Copyright © 2011 Frank Tuttle
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
The House was quiet. If bustling was being done, it was being done elsewhere. I picked a hallway at random, ambled down it, found a flight of stairs leading up, took to them. I met an older gentleman clad in a butler’s black tails halfway up the first flight. I saw his eyes cut to my Avalante pin and then cut away.
I picked halls at random, left closed doors shut, ventured into a couple of open ones. The second floor was surprisingly empty, aside from servant’s quarters and a couple of unfinished guest rooms. I did find a family portrait—Mom and Dad Lethway, he much older than she, flanking a ten-year-old kid who must have been Carris.
No dirt on his face. No straw hat on his head. My, what a difference a few dozen copper mines make.
I ran out of things to explore, so I gathered my nerves and took to the final flight of stairs leading up.
At the top, voices and footfalls sounded. A woman laughed. Glassware tinkled. Knife and fork clattered on a plate.
Lunchtime. I headed away from the sounds and the smells, preferring to lurk a few more moments.
I wish I could claim I followed the pattern of wear on the floors or discovered Carris’s room by recognizing the patina on his doorknob as only a man his height would make. But the truth is I was guessing, and I opened every door that wasn’t locked, and his was the third one I tried.
Tamar’s picture, painted by someone with talent, hung on his wall. There was a pile of fabrics and fake silk flowers heaped on his dresser. Beside the pile was a notepad, just like the ones I use, and on it were scribbled notes.
Red fireflowers for grooms, read one entry. Yellow for rest.
Below that was Meet bev. supplier tomorrow noon.
I flipped through the pad, found more of the same.
“You missed that meeting, didn’t you?” I said. “I wonder why.”
I poked through the rest of the room, found nothing suggestive of a man planning a panicked flight away from the jaws of impending matrimony. What I did find, hidden in the far corner of the topmost sockdrawer, was a box that held a golden ring.
Tamar’s ring. I’m no jeweler, but I’m no infant, either. A man on the run could sell that ring for a quarter of its worth and still finance a very long trip. The fact that he hadn’t sold it told me he hadn’t planned on leaving at all.
I put the ring back where I found it, smoothed the bedcovers where I’d rumpled them, put everything as it had been. Then I put my ear to his door and listened for footfalls outside.
It was quiet. I opened the door and stepped outside and closed it behind me.
No one saw, shouted or rushed toward me with a club.
I was so happy I could have whistled.
But I didn’t. I patted my Avalante brooch and straightened my collar and decided that since Lady Luck was smiling I’d see if she’d join me for lunch.
I marched down the hall, all pretense of sneaking gone. Why sneak? I was a friend of House Avalante, and a lunch guest at Lethway. If any mere butler dared question my presence I’d show him the bottom of my nose.
I managed to locate the dining room by following the smells. The door was ajar, and from the hustle and bustle of servants and carts I gathered I’d nearly missed lunch.
I opened the door and stepped inside. A butler whirled to face me, his sudden expression of haughty offense marred by the full mouth of mashed potatoes he was struggling to swallow.
“I hope I’m not too late,” I said, before he could speak. “I was told downstairs there would be fried chicken. I prefer white meat.”
Lady Luck wasn’t just smiling but laughing and drinking straight from the bottle. A black-haired maid started filling a plate with chicken.
The butler fell into a fit of coughing. I breezed past him and helped myself to an empty glass and a pitcher of tea.
“Green beans, too, that’s a dear.” She smiled and piled them high.
Somewhere in the coughing fit, I suppose the butler spied my Avalante pin, because he tottered off to cover his mouth, waving the maids on as he turned. I grinned and grabbed a dinner roll. It was buttered and warm.
The maid pulled a chair out for me, and I plopped onto it.
“Too bad the meeting ran long. I was looking forward to lunch with the family.” I tore into the chicken.
“Oh, sir, the Lady never takes her lunch here anymore,” quoth the younger of the two maids. “Dines in her rooms, you know. Hardly leaves them, these days.”
“Hush, Margaret,” said the other, eyeing me with something like suspicion. “Fetch the gentleman a napkin.”
“This is good,” I said, between mouthfuls. “Someone here knows her business.”
“And what business brings you here, sir?” asked the suspicious maid. I pretended to wipe an errant crumb off my lapel, in case she hadn’t seen my brooch.
“Morris ram stabilizers,” I replied. Bits of Rafe’s conversation with Evis crept back to me. “Did you know that straight-bore mining drills wear out after only eighteen days? But not with a pair of Morris stabilizers on the forepins. They’ll go twenty-six days, or better. Factor that in with the savings in site idle time and wages spent on repairs, and you’ll see an overall boost to your profits of nearly one and a quarter percent over any six-month period. And I don’t have to tell you how much that means in profits over the life of a copper mine.”
I did not, in fact, have to tell her anything of the sort, because she gathered up a stack of plates and stomped from the room. Whether she’d bought my line of mining lore or was off to fetch the headsman I didn’t know.
Margaret of the inky-black locks grinned and poured me more tea.
“My father was a miner,” she said in a whisper. “I grew up around mines. There’s no such thing as a ram stabilizer, is there?”
“There probably ought to be,” I whispered back. “Are you going to scream for the Watch?”
“Depends. Are you here to help or hurt?”
I swallowed and met her eyes squarely.
“I’m here to bring Carris Lethway home.”
She just nodded and gathered plates.
“End of the hall. Take a right. Next time, a left. Third door on the right. Be gentle. She’s a nice lady. Just sick with worry.”
“Worry about Carris?”
She didn’t answer. She scooped up plates and fled, leaving me alone with a table-full of scraps.
I did linger and finish my chicken. I’m sure that illuminated a deep-seated flaw in my soul, but, as I said, it was good chicken.