Wicked Trade

Wicked Trade

by Jan Needle

Young William Bentley, survivor of the bloody Welfare mutiny, reluctantly resumes his naval career as an officer on the press tender Biter. When the Biter is reassigned to combat the wicked trade of smuggling, Bentley is caught up in the investigation of the murder of two customs officers.


Young William Bentley, survivor of the bloody Welfare mutiny, reluctantly resumes his naval career as an officer on the press tender Biter. When the Biter is reassigned to combat the wicked trade of smuggling, Bentley is caught up in the investigation of the murder of two customs officers.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The characters are drawn into a distiny of fear, love, hatred, and horrifying tragedy."  —Yorkshire Gazette & Herald
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The title refers to smuggling operations on England's coast during the 18th century, when customs men and smugglers battled over piles of booty. Now young midshipman William Bentley of the Royal Navy is up to his cutlass in plots, treachery and murder in the second volume (following last year's A Fine Boy for Killing) of Needle's series about the adventures of this intrepid naval officer. After several years ashore, hunger forces Bentley to return to the service, although he hates the navy and the sea life. He is not surprised, therefore, to be posted to an impress ship, a drab scow charged with forcibly recruiting sailors, to fill the king's warships with seamen in the current war with France. Bentley and his fellow midshipman friend, Sam Holt, are soon drawn into a complicated conspiracy after two customs men are brutally murdered by a well-organized smuggling gang. Greed, corruption and betrayal reach high levels in the navy and the government, and the two midshipmen soon are way over their heads in a cesspool of savagery and duplicity. This is an entertaining but gruesome swashbuckler, albeit without the glory of a Hornblower or the class of a Ramage. Needle grimly and accurately portrays naval existence and the life of the poor as dirty, cruel and ruthless scenes of young whores having their teeth pulled out to make impromptu dentures for the wealthy are particularly graphic, as is the brutish treatment of women overall. Expectedly, Needle's conclusion is vague and unfulfilling, leaving scores of loose ends to be tidied up in the next book in the series. (Apr.) FYI: Needle has written four novels under the name Frank Kippax. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

McBooks Press
Publication date:
Sea Officer William Bentley Series
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The two men, Yorke and Warren, were talking in comfort the evening they were taken, when they'd thought at last that they could see an end in sight. Their mission had been long and arduous, their need for secrecy a constant strain. But earlier that day, on the shores of Fareham Creek, they had met a man and made an offer, and backed it with a string of names. They were venturers, they said, and they wished to join the trade. They had information that they'd gathered in dire secrecy, and they used it as a lure. Now, feet into the fireplace, Mrs Cullen preparing them a meal, they were contented.

    "He said his name was Saunders," said Charles Warren, musingly. "But it is not, it is George Felton, his home is in Cowplain. But Saunders is a name I know from Kent, one of the eastern crews. I wonder what significance there is in that?"

    Charles Yorke was comfortably amused. He selected a new clay from the table rack, and began to pack it, for after dinner. Mrs Cullen had provided them with fresh tobacco, in a box, and boasted, with fetching naivety, that it was "from the trade." Whatever, it was good tobacco, lately cured.

    "None at all, I doubt," he said. "A name he plucked from out the air. Although Saunders may well have been high up in his mind, if we are right about the Kentish men. Perhaps it was a test, to try us for reaction. I suppose if you had let on that you recognised it, that could have set suspicion in his head."

    Charles Warren was fifty-six years old. He was a stocky, quiet, sombre man, with eyes of fierceintelligence.

    "No, I think the time for tests is past," he said. "I think tomorrow or the next day we will get to see the men we need. Let's hope they don't demand the stake in sovereigns, there on the table. If they make me turn my pockets out, the very fluff would cry out my true profession!"

    He was a riding officer in the normal way—and if success was paid in bounties, was deserving to be rich. But his wage was tiny of itself, hardly enough to keep him in the class of horse he favoured—good horses were his only weakness, it was said. His origins were humble, also, which was why Charles Yorke, at barely twenty-five, was in command of him. There were ways to get wealth while doing Customs work, but Warren shunned them vehemently. Officers who accepted gifts instead of blows could wear good cloth and ride fine horses; also stay alive. Charles Warren, it was known, would court death, rather.

    Yorke, hungry but impatient, leaned into the fireplace and took out a glowing stick. It was a warm evening, almost summer still, but the smouldering logwood enhanced the parlour and gave off a pleasant smell. He felt the brand's heat on his cheek as he sucked the clay. Truth was, he'd smoke while eating, if he fancied it; he was fanatick for the weed.

