Or at least I thought so—I thought I was out of sight—until I felt the tickle of a musket at my neck and the words “Well, well, well, what have we here?”
Cursing, I was dragged to my feet. There were three of them, all looking pleased with themselves to have caught me—as well they should, because I wasn’t easily sneaked up on. Ten years ago, I would have heard them and crept noiselessly away. Ten years before that, I would have heard them coming, hidden then taken them all out.
Two held muskets on me while one of them came forward, licking his lips nervously. Making a noise as if impressed, he unfastened my hidden blade then took my sword, dagger and pistol. And only when I was unarmed did he dare relax, grinning to reveal a tiny skyline of blackened and rotting teeth. I did have one hidden weapon, of course: Connor. But where the hell had he got to?
Rotting Teeth stepped forward. Thank God he was so bad at hiding his intentions that I was able to twist away from the knee he drove into my groin, just enough to avoid serious hurt but make him think otherwise, and I yelped in pretend pain and dropped to the frozen ground, where I stayed for the time being, looking more dazed than I felt and playing for time.
“Must be a Yank spy,” said one of the other men. He leaned on his musket to bend and look at me.
“No. He’s something else,” said the first one, and he, too, bent to me, as I pulled myself to my hands and knees. “Something special. Isn’t that right . . . Haytham? Church told me all about you,” said the foreman.
“Then you should know better than this,” I said.
“You ain’t really in any position to be makin’ threats,” snarled Rotting Teeth.
“Not yet,” I said, calmly.
“Really?” said Rotting Teeth. “How ’bout we prove otherwise? You ever had a musket butt in your teeth?
“No, but it looks like you can tell me how it feels.”
“You what? You tryin’ to be funny?”
My eyes travelled up—up to the branches of a tree behind them, where I saw Connor crouched, his hidden blade extended and a finger to his lips. He would be an expert in the trees, of course, taught no doubt by his mother. She’d tutored me in the finer points of climbing, too. Nobody could move through the trees like her.
I looked up at Rotting Teeth, knowing he had mere seconds’ life to live. It took the sting out of his boot as it connected with my jaw, and I was lifted and sent flying backwards, landing in a heap in a small thicket.
Perhaps now would be a good time, Connor, I thought. Through eyesight glazed with pain I was rewarded by seeing Connor drop from his perch, his blade hand shoot forward then its blood-flecked silver steel appear from within the mouth of the first luckless guard. The other two were dead by the time I pulled myself to my feet.
“New York,” said Connor.
“What about it?”
“That’s where Benjamin is to be found.”
“Then that’s where we need to be.”
26 JANUARY 1778
New York had changed since I last visited, to say the least: it had burned. The great fire of September ’76 had started in the Fighting Cocks Tavern, destroyed over five hundred homes and left around a quarter of the city burnt-out and uninhabitable. The British had put the city under martial law as a result. People’s homes had been seized and given to British Army officers; the churches had been converted into prisons, barracks or infirmaries; and it was as though the very spirit of the city had somehow been dimmed. Now it was the Union Flag that hung limply from flagpoles at the summit of orange brick buildings, and where, before, the city had an energy and bustle about it—life beneath its canopies and porticos and behind its windows—now those same canopies were dirty and tattered, the windows blackened with soot. Life went on, but the townsfolk barely raised their eyes from the street. Now, their shoulders were drooping, their movements dispirited.
In such a climate, finding Benjamin’s whereabouts had not been difficult. He was in an abandoned brewery on the waterfront, it turned out.
“We should be done with this by sunrise,” I rather rashly predicted.
“Good,” replied Connor. “I would like to have those supplies returned as soon as possible.”
“Of course. I wouldn’t want to keep you from your lost cause. Come on then, follow me.”
To the roofs we went and, moments later, we were looking out over the New York skyline, momentarily awed by the sight of it, in all its war-torn, tattered glory.
“Tell me something,” Connor said after some moments. “You could have killed me when we first met—what stayed your hand?”
I could have let you die at the gallows, I thought. I could have had Thomas kill you in Bridewell Prison. What stayed my hand on those two occasions also? What was the answer? Was I getting old? Sentimental? Perhaps I was nostalgic for a life I never really had.
None of this I especially cared to share with Connor, however, and, eventually, after a pause, I dismissed his question with: “Curiosity. Any other questions?”
“What is it the Templars seek?”
“Order,” I said. “Purpose. Direction. No more than that. It’s your lot that means to confound us with all that nonsense talk of freedom. Once upon a time, the Assassins professed a more sensible goal—that of peace.”
“Freedom is peace,” he insisted.
“No. It is an invitation to chaos. Only look at this little revolution your friends have started. I have stood before the Continental Congress. Listened to them stamp and shout. All in the name of liberty. But it’s just a noise.”
“And this is why you favour Charles Lee?”
“He understands the needs of this would-be nation far better than the jobbernowls who profess to represent it.”
“It seems to me your tongue has tasted sour grapes,” he said. “The people made their choice—and it was Washington.”
There it was again. I almost envied him, how he looked at the world in such an unequivocal way. His was a world free of doubt, it seemed. When he eventually learnt the truth about Washington, which, if my plan succeeded, would be soon, his world—and not just his world but his entire view of it—would be shattered. If I envied him his certainty now, I didn’t envy him that.
“The people chose nothing.” I sighed. “It was done by a group of privileged cowards seeking only to enrich themselves. They convened in private and made a decision that would benefit them. They may have dressed it up with pretty words, but that doesn’t make it true. The only difference, Connor—the only difference between me and those you aid—is that I do not feign affection.”