|Rating: PG-13, slash
Other characters: Lord Cutler Beckett, Mr. Mercer
Warnings: Telling would be spoiling.
Summary: Mr. Mercer is a master of his trade, and he doesn't appreciate competition.
Author's note: Sequel to "Secret of his Success"
Supper had been better than expected, and Lord Cutler Beckett couldn't decide whether to be delighted or disappointed about that fact. He was a gourmet, so he had greatly enjoyed the meal of curried goat, pigeon peas and rice. However, he would also have enjoyed a bit of grousing; Beckett was proud of his candy-coated vitriolic bon-mots. The missed opportunity to criticise James Norrington didn't bother Beckett too much; the commodore was not sophisticated enough to fully appreciate his wit, anyway. And Gillette? Addressing him would have been throwing pearls before swine, or rather, before fish. Norrington's first lieutenant had all the charms and attraction of a dead eel.
"I'm very glad to hear that the East India Trading Company can count on your full support, Commodore Norrington," Beckett finally broke the uncomfortable silence that had accompanied the pudding, a very sweet, sticky piece of heaven tasting of bananas, coconuts, cashew nuts and brown sugar. Once Norrington was gone, so Beckett spontaneously decided, he'd employ the commodore's chef. "I knew we'd come to an understanding once I'd make your acquaintance. Letters don't really capture the spirit of a man, don't you agree?"
Norrington's mind had been occupied with the correct classification of a rock he'd found in the morning, he had not paid attention to Beckett's words and therefore gave his guest a puzzled look. Just what had the annoying fop been asking?
"We can assure you that you will receive all the support King and government have found to be needed and justified," Gillette said stiffly, coming to Norrington's help. "That's how the navy has always handled its business."
"Of course." Beckett sipped on his wine, then gave Gillette a sphinx-like smile. "And what a comfort that is to know."
The commodore had trained his dog well; Beckett had to give him credit for that. Being the stooge seemed to be Gillette's main responsibility, and he handled it well. More couldn't be expected; he was one of those unimaginative, cumbersome officers that so often made Beckett's life difficult. And he was boring, oh so boring! Not that Norrington was much better; trying to keep the conversation with him alive was like pulling teeth. But he wasn't here for his pleasure, Beckett reminded himself, he was here for business. And now was as good a moment to start his investigation as any other.
"Commodore Norrington, I have to express my regret about the string of misfortunes you had to suffer lately," Beckett said, his voice all velvet and compassion. "Such a terrible crime! I've had the honour of knowing the poor captain for many years; what a loss for our country."
Norrington cleared his throat, then folded his napkin and put it next to his plate. "Terrible, indeed, though I'd say that it was the misfortune of Captain Hardy and Lieutenant Fremantle rather than mine."
"I hope you will not take offense if I say that I'm surprised two experienced officers took the risk of visiting such a dangerous part of Port Royal. I heard not even marines dare to go there."
"No offense taken," Norrington murmured, but that was all he had to say about it. In fact he had often wondered what on earth had driven the two men to visit that specific place. It had been his luck that they'd fallen victims to some cut-throat in a dark side street; Norrington knew that his career, maybe even his life had been at risk if Hardy had brought the case of the one day's head start granted to Captain Jack Sparrow before a court martial. He certainly hadn't wished for the two men to die, though. The law had been on their side, after all.
"The investigation is carried out with care, I assume?" Beckett inquired.
"With the greatest care. Lieutenant Gillette is personally supervising it; I expect an arrest any day."
"The case couldn't be in more capable hands," Beckett purred, thinking that, should ever one of his own dubious business arrangements come under investigation, a man as capable as Gillette would be ordered for the task. Good grief, Norrington could just as well have ordered a monkey to find the murderers of the two officers; the result would have probably been the same and at lower costs.
"I'm very glad to hear that. Though I'm a businessman through and through, fully dedicated to my duties in the service of the East India Trading Company, I can't deny my great admiration for our fearless heroes of the navy. It pains me to learn of losses among your ranks. Port Royal seems to be a far more dangerous place than I thought."
Norrington looked lost. "Is it? Well. It depends. What is your opinion, Mr. Gillette?"
