Title:Honor Among Thieves
Honor Among Thieves
It was too pretty a day to be shooting things.
The thought kept running through my head, standing on the deck of the Nautilus on that bright blue-sky day. The air was warm, the sea was calm, and there wasn’t a cloud to be seen. Dolphins skimmed along the white crests before the bow of the ship, sometimes leaping right out of the water, as if they too had never seen a finer day on God’s good earth.
All the same, I didn’t feel the sunshine or the salt breeze. There was a cold place in my gut that not even the heat of Africa had thawed—for it was in that last unhappy port of call that we buried Allan Quatermain.
I didn’t know where we were headed now, and I didn’t much care. There was something to just being on the sea. The rhythms of that wonderful ship were creeping into my veins, and I liked it; I liked being away from people and all their troubles. At least for a little while.
At Allan’s graveside, the others had decided not to hide from the world anymore… and yet, to my shame, that was just what a part of me wanted to do.
So I stood on the deck and shot targets—and in my mind’s eye, every one of them had the face of M.
The others left me alone, and I was glad and disappointed at once. I had a lot of thinking to do, and a man likes to think he’ll do best at working out those kinds of problems by himself… but there were times when it would have been nice just to have someone at my side.
Sometimes, I almost thought I did. Sometimes, when I was sighting my target and the sea was still as glass, I thought I could feel Allan standing by my shoulder, watching me.
Take your time.
A shiver raised the hairs on the back of my neck. This time it wasn’t my imagination; I really wasn’t alone. I lowered my rifle and turned to look around, but I saw no one… and that meant just one thing.
"Good morning, Skinner."
An amused kind of snort came from the direction of the hatch.
"I think your instincts are getting better," came the Cockney reply, as the sound of bare feet padded across the deck. I’d set aside my coat in the heat of the morning sun, and now I watched as it rose up and began to take the shape of Rodney Skinner. Judging by the way it wriggled, the invisible man was finding it a tight fit. Once he was half-clothed at last, he came to my side and leaned his elbows on the bulwark, as if looking out at the quiet sea.
I couldn’t help but smile. No need to say a word of what he’d done for me, or how grateful I was for it; all that and more was spoken between us some time past, as he lay recovering. Since then, once he was up and around, there were times when I felt him watching me—watching, but not spying. He wore his coat and hat, so that I always knew he was there, yet somehow he was almost as invisible as when he wore nothing. His presence never seemed to intrude on those hard moods I’d been slipping into.
Funny that the first time I really noticed him was the first time he tried to sneak up on me.
I left him to whatever he was thinking about, and went on with my shooting practice. Another target buoy was fired, and I watched it sail out over the water, splashing down at about five hundred yards’ distance. I raised my Winchester, aimed, and then stood quiet… waiting to feel the shot.
"Been a bit lonesome, have we?"
My finger eased off the trigger as I turned my head to look at Skinner. For a second I thought he might be making fun of me, but that notion was killed by the trace of something kindly in his voice. I lowered the rifle, resting its butt end on the deck.
"I miss him," I admitted softly. No need to say Allan’s name; he’d been on all our thoughts.
Still leaning on the bulwark, my coat gave a little shrug, as if Skinner didn’t quite know what to say. I could imagine him frowning and staring down awkwardly at the trails of foam that curled off from the sides of the Nautilus. In his own strange way, he was trying to be friendly, and fumbling at it.
I grinned, feeling a funny sort of sympathy for him, and on an impulse I held out my rifle. I nodded my head to the side, toward the target that was drifting a little closer on the currents. "Care to give it a try?"
The movement of the coat-sleeve told me he’d held up his hand. "No thanks. I don’t have much truck with the things, actually."
Frowning, I leaned on the rifle and stared at him. "You mean you don’t shoot?"
I was wishing I could see the look on his face, even if it was just through a layer of his usual greasepaint. But then, that’s one of the interesting things about Skinner—seems like he can make his every expression fill his voice, from a smile to a frown to a roll of the eyes. Not that I’d know much about such things, but I sometimes thought he would’ve made a fine actor.
Just then, I could hear a sly grin in his tone, as he straightened and folded his arms. "Well, when I’m about my work, I hardly have much of a place to stash a piece of artillery about my person."
The heat of a blush crossed my face. I hoped Skinner wouldn’t see it through the tan I’d gotten in spending so many afternoons up on deck.
"But—even before you were invisible?" I asked.
Another shrug, this one a little bit self-deprecating. "I never found guns quite seemly for a gentleman thief. Quick and quiet and harmless… well, mostly harmless, at least—that was my way."
It surprised me to learn this about Skinner, but it made some things make sense. I remembered watching him fight, at Dorian Gray’s house and again at M’s fortress. Even when he had easy access to the guns of fallen enemies, I’d never seen him squeeze a trigger; he won his way with not much more than sheer surprise and any blunt object he found handy. He wasn’t much for skill or muscle, but he was fast and resourceful, and I was sure he always had been.
Thinking about all that, I couldn’t help but feel a little more respect for my invisible friend.
"We may have hard days ahead of us yet," I murmured, looking at him steadily and hoping I’d met his gaze. "You sure you don’t want to learn?"
I got the sense that he shook his head. He must have smiled too, because there was grim humor in his voice as he answered, "You carry the cannons, Sawyer. I’ve tricks of my own."
At that, I remembered a thought I’d been turning over in my head, and I couldn’t resist a grin. "Speaking of which… I was sort of wondering if you might teach me something about picking pockets."
The coat contorted as Skinner threw up his hands dramatically, but I heard amusement in his tone of mock alarm. "First Quatermain’s shooting, now my thievery. What’s next? Mina’s chemistry, Jekyll’s doctoring? Pretty soon I suppose you’ll be after all our skills!"
I chuckled and shook my head. "Not at all. I just thought it might come in handy, knowing how to take small things off a person. I am a Secret Service agent, after all."
"Ah, o’ course." There was a note of sarcasm in his voice. He stepped back, putting his hands on his hips, and I could tell he was looking me up and down—with a disapproval that I knew was only pretended. "Just little things, eh?"
"Like the pocketwatch I just lifted off of you?"
My face grew hot with an embarrassed flush as Skinner held up my pocketwatch—which, the last I knew, had been safe in my own waistcoat pocket. "Hey!"
With a maniacal laugh Skinner threw off my borrowed coat, and then I saw my pocketwatch dive toward the open hatchway, still clutched in an invisible hand.
"Skinner! You get back here!" I shouted—but as I gave chase, I couldn’t help laughing.
© 2004Jordanna Morgan