Into the Game
by Pam and Del

PART NINE

 

Reentering the lodge after weapons practice, Archie paused on the threshold to take another look at the note that had been delivered to him that morning. "Stewart. Two o' clock. Main house, North Drawing Room. Visiting clothes." It was signed, simply, "C." Carmichael, however, had made no reference to the note during the noon lesson. But what form of training could possibly require a change into more elaborate garments?

"Stewart!" Rory's voice, hailing him from behind. Turning around, Archie saw the boy limping towards him, brandishing what appeared to be a note. "Did you get one of these from Carmichael?"

Archie glanced at what the boy was holding out to him, read "Rory. Wash. Two o'clock. Main house, North Drawing Room. Visiting clothes. C." He had to smile when he saw the word "Wash" had been underlined twice. "Yes. Yes, I did. Any idea what this is about?"

Rory shook his head. "What d'you think he means by 'visiting clothes'?"

"Slightly better than the clothes one usually wears? At any rate," Archie added with a faint grin, "better than what you've worn to go riding!" He looked more closely at the boy, noticing the clods of dirt streaking his breeches, the stiff way he was carrying himself. "Oh, dear--you've come a cropper?"

Rory's grimace was sufficient affirmation. "Bloody horse dumped me on my--"

"Happens to all of us," Archie said lightly.

The boy scowled. "I don't fall off *that* often. But Carmichael always makes me wash after riding."

"Well, not everyone cares for the smell of horse. And after taking a fall, you might feel the better for a wash."

"Mm." Rory did not sound wholly convinced. "At least the laundry room's close by."

"The laundry room?"

Rory nodded. "Hot water there at all hours. I'll show you."

*****

The first thing Archie noticed was the warmth. A kettle was heating over the fire in the great stone fireplace that dominated the room, and a cauldron large enough to accommodate all three witches in the Scottish play sat on the hob.

A table on which pitchers and basins were set stood against the adjacent wall, while wooden buckets and washtubs of varying sizes were lined up against the opposite wall. Rory dragged the largest tub into the center of the room, then filled a bucket with steaming water from the cauldron. "If you've no time to wait for servants," he informed Archie as he emptied the bucket into the tub, "it's easy enough to wash here."

"Is there soap?" Archie asked, suddenly feeling the need for a quick wash himself.

Rory gestured with his chin towards the far wall again. "Over on that ledge. Bring some for me too?"

The soap smelled strongly of tallow but otherwise seemed adequate. Archie handed Rory one lump, along with some rough but clean strips of toweling he had also found on the ledge, then set about making his own ablutions. Filling a bucket in his turn, he emptied the hot water into a large basin, then stripped off his shirt, not without a quick glance over his shoulder. Although the scars on his back had faded, he still had no desire to explain them. Nor did he wish to discuss the more recent scar stretching across his lower chest and abdomen. The pain had gone, except for the occasional twinge, but the healing muscles around the wound were still stiff and slow to obey him. And Latour would not yet permit Archie to ride or engage in the more arduous aspects of the street-fighting lessons.

Fortunately, Rory, with the self-absorption of the young, had no attention to spare from preparations for his own bath. The washtub still had to be filled, although the boy's expression clearly showed his lack of enthusiasm for the task. Archie had ample time to wash himself fully from the waist up, reveling in the touch of hot water against his skin, before Rory began, reluctantly, to undress.

Rubbing himself dry, Archie threw his discarded shirt over one shoulder. "Where do I empty this?" he asked Rory, indicating the basin.

Rory, dipping one toe gingerly into the bath, gestured towards the nearest of two doors--not the one through which they had entered. "There's a drain in the courtyard."

After disposing of his wash water, Archie returned the basin to the laundry room, bade Rory, now grudgingly ensconced in the tub, a cheerful farewell, and headed upstairs. He could change clothes in his room, then snatch a quick meal in the dining room before reporting for this mysterious new lesson. He hoped Rory had no problem locating suitable garments.

*****

As it turned out, he did not need to worry. Encountering the boy again just outside the main house at the appointed hour, Archie saw Rory was well turned-out in a tawny brown jacket, fawn breeches and a green striped waistcoat. The fiery hair had also been tamed--at least temporarily--into a neat queue. Archie himself had chosen a deep blue jacket--old habits died hard, he supposed--with pale grey breeches and a waistcoat subtly patterned in grey and cream. Beholding his colleague, Rory grinned and swept him a passable leg; Archie returned the greeting with the proficiency drilled into him by his childhood dancing-master, and they proceeded upstairs together.

