Z is for Zanker - Chapter Two
Jeremy heard a groan – a low moan wrung slowly from the throat of a man in terrible pain. He was sitting with his eyes closed in the dark. He shifted and with a sudden gut-wrenching sickness realized that his hands and feet were bound, and that a tight rope encircled his throat. And then he realized something else.
He was the one moaning.
Carefully, ever so gingerly, he opened his eyes. Even before he did, he knew he was in the forest by the sounds. All around him were trees and bushes teeming with insects, birds, and life. He could hear a stream somewhere close by, bubbling happily, totally unaware of the grave nature of his situation. He gritted his teeth against the pain and lifted his head in spite of the coarse rope cutting into his neck, and looked at the sky. It must be late afternoon or early evening. Stars glinted like the reflection of fire on jewels – there, but only half-seen. The sun had not surrendered, but already the moon was riding low on the horizon. It was almost dark.
Jeremy tried to remember. Yes…when he left the house to go to Elizabeth’s, the night had been completely black. That meant he had been away nearly a day.
Worry and concern for what his father and his friends must be feeling gave him sudden strength. He held his breath against the hammers pounding his temples and bit back tears and cries of pain as he struggled to escape, straining his bruised ribs. He had been beaten. Severely. But he couldn’t remember by who or what for. Nor could he remember coming here, to this place. Everything but who he was seemed to be a jumble of pain and supposition.
“Who are you?” a soft sinister voice spoke suddenly into the silence surrounding him.
Jeremy froze. He glanced from side to side, but there was no one.
“Who are you?” it asked again.
“Jeremy….” He had to clear his throat to say it. “Jeremy Larkin, sir, of Chester. Who are you? And why have I been brought here?”
“That isn’t right. Try again.”
The voice had a slight accent. He knew if he had not been so disoriented he could have identified it. “What do you mean, ‘that isn’t right’? That’s my name.”
“No. It is not.” The voice paused. “It is time for the truth. Or would you like to provide Merz with more…entertainment?”
Jeremy blinked. Sweat was dripping from his hair into his eyes. Sweat and blood. He could taste the iron on his lips. “Ask me a question I can answer then,” he all but shouted.
“Patience. We must practice patience. All good things come to those who can wait. Now, again, who are you?”
“I told you,” he sighed. “Jeremy - ”
A snap of fingers and the name, “Merz!”
Other fingers gripped his hair from behind and pulled his head back sharply so the rope cut into it. A fetid foul breath touched his cheek and a voice, thick with sadistic joy and an accent a man could have cut with a knife whispered savagely, “’de answer is vrong. Now, you pay.”
The rope around his throat tightened even more, cutting off his air. It was attached to the ones binding his feet and hands and the pain in them increased as well. He had been trussed like a pig waiting for the kill so that every little movement – any movement – would constrict his windpipe. Jeremy drew a breath, but couldn’t hold it. When he gasped, pain shot through his body almost causing him to pass out.
“Jaeger. That will be enough.”
The rope was tightened.
Jeremy heard the man who held the rope curse and then argue with someone else. Then the rope went slack and he could breathe.
“Now. Let us try this again.” A man emerged from the shadows – a tall lean man, ramrod straight. His walked with military precision, his hands linked together behind his back. The moon had risen, but was still not bright enough to illuminate his face. “Who are you?” the man asked again as he came to stand beside him. “Think.”
Jeremy winced before the blow came. “I am Jeremy Larkin of Ches – ”
“No!” The tip of a leather riding crop was applied to his chin and his head lifted up. Through a growing veil of pain and leaden fatigue Jeremy stared at the man without seeing him. “You are more than that, boy. I am sure of it! More than a boy. Tell me who you are.”
That was when Jeremy knew. He knew that – whoever this was – they knew, or suspected, who he really was.
“I am Jeremy Larkin of Chester,” he began again.
Crack! The crop took him in the face, splitting the skin of his cheek. “No! Tell me who you are!”
Jeremy gasped. Blood filled his mouth. Tears streamed down his cheeks. “I am…. I am….”
“Yes? Tell me.” The voice was close now. The man must be crouched beside him. “Tell me and you will be released.”
“Tell him,” Jaeger Merz echoed, still behind him, his hands still on the rope. “Tell him vhat he vants to know.”
Jeremy drew a jagged breath. Everything that was in him wanted to confess, but there were too many others such cowardice would condemn. “No!” he cried. “Never!”
“All right, then. I will tell you who I think you are.” The man rose to his feet. “But any bargain is off, and you shall not go free.”
