To my left was a set of steps used to reach the high shelves. On them sat a boy, about ten years old, the storekeeper’s son, by the look of him. He almost lost his footing in his haste to scuttle off the steps and stand in the middle of the floor with his hands by his side, awaiting his orders.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” said the shopkeeper in German. “You look like you have been riding a long time. You need some supplies to continue your journey?” He indicated an urn on the counter before him. “You need some refreshments perhaps? A drink?”
Next he was waving a hand at the boy. “Christophe, have you forgotten your manners? Take the gentlemen’s coats . . .”
There were three stools in front of the counter and the shopkeeper waved a hand at them, saying, “Please, please, take a seat.”
I glanced again at Reginald, saw he was about to move forward to accept the storekeeper’s offer of hospitality, and stopped him.
“No, thank you,” I said to the shopkeeper. “My friend and I don’t intend to stay.” From the corner of my eye I saw Reginald’s shoulders sag, but he said nothing. “All we need from you is information,” I added.
A cautious look fell across the shopkeeper’s face like a dark curtain. “Yes?” he said warily.
“We need to find a man. His name is Digweed. Jack Digweed. Are you acquainted with him?”
He shook his head.
“You don’t know him at all?” I pressed.
Again the shake of the head.
“Haytham . . .” said Reginald, as though he could read my mind from the tone of my voice.
I ignored him. “Are you quite sure about that?” I insisted.
“Yes, sir,” said the shopkeeper. His moustache quivered nervously. He swallowed.
I felt my jaw tighten; then, before anybody had a chance to react, I’d drawn my sword and with my outstretched arm tucked the blade beneath Christophe’s chin. The boy gasped, raised himself on his tiptoes, and his eyes darted as the blade pressed into his throat. I hadn’t taken my eyes off the shopkeeper.
“Haytham . . .” said Reginald again.
“Let me handle this, please, Reginald,” I said, and addressed the storekeeper: “Digweed’s letters are sent care of this address,” I said. “Let me ask you again. Where is he?”
“Sir,” pleaded the shopkeeper. His eyes darted from me to Christophe, who was making a series of low noises as though he were finding it difficult to swallow. “Please don’t hurt my son.”
His pleas fell on deaf ears.
“Where is he?” I repeated.
“Sir,” pleaded the owner. His hands implored. “I cannot say.”
With a tiny flick of the wrist I increased the pressure of my blade on Christophe’s throat and was rewarded with a whimper. From the corner of my eye I saw the boy rise even higher on his tiptoes and felt, but did not see, Reginald’s discomfort to the other side of me. All the time, my eyes never left those of the shopkeeper.
“Please sir, please sir,” he said quickly, those imploring hands waving in the air as though he were trying to juggle an invisible glass, “I can’t say. I was warned not to.”
“Ah-ha,” I said. “Who? Who warned you? Was it him? Was it Digweed?”
“No, sir,” insisted the shopkeeper. “I haven’t seen Master Digweed for some weeks. This was . . . someone else, but I can’t tell you—I can’t tell you who. These men, they were serious.”
“But I think we know that I, too, am serious,” I said with a smile, “and the difference between them and me is that I am here and they are not. Now tell me. How many men, who were they and what did they want to know?”
His eyes flicked from me to Christophe, who though brave and stoic and displaying the kind of fortitude under duress that I’d hope for my own son, whimpered again nonetheless, which must have made up the storekeeper’s mind, because his moustache trembled a little more, then he spoke, quickly, the words tumbling from him.
“They were here, sir,” he said. “Just an hour or so ago. Two men with long black coats over the red tunics of the British Army, who came into the store just as you did and asked the whereabouts of Master Digweed. When I told them, thinking little of it, they became very grave, sir, and told me that some more men might arrive looking for Master Digweed, and, if they did, then I was to deny all knowledge of him, on pain of death, and not to say that they had been here.”
“Where is he?”
“A cabin, fifteen miles north of here in the woods.”
Neither Reginald nor I said a word. We both knew we didn’t have a minute to spare, and without pausing to make more threats, or to say good-bye, or perhaps even apologize to Christophe for frightening him half to death, we both dashed out of the door, untethered and mounted our steeds and spurred them on with yells.
We rode as hard as we dared for over half an hour, until we had covered maybe eight miles of pasture, all of it uphill, our horses now becoming tired. We came to a tree line, only to discover that it was a narrow band of pine, and we arrived on the other side to see a ribbon of trees stretching around the summit of a hill on either side. Meanwhile, in front of us the ground sloped down into more woodland, then away, undulating like a huge blanket of green, patched with forestry, grass and fields.
We pulled up and I called for the spyglass. Our horses snorted and I scanned the area in front of us, swinging the spyglass from left to right, crazily at first, with the emergency getting the better of me, panic making me indiscriminate. In the end I had to force myself to calm down, taking deep breaths and screwing up my eyes tight then starting again, this time moving the spyglass slowly and methodically across the landscape. In my head I divided the territory into a grid and moved from one square to another, back to being systematic and efficient, back to having logic in charge, not emotion.
A silence of gentle wind and the songs of birds was broken by Reginald. “Would you have done it?”
“Done what, Reginald?”
He meant kill the child.
“Kill the boy. Would you have done it?”
“There is little point in making a threat if you can’t carry it out. The storekeeper would have known if I was shamming. He would have seen it in my eyes. He would have known.”
Reginald shifted uneasily in his saddle. “So, yes, then? Yes, you would have killed him?”
“That’s right, Reginald, I would have killed him.”