An Excerpt From Rebel Magisters
I made my way through the greenmarket, pausing from time to time to examine a shiny gourd or plump pumpkin. After chatting with a farmer, I purchased some apples and tucked them into my basket. I hadn’t noticed anyone watching me, but it never hurt to be cautious and act as normal as possible, these days. Finally, I reached the stall that was my true destination.
“How are you this morning, miss?” the young Indian woman working at the stall said in her musical accent as I approached. Someone would have had to be watching us very closely, indeed, to catch her minute flicker of a wink.
“Very well, thank you,” I replied with a polite nod as I moved past the stall.
She jumped out in front of me, impeding my progress. “I have many very fine vegetables and exotic fruits to offer you today, miss,” she said. “My biggest customer is not buying nearly the same amount. And you benefit.”
“How fortunate for me,” I said with a weary sigh, giving in and stopping at her stall.
As we bent together over the bins of fruit so she could help me make my selection, she whispered, “The military has dramatically reduced next week’s order. Unless they’ve found a different supplier, it looks as though they might be moving out.”
“Thank you,” I whispered. We completed our transaction, and I visited a few more stalls before leaving the market to head farther downtown, toward Chinatown. There I went to a particular laundry and made sure the right person was behind the counter before I took the paper-wrapped bundle out of my basket.
The girl working there was about my age, with a sleek, fat braid hanging over her shoulder, tied with a red ribbon that was the only spot of color on her otherwise gray outfit. She saw me and smiled, but her smile faded instantly when the door opened behind me and another patron entered—a military officer in uniform.
Disregarding me entirely, he advanced straight to the counter and demanded, “Is my order ready?”
“Your name, please?” she said meekly, exaggerating a Chinese accent I knew she didn’t normally have. He handed her a ticket, and she scurried to the back room. Only then did he appear to notice my presence. I gave him a half smile of acknowledgment that didn’t invite further interaction, to which he responded with a cursory nod. The girl returned with a bundle and gave it to him, bowing deferentially. He went to the end of the counter to open the bundle and inspect its contents.
It looked as though he would be there for a while, and if I tarried longer without conducting any business, I would raise suspicions, so I approached the counter with my bundle.
“So sorry,” the girl said. “It will take one week. Very busy right now. Officers choose us to do their laundry.” She flashed a brief smile at her other customer as she said it and squared her shoulders proudly.
“I suppose that will be all right,” I said. “I know the military must take precedence.”
She took my bundle and made a show of filling out a ticket for me, even though we both knew that the “laundry” consisted of a stack of banknotes that would be passed on to the underground rebel movement. I put the ticket in my purse, and the soldier managed to get to the door just in time to open it for me. I nodded a thanks and went on my way.
That had been a close call, but I had to grin at the thrill of passing money from the Masked Bandits to the Rebel Mechanics right under the nose of a British officer without him having the slightest idea of what was happening. Now, in the aftermath, my heart started racing. If I’d followed Henry’s instructions, I would have left rather than take the risk, but I thought it would have looked even more suspicious if I’d entered a laundry without handing over or retrieving anything.
Now, though, my thoughts were on the intelligence I’d gathered. If the officers were suddenly sending out a lot of laundry that they needed done immediately and if the army wasn’t ordering as much food, that surely meant they were removing some of the troops from the city. Perhaps since the departure of the Rebel Mechanics and their machines the authorities had decided that the rebellion had been quashed.
That sounded like a story to me, so I went straight to a coffee shop on Greenwich Square. It was a popular gathering place for the students at the nearby university, but in recent weeks it had been filled with soldiers who were being quartered in the university halls. Today, though, it was much quieter. The waitress who met me at the door gave me a knowing nod before escorting me to a table.
“It seems so quiet in here today,” I said. “What happened, did you drive away all your customers?”
“It sure seems like it,” she said. “Maybe all the soldiers wanted tea.”
To be perfectly honest, what I wanted was a nice cup of tea, but thanks to taxes on tea, that was something the rebels never drank, out of protest. I supposed it would have been a good cover to order it, but I might have lost the loyalty of the waitress if I’d done so. As deep as I was in the rebel movement, there were nuances I still struggled to grasp.
Instead, I ordered lemonade and a slice of cake. While I waited for the waitress to return with my food and drink, I took a couple of sheets of paper and a pencil out of my basket and went to work. I doubted that any of the other patrons were watching me, but if they were, I thought I must look for all the world like a young woman writing a letter.
