“Very well. The letter from Lacoeur speaks of Luke Scott of Montreal.”
“My half brother,” Hannah said, out of some irresistible urge to make the man uncomfortable. It could have something to do with her headache, or simply with the fact that the set of Fitch’s mouth irritated her.
“So I understand. Where is he?”
“He has been detained in Pensacola,” Hannah said. “I am here alone.” They had worked out their story very carefully, and she found it easy to supply the lies. If Fitch doubted her there was no sign of it on his face; apparently the introduction from Lacoeur did not extend so far as to allow him to meet her eye.
He studied the earth beneath his boots. Hannah remembered, quite suddenly and without warning, another pair of boots, of green Moroccan leather. The boots her stepmother had been wearing when Hannah first saw her. She wondered now what had become of those boots, if they had been lost in a fire or if they lay at the bottom of a trunk somewhere and would be dug out in a few years’ time by a grandchild as yet unborn, who would love them as Hannah had loved them as a little girl.
She had money. She had more money than was really safe for her to carry on her person, alone in this city or anywhere else, but they had weighed the risk and decided that it was necessary. She could buy a dozen pair of boots, but in this city—in most cities—they would do her no good at all. She could dress herself impeccably and that, like her
perfect English, would make no difference. Once that had prickled, but now it was only an inconvenience, another barrier between herself and the things she must accomplish.
“Mr. Fitch,” she prompted. “If you cannot help me, please just say so.”
“I cannot help you in the way you might want me to,” he said, stiffly. “If your half brother were with you, perhaps. But as it is—” He paused, and then seemed to come to a conclusion.
“I am in Lacoeur’s debt, and I will do for you what I can. I have already sent word to an acquaintance who will be able to give you lodging. The neighborhood is a little…” His voice trailed away.
“I understand,” Hannah said. She brushed bread crumbs from her skirt and stood. “Just give me the directions, if you please.”
She lifted the pack and staggered, just a little, before she caught herself. Mr. Fitch tried to look concerned, but really it was more distress for himself, that she might do something to keep him here, to delay his retreat from this distasteful errand forced on him by a man to whom he owed a debt.
He said, “Are you unwell?”
“It’s nothing,” Hannah said. “I’m unused to the weight.”
In fact, her pack weighed very little, but Hannah was as eager to be quit of Mr. Fitch as he was of her.
With her new set of directions memorized, Hannah set out. As she moved down the rue de Hôpital, the cottages grew smaller, the lane more crowded, and the stench enough to bring tears to the eyes, but still she felt more at ease, and was a little sorry that she had been so short with Fitch, who was one of the few contacts she could be sure of in New Orleans.
In this part of the city, at least, she would draw less attention to herself. There were few white faces to be seen, though every other color was in evidence, every shade of black, and many shades of red. She saw only a few Indians, none of whom showed any interest in her. The women of mixed blood watched her more openly, talking about her in loud voices she was meant to hear but in a patois she could only partially understand. Their voices, rough and full of laughter and pointed, seemed to echo in the narrow lanes.
In this part of the city there would be little or no chance that she might come across Jennet by accident, who had been at the Prestons’ house on Bayou St. John for a full week. From the armed guard they had learned of her safe arrival; from Jennet herself there had been no word. That would change in the next day, but for the moment it did no good to worry. Jennet had withstood worse in the last year than a mean-spirited old woman. If she had been reunited with her son, she could put up with that, and much more.
“What you got in that poke there?” a man’s voice said close behind her. “Let’s have a look-see, shall we?”
That, Hannah told herself, was what came of
daydreaming. She pulled her pack more firmly under her arm as strange hands tugged at it, and then she turned to face the three men who had been following her for—how long? A few minutes at least.
They were white and young and poor, the worst possible combination. All three of them looked at her with eyes brimming with what Curiosity Freeman would have called plain mean. One wore an overlarge hat that had slipped down to cover his eyebrows. He pushed it back up with the muzzle of a short-barreled musket. The other two, bigger than their friend by more than a head, were just as roughly dressed but fully armed. One had a knife that he tossed carelessly from his right hand to his left and back again. Sometime not so long ago somebody had knocked all his front teeth out, and it gave him the gleeful look of a boy of seven.
The crowded lane emptied, as it would do anywhere in the world but especially now, in this place, with war all around them. People had enough trouble served up to them day by day and needed none of hers.
“You be friendly now,” said the gap-toothed one. There was something slightly cajoling in his tone, and beneath that, the flickering hope that she would fight.
“Open up,” said the one with a knife, winking at her. He crooked a finger at her pack.
Hannah did as she was told, and pulled out a pistol. It was one she had used many times before, and it felt comfortable in her hand. Maybe they saw how easily she
held it; maybe they understood without having to be shown that she was willing to use it. Certainly their faces changed.
“I can open up,” she said. “If you really want me to.”
They were gone around a corner in a flash, but Hannah had the idea they wouldn’t be far away. She set her mind to finding the shack Mr. Fitch had told her about, before the day got much older.
The woman was very old; she had a scattering of brown teeth, earlobes that had been elongated by heavy brass rings, and eyes as yellow as a cat’s. The color of her skin was lost under a coat of grime. At the mention of Mr. Fitch’s name she spit over her shoulder onto the dirt floor, but she pointed with a lumpy, swollen hand to a corner of the shack where a dirty blanket lay crumpled. Then she curled the fingers of her other hand in a gesture that needed no words. Hannah put three coins in her palm and the hand disappeared into the open neck of the old woman’s dress where her breasts hung like empty sacks.
That was the beginning of her first night in New Orleans, which brought her little sleep and no rest at all.
There were drums, not so far away, and voices raised in chant, and a constant low thrumming, the sound of feet pounding into the earth. Hannah had heard this kind of music before, on the islands they had visited looking for Jennet. Now she wondered sometimes if she was dreaming but found her eyes were open and stinging. Sweat ran
down her face, but when she reached for her water skin she found it empty. She could not remember ever being so thirsty, but neither could she imagine going out into the night to find water.
The old woman, who had no name she cared to share, sat at the door of the shack on a low stool, a shawl around her shoulders in spite of the heat. A torch sputtered and smoked on the wall, and the stink of it filled the small space. Hannah turned her face away but could not escape the sound of voices. People came by and talked to the old woman, who had a hoarse, whispery voice and a chortling laugh.
I have a fever, Hannah said to no one at all. I have a fever, and no medicines. She spoke Kahnyen’kehàka, the language of her mother’s people, and the words hung about her head and shimmered like dragonflies.
A man came, a white man who stood in the door and spoke to the old woman in a tone that was unmistakable: You are nothing, not worthy of the effort it would take to crush you. He asked her questions and she answered, her tone so different that Hannah understood even from the depths of her fever that she was in fear of her life.
No English, she said. No British here. She lived for nothing more than to do laundry and bring the coins she earned to her mistress. She had no interest in English promises of freedom. Where would she go, if she were free? What would she do?
To Hannah it sounded as if she meant what she said.