There was a little red and white half tent set up a few feet above the tide line, and under it a folding table with two chairs and a large picnic cooler. When I entered, Sinclair was standing at one side, pouring what at first I took to be coffee. As I took the seat he indicated, however, and looked more closely at the small pot and the liquid in my cup, I realized it was cocoa. Setting the chocolate pot down, Sinclair gestured vaguely. "Milk and sugar," he said, turning back to the cooler. "Don't know how you like it, or if you like it. I don't drink coffee myself, and don't usually keep it unless I'm expecting someone." He set a plate before me and removed the cover. "Hope you like scrambled eggs and crisp bacon."
"I do," I said, finding it impossible to keep from grinning. "And, oddly enough, I prefer chocolate to coffee myself. You're only the second grown person I've ever met who shares my peculiar tastes." The other was Jocelyn, of course. Looking around at the neat breakfast, the pale yellow sand and sparkling water, and the carefully tended but simple garden inland, I thought that she would like this place. Sighing, I returned my attention to the table before me, which now also bore a bowl of oatmeal.
Sinclair watched me over the rim of his cup. "Do you like my home, Charlie?" he asked as if the answer really mattered to him.
"Yes, what I can see of it," I replied, smiling. "It's a lovely place, and you set a generous table, especially for trespassers." I stopped, surprised by his earnest regard.
"Not trespassers. You're not a trespasser, you're my guest, though this time yesterday neither of us expected you to be." He leant forward. "Eat," he said. "I don't want to detain you, I know you're a busy man. But, I need to talk to you. So, you eat, and listen, and I'll talk a bit, all right?"
Only then I noticed that he had no eggs or oatmeal, just a cup of chocolate. I put down my fork to face him. "Listen, Sinclair, I don't understand what this is all about, why you're being so hospitable to me, and what on Nova Britannia you could possibly want to talk to me about. But."
His lip curled. "What I, romantic brigand, could have to discuss with you, mundane sailor, trader, and man of affairs?"
I stared at him, taken aback. Then I grinned and took up my fork. "Something like that."
He relaxed. Waving at the food he said, "Tuck in. Listen for a moment, and all will become clear, as my grandmother used to say. Need more cocoa?"
"Not yet," I said. "But, before you begin what you want to tell me, answer a question." He nodded. "How did I get here?"
Sinclair chuckled, settling back comfortably in his chair. "Not up to your usual standard, Charlie. But then, it is only ten past seven, and you haven't had breakfast yet. The question's not how you got here. You're more or less where you should be if you're on the way to Falibana. The question is, how did this island get here, as you know very well it shouldn't be." He paused. At the moment all I could do was nod. He waited for me to swallow and said, "Do you want the long answer or the short answer?"
"Uh, if you don't mind, I think the short answer will do."
He grinned mischievously. "You're not going to like it."
"Try me," I said, spearing some egg.
His grin broadened. "Magic!"
I glared at him, or tried to. "You're right. I don't like it. However, as the guest of the most celebrated gentleman buccaneer and philanthropist in the Nova Europa System, I probably shouldn't complain; especially since his chocolate is the best I've ever had." I returned sternly to my eggs.
"Emma told me I'd like you," he said.
I inclined my head gravely. "My thanks to Miss Emma, whoever she may be." It was obvious that she was someone dear to him, a sister or a sweetheart. But, being private about such things myself, I'd never think to pry.
He nodded. "I'll pass your thanks along." He paused, looking down and playing with his spoon, turning it delicately in his fingers. "I'd like to give you the long answer," he said. "Really, I can't explain my, my problem without giving you the long answer. It's quite a story, though. It will take some time to tell." Breaking off, he looked up and met my eyes. "By the way," he said, "I'd like to ask you a question if I may."
I hastened to swallow a mouthful of egg. "Certainly."
"Why are you going to Falibana? I thought old man Morrow was sending you to Splangliborn. No," he held up his hand. "I haven't been spying on you, but, uh, on Morrow. I know he has business in Splangliborn, and it's pretty common knowledge that you're his most trusted agent. I, uh, my sources felt you would be employed on this particular business. That's why I wasn't expecting you. I had thought to meet you in Splangliborn to discuss my," he hesitated, his open, finely made face darkening for a moment as with doubt or worry. "My problem," he went on after a moment, "and to ask your help."
I could feel my jaw drop. "My help?" He looked at me with those dark, steady eyes, and I faltered. "But, your father is a member of the World Senate. You come from a wealthy, powerful family, and --" his face hardened. "And you have considerable charm and, so I hear, influence in your own right. Why should a gentleman of your accomplishments need help from the likes of me?"
He still looked discontented, but the frankness of my puzzlement and curiosity got through to him. All the same, he answered my question with another question. I'm curious why you persist in thinking it remarkable that I might seek out your council and help. You have a reputation too, you know, Charlie."