Go, fetch stick, boy, Beckett thought, hiding a smile.
"I wouldn't say so, Sir," came the polite reply. "Port Royal isn't worse than any other place. One just has to take precautions. Be alert. Take care of what one holds dear. But then one always has, no matter where one stays."
Gillette's strangely impersonal droning grated on Beckett's nerves. He wouldn't learn more about the matter now, so he decided to change the subject.
"That's very true. But let's not talk about such unpleasant matters anymore, my apologies for bringing them up. It doesn't seem to be fair to ruin such a perfect supper. I'm delighted to find a fellow art connoisseur in you, Commodore Norrington! I greatly admire your silent companions. I do own three myself, but yours? True pieces of art. You purchased them in London, I suppose?"
Norrington turned to look at one of the objects of Beckett's admiration. "The dummy boards? No, I don't think so - Mr. Gillette, where did I buy the lackey?"
"In Glasgow, Sir. Together with the dummy boards of the maid and the footman. Your sister suggested the purchase as a precaution against burglars."
"Ah, yes, indeed, I remember," Norrington said. Whenever Agnes travelled to Bath with her husband and the children, wooden cut-outs of servants would be placed near the windows. Realistically painted, they gave the illusion of a house full of people, and a burglar would think twice before breaking into a house where he might be welcomed by pistol and rolling pin.
Norrington thought the figures to be ghastly, but they were indeed useful, though he didn't fear burglars. The lackey hid the large tear in the paper hangings perfectly well. A pity he had no dummy board large enough to replace the worn paravent next to the fireplace. It currently shielded the pot de chambre and those making use of it discretely from the eyes of other guests. Now there was an idea - a dummy board showing a gentleman using the pot de chambre! A quick smile showed on Norrington's face, much to Beckett's surprise.
"Glasgow? I wouldn't have expected such skill in that part of the country," Beckett said. He sneered at Gillette, whose Glasgow accent was very prominent, but again he was disappointed: not a muscle moved in Gillette's face, not even a hint of anger showed in the dull brown eyes.
* * *
Norrington, holding a magnifying glass, examined the stone in front of him carefully. His glasses had slipped down his nose, but he was too enthralled with his latest find to notice. Gillette had noticed, though, and as they were alone, he pushed the glasses gently up to the bridge of the nose. Then he ran his finger down Norrington's nose, over the tip and finally touched the lips. Norrington blinked, pressed a kiss on the pad of Gillette's finger and smiled.
"That explains why I couldn't see clearly."
"That might not be a matter of weak eyes only." Gillette reached for one of the small stones on Norrington's desk. Yet another limestone. Gillette had no idea what it was about rocks that fascinated Norrington so much, but then Norrington was also fascinated by him, which seemed to be even less understandable.
"I assume you're talking about Lord Cutler Beckett?" Norrington frowned. "Arrogant fop. He probably sees us as 'gentlemanly peasants'. I'm afraid we're in for unpleasant times; he's not a man I'm looking forward to have dealings with. Have you seen his factotum? That Mercer man looks like he's fallen off the gallows at Tyburn."
Gillette put the stone back on the desk. "Mercer? He seems to be as dedicated to his master as I'm to you. Don't see things so negative, my dear Norrington. Lord Cutler Beckett is a man of culture; after all he honestly admired your dummy boards. A pity he didn't notice your portrait by Joshua Reynolds, though."
"I admire your sarcasm, but I'd prefer if he'd show you respect rather than the dummies," Norrington grumbled. "I absolutely don't approve of his remarks. Well, he better get used to the idea that I'm not one of his lackeys. Nor are you."
"Maybe you should make him a peace offering."
"Peace offering? I wasn't aware we're at war with the East India Trading Company."
"We're not, and we'll hopefully never be. Still, there's no point in animosities. May I suggest that you send him that dummy board here as a present? He admired it, and I'm very certain he'd appreciate the gesture."
"The lackey?" Norrington wrinkled his nose. "If you think it's a good idea, then go ahead." Secretly, Norrington wasn't unhappy about getting rid of the dummy board. More than once the lackey had given him a freight in the dark, and once he had almost shot at the dummy board of the footman because he had mistaken it for an intruder. Not that he'd ever tell Gillette; there were some things a man should never share.
