Captain Crispin Uphold, late of the Royal Navy and now financial entrepreneur of Boston, arose from his chair as the manservant showed his illustrious guest towards his table. Self-consciously, he tugged his pale blue silk vest straight and adjusted his white silk cravat. Bowing slightly, he reached out to take his guest’s hand, exchanging a complex handshake which was hidden from the casual onlooker’s gaze by the newcomers bulk. The two then smiled briefly at each other.
“Commodore, it’s good of you to grace my humble table with your presence again,” Uphold said, as the coffee house’s manservant took the heavy woolen greatcoat the man was shrugging out off and hung it from the hook of a coat-stand by the table. “Please, have a seat. Coffee, Sir?”
“Thank you, Captain, I’d prefer chocolate on a night like this though.”
Nodding to the manservant and gesturing for two, Uphold sat himself back down and studied his guest anew. A big-boned man, with a long and prominent nose and florid complexion – made worse by the shock of coming in from the cold night outside and, perhaps, some brandy earlier in the evening. Well dressed, as befitted his station, in a silk cravat and a velvet jacket with gold silk lapels and big ivory buttons over a golden silk vest with gold fasteners. The man’s hair was white and swept back in a widow’s peak, but plentiful for a man of his age and plentiful enough that he needed no wig. His eyes were quick and intelligent, searching calmly and analyzing all they saw rather than darting about. His mouth, Uphold had always thought, betrayed a pursed look that spoke of parsimony and a peevish spirit. A better insight into the man’s baser characteristics than his piercing eyes. All in all, a man who knew what he wanted and expected to get it, by God, and a man it was never a good idea to cross or try to double-deal.
Uphold became aware that The Commodore, for that was all he’d even think of him as in this place, had been studying his host at the same time. The view could not have been so imposing, Uphold thought ruefully. Simply a man who was once a sea officer of the King’s Navy and had made some shrewd investments he’d parlayed into a second career as an insurance underwriter on this upper floor of Nathaniel’s famous coffee-house, where trade and finance were as much a part of the daily bustle as coffee and liquor. His clothes, while of good quality, were nowhere near the opulence of those worn by the man opposite and his features – well, perhaps they were a bit misleading. Slightly sad and droopy brown eyes in a pale face, and with a distinct shadow from the lack of a shave since early that morning.
Uphold smiles then and took a small brass box from his vest pocket, opening it towards the Commodore to show its brown, dusty contents.
“Snuff, Sir? My own blend I get made special from Abraham’s in South End.”
“No, thankee kindly, Crispin. My physician says I’ve to stay away from snuff and stick to cigars. He says the sneezing might cause my old heart to fail.” The Commodore replied, and Uphold placed the open snuff box on the table between them, with a gesture towards it to say ‘if you change your mind’.
“As if a heart as calculatingly precise as a mariner’s clock could fail except by deadly force,” thought Uphold, a mite uncharitable, as the manservant returned with two steaming mugs of rich chocolate, with a little added cinnamon for the cold night outside. Outwardly, he simply nodded to the man in dismissal, knowing the cost would be added to his monthly bill for rental of his table in the “Underwriter’s Room”.
As the servant departed, The Commodore took two bone disks, each the size of a gold sovereign, from his pocket and carefully broke each in half. Immediately, the light dimmed as sight beyond a circle around the table seemed to become blurred, and the sound of the coffee house, already raucous and jumbled by the many customers’ talk and merriment, became dulled and distant.
“Now we can talk, Captain,” The Commodore began and -secure in his knowledge that the magical charms he had employed would shield them from prying eyes and ears, produced a leather document wallet from his jacket and laid it on the table between them. “Here are the final files, checked as best we can. You’re sure these are the people you want, now? Some of them, well, they aren’t what I’d call ‘the right kind’, y’know?”
“As sure as I can be without knowing them personally, my Lord.” Uphold replied carefully. “The others had some questions in their files too after they were worked up by your people. These have less uncertainties even when the certainties might not be ideal for our choosing. They’ll serve, maybe better than serve.”
The Commodore, or Lord, harrumphed. “Be damn careful, Captain Uphold. This is a sensitive business and we can’t have the wrong waves made. The right ones, mind, well, they might wash ashore some interestin’ flotsam, eh?”
“That’s part of the intention, my Lord” Uphold replied with a smile. “You will have to rely on my discretion and watchfulness, sir – unless you’d rather find another instead of myself?”
“What? What? No, of course not, young man. You have my sponsorship, and I’ll give you your head and see how you sail, d’you see?” The Commodore had the good grace to look slightly abashed, but Uphold didn’t believe it for a second.
“Then you shall have my report as soon as there is something worth including in it, my Lord.” he told his superior. “Is there anything else?”
The Commodore drained half his chocolate at one swig, then wiped his mouth with a dainty lace handkerchief before standing and offering his hand.
“No, I think that’s it for now, Captain.” Another of those intricate handshakes. “A fair wind to ye, for the sake of the Widow’s Son.”
“For the Widow’s Son, my Lord, and for the Crown.” Crispin Uphold said gravely in reply, then helped his visitor back into his long greatcoat and let his find his way out into the night. He sat down again, staring at the painting on the wall of his old frigate, HMS Courageous, until a new presence dragged his attention away from contemplation of the past and future.
The newcomer placed another snuff box, identical to his own, on the table and shut both – also shutting off the charm that had allowed him to eavesdrop on every word of the previous conversation despite the Commodore’s precautions.
“You heard, then?” Uphold asked his old friend, Lochlan Graham, lately a Lieutenant on the Courageous and now a Doctor of Magic graduated from Harvard College with a specialty in philosophical magic. The magician’s blue eyes sparkled as he replied. “Aye, ev’ry word, what there was o’ it.” The magician’s hangover Scottish burr, relic of his father and his forefathers, was soft and lilting.
“So what do you think?”
“I think the old bugger has more up his sleeve than his arm and a stiletto, Cap’n. There’s ne’er been a situation he hasnae tried to take personal advantage from before – either for power or enrichment or both – and I doubt he’s started now.”
“Oh agreed. The old battlecruiser is too set in his self-agreed glory to change his tack now. Still, I think we know all the flags he’s likely to fly, don’t we? And the job still needs done, one way or t’other. I’ll arrange to have them all meet me, here I think where they’ll feel a little out of place."
“So, we sail on but prepare for the storm if it comes? Aye I suppose so, for the need o’ the Nation, which is greater than the need e’en o’ its most powerful.”
Crispin Uphold raised his mug of chocolate in toast to that.
“For the Greater Good,” he agreed.