Mister Slaughter PaRT SIX A Meeting Of Night Owls Chapter Thirty Five

an envelope arrived by courier at Number Seven Stone Street on a Friday afternoon in late November. Matthew's name was upon the front, and Lord Cornbury's seal upon the back.

’’What the hell is iti’’ Greathouse wanted to know, and when Matthew informed him what it must be, the great one had said, ’’I think you ought to tell him, don't youi’’ Matthew agreed. He took his cloak and tricorn and was halfway down the stairs when he heard Greathouse shout, ’’You wouldn't have made a very good slavemaster, anyway!’’

Matthew set off into the traffic on Broad Street. It was a bright day, warm for the season though light cloaks and coats were in order. Matthew went directly to City Hall, climbed the attic steps to McCaggers'domain and knocked at the door. He waited, but there was no answer. He thought he knew where McCaggers and Zed might be, since Berry had told him that the light this time of year-and especially on sunny afternoons such as this-was to be taken advantage of before the gray gloom of winter set in. Matthew had not missed the fact that where Berry was to be found, McCaggers also was.

He left City Hall and walked east on Wall Street toward the harbor. another fact he didn't miss was that at the end of this street was the slave market.

He had been a slave owner for nearly a week. It had been an expensive proposition. McCaggers had been agreeable, with the understanding that Zed would continue his present living arrangements and also help the coroner as needed. But the villain of the play had been Gerritt van Kowenhoven, who brought in a silver-tongued lawyer before he would consider any discussion of selling his valuable slave. When the discussion began, it seemed to revolve around not Zed's future but the street van Kowenhoven had been promised as an honor to his name. Then, after being assured the street was indeed on the new map-and actually getting a view of the new map, courtesy of McCaggers-the talk had turned to van Kowenhoven's profit on his investment.

When the quills finished their job, Matthew's remaining money after the payment of debts had been whittled down to twenty-three pounds. The next step had been arranging a meeting with Lord Cornbury.

In Cornbury's office with its overstuffed chairs, a desk of English oak that seemed as wide as a continent and a portrait of Queen anne glowering from the wall, the Lord himself had regarded Matthew through bored, blue-shaded eyes and idly twisted a curl of his high blond wig while Matthew stated his case. It wasn't easy, stating a case to a man in a purple gown with puffy frills of blue lace down the front. But after the case was stated, Cornbury then coldly informed Matthew that the Herrald agency had embarrassed him in front of his cousin the Queen over that Slaughter business and Matthew might believe himself to be a celebrity, and think he had some influence due to this mistaken belief, but that Matthew should not let the door hit him in the cheeks on the way out.

’’Ten pounds for your signature within the week,’’ Matthew had said. and remembering his station in life, which was just a citizen the same as everyone, added: ’’Your Lordship.’’

’’are you not hearing me, siri anyway, these things take time. Even though we're speaking of personal property, we have the town's safety to consider. There has to be a discussion of the council. a meeting of the aldermen. Some of them are vehemently opposed to this kind of thing. No, no. Impossible.’’

That was when Matthew had reached into his pocket and put the intricately-engraved silver ring from Slaughter's safebox on the desk. He'd pushed it across the continent toward Lord Cornbury.

It had been picked up by a purple-gloved hand, inspected in the spill of light from the window next to the face of Queen anne, and tossed aside. ’’Nice enough,’’ came the voice through the painted lips, ’’but I have a dozen of those.’’

Matthew then took from his pocket the necklace of grayish-blue pearls that indeed were very beautiful, now that they were cleaned up. ’’Your Lordship, pardon me for asking,’’ Matthew had said, ’’but do you know what a string of pearls is selling for these daysi’’

Obviously, Lord Cornbury had known.

Matthew found McCaggers, Zed and Berry at the waterfront near the fish market at the end of Smith Street. Small boats were coming in and throwing lines to the wharf. Baskets full of the sea's bounty were being unloaded onto the dripping timbers. Salters stood by with their carts, and both customers and cats were prowling around looking for supper.

In all this haste and hurry of commerce, Berry and Zed stood drawing with black crayons on pads of paper as the fishermen delivered their catch. McCaggers stood a distance away, putting on a brave face though it was apparent the fish market was not his favorite place in town;he held a handkerchief with which he dabbed at his nose, and Matthew figured it had some kind of aromatic tonic applied to it.

