Outside the White Hart Tavern, Moira pulled her coat about her with an instinctive look around. With the late hour, the streets had grown considerably more empty. The sour stench of rotten vegetables rose from a nearby alley and mixed with the musty, animal smell of cattle from nearby livestock market grounds only a few yards away. Moira wrinkled her nose, stepped away from the door, then stopped when an uneasy feeling came over her. She looked around again and squinted into the evening’s smokey gloom.
A pair of fishermen, based on their oilskin coats and thick boots, lingered in a doorway lit by the feeble glow from gaslights along the street. They paused in their conversation to stare when she stepped from the tavern and onto the street. A moment later, as William emerged from the warm light of the inn, their conversation picked up again in lower tones. He too, noticed the decided lack of people and shivered. Moira tugged at his sleeve.
“We’d best hurry.” Moira said, turning to trot down the road to catch up to Captain Hunter and the young lady with him. William nodded and followed after.
When they caught up with Lydia and Captain Hunter, they were at the western edge of the Grassmarket where it joined with King’s Stables Road and West Port Road. The intersection was barely a few yards from the inn itself. Above and uphill from them, Edinburgh Castle loomed dark and large. It dominated the skyline, its ancient stonework stained with unexplained damp streaks from ages past. Battlements thrust up from the shadowed granite like jagged and broken teeth yawning wide at the night sky. These shadows stretched in long lines over the road, casting part of the corner in deep shadow where a faint whisper of hushed voices carried on an illicit deal, then faded to nothing. Only a lone gaslight stood vigil on the corner beside Captain Hunter and Lydia, struggling to surround them with a soft, safe glow.
Lydia wiped her eyes as she turned to face Hunter. “Sirrah, what ya offerin’ … helpin’ me an all … I right appreciate it. Fer honest, I do. But, you’ve got no reason ta help the likes of me.” Nervously, she retreated a step back. “An besides, I don’ even know who ya are.”
The captain sighed, a sudden realization dawning dawning upon him. “I’m a clod. Please forgive my lapse of manners, Miss Olivander. My name is Anthony Hunter, captain of the Brass Griffin.” Hunter said in introduction. He smiled a little with a polite nod, to hopefully ease her fears.
Lydia looked at him, wide-eyed in surprise. “A ship’s captain?”
Moira and William stopped just behind Captain Hunter at that moment. “Aye, and a fine one she is,” Moira grinned. We’re with the Cap’n. I be Moira Wycliffe, and that there’s William Falke.” She explained with a jerk of her thumb at William.
William nodded with a nervous look around at the darkness. “True enough,” he replied. The young man was no stranger to the more run down and tired areas of cities like Edinburgh.
“Lydia Olivander,” Lydia said with a nervous curtsy. “I … I’m jus’ lookin’ for me missin’ friend, Allison. Like I said to ya Cap’n, I appreciate the help, but ya don’t have ta get involved with the likes o’ me.”
Hunter frowned slightly. “Nonsense. You were treated callously at the inn, and given others have gone missing you’ve good reason to worry after your friend’s whereabouts. Now, you said your friend Allison near the Grassmarket? Would her work have taken her around the cattle market off West Port Road up ahead? Or perhaps the other way out of Grassmarket through West Bow or Candlemaker’s Row?”
“I … I don’ know.” Lydia stammered her half-formed question in return. “Allison along West Port? She be tellin’ me once about it.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, Captain Hunter nodded to Lydia, stepped off the curb, slipped around two hansom cabs, and walked straight out of the Grassmarket and onto West Port road.
“But .. Sirrah … Cap’n Hunter … Sirrah?” When the captain did not even pause, Lydia looked at Moira and William helplessly.
Moira shrugged. “The Cap’n be like that.” The blacksmith took Lydia gently by the arm and guided her across the street. “Best thing is ta get a full boiler o’ steam going and follow as fast as ya can. Especially in times like this.”
Another whisper of voices in the long, dark shadows that lay against the White Hart Tavern became a brief scuffle. Abruptly there was a grunt and a figure fell heavily to the edge of darkness. William’s eyes widened as he thought, for only a moment, he saw something dark and wet stain the cobblestones before the figure was dragged back into the shadows. The young tracker quickly turned and easily fell into step with the two women while they walked away. “Aye, true enough. The Cap’n sometimes can be a bit stiff, but he means well.”
