Z is for Zanker - Chapter Four
“Mr. Coates. Mr. Coates. Can you hear me?”
John Coates sat up straight. Whoever the miscreant was, he had returned at last. Now he was going to get a piece of his mind! He was an important man and leaving an important man tied up, in a damp cave blindfolded, without anything to eat for one night and the most of the next day was punishable by a day – no, a week! – in the pillory. Whoever had high-jacked him in the alley behind the dry goods store was going to pay! He would tell the Mayor! Complain to the sheriff! Pound on the Governor’s door!
“Yes, you villain! I can hear you,” Coates growled. “And even if I can’t see you, I can give you piece of my mind. What do you mean by this! I am a respectable man, an established member of proper social standing in the town of Chester. A – ”
“Do you know what else you are, Mr. Coates?” the soft sinister voice asked, menace in every nuance of its lightly accented tone.
“What?” he asked, suddenly frightened.
“Strident and obnoxious. Captain Merz! Silence him.”
“No! No! I can be quiet,” John Coates shouted. “I can! Really, I – ” A rough, filthy piece of linen was shoved between his teeth and pulled tight, cutting off any further protestations.
“Now, Mr. Coates, I shall remove your blindfold. You are to remain still and listen until I remove your gag and give you permission to speak – otherwise I will kill you. Here and now. Is that understood?”
John Coates nodded, at least a dozen times.
There was a snap of fingers. Rough hands caught hold of the cloth that covered his eyes and removed it.
John Coates blinked.
“Now, Mr. Coates, do you remember me?”
Coates lifted his watering eyes to take a look. The man’s figure was long and lean, and cast into silhouette by the brilliant morning light that poured into the cave from outside. He could discern no face or feature. Coates blinked again and shook his head.
“No?” The man glanced behind, sensing the problem. He shifted away from the cave mouth and knelt so their eyes were on a level. “Now, do you know me?”
John Coates did. He nodded and began to tremble.
“Ah, I see you do. Good.” Major Joachim Zanker rose and began to pace. “Merz, the gag!” he ordered. “You have permission now to speak, Coates, but softly. And only to tell me what I want to hear. You understand?”
He nodded again.
“This boy, the one your daughter seems attached to –”
“Elizabeth’s not my daughter…sir. She’s my niece,” he corrected, “and that rascal of a boy, why would you want to know about him?”
“You are pressing your luck, Mr. Coates.” Zanker pointed with his riding crop to the bent figure occupying the shadows at the rear of the cave. “Merz here enjoys tormenting people. I can leave any time and let him have his…fun.”
John Coates licked his lips. “Forgive me, Major Zanker. Sir. What do you want to know?”
“This…rascal…Jeremy, who is he?”
“The Mayor’s son,” he answered.
“And that is all? Is he in the Army?”
“Jeremy Larkin?” Coates snorted. “Never. He’s lazy as a tinker who laid his budget down to fart.”
“That’s quite a colorful description, Mr. Coates.” Major Zanker seemed to contemplate his answer for a moment, then he asked, “Does he often disappear – sometimes for days at a time?”
“That boy’s always off drinking and whoring. He brings shame to his father and their family name. His brother, Robert, may have been a traitor to the King, but at least he was an officer and counted for something.”
“So the brother was a Rebel? And died for this ‘Cause’?”
Zanker was quiet for a moment. “Clever,” he said at last, ‘very clever.”
“Oh, Jeremy Larkin’s that too. Gets around everything and everyone. Everyone but me, that is,” he added proudly.
“Yes, well, that is why you are here, Mr. Coates. Why I have spared your life for a second time.”
“But you were going to hang me – and Elizabeth.”
Major Zanker shook his head in dismissal. “No. At the last moment you would have been spared. What would it have looked like if I had not made a pretense? What would your fellow townspeople have thought? Would they, perhaps, have thought you had betrayed them?”
Zanker let the question hang in the silence that descended.
Finally, when he could stand it no more, John Coates asked, “Why am I here, Major? If I might ask….”
“That bargain we made, I still consider it intact. Your life, and your niece’s, for information leading to the capture and arrest of Captain Yankee Doodle – and the total destruction of that upstart Frenchman, Lafayette.”
“I heard Lafayette was the one in the square that day. The one who challenged you to a duel – ”
In a split second Zanker was on him. He took him by the collar and rammed his head back against the cave wall. “You will not speak of that! You will never speak of that! Do you hear?”
Coates was shaking. “Yes, Major! It never happened.”
Zanker was sweating. He had begun to tremble as if with a palsy. He reached into his vest pocket and wrapped his fingers around something that seemed to calm him. A moment later, he said, “And you will do anything I ask?”
“Anything to be loyal to the King – and to you, Major Zanker! Anything!” Coates blinked away the sweat that was bothering his eyes. “Eh…what exactly is it you want me to do?”
