For the first time in many weeks, the weather had refrained from its customary chilly evening downpour. Even so, clouds drifted slowly along, dark and heavy with the promise of rain. They were thick, gray mounds of cotton that marred the starry night sky with their dark blots. Beneath them, across the stretch of Old Town in Edinburgh, dozens of smoke columns sailed lazily skyward in their attempt to escape from the spindly black fingers of chimneys. Amid the forest of smokestacks and over the rooftops, the moon looked on with a tired eye, yellow and waxed. Down from the smoke, clouds and moon, despite the damp evening air, knots of figures worked their way along the cobblestone streets to the south of Edinburgh Castle and braved the hazy tallow and oil smoke that hung close to the mud-stained, stone ground.
Most people were bundled against the threat of rain, the chilled air, or both. Only a few, particularly those accustomed to walking in the brisk Scottish weather, seemed less bothered by it. One of those that walked along was Anthony Hunter, Captain of the Brass Griffin. The captain was a man nearly six feet in height with dark brown hair cut short and neat with only the hint of gray at the temples. He wore a well-traveled long coat pulled around him, more out of habit than being bothered by the weather. Only his leather boots and dark navy trousers could be seen below the coat’s trim.
Captain Hunter paused at the end of West Bow Road where it spilled down and out into a long, open air horse and cattle marketplace called the Grassmarket. He took in the location from the mud-slick road, damp from the recent rains, to the long stretch of cobblestones ahead that lead him near the public gallows standing near the market’s entrance. With a frown at the sobering sight of the hangman’s platform, the captain quickened his pace and turned into the market place proper. He stepped around stagnant pools of sickly mud, walking along the northern edge of the Grassmarket until his eyes settled on an inn called the White Hart, which Hunter often stayed at when he was in Edinburgh.
Avoiding a small group of people standing at the doorway, Hunter stepped inside and looked around. He searched quickly for a quiet corner at which to sit and enjoy the evening. Unfortunately the ‘Hart was rather crowded this late on a Friday. The captain was about to walk over to a table tucked away at the far end of the bar, when he heard a woman’s voice shout his name over the thick crowd.
“Hunter! Cap’n Hunter!” Moira Wycliffe, the Brass Griffin‘s blacksmith and clockwork tinkerer, stood shouting over the crowd of patrons with a hearty wave.
Hunter glanced around, then located Moira at a table across the room to his right. Her shoulder length chestnut hair was drawn back as usual with the trail of it falling down over her shoulder to rest at the top of her leather tinker’s vest. Beneath the vest was a tan, homespun cotton shirt she was often fond of wearing. Brown cotton trousers and her work boots completed her outfit. The captain was relieved to see she was lacking her gun belt. Wise choice, in Hunter’s opinion. He often had to remind his crew to leave their sidearms aboard the Griffin when they were in places like Edinburgh. The local police took a very dim view of anyone openly carrying firearms in the street, and did not hesitate to detain anyone who thought they might be exempt from the Vagrancy Act.
Next to Moira sat William Falke. A wiry young man with a head full of tousled brown hair, William never failed to impress the captain with his grasp of languages or his ability to learn them. Like Moira, William was dressed in his usual ship-board attire of work boots, trousers, a white cotton shirt and a black cotton vest. The young man was unarmed, but had remembered to bring his personal medical bag. Hunter smiled. Smart lad, he thought. You’ve been with Moira on her pub visits before.
The captain pushed his way around a small group and over to the table where the two were seated. Hunter draped his coat over the back of an open chair that faced William and Moira. “Evening to you both.”
William smiled, but his enthusiasm was tinged with a hint of nerves. He never was comfortable in large crowds. Too many languages and dialects to hear at once. He inclined his head towards Captain Hunter. “Cap’n. Evenin’.”
“Good one to ya, Cap’n!” Moira grinned broadly, obviously pleased with how her evening was progressing. “Glad ta be ashore for a bit?”