Jeremy’s head lolled against his chest. He would be unconscious soon. Blessedly soon.
A hand gripped his thick, matted blond hair and pulled hard, forcing him awake. At that moment, the moon broke from its mooring in a low bank of clouds and shone down on the small glade that was his prison of torment, revealing the man who stood before him.
“Zanker?” Jeremy gasped.
“And you, Jeremy Larkin, are Captain Yankee Doodle. And Captain, after you have served my purposes, you will die.”
“So you have not seen him at all? The entire day?” Elizabeth asked.
Henry was using a pestle to grind some herbs he needed to make a remedy for an elderly lady of the town. She was down with the ague and he had promised it would be delivered by nightfall. He had been out most of the day seeking the plants he needed, and upon his return to the apothecary shop near closing time, had found Elizabeth Coates sitting on his stoop, her eyes and nose red with spent tears. He looked at her now where she stood on the opposite side of the counter with compassion and understanding – and just a hint of impatience.
“Jeremy does not always tell us where he goes, Elizabeth. Perhaps a note came from the general’s camp calling him there.”
“I thought the general was away.”
“He is. He is.” General Lafayette had been sent in late December to Albany, New York to await final word on the Canadian expedition. Henry opened the cupboard behind him and, finding the white clay jar he wanted, added a liberal dash of antimodium cruda to the mix. “But the work of the war goes on here in Pennsylvania as well. There are other officers who require aid…from time to time.”
“Doesn’t Jeremy usually tell you if he is going off for some time?”
Henry paused and looked at her over the top of his glasses. “Doesn’t he usually tell you?”
Elizabeth spun around and slid down the front of the wooden counter to sit on the floor. Her words were thick with foreboding. “Henry, something is wrong. I can feel it.”
With a sigh Henry stopped his mixing. He had learned – however unscientific – never to disregard a woman’s intuition, especially where someone they cared for deeply was involved. He wiped his hands on a linen cloth and then went to sit beside her. Elizabeth had explained upon her arrival about Mayor Larkin’s disturbing visit to her home. To his mind, it seemed most unlikely that Major Joachim Zanker would be coherent enough to cause any trouble – let alone to find his way back to Chester. Though the two hanging deaths in less than a week were a rather startling coincidence.
Henry took her hand in his and patted it. “Be at peace, Elizabeth. Jeremy is strong. He can take care of himself,” he assured her.
Elizabeth leaned her head back. She rolled her eyes and looked at him. “Jeremy is a man, and no man can look after himself with any success. They are always too bold, too reckless, and in too much of a hurry.”
Henry rose and offered her a hand. “Why don’t I take you home, your uncle is certain to be worried, and then I will return and finish what I am doing. After I deliver the remedy, I will seek out Isak and together we will go look for Jeremy.”
She took his hand and let him pull her to her feet. “You promise?”
Henry crossed his finger over his heart. “Promise. Now, where is my key?” He fumbled for a few moments before he found it, during which time Elizabeth walked to the door. Joining her, he unlocked and opened it. As they stepped onto the stoop, Henry took hold of the sign he kept hanging on the shop’s doorknob and flipped it so it read ‘Closed’. “See?” he said, pointing at it. “The apothecary is not available. He must help the fair Elizabeth seek her wayward knight.”
That made her smile.
“Did you have a cloak?” Henry asked when he saw that she was shivering. She was dressed simply in a calico skirt and linen chemise with a light shawl. “The sun is down and the day grows chill.”
“No. Just my shawl. I set out early, when it was warmer.”
“Wait here, then. I will get you one of mine. We don’t want you catching a chill and coming in need of my services.” Henry paused with his hand on the doorknob and pointed at the sign again. “You see, I am not in.”
Elizabeth laughed this time as he disappeared into the darkened shop. A moment later when he reappeared with his heavy brown cloak, she was smiling no longer.
“Elizabeth? What is it?”
“Henry, don’t you think it odd my uncle has not come to find me?”
Now that she mentioned it, it was rather out of character for the crotchety and possessive old ‘gentleman’ she shared her home with. “Perhaps he fell asleep waiting for you,” he suggested.
“Perhaps.” As Henry draped the cloak about her shoulders, Elizabeth shuddered with a sudden chill. “Henry!” she said, gripping his arm. “You don’t think anything could have happened Uncle John, do you?”
“Is this about Major Zanker again?” he asked, trying not to chide.
She nodded. “He was a terrifying man. If he is back….”
“If. And that is all it is, Elizabeth, an ‘if’.” He smiled reassuringly at her. “Come now, I will take you home and go in with you to make certain everything is all right – if you like.”
