"Captain Ransom," said a familiar, clipped voice from somewhere behind William.
Shit . William Ransom, Ninth Earl of Elsmere, and unwitting imposter fixed a pleasant, if disinterested, expression on his face and turned to face the man who had spoken to him. "Captain Richardson. I didn't know you were still in Philadelphia."
Richardson flashed a grin that was the epitome of arrogance. "I could say the same of you, but I assume you are not in violation of your parole. I'd like a few moments of your time, if you'd please."
It didn't sound like a request, but William was in no mood to take orders or veiled threats from someone who neither outranked him nor was a member of his command. "I've somewhere to be just now. I'll catch you up some other time, shall I?" William turned on his heel and continued on his way.
Richardson stood his ground, calling after him. "It's about your mother."
"My mother is dead," he yelled back, not stopping.
"No, Lord Elsmere. Your stepmother."
William froze, but kept his back to Richardson. Shit. He meant Mother Claire. He couldn't have known that Claire's marriage to Lord John Grey had been annulled. Papa and Jamie had decided it would be safer for Claire if they kept it quiet. William was very fond of her, and his temper rose up in him at what was shaping up to be a not-so-veiled, direct threat toward her. What trouble was she in now?
William blew out the breath that had caught in his throat and returned his features to an unconcerned, neutral expression. He turned around and stalked back to the infuriating captain, making an effort to unclench his fists. "After you."
* * *
Jamie Fraser drummed the surviving fingers of his right hand against his thigh, face unreadable and posture agitated. The Scot leaned against the wall of the cottage. The ceiling was low enough that if Jamie rose up on his toes, he would bump his head on the rafters, which William had personally discovered. It would seem that Jamie did not share William's habit of bouncing on the balls of his feet..
"You're certain?" Lord John asked. He perched on a rickety wooden stool, one hand braced against his hip, his other forearm resting on his knee.
William nodded. "Richardson said he had evidence, could prove that Mother Claire was a traitor and distributing seditious material. He said it was in black and white and there was no one to refute the charge."
"Christ," John swore and looked over his shoulder at Jamie. "As far as I know she stopped feeding the resistance information after… after she was threatened last time," he finished tactfully, not bringing up his well-intended--yet poorly received--brief marriage to Mother Claire. "Is there anything you aren't telling me, Jamie?"
Jamie turned a hard blue stare on John. "No. It's far too dangerous. I wouldna allow it."
John and William both arched skeptical brows at Jamie. They knew all too well precisely how much weight a man's permission held in Claire Fraser's decision making process. Which was to say, none whatsoever.
"She is not spying," Jamie said with complete certainty.
Lord John sat up straight. "Well there we have it. Three character witnesses, of a sort. I’ll go to Hal, ask him to arrange an audience."
William shook his head. "No good, Papa. Jamie can't testify on her behalf without being arrested and hanged for treason on the spot. He’s one of Washington’s generals. And you can't testify because they'll accuse you of aiding and abetting a known traitor. A pair of them.” William waved the first two fingers of his left hand in the air, drawing himself and Jamie into the gesture. “And we cannot be seen within six miles of each other without the entire British army connecting us in an immeasurably scandalous manner.”
That last point let the air out of their little gathering. John and Jamie would both run headlong into certain death, but they wouldn’t place William in unnecessary danger.
“Then we run,” John suggested. “Home, to Virginia.”
Jamie made a noise in his throat, a displeased growl. It was rather eloquent, William reflected, conveying a depth of meaning that many men could not accomplish with full sentences. In this case, the meaning was clear: That’s the worst idea you’ve had in a string of bad ideas today . “Claire is connected to you, John,” he elaborated. “That would be the first place they looked. And it would place your entire household at great risk.”
“The Ridge then,” John countered.
Jamie shook his head. “Nay. I willna bring this threat to my tenants.” A shadow crossed Jamie’s face, though it was gone in an instant. Willie thought perhaps danger had found its way to Fraser’s Ridge before.
