Hero and Villain
Meet the protagonist Simon and one of the antagonists for The Key for Spies, the most recent release by M.A. Lee in her historical mystery / suspense series Hearts in Hazard.
1st April 1813, Thursday
That’s what his older brother called it, back when they’d run together. They’d taken to the dark streets, smashed locks to steal pastries or sausages, pried open windows to climb into dark rooms, and stolen locked boxes with stashes of coins. He never knew who Mattias worked for. Belly stuffed with iced rolls or spiced sausage, he had trailed behind his brother. Until the gendarmes caught Mat with a hand stuck in the alms box.
Hidden behind a dark column, he’d frozen when the gendarmes appeared. Then black wings flapped before his face. He ran until his sides hurt and his too-tight shoes split along the worn sides. He’d abandoned his brother, a betrayal that had never left him.
The next day he ran on to Marseilles. There, he re-invented himself as Pierre LeCuyer.
The next time he entered a church, he and other soldiers arrested a priest and the aristocrats sheltering from la Régne de Terreur.
Tonight, Thieves’ Night, he stood inside another church. Cold stone surrounded him. His half-shuttered lantern gave light enough to see individual columns, the benches near the lectern, and the paint that gilded the Madonna’s statue. Candlelight flickered on the two coins waiting at the statue’s feet, two coins for the men he’d come to meet. He’d heard them enter. They stood at the columns, shadows darker than the quarried stone. He had watched them cross the nave to the lady’s shrine. Now he would let them have the first words.
“We should not be meeting.”
Rigo’s protest earned nothing more than LeCuyer’s chuckle. “What do you fear in the church of San Miguel? Do you think the saint will rise up and name your sins?” Even in his only passable Spanish, the gibe sounded clearly.
The slender young man jerked in response. “I am not afraid, señor.” His denial rang off the stone walls. Past adolescence, Rigo had the fiery Spaniard’s sense of honor. His compadre had simpler motivations. “But, Commandante LeCuyer, we have received a message that we will meet at dawn. This meeting, it is not planned. I have heard nothing of the reason we must gather. Have you?” he asked his fellow traitor. The sturdy man staying in the deepest shadows said nothing. Rigo turned back to the French officer. “This meeting is too soon.”
“Merde! Qu’est-ce que c’est?” His question did not echo off the walls, but the sibilant hiss echoed through the men. Even the sturdy Fernando flinched. “What must I expect this time? Another ambush of my men? A raid on a don loyal to King Joseph? Another prank that will send my sentries running to the jacks?”
From the darkest shadows came a snort. “Good joke, that, commandante. And no one was hurt, not like when we ambushed that patrol.”
LeCuyer cursed again, uncaring that the Madonna gravely watched them. He’d lost his fear of the more than mundane when he ran to Marseilles. “Remind me again: why did neither of you send to me word of that ambush? Two died, three are still in the infirmary. I have not received their replacements. And your Doñabella suffered no injuries. I wonder. Do you betray me? Are you loyal to her?”
“We are loyal to Napoleon! We support his empire, not the old regime.”
“Hsst, imbécile. Do not wake the priest.”
“You will have your revenge, commandante.” The words came slowly, firmly from the shadows. “We will all have our revenge. And perhaps a little play with Doñabella before she learns the sharpness of my ten knives.”
Fernando’s relish shuddered through LeCuyer. Although a major in the French corps, serving under Napoleon himself while in Egypt, he feared this man’s violence. The stocky Spaniard wasn’t trustworthy. His slow speech and movements were deceptive. He flicked out those knives too rapidly.
Rigo, young and nervy, was eager to build his name, but he lacked resolve. He was little more than a counting clerk, and blood repelled him. Declared unfit for the Spanish regulars, he had reported to Britessca for any work that the garrisoned French needed. LeCuyer had ordered him to infiltrate the local guerrillas. Fernando had vouched for him with a man called Chuy.
But with two men watching the guerrillas, the information to capture Doñabella and kill her supporters still eluded him.
He’d never seen the famed leader of the local rebellion, the one who had replaced Don Esperanza, but he would not want to see any woman after ten knives had carved into her flesh.
“She’s to be taken to Madrid for execution,” he snapped, lest Fernando forget his orders. “The demand of King Joseph himself, direct to me. And that will happen.”
Fernando’s darker shadow detached from the stone column. “You will have a promotion. I will have my fun. The boy here—.”
“I am no boy!”
“Will have his initiation,” he finished, ignoring the interruption. “And King Joseph will have his execution.” His heavy voice rumbled through the thick rock surrounding them. “But the boy is right. We did not need to meet.”
“A contrario, mi amigos. Madrid sends word that Wellington will once again try to take Spain. Many of my superiors believe that the English general will push for Madrid, to seize the capitol and hold Napoleon’s brother as hostage.”
“You don’t think this.” Rigo proved his worth with his wits. “What do you think?”
