Book excerpt

Sons of Liberty

Marie Jakober


Sons of Liberty
With you the love of liberty is almost a religion.LOUIS KOSSUTH HUNGARIAN NATIONALIST LEADER 
IN THE OLD HEART OF BALTIMORE, ALONG THE NARROW STREETS that angled off from Jones Falls toward the Basin, the night's closing fog wrapped everything in quiet, impenetrable menace. Even the laughter from Joe's Oyster Bar sounded muddy, once a man had moved a few feet down the boardwalk. The air was heavy with the harsh smell of guano, the salty smell of fish, the stagnant smell of marshland, all drifting rank through the streets, without a breath of sea wind to carry them away. Now and then a carriage passed, ghostly with lanterns; but most who came to Patterson's Alley came on foot--men from the docks, or from the rough taverns and eateries they visited, passing Rolfe in bunches. Quiet as shadows, most of them, worn out from the day's labor. A few of them laughing, or falling-down drunk, but always in bunches."A night like this," Chandler Hemmings muttered, "a man could get himself knifed and not even notice.""Oh," Rolfe said dryly, "I expect he'd notice." Not that it would do him much good, by then ... .People thought it was an easy job Branden Rolfe had--easy and safe--serving as an assistant provost marshal. He supposed it was safe, all things considered in a war. Safe, certainly, compared to charging a fortified position across a quarter mile of open ground, or sleeping in a Mississippi swamp. Rolfe had a comfortable office and a desk with a brandy stash; most nights he went home to his own bed.But when a man worked with spies, well, that put a whole other face on the matter. A face rather like a new moon, he thought, hidden, and icy, and dark.Patterson's Alley had been named for a man who kept an inn here, back in Revolutionary times--some ninety years back, when all this area had been respectable. Despite what Hemmings said about it, it was not the most dangerous part of Baltimore to wander around in; it was merely the poorest. In the fog they could not see how poor and broken down it was, but Rolfe had been here in daylight many times. He knew. The businesses were of the shabbiest sort--small crude taverns, a few vendors of cheap household goods and used clothing, cobbler and blacksmith shops with their roofs falling in. The homes were often shabbier--shacks thrown up in abandoned yards, or fine old buildings decaying into slums. A few showed light in their windows, not gaslight, but the frail, sallow glimmer of a wax candle or a kerosene lamp. Here and there, voices drifted into the fog, sometimes warmed with a small burst of laughter.At the midpoint of the block, like a guilty afterthought, the city had seen fit to raise a single street lamp. As they neared it, a shadow emerged from the darkness of a building, directly into their path, and Rolfe's hand closed around his pistol. Closer, the shadow took on substance: half woman, half wraith."Evenin', gentlemen. Would ye be carin' fer a wee bit of company?"There wasn't much of her; even the voice was wraith-like. She was ill, he thought, or very young. He did not know her, and yet she seemed familiar, reminding him instantly of other cities he had known, other streets he'd walked in the dead of night, other wraiths who had huntedtheir living at the risk of their lives. Another kind of slavery; another gift from Europe to America.She drew back as they strode past her, and said nothing more. She made no move to touch them or to follow them, as if she no longer cared whether men wanted her or not. For the smallest moment he considered speaking to her, offering her a bit of money, breaking his own first and sternest and most unbreakable rule: Do nothing to attract attention.He kept walking.So far they had attracted no one's attention. Three men in battered work clothes, their weapons hidden behind their coats, their faces shielded by ratty slouch hats--to almost anyone they would have seemed exactly like the people who lived here.Once they moved beyond the glow of the street lamp, the night seemed blacker than ever. At the end of the next block, Rolfe paused beside a giant elm tree, so laden with Virginia creeper that a pair of grown men could easily disappear behind it in the dark.He spoke to the others in a murmur. "There's a little tinsmith shop up ahead. Eighth on the left. That's where I'm going. Stay here and stay out of sight unless there's trouble. Or unless I don't come back.""You sure you don't want us any closer, Captain?" Hemmings protested."Yes. I'm sure."Rolfe couldn't see Hemmings's expression in the murk, but he could guess what the soldier was thinking, more or less: he was wondering just what age Branden Rolfe had been when they dropped him on his head.He walked on, soft-footed despite his injured leg, but slow. Always slow now. Not a running target, like in Baden. Just a target. As Patterson's Alley curved southeastward, toward the Falls, it grew rougher, emptier. Even through the fog he could hear, very faintly, the slap of water tumbling over rocks. He passed a lot he knew was empty, and did not allow himself to wonder if the voices he heard briefly in the scrub belonged to paupers or to thugs.Hemmings is right, you know. You're going to get yourself killed one day, doing things like this ... .He hoped desperately that Daniel would be at the rendezvous. He didn't want to do this again tomorrow, or the next day. Sometimes Daniel didn't come. The man was as wary as anyone Rolfe had ever worked with. He had laughed when he chose his code name--a laugh dark with irony and fear. Daniel in the lion's den, he said. As good a name as any for a black man in pharaoh's land. He was freeborn, a teamster who delivered freight around the city, mostly to small businesses and private homes. He was still young, but he'd learned years before to be discreet, to show himself to the world as a smiling, eager beast of burden, the sort who noticed nothing and cared even less. Such men, of course, saw and heard a great deal if they wished to--almost as much as the livestock and furniture they were presumed to resemble. Daniel had proven a promising source of information. He gave it, however, on his own terms. They would meet here, on his own ground, in the streets and neighborhoods where he'd grown up. And he would talk to Captain Rolfe, and to no one else.Rolfe knew that what the black man trusted in him was not the Federal uniform, or even the assistant provost marshal's rank. It was the identity of the immigrant. Rolfe had no ties to the culture of slavery, or to the men who prospered from it--none of those complex links of kinship and friendship and political exchange that knitted Southern society together. For the native-born, those links had been woven and rewoven in every imaginable direction. When the war came, in border states like Maryland they led to volatile and unpredictable loyalties. If many a white man could not be certain of his brother or his oldest friends, whom could a black man trust? A stranger, perhaps? An exile who brought his loyalties with him, clear for all to see, paid for in blood and broken dreams?"You come yourself," Daniel told him. "You send one of them, he ain't even goin' to see my shadow ... ."Rolfe had reached the tinsmith shop. He stood motionless for a time, staring into the darkness. Just habit. In the fog and the darkness there was nothing whatever to see. The shop, he knew, was only a shed, where an aging black man mended pots and kettles for his neighbors, and slept on a mattress on the floor. It had no shingle. It probably didn't even have a lock on the door. Rolfe glanced one more time at the street, in both directions,and then slipped quietly up the boardwalk, past the little shop, and into the junk-strewn yard behind it.He cupped his hands around his mouth and whooed softly. Something less than a perfect owl, he thought, but passable. Nothing responded. He waited a minute or so, and then signaled again.The first steps he heard were no more than twenty-five or thirty feet away, soft, a rustle of grass, nothing more."Daniel?" he murmured."That's me."He moved forward, swept with relief. He started to speak. Afterward, he could not remember what he had meant to say. Above, on the shop roof, something scraped, a lantern suddenly uncovered. He didn't think. Even as the light spilled over them, sallow and dirty, and he caught the vague shapes of trees and the shadow of Daniel looming near in the fog, he dropped like a rock, screaming, "Down! Get down!" Gunfire shattered the night, four weapons, maybe five, the flashes like exploding stars. Someone cried out, softly, horribly. Bullets spattered into the fence behind him, whined past his shoulder as he rolled sideways and back onto his belly. There was no cover, except for the grass. He lay flat and aimed with desperate care. He had one shot, he thought, maybe one, before they found him, just a shadow in the scrub, but they weren't choosy; he heard bullets pinging off the scattered junk, thudding into the trees. He fired; the lantern smashed like a battered window and went out, and he thanked with all his heart a God he did not believe in for the darkness, for the sound of running steps, for Chandler Hemmings's voice roaring down the boardwalk: "There! Down there! Get those sons of bitches!"Someone jumped off the shop roof, landed badly, and cursed. Rolfe fired at the sound, and hastily tried to bury himself in the scrub when the fleeing assassins shot back at him.Then it grew quiet, so quiet he could hear the Falls again, and the wild panic of his own heart. Once, some distance away, he heard a crash, such as a running man might make colliding with an unexpected obstacle. And finally, Hemmings's voice at the side of the shed, soft and edged with fear."Captain?""Here."He thought it likely that all the assassins were gone. Nonetheless, he told Hemmings to cover him and crept forward on his hands and knees. He found the teamster's body lying face down in the grass. He groped for a pulse, and found none. The man's shirt was torn and soaked with blood. They had gone for Daniel first. It was probably the only reason Branden Rolfe was still alive.Hemmings's big boots crunched the grass as he moved to Rolfe's side. "You all right, Captain?""All right." Rolfe wiped his forehead with his sleeve and got tentatively to his feet.Hemmings spat, pointedly, into the darkness. "That son of a bitch set you up.""No, he didn't. He's dead. Someone set him up.""So how the hell'd they know he was coming here? You didn't even tell us, till five minutes ago.""I don't