What I wrote was a short news article speculating on the departure of the British troops and what it meant for the rebel movement. It was close to the deadline for the next day’s edition, but I thought I could make it if I hurried. I finished the article while absently sipping lemonade and nibbling cake, gave it one last read, and folded it up, placing it against my palm as I put my gloves back on.
Now all I needed to do was drop it off and then I could return home before the girls were through with their art and music lessons. I left the café and turned toward the hat shop that was the nearest drop-off point for the rebels.
Before I reached the end of the block, I had the strongest feeling that I wasn’t alone. Although I had that itchy sensation between my shoulder blades that told me someone was watching me, I didn’t dare turn around to look. It was absolutely imperative that I gave no one any reason to suspect me. I was merely an anonymous young woman, out running errands. Now I regretted my impatience to write the article. If I’d waited until I was home and left it at the nearest drop, the article might have been delayed a day, but I wouldn’t have had anything incriminating on me.
I stopped at a street corner and waited to cross to the opposite side. Looking both ways for oncoming traffic allowed me to see whatever—or whomever—was behind me. The sidewalk wasn’t so crowded that any one person could blend into the background, and there was one person who didn’t quite fit in this part of town, which was mostly populated by students, and lately by soldiers. He had the look of a government functionary: gray suit, bowler hat, nondescript face. I thought he might have been in the café, but he was so unremarkable that I couldn’t truly be sure. He stood nonchalantly against a lamppost, but I’d have bet he was the one watching me.
But why would he follow me? I hadn’t done anything suspicious. All I could think was that one of my contacts was being watched, and therefore anyone else who dealt with her would also be watched, at least for a little while. Had he followed me to the café, or had I only come to his attention there? My real worry was that he had followed me from the laundry. If he knew what was in that bundle, I couldn’t let him connect me with my employer.
To throw him off my trail, I darted across the street at the first sign of a clear path and entered the first shop I encountered. It was a candy store, which seemed innocuous enough, and the shopgirl wasn’t part of my network. I bought a couple of pennies’ worth of candy for the children and left the store. Out of the corner of my eye, I noted that the man in gray was still there.
There was a ribbon shop nearby, but I was known there, for my employer rather than my covert activities. I passed the shop, going instead to a different one that the Lyndon family didn’t patronize. There I bought a yard of blue ribbon I thought might look nice with my hair, if I ever wore it down rather than in a no-nonsense bun.
As I came out of the shop, before I could look for the gray man, I thought I saw another familiar face—or, rather, familiar hair, a shock of bright red curling out from under a shabby top hat. Colin? I wondered. But he was out of town with the rest of the Rebel Mechanics. I walked right past him without a second glance, hoping that if it was, indeed, Colin, he would get the message and not speak to me.
At the next intersection, I found that the gray man was still there. I didn’t dare drop off my article or go home while I was being watched. Ahead of me I saw a shop that I thought might do the trick. No gentleman would follow a lady into a lingerie shop. To be honest, I was a little bashful about entering such a place.
The air in the establishment was lightly scented with lavender, which calmed my nerves somewhat. All around me were concoctions of lace and silk. There were corsets and petticoats, as well as nightgowns that made my serviceable muslin gown look rather dowdy in comparison.
The shopgirl approached me with a grin. “Let me guess, you’ve got a man problem, and you want something to make you feel better.”
She was one of ours, so I said, “It’s more like I want to get rid of one.”
“He won’t dare come in here, so have a seat, and let me show you our latest range of silk stockings.”
I wasn’t sure how much time I spent looking at stockings I would never buy, but I thought that anyone waiting for me would be bored by the time I decided on a new pair of wool stockings. When I left the shop with a ribbon-wrapped parcel, the gray man was nowhere to be seen.
I made haste for the hat shop, where I slid the article out of my glove and passed it to the milliner. “I suppose I’d better buy something for show. I’ve been followed,” I said. “I think I lost him, but I’m not sure.”
“I’ll fix that right up for you,” she said, removing my hat. She put a new ribbon on it, with a curling bow to the side. “There, that should be an obvious enough difference that even a man will notice it.”
