Poppy Hawkins was thinking about turning in for the night when she became acutely aware of the sounds of someone moving about in her home. Given that she had dismissed her servants for the night hours before she knew that this could not be called an innocuous turn of events. Grim faced she reached for the sword that she habitually kept strapped to her waist and moved as quietly as possible towards the study’s door. She was up late studying the reports of her fellow captains and her desk was a mess of paper and maps.
Poppy bent to look through the doors lock; the rooms position at the end of a long corridor meant that she had an uninterrupted view of the hall down to the front door of the manor. As she suspected there was a man standing in her hall - a man she did not recognise. Swearing profusely she watched as the man pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and stare at if frowning. He turned it around a few times before seeming to make up his mind and head into a room on the left.
“What’s he up to?” Poppy wondered out loud. She thought for a minute, trying to figure out what he could want in that room; as far as she knew there was nothing of any importance in there. But then she remembered - until she had taken over the house that had been the study. When she had moved in permanently after her grandfathers death she had made the room she was currently standing in her study; it over looked the sea and Poppy could never truly be comfortable unless she could see the crashing waves of the ocean.
Gently, trying to be a quiet as possible, Poppy opened the study door and on bare feet she walked down the hall. The man was stood in the rooms doorway and Poppy could tell from the way he was standing that he was puzzled. Slowly she raised her sword and pressed its tip against the small of his back.
“For your sake I hope you have a good reason to be here,” she hissed into his ear.
The man spun around in shock. “What the hell,” he said.
“Funny, I was just about to ask you the same thing,” Poppy replied, pressing harder with her sword “You have a minute to explain to me what you are doing here and you’d best make it convincing.”
“Your uncle! Or rather your great uncle! He sent me.”
“He’d have a job, he’s dead,” Poppy replied flatly. She lowered her gun slightly; she’d always had a bit of a soft spot for her Uncle John.
“I know, I was with him when he died. No!” he cried out when she pushed just a little bit harder on the hilt of her sword. “No, I didn’t mean it the way it sounded!”
“How did you mean it? Oh and you’re running out of time,” Poppy pulled her watch out of her pocket.
“I worked for him, with him,” he stammered. “I was his last student. Look, he gave me this,” he offered her the piece of paper that was in his hand.
Poppy took it from him. On it was a crude drawing of the ground floor of the manor; the room they were standing in was clearly marked with a ‘X’. The writing on it was clearly that of her Uncle John; he had written enough letters to her over the years that she could recognise his hand writing.
“Why did he send you here?” Poppy asked. “And why did you feel the need to break in rather than simply come to my door in the day?”
The man looked guilty. “He told me that he hid a treasure here.”
“And you didn’t want to share it,” Poppy said. The man man nodded even though it was a statement rather than a question.
Poppy lowered her sword. If there was one thing she could understand it was greed - she was a pirate after all.
“What’s your name?” she asked the man.
“Thomas, Thomas Green,” he stammered, looking more than a little surprised by the question.
The name sounded vaguely familiar to Poppy; she supposed that she must have read it in one of her uncles letters. “Well Thomas Green I don’t suppose my uncle said where he stashed this treasure?”
“No, he just left me this map. I swear I didn’t know that you were here, I was told in the village that you were still away from home.”
“So you planned to rob me while the house was empty. How…honorable,” Poppy spat out.
“I never wanted to disturb anyone, I promise. I just wanted to get what Professor Dee promised I could have.”
“Well, you know if you’d come to me in the morning and told me this I probably would have let you walk out with it without demanding any part of it. Because you broke into my home I do believe you have forfeited any right you have to any of my uncles property. Be grateful that I’m allowing you your life.”
Thomas nodded; he knew Poppy’s reputation and realised how serious she was. “I am Miss Hawkins, believe me, I am.”
“Good. Now, shall we get looking?” Poppy re sheathed her sword and took a closer look at the map that her uncle had drawn for her. “You took a risk you know, crossing the border,” she said casually.
Thomas shrugged. “It wasn’t so bad. This time of year there aren’t that many people about.”
“True, most are too sensible to go out in weather like this.” The winter so far had been a harsh one and looked set to carry on. Poppy had heard from her staff that more than one family had lost people and she knew that there were likely to be more deaths before the weather broke.
“How are things in England? We don’t hear much out here.”
