Skirts swaying, Nel approached the table where British officers sat in their red coats, playing cards for peanuts. She didn’t much like having them here, not when her mother’s kin were across the water, fighting in Washington’s army. But if she hadn’t been willing to serve redcoats and royalists then she would have had to leave New York, and even though the city was half ruin, half smuggler’s den, that wasn’t a price she was willing to pay.
One by one, she laid the cups out in front of the men. A young captain, his jacket less frayed than the rest, gave her an appraising glance followed by a sly smile.
“Care to join us, sweetheart?” he asked, reaching for her hand.
“Sorry,” Nel said, snatching the hand back. “I’ve a tavern to run.”
“What’s the matter, you married?” the captain asked with a pout.
“Near enough,” an older lieutenant said, nodding to where Samuel sat at the bar, smoking his pipe, watching them with little sign of interest. He was waiting for a visit from a business acquaintance, but Nel knew he’d make time for her later. In the meantime, his smile was enough to warm her on a cold night.
The door opened and more soldiers came in, one with powdered hair and gold lacing on his coat. Those at the table bolted to attention.
“General Arnold.” The captain saluted. “An honour, sir.”
Nausea rose in Nel as she stared at the infamous traitor turned spycatcher. Every local but Samuel got up to leave.
“Everybody sit,” Arnold snapped.
His guards clutched their muskets and looked around the room. There was a scraping of chairs as people returned to their seats.
“I have apprehended an enemy agent on his way to meet someone here,” Arnold said, glaring at Nel. “I would rather not close this tavern, but better that than let rebellion fester.”
“Sorry, sir, but I can’t help,” Nel said, trying to keep the fear out of her voice. She knew how little it took to end up in a hangman’s noose. “If I was a spy, a wouldn’t risk bringing that business into my own home. But you’re welcome to a drink, on the house.”
Arnold cast a sneering glance across her bottles and barrels, then turned to her guests.
“You.” He pointed at a man by the fire. “What’s your business?”
“Tailor, sir,” the man said. “Shop down by the docks.”
“You?” Arnold eyed a man by the door.
“Grocer, sir. Though it’s hard to get the-”
“You?” He turned on Samuel.
“Fisherman, sir, though I was a whaler before the war.”
“Many fishermen hereabouts are smugglers too,” Arnold said, approaching Samuel.
“I can show you my nets,” Samuel replied calmly.
“He’s brought in beef and cabbages before,” said the card-playing lieutenant. “I’ve bought them myself.”
“So I carry produce across the Sound,” Samuel said, setting aside his pipe and sitting up straighter. Nel’s heart thudded in her chest. “Like the lieutenant said , I’m keeping his majesty’s soldiers fed.”
“A man who smuggles cabbages might smuggle information as well.” Arnold leaned over until his face was inches from Samuel’s. “Where were you on the night of the fifth?”
Samuel’s brow crumpled in thought. “Let’s see, that would be nine days back, so…”
“He was with me,” Nel said, her face flushing as every eye in the room turned her way. “I know we’re not married, and I know God wouldn’t approve, but these are hard times, and sometimes you just need a little comfort, and we’ve promised each other that once things get safer we’ll… we’ll…”
She turned away, unable to bear the looks any more. Better to be judged a harlot than to let her beloved Samuel hang, but she prayed that this night would be over soon.
Arnold gave a cruel laugh.
“I had hoped for grand secrets, but all I find is another tuppenny whore.” He headed towards the door, but turned just before he was about to leave. “Remember, there’s a reward for anyone who sees suspicious papers changing hands. They might look like ordinary letters or blank pages, the messages hidden by the enemy. But if you help me find a villain…”
He tossed a coin to the lieutenant who had fingered Samuel. The gold gleamed as it spun through the air, then clattered down amid the cups and cards.
The door slammed shut and Arnold was gone.
The lieutenant, unable to look Nel in the eye, walked over to the bar.
“Reckon you’re the one earned this,” he said, putting the coin on the counter. He laid another beside it. “And we’ll have more ale when you’re ready.”
As he returned to his table, Nel looked down at the bundle of papers beneath the counter. Letters to customers, Samuel had said, like he had on the previous times he’d given her such letters.
“They hang spies, don’t they?” she said quietly.
“Nel, I never meant to put you in danger,” Samuel whispered, leaning close and reaching for her hand. “I just needed someone to pass them along.”
She snatched the hand away.
“You should find somewhere else for your meetings,” she said, feeling hollowed out inside.
“And when it’s not for a meeting?” he asked, raising that smile she found so hard to resist.
“Somewhere else,” she snapped. “After all, the just needed someone to pass letters along.”
She filled a tray with cups of beer and headed over to the soldiers’ table. When she returned, Samuel and the letters were gone.
She suppressed the sick feeling rising inside her. She couldn’t be worrying about him now. She had a business to run.
* * *
I’ve been reading Alexander Rose’s book Washington’s Spies, about espionage in New York during the American Revolution. It’s very readable and absolutely fascinating, full of smugglers, raiders, traitors, and all manner of fascinating characters. The only real person in this story is Arnold, history’ most infamous turncoat, but the state of the city and the spy games being played out there reflect reality.
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