    "We're businessmen," he said, around the pipestem. "To make free with our money in a trade like this, unless we had an army at our back—now that would be suspicious, with brass knobs! No, we'll deal in talk and promises until we've met them, to the very top. Then the gold will hit them, like a ton of bricks. Ah Charles, we're getting close to it, I really feel we are. Today I had a premonition, a solid premonition. I think that we are coming very close."

    The men were friends, despite the social gap and protocols of service and command. For two months or more, on this occasion, they had quartered this stretch of coast not as riding officers but in the utmost secrecy, from east of Selsey to beyond Keyhaven in the west. Before that they had wormed deep into the eastern mysteries, from whence the threat was being made. Warren, too, had felt excitement mounting in the past few days. His circumspection, though, was stronger than Charles Yorke's.

    "Aye, aye," he said. "At the very least I think we're closing in. This inn is good and secret, Mrs Cullen's lack of curiosity is capital indeed. However—" he cleared his throat, as if to give a shout—"However, she could be a little prompter with her suppers!"

    Outside the low, dark room there were noises. Horses stamping in the yard, and voices. There was a sudden spattering at the thick window glass. Rain had been in the air all day, despite the warmth. It had arrived.

    "They've timed it well for shelter," Warren said. "In Hampshire, tell me, does it always rain?"

    "I am a Surrey man," Yorke chuckled. "Let it come down!"

    Then the door crashed open, and four men burst in, preceded by a wave of brandy, a veritable sea of stench. Outside there were more voices, male and loud, and a brief woman's scream as Mrs Cullen rushed from her kitchen to see what might be going on. Yorke caught a glimpse of her, white kerchief at her ample bosom, white features flushed and anxious, as she was pushed behind a door unceremoniously. A large and ruddy man had pushed her, a man with whiskers and a pigtail like a seaman, although his coat was tailed and upon his head a shallow, curl-brim hat. He held a pistol in his hand, a long and wicked thing, with a semi-bell.

    "My God," said Warren. "We are discovered, Mr Yorke. We are betrayed." His voice was low, filled with anxiety. But then he rapped out, in a hard and fearless tone: "Quit off from here instanter, you drunken sots! We are armed!"

    The men were also armed. More pistols had appeared. A knife. Two more pushed in, one with a cutlass. Warren and Yorke—who had not produced their weapons—stood watchfully, and waited. The smell of brandy was underlaid by damp clothing, sweat, of man and horse. No fear, though. The ruffians did not smell of fear.

    "You are Customs men," said one. He was small and bright-eyed. "You have come to spy on us. We have found you out."

    From outside, strangely, there came a high-pitched, shaking scream. Then muffled shouting, and the screaming stopped. One of the interlopers lifted his arm, and in his hand a bottle. He raised it to his mouth and drank.

    Yorke spoke. His voice was brazen. It rang in the low room like a bell.

    "We have come to meet your masters, fool," he said. "We are the reverse of Customs, we are venturers from London, come to help your trade."

    Desperate times need desperate remedies, thought Warren, at his side. Saying the unsayable to unknown men with guns.

    They were not impressed, apparently. The body of them surged forward, and their looks were bestial. It was clear that they had been drinking for a good time, and with purpose. Now there were seven in the room, and the door was bursting with the weight outside. Yorke reached for the inner pocket of his coat, wherein he kept a pistol, always primed. It was a Cyrus Rollins, made for him especially, bespoken by his uncle and protector, with a special cover on the priming pan, a neat device that made—said Cyrus Rollins—misfires history.

    But Warren saw the movement, and spoke so only Yorke would hear, with calm authority.

    "No. They will kill you if you touch it, they are beyond control. Leave it, Mr Yorke."

    Into Yorke's head came the thought that, drunk, mad or sober, the open barrel with its promise of a monstrous ball of lead might act as a bucket of cold water in their faces. If it came to shooting matches they would win, that was not in dispute. But one of them would die first. Who would be the one to risk it?

    "Charles," he said, but hesitated, and they were lost. There was a surge, apparently involuntary, a group movement that occurred without an order being given. Two tables squawked as their legs scraped across the flags behind the weight of men, and a heavy settle went over backwards with a bang.