Thomas hesitated for a moment, trying to decide what to tell her. Strictly speaking even talking with someone from the Welsh side of the border was a criminal offence; crossing the border as he had was likely to earn him a spell in prison if he was caught. “Harsh. The Spanish rule things with an iron fist and any hints of rebellion are firmly put down. People thought that the first Queen Mary was hard on protestants but she had nothing on the second.”
Poppy nodded. “I’d heard as much. You made quite a risk coming here you know.”
“Oh I know. But after your uncle died I had little left there. He told me how important it was to find this treasure and I figured I’ve got nothing to lose.”
“Really?” Poppy arched her eyebrow. “You’ve no family, no friends?”
“No. My family was killed in during one of the purges. Luckily I was away at university or else I would have been murdered as well. It was there that I met Professor Dee.”
Poppy nodded. She did not know whether or not she should offer her condolences; she had never had much time for the social graces and had never really understood why a stranger saying ‘sorry’ at the death of a lost one should make one feel better. She settled instead for “It was then that he took you in?”
“That’s right. I have been - sorry I mean I had been working with him the past five years.”
“So what had your family done to incur the wrath of the queen?” Poppy asked.
Thomas shrugged. “Nothing as far as I can tell. They lived in a small, quiet village. My father was a teacher, nothing more. He made a living teaching the local children their letters. Apparently someone passing through the village objected to some of the books my father used and reported him to the local magistrate. When they searched his house they found books that the King and Queen have banned; damned fool always did value books more highly than he did most people. He said that it was wrong that knowledge should just disappear because those in power at the moment disliked it.”
“Sounds like he would have had a lot in common with Uncle John,” Poppy observed with a smile.
“Yes, I often think that it was a pity they didn’t get chance to meet. Any way my father, mother and brothers were all arrested. Like I said I was at university when news came to me of their deaths. They had all been burned for heresy.”
Poppy winced; she had heard that such things still happened in England but to hear it confirmed like that was still shocking.
“A couple of days after I got the news a messenger arrived with some books for me. Some of my fathers students had been able to rescue them before they had been burnt. I knew of John Dee of course but hadn’t had chance to meet him. I knew that he was interested in preserving knowledge so went to him with the manuscripts. We got talking and he mentioned that he needed some help translating some books that he had; I told him that I was good at languages and he hired me to help him. I’ve been working for him ever since.”
“He must have meant a lot to you if you were willing to risk your life to see his last wishes met,” Poppy observed.
Silence descended between them while Poppy thought. She turned her attention back to the map and pondered it for a few moments. The drawing was crude, done in a shakey hand from what were probably hazy memories. But it was clearly a drawing of the the room they were in. She could make out the window on the north wall and could see the ‘X’ marked along the length of the East wall.
“Over there,” Poppy said, gesturing towards the wall with her arm.
Thomas nodded and followed her over to the wall. As far as he could see it looked exactly the same as the other walls - the lower half was covered in wood panelling while the other was plaster.
“Where is it?” Poppy muttered to herself. She had no idea what it was she was looking for. A thought occurred to her and she put her ear against the wall and started knocking on the panelling.
At first Thomas was puzzled but he quickly gathered what she was doing and followed suit, this time starting from the opposite end of the wall. Working in silence apart from the tapping of their fists against wood they made their way along the length of the wall.
It took them several minutes but eventually Poppy heard it - the sound one piece of panelling made when she hit it was different to that made by all the rest. This piece sounded hollow.
“Mr Green!” she called out to Thomas. “I do believe that I might have found it.”
Thomas looked over and smiled. “Finally,” he said. “I was beginning to think that your uncle might have sent me on a wild goose chase.”
Poppy nodded and began looking closer at the panel in question, hoping to find some way to open in. Thomas went over to join her but after several frustrated minutes they were forced to admit that maybe there was nothing to be found.
“Uncle John never said how you were supposed to get to the treasure?” Poppy asked Thomas hopefully.
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“I thought that might be the case,” Poppy said with a nod. She turned away from the panel, pondering what to do next.
“You’re not going to give up are you?” Thomas asked in surprise.
“Hell no! I’m just wondering if there’s anything around here that we can use to force the panel off.”
“You’re going to ruin your wall for this?” Thomas asked in amazement.
“Why not, it’s only a wall.” Poppy thought for a second. “I suppose a hammer might go through the wood,” she mused aloud.
“Why don’t we try having another look before we do anything that drastic?” Thomas hastily said. “If we start attacking the walls with a hammer then we’ll wake the whole house up.”
“True.” Poppy pondered. “There must be something we’re not thinking of. I might not have known my uncle well but I know one thing - brute force was never his style.”
