The faintest metallic snick was produced when the dagger accidentally touched the plastered brick wall. M. Dutourd gave a look of icy annoyance, and the man he hired in the squalid portside brothel, standing next to him at the top of the dark stair, held his breath, brought the hand holding the blade to his leg. He studied the man in the room beyond the door they were to kill. The man was methodically writing by the light of a single candle, pausing now and again to stare abstractedly at the reflection of the light in the dark window. He paused now.
Dutourd had seen by purest chance Stephen Maturin enter the house of Jan Thorbecke, merchant banker connected to the Van Loons of Amsterdam, while sitting in an inn across the street in Gibraltar. Because so many of his agents had been recently exposed and were now captured or fled, thanks to this hated naval surgeon, he was forced to take more risks than he preferred and work more openly. There were always some to be found for the cruder work of throat cutting. Murdering a man in a private house, however, required quiet if possible, and so they waited at the top of these narrow stairs, watching through a crack in the door, patient for an opportunity to strike with surprise. Each held, rather absurdly, one half of a linen shirt, balled up, to be used to muffle any cries. The lock on the door to the street was worthy of a banker but was made short work of by long narrow tools designed by Dutourd himself.
Stephen gazed at the jar on the corner of the writing desk, where a black scorpion floated in neutral spirits, a green and ruby hummingbird impaled on its sting. He had noticed the arrival of a new faint smell of garlic before this slight sound caused the hairs on his neck to bristle. Holding the jar up he spotted the faintest flicker of a blinking eye where the door hinge met the wall. The scorpion had hidden itself in a rosebush in the garden of the Thorbecke house and Stephen had been watching it while smoking a cigar with his friend Christian Thorbecke, whom he knew from his days as a medical student in Paris, and who now had a comfortable practice here in Gibraltar. The hummingbird appeared like magic, fed at several flowers before moving to the rose to which the scorpion clung, and was struck by an action so swift it was a blur. It spiraled down and struggled in the grass for a minute and was still. Stephen gathered it up and held it in such a way that after a time the wings stiffened as if in flight. The scorpion remained conveniently where it was until scooped with a pigeon feather into the jar of spirits. Now they were joined in this memento mori, emblemizing intelligence work. Jesus, Joseph and Mary what stuff! vain, romantical dog - better a filthy mole seized in the jaws of a fox.
Jack Aubrey, who was away in Mahon now for a quick refitting of the Surprise, the ships of the line in Gibraltar having exhausted the supply of copper sheeting and other mysterious naval requirements, had pointed out the oddity of a Dutch built house in the Mediterranean town of Gibraltar. He quite approved of the practical Dutch way of hoisting furniture up the outside by means of the yardarm and pulley structure on top of every attic gable. Every window frame unscrewed easily to aid in the process, which reminded him of shipboard efficiencies when clearing for action. The Dutch were a nautical nation too. This had started a wild hare of a thought in Stephen's head, along the lines that every hunted animal had need of more than one way out of its den. Just consider the meercat, for all love. A servant had helped him rig a sturdy rope to the fixture above his room, and it lay coiled and unseen just outside his window, held in place by the lower sill.
He deliberated on the advantages anent the small pistol inside the writing desk. No, there were too many reasons not to cause an uproar besides mere rudeness to his host. The amiable Mr. Pullings had with much patience succeeded in teaching him how to slide down a backstay, though he was implored not to try such antics by himself. He casually went to the window and opened it wide. The rope fell quietly down. The candle flickered in the slight breeze. He returned to the desk, folded the papers he had been writing and secreted them in his fusc colored coat. Taking a fresh sheet from the desk, he dipped his pen and made to begin, though his chair, a close observer might have noted, was oddly far from the desk for true comfort. He heaved a sigh, shifted his weight slightly, put pen to ink and began to write a series of letters that could not in an eternity be decoded because they were nonsense, then suddenly blew out the candle and was out the window in an instant, closing it neatly from the outside with the toe of his slipper before sliding down three stories to land quietly as a cat - a cat whose stockings had been ruined, hopelessly laddered, and whose slippers now bore a rope burn. The darkness and happy absence of rolling deck below made the exercise far from paralytic on land.
The window was flung open above him and then a short cry of surprise and then a sickening thud. Black blood was pooling under the crushed head of an unknown ragged man. They had supposed a balcony was outside.
'Sons of whores!' he muttered harshly, though in Catalan.
The assassin's knife gleamed in the moonlight at Stephen's feet and a wad of cloth lay a few feet apart. He picked up the knife and disappeared, striding quickly down a dark lane, heading to the Hospital. Gomez would let him stay in an unoccupied room there. The dead man would be thought a murder in the night. Surely there would be no connection to a respectable house. He would have to send a note to Christian Thorbecke explaining his sudden departure. Exigencies of the Service. Blue Peter at the mast. Not a moment to lose. He would send for his scorpion later. Perhaps there would be an interesting pauper at the Hospital to dissect.
© 2003 Keith Peterson