Hunter chuckled. “Honestly, I am. These past five months since that nonsense at the High Fens Relay Station in Belgium have worn me a bit thin. Although, it will be good to collect Krumer and Thorias from the hospital and get some of those repairs finally finished on the Griffin. May I join you both?”
“Aye. Sure Cap’n.” William replied while shifting the pint glasses around on the table to make room for the newcomer.
Hunter had pulled back on the chair when a woman’s scream of pain sliced through the tobacco smoke and conversation in the inn. The captain spun around, narrowly avoiding a dark-haired barmaid laden with two large pints of bitter.
“Pardon,” He said quickly while he looked for the source of the sound.
“Och, it be her again.” The dark-haired barmaid grumbled in her Scottish accent.
“Who?” William asked, also curious.
The barmaid jerked her head towards a knot of people near the front door. “Dinna be knowin’ her name, but she comin’ by quite often. Brian runs her off when he catches her. Beggin’, Ah suppose.”
“Brian?” Moira asked, unable to see to whom the barmaid referred.
The young lady pointed off through the crowd. “Big bloke. Red hair. Ye canna miss ‘im. He’s as big as a horse.”
Moira and William stood up for a better look while Hunter, who had already spotted the distressed woman, dove into the crowd instinctively. Hunter’s two crew members tried to follow but were blocked by patrons upset with the captain pushing his way towards the door.
Moira looked around quickly. “Where’d he get off to?”
“Towards the door, I think.” William said while he slid out around the table and past a barrister who was desperately trying not to spill his drink on either himself or anyone nearby. Moira had better luck navigating the crowd, but because she had lost sight of Captain Hunter, she quickly found herself next to the bar, rather than near the door as she had intended.
Hunter emerged from the crowd a few feet away next to a man with red-blonde hair, easily six feet if not taller, dressed in trousers and an innkeeper’s apron. To say he was broad-shouldered was an understatement – the man had shoulders as wide as a barrel. They strained his cotton shirt, which valiantly attempted to contain them. Hunter assumed it was the innkeeper, Brian.
The woman, a short, young lady of twenty years with chestnut hair and a soot-stained appearance, sobbed while she fought wildly to pull her arm from the large man’s grasp. When pulling failed, she clutched her small purse tightly and attempted to beat on Brian with little effect.
“Now, Ah told ye ta stop comin’ around! Ah’ll na have ye beggin’ here!” The innkeeper roared, shaking the woman slightly.
“I’m na beggin’! I’m jus’ wantin’ ta find me friend!” She shrieked to Brian while the crowd began to focus on the scuffle.
Hunter paused a moment at the sight of Brian’s large mass, sighed, then grabbed the man’s arm to get his attention. “Here now, Sirrah, unhand her.”
Already enraged, Brian let go of the woman and turned onto the intrusion like an angry bull. When he faced Hunter’s hard eyes and unblinking stare, the innkeeper backed up a step. “What now? Who? Oh. Well, ye speakin’ for her?” The innkeeper jerked a thumb towards the woman.
Anthony glanced over at the woman, who rubbed her sore arm slowly. Her hands bore the callouses of a day laborer, stained in and around her broken nails with a faded indigo. Hunter had seen others, common laborers who were part of what many considered the ‘lower class’, with stained hands like that before. They worked at applying the dyes to cloth in mill factories. She was clearly frightened, but not over the innkeeper. Hunter inserted himself between Brian and the object of Brian’s anger. “Only as much to find out what the devil is going on here.”
Brian snorted in disgust. “She be in here beggin’. Ah’ll na allow it. Ah got rules agin’ such! And Ah warned her ‘afore!”
The young woman set her jaw, and despite her tear-stained face, glared back at Brian. “I said I done no such thing! I’m lookin’ fer me friend!”