"Very well then. I'll arrange to have it brought to Lord Cutler Beckett's house. Then it's up to him if he's wise enough to accept your peace offering."
Norrington put the magnifying glass aside and looked at Gillette. This had just been one of the longest conversations they'd held in weeks. He had thought that something, no, everything would change after they had become lovers, but things had stayed mostly the same. Gillette kept his distance, never gave anything away. That was good, of course. The Admiralty might have allowed Norrington to retire and hush up the circumstances surrounding the escape of Captain Jack Sparrow, but sodomy? The only mercy he and Gillette could hope for if caught were two loaded pistols and the chance to die in private rather than in public.
So he had learned to appreciate what was possible rather than regret what was not. He found great pleasure in watching the lieutenant answering letters, for example. To Norrington, it was such a mesmerising sight, that long-fingered hand holding the quill. The tip of the tongue firmly pressed into the corner of Gillette's mouth captivated his attention and fascinated him more than anything. There was that beautiful thing, that miracle he'd never expected to experience - to love and be loved in return, unconditionally, without regrets. The one person he could talk to and be silent with. He had found the perfect companion.
"I have given the servants off tonight," Norrington said casually, as if he'd mentioned the current price of canvas. "Two ships have made port, so there will be mighty carousing and dancing in the taverns. I doubt we'll see any of them before dawn," Norrington murmured. It was an invitation, and Gillette accepted it with a quick, surprisingly boyish smile.
* * *
Lord Cutler Beckett was not at home when Gillette and two men carrying the dummy board called in the next morning. His lordship had decided to visit Governor Swann, so Gillette was welcomed by Mr. Mercer.
"Wonderful. I'm sure his lordship will be delighted," Mercer announced after inspecting the dummy board. He acted like a gentleman rather than the general dogsbody he actually was. Maybe there was more to Mercer than met the eye?
"Please, take a seat; you must share a glass of this excellent wine with me," Mercer insisted once the lackey had been placed between window and curtain, ignoring Gillette's muttered excuses about important duties waiting. He filled two glasses from a carafe on Lord Cutler Beckett's desk and a delicious, heady scent filled the room. Again, no servant would have talked and behaved in such a way. Gillette decided to play along; if Cutler Beckett treated Mercer like a gentleman, then so would he. Maybe this was as chance to learn more about a possible enemy.
"Thank you," Gillette said, and took the offered glass.
Mercer sat down in the seat next to Gillette's. I'm his guest, Gillette thought. He's not a servant, he's the host. I must be careful.
"I heard you've been entrusted with the investigation regarding the two murdered officers? A terrible crime." Mercer rubbed his chin and gave Gillette a sly look. "I've discussed that case with his lordship, and you might be interested to hear that we have very different theories regarding the events that lead to the crime."
"Indeed?" Gillette looked up from his glass. "I'd be curious to hear your opinion. Four eyes see more than two, as the saying goes, and that's even truer for six."
"You're absolutely right, Lieutenant Gillette. Doesn't the dice prove it? You see, his lordship assumes that the two men were the victims of bad company. Acquaintances they made due to a certain - inclination. Only a year ago, Lord S.... died under quite similar circumstances, after leaving a house of rather dubious reputation. His throat was cut as well. What a scandal!"
"I will not allow the honour of two gentlemen to be tainted by rumours and ill-speaking. However, I have to admit that I can understand the reasons for such assumptions."
Mercer put the glass on the side table and leaned back in his seat. He looked relaxed and far too pleased for such a grave discussion.
"I'm of the opinion that it was not a coincidence that the two officers became the victims of this terrible crime. There were no cut-throats lurking in a dark side street for random passers-by. It was cold-blooded, premeditated murder, Mr. Gillette."
The dramatic pause didn't have the desired effect on Gillette; he was neither surprised nor shocked - if anything, he seemed to be amused.