I raised my eyebrows over the excellent oatmeal. "You're known to be a hard bargainer and a fair trader," Sinclair continued. "You always keep your word, and execute your work with judgment and dispatch. If it takes you longer to do something than it might take another fellow, it's because you're taking the time to do it right."
He laughed as I stared at this characterization of myself. "You're highly thought of, Charlie," he said. "You're the best. And my father taught me always to get the best, in friends and allies, and in advice, as in anything else. So, I've been wanting to talk with you for some time. But, now I'm uncertain what's going forward. Did you decide not to take Morrow's job? If so, that will make things awkward."
"No," I said, feeling a need to reassure him. He seemed almost like the younger sibling I had never had; unsure, trusting, looking to me for the answers. The feeling was so strong that I was perhaps fifteen and he twelve, leaning on my greater experience to guide him, that I had to blink. And there was the earnest, trusting young man, his gaze troubled, sitting across from me in a little pavilion tent on the beach of a hidden island. And I found myself speaking gently, reassuringly, as to a troubled child.
"I didn't turn Morrow down. I'm just going to Falibana for a bit of a rest. I'll be off to Splangliborn in about three weeks."
He grinned. "Oh, well, I don't want to delay your holiday, no more than I can help anyway. The Falibars are lovely this time of year." I nodded, but would not be drawn into discussing my vacation plans. I hoped he would hurry, though. The morning was slipping by, and I wanted to get on my way. Something of my feelings must have shown in my face because he said, "Is there anyone you'd like to send a message to?"
"No," I said quickly. Then at his quizzical look, "Well, yes. But I can't." I pushed away the empty oatmeal bowl. "No personal telecom gear." I looked him straight in the eye. "I'm running a few hours late, and she'll be worrying, without hearing, being able to hear, from me. So Sinclair -"
"Brontë," he said, smiling.
"Brontë, then. If you don't mind, I'd like to be on my way as soon as may be." I glanced at the remains of my breakfast. "I don't mean to seem ungrateful; but, well, we don't get to have much time together, and…" I stopped, furious with myself. I never spoke of Jocelyn, however obliquely. She was the only thing I had that was mine, entirely mine, that no one could co-opt for his own purposes. And here this stranger had lulled me into revealing her existence. Anger flashed through me.
Looking at him, I saw sympathy; sympathy tinged with sadness. "I understand," he said quietly. "My parents are on Calimar just now. They could get a message to her…"
I shook my head, my anger fading as quickly as it had flared. "I don't know. Her PCR usually answers the telephone, and it doesn't handle unfamiliar voices well." I put my head in my hands. "Jocelyn, Jocelyn, forgive me, love."
Sinclair seemed almost to hear my thoughts. "Charlie," he said gently, touching my arm. "I'm sorry to have distressed you. I think, though, I can work something out. Can she, forgive me, is she able to read handwritten material?"
I sighed. "Yes, but…"
"I was four when my brother Martin was born," Sinclair said in a constrained voice. "Old enough to be excited about a new baby of my very own. You know how little kids are." I raised my head and looked at him in puzzlement. He seemed on the verge of tears. "He had an unusual form of The Plague," he went on. "The nervous system damage was so severe, or maybe just so placed, that breathing was very hard for him."
I couldn't think of anything to say. Everyone, every single person on Nova Britannia had a friend, a sibling, a child who had been affected by The Plague. The first few children born with nervous system damage were a worrisome medical curiosity. When it became clear that all babies, throughout the planet were being born with varying degrees of central nervous system damage, the press resurrected the all but forgotten word "plague," and it stuck. The first victims had passed their third birthdays before the cause was identified, and a further two and a half years went by before a safe and effective means of preventing it was perfected.
And through it all, people continued to have babies, each couple hoping desperately and fruitlessly that their child would be spared; that their prayers or herbal concoctions or incantations would protect their baby. So, there was an entire cohort of disabled Nova Britannians. And, to those of us who had been children and adolescents when The Plague struck, these people seemed as unremarkable as anyone else. But, very few of the victims had died. The Sinclairs' son must have been one of the most severely ill. What could I possibly say?
"My mother let me hold him twice, for a few minutes," Sinclair said. "It didn't take long for them to realize they couldn't save him, so they let her keep him."
"Poor lady," I murmured.
"He was so little." Sinclair swallowed. "He died on the seventh day." He drew a long, unsteady breath. We were silent for a few moments, the soft rustling of the breeze the only sound.
Sinclair looked up. "So, you see," he said, "you can trust me. I, my family has had experience with The Plague. And, well, there's another reason too. I, uh. But we'll get to that. He smiled again, wistfully I thought. "All right." He rose. "Just give me a hand with these things. We're going up to the house." I got to my feet and silently helped him pack the cooler and fold the chairs. "Now, I must warn you not to be alarmed at anything you see or experience in the next few minutes." He paused, looking at me thoughtfully. "Well, time is of the essence, as my Grandmother used to say. So, here goes."