Thomas nodded in agreement. “He must have left a clue somewhere. He would never have told me to come here for his greatest treasure and then left me no way to find it.”
Something stirred in Poppy’s memory. “What exactly did my Uncle say he was sending you here for?”
“He never told you what it was, just that it was something precious?”
Poppy smiled ruefully. “Mr Green, I do believe that we have been idiots.”
“I’ve just remembered something my mother told me once. She said to me that for her uncle the greatest treasure wasn’t something you could own, something you could put a price on.”
“No. For him the greatest treasure was knowledge.”
Realisation dawned for Thomas and he was forced to admit “I do believe you are right. We’re idiots.”
Silence descended between them as they considered their next move. “So what do we do now?” Thomas asked.
“We look at the knowledge that we have and work from there. We know that this panel is important. We know that there is a space behind it. We know that it is something that my uncle thought was important for you to have.”
Thomas nodded. A thought occurred to him. “Who built the this house?”
“Erm, my grandfather,” Poppy replied, confused by the sudden change of subject.
“And has this room been changed at all since the house was built?” Thomas asked, ignoring her question as he followed his train of thought.
“No…not as far as I know. Why do you want to know so much about the house?” Poppy demanded to know.
“This panel must have been here since the room was first decorated, which means-”
“Which means my grandfather must have known about it!” Poppy filled in.
“Exactly! Did he ever talk to you about the house, about how he built it, its history, anything like that?”
Poppy racked her brains. “If I’m honest I don’t know that much about it. The person who could probably best answer your questions is my mother.”
“Where is she? I have to admit that it would be interesting to meet her; Professor Dee talked about her with a lot of affection.”
Poppy searched Mr Greens face. He seemed harmless, had an artlessness about him which made her want to trust him despite her better judgement. But for all that she was not about to get him any more mixed up with her family than he already was.
“She’s away visiting friends,” Poppy told him, having no qualms about lying to him.
“Oh,” his shoulder visibly slumped. “Do you know when she’ll be back?” he asked hopefully.
“No, in a couple of days I think.”
“I see. So what do we do now?” he asked.
“We?” Poppy replied with an arched eyebrow. “As far as I’m concerned ‘we’ do nothing. I thank you for telling me of this treasure but that is all. Your part in this is done.”
Thomas was stunned. “Just like that, I’m dismissed?”
“Yes, you may leave now. Just remember this - I had many, many chances to kill you but I didn’t.”
“No, but you might as well have done,” Thomas told her gloomily.
“I’m an Englishman in Wales without permission. I have no papers proving who I am and no where to go now. The first person I talk to is likely to shoot me without asking any questions.”
Poppy felt a pang of guilt but covered it quickly saying “And? You must have realised this when you crossed the border.”
“Not really, I wasn’t thinking all that much. I mostly wanted to get away from Mortlake quickly.”
“Why? What was happening that you had to leave my uncles house so swiftly?”
“With Professor Dee dead there was nothing to stop the King and Queen sending Inquisitors to the house to examine his books. They’ve been trying to get their hands on his library for years but his position in the university meant that he had a reason to keep his library from them. With him dead there was no stopping them.”
Poppy considered his words. “And you didn’t want to be there when they arrived?”
“After what happened to my family do you blame me?” Poppy shook her head. “I packed up what I could of the library and fled.”
“What happened to the books?” Poppy asked, attempting to be casual. She knew that her mother would love nothing more than to re-claim the library of her beloved uncle and that she would never forgive Poppy if she realised that Poppy had had the chance to do so and failed.
Thomas looked at Poppy and sensed an opportunity. “They’re safe, with friends of mine. How about we make a deal?”
“I have something you want - the books, and you can help me get something I want - the treasure your uncle promised me. If we work together then we can both come out ahead.”
Poppy was not happy. She felt as if she had been backed into a corner but had no choice to agree. “So be it.”
“And,” Thomas added hastily, “you let me stay here until we both find what we’re looking for.”
Poppy was about to protest but thought about it for a second. If he was close by then she would at least be able to keep an eye on him.
“Agreed. But, you’re staying in the servants quarters. We can pretend you’re a new gardener or something.”
“Agreed,” Thomas said, knowing better than to push his luck.
“You can stay in the stable for tonight, we’ll introduce you to the rest of the staff in the morning.”
Thomas nodded and allowed himself to be lead to his new accommodation. As he drifted off to sleep he wondered what the morning would bring.