Three people were waiting for them in the North Drawing Room--Carmichael, Jamieson, and Caillean. Archie blinked as he took in the trio's appearance: all were fashionably dressed, in the kind of clothes usually worn for an afternoon reception or a formal call. Caillean looked especially striking, in a shell-pink visiting dress, trimmed with blond lace, her dark hair arranged in artful ringlets rather than in her usual chignon. Striking--and at least five years younger, Archie observed bemusedly. Only the blue-green eyes, glinting under demurely lowered lashes, revealed that this dainty creature and the prim ciphers expert were one and the same.

"Stewart, Rory." Carmichael, surprisingly elegant in an impeccably cut dark green jacket and close-fitting trousers, gestured towards a pair of chairs set against the wall. "Sit down and we'll begin."

"What's this about?" Archie asked, as he and Rory took their seats.

"Something new for the next few days." Carmichael held up what looked like a small visiting card. "Watch." He slid the card up his right sleeve, letting only a thin edge show above his shirt cuff, then walked over to Jamieson and relieved the other man of the traveling cape he wore over his clothes.

Draping the cloak over the back of a chair, Carmichael then turned to greet Caillean, kissing her hand as she dropped him a curtsy. Together, they proceeded to a corner table on which was set a teapot and several cups. Caillean began to pour out the tea as Jamieson drifted up, holding a book. Accepting a cup of tea from Caillean, the knife expert offered the book to his commander. Carmichael tucked the book under one arm, received his own cup of tea in turn, then strolled leisurely to the nearest window. Setting the cup down on the sill, he drew open the curtains and stood looking out for several moments, apparently without a care in the world.

Archie stared, perplexed. What was this? A dumb show, perhaps--like the one in Hamlet? Beside him, Rory seemed equally confused. Yet there had to be a reason they were watching this.

Turning from the window, Carmichael wandered past Caillean and Jamieson, still standing by the table and sipping tea, paused in the center of the room, just in front of Archie and Rory, and showed them the calling card once again.

Now tucked into the cuff of his left shirt sleeve.

"Well?" Carmichael inquired, removing and brandishing the card before his curious subordinates. "Who did I give this to? And--who gave it back to me?"

Rory leaned forward in his chair, green eyes sharpening. "I want to see that again."

A brief nod, then, "Better than that--you'll also be doing it. Both of you." Carmichael's glance went to Archie. "You first, Stewart. Rory, you keep watching."

*****

"So I stand here," Caillean said, some fifteen minutes later, "holding my cup, looking decorative and making amiable conversation of little consequence. Then I walk over this way," she proceeded to demonstrate, "and now this way, pause here by the cabinet, put down my cup and saucer as though I were not thinking about it--indeed, I must never appear to be thinking about anything--leave them aside like this, and wander away. Still talking, of course."

Admirably done. Archie had seen those kinds of movements many times in social calls and encounters. And for the last quarter-hour, Carmichael, Jamieson, and Caillean had shown him and Rory the various ways information might have passed between two or three of them on just such an occasion.

His turn now. I can do this. He took a step, slowly and casually, toward the cabinet where Caillean had left her cup and the concealed message he was to retrieve. Four steps, five . . . how difficult could it be?

*****

"No," Rory said, for the third time in twenty minutes.

Archie halted, bit back a frustrated oath. "What now?" he managed, sounding slightly strangled.

"Well?" Brows raised, Carmichael looked at Rory.

The boy raked his fingers through his now-unruly hair--long since escaped from its queue--and struggled to find words to express his dissatisfaction. "It's too . . . " he glanced at Archie, a little apologetically. "You look too much as if you mean to go there. Not . . . not careless enough. You can't look as though you're thinking about what you're doing."

Archie pressed his fingers against his forehead, trying to ease the tightness beginning there. "I should look as if I'm not thinking--" he began.

"You're not thinking about where you're going," Carmichael elaborated. "Or that anyone is watching you."

"How do I do that when I know there are four of you watching me?" Archie protested, stymied further by the parameters.

"That's not an unfair objection," Jamieson spoke up for the first time.

Carmichael's face was implacable. "I can do it, you can do it, and Caillean can do it," he told the knife-expert. "That means you can learn it," he added, fixing Archie with a stern tawny eye. His glance shifted to Rory. "And you'll be on this by the end of the week." He turned back to Archie." You're not trying to avoid attention and you're not trying to attract it. Keep that in mind."