He looked steadily at the cooler, concentrating on it. And, it wasn't there. Before I had grasped this he was looking at the chairs, stacked together, and they weren't there. Finally, the table vanished and he turned to me, fun once more in his eyes. "Excuse me, but I must presume on our brief acquaintance." He grasped me in a firm hug. And, looking over his shoulder, I found that we were standing in a book-lined study.
I clutched at Sinclair involuntarily. He chuckled, patting my back reassuringly.
"It's all right," he said, detaching himself and leading me, still unsteady, to a roomy, deep cushioned armchair by an open window. "Have a seat and get your breath back while I find something to write with."
I sank into the armchair. Glancing about, I saw him go to a big, old fashioned roll top desk, from which he took writing paper and a pen. Coming to me, he moved a small table to my elbow, where he laid the writing things. He looked at me with concern and I thought again that he was really a handsome fellow, and quite engaging. "I don't keep alcohol in the house, or I'd offer you some brandy," he said. "This seems like the archetypal situation to apply it. But, I can give you some lemonade, or ginger ale."
I laughed a bit shakily. "A teetotaler too? You and I might be brothers to judge by our tastes."
His smile broadened. "That would be nice," he said a little wistfully.
I studied him for a moment and decided that it would be nice. "Yeah," I said, meeting his gaze. "It would. Ginger ale."
He turned away briskly. "Coming right up."
"Uh, is it simply going to appear, or are you going to go get it?"
"I'm going to get it, and you can watch me do it." As he spoke, he touched an unremarkable spot on the paneled wall and a section of the paneling slid aside, revealing a fridge door.
I laughed. "Don't like to go far when you're thirsty, eh?"
"That's right." He produced a bottle and, from a nearby cabinet, two tall tumblers.
When he handed me mine, I examined it curiously, turning it in my fingers and tracing the pattern of leaves graven in the pale green glass. "Beautiful," I observed and raised the drink. "To my generous host."
He smiled and leant forward to touch his glass to mine from where he perched on the broad windowsill. "To newfound friendship," he said and I nodded. We drank.
I set my glass down on the old fashioned wood and cork coaster, like the ones my parents had always used (So many things here were old fashioned, comfortable, familiar.), and looked at Sinclair. There were so many questions in my mind that I couldn't decide which one to ask first.
"I teleported us and all the stuff up from the beach," he said. "Write a note to, uh, your young lady and I'll teleport that to my parents, who will be able to get it to her within the hour."
I stared for a moment, then shrugged. The important thing was to let Jocelyn know I'd be late. I took up the pen and paper and wrote:
I'm sending this note, by very odd means, to let you know I've been delayed. Don't worry. I'm safe, and will see you as soon as I can, probably the day after tomorrow, at which time I'll do my best to explain.
I read this missive over and picked it up. Then I looked at Sinclair. "Do I fold it, or roll it into a scroll, or what?"
"Fold it up and write her name and address on it." I swallowed, but complied.
Miss Jocelyn Falconer
15 Sea View Gardens
With some trepidation, I handed it to him. He accepted it, but he had a far away look. He held the note for a moment, and then it was gone. He seemed distant for another moment or two and then, smiling fondly, his eyes focused again on me.
"All right," he said, and sipped his drink. "Mother's taken charge of it now. She'll see that Miss Jocelyn receives it. She said it's a lovely name, Jocelyn. When did you tell her you'd be back, if I may ask?"
"Day after tomorrow, if not sooner."
He seemed surprised. "Oh, it won't take anywhere near that long.
I smiled a little tightly. "Not if I can get off today, that's true."
"But," he began. Then comprehension came into his face. "I'm sorry," he said. "Let's walk down to the beach." Mystified, I followed him through the cool, comfortably old fashioned house and back down the lawn to the beach. "Come on," he said, heading for the shore skimmer. I've played games and delayed you long enough. I'll tell you all you need to know for the moment while we get back to Falibana. Would you rather take The Moon or The Star?" He turned to face me on the peer. "If you choose to take my craft," he said, his expression earnest, "I give you my word as a gentleman that your craft will be safe here in Marooner's Haven. I'd prefer to go in mine, since that way I can sail and talk at the same time, and all you'll have to do is listen."
Confusion and unease once more rose, congealing into anger in my chest. "I don't understand," I shouted. "I don't understand where I am, or what you want, or anything. What right do you have to Shanghai me like this? I just want to go home, to have a couple of weeks with my sweetheart. What's wrong with that? Why can't you let me out of this funhouse so I can go home?"
He had turned away, shoulders hunched, head down like a child fighting not to cry. And, it took him a moment to be able to speak. "I'm sorry, Charlie," he said dully. "You're right. Go home." He fumbled with something inside his shirt. Coming to me, he held it out without looking at me. His hand was trembling. "Please give this to Emma Morrow when you see her, whenever you see her," he said. I reached out automatically and took the locket on its fine chain. I drew breath but, before I could speak, he had started to walk to the house. In mid-stride, he vanished.