"With all due respect, Mr. Mercer - this might be a nice story to tell at the local tavern over an ale or two, but there's absolutely no reason why anybody should have wished to see Captain Hardy and Lieutenant Fremantle dead. While not the most popular officers, if I may say so, they were both highly respected. I'm afraid you will have to settle for the less spectacular, but more realistic holdup murder."
"Let me explain my reasoning first, and then make your judgement," Mercer said. "Both officers were gentlemen of excellent reputation. One was married, the other engaged. Now that doesn't have to mean anything. Evil knows well how to disguise itself. But why on earth should they have risked their reputations by going to that part of Port Royal and visiting an ill-reputed tavern? They must have known that they'd very likely run into sailors, maybe even men belonging to their own ship. Not very likely they'd have taken such a risk."
"No," Gillette admitted. "That is true. But even if you should be right: there's no motive."
"The motive? It seems to be very obvious. The motive must be something intimate. Something - personal."
Gillette blinked. "Personal? What makes you think so?"
Mercer shrugged. "The murderer - or the murderers, we don't know yet how many criminals were involved - risked a lot by transporting the bodies to that specific place. I'm very certain the murder took place somewhere else, otherwise the victims would have been seen by somebody previously, as we've already established. Only a man with a strong personal motive would have taken that risk just to depose the bodies in the side street of a tavern suspected to be a Molly House. Why not simply bury them outside of Port Royal or throw them in the sea? No, no, Mr. Gillette. Our murderer wanted the victims to be found, and he wanted to destroy their reputation. Considering the circumstances, I'm afraid that you will have to look for the murderer in your own ranks, Mr. Gillette. Actually, I'm very certain the two men have been murdered by a brother officer."
"Sir! Not another word!" Gillette hit his fist on the table, his face red with anger. "How dare you! I will not tolerate such-"
"I know, you will not tolerate such words. But hear me out, please. See, it was the lieutenant found with his breeches down. True, he was not the most popular officer in Port Royal, but it was his captain who was hated by the men. Had one of your jolly tars held a grudge over a flogging or a cut of his rum ration, he'd arranged the captain to be the more humiliated one. Even in such cases, men tend to go by seniority. But that was not the case. Yes, I think it was an officer. An officer who could, despite everything, not bring himself to completely ruin a superior officer's reputation. Or the reputation of a peer...?"
Gillette jumped up, almost knocking the glass over in the process.
"What utter nonsense! You, Sir, better keep such outrageous, insulting theories for yourself! Both men had many friends here in Port Royal, and you'd find yourself challenged to a duel faster than you might imagine. If you'd be deemed worthy of a challenge in the first place, that is!"
Mercer stood up and made a deep bow.
"My apologies. My most sincere apologies. I shouldn't have thought aloud. Please forgive me, Sir. At times, I have too quick a tongue for my own good."
"That will be your downfall one day," Gillette hissed. "Mark my words."
"Luckily, that's one of my strengths, Mr. Gillette: I might stumble, but I never fall," Mercer said smoothly. "Good day to you, Sir."
Gillette left without another word or even a glance at Mercer. Once the door had closed behind him, Mercer rubbed his hands. He had laid out the bait; now he only had to wait for Gillette to bite.
* * *
The following weeks passed relatively uneventful. Lord Cutler Beckett made many suggestions for changes of the dealings between the Royal Navy and the East India Trading Company, and Norrington took his good time to make decisions. One step forward, two steps back - this was a dance he mastered to perfection. Beckett wanted all and got nothing, and no matter how much he protested and complained, Norrington wouldn't be hurried.
The investigation of the double murders didn't progress, either, as Mr. Gillette had fallen seriously ill. It had started as a light fever, caused by the bite of a mosquito, but despite a healing salve and a strong cordial prepared by Mr. Lincoln, the apothecary, things had taken a turn for the worse, and everybody was certain that Gillette would die. Luckily, the lieutenant made a miraculous recovery, but that fortunate turn of fate was overshadowed by the sudden death of Mr. Lincoln. Returning from the tavern rather drunk one night, he had toppled over and drowned in the cesspool next to the smithy of Will Turner. Gillette had attended the funeral, pale and haggard-looking, but very much alive. Beckett could have spit nails.
"It can't be that difficult to get rid of this fool. I pay you well enough for your services, so how comes that I still have to see this ignorant ugly face every day?"