“So, Allison be yer friend, right? What would she be doin’ out in a place like here at night?” Moira asked quickly in an effort to return the conversation back to one over which she had more control.
Lydia glanced between Moira and William with a look that bordered between alarm and confusion. “Oh, uhm, well, Allison’s a parts-monger. Sells right nice flowers, too. Herself usually makes her way along the Grassmarket since a lot of ’em clockwork and steam workers show themselves there. They’re always needin’ some gear, bearing or bolt. It always seemed a long walk with that heavy little wagon she’s usin’, but she kept ta better hours than I been at the wool mill.”
“How long has she been missin’?” William asked, stepping around a parked horse-drawn cab.
“Four days, or close onta it.” Lydia answered while the trio crossed the road. “She only be tellin’ me about the cattle market once awhile back, though. Not recent-like.”
A few paces ahead, Captain Hunter waited for the others to catch up to him. “So, Miss Olivander, you’ve been casting about here for four days, you’ve said.”
Lydia nodded a little. “Much as me job could allow, y’see. I don’ have much time away from the wool mill, what with workin’ nearly all day.”
“So that explains why you’d risk being out at night.” Hunter concluded thoughtfully.
“Anyone tell ya much so far? Like havin’ seen her pushin’ her cart about in the last day or so?” Moira asked hopefully.
Lydia shrugged helplessly. “Either they’d na be hearin’ of her, or they’d na seen her lately.” Suddenly, she looked at the trio excitedly. “Wait, I remember somthin’. Jimmy did tell me he seen her come along the Cattle Market. Which ta me own thinkin’ be odd. Like I told ya, Allison didna’ come along here much.”
“Jimmy?” William asked curiously. “Who’s that bloke?”
Lydia shrugged a little at William. “Jus’ know him as Jimmy. Runs messages about, he does, for those that need it. Some call him ‘Jimmy Quick’.”
Captain Hunter looked up from Lydia and around at the cattle market to the boarding houses along West Port Road. “We can’t disturb the boarding houses at this hour, however the cattle market is fair game I’d say. It’s at least a place to start. Next would be to find this Jimmy you mentioned. Everyone spread out and look around.”
“What’re we lookin’ for Cap’n?” William asked with a confused look.
“Details, Mr. Falke, details. A scrap of cloth from a woman’s blue gingham dress, a distressed patch of ground out of place, something that just does not quite belong. You’ve spent time as a lookout and a tracker, I shouldn’t need to remind you of the weight any detail can play.” Hunter explained with a faint smirk.
“Right, Cap’n.” Falke replied with a grin before he looked out at the dark cattle market grounds.
On the southern side of West Port Road, the cattle market spread out like a festering wound among the dingy, ill-repaired boarding houses around and to the north of it. During the day, in market season, it was often ankle deep in mire and filth. Cattle and sheep were packed into small pens that sat in the center of the market grounds, and a musky steam rose to mix with the light oily smoke that hung perpetually in the air. Crowds of cattle and sheep owners, butchers, thieves, pickpockets and many others filled the area. The bleating of animals to the roar of voices from the onlookers crashed together in a wave of sounds, sights and smells that was all at once a perfect symphony of chaos.
However, at night, it was much different. With the animals and crowds dispersed, only the tired and worn wooden fence posts of the pens stood watch over the mire. A faint musk still rode in the air, as if a specter drifted lazily about, waiting for the overly-curious or unwary to happen by. Shadows from the moon stretched long over the soggy ground in the form of cages and broken wood that appeared like skeletal fingers reaching outward to anyone passing by. To the right side sat a haphazard collection of carts, to the left sat squat, sagging wooden benches for any of the weary visitors during the day. Towards the end farthest from the road itself, stood a small collection of run down cattle sheds framed on either side by a set of heavily stained, wooden buckets.
The quartet entered the foreboding market, each taking a section for themselves. While Hunter occupied himself with the cattle sheds, Lydia went to examine the carts, and Moira to the long benches. William was left to search the entrance, then the animal pens that sat in the middle of the bog-like cattle market grounds.