“We are not here to speculate on military strategy. A troop is tracking a British officer who detached from the main unit. Your countrymen lost him when he crossed the Duero. He comes here, to Brittesca.”
“You do not know this.”
“I anticipate. Britessca opens a valley of easy travel to Vittoria, and Vittoria is a gateway to a passage through the mountains and the road into France.” He bent and picked up his lantern. “You two will watch for this British officer. You will alert me when he arrives.”
“You expect him to contact Doñabella?”
Once again the clerk proved his worth. “She leads the guerrillas. We have an opportunity to arrest both Doñabella and this Englishman. And I wish to know the reason you are called to meet at dawn.”
“Then we will get word to you in two, three days,” the big man said. He had shifted closer to the Madonna’s statue. He turned a little, and one of the glinting coins vanished.
“If another of my soldiers is killed, I will take retribution for his spilled blood out of your hide, do you understand?”
Rigo agreed quickly. Fernando merely grunted.
Their answers didn’t satisfy LeCuyer, but he knew better than to push the two traitors any further. “I leave now. Wait until an hour has passed before you leave this church.”
“The bell is only rung during the day.”
“I have a watch,” the young man said hurriedly. Fernando stretched out his big hand, and the glinting watch was soon swallowed by it.
LeCuyer did not linger. His boots tapped across the marble floor. At the side door, he lifted the latch before he shuttered the lantern. Then he stepped into the moonless night. Enveloped by the cool darkness, he walked along empty streets toward the garrison. A British officer in one hand, Doñabella in the other: what a coup that would be!
The boy Pierre had learned not to relish a sweet until the iced pastry entered his mouth. Major Pierre LeCuyer also did not anticipate. His troops and his two traitors would do the work for him. Then he would enjoy his reward.
. ~ . ~ . ~ .
Moonless night, a night for ghosts.
Simon shivered as he stared at the twinkling stars. The boulder he leaned against had lost its sun-drenched heat. Winter still lurked in the ground. The sky was clear, cold, but still warmer than any English Spring. He might shiver in his wool jacket, but he wouldn’t freeze. He dared not risk a fire. He’d only shaken the French patrol in the early afternoon.
Propping his temple on the cold rock, he resolutely shut his eyes. Sleep refused to come. Nothing stirred the chill darkness, no owl, no sleepless bird, no animal snuffling through the dry rocks, no predator lurking for easy prey. Simon had soldiered for years. He knew the tricks to sleep, no matter how hard the ground or how cold his body. Yet tonight, every time he blanked his mind, a new thought erupted.
He envied his horse. Muzzle nearly touching the ground, the beast drowsed, not even flicking its tail when moths blundered into him. The days over twisting trails through the hills had taken their toll. But the horse hadn’t balked, just kept plugging on when and where Simon directed. A dun color with raw bones that bulged through the coarse coat, a broad head with ears longer than a mule’s, a mane that looked like rubbed ash, the horse didn’t attract eyes in this country that loved beautiful horseflesh. And that’s what Simon had asked for when General Murray tapped him for this assignment. Something ugly with great stamina, sturdy and with a little speed over short distances. Nothing that would attract attention. A horse tall enough to fit Simon’s own height but with more muscle than speed.
His own horse, Chancy, remained with the army, well into Spain by now. He missed Chancy’s even gait and easy seat. The stallion’s long legs ate up ground. Those sleek muscles, a dappled grey coat, and eyes lashed like a courtesan’s drew everyone’s attention, even peasants on their burros or leading oxen to the fields. The glossy hunter would have sped away from that French patrol, leaping over fences and rock walls and racing over smooth ground. But Simon’s trail wound through the hills. Against the mottled earth and pine forests, Chancy’s moon-touched grey would stand out.
The dun gelding vanished in the shadows and blended with the boulders jutting out of the hillside. The horse kept at a trail when Simon was ready to drop. He tolerated heat and cold and didn’t need a stable. He ate hay and green grass and anything else that Simon found for fodder.
And slept as soon as he finished his nightly food and water while Simon stared into the darkness and wished for sleep.
He checked again that his pistols were at hand then re-folded his arms, a poor barrier against the cooling night air. He missed the soft pillows and giving mattress of his London lodgings. He didn’t miss the cold reception from his father, a memory more uncomfortable than the rocks digging into his arse.
On this moonless night, was it that memory haunting him?
Eyes shut, Simon turned up the collar of his duff wool jacket, tucked in his chin, and closed his eyes to see the memory more clearly.
A footman had admitted him to Ainsley Hall. The butler had sniffed when he saw Simon’s plain work clothes, clean but worn thin. Yet he had led the way to Lord Ainsley’s study. After the grand entrance crowded with massive paintings and heavily carved tables and cabinets, Simon had expected the room to be lined with bookshelves, a few tables covered with ledgers, chairs around the tables, a massive fireplace with a leaping fire against the chill of early January.
