When they disappear without a trace, the Navy turns in desperation to Bow Street for help. It’s time to send in a man as dangerous as the prey. It’s time to send in Hawkwood.
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A Regency Crime Thriller
By James McGee
Pegasus Books LLCCopyright © 2013 James McGee
All rights reserved.
Outlined against the gunmetal sky, the ship's blackened hull towered above the men in the longboat like some enormous Hebridean cliff face.
The men were silent, wrapped in their thoughts and awed by the grim sight confronting them. Only occasionally was the silence broken, by the dull clink of manacles, the splash and creak of oars and the wash of the waves against the side of the boat as it was pulled through the cold grey water.
Someone was sobbing. At the sound, several men crossed themselves. Others bowed their heads and, in whispers, began to pray.
There were fifteen men in the boat, excluding the oarsmen and the two marine guards. With few exceptions their clothes were ragged, their faces pale, unshaven and etched with fear; fear caused not only by the ship's forbidding appearance, but also by the smell coming off her.
It had been with them even before they had embarked, carried across the river by the light easterly breeze. At first, the men had paid little mind, assuming the odour was rising from their own unwashed bodies, but then understanding had dawned. As the longboat had pushed away from the harbour wall they had become transfixed by the grim nature of the fate that was about to befall them. As if to emphasize their passengers' rising sense of horror, the marine guards traded knowing looks and raised their neck scarves over their lower faces.
The longboat approached the rear of the ship. High above, embedded beneath the stern windows, a nameplate that once had been embossed in gold but which was now tarnished beyond repair proclaimed the vessel to be the Rapacious.
Close to, the ship looked even more intimidating. The dark-hulled vessel had all the appearance of a massive smoke-stained sarcophagus rather than a former ship of the line. There was no mizzen mast and the main mast and the foremast had been cut down to a third of their original size. Only the lower yards remained. Between them, festooned from a web of washing lines running fore and aft, was an array of what, from a distance, might have been taken for signal flags but which, on closer inspection, turned out to be a selection of tattered stockings, shirts and breeches. Age, wear and constant washing had turned every visible scrap of clothing a universal shade of grey, with the majority of the garments exhibiting more holes than material.
These were not the only refurbishments that had been inflicted upon the once proud ship. Her bowsprit had been removed, and where the poop deck had been, there now stood a clinker-built, soot-engrained shack, complete with sloping roof and chimney stack, from which grey smoke was billowing. A similar construction adorned the ship's forecastle. It was obvious from her appearance that a great many years had passed since Rapacious last experienced the roar and thunder of battle in her search for prey. This was further confirmed by the lack of heavy ordnance; her open gun ports revealed that cannon muzzles had been replaced by immovable cast-iron grilles.
The truncation of her masts and the lack of armament had lightened the ship's weight considerably. As a result, she was riding much higher out of the water than was normal for a vessel her size. A walkway formed from metal gratings followed the line of the orlop deck. From it a series of wooden stairs rose towards a small platform, similar to a church pulpit, affixed adjacent to the boarding gap in the ship's handrail.
Huge chains at bow and stern secured Rapacious to the riverbed. Beyond the ship, four more vessels in a similar state of disrepair sat moored in mid-stream, line astern and a cable's length apart, their blunted bows facing downriver.
All around, a bewildering variety of other vessels lay at anchor, from brigs to cutters and from frigates to flush-decked sloops, their yellow and black hulls gleaming, masts rising tall and straight, while pennants, not grubby pantaloons, fluttered gaily from their yardarms. They were Britain's pride and they were ready for war.
By comparison, isolated from the rest of the fleet, Rapacious and her four sister ships looked as if they had been discarded and left to rot; victims of a terrible and terminal disease.
Seated in the waist of the longboat, one man ignored the lamentations of his companions and gazed at the ship with what could have been interpreted as interest rather than dread. Two scars were visible on the left side of his face. The first followed the curve of his cheekbone, an inch below his left eye. The second scar, less livid, ran an inch below the first. His long hair was dark save for a few streaks of grey above the temple. His jacket and breeches were severely worn and faded, though in a better state of repair than the clothes of many of the men huddled around him, some of whom were clad in little more than rags. And while the bulk of his companions were either barefooted or else wearing poorly fitting shoes, his