Matthew approached them where they stood alongside the wharf. Zed saw him coming first. The huge man touched Berry's shoulder, who looked up, followed Zed's gaze and smiled when she saw their visitor.

’’Good afternoon!’’ she called to him. Her smile became more of a sideways grin. Today she was an eyeburst of colors, as befitting her artistic nature. She wore a wide-brimmed red hat and a floral-print gown of red and yellow. a light green wrap covered her shoulders and arms, and she wore gloves of yellow wool that exposed her fingers, the better to control the crayon.

’’afternoon,’’ he answered, and walked to her side to look at what she and Zed were drawing. On each pad were partially-completed scenes of boats arriving at the wharf. Zed's were created with much more force and intensity, each line as thick as a finger. again, as in the drawings of Zed's that Matthew had seen in the attic, they had an alien quality. The boats looked more like long canoes, with scrawled, menacing figures aboard that seemed to be carrying spears and shields.

To be sure, the sight of a slave drawing a picture at the waterfront was not common, and several people paused to glance and mutter, but the printmaster's granddaughter had been seen around town on many occasions with McCaggers'man, both of them drawing as easily as if they'd been talking. Of course everyone knew the printmaster's granddaughter was a bit strange-an artist as well as a teacher, you understand-but as long as McCaggers tagged along to keep his man under watch there was no need for fear. Still the size of that man;he could go mad with rage and tear down a building, as it was said he'd done to the Cock'a'tail tavern just last month.

’’'Lo Matthew,’’ said McCaggers, offering one hand while keeping the handkerchief near his nose. ’’How are you feelingi’’

Matthew shook the hand. ’’almost myself again, thank you.’’ He took in a deep draw of air. There were the smells of the briny sea, the wet timbers and the fresh fish. Very invigorating, he thought.

’’We were just about to move along,’’ McCaggers said, with a hopeful note.

’’Before you do, I have this.’’ Matthew held up the envelope. Berry and McCaggers stared at it, but Zed had returned to his art. Matthew broke Cornbury's seal, removed the parchment from within and unfolded it. ’’ah,’’ he said when he saw the crimped and altogether ugly signature. No matter, it was the intent that counted. ’’The writ of manumission,’’ Matthew said, and showed it first to McCaggers, then to Berry.

’’My God.’’ McCaggers sounded stunned. ’’I can't believe you actually secured it.’’ He turned to look at Zed, who was concentrating on further thickening a line and paid the others no attention whatsoever.

’’Matthewi May I tell himi’’ Berry asked.

’’Tell himi Howi’’

’’Let me,’’ she said.

He gave her the document.

’’Zedi’’ When Berry spoke his name, he immediately turned his head and looked down at her. She held up the writ. ’’You are free,’’ she said. ’’Do you understand thati You are free.’’ She touched Lord Cornbury's signature.

He frowned, his fathomless ebony eyes moving back and forth from the parchment to Berry. There seemed to be no comprehension of what he was looking at.

Berry turned the document over, put it down on her pad, and began to draw something. as Matthew watched, a fish took shape. It was leaping out of the water, like one of the many drawings of fish Zed had done and kept in a box under his cot. When she had finished, Berry showed him the picture.

He stared at it, his tribal-scarred face immobile.

Slowly, his mouth opened. He gave a quiet gasp, from deep in his throat.

’’Yes,’’ Berry said, nodding. She offered him a kind smile. ’’You are as free as that.’’

Zed turned his head toward the market itself, where the catch was being laid out on tables beneath a roof of brown canvas. He moved his gaze across the many dozens of shimmering silver, brown-patterned and green-streaked bodies brought up on the lines and in the nets, across the seabass, the snapper, the fluke, the cod, the flounder, the bluefish, the mackerel, the cunner and the hake. He was a fisherman too. He knew the difference between a dead fish losing its magnificent colors and shine on a wet table as opposed to the fish that had slipped a hook or sensed the fall of a net and gone deep into the blue, deep where no man might catch it, deep where it might swim for yet another day as a bird might fly through the air.

Matthew realized what Berry had already figured out.

The fish that Zed drew were the ones that had gotten away.

and in his mind, that was freedom.

