Here’s a free glimpse at the book M.A. Lee is currently working on, The Key for Spies. This is the rough draft of the first chapter.
Chapter 1 ~
1813 April 20
Simon Pargeter crouched in the shade of a young pine as he waited to meet the partisans.
He had already waited a day longer than anticipated. Major Hugo Stively had assured Simon that he would be met, and he’d given the name of the leader of the partisans in this area near Vittoria.
“Esperanza. Some kind of noble.” Stively had said. “Name means hope in Spanish. They need hope, poor sods, with the French army tightening its grip.”
Even though they were only in mid-April, the heat of late afternoon shimmered on the bare rocks. A coronella basked on a razor-edged slab of granite. A fawn-colored crested bird with black and white markings hooted at Simon. When it realized he was not going to move, it flew under a scrubby bush and scratched about.
With a clear sky and the warm day, he should have been basking on his own rock. He threw a pebble across the track and watched it bounce. He hadn’t picked the site for this meeting. That was Stively, swearing this ridge on the flank of the mountains was a common meeting point.
The black-barred brown snake slithered off its rock into the shadows.
And Simon heard a low rumbling that could only be horses running.
The thunder increased, steady, stronger, and then horses rushed onto the height, following the track from the valley below.
Simon tossed away his last pebble and stepped to the center of the track. He waited, hands hanging at his sides, palms out. His pistol remained tucked in his belt. He didn’t pick up the Baker rifle leaning on his pack. His horse waited beneath a holm oak, idly switching its tail even with other horses approaching.
They rode hard, right toward him. He stood his ground, and the first of the thundering horses streamed past, their riders expertly controlling them. The other riders drew up before him. Without looking, he knew they had encircled him.
The men had covered their mouths and chins with cloth, patterned or striped or plain. A couple tossed remarks and caused laughter.
One man threw his reins forward then slung his leg over and slid down. His wiry leanness made Simon think of a knife fighter, dismounted. He shouldered forward. Standing with crossed arms, he faced Simon. One eyebrow lifted.
Simon knew better than to push. He had waited over a day; he could wait longer. The ringing horses shifted restlessly, tossing their heads, backing, surging forward before reined back. Good horseflesh. Not for the first time he wished he were in Spain buying horses, not spying for His Majesty.
The dust stirred up by the riders slowly drifted down and settled over him, over the horses and their riders, back onto the dry ground and rocks and scrubby growth.
The wiry man glanced over his shoulder then looked back at Simon, who gave a little tilt of his head, acknowledgment of their game of patience. He used his peripheral vision to watch the other men, his hearing to listen for anything coming from behind him. How long would this test last?
“¿Usted es Señor Pargeter?”
Ah, the wiry man had broken first. Simon nodded. “Si. ¿Usted es Don Esperanza?”
The circle of riders laughed. Simon glanced around, wondering how his question had failed the test.
“Don Esperanza, Está muerto.”
Dead. A dead contact didn’t bode well for his mission, but he kept his growing uneasiness hidden. He didn’t smile; he didn’t frown. He just watched. He had doubted the name was a family name, merely an alias for this leader of partisans. The riders would know their leader’s identity, just as they now knew his. He wasn’t even certain that he wanted to know the family name of the leader of this group.
The wiry man once more looked behind him.
A horse came forward from the back of the group. Like so many of the others, this rider wore a wide-brimmed hat and a heavy scarf. He’d belted a bulky jacket too large around his waist. As slim as the first man, but in that over-sized jacket he looked more like a youth aping his elders than the leader of partisans who fought fiercely against the French soldiers occupying their country. Simon could tell little more.
The men drew to one side for this new rider, who walked the horse beyond the circle. Then the rider jumped down. Dust puffed under leather boots, but Simon wasn’t looking at boots. He saw long legs, a well-shaped derriere, and clearly defined hips before the woman jerked down the bulky jacket. A woman. Not a youth, but a long-legged woman who barely reached his shoulder. The wide-brimmed hat hid her hair, and she kept her scarf up, covering most of her face. He could barely see her dark eyes, but he saw enough to catch their sparkling sherry color.
She tossed her mount’s reins to the wiry man who had dismounted earlier. He caught the reins, but he rattled off a question that Simon didn’t catch. The inflection sounded like a strong dialect, likely Basque. The only word he caught clearly was Doñabella. She tossed back a short “no” and came on. The man grimaced. Without taking his eyes off Simon, he returned a hand to the knife sheathed at his belt, a clear warning not to do anything against this woman.
Simon bowed. He reckoned formality was his wisest course. His first question needed to determine if this woman had stepped into the dead man’s role. His second needed to determine if she would honor the agreement Simon’s predecessor had had with Don Esperanza. “Señora, buenas tardes. ¿Señora Esperanza?” he queried.