Some men have impeccable posture and Lord John was one of them. His shoulders only slumped a fraction of an inch, the acceptance of some burden, a dawning realization that might have been comical in other circumstances. “You’re not suggesting--” John began.
Jamie winced, his shoulders coming up in the ghost of a helpless shrug. “If we could discover where this Richardson stores his intelligence...”
“No,” John said, shooting to his feet and drawing himself up to his full height.
The shortest among them by a full head and shoulders, the image was comical and William bit the inside of the cheek. Papa would be cross if he came unhinged now.
“Will ye listen, John?”
“No,” Lord John repeated, insistent. “It’s a fool’s errand at best and suicide at worst. Damn it, Jamie, this isn’t some castle we can just storm and take by force. Richardson is a dangerous spy. We cannot afford to underestimate him.”
Jamie stared down at John, face contemplative. “I’ve stormed a castle before.”
“Jamie--” John began, but reigned up hard on his response and gave a blank stare up at him. “You. What?”
The Scot repeated himself calmly, towering over Lord John. “I’ve stormed a castle before. Well, Fort William, actually. For Claire. Without firing a single shot.”
This was it, William supposed. This was how his Papa finally went mad. Willie sputtered, unable to fight the bubbling laughter anymore.
Grey angled a finger up at William but didn’t take his eyes off his friend. “Do not encourage him,” he ordered.
Jamie waved off John’s growing agitation and his words were tinged with excitement. The son of a bitch was looking forward to this . “It was many years ago, John. You would have been younger than our Willie is now. An’ we’ve a great many more years of experience between us now, aye? Do you truly believe that an American brigadier general, a lieutenant colonel, and a fierce captain of His Majesty’s army canna outsmart one wee spy who hides behind impotent threats?”
Lord John softened, his hands going to his sides in approaching surrender. “We’re retired, you and I.”
“Nay,” Jamie shook his head. “I resigned my commission, I dinna retire. I could return to service any time. And are you not in fact away without leave?” His lips quirked up into a grin that promised a gleeful execution of mischief and mayhem.
That clenched it. Or else John had realized that he’d get further arguing with the front door. He sighed. “Christ,” Grey muttered, massaging his temples with the graceful fingers of both hands. “Alright. What’s your plan?”
* * *
Claire had been suitably put out by the revelation that she’d been threatened by Richardson again. “It’s preposterous and completely unfounded,” she’d said.
Her denial earned her one raised ruddy brow from Jamie. “Sassenach…”
She sighed. “Well, no , I suppose it isn’t entirely unfounded. But I stopped! I spend a lot of time at the print shop helping Marsali with the children, but that’s all. No more feeding information to the rebels.”
Jamie pursed his lips at her and nodded. “Aye, well. Dinna fash. We’ll sort it out.”
“How?” she asked, a wary look coming over her beautiful face. “Jamie Fraser, what are you planning?”
John cast his eyes to the floor when Jamie kissed his wife firmly on the mouth. “We’ll return before dawn,” he said. With a squeeze of her upper arms, Jamie left the cabin.
Claire caught Lord John’s sleeve as he bowed his farewell and made to follow Jamie. “Please don’t let him do anything stupid.”
John sighed. “I fear that is entirely outside of my control, my dear. But I will try.”
* * *
As it turned out, Captain Richardson was no fool. A paranoid bastard, yes. The dangerous, secretive kind of mad, also yes. But not a fool.
Lord John and William had called in discreet favors while Jamie sought information over cards and ale. Through this, they deduced that Captain Richardson maintained rooms near the heart of the city under an assumed name. The area teemed with Continentals, as General Arnold had made his headquarters nearby.
Nothing like hiding in plain sight. In the lion’s den.
Jamie was resplendent in his general’s uniform, red hair bound back smartly with a leather thong and glinting in the moonlight beneath his tricorn. His coat was tightly buttoned to conceal the blood stains on his shirt from the last time he’d worn his uniform in an official capacity. The skirts flowed behind him as he strode with brisk purpose to the nearest pair of sentries. John and Willie followed him, dressed as militia--which was to say shabby--William’s hat pulled low over his eyes. The young man kept his head bowed to conceal his face in shadow. With any luck, Jamie’s appearance would create sufficient distraction to allow them to pass into the city well after curfew.
