THERE’S BRANDY-BORN good-will in the air. Meredith is relaxed. Moreno is more confident than he’d been.
. . . . . “There’s something queer with the boy,” says the Englishman.
. . . . . “I can’t imagine what you’re refering to,” asserts the Spaniard, disingeniously. “Oh, the lingo, of course. I knew he had some English, his Papa English, but I never dreamt he spoke it so well.”
. . . . . “No normal sound, you moron! A squeal.”
. . . . . Moreno, also mystified by the screech, advanced an explanation: “The vocal apparatus, taut with fear, does strange things.”
. . . . . “Why was he tied up? Who did it? What was the point?”
. . . . . Moreno appreciated that the circumstance could be made to bolster his effort to get the youngster safe away. “I wished the louse out of my hair, don’t you see, while I searched his things. I’d got the map hid, I thought. He must have spied me through the wallboard, there’s many a gap in that thrown-up partition. I didn’t let on I’d discovered it flown. Soon as I saw we weren’t apt to lose you, I had him restrained. Him out of the way, I searched for my journal. Here’s my fear: he’s handed it off to Gato. It could be anywhere.”
. . . . . “You knew it gone before you popped the slot? Go on the stage, man. You’re a talent.”
. . . . . “That code eats at me. Late last night I got myself up to go at it again. My drawer was empty! It was there yesterday noon, when I’d last handled it.”
. . . . . Meredith sighed. “The young man doesn’t trust you. Why should he? Family friend or no, a hoard of sparklers are a powerful enticement to infamy. A peasant boy, rough used, doesn’t understand that there are men of honor in the world. You ooze nice-brung-up from every pore. You cling to principles. You’re one of them decent types. I despise you for it, and I admire you. I’ve yanked myself up, while you were helped to a generous serving of everything good life has to offer from a silver tray. I resent privilege, cause I never had it. I’m finally in the right place at the right time. The Lord means for me to be a fortunate one, after all. Here’s manna from heaven dropped into my lap, and I ain’t letting it get away from me without a good tussle.
. . . . . “Let’s think this through,” said the Englishman. “Why wouldn’t the boy let the log be, until he could flee with it? Because a smooth talker badgered him to get a nose in. They figured to replace it before you caught the borrow. Then we came along. How the devil did you hope to retain it, anyway? You’d be gone over with a fine-tooth comb.”
. . . . . “Maybe I prayed to survive this action, my ship intact. I’ve paced these decks ten years. I’ve got my nooks.”
. . . . . “How do I know it isn’t already stashed? It slumbers safely, long as the ship’s topside, until you, or your deputy reclaim it.”
. . . . . “You don’t,” admitted Moreno. “Look, permit the fortunate few to prepare to disembark, loosely supervised. Advise the remainder: Say your prayers, boys. The Santa Clara’s going down. One of the lucky survivors will grab the goodies. Turn us inside out after we’re transported over.”
. . . . . “Take an oath, sir: you are in no way responsible for the disappearance of instructions concerning the location of treasure, nor have you secondhand knowledge. Swear on the cross, or your mother’s flan, whatever you value most, promise not to hinder me from acquiring it, and in return I swear to keep you well and to award you a portion equal to that of my junior officers. What about it?”
. . . . . “I so swear,” cried Moreno. “I have no such knowledge.” There was no treasure, hence no treasure map. There was, however, a record of military surveillance, and that was a serious problem. The folio would turn up only after Gato had produced a good copy, with a map of an area in which he maintained a household. Yah, how would the man, closely watched, manage it? He’d find a way, the slick. Moreno yanked himself back into the moment. His period of uneasy contemplation was not remarked upon.
. . . . . When the folio surfaced, a self-proclaimed prodigy allowed a swat at it, he’d deliver false findings pertaining to buried swag. He’d have made a fair copy, keeping the original to submit to Madrid. Was he a free agent, or on a payroll? Either way, the money couldn’t be magnificent. He must be offered a better deal.
. . . . . Pedro’s sleeping, he’s not been disturbed. His lights are out for the night, thanks to the mug of ____ de ___ he’d downed. Meredith’s yakking it up on the quarterdeck. Pedro’s guard has been changed out. It’s Richard Riley’s butt in the big wingchair.
. . . . . No one’s going anywhere this evening. Meredith, his thought processes slowed to a crawl by a long, hard day, a full stomach, and mucho brandy, is considering his options. Moreno’s dismissed, locked up tight. It’s Gato’s turn to be grilled.
. . . . . “Your captain doesn’t have much good to say about you,” Meredith told him. “But for you’re a notable sneak. Me, I call that a compliment. A wonderful reference, Señor. Be proud of it.” Gato was encouraged by the amiable preliminaries. “I’m not sure I got the straight swag out of him,” Meredith continued. “Give me your version.”
. . . . . “Likely not,” agreed Gato. “He adapts the truth, so do we all, at times, but he promotes his mingle-mangle with an air of solid respectability. He’s got that edge on us. It’s me’s got the boy’s ear. He don’t trust Moreno, he ain’t that dumb. Nothing he’s confided to the man is pure fact. If the dope’s fallen for a fantasy and peddled it to you, and you’ve bought it … forgive me. Not a chance. You see through him.” Whatever his captain might have disclosed, this blanket statement undid much of the damage.