Zed understood. Matthew saw it dawn in his eyes: a spark, like a distant candle on the darkest night.

He looked at them all in turn-Berry, Matthew and McCaggers-and then brought his gaze back to the girl. She smiled and nodded once more-the universal language of yes-and he nodded also but it was hard for a man in an alien world to smile.

He dropped the pad and crayon. He turned away from them, and he began to walk along the nearest pier out toward the water. as he went, he removed his shirt. Fishermen stepped aside, for he was a mighty force in motion. He kicked off one shoe, then the other, and now he was running, and anyone who had stood between him and his destination would have gone down as if hit by a moving wall.

’’Zed!’’ Berry cried out.

He dove off the end of the pier, into the cold river water where the sun sparkled in bright ribbons. But even as big as he was, he hardly made a splash.

They shifted their positions to see past a boat and caught sight of his head surfacing, followed by the broad shining shoulders and back. Zed began to swim with powerful, deliberate strokes, following the river's current as it flowed to the atlantic. He kept going, past the point where Matthew thought he must surely stop and turn back. He kept going.

’’He'll come back,’’ McCaggers said, the reflection of sun and water in his spectacles.

But Zed did not pause in his forward motion. Through the chill water, he swam on.

’’He won't go too very far,’’ McCaggers said.

What was too very fari Matthew wondered if on all those nights Zed had studied the stars he'd calculated the way home, and now he was bound to get there if only in his last dream as he swam downward into the blue, away from the hooks and the nets.

’’Zed!’’ McCaggers shouted. In his voice was a hint of panic. Matthew realized that McCaggers had likely considered Zed not a slave but a companion. One of a very few he could claim, for who wished to be friends with a man who spent so much time with the deadi

Zed kept swimming, further and further out, toward the wide expanse of the sea.

McCaggers said firmly, ’’He'll come back. I know he will.’’

a little waterbug of a boat moved majestically between them and Zed, its patched sails flying. When the boat passed, there was no more sign of the man.

They stood there for several more minutes, keeping watch.

at last McCaggers bent down and picked up the pad and crayon, and he gave them to Berry.

’’He's a good swimmer,’’ Berry said. ’’We just may not be able to see him from here.’’

’’Yes,’’ McCaggers agreed. ’’The sun's bright on the water. We may not be able to see.’’

Matthew felt he ought to add something, but he could only think that one attribute of being truly free was choosing how one wished to depart from life. Still was it a triumph or a tragedyi

McCaggers walked out onto the pier. He took his spectacles off, wiped the lenses with his handkerchief and put them back on. He stood there for awhile staring in the direction Zed had gone. When he came back, he said to Berry with a note of relief, ’’I think I saw him. I believe he's all right.’’

Matthew said nothing;he'd already seen what looked to him like a treetrunk with twisted branches being carried out toward Oyster Island.

The work of gutting fish had begun. McCaggers turned his face away from the sea, caught sight of a bucket full of fish heads and entrails, and focused on Berry. ’’Will you accompany me,’’ he said, ’’for a cup of coffeei’’ He had a yellowish pallor. ’’On Crown Streeti’’

’’I will,’’ she answered. ’’Matthew, would you go with usi’’

Matthew was about to say yes when he saw two people standing a distance away. One was a tall, lean man with features part angel and part devil. He wore an elegant gray suit, waistcoat and cloak, and on his head was a gray tricorn. The other was a slimly-built woman, nearly as tall as her husband, with long thick tresses of black hair curling about her shoulders. She wore a gown of deep blue velvet, with a short jacket the same material and color. She was standing beneath a blue parasol, its hue a few shades lighter than the velvet.

Matthew felt sure he'd seen that parasol before. at the Chapel estate, possibly. In midsummer.

The Mallorys seemed to be talking quietly, admiring the work of the blades as the glistening fish were carved. Did the woman cast a sidelong glance at himi He wouldn't be surprised. They'd been shadowing him ever since he'd left the doctor's care. a day hadn't gone by when he wasn't aware of them, hovering somewhere nearby.

They turned their backs to him, and arm-in-arm they walked away in the shadow of her parasol.

McCaggers hadn't noticed them. He was still anxiously searching the distance for a swimmer.

’’Some other time,’’ Matthew said to Berry's invitation. He didn't think he'd be very good company, with the Mallorys on his mind. ’’I'd best get back to the office.’’