“Esperanza, no. I regret—.” She paused then said, “My apologies, Señor Pargeter. We were not aware of this planned meeting until Manuel informed me this morning.”
She spoke English very well, with only a trace of an accent and no pronunciation or grammatical errors. Whoever had tutored her had been precise. But while she was obviously educated, most Spanish women of the upper class would be closely guarded. This woman rode with partisans. Even sheltered English ladies were more independent than ladies of the Spanish grandee.
Yet Simon’s focus was his mission, not the intriguing puzzle of Doñabella. “May I inquire what led to the death of Don Esperanza?”
“The French.” She seemed to think no more answer was needed.
“You are in charge of these men, Doñabella?”
Her beautiful eyes widened a little. “Is any one person in charge of partisans? When Don Esperanza was taken from us, I took his place. I believe that is the best answer to your question.”
The wiry man spoke, three or four sentences, still in that dialect Simon didn’t know, but he had the feeling the man knew just enough English to dispute the woman’s denial of leadership. And his comments had several other men adding their voices to this. Doñabella half-turned as she looked around at the riders. She said something. No one responded. She added more. Several gave a determined response of “si” or “¡dale!”
She reached to pull her scarf down then thought better of it. She spoke, using the same dialect as the man. From her tone, Simon guessed that she thanked the men for their support. He also guessed that their support had surprised her.
He waited until she finished then asked, “How long as Don Esperanza been gone?”
She turned back to him. “Five months. We mourn him still.”
“Major Stively assured me of the support of the don and his militia.”
“Ah, si. That is the point muy importante.” She paused, considering. When she spoke, her perturbation was revealed in the slips of her language. “I speak English with you for these men, they do not know that the don died because someone betrayed him to the French. They do not know we have a French spy. The spy does not know we are aware of his betrayal. He does not know that we are looking for him. And we will find him.”
The wiry man spat on the ground at her words.
“Señor Pargeter, you will not wish to risk association with us when we may have a French spy among us.”
“You’ve not found the traitor?”
She didn’t answer, which was answer on its own.
“The traitor can’t concern me, Señora. I have a mission to complete. This is not a choice, Donabella. Don Esperanza vowed to assist my mission. He gave his word. ‘Te doy mi palabra,’ he said. ‘Palabra de honor. En el honor de mi familia y de Esperanza.’ I need you to uphold his word, Donabella. My mission depends upon it.”
Several horses shifted, backing or stepping forward, revealing their riders’ emotions at the words Simon quoted. Knowing how strongly the Spanish held their honor, he’d chosen them deliberately, grateful that Stively had shared his detailed notes of his meeting with the Navarre don.
Without the help from locals, Simon couldn’t make his map in time to help Wellesley plan his assault through northern Spain. His journal, tucked against his skin, was filled with detailed drawings and notes about rivers, fords and bridges, hills and forests. He noted the housing available in villages, food and forage possibilities, and large bivouac areas.
If his journal fell into French hands, Simon would be shot as a spy.
And the French would know what Wellesley intended. An attack through north Spain. No more focus on controlling the south. The general aimed for the French border, to cut off the Grande Armée corps stationed in Spain. Barricade the border. Wipe out the French presence at the British Army’s back. Then turn into France and aim for Napoleon himself.
That couldn’t happen. And his map-filled journal would help Wellesley succeed.
He had only to convince Señora Doñabella to give him the support that Don Esperanza had offered.
“Señor Pargeter, do you not see? It is impossible. I will not risk us all.”
“Do you and your men not understand, Señora?”
He swept a gaze around the men who could see without turning. They might not speak English, but they would hear his words and later they would talk over what they had heard. If Simon couldn’t convince this woman, perhaps the men would ask enough questions that she would reconsider. He had no doubt that, as he climbed trail after trail, looking for the passage through the mountains, he would encounter one or more of these men. Stubborn persistence might wear Doñabella down.
“We English are committed to defeating Napoleon. We will help you remove that French puppet Joseph, the one who styles himself José I, from the Spanish throne. We will restore the rightful king Fernando. We will help you drive the French from Spain. We will not abandon you. We intend to drive the French across the Pyrenees and all the way to Paris.”
“Fernando? Rey Fernando?” Folding her arms above the wide belt that cinched the bulky jacket around her, she lifted her voice to carry to the circle of men. “El Rey Felón o el Deseado?”
The encircling miquelets shouted at her question, chosing The Desired over the criminal. Doñabella knew how to manipulate her men. She gave her men the bits of the argument that would keep them on her side. Deposed King Fernando had two contradictory names, one from the French supporters, the other from the Spanish nationalists. Napoleon had forced Fernando’s abdication so he could install his brother on Spain’s throne. The upper class, especially near Madrid, witness to Fernando’s incompetence, supported King Joseph. The common people, who knew only that bloodline sitting on the throne was not Spanish, did not want Joseph.