“I do not know what my uncle will think of that,” she said quietly as they stepped off the stoop and headed down the steps. “My walking alone with an unmarried man, after dark.”
Henry thought a moment. “We will tell him that you were overcome and that someone brought you to my shop for a remedy. And then I gallantly offered to bring you home.”
She smiled and took his arm when he offered it. “Henry Abington, you are a dear friend.”
But Elizabeth need not have worried about her uncle’s reaction. When they got to the farm –
No one was there.
“Sir…. Gilbert, I thought you didn’t like to drink.”
Lafayette looked at his friend and aide over the lip of the pewter tankard he was contemplating. “I don’t, Daniel, but when ‘Born on Newgate’….”
Boggs sipped his ale and hid his smile. “Do you know what that means?”
The young Frenchman shook his head. American words he had learned coming over on the boat from France. American idioms were a mystery to him – and his misinterpretation of them was often the occasion for laughter from his fellow officers. He had learned to shrug it all off in the name of ‘fun’. “It is the name of the tavern, is it not?” he said as he lowered the tankard to the table.
“It’s an old English expression. ‘Born on Newgate’s steps’. Newgate Prison, that is.”
“Ah! Yes, I have heard of it.”
“A horrible place. One guard to every ninety prisoners. Three hundred prisoners where there should be half that number. Filth, typhus, trading, gambling. They even have their own brewery and run their own Punch House. Seems little ‘correction’ will be found for the inmates there.”
Lafayette frowned. “Punch House?” he asked.
Boggs shrugged and almost seemed a little embarrassed. He glanced around and then said more quietly, “You know. The ‘Abbey’. A ‘house of civil reception’?” When that failed to elicit a response, he tried another one. “A vaulting school?”
Lafayette’s brown brows winged toward the soft wave of hair brushing his forehead. “Vaulting school? They have horses in the prison?”
Boggs rolled his eyes and placed his head in his hands. “No,” he said, looking up again. “A House of Venus. For the likes of – her!” He nodded toward the counter.
Lafayette pivoted in his chair and looked.
“Sir. Gilbert! No, don’t give her any ideas….”
But it was too late.
A buxom woman of perhaps forty to forty-five straddled one of the stools at the bar. Her copper hair was piled high and powdered like women preferred it back in France, and her face was heavily painted. She said a quick word to the tavern-keep and then dismounted the stool and sidled over to their table and leaned over the back of an empty chair. The bodice of her crimson gown was undone, the laces hanging loose. Her stays were visible – as were her ample breasts, one of which was dotted with a beauty spot.
She saw him looking.
“Say ‘hello’ to me apple dumplin’s, handsome,” she purred. Then she reached out and fingered a lock of his dark brown hair.
Sergeant Boggs cleared his throat. “Madam, my friend here, he wasn’t….”
“You look the friendly sort, luv,” she tossed over her shoulder. “And so does he.” Her expert eye appraised him. The Marquis knew what she saw – a young man, most likely inexperienced in many ways, an easy mark whose clothing, boots, and even the way he held himself bespoke of wealth and breeding. She was calculating how many of the shillings he had in his pocket he might be willing to part with to gain a little… experience. The woman pushed off the chair and leaned on the edge of the table beside him. As she spoke she let her hand trail down his throat to his chest – and beyond.
Sergeant Boggs started to move, but a quick shake of his head stopped him.
“Smart as a carrot, you are,” the woman said softly, rubbing the fine fabric of his shirt between her fingers. “But you’re a young pup. I bet you don’t know much.” Leaning forward she whispered in his ear, “Old Maggie’ll teach you a few things, and then send you home to your pretty young wife so’s you can make her happy.”
Lafayette smiled. He caught her hand just as it descended below the table. “Madame, I regret to say, I am not interested. No disrespect intended.”
Maggie’s light brown eyes popped wide open. “You’re French. Hey, Joe!” she called to the tavernkeeper. “This one’s French!”
Sergeant Boggs stood and caught her by the arm. By this time half of the doubtful occupants of the tavern had stopped talking and were looking at them. “Could you keep your voice down, Madame? Please.”
She turned on him and with one short, well-practiced motion, broke free. “Why? You got somethin’ to hide?”
“Hide?” Sergeant Boggs’ eyes fastened on him as if to say ‘look at this mess you have gotten us into’. “No. It is just – ”
“We don’t see many Frenchmen ‘round here,” Maggie said, rising. She ran her finger’s under Lafayette’s chin and lifted his head. “Least ways, not many live ones. Joe’s old lady took up with a Frenchman years ago. Ain’t that right, Joe?”
