The merchant was short and red-faced, with thick brown hair combed back in an unruly tangle. He was in the process of unhitching a tarp-covered trailer from a minivan as she approached. She put out her hand. "Jenny Siddiqui, special inspector."
He looked around, set the trailer's neck back on the van's hitch, and shook her hand. "Thomas Martin, Sony UK," he said, in a subdued American accent. He returned to the trailer and turned it. On the other side of the van an old man was attaching a trailer pull to a mule's harness. She had her badge out, but the two men were concentrating on getting the trailer attached.
The old man sighed in relief as he straightened up, and patted the mule's neck. "Now I want 'er to be a mule when I'm back," he told Martin. The merchant chuckled. "Key's on the dash," he said. The old man tugged a forelock to Jenny as he passed, with a hand cracked and wrinkled like the hills themselves. She followed him with her eyes as he drove off.
"It's like he sprang from the ground," she said, as she sat on an upholstered van seat bolted to the front of the cart. Martin flicked the reins and turned his head. "Oh, yeah, Jim's a real local," he said. "He did this run before me. Made enough to retire and get a nice farm. He brings the animal, and I make sure to get a few trinkets for his grandkids."
"Trinkets?" she said. The Corporate Ethics Bureau of the UN Industrial Development Organization had tracked an income anomaly suggesting worker exploitation to this corner of England. She had suspected an illegal workshop in a transient village, which tended to put anyone not on the machines to work making cheap handmade toys and souvenirs.
"Yes, they're, uh, things like firecrackers, there's this hard candy that's sweet at first but tastes really bad, noisemakers, tinwhistles and clackers and such. Can't help but think they're hellions, the grandkids I mean, always coming back for more. Maybe he sells them. I wouldn't mind."
Something was off about this, different from old cases. She took out her phone and pulled up her old case files. "So this group, they're Romani, then?"
"I wouldn't say that," he said. Wouldn't say that? What a spineless corporate answer. His other answers were also evasive, as they pulled deeper into the forest and the light of the phone screen grew brighter in contrast.
"You have to turn it off here," he said. She looked up to see a pair of ivy-covered trees bent together over the path, forming a gate. The forest was almost completely dark, and there was a distant sound like wind in a storm, though the air was calm around them.
She complied - some of these groups were paranoid about being spied on - and Martin drove the cart through the tree-gate. The sound of wind intensified. She noticed that the light now was mostly coming from fireflies, far too many for the season.
There were houses now, built around and sometimes into the trees, ramshackle huts more like. She sighed. It was never pleasant evicting people, but at least she could leave this one to the Forestry Commission. The end of the path looped in front of a particularly impressive specimen, a two-story hut with elements of forest, junkyard and trash heap. A group of men were sitting on twisted wooden chairs, drinking wine from bottles, laughing and chatting.
They were pale-skinned, so probably not Romani. Irish Travellers? There was something off about that, as well. There was something lazy, something beautiful, some trait she couldn't quite describe, about them.
One of them noticed the cart, stood up and waved. "Tom Martin's come back for his little stone pieces!" he shouted, and a group of pale figures seemed to converge on them from the forest. Someone pulled the tarp from the cart, revealing a bewildering variety of junk. A bent-wheeled bicycle, a pile of cracked, chipped fast-food toys, flashy second-hand clothes. A big-eyed child, ruddier than the rest, climbed onto the seat and into Jenny's lap.
Martin pulled a cane from behind the seat and stepped down. He gently batted away the transients, and plucked the junk from their hands to replace it in the cart. Jenny set the child on the ground and stood up to shoo him off.
A particularly tall and strong transient approached. He was dressed in a worn button-up shirt and a pair of gym shorts. On his head was a crown woven of dead leaves. He clasped Martin in an embrace, and kissed him on both cheeks.
"Welcome back, Tom'o'th'Sea!" he thundered. The transients' accent was strange, Welsh almost, with the smallest hint of Dutch. He looked in the back. "A fine hoard, as always. We'll be sure to get you your weight in the stone pieces."
Martin shook his head. "Both our weight," he said. A few of the transients laughed. Martin pulled the bicycle from the cart and turned the pedal with his hand. The crowd oohed.
Another transient had stepped up to Jenny. "What's this? A war bride? Has our Tom been on crusade? I thought they'd swore to only go viking on Germans from here on."
The leader clapped her on the shoulder. "It's 'cause you're a fool, Pond-reed," he said proudly. "Our Tom's from those sea English, the ones that poked the King in the eye and made war on whoever they want, and they just went on crusade, off in old Uruk's land. That's where Tom found his bride."
Jenny shoved his hand off and backed up to the cart. "I'm a UK citizen, thank you," she said. "I'm here on CEB business, to make a report on a potential violation of labor regulations." Pond-reed's jaw dropped. Some of the transients muttered to each other in concerned tones.
She flipped her badge out. "I didn't want to do this," she said to Martin. He shrugged. The transient leader snatched the badge from her hand and brought it close to his face.
"The..." His lips moved wordlessly, then he laughed, choking out words as he doubled over. "The paynim... maid... thinks we're Tom's... slaves!" Pond-reed snickered, then burst into laughter. The crowd of transients joined him.
Jenny reached for the badge, but the leader held it behind him. She decided not to look undignified chasing after it. "You've given me enough evidence to recommend a raid," she said. "I'll take it back then." She folded her arms.
The leader let out another peal of laughter. "I thank you for your gracious gift," he said. "And may I offer-"
"And I'll have you know I'm not a paynim," she said. "My grandfather moved to Cornwall after the war, and I'm as British as any of you." She turned to Martin. "I'll be confiscating the shipment and-" He was smiling, with tears in his eyes. She sighed.
The transient leader had a long stick in his hands. "I've got just the gift for our favorite..." He chuckled. "Cornish. Lass." He tapped her on both shoulders. "Put the treasure in my chamber," he said, "and fill the cart till it buckles."
Jenny took her phone out as they left. It was having trouble picking up GPS. "Thanks," said Martin. "The one in the golden toga just took chieftanship this year, and I've been having trouble with-"
"Ooohh..." Martin nodded. "Anyway, it's a good haul. Confiscate it if you have to. You'll keep it at the local police station for me, won't you? Anyway, you've got my number, call me when you've dealt with the..." He waved at his face. "The way he said it, it's going to stick, even if you can't see the rest."
She sighed, and tapped out the beginning of her report as they left the forest. As soon as she found a signal she texted the local police department to bring something that could tow Martin's trailer.
As she opened her car door she caught her own glance in the mirror. She gasped, dropped her phone. The face staring back at her was pale and creamy, eyes as blue as the sea, hair as yellow as the sun in Cornwall.