know.""He had a careless mouth; he must've. Damn stupid bastard."Oh, shut up, Hemmings ... ."No, Chan. He wasn't stupid. He was good at what he did. They were better."It was difficult to believe Daniel had said anything to anyone. It was just as difficult to believe he had been followed in the fog. That would have taken extraordinary skill. Maybe Jürgen could have done it, back in Baden--Jürgen and three or four friends, working together. It had amazed Branden Rolfe more than once, all the things his friend Jurgen could do. The man was as silent as a cat in the dark, with a cat's astonishing ability to hear, and a kobold's bag of tricks to keep men noticing everything on the streets except himself. And he was fast, out of one shadow and into another, up a wall or over a fence, and all you ever heard was a rustle of leaves, and that was probably the wind. If it had been Jurgen trying to reach the Heidenbruck Tavern that night, Jurgen would probably have made it ... .Rolfe spoke again, and noticed only afterward that his words were clipped and sharp."Take Devin and bring up the carriage.""Yes, sir."As the fear and tension drained from him, bit by bit, he grew more aware of his own weariness. He poked about for a piece of junk sufficient to hold his weight and sat down. It occurred to him, not for the first time, that disbelieving in God had its bitter side. He could not pray for the man lying dead at his feet. He could not tell himself that in some other, better world this would all be made right, that somewhere beyond the last edge of darkness a just God waited for his servant Daniel ... and for the men who killed him.He wondered who they were, and whether he would ever know. Members of the Sons of Liberty, perhaps, who discovered that the teamster had fingered one of them, or was about to? Or merely men who had grown suspicious--over something, or over nothing? That nigger's up to no good, best we check it out ... . They all kept an eye on the black people, the same way good neighbors watched each other's children and shot each other's wolves. And they all kept their mouths shut afterward. Unless the killers crossed his path again by chance, Rolfe knew he would never discover them. It was no longer his duty--or even his right--to pursue it. A living agent was a matter of wartime security; a dead one was simply a murder victim. In this case, a black murder victim, in a turbulent city where many a white man was slaughtered with impunity ... . No, he thought, it was over, just another patch of bloodied ground, another lost skirmish. Another face of war.He dug a small brandy flask from his pocket and opened it, letting the liquor softly burn its way down his throat. When the shooting started, he had dropped onto his injured leg, and it throbbed now from hip to ankle. He was aware of it less as pain than as a reminder that he was still alive.What had it been worth, Daniel's information, measured against the man's life? A small arms cache discovered. A telegraph operator caught taking coded messages for nonexistent persons. That was all, in practical terms. Most of what Daniel brought him was a different kind of information, the kind that simply accumulated until it might prove useful--rumors and gossip and eavesdropped conversations; improbable friendships, unexpected visits, unexplained departures, someone's sudden gain or loss of money. Rolfe had been a lawyer long enough to know thatconvictions were built with such knowledge, and also shattered with it--that is, he knew it with his mind. The rest of him measured what he had bought and found it painfully wanting.Hemmings is wrong. It's not yourself you're going to get killed, doing this. More likely it's a whole lot of other people ... .He heard the rattle of wheels on the cobblestones, and stood up. Devin and Hemmings came back alongside the shed, carrying the lantern from the carriage. In the frail light Rolfe searched the body carefully, every scrap of clothing, even the shoes. As he expected, Daniel carried nothing."What we going to do with him, Captain?" Devin asked.In a sane world, the answer would have been obvious. They would take him home. But Rolfe knew it would be safer for the man's friends and family if he kept his distance, even now. They carried Daniel to the carriage, and drove him to the small black church on Water Street, whose pastor would go quietly to tell his wife and children.It was almost midnight when they started back, Hemmings riding guard up top, alongside the driver. Devin sat opposite his captain, looking scared and somewhat witless. Here, Rolfe thought, was yet another one he wouldn't take along a second time ... .He settled wearily against the side of the carriage, shifting his weight to ease his injured leg. Through the window, so close it was barely softened by the fog, he could hear a train whistle's lusty howl, the great huff and puff of a locomotive chugging to a stop, all its bells ringing and its iron wheels grinding on the rails. They were only a block from President Station, where the train from Wilmington had just come in.Copyright © 2005 by Marie Jakober Marie Jakober is the award-winning author of five previous novels, including the Civil War novel, Only Call Us Faithful. She lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.