Sample from The Black Ring



Ezra Somers had a truly remarkable library, full of books on astronomy, geography, history, philosophy, and the natural sciences. Fallon and Somers had spent many afternoons after the day’s work was done talking about the world outside their windows. Lately, they’d been discussing philosophy and one particular precept that intrigued Fallon: Everything you needed to solve a problem was within a few feet of where you were standing.

It had often seemed true in Fallon’s life, particularly in his sailing life, when cornered by enemies or besieged by weather. But it hadn’t seemed to work on land, at least not until one early afternoon after a packet ship arrived bearing a letter from the Windward Islands, Antigua to be exact, English Harbor to be particularly exact. The letter was delivered to the office by a dock boy, and it seemed to float upon the sea of papers on Fallon’s desk. He looked at it carefully, somehow knowing it was going to change everything but not knowing how. Surprisingly, he was fearful to open it, for it bore the official seal of the Royal Navy. It sat there only two feet from his nose. Slowly, Fallon picked up the letter, held it a moment, and tore it open.

His good friend Rear Admiral Harry Davies, in charge of the Leeward Islands station at English Harbor, was asking a favor. And he was willing to pay handsomely for it.

• • •

The moon low and silvering in a light fog.

The narrow streets of St. George Town, barely wide enough to handle a buggy, were almost deserted of traffic. The only faces were the gossips at the windows. In November, the evenings came sooner, descending on the little town with a speed that made lingering summer nights a memory. By ten o’clock every alley was blacker than black.

In an old fisherman’s shack at the edge of the marsh, Fallon and Elinore Somers lay on the bed and whispered. She was beautiful in the moonlight that filtered through the window by the bed, her blonde hair tumbling out on the pillow, and her face, half illuminated and half hidden in shadow, revealing both excitement and contentment. This, of all places, was her favorite. The shack had belonged to her uncle, who built it to get away from the women in his house when he wanted to be by himself. A small, simple building with a bed, a few shelves for books, a woodstove on the edge of a circle of rug, a table with one chair. This shack was where Fallon and Elinore had first discovered each other, all angles and dark spaces and secret signals, not this but that, more there, yes. There.

Tonight, they’d taken their time, not rushing the moment, lingering over a this or a that they might have missed. At last they were glistening and spent, each wondering if the feast was over or were seconds still available. The only sound was their breathing, unless Fallon’s mind made a thinking sound, which he prayed it didn’t.

Actually, it did. Or it must have because Elinore knew something was circling around in his head, in a wrestling match perhaps, two sides moving warily, seeking advantage before making a move. She had felt it at dinner, felt it more on the walk to the shack, but had put it aside to be close to him, one with him, knowing whatever it was would declare itself in good time and could certainly wait until—well, until now.

“Talk to me, love,” she whispered.

My God, she’s a mind reader, Fallon thought. He always believed he was so damned clever, when in fact he was as transparent as glass. Elinore saw right through him. He began to form a lie in his throat, but it would not do. Wound me with the truth, Elinore had always told him, not lies. He shifted his weight and placed his hand on her belly, as if he could send his thoughts through her skin and not have to say them out loud.

“Ahem,” was the beginning. A long pause. “Ahem.”

Elinore refused to help him, wanting him to deal with it. Really, how could a man who could fight pirates and face broadsides without flinching be unable to say a hard thing to the woman he loved? Clearly, it was something important that needed saying and needed talking about.

Come on, Nico.

“Ahem,” he began again, “I’m not . . . ahem . . . fit to be tied to an office, Elinore. I am trying to be interested, but I’m not doing a good job of it. I have learned so much about trading and balancing books and tonnages of salt, and I want very much to like it all and be a good manager but . . . I promised I’d try it for several months, and I have. Please tell me you understand.”

A pause. Made longer by a deep breath.

“Yes,” said Elinore bravely. But Fallon thought he could hear her spirits sink in her voice.

“I belong at sea,” Fallon said simply. “I need to be at sea.”

Elinore squirmed next to him. Bermuda men went to sea. That’s what they did, what they’d done for hundreds of years. And somewhere in the ancient script of her genes it was written that brave women knew when to let their men go.

“I received a letter from Harry today,” said Fallon, plowing on but trying to keep the excitement out of his voice. “He’s asking me to undertake a special assignment for the Admiralty. It seems I’m to take a senior intelligence agent to Cuba. I’m to pick up this agent off Port-au-Prince, where Harry is evacuating British troops from Saint-Domingue. I shouldn’t be gone long, Elinore.”

That was sort of a lie, for at sea nothing was certain. But at least the whole of it was out in the open, not burning a hole in his heart anymore. Fallon was glad it was pitch black in the little shack, for his face was wincing, hating to do this, to say it all out loud and hurt Elinore, afraid she would see it as Harry versus her, and losing.

Elinore reached deep, wise beyond her years. Knowing that if she won she would only lose, eventually.

“I know you would rather be at sea than in an office,” she said softly. “But here I have you, so I want to be selfish. But . . .”

Another long pause. The sweat drying on their bodies now. A moment when the night could grow colder.

“But,” she continued in a whisper, very close to his ear now. “I will still love you at sea. Just not like this.” And she trailed a fingernail down his chest, slowly giving him a good reason to reconsider going anywhere.