“State your name and your business. Sir,” one of the sentries demanded, adding the formal address as an afterthought. The corporal’s eyes widened, traveling up and up over the uniform to settle on Jamie’s face.
“General Fraser,” Jamie said. “For General Arnold.”
William and John came to a halt behind Jamie, at a respectful distance but near enough to be clear that they were with him. John let his eyes wander to what passed for a gate into the city, affecting an air of unimpressed boredom. William pantomimed a yawn to give himself an excuse to nonchalantly cover his face.
The sentries exchanged glances, then narrowed their eyes at Jamie. “We weren’t told to expect you past curfew, Sir. I’m afraid we can’t--”
“No, you wouldna been told about it,” Jamie said. “But General Arnold is expecting me. Corporal. If ye’ll be so kind as to let me pass, I’ll be sure to compliment the discipline of his sentries.” His voice was cool and commanding and John did his level best not to be affected by it. He failed utterly and shifted his weight from one foot to the other, ignoring the churning feeling in his guts.
“And who are they, Sir?” The second sentry inclined his head toward the distance over Jamie’s shoulder, indicating Grey and William. “Are they with you?”
“Aye, they are my personal staff.” Jamie spoke with the exaggerated patience reserved for communicating with exceedingly thick people. “I require their assistance and they are coming wi’ me.”
The two Continentals exchanged uncertain glances, hands gripping their muskets tighter, and they held their ground. “What business do you have with General Arnold, Sir?”
From his position behind Jamie, John had a splendid view of the stiffening of the tall Scot’s shoulders and back, saw his hand drop to rest casually on the hilt of his sword. Oh, Christ , John thought in Jamie’s direction. Don’t kill the poor bastard. Don’t do anything rash . He couldn’t see Jamie’s face, but he could see the corporals’ and they both swallowed hard, throats convulsing.
“My business with General Arnold is of a most sensitive nature, Corporal,” Jamie said, voice clipped, measured, deadly. “And ye have detained me quite long enough to inconvenience him and myself.”
The sentry placed one foot behind him, ready to turn on his heel and flee. “If you’ll wait here, Sir, I’ll have a man sent with word to General--”
“No,” Jamie interrupted. “You’ll stand aside now, Private. My business is urgent and I’ll ne’ wait any longer.”
To the sentry’s credit, his voice only wavered a little, his hands twitching and pulling the long barrel of his musket closer to his chest. “Corporal, Sir. Begging the General’s pardon.”
Jamie took one long stride and covered the ground between himself and the sentry, looming over the soldier with the promise of chaos rolling off the set of his straight back. “Not if you dinna step aside. I will drag you to the stockade. Have I made myself perfectly clear?”
William coughed, and John heard the laugh he drowned in it. Grey slapped William on the back a couple times in what appeared to be a friendly and helpful manner. Willie hunched forward as the sentries’ gaze flashed to him, continuing the charade. The second guard furrowed his brows with concern, but John waved him off. “He’s quite alright. My apologies for the interruption, General Fraser,” John said, roughening his accent as much as he dared.
“We’d better let ‘em through,” said the other sentry as he laid one unsteady hand on his mate’s arm.
They faced off for several very tense heartbeats, during which John took a hasty inventory of their surroundings. If this went sour they could make the trees. Provided they weren’t shot first. At last the guards parted, ushering Jamie by with a wordless bow.
They were well into the city’s nearly deserted streets when John broke the silence. “Honestly, William, have you quite lost your mind? We could have been shot.”
“But we weren’t,” William countered. “Could you really have reduced their rank? If you hadn’t resigned your commission, that is,” he asked Jamie.
Jamie shook his head. “Nay. Not directly. And my influence with General Arnold was nay so… influential.” He turned and grinned at John, white teeth gleaming. “But they dinna ken that. East. This way.”