There were more soldiers outside when I left than there had been before, but they didn’t seem to pay any attention to me. I passed the gray man on the next corner. I was a little safer now that I had nothing incriminating on me, but I still preferred to get away without being questioned. If they got my identity, that would lead them to Henry, and his clandestine activities were far more dangerous than mine.
Then I noticed that there were a lot of other young women on the street, all dressed similarly to me. They came from every angle, shopping baskets like mine over their arms. There weren’t so many that it looked like an organized meeting, but as I moved toward a more crowded neighborhood, it became slightly more difficult for anyone to tell exactly which soberly dressed young woman was which.
I heard a loud, “Oh! Excuse me, sir! Oh dear, I seem to have spilled it on you. I’m so very, very sorry,” behind me and resisted the temptation to look back. A moment later, there was a shrill scream and a cry of, “Help! Police!” from a side street. Several soldiers went running.
I took advantage of the distraction to duck into a bookshop, where I told the yellow-haired man at the counter, “I need a getaway.”
A man lurking in the shop came forward and unlocked a door that led to steep stairs into a basement. This time, I wasn’t blindfolded. As many times as I’d used the secret subway, there was no longer any point in hiding its location from me. I felt my way through the darkness to the station.
The station was nearly empty, just a few people keeping the system running. A car waited at the platform. “Only a couple of stations uptown, please,” I said as the operator helped me board. “I need to look like I’m getting home a normal way.”
The car shot forward, and in no time at all it stopped. I felt my way through a dark passage from the station to a staircase, where I rapped on the door at the top in a certain pattern. The door opened, and I found myself in a florist shop. “It looks like it’s clear here,” the florist said, handing me a bouquet to add to my basket.
I strode confidently out of the shop and hailed a magical horseless cab. Only when I was inside and on my way home did I let myself relax at all. There was still a chance that the authorities could be waiting for me at home, but they would have no evidence against me unless that soldier at the laundry had confiscated the bundle I’d dropped off there. Otherwise, it appeared that my growing network had done its job.
Six weeks ago, I’d never have imagined I’d have so many friends who would jump into action to aid me. I’d had no one, not even family. My network of friends was rather odd in that I knew none of their names, and few of them knew mine. It was safer that way. But we could count on each other, and we all usually went unnoticed because we were the invisible people: the shopgirls, laundresses, governesses, maids, and others whom society relied upon but otherwise didn’t notice.
The cab stopped in front of the Lyndon mansion across from Central Park, and Mr. Chastain, the butler, was immediately there to pay the fare and help me down from the carriage. I barely made it into the house before Lord Henry Lyndon, my employer, accosted me in the foyer and pulled me into the drawing room.
“Where have you been?” he demanded, gripping my shoulders tightly. “I was expecting you an hour ago. Did something go wrong? I knew I shouldn’t have sent you.”
“I was a little worried about someone who might have been following me, but I seem to have successfully eluded him,” I said.
Henry went pale, and his grip on my shoulders tightened. “You were followed?”
“Briefly. But my behavior while he followed me was above reproach, and with some help I was able to get away. It would be impossible for him to have tailed me home, and by the time my friends were through with him, he would have no way of knowing which girl he was watching.” I was nearly as nondescript as my follower had been, so I was sure the other girls with baskets had thrown him off the trail.
He released his hold on my shoulders, but he still stood very close. “Why would you be followed?”
“It’s the café,” I guessed. “It’s a known meeting place, and I was perhaps too familiar with the waitress. I’ll have to avoid it in the future.”
“I stopped to write an article. It seems that at least some of the troops quartered in that area will be leaving soon.”
For a moment, I was afraid that Henry’s worry would turn to anger. My errand had been to deliver the money for him. Everything else I’d done had been on my own. He knew about my other activities and generally endorsed them, but perhaps I shouldn’t have jeopardized his mission.
“You weren’t followed from the laundry?”
“If I was, there was no evidence whatsoever of any other ill-advised behavior,” I assured him.
“I’m going to quit using you as a courier like that,” he said as the color gradually returned to his face. “It’s too dangerous, and I can’t ask you to take that risk for me.”
“Well, since you’ve stopped pulling off armed robberies for the time being, you shouldn’t have much need of a courier for awhile,” I shot back.
He grinned. “Touché, Miss Newton. But really, Verity, we must be careful.”
“I’m always careful. And as I said, I have friends looking out for me.”