Lord Ainsley’s study had the fireplace and the fire, but the walls were painted plaster. The only table sat perpendicular to the fireplace and had only an inkstand, a leather mat, and a single ledger. One chair, darkened by age, stood against the amber-painted plaster. One bench stood at the windows, with green curtains opened to the snowy day. And his lordship sat in a straight-backed chair behind that empty desk. He wore severe black, his yellow cravat tied simply but a blue jewel winked in the folds. He had Simon’s high forehead and dark eyes, but silver streaked his hair.
He templed his fingers as the butler intoned “Simon Pargeter, my lord.” Then the servant backed out, shutting the door.
Lord Ainsley lifted an eyebrow and waited, finger tucked inside the book he read. Simon stepped forward, stopping before the desk, like any servant called before his master to endure a lecture.
“Well?” Ainsley asked. When Simon still hesitated, not certain what to say, not even certain that he should say anything, that high brow deepened its furrows. “The name Pargeter is one that I know. That is a long time ago.”
Simon withdrew the letter his mother had entrusted to him as she lay dying. He had read it, then looked to her for answers. She had very little to add. She did make him swear to present himself to Lord Ainsley. No matter how many questions he asked, she had little to tell her son about his father, not even how they had met or when they had married or why his father had abandoned his mother. “Nor will he tell you,” she had whispered, capable of little more.
When Simon handed the letter over, his coat sleeve shot back, revealing the bony wrist and thin arm that had outgrown the bottle green coat. Swiftly he jerked the cuff down. Then he stood straight, staring at the painting of cows on the amber wall behind his father. He snuck the occasional glance as the man read the letter, but Lord Ainsley had no reactions to the bald words crossing the page.
The baron glanced at the leaping flames that warmed the room, then read the letter again. This second time he was slower to look up. Then he re-folded it and placed it carefully on the leather mat. “So you’re May Pargeter’s son.”
He nodded once, a small admission. “We did elope together.”
“But you abandoned her after the promised wedding, as if she were not good enough for your name.”
Ainsley pressed fingers to the letter then leaned back in his chair. “A necessity imposed by my father. He hoped she would disappear. And she did. Where did she record your birth? In her home parish?”
“No. She never returned home. She went to Wales, where no one knew her. The vicar at St. Anselm’s in Cardiff recorded my birth. He’s still there. She sent you word of my birth.”
Once more he gave that single nod. “How much do you want?”
At four-and-ten, Simon didn’t have the gumption to say “Nothing.” Struck mute, he stepped forward and reached for his letter. Lord Ainsley let him take it. He sat silent as his only legitimate son restored the letter to an inner pocket then turned on his heel. Simon stalked out of the study, out of Ainsley Hall, and away from the father he’d discovered he didn’t want to know.
Why did that memory haunt him tonight? He’d cast it off along with the dust of Ainsley Hall. With the carefully hoarded guineas that his mother bequeathed him, he bought a lieutenant’s commission and marched on. He never looked back.
A pointy rock dug into his arse. He scrabbled to find it then flung it into the darkness. It clattered across rocks. The dun gelding briefly lifted his head. When no other sound came, the horse returned to sleep. Simon shifted position, dug his heels into the rocky ground, and knocked his head on the boulder, hoping to knock the memory out. But the old ghost was stubborn. The scent of leather and whiskey had scented the study. The fire had warmed the room, welcoming him, ready to cast off the chill after his long walk from the village. Standing before the large desk, watching his father read the letter, he had hoped and feared and—.
Simon opened his eyes and into the pitchy dark. Pinpricks of light flashed in his eyes. He refused to let that memory skulk around. He didn’t smell leather. The whiskey was the single swallow he’d permitted himself to stave off the cold.
This day had stressed him like that single half-hour had done. Desperate to shake the patrol, hoping the next hill offered more shelter, he’d pushed on. A decade ago he’d felt the same desperation. His mother’s letter had given him a shock even as it offered shelter from his loneliness after her death. Her parents might have welcomed him, but after Lord Ainsley’s rejection, Simon wouldn’t risk another dismissal from family.
Once again he shut his eyes. Once again he breathed deeply and willed himself to sleep. He considered the rocks under his arse, the spicy food, the liquid cadence of Spanish and the harder tones of the Basque of these northern mountains. He had a mission. Find the road through the Pyrenees, a road that would support an army’s swift passage. Wellington would not waste time in the south. He wanted to block the French border. Cut off supply, cut off reinforcements, and he could oust Napoleon’s brother from the Spanish throne. Once he did that, the Spanish would rise to ally with the English. Together, with Portugal aiding, they would maneuver the French into a decisive battle.
For all that to happen, though, Wellington’s reconnaissance officers had to find the passage north.
Which meant Simon had to sleep. Come morning, he needed sharp eyes and sharper wits.