John and Nathaniel took chairs and sat facing each other. “James Cooper,” said Nathaniel. “Ran with the Borders men.” He shook his head slowly. “He’s been useful.”
“Was he with William Faa?” John asked, and Nathaniel nodded again.
“He was. We’ve taken in several of them over the last couple of months, much of it thanks to James Cooper. He’ll be a loss to us.”
William Faa was notorious. Known as the King of the Gypsies he came from across the Scottish border to the west. In his hometown lair of Kirk Yetholm he was regarded as an upright man, a credit to his community. He was known as a fisherman, an innkeeper and a talented footballer. But his secondary occupation as a prodigious smuggler of contraband brought his gang of felons across the border to the east coast where they helped themselves to the brandy gin and tobacco brought in from the complicit Dutch trading ships. It was a ruthless pursuit, and little quarter was allowed any man who stood in their way. And with that came a confident arrogance. In towns and inns they strolled in tall hats and an intimidating smile. They were known as “The Gentlemen”.
Faa himself was a violent man, adept with sword and cutlass, but he had never been caught, and boasted that he had never spent time in gaol. If James Cooper had been one of Faa’s men and had his duplicity been discovered, it was small wonder that he had ended his days in a weedy ditch on a remote common.
“Looks like Faa found him out, Nat,” said John. “And he’s a fair few miles from home, this James Cooper, if he’s a borders man. Do you know who Faa would have sent?”
“Maybe. There are two, Faa’s henchmen. Jack Mullins and a man they call Haines. They’re all felons and vagabonds but those two are the barrel’s dregs. They’d be the ones he’d send I would think.”
“There were three of them, according to young George who saw them.”
Nathaniel shrugged, and nodded towards the corpse. “He still smells of brandy. Your Lieutenant might be right, might he not?”
John stood up from the chair and went to a table at the side. He picked up a bottle and handed it to Nathaniel who looked at it with surprise. “Where’d you get this, John?”
“It was on the body when we pulled him out of the ditch. The place stank of it.”
Nathaniel turned the bottle around in his hands. He looked at it carefully and ran his thumb over the label. “This didn’t come from any barrel. I haven’t often seen the likes of this. It’s not from any Dutchman, and it’s not the sort of thing the likes of James Cooper would have for himself. He wouldn’t have the money for it. Do you know what this bottle would cost you, John?” Nathaniel pulled the cork from the bottle and held it to his nose, then he passed it back to John.
John took the open bottle and drew a breath through his nostrils at the open neck. The fine, champagne nose to the liquor was a far cry from the rough grape usually found in the barrels and inns frequented by ordinary folk.
“Look at the label, John. Bottles with labels, they’re new. And the maker, Martell. It’s a fine cognac, well beyond young Cooper here. What’s he doing with a bottle like that on him?”
“Maybe he stole it. A man like Faa could have this if he had a mind to. Maybe the lad was thieving from him and he made him an example.”
“He’s too far from home, John. Why on earth is he in a ditch here and not in one over the border?“
The two men sat for a moment, and John put his hand to his forehead. “Let’s take a walk up to the inn, Nat. Bring the bottle with you.”
The inn at the High Village was low ceilinged, dim even in the summer light outside, and cool. It was dark timbered with oak tables, crude benches and it had the sour air of stale ale. A small square hatchway opened in the far wall. It was empty of custom.
At the sound of the door a man appeared in the hatchway, a large man, rough sleeved and heavy with a belly that strained his braces. He leaned his hairy face forward in the hatchway and crossed his arms on the small counter. He smiled, a smile that might have been of welcome, or it may not. “Mr Hinkley,” he said, “how good to receive you. I trust it’s for your pleasure and not for your business.”
“For our pleasure, I assure you, Jack. Do you know my colleague? Nat Watson from Boulmer station. A Commissioned man, like myself.”
“Honoured,” said the innkeeper. “Ale for you both?”
The men took their pots of ale to a table beyond the hearing of the hatchway. They passed some time in convivial talk. They talked of their postings, their Lieutenants, the weather and their wives. Much of their talk brought smiles, and some laughter from time to time. Then inevitably, their talk turned to the matter that had caused the loss of John’s mackerel breakfast and which had brought Nathaniel here.