* * *
The trio made their way through Philadelphia, keeping to the shadows. What few Continentals they passed paid them little heed beyond a salute to General Fraser. His uniform proved the perfect defense against the curfew. Unfortunately, should Richardson or any of his accomplices spot them, they would find themselves walking into a trap. Or the muzzle of a pistol.
They passed their target twice before they realized it. The buildings were cramped together along the street, one quite like another. The street a little way down teemed with Continentals, and Jamie led Willie and John into a claustrophobic alley as a patrol marched by. Willie nodded to the lieutenant as they passed, using his large size to obscure their view of Jamie. A general had no business lurking in an alley such as this, and the Continental army was well accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of militia. The patrol went about their way without incident, barely noticing them.
The alley was swathed in darkness, only the lantern glow from the street penetrated its depths. They hadn’t dared to bring even a dark lantern for fear of arousing suspicion. Jamie felt his way along the left wall until he found a door. He pressed his ear too the battered wood and listened. "I dinna hear anyone inside." He drew his dirk, holding it low and ready at his left side. "Willie, guard the rear."
Willie nodded, hand on his loaded pistol but did not draw it while he faced the street beyond the gloom.
John drew his pistol and checked that it was primed. "Ready," he said.
Jamie put his hand on the door knob, paused, and turned his wrist. Nothing happened. He swore in French. "It's locked." He sheathed his dirk and stepped back across the alley, readying himself to kick the door.
John stopped him with a hand on Jamie's chest. "Wait," he hissed, holstering his pistol. "No need for wanton violence yet. Allow me." He ignored the skeptically raised brow from his friend and rummaged in his coat pocket. He came out with a small leather case and knelt in front of the door, feeling around for the lock. He balanced the case on his knee and extracted a thin lock picking probe.
"Papa, what are you--"
"Shh," John said. "I need to hear what I can't see." He slid the little metal probe into the lock and poked around. "Ah, yes, that should do nicely," he muttered, fumbling around in his case until he found the tension wrench he needed. He slid that into the lock as well, and after a few moments of manipulation, had moved all the pins and turned the cylinder. He put his tools back into his pocket and stood, sketching a bow. "After you, General Fraser."
Jamie's face was all awash in pleased shock. "And where did ye learn to do that?" His flustered awe was both endearing and amusing, and John fought to keep his own expression neutral.
"A gentleman never tells. Now, go."
They ducked through the door, the room within dark as pitch. John dared only take a couple of steps inside for fear of collision. Willie closed the door behind him, his quiet footsteps sidling to the left. John heard a loud crack around the height of a tall man’s knee, followed by Willie’s snarled curse. “Shit. It’s bloody dark in here.”
A rustling to John’s right, a scratching sound, and then a sudden flash of light illuminated Jamie’s face. He found a half-used taper on the desk and touched the wick to the flame in his hand until it caught, extinguishing the tiny fire in his hand with a shake once the candle was lit. The pale glow displayed a single room flat, sparsely furnished. The taper revealed a bed, small table and two chairs near the fireplace, a single bookshelf, a desk, and a wash stand to the left crowded the entryway. That must have been what Willie had bumped into.
“How in God’s name did you do that?” William asked, voice astonished as he stared at Jamie and the candle.
Jamie spared a moment for a wistful smile, the expression lovely and sad and John dug his fingernails into his palm to keep from reaching out to him. “They’re called matches. My… your sister made them.” He circled the desk, which was littered with papers and waxed envelopes and began thumbing through them. “What do you think Richardson’s so-called evidence looks like?”
John found a leather satchel slung over a chair, and reaching inside, felt parchment. “Properly signed and witnessed statements of testimony from a loyal third party, most likely.” He brought the bag to the desk to take better advantage of Jaime’s light. “Or personal notes and observations of Claire’s movements, her whereabouts. Apparently clandestine meetings and her contacts, that sort of thing.” John extracted the sheaf of parchment from the satchel and leafed through it. “That will be in code, most likely.”
“He’ll have changed his cypher, the bastard,” Willie said. He rummaged through the contents of a bookshelf, opening and closing books, thumbing through pages and replacing them as he had found them.