. . . . . “I guess you want to know if I’ve got the map. Hell, no, I don’t have it! I put my chips on Daw. The boy ain’t holding. Me and Cole tore his bunk apart, down to bare boards. He’ll back me up on that. Here’s my idea: Daw’s got it. Cole’s the brainpower in that duo. They’re debating how to hustle a document home. Wait and see if, set-down in Falmouth, they don’t suddenly decide on a pleasure tour to New Rochelle.”
. . . . . “I don’t count them out, I assure you,” said Meredith. “Cole, especially. I’ve known him all his life. He leapfrogs from one muck-puddle to the next. His folks begged me to carry him off, to straighten him out. He’s a goldbrick and that’s the best I got to say for him.” He chuckled. “No, that ain’t true. He’s damn bright. That’s why I chose him to manage the stalk for a duke.” He changed the subject. “I’ve studied your cut-glass. Splendid stuff. It don’t scream, Cheap Gyp! like phonies mostly do. I could use a pocketful like that. Give me the name of the magician who conjured the beauties. There’s a hand. The man’s a gem himself.”
. . . . . “I’ll be glad to introduce you,” purred Gato, pouncing. “The gentleman, a special friend of mine, runs a discreet establishment – not many know of it – in La Rochelle.”
. . . . . Sly’s in Moreno’s cabin. He’s withdrawn a roll of paper from his belt and has prepared an area on the floor beside the desk, he can roll under if need be. The paper, tightly coiled for weeks, will not lie flat. He tames it with a book at each end. It displays the arms of the royal house of Haute-Navarre. He’ll work around that. He begins:
My dear boy,
I write from the Court of San Fermin, in Haute-Navarre, the territory of King Jakome the Inept, as he is known. I was summoned hither by my brother in Christ, my old friend, Rudolpho, who had the astounding good fortune to be named a prince of the church. I am appointed his secretary. I had intended to pass a year here, to be home by now, but I find him in such a state of mental unravel that I have felt it my duty to remain by his side. Now I am laid low, severely ill, with a fever which I cannot seem to shake.
I’ve spoken many times of a legacy which I’ve intended to award you, at such a time as you were capable of undertaking an adventure. I dare not delay the transfer. I fear I shall not embrace you again. I have reproduced my notes set down ten years back. I do not post the original, it’s far too fragile. I’ve provided a map to assist you, as accurately as I can draw it. I was not on the spot myself. I send a key to the cipher to another, lest this correspondence fall into the wrong hands. Present yourself to my longtime friend ________, of Place de ________s, in La Rochelle.
He will first deny any knowledge of, as we call it, The Enigma of the Buried Assets, unless you greet him thusly: utter these words: The Owl Sees All. (This is our ritual, from boyhood. I was The Owl, studying late, and eager to sink my talons into my next victim, a new book.) Wedge your thumbs under your armpits, and flap your elbows up and down like wings, crying, Hoot, hoot! Hoot, hoot! Silly, I know, but this was our secret salutation. This is the sure sign that I have sent you.
Sly giggled. Do cats giggle? This one does. “Cat,” he told himself, “you are a card, sir! Oh, I’d love to be a fly on the wall the day these buzzards descend, hooting and flapping, on Jiggle-Jaw.” The moron, whose several chins wobbled wonderfully when he was agitated, had been the bane of his existence during his courtship of La Delicieuse, the Delicious One, he called her. The butler in the household had done his darndest to thwart young love.
The letter continued: _________ will insist to obtain a further verification of your identity. He’ll question you, according to my instructions. I’ve told you tales over the years, again and again. There is a smile on my lips now, as I recall your impatient remonstrances: Padre Pio! Not that one again! I know it by heart! A new story, please! Now I thank God I had not much imagination.
Now I speak to my beloved niece: Esmeralda! If, ten years gone, the munificence endures undisturbed, it will wait until the boy reaches his majority. Let it lie until then. I commit a grave sin by enabling a recovery of stolen goods. I’ve struggled with the ethics of it over the years. I am in my final days, I must act or not, I have no more time to deliberate a fracture of morality. The devil has gained the upper hand with me, as he has with poor _________, who insists to me that a cat speaks Latin. You are in my prayers. Light candles for my recovery in our beloved Church of the Holy Fool. How I long to be back among my flock of honest know-nothings, away from this hotbed of duplicitous brilliants.
I post this material to you, my dear, by common carrier, rather than to hire a dedicated courier, at great expense. I expect that poor _____ would advance me the money, but I would have to confess to him why I ask it, and I would not be able to lie. I cannot bring myself to compound a mischief with a falsehood. More than that, I have a method to my madness. If it never reaches you, I believe it to be the will of the Almighty. I place the outcome in his hands. Thy will be done, O Lord, now and forever, Amen.
Your loving uncle, _______ _____.
There was an addition, in another hand, inserted between the greeting and the body of characters which followed.
Here is the material I’ve spoken of. I feel I must not wait For my son’s majority to act. I need the money desperately for reasons of which you’re aware. The situation has only grown worse. My boy begs to go. I understand it to be a dangerous errand, with small promise of success. That I beg your involvement is a testament to my desperation. I put my faith in you. I pray you either crack the secret yourself, or convince M. ______ to surrender a key. Godspeed!
Esmeralda _________ y ___________.
- Haute-Navarre is fictitious, although the country of Navarre did exist in this period.