"You just told me not to think." Archie felt his temper beginning to fray and struggled to hold onto it.

"Not to look like you're thinking," Carmichael corrected.

"Purposeless," Jamieson broke in. "You need to appear purposeless. You're taking notice of nothing, so no one should take notice of you, and you blend into the crowd."

"Can you dance, Mr. Stewart?" Caillean asked suddenly.

"What?" Archie blinked.

"Dance. At those balls and assemblies and such."

"Well, I know how, but . . . "

"Then you know you don't look at your feet," Caillean explained. "It isn't any more difficult than that."

What if you had two *left* feet? Archie wondered pessimistically and glanced over at his commander.

Carmichael was frowning, rubbing the back of his hand against his jaw. "Maybe we need a change in tactics." He regarded his other juniormost subordinate speculatively.

"Rory--you'd have seen the dips in Edinburgh?"

"Ye-es." The boy eyed him uncertainly.

"D'you know the switch?"

"Yes." Professional affirmation.

"Show him, then." Carmichael picked up a cup and saucer from the table, held them out. Bouncing up, Rory took the items from the senior agent, and handed them to Archie.

"Here." The boy guided Archie to a place in the room not far from where Caillean had begun her maneuvering. "You stand here, like she did--"

"Only not looking quite as decorative," Carmichael teased lightly, from the other side of the table.

"That's a matter of opinion, surely?" Caillean murmured, receiving a baffled glance from Jamieson and an amused one from Carmichael.

"Hold them down like this," Rory continued. "Now, walk this way--no."

"Now you're going somewhere with a cup," Jamieson pointed out.

I can do this. I know how to do this. I did know how to do this before I started THINKING about how to do this! Archie set the cup down with a clink on the nearest horizontal surface, feeling his frustration spilling over. "How many times do I have to--"

"Until you get it right," Carmichael finished inexorably. "Lock it down, Stewart."

"But--"

"Lock. It. Down." Carmichael's tone was more severe than Archie had ever heard it: a call-to-order as sharp as the rap of a bosun's cane. He was not the only one so affected; Caillean's head came up swiftly, and Rory took a quick step back.

Archie dropped his eyes in chagrin, staring hard at the floor and feeling his face burn. He took two deep, slow breaths, trying to regain his unraveling self-control. "Yes, sir." There was no other possible response. After three more breaths, he managed, "Sorry, sir."

"Better." The voice was still unyieldingly stern. "You need patience in this business. Lose your patience and you lose your advantage. You know that already. Now lock it down and get on with the job."

Patience. Archie winced slightly, still staring at the floor, and bit his lower lip. Not a virtue he had found easy to acquire, even at the best of times. And no command officer worth his salt would have answered his attempted protest any other way. Including a former fourth lieutenant . . . Forgotten what you were already? a small disagreeable voice in the back of his mind taunted him.

I can learn this. I learned navigational maths, I can learn this. Although Horatio had been there to help him with the maths, had practically dragged him by the ear through the early stages, until the numbers and formulas made sense at last. Archie took another breath and looked up; he received a small smile from Caillean and a wink from Rory.

Jamieson's brow furrowed thoughtfully. "If you can't look as if you're not going somewhere . . . maybe you should appear to be going there for a different reason?"

"Misdirection," Carmichael mused. "That might work better." He rose and joined them in the middle of the room. "Back with you, now." Reaching out, he towed Archie back to the starting-point of the exercise, a small, tacit pardon for his subordinate's earlier lapse. "Now--you're going in that direction but you're openly thinking about something else." He looked back toward the cabinet. "Rory? What does he want to look at?"

Rory frowned, thinking. "Ah--painting? Window? Books?"

"Books," Carmichael said promptly. "There's a book over there you want a look at. Top shelf," he finished, with a glance at Rory, who nodded. "Off you go."

Maybe rehearsing in the theater was like this. I want to look at the book. I want to look at the book. I want to look at the goddamned book! Archie tried to hold onto that thought as he walked towards the cabinet with Rory behind him.

"Slower," Carmichael said emphatically. Archie gritted his teeth but obeyed. Reaching the cabinet, he stopped, unsure what to do next.

"Here." Rory took command. "Move over so they can't see around your body. Have the cup in your right hand, this way," he demonstrated, "put it next to her cup like this. Now you pick up her cup. Don't turn around--that's only half of what you have to do."