“I can decipher his code,” Jamie and John both said together. They stopped and stared at each other. The sound of pages flipping and books slapping shut continued from Willie’s bookshelf.
John gave Jamie an expectant look. He wasn’t particularly shocked by this revelation. Jamie was brilliant, but his confidence was startling and Grey burned with curiosity. “Do I detect a long story?”
“Aye,” Jamie laughed, and John could have sworn he saw color rise in his cheeks though he could not have identified the cause. “For a time I intercepted Charles Stuart’s correspondence. It was also in code.”
That took Lord John aback, and the curiosity intensified, but they had work to do. “Later then,” he said, and returned to the pages in his hand.
“And you, John?” Jamie asked.
John slid the parchment back into the satchel and returned it to the chair. “I worked as an intelligencer for His Majesty’s army for many years. But if I tell you anymore than that, Mr. Fraser, I shall have to kill you.” He moved to bed and crouched to peer underneath.
“I do enjoy our conversations, John,” Jamie said, voice steady but full of irony. “I dinna ken many men with such entertaining delusions of grandeur.”
William laughed. “Anything under there, Papa?”
John nudged the utensil aside, but found nothing lurking behind it. “No,” he said rising.
“Nay that I can tell here either," Jamie said and blew out a long sigh. He tapped the fingers of his right hand against his thigh. "But it must be here. We will take all of it."
William blinked. "All of what, precisely?"
"All of Richardson's documents," Jamie answered as if theft of this magnitude were a perfectly normal course of action.
"He will suspect Willie immediately," John said. Given his own recent personal record for handling threats against Claire, that suspicion would likely spread instantly to himself as well, but that was of little consequence.
Jamie nodded. "Aye. I'll no' put the lad at risk." He began stacking papers and envelopes, gathering them up. "Fit what you can in that satchel, John. We'll take the rest out in our coats." Taking a clean sheet of parchment from a stack and trimming a quill, he crouched over the table and wrote, quill held awkwardly in his damaged right hand.
John had only seen Jamie write a couple of times before. He'd never asked what had happened to Jamie's right hand and he never would, as it was clearly a point of self-consciousness for the man. He wrote only a single line before signing his name and leaving the parchment in the center of the writing desk.
The three men gathered every loose scrap of parchment in the place, tucking them away in pockets and bags, under belts, careful to keep them securely in place while leaving their hands free. The sparse room now appeared spartan and sanitary with every horizontal surface relieved of their burdens. Only the books remained. Jamie left the taper to burn itself out in its holder, and as he passed, John read the note. It said only, "Leave the colonies and do not return. J. Fraser." No salutation, no polite closing. Just the hasty, heavy scrawl. Well, that should be impossible to misinterpret, John thought.
With a final glance around the room to be sure they hadn't missed anything, they made their exit, Jamie in the lead, with John bringing up the rear. They hastened through the streets, with an intimidating sort of purpose. What men they passed dove out of the way of the enormous general, and John thought he must be wearing a most frightening expression. He was surprised, therefore, when Jamie stopped so abruptly that John had to steady himself with a hand against Jamie’s back to keep from running into him. He prayed that the distinctive crinkle of parchment in his coat wasn’t audible to the men in Jamie’s way.
Grey side-stepped to Jamie’s right to assess the situation and his eyes settled on the sentries who had stopped them at the bottom of the road into town. Oh , he thought. Shit .
“A moment of your time, General Fraser?” one of the guards said.
The air between them crackled and beside him, John felt Jamie tense and shift his weight, coiling energy in his limbs, readying himself to strike. John’s hand hovered above his concealed dagger, and he looked around the street, assessing the severity of the danger. If they crossed blades with these two men, the entire Continental army in Philadelphia would descend on them in a swarm.
“My apologies, gentlemen,” Jamie said, voice firm and unconcerned. John noticed his hand was within easy reach of his dirk but didn’t close on the hilt. “My men have been riding all day and my wife’ll be waiting for me.” He made to pass them, but one of the senties put a hand on Jamie’s shoulder and shoved him back in place.