Captain Hunter rubbed his eyes in frustration. This was going nowhere. “That will be enough of that!” He growled. Immediately, Brian and the young woman fell silent. All around them, conversations dwindled and fell quiet while all eyes turned toward the trio near the door. Oblivious of the attention, the young woman and Brian shot hot glares of anger at one another across the short space between them. Hunter looked from one to the other, then around at the silent onlookers. While not ideal, it was close enough to what Hunter wanted.
The captain turned to the young woman. “Good enough. Now, first off, who are you, young lady? You say you’re looking for your friend. What friend? What is that about?”
The woman tore her angry gaze from Brian, looking over and up at Hunter. “M’name is Lydia. Lydia Olivander.” She said, managing a small, polite curtsy. “I’m just along here lookin’ fer me friend, Allison Newt. She’s a fish monger along here. I was suppose ta meet her for a cuppa four days ago, but she ne’er came ’round. Nobody’s seen her at the boardin’ house, either. There been some people to go missin’ for awhile along here … and … well I got meself worried. So I’m out lookin’.”
Anthony folded his arms over his chest. “Isn’t that rather dangerous, on your own, that is? You should tell a constable.”
The frustration shone in Lydia’s eyes. “I have, Sirrah! But all they tell me is ‘they be lookin inta it’ and ta ‘have patience’. Patience! Fer all I be knowin’, Allison’s lyin’ hurt someplace. I know the constabulary don’ always take notice a’ anyone of my station if they run inta something bad, but I’d like ta hope they’d try! She’s no taller than meself, only she has hair the color of a soft sunny gold with green eyes. She’s got herself a tiny birthmark on her neck shaped like a rosebud. Last I knew, she was wearin’ a pretty blue gingham dress.” Her frustration gave way to a hopeful look. “You haven’t seen her about, have ya, Sirrah?”
With a sad smile, Hunter shook his head. “No, Miss Olivander, I’m sorry to say I’ve not. Though, I must confess, I’ve not been here in the city for quite that long.”
Brian, cheeks still red with anger, folded his arms over his chest. He took a deep, slow breath to clear his mind before he shook his head slowly. “Miss, ah been runnin’ this inn for many a year. Ah remember seein’ ye friend but only out sellin’ her wares along the Grassmarket road. Na in here, and na anytime of late. Ye have me sympathies.”
Crestfallen, Lydia smiled thinly with a tiny nod. “Oh. Well, I saw ya come in here an … well … I’d asked the others already. Me apologies, Sirrah.” She curtsied to Captain Hunter then gave a smaller one to Brian. “Me apologies fer being a nag. I’ll be along now.”
While Lydia slipped sadly thought the crowd for the door, Brian made a rough ‘harumph’ sound, then a sigh. “More missin’ every day. Would’a been easier if she had been beggin’.” The big man gave Hunter a tired, worn look. “Stories be goin’ round of people just up and vanishin’. Next thing ya know, she’ll be next.” He shrugged helplessly. “Maybe we all be vanishin’ if the peelers don’ be findin’ out where them buggers be vanishin’ to.” With a remorseful sigh, Brian turned away and pushed through the crowd towards the bar proper.
Captain Hunter nodded at the man’s departure but his mind and conscience wrestled with what Brian and Lydia had told him. This was none of his business. It was a matter for the constabulary. He fully realized that the police would likely not appreciate the help. Silently, the captain watched the small, frail young woman struggle through the crowd for the front door. One thought rose up over the others: What if the police were more concerned with someone of a higher station. Who would help, then?
Lydia had just opened the door when Hunter had answered that question for himself. Pushing through the crowd, he caught up to the young woman as she had just pulled open the front door. He gently placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Miss Olivander, wait. While I’ve not seen her, a second pair of eyes looking out for her wouldn’t hurt.” Hunter said with a reassuring smile.
The young woman’s eyes lit up while she choked back a small sob. “But… why? Allison’s nobody. I’m nobody.”
Hunter shook his head. “Not true. In any station, everyone is someone. If I was lost and hurt, I’d like to think someone would be kind enough to look for me. Wait just outside the door and let me get my coat. Then we’ll both ask about.”