Zanker released him and set to pacing again, his hand still in his pocket. “Return to Chester. Seek out the remaining hostages. Be my voice.” He spun on his heel and looked at him. “Bribe them, terrify or cajole them, but let them know that unless this boy, Lafayette, and Captain Yankee Doodle are turned over to me within a period of twenty-four hours, they will all die.”
John Coates swallowed hard. “Die?”
“Yes, Mr. Coates, die. Merz here is quite adept at stealth, and his specialty is execution.” Zanker’s palsy had lessened, but he was still shaking and sweat streamed down his face. “You and your niece, of course, are exempt from this.”
“Of course,” Coates echoed, only half-believing it. “Is that all, Major Zanker? Major Zanker?”
The major was staring at him, unblinking, almost as if looking right through him to some other point in time. Then Zanker suddenly signaled his accomplice to release him. “Untie him, Captain Merz! You are free to go, Mr. Coates.”
John Coates leapt to his feet and quickly moved toward the cave mouth. “Thank you, Major Zanker. You are most…kind. You won’t regret this. I’ll find what you are after….”
Zanker had pulled a pristine white handkerchief from his sleeve and was daubing his forehead with it. “At sundown, tomorrow, you will return with what information you have. Otherwise, Merz will come to you. And Mr. Coates….”
He was halfway out of the cave. “Yes?”
Major Zanker pocketed the handkerchief and came close, speaking in a whisper. “Do not betray me. Merz is a shadow that moves unseen. You cannot escape him. The only way you and your niece will safe, is to do as I ask. Is that understood?.”
John Coates nodded and, like a fawning courtier before the king, backed out of the cave.
Then he broke into a run and did not stop until he reached Chester.
Major Zanker stood in the cave mouth watching the pathetic creature known as John Coates work his way down the hill and through the thick undergrowth that bordered the river. Captain Jaeger Merz came to stand beside him. Merz had once been a Hessian soldier like him, but the bent and battle-scarred man had been drummed out of the core for atrocities surpassing even those which the blood-thirsty Hessians considered acceptable. Merz had been with him in Dublin and Auvignon, and had proved more than able, often carrying out his orders to kill by hand. Jaeger Merz had been a boyhood companion as well. His mother had worked in the laundry at Bedlam. It was Jaeger Merz who sought him out and freed him from the Pennsylvania prison Lafayette’s trickery had confined him to. Merz who had fed him and clothed him anew, promising his help in fulfilling all that he, Zanker, had left undone.
“He vill…betray you…Joachim,” Jaeger said quietly, his English as broken as his mind.
“I know,” Zanker answered, removing the silver snuff box from his pocket and turning it over and over in his hand. “That is what I am counting on.”
“Henry! Isak! It’s good to see you two,” Major Matthew Clark exclaimed as he caught up to them. They were heading for General Lafayette’s tent. “May I speak with you?”
Henry glanced at Isak who shrugged his shoulders. Even though they knew the general was not in residence, Henry intended to seek out the highest ranking officer and inform him of Major Zanker’s supposed return. It was vital they keep Lafayette away from Chester until they were certain of what was going on. Major Clark was a junior officer who had been with the French general since his appointment to George Washington’s personal staff. He could be trusted, but there had to be someone of higher rank they could talk to. Someone who would have some clout when it came to dealing with the headstrong young major-general.
“Matthew. Good to see you,” Henry answered, taking the officer’s proffered hand and shaking it. “May we see whoever is in charge?”
“I’m afraid I am it right now,” Clark answered with a chagrinned smile. “The other officers are at a meeting south of Chester.” The young man paused. His bright blue eyes seemed troubled. “Henry, you are a doctor, are you not?” he asked suddenly.
The question surprised him, coming out of nowhere as it did. “Well, no. Not really. I am an apothecary, though I attempt to utilize my knowledge and meager skills in alleviating as much pain and suffering as I can from the world.”
“That’ll do. The camp physician is away and we have need of someone….” Clark paused. “Well, I’ll let you see for yourself and let him explain.”
Major Clark led them to the general’s tent and threw back the flap. A sandy-haired man was sitting on the low cot within. His head was down and a blood-soaked rag was pressed against his temple.
“One of the men found him on the road,” Clark said in introduction. “They brought him in on horseback.”
When Henry saw who it was, he felt as if the rug had been pulled out from under his feet. It was Daniel Boggs, General Lafayette’s aide. Boggs who should be in New York. Henry hurried over to him. “Daniel! We thought you and the general were in Albany.”
“We were,” the older man replied as he looked up.
“What happened?” Henry pulled the cloth away and whistled at the trail the musket ball had left in the sergeant’s flesh just below his hairline. It had been a close call. “Isak, please, bring some water. I need to clean this.”
“There’s no time to fuss over me,” Boggs growled, nodding at the young major who stood near the door to the tent, watching their interchange closely. “I told him as much.”
“It’s a serious wound, Daniel,” Henry said, probing the edges. “It could become infected, and will most likely leave a scar.”