Mercer, busy sharpening his knife, didn't seem to be fussed. "We have time, my lord. I admit, I've underestimated Mr. Gillette. I didn't think he'd notice the poison, especially not as we've administered it in small doses. A pity, I've put great hopes in Mr. Lincoln. But you really need not worry, my lord. If all else fails, my dearest friend here will take care of the problem." He looked lovingly at the knife in his hand.
"That better happen soon," Beckett snapped. "My business is beginning to suffer. Now he's hunting for smugglers! Pray tell, how am I supposed to make a decent profit if he continues to block my ships? Enough with the experiments, Mr. Mercer. I want Gillette gone. And Norrington along with him. Shoot him, stab him, strike him dead with one of his cursed rocks! I don't care, as long as it happens soon!"
Mercer sighed. He considered himself to be an artist. Sometimes blunt violence couldn't be avoided, but he preferred the more refined and artistic aspects of his profession. A man like Beckett would never understand the delights that the careful composition of an undetectable poison could provide. The more complicated the problem, the greater the satisfaction upon finding a successful solution. Gillette, Mercer was convinced of that, was a master of the same art, though his motivation was probably a different one. There was honour among assassins; Mercer felt that Gillette deserved an end worthy of his own skills. Norrington, however - well. Once Gillette was gone, it would be like swatting a fly. Maybe he would use one of the rocks. The idea had a poetic ring to it.
* * *
Norrington's study was dimly lit by candles. The light fell on Gillette's face, emphasising its paleness. He had fallen asleep in his seat, and Norrington longed to run his fingers through the red hair. He didn't want to wake his lover, though, not yet, so he confined himself to watching, admiring and - worrying. What if Gillette became sick again? To think that he had entrusted Lincoln, that mountebank, to administer that cursed cordial! Gillette's state had not improved, far from it. Stomach cramps, vomiting of blood and violent pains all over his body had brought him to the brink of death. Norrington and his footman took turns keeping vigil at night, despite their fear that the lieutenant might suffer from cholera. When the servants refused to change the soiled bed sheets, the two men also took over that task.
Finally, in a rare moment of consciousness, Gillette ordered that the cordial may not be given to him anymore, and Norrington respected his wishes. That his lover began to recover from that very moment on was too significant to be a mere coincidence. The thought that somebody might have tried to poison Gillette never crossed Norrington's mind, though. He thought the apothecary guilty of a foolish mistake, maybe a miscalculation in the recipe of the cordial. As far as Norrington was concerned, destiny had punished Lincoln fairly.
Something had changed, though. Where Gillette had previously kept a distance, he now hardly ever left Norrington's side, and he showed more thoughtfulness and concern for Norrington than ever before. Gillette had become very stern with the servants, returned meals several times to the kitchen because he considered them not up to Norrington's standards. He also wouldn't suffer Norrington to enter his bedchamber before searching every corner for spiders or snakes. This was ridiculous, of course, for Norrington wasn't afraid of spiders and there were no poisonous snakes on Jamaica, but indeed, one night Gillette found a giant yellow centipede between the bed sheets. How odd that such an animal would find its way into the house! Norrington knew of at least two people who had died after touching one of those beasts. He was not only glad to have escaped possible death, but also very touched by Gillette's obvious concern and love.
Norrington sighed. It was time for Gillette to leave; he couldn't stay here all night. Not again. Even the most gullible servant might begin to doubt that they worked every night; this was a risk he couldn't take. He gently touched Gillette's arm and squeezed it. Muttered words, a blink, a yawn - and Gillette sat up bolt right.
"What is it? What has happened?" he cried, reaching for his sword. A pointless attempt, as the sword rested on Norrington's desk.
"Nothing has happened. You've fallen asleep, my friend. It's time to go home - unfortunately."
Gillette frowned. It was obvious that he didn't like the idea, and Norrington's heart skipped a beat. The very idea that Gillette didn't want to separate, that he'd actually miss him was too big a thing for Norrington to grasp. It just made him very happy.
Gillette leaned forward and pressed a kiss on Norrington's lips.