"What's the rest?"

"Look up. Use your left hand to look for that book, because you want to draw attention to it. Don't look at your right hand at all."

"But you should do that first," Jamieson corrected. "Look up and draw attention with your left, change cups with your right."

"He's right," Rory acknowledged. "Try it again."

Archie had to practice twice more before they were satisfied, switching his cup and saucer for Caillean's and recovering the small roll of paper she had concealed in her saucer. After the second time, Rory nodded approval and stepped back.

"Now, by yourself."

Archie returned to the starting point. "What kind of book am I looking for?" he asked, beginning the approach again.

"An atlas?" Carmichael suggested. "Or 'The Compleat Angler'?"

He was rewarded by a glare from Rory. Archie reached the cabinet, positioned himself. Left hand up, head tilted back, right hand down . . .

There was a clink followed by a small crash from the direction of the table, and a feminine exclamation of dismay. Archie dropped his eyes, scooped up the paper, and tucked it into his sleeve before turning around.

"Oh, dear," Caillean was saying, in a slightly fluttery way. "How clumsy of me!"

Jamieson looked baffled, Rory irritated, and Carmichael amused. "Not at all," he said aloud, looking at Archie. "Did you get it?"

Archie held up his hand, the paper just visible under his shirt cuff.

"Good work. And of course," Carmichael went on, "if you're being too closely watched, your partner could cause a diversion."

"But usually not unsolicited," Jamieson murmured. Archie blinked, not comprehending.

"Right." Carmichael strode decisively towards the drawing-room door. "That's enough for the first day. You can have the rest of the afternoon off, gentlemen."

As they filed out, only Jamieson noticed that the last member of the group (to whom the description did not apply) remained demurely behind.

*****

"Caillean," Carmichael's voice was stern as he addressed his subordinate. "None of your games."

He was answered by a limpid blue-green gaze of deceptive innocence. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean."

"I'm sure I know all about your fancies, my girl."

"He's very pretty," Caillean said, in a tone of objective, aesthetic appreciation. "Lovely manners, too. I'm sure he'd be a gentleman about it."

"Ah, but would you be a lady? He's not up to your tricks. Stand away."

"Carmichael, are you actually giving me an order?"

He fixed her with a stern stare. "It's not me you'll answer to, it's Dr. Latour."

"Oh, the poor man! As bad as that, then, was he?"

"I didn't say that either." Faint irritation was beginning to show. "He's not ready for your deviltry. Don't press him."

Dark lashes lowered, then lifted coquettishly. "Carmichael, when have I ever . . .?"

"At least three times in the past two years!" he replied promptly.

"And I was well aware that you were all making bets about it the last time!" Caillean snapped back.

Carmichael only smiled. "Let him be, girl," he said placatingly. "It's not a fair game otherwise. Too much like forcing unwanted attentions, and you know all about that."

Several years ago, in a luxurious Edinburgh townhouse, the drunken eldest son of the family had deluded himself into perceiving an invitation in an attractive parlormaid's eyes, and had seized her when she passed him in the hall. She had declined his advances with her knee. Discharged from her position upon the spot, the young woman had been just as promptly offered new employment by one of the titled visitors. The nobleman had inadvertently discovered that not only did the former domestic have striking looks and good reflexes, but, through resource and initiative, she had also taught herself to read and write. Additional study and extended training had revealed a talent for puzzles, codes, and ciphers.

"Oh, very well," Caillean pulled a face at the reminder. "A bargain, Carmichael."

"Let's hear it, then."

"I won't press any advances on him. But if he should just happen to notice . . . you won't interfere."

"Word of honor?"

"Word of honor. And you?"

"I'll give it, but I don't think I need to."

She raised inquiring brows.

"I still doubt he's in any condition for you."

"And if I can make it otherwise?"

Carmichael shrugged. "If he's willing, it might be good for him, if you're so set on it. Of course, if you only want something to do with your time . . . " he let the sentence dangle teasingly.

"Smitty would have my ears!"

"Smitty," Carmichael remarked, "is in London. And the last time we spoke, she wasn't very happy with me."

"She'd still have my ears. And I'm much prettier with them."

"I'd noticed." Carmichael stepped closer, captured her chin. Mindful of the twist of her mouth, her narrowed eyes, and her past history, he assumed an air of avuncular forbearance and kissed her decorously above the right eyebrow. She was laughing softly as he walked away.

 

 

END PART NINE