McCaggers spoke up before the girl could respond. ’’Of course! Some other time, then.’’

’’ashton, I want to thank you again for saving my life,’’ Matthew said. ’’and for letting me call you friend.’’

’’I think Zed is the one who saved your life. When he comes back, we'll toast freedom and friendship. all righti’’

’’all right,’’ Matthew agreed.

’’You're sure you won't join usi’’ Berry asked imploringly.

’’Let the man go about his business,’’ said McCaggers, and he put his hand on Berry's elbow. ’’I mean are you sure you won't join us, Matthewi’’

’’I'm sure.’’

’’Zed will be back.’’ McCaggers looked into Matthew's eyes, and no longer out to sea. ’’You saw what a good swimmer he is.’’

’’Yes, I did.’’

’’Good afternoon, then.’’ The coroner attempted a smile. His somber face was ill-suited to the expression and it slipped away. ’’I trust no one will try to kill you anytime soon.’’

’’I trust,’’ Matthew said, but he'd realized that he was a killer himself, whether he'd wanted the title or not, and to survive in a land of carnivores he would have to grow the killer's eye in the back of his head.

’’Lateri’’ Berry asked.

’’Later,’’ Matthew replied.

McCaggers and Berry walked on together, with his hand at her elbow. She glanced back at him, just briefly, and he wondered if she hoped he'd changed his mind. McCaggers had taken three steps when the heel of his right boot broke off. Berry helped him steady himself. He picked up the heel, and with a shake of his head at the improbabilities that make up the chaos of life he limped along at her side.

Matthew started off, heading back to Stone Street.

Before he got a block away from the waterfront, he heard a woman's voice behind him say, ’’Mr. Corbetti’’

He could keep going, he thought. Just keep going, and pretend not to hear.

’’Mr. Corbetti One moment, pleasei’’

He stopped, because he knew that whatever their game was, they were determined to play it out.

Rebecca Mallory was a fiercely beautiful woman. She had high cheekbones and full, red-rouged lips and intense eyes of deep sapphire that Matthew thought must have claimed the souls of many men. She held the blue parasol between them, as if offering to share its shadow. Matthew saw her husband standing behind her a few yards away, lounging against a wall.

Dr. Mallory's care of Matthew had been professional and successful, and when Matthew had gotten his clothes back he'd found the letter from Sirki to Sutch returned to him in a pocket. It was as if that discussion between night owls had never happened, but for the fact that they were watching him. What was he going to doi Show the letter to Greathouse and open up all that bloody messi and what could he prove about the Mallorys, anywayi In fact, what did he know about themi Nothing. So best to wait, and to let the game play out. For what choice was therei

’’We have a mutual acquaintance.’’ The woman's voice was calm, her gaze steady. She might have just said they liked the same kind of sausages.

’’Do wei’’ Matthew asked, just as calmly.

’’We believe he'd like to meet you,’’ she said.

Matthew didn't answer. It suddenly seemed very lonely, on this street.

’’When you're ready, in a week or two, we'd like you to come visit us. Will you do thati’’

His lip felt the graze of a hook. He sensed the silent falling of a net. ’’What if I don'ti’’

’’Oh,’’ she said, with a tight smile, ’’let's not be unfriendly, Matthew. In a week or two. We'll set a table, and we'll be expecting you.’’

With that, she turned away and walked back to where her husband waited, and together the elegant, handsome Mallorys strolled along the street in the direction of the waterfront.

Matthew determined that before this day was over he was going to have to take a long drink or two at the Trot, surrounded by laughter and lively fiddle music and people he counted as friends. That was the true treasure of a man, it seemed to him. Greathouse, too, if he wanted to come. Matthew would even buy him a meal;after all, he had thirteen pounds and a few shillings left to his name. Enough for a fireplace, and then some. But without all those gold pieces stuffed in the straw of his bed, he slept so much better.

He also determined that his mouth was going to remain shut about this-to Greathouse, Berry, and everyone else he knew-until he found out more.

Right now, though, he had nothing but a friendly invitation from a beautiful woman.

and God only knew where that might lead.

Matthew watched the blue parasol out of sight. Then he went back to Stone Street on a path as straight as an arrow.

The End

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