“That’s right. Maggie,” the tavernkeeper answered without having heard the question.
She leaned in close to Lafayette and whispered, “Buried ‘em both under the floorboards he did.” Maggie stomped her foot. “Right here.”
Before she could rise, he caught her hand. “Madame, let us be frank. It is not me, but my money you are interested in.”
“I don’t know.” She laughed as she looked him up and down again with an appreciative eye. “I’d say both were worth a roll.”
“How would you like to earn a Louis?”
Maggie tried to hide her surprise. She failed miserably. “What good’s a French coin to me?”
He smiled as he pulled one from his pocket and placed it in her hand, closing his own over it and holding it tight. “It might buy a Frenchman. One with more life than the poor creature under your feet.”
Maggie had sobered. She knew he was serious. Her light brown eyes assessed the situation, noting the crowd that had returned to minding its own business, the tavern-keeper busily pouring out libations, and the door opening to admit still more wet, cold, and weary men.
“What do you want for it?” she asked.
“Information. Just information.”
Now she looked suspicious. “About what?”
“Now ‘what’, but who. Two men who visited this tavern. Who may still be here.” With her watching, he reached into his pocket and put another Louis on the table. “This is yours as well, if you will tell me what you know.”
Her eyes were on the coin. “Tell me what they look like, and maybe I’ll tell you if I seen ‘em.”
Lafayette released her hand. He described the pair the courier had mentioned – the tall, lean man with an accent whose face was veiled, and the other one, with the scar, who spoke to his hand as if it were alive.
Maggie was seasoned. She had dealt with all types of men on her own terms for more than twice as many years as he had been alive, but she paled at his words. “Those two! They were evil men. Just plain evil.” She brushed his hair lightly with her fingers. “You don’t want to go messin’ with ‘em, young sir.”
“But I do. The second Louis is for you, if you can lead me to them.”
Maggie’s eyes went to the tavernkeeper again. When she seemed satisfied, she nodded. “Downstairs. Bottom floor that looks over the river. The room all the way at the back.”
“They are there?” he asked, shooting a triumphant look at Boggs who had remained quiet during his general’s negotiations.
“Yes. But you better hurry. I heard one of ‘em say they would be leavin’ tonight, before the mornin’ light.” She looked at the Louis and when he nodded, picked it up and put it – along with the first one – in her cleavage. “And if you change your mind about what you’re payin’ for, just ask for Queen Mags.” She bent down and kissed him on the lips. “I’ll be waitin’ for you to retrieve them.”
Sergeant Boggs watched her move away, swinging her broad hips and advertising her wares. With a grin, he asked, “And just exactly how am I supposed to put this interrogation in my report?”
“You’ll think of something,” Lafayette responded, rising to his feet. “Now, come on.” As they entered the stairwell that led down into darkness, he drew his pistol and looked back at his sergeant. “Caution is advised, mon ami.”
Lafayette frowned. “Daniel, I have told you – ”
“And now I am telling you. You will let me lead the way. I am responsible for you.”
The young Frenchman frowned. “I suppose if I do not, it will go in your ‘report’ as well.”
“And straight to General Washington. Gilbert.”
“Merci un Dieu!” He backed away and allowed the sergeant to take the step before him. “Be careful, Daniel.”
At the bottom of the stair they found a long corridor ill-lit by greasy beef tallow candles set in tin holders that left a murky smoke clinging to everything. At the end of the corridor they found a door. Lafayette pressed a finger to his lips. Behind the door he could hear footsteps and the sound of men deep in conversation. He lowered his hand and counted with it – one, two, three! With his booted foot, he struck the door, breaking the rotten timbers and together they rushed into the room.
It was empty with the exception of one small keg in the corner.
“Mon Dieu! What mischief is this? I know I heard voices.”
Sergeant Boggs was looking around. “Sir, I have a bad feeling about this….”
“What do you – “
A creaking sound and a sudden rush of cold night air came in reply to Lafayette’s unfinished question. A trap door opened in the floor and both he and Sergeant Boggs plummeted downward. Lafayette hit the ground at an odd angle, twisting his ankle. With a cry he struggled to his feet. They were outside, obviously underneath the tavern, near the river.
“Daniel! Daniel?” The area was so dark he could not find his friend. He began to feel around, searching for him. “Daniel!”
Lafayette heard his voice and turned, but the one standing behind him was not Daniel.
Then the butt of a pistol came down on his neck, hard, and he knew no more.
Continued in Chapter Two