Jamie glared down at the hand on his shoulder and his gaze traced the line of the man’s arm back up to his neck. His blue eyes were cold, unimpressed, and deadly. Christ.
“We’ve just come from General Arnold’s headquarters,” said the sentry with the apparent death wish. “And his duty sergeant was sayin’ as how the General wasn’t expecting you. And he said you never came to see the General anyway.”
They were one wrong move away from disaster. While Lord John didn’t think Jamie would actually do anything reckless, Claire’s parting words rang in his ears. Please don’t let him do anything stupid.
“Take your hand off of--” Jamie began, interrupted by Willie shouldering his way between Jamie and John and crashing into the sentries. The effect was to scatter them, earning a few paces of maneuverability.
“I knew it! I bloody knew it!” Willie exclaimed, beaming and laughing like an utter loon. “I knew you’d be onto him sooner or later.”
John’s stare went from William to the sentries, to Jamie’s impassive face, and back to his stepson. He endeavored to keep his own face bland. All he could do was pray that Willie had thought this plan through.
Willie slapped one of the guards so hard on the back that the man staggered. “‘You can’t do it, Mac,’ I said to him. ‘I’ll wager three shillings that you can’t get into town with that ridiculous uniform, take a walk, and get back out without being caught.’” Willie let out another gale of laughter and threw his arm around the other guard’s shoulders. “He said,” Willie went on, tossing his head carelessly in Jamie’s direction. “He said you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. But I said, that awful excuse for a uniform would never pass enough to even have him arrested for impersonating an officer. Isn’t that right, Mac?”
There was an uncomfortable pause in which Grey held his breath and the guards exchanged bewildered glances. Jamie gave a sheepish grin and chuckled. “Aye, ye did say that. Come on, lad, I’ll see ye paid.”
One of the guards stared hard between Willie and Jamie, one uncertain hand coming up to point from one to the other. The resemblance between father and son was so striking that any idiot would notice, including these two. Here it comes, John thought.
“You know,” the guard said. “You’re a spitting image of...Who are you? Really.”
Willie sobered at once. “What are you talking about, mate? Have you been at the bottle?”
“General Arnold lets his sentries drink to excess on guard duty?” William tsked in disapproval. “My commander would beat anyone careless enough to get drunk on watch. I’m frankly appalled.”
The guard stammered. “But, you… are you related? And where have you been for the last twenty minutes? What?”
Willie put his other arm around the sputtering guard’s shoulder as well and steered them both into a shadowy alcove away from roving eyes. “Now, gents, if you’ll be very kind,” he said, and without warning punched one guard in the jaw with a God-awful crack.
The other drew in a breath to shout, but John was on him, clamping his left hand tight over the soldier’s mouth. “Ah, none of that, if you please,” John said. The cry caught in the guard’s throat and when it tapered off, John removed his left hand. “Thank you,” he said. The guard opened his mouth again, and John hammered his fist against the man’s temple. They slumped to the ground, quite conscious, but bloodied and undoubtedly seeing stars.
John and Willie took a step back, John flexing the sore fingers of his right hand. As a rule, Grey preferred not to punch people in the hard places like the skull. The soft bits, like the stomach, were much easier on ones own hand.
Jamie bent over the two guards in a heap, and they turned unfocused eyes up to him. “Dinna rise, gentlemen. It’s far safer for you on the ground.” The Scot rose and led John and Willie to the outskirts of town.
* * *
“Elsmere, you bastard,” Richardson spat. “I know you had something to do with this.”
The taproom of the ordinary was crowded this time of day, Philadelphia going about its luncheon around them. Willie flashed a ferocious, toothy grin at the captain. “I don’t know where you got that idea. You menaced Claire Fraser. You didn’t really think Jamie Fraser would allow that, did you? You’re lucky to be alive from what I understand.”
Captain Richardson snarled. “You told him.”
William leaned across the table as if preparing to impart some great wisdom. “This is one hornets’ nest you would do well to avoid kicking, Captain. Do not threaten my family again.” He collected his hat from the table, clapped it on his head, and left without a backward glance.