    It was Warren who got his weapon out the quickest, his sword was cleared before the deadly little Rollins was even firmly in Yorke's grasp. Quickest, but too late. A fellow to the left of him made a movement, low and sweeping, with what Warren, before it hit him, thought was a flail. By luck or horrible facility it took the hanger blade almost at the guard and broke it neatly off. As Yorke's blunt pistol emerged into the light his chest took the full weight of two men, both of whom attacked his head with clubs. Drunk or not, a third man caught the Cyrus Rollins as, knocked from its owner's hand, it described a graceful arc over the mêlée. Its patent pan-guard had not been displaced.

    Overwhelmed and clearly helpless, both men avoided fighting back beyond saving their faces from too-deadly hits. They were to be taken, they assumed; this party was not likely to be the instigators, there must be men behind them, the men, maybe, they'd sought. Yorke's eyes, one bruised and closing, found his older consort's, frankly to be reassured. To kill them would be purposeless, surely?

    But the men were wild with rage and drink. They tore Charles Warren and Charles Yorke from out the snugroom with the utmost savagery, smacking, kicking, hitting them with knobby clubs. By the time they had them in the yard, both were bloodied, the younger dazed almost to the point of disability. Warren, still compos mentis, tried to get a fix on faces, for the future satisfaction that would come from hanging them, but they came and went, and thronged and throbbed, and hallooed deafeningly as they rained down blows. It was raining, too, black and steadily, hissing from the leaves all round the yard in the windless silence of the summer night, gushing from the gutters, falling in a curtain from the thatch. He picked out the large, loud villain in the curly hat and pigtail, he noticed several times the small man with the shining, vicious eyes, he saw a ginger fellow, a country stumbler who stayed back a ways, face set and maybe showing fright. But mostly it was jumble, men in coats, some wigged, some in heavy cloaks, some in short seamen's breeches, slops. All, or almost all, consumed by anger.

    There were lights still in the inn, dim through the country glass, but no further sounds, no screams from Mrs Cullen or the hare-lipped girl who helped her. There had been men around to drink the nights before and in the mornings, but Yorke and Warren had no hopes by this; they would either stay well clear if they heard or saw this mob or—more like—had set it on or were a part of it. No aid from travellers, either; the inn was on a road more fairly called a track, which led from nowhere great to somewhere less important, as Yorke had coined the jest some days before when they had chosen it as perfection for their purposes. Not so perfect for survival, though, as they stood and stumbled in the rain, their feet and wrists jerked free of clothing to receive their bonds. They were to have one horse between them, it would seem, a big horse, extremely strong, that Warren caught himself admiring, in spite of all, and drunk or not, the bumpkins did their knots like angels. Not angels, seamen. Not bumpkins, men of free trade. But men, it looked, of awful wickedness.

    Yorke, struck in the face by a flail armed certainly with lead and truly deadly, was unconscious when they put him up. His eyes were open, now and then, but they did not see, and one bone of his cheek appeared collapsed, to fill out slowly as a great black livid swelling bloomed and blossomed. The horse stood stolid in the rain while they jerked and slid him into place, snorting only gently as a rope was fastened underneath its belly and hauled taut, a rope that held Yorke's ankles fast together. His chest, raked by spasmodic coughs, was laid along the horse's neck, his joined wrists bent underneath his belly. Warren was allowed an upended cask to step up from, and swung his leg across with some sort of dignity. He sat motionless as his ankles were lashed underneath, and tried to pull Yorke's torso upright to save him from falling sideways when they should set off.

    As the assailants mounted, Warren did a head count, not complete. Ten at least, probably more, but as they bucked and wheeled around the blackness of the yard accuracy became guesswork, more or less. There seemed to be nobody in command, and no idea of any form of discipline, or sense. Warren assumed they were being taken off to talk to someone, otherwise why not just have killed them where they sat? But as they moved out from the inn, his confidence grew less. Some of the men had whips, one a flail, three had cudgels. Defenceless, gripping the fabric of Charles Yorke's coat to try and steady him, Charles Warren played the stoic as the blows and cuts came on to him, and he wondered at their frenzy and their hate. A whiplash split his cheek, a rough stick grazed his temple, then dislodged his wig, then raised his scalp. The head in front of him, lying on the horse's neck, received repeated blows, and one bold hero prodded at it with his swordpoint until Yorke's blood ran thickly on to the horse's hair.

    In the Hampshire rain, in the noisy, drunken silence of the peaceful, violent night, Charles Warren began to doubt that they would ever see the light of day again.

Meet the Author

Jan Needle, a native of Portsmouth, England, has had a lifelong interest in naval history. He is the author of four acclaimed novels under the pseudonym Frank Kippax, and also has a highly successful career as a TV scriptwriter and, under his own name, as a writer of award-winning children's fiction.

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