Wanted:Mail-Order Mistress(4)

By: Deborah Hale

“‘…is better than all your birds in the hands of pirates.’ That’s what we say here in Singapore.” Simon extended his hand to seal their bargain.

Few things gave him as much pleasure as making an advantageous deal. Unlike affairs of the heart, he knew where he stood in a clear-cut matter of business. That was the sort of relationship he’d had in mind when he asked Hadrian to find him a mistress—a straightforward exchange of things they wanted from one another, without dangerous sentiment to complicate matters. Now he wondered if such a thing would be possible.

As he and the captain shook hands, one of Simon’s Malay workers appeared, leading four European lads who looked quite distressed. “Master, these boys say they came from England to work for you.”

“This is the first I’ve heard of it.” Simon eyed the four suspiciously. “Captain Svenson, if you’ll excuse me, I must see to this. Ibrahim, send some boats to begin unloading the iron.”

As Ibrahim and the captain headed away, Simon rounded on the boys, who were growing more agitated by the minute. “What is all this about? I didn’t hire any of you.”

“Please, sir,” said a sturdy, handsome lad who looked to be their leader, “Mr Northmore sent us. He said there’d be work for us with his company.”

Before Simon could reply, a gangly lad with a shock of red hair cried, “The boat let us off on the wrong side of the harbour!”

“And we’ve lost Bethan!” added a third fellow. “She was right behind us…and then…she wasn’t.”

They all started jabbering at once, so that Simon could not make out what they were trying to say.

“Quiet!” he ordered at last, silencing them with a fierce scowl. “You say Mr Northmore sent you. Why didn’t he come with you?”

“I don’t know, sir,” admitted the leader. “Perhaps he explained it in the letter he gave Bethan.”

One of them had mentioned that name earlier. Could she be the mistress Hadrian had engaged for him?

“But she’s lost!” The rusty-haired lad pointed back toward the quay. “We’ve got to find her!”

“So we do.” Simon marched towards the quay, his heart hammering against his ribs. “This part of town is no fit place for a woman alone.”

Especially not a European woman, of whom there were only a handful in the whole settlement. “Where did you last see her?”

“I thought she was right behind us when we crossed the bridge,” said a lumpy lad with overgrown teeth. “But now I’m not sure.”

They’d reached the quay by this time, heading for the bridge with as much speed as Simon could muster. “You left her on her own in Chinatown? If any harm comes to her, none of you will be working for me, I don’t care what Northmore promised you!”

Work? Simon fumed. They’d be lucky if he didn’t have them all flogged. Though Singapore was a place of great opportunity, violence always lurked beneath the surface. Piracy had been a way of life in these waters for centuries and it wasn’t much safer on land. Since coming here, he’d witnessed riots and outlaw raids. Murderous rampages were common enough that there was a term for them in the Malay language—such attackers were said to run amok.

As Simon marched across the bridge and on to the south bank of the harbour, crowds of labourers parted to let him pass like waves cloven by the sharp-angled prow of a ship. The four English lads scrambled along in his wake.

“Where is the white woman?” he demanded in Malay, then again in mangled Cantonese. “Did anyone see which way she went? If any harm comes to her, there will be bad trouble!”

Answers came hurling back at him.

“She was accosting strange men on the quay.”

“She ran after Jin-Lee, shouting at him like a savage with no manners.”

“She chased him into the Chinese kampong,” a Malay speaker informed Simon, “up Oxcart Road.”

What sort of brazen harlot had Hadrian procured for him? Simon was half-tempted to let the hussy face the consequences of her scandalous behavior. But he could not bear to have another woman’s death on his conscience.

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