss. Something not of this world.” As she shuddered again, he apologized. “I’m sorry, Miss Coates. I don’t mean to scare you. But you oughta take better precautions.” Jenkins turned and called to his comrade who watched them from the cover of the leaves. “Pauley, I’m gonna take Miss Coates to the General’s tent. You keep watch.”
As Pauley yelled his affirmative, Jenkins took her arm and began to walk with her. “I saw the Captain pass by earlier. He’s with the General. You’re mighty lucky, Miss, to have someone dedicated and true as him. There aren’t many men like Captain Yankee Doodle, that’s for sure!”
“Yes….” Elizabeth glanced behind, though she didn’t know why – other than the fact that it felt like there were eyes watching her. “Please, take me to Jeremy.”
In the shadows of the trees a deeper shadow stirred – a slender one with a upswept brown hair, a corseted waist and fine silk skirts. Jeanette Du Charme tilted her head as she watched the pair of young mortals walk toward the Continental Army camp. LaCroix was such a bore! He had no subtlety. Information was not something you wrung from a bird, like its blood, but something you won by feeding and caring for it, by gaining its confidence –
By becoming its friend.
So, Mayor Larkin’s handsome blond son was not the reprobate he appeared to be, but a fine ‘dedicated’ man – a rebel with a cause.
Jeremy Larkin was Captain Yankee Doodle.
What a shame she had to tell LaCroix.