Napoleon’s plan might have succeeded; the common people might have been quelled, if Joseph had inspired them or charmed them. He’d tried. He’d ended the Inquisition. He’d implemented a few reforms. But he’d quickly seemed as incompetent as Fernando. Coupled with French blood trying to rule Spain, and whole areas of the country revolted, calling for their independence from Napoleon’s empire.
Surrounded by this local militia, Simon was no fool. “El Deseado,” he said promptly, agreeing with the men.
A few of the men spoke, words he didn’t catch. Simon watched Doñabella. With half her face hidden by the scarf and the overshadowing wide brim of her hat concealing much of her eyes, he wasn’t certain if she even considered his argument. A cloud, one of the tattered remnants from last night’s spring storm, crossed the sun. For a brief moment they were all shadowed. Then the cloud passed, the sun blazed down from the deep blue sky, and Doñabella acted as if the debate among the militia didn’t concern her.
The man holding the reins of her horse spoke. She had ignored the other comments, but she turned to speak to him. Simon wished he’d heard what that man said.
As the argument flagged, Simon added, “Wellesley took Salamanca and Madrid.”
She turned and flashed, “We have seen Wellesley take cities and then retreat when he could not hold them. Burgos. Valladolid. Madrid. Torquemada.”
He winced at that truth. Her anger hinted as a rage associated with Wellesley’s retreat. His rebuttal sounded weak even in his ears. “Circumstances are different this time.”
“How? How are they different? We risk our lives—!”
“Just as we British risk our lives. Shall I count off the men we’ve lost in battle?”
“Badajoz,” she retorted.
And angry murmurs from the militia supported Doñabella’s anger, turning the men who had wavered when he reminded them about the Frenchman on the Spanish throne.
Simon fell back a step. The siege of Badajoz, barely one year before, had turned into a riot when Wellesley’s army finally forced the French garrison to withdraw. Badajoz, though, was an ugly victory; Wellesley himself still called it costly: three days of drunken rioting, 4,000 Spanish citizens massacred, and British officers trying to enforce order killed by their own men.
Simon had no defense for the bloody aftermath of that siege. Badajoz blotted all his arguments.
“You’re right,” he admitted. “I can give you no defense for that event. No justification. It represents the worst of war, the worst of men. I can only tell you that we British are not here for our own gain; we are here to help you.”
“Do not lie. You British are here because you hate Napoleon.”
“And do you love Napoleon? Do you know your Latin, Donabella? Amicus meus, inimicus inimici mei?”
“My friend, the enemy of my enemy,” she translated, the words slow, and behind Simon a man translated the Latin phrase for his fellows. The murmurs this time restored his hope. “El Director de las Almas. You know your Pinamonti,” the señora continued.
He could have lied and increased the slight connection he’d managed. He chose truth. Lies never paid their cost. “My source is Franz Hoeger. Die Siben Brodt.”
“Ay, si. For you have a German on the English throne. You English invited a German to take your throne.”
“We chose a German from a bloodline with an English connection. We can debate history if you wish. If we have time.” He glanced around him, at the men, along the track he’d ridden up. When she rolled her eyes, Simon knew she had caught his meaning that they delayed unnecessarily. He came back to his strongest argument. “Did the people of Spain have a choice in Joseph Bonaparte becoming their king?”
She unfolded her arms. “You make good arguments and bad ones, but we cannot help you, Simon Pargeter. My regrets. I have told you the reason.” She turned toward her horse.
“One last argument. Please.”
Doñabella paused. She looked over her shoulder. “Speak.”
“Marshal Soult has returned to France. King Joseph dismissed him.”
Even with the shadow cast by the wide-brimmed hat, he saw her eyebrows lift. “And the reason you believe this is your trump card?”
“Marshal Jourdan replaced him?”
“Jourdan? The Jourdan of Talavera?” She turned to face him, and Simon’s hopes lifted from the dust. “This is yet more proof that Joseph is a fool. Yet still it is not incentive to risk my men. They have wives, children, bebés. Chuy will show you the track to Miranda de Ebro. We will send word for them to expect you.”
“No,” she cut him short and strode over to the man holding her horse’s reins.
That man was Chuy, Simon reckoned, for he looked displeased by her offer.
A gunshot cracked.
Simon ducked then sprang for his Baker rifle.
The riders shouted. Letting their horses have their heads, they rode out in a thunder of hooves, chased by more gunshots. The dust of their going swirled up and hid Simon. His horse, tethered, shied away when he ran for him. The dry branch broke. With a snort and a buck, his mount joined the others racing away.
He stood for the barest second. Then, aware of the dust sweeping away, he snatched up his pack and sprinted for the boulders jutting out of the ground, hoping the flying bullets peppering the air didn’t have him spotted as a target.