One by one, Hunter walked to each of the small wooden sheds and tried the door. As soon as the first door opened, the stench of cattle and sheep rolled outwards in a choking cloud. The captain turned his head and coughed, then proceeded through the door. Inside, the shed was as weathered and dilapidated as it was on the outside. Along the walls thick, coiled rope hung neatly on rough-cut wooden pegs. Next to the rope hung an assortment of droving whips. Hunter pulled open the door wide to allow the moonlight to shine into the room.
The sole stretch of light struck a path down the middle of the shed. Well lit enough for Hunter to enter, but not enough to enable him to search it. Reaching into his coat pocket he withdrew a small leather case and pulled out a matchstick. This he struck against the rough wood of the shed’s door frame. Immediately, the match roared to life with a tiny, orange flame. Carefully, Hunter looked around the room, taking in the smallest detail for the hint of a clue. Instead he found only more rope, a fewer number of whips.
Once he was done, he extinguished the match before it burnt to his fingers and repeated the entire process in the next shed. Then again with the shed following that one. With each cattle shed that Hunter searched, he came away with nothing more than a burnt match to show for it. His frustration began to show on his face, in his expression and in the way he stalked from door to door like an angry hunting cat.
Inside the last shed, Hunter paused at the ropes and whips. “Interesting, one would think they’d take as good a care of the rest of this market as they do the rope.” He turned to make his way back to the door, only instead, he tripped over a cart that had been turned on its side to rest against the wall of the shed. In the darkness, Hunter had missed seeing it upon entering. The captain grabbed the edge of the door frame, catching himself in time before he pitched face forward into muddy ground.
“Bloody hell!” He exclaimed, then slowly righted himself. Once back on his feet, Hunter lit another match, squatted down in the doorway and turned the modest-sized cart, easily two feet wide and four feet long, upright on its wooden wheels. Beneath it, the captain took note of a few items on the ground: a bag of springs, some large bolts for a steam boiler, a few wilted heather blossoms, and several cans of lamp oil. From out of the darkness, he heard running footsteps approaching.
“Cap’n?” William called out in alarm. “Cap’n, are ya well?”
In moments, Lydia, Moira and William converged on the cattle sheds. Hunter waved a hand to let them know where he was.
“Here. Over here.” The captain replied. “I’m unharmed. However, I do believe I’ve found something interesting.”
“‘Ere, now!” Came a shout from off to their right. “What’re ya doin’?” In the darkness, a stout man carrying a lantern and looking to have just been roused from his bed struggled to slip on his long coat while he navigated the cattle market grounds. His balding head held an unkempt, wild ring of wispy reddish-gray hair, his eyes wide with a mix between anger and trepidation. “Ya better na be thieves! Ah’ll give ye a thrashin’ ye’ll na forget!”
Hunter motioned quickly towards the cart that had been hidden in the shed. “Odd that a cart would be left in such a way, when all the others are kept together.” The captain then turned to face towards the stout man hurrying in their direction. “It seems we’ve company.” He raised his voice.
“We are no thieves, Sirrah. I am Captain Anthony Hunter. Who might you be, Sirrah?” Hunter called out.
On hearing Anthony’s reply, the stout man slowed his pace. His body language told Hunter volumes. The man had been expecting petty thieves, not what he actually found.
“Ah be Elias Ross, if ye need ta know. Ah be the manager of this wee property. Ah’ll be wantin’ a few answers from ye Captain, startin’ with why ye be causin’ a racket around me cattle sheds?”
Suddenly, Lydia gasped in shock. Moira caught her arm as the young girl stumbled backwards out of the shed, nearly falling into the mud, as Hunter had.
“What? What’d ya see?” Moira asked quickly.
“Blood! On the cart! On Allison’s cart! Near the corner!” Lydia said with a horrified voice.
Hunter half-turned to look inside the shed again. With the door wide, the yellowish moonlight danced across the mud and over the cart itself. Just as Lydia described was the unmistakable smear of blood in the shape of a hand print.
The captain shot William a hard glance. “William, fetch a constable. Hurry!”
“Aye!” William shouted, already racing off into the night.