"Now I'll say that I'd prefer to stay here, then you'll order me to leave, and tomorrow, we'll go through the same procedure again. Would you consider me ungrateful if I said that I'm not fully happy with that arrangement?"
"Most ungrateful, dear Gillette. Only once we're back aboard the Dauntless, with Groves glued to your side at any time of the day, you'll realise how comfortable our life here is."
"Very true." Gillette stood up, put on his coat and reached for his sword. "And it is late. I forgot that I have some business to attend to."
"Business? Now?" Norrington was surprised. "It's past midnight, Gillette!"
"Ah, it's nothing of great importance. Just one of those tasks one puts off from one day to the other, again and again, until it's too late to do the work properly. Don't concern yourself, Norrington, and remember to search your chamber carefully before you go to bed."
Norrington assured that he'd do so, and thanked Gillette with a doting smile. Could there possibly be a more caring man on earth than Gillette?
* * *
"That idiot! That thrice damned idiot!" Lord Cutler Beckett was furious, and in his anger, he threw one of the Sweetsops on the plate in front of him at the lackey dummy that Norrington had presented him with. The fruit burst, soiling the painted blue coat of the dummy with its sticky yellow juice and filling the room with a scent of vanilla. Beckett threw another fruit, but that one bounced off and fell to the floor.
Mercer's fall down the stairs in the previous night had robbed Beckett of his most valuable ally, at least for the next few weeks. It was a miracle Mercer had only broken his legs and not his neck! But where to find such a skilled murderer at short notice? Assassins didn't grow on trees, after all, especially not ones who knew how to go about their business in a discrete way.
Beckett stood up and began to pace up and down in front of the window. He had to get rid of Norrington, and to achieve that, he'd have to get rid of Gillette first. That wasn't much of a problem, there were certainly enough cut-throats who'd pave Gillette's way to the afterlife for a few coins. Then Norrington had to be replaced by a man who'd follow Beckett's orders. And he had to arrange this all by himself now, as if he wasn't busy enough! He cursed Mercer once again, then he halted his pacing.
He had almost stepped on the Sweetsop. Beckett's sense for orderliness didn't allow for anything to lie on the floor, so he crouched down to pick the fruit up. The moment his fingers touched it, a large hand covered his mouth while a second pinched his nose close, and he was thrown to the ground. Beckett tried to scream and struggled hard, desperately fighting for a breath of air, but his attacker, heavy and strong, wouldn't move. A bright flash of pain exploded in Beckett's head, his chest seemed to shrink and squash his heart; his eyes rolled back in his head and after yet another good struggle, his body became limp.
Beckett's assailant held his victim in a dead grip for a good minute longer. He wanted to be sure that the man really was dead and wouldn't make a miracle recovery. Finally, the murderer let go, stood up and looked at his work.
It was good - not perfect, but acceptable.
* * *
Norrington was wearing only his breeches when his footman stormed into the study.
"The town's in turmoil, Sir," he reported, gasping for air. "Just heard it from Lieutenant Gillette, Sir. Lord Cutler Beckett, Sir, he's dead!"
"Dead?" Norrington's hands began to tremble. "Lord Cutler Beckett? But how? Was he - murdered?"
"Oh no, Sir," the footman replied, shaking his head. "Choked on a piece of Sweetsop, he did. Stuck in his throat, they say. Pity none of the servants heard him."
"A pity, yes." Norrington looked down at his bare feet, and he hoped that his footman wouldn't see the blush of shame in his face. For a moment, only for the fracture of a moment, there had been the thought that maybe - maybe his good fortune had a very worldly champion. What nonsense. Gillette would neverů no. Gillette would never. He was a gentleman, a good man. The best man. Gillette might challenge someone to a duel, or start a boxing match, but Gillette would never murder anybody. It had been an accident. Just like the deaths of Hardy and Fremantle. Beckett had choked, died on his own greed. Poetic justice.
"Has Lieutenant Gillette already arrived?"
"Not yet, Sir. He went to visit Mr. Mercer first. Poor man, must be terrible for him to learn of his master's death. Very kind of Lieutenant Gillette to go an' tell him. But he said he'd be here soon, Sir."