“You think I care?” Boggs shoved his hand away and rose shakily to his feet. “The general is in danger and this young pup refuses to let me leave camp.” He pointed at Clark. Then suddenly he wobbled and almost fell. “I have to find him….”
Isak had returned with the water and placed it on a table near Henry. He caught Boggs and gently lowered the sergeant back to the cot.
Henry drew a deep breath. A feeling of doom, a portent or shadow of a great evil, gripped his heart as he stared at the generals’ aide. “Daniel,” he asked softly, “where is General Lafayette?”
Boggs turned haunted eyes on him. “I don’t know.”
“Do you feel well enough to tell us what happened?” Isak asked.
Major Clark came to their side. “Daniel, you should rest. I can tell them – ”
“No. No, it should come from me. There might be something important you would miss, Matt. Some tiny detail.” Sergeant Boggs looked from Henry to Isak and then at the door. “Where is Jeremy? He should hear this. Is he not with you?”
Henry and Isak exchanged a glance.
Boggs must have seen something in it. “Is something wrong?” he asked.
“First things first,” Henry said evenly. “Tell us what happened to you. And to the general.”
Boggs began to speak, slowly at first, but the words came faster and faster as the tale wore on. His Excellency, George Washington, great man that he was – and greater general – would have made a poor father, he began, unless Providence had given him a son of his own temper. Sending General Lafayette to Albany had been a mistake, plain and simple. The fiery young Frenchman couldn’t abide inaction. He lasted longer than Boggs had expected, but finally had had enough. In anticipation of Washington granting his request to return to Valley Forge, the general had left Albany the week before and started back. Along the way they had heard a tale of gold and silver – ingots sent from Connecticut to alleviate the Army’s suffering during the cold winter months – stolen from a group of young soldiers. Coupled with what had happened to another young soldier Lafayette had been forced to discipline in New York for stealing food and shoes, there had been nothing Boggs could do to dissuade the young Frenchman from seeking out the two men who took the precious metal in an attempt to get it back.
The American courier they had met and broke their fast with on the road, had told them the scoundrels were at the ‘Born on Newgate’ inn.
After that Boggs’ recollection became fuzzy. He recalled entering the inn, and the strumpet, Maggie, who sent the two of them to the tavern’s lower floor. Then everything went blank until he awoke, cold and alone, in the back of a wagon just as it began jostling down one of the low hills on the way toward Marcus Hook. At the time Boggs hadn’t even noticed that the general was missing. His head had been clouded; the result of a strong blow taken from behind. All he had known was that his hands were tied, he was held captive, and he was being taken somewhere he was certain he did not want to go. At the first opportunity he made his escape. When his captors paused to eat he slipped from the wagon and ran for the cover of the trees.
One of them got off a lucky shot, Boggs finished. The ball struck him across the temple and sent him reeling into the underbrush where he was able to hide and miraculously escape their search.
“I must have passed out then,” he admitted sheepishly. “It was early morning when I woke and now it’s nearly night.”
Henry nodded. Another day had passed. A full day with no word from Jeremy.
“And what of the general?” he asked quietly.
Boggs lowered his head. “I lost him. Dear God in Heaven! I lost him. If anything happens to him….”
“He was taken captive with you?” As Boggs nodded Henry went on, thinking aloud, “But was not in the wagon when you awoke. So he was either taken somewhere else or escaped on his own. What we need is information about the workings of this press gang.” He placed his hand on Boggs’ shoulder. “Daniel, are you well enough to take us to this inn?”
Boggs nodded, eager to do something. “Aye.”
Major Clark who had been listening spoke up. “Sergeant Boggs is in no condition to – ”
“But Major, he will have his own personal ‘physician’ attending him.” Henry’s smile was cajoling. As Clark huffed, he turned back to Boggs. “These two men you were tracking. Was there anything…special about them?”
“Special?” Boggs asked.
“Did they have, say, accents? Anything particular about their looks? The way they dressed?”
“Was one a small man, with a scar?” Isak added.
“We never saw them, but yes, that was what the soldiers described – one tall, with an accent, who kept his face hidden. The other a curious creature with a scar, sleight, who sometimes….” Boggs paused and shook his head. “The general believed it, but it is too absurd.”
“Did the man talk to his hand?” Isak asked, his voice hushed.
Sergeant Boggs was startled. “By God, yes! Henry, Isak, what is this? And you still have not told me what happened to Jeremy.”
“We don’t know. Like the general, he is missing. But we suspect….” Henry paused. Once he told him, he knew there would be no stopping Sergeant Boggs. If Clark tried to stand between the frontiersman and the search for his beloved general, the Continental Army would be short two soldiers – Boggs and Clark. Sergeant Boggs would go right through the younger man.
Boggs leaned forward and gripped his arm. “What? What do you suspect?”
“Major Zanker has returned,” Isak said, his words carefully measured. “We suspect he has Jeremy and – ”
Henry finished it. “And that he has returned to take his revenge on the hostages who escaped him, and General Lafayette.”
Continued in Chapter Five