John leaned back in his chair and looked over to the hatch where the landlord was feigning business trying to hear their conversation. “Jack,” he said, “come over here a minute, will you?” When the sizeable frame of the landlord stood before them, John handed him the bottle of brandy. “What do you make of that?” he asked.
The landlord took the bottle, turned it this way and that, put the cork to his large, pitted nose, and then returned it hastily, as though it burned his fingers. “That’s nothing to do with me, Mr Hinkley. You’ll not find the likes of that bottle on these premises. No, Sir. I don’t have anything to do with contraband, Mr Hinkley, nor with those who do, as you well know, and I’d be pleased that your honourable colleague here knows it too.” It was a statement so patently untrue that John found it difficult to suppress a smile. Jack was perfectly capable of offering duty free liquor if he had a mind to. Somewhere nearby there would be a barrel without an excise mark on it, or a false one. But Jack was an amateur. He took the odd present from The Gentlemen for averting his eyes from time to time. He held little professional attraction for John, except that one day, perhaps, Jack might be persuaded to share his information, to offer up his sources.
“Ever seen a bottle like this before, Jack?” asked John. “The label, ever seen it before?”
The landlord shook his head. “No,” he said, then “not with a label like that.” He regarded the bottle on the table and picked it up again. “Martell,” he said thoughtfully. “French. Not off the Dutch boats. Not on this coast. That would come up from London I shouldn’t wonder. Where did you get that, Mr Hinkley?”
“Never you mind, Jack. So you wouldn’t sell this here?”
“Honest to God, Mr Hinkley, I couldn’t afford to buy it in, and if I could there’s none around here who would pay the price for it.”
John regarded the landlord’s bearded face and saw no lie in it. He took the bottle back. “Seen any strangers about in the last couple of days, Jack?”
The landlord shook his head. “No,” he said. “No one.”
“Alright, Jack. Thank you.” The landlord went back to his private quarters, but kept himself out of sight. John imagined him rummaging about looking for things he wouldn’t want to be found with, not with Revenue Men on the premises. He gave a small laugh and Nat joined in, knowing what John was thinking.
“They’re all the same,” John observed. They’re all at it. Brandy for the Parson, baccy for the Clerk.”
Nat looked at him. “That’s good, John, very good. You should write that down.”
“I expect someone will, one day,” John said wistfully. “Someone will.”
“Could he have just drowned, being dead drunk, John,” suggested Nat. “I can’t stop thinking he’s such a long way from home. He had no business with us yesterday, so what would he be doing in these parts?”
“He might have drowned himself,” said John, “if it wasn’t for the neck being broken. And for that bottle. It doesn’t suit him. Not one bit.”
“You’re sure about the neck?”
John sighed. “Pretty sure, but I’m not a doctor. I might be wrong. But there’s another thing as well, Nat. When I pressed the chest after we got him out of the ditch there was no water in his lungs, just a bit of frothy air.” John looked at Nat in the eye. “He didn’t drown. He was already dead when he went into that ditch.”
Nathaniel nodded slowly. “He was murdered then.” The two men sat in silence for a minute or two, and then Nathaniel asked, “What are you going to do with the body, John?”
“The Lieutenant wants me to take it out to sea and dump it.”
Nat looked at him aghast. “You can’t do that, John, whoever he is. What’s your Lieutenant thinking of?”
John shook his head. “I don’t know. He won’t have the Constable either. I can’t go and start making enquiries over the border. God knows what Faa would do if I go sniffing about there, especially if he had a hand in it. We don’t even know if the boy had a family.”
“It’s not really your business, John,” Nat said, looking him in the eye. It’s a matter for the Constable you know. He should be informed, whatever Brunton says. And the Magistrate and those who ought to be told up in Alnwick.”
“It’s our business if you’ve lost a pair of eyes and ears,” said John. “And what will those in Alnwick do? They’ll bury him within the hour and forget about him.” He sighed again and ran his fingers through his hair. “But you’re right. I’ll get him up to Alnwick tomorrow. But Nat, I do want to find out what happened to that lad, and why.”
“The only way,” said Nat, “that you will find that out is by finding those who killed him.”
John walked with Nathaniel back to the station and saw him off on his ride home. Then, at last, as the sun was dipping at the horizon he lay down on his bed. Sleep came quickly. He didn’t even notice when much later Mary slipped in quietly beside him.
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