Very kind of Gillette indeed. A man with a golden heart. Despite the grave events, Norrington couldn't help but smile.
"Well, l better get dressed then," he said, and the footman hurried to collect his master's clothes. "This is going to be a very long and very busy day."
* * *
Gillette had pulled a chair next to Mercer's bed and taken a seat.
"Choked on a bite of Sweetsop? Lord Cutler Beckett?" Mercer asked, disbelief radiating off him like heat from a stove. "I don't believe that for one moment!"
"I'm aware it's difficult to believe. A very unusual accident, but not unheard of. Only two months ago one of Governor Swann's servants choked on a fishbone. Talking about unusual: a very clever choice of poison, I have to compliment you. Arsenic, I suppose?"
Mercer, completely thrown off his guard, gasped for air.
"When you tried to poison me, Mr. Mercer," Gillette explained patiently, as if he was teaching the ABC to a child. "Certainly you remember?"
Mercer knew when to give up. "Are you talking about the poisoned arrow?" he asked.
"Poisoned arrow? Ah - so that's what the 'mosquito bite' actually was. I've been wondering." Gillette looked impressed. "You used a blowpipe then? Highly effective. Or it would be, if your aim wasn't so bad."
"If it was better, you wouldn't be sitting here now," Mercer snapped. "And yes, the cordial, that was arsenic. Not very distinguished, my apologies, but I ran out of stocks."
"It must be difficult for a man of your profession to make a living here. Especially now, with Lord Cutler Beckett dead. What a terrible accident."
"Yes, terrible. And as much of an accident as the marbles on the top step of the stairs!"
"I hope you're not running a fever?" Gillette looked genuinely concerned. "Let me know if you want me to call our surgeon for you. Now then, I came here to inform you of the tragic death of your master, to express my condolences and to make you an offer."
"An offer?" Mercer narrowed his eyes and tried to sit up. His legs hurt like hell and he winced; Gillette immediately offered his assistance and an extra cushion.
"You shouldn't move so much, or the bones won't set properly. We're living in very dangerous times, Mr. Mercer. Officers are murdered in side streets, apothecaries drown in cess pools, representatives of the East India Trading Company choke on fruits."
Mercer laughed cynically. "Oh yes! I wouldn't know if we should blame those incidents on the times we're living in, though. What are you going to do now, Mr. Gillette? Will you smother me with a cushion? Or will you do the honourable thing and get me hanged on the town's square for attempting to murder an officer of the Royal Navy?"
"You're a servant who carried out his master's orders," Gillette said, his face as blank as usual. "I appreciate your sense of duty, and don't hold it against you. But now you're out of work and bread. To cut it short: I'm here to offer you employment."
"Employment?" Mercer croaked.
"Indeed. As I said, we live in dangerous times. For every honourable man like Commodore Norrington there are ten cut-throats and scallywags. I want you to keep those cut-throats and scallywags away from Commodore Norrington, Mr. Mercer. This is a difficult task. I trust you to be well-suited for it."
Mercer licked his lips. "And why would I want to do that?"
"Because you're a sensible man with an eye for business."
"Hah," Mercer laughed. "And if I turn your offer down, I'll have another accident?"
"I wouldn't know why. Of course, men of your profession always live risky lives, but I can assure you that you're safe here in Port Royal. Unless I should find another centipede in Commodore Norrington's chamber, of course. In that case, I'd have to hand you over to the Crown. Oh, and maybe the children of your servants shouldn't play with marbles inside the house anymore."
Mercer's head was spinning. Either he had really misjudged Gillette, or the man was completely insane.
"Well, Mr. Mercer? What do you say to my suggestion?"
Mercer looked Gillette over. Red hair could be seen under the cheap horsehair wig. A long nose, button-like eyes, lips thin like razors.
The shoes covered with dust, a grass stain on the left knee.
On the lapel of Gillette's coat, Mercer could see a large, yellow stain. He sniffed and noticed a faint scent of vanilla. Mercer froze, then swallowed hard.
"I accept your offer, Sir."
He had stumbled, and he had fallen, but he'd be damned if he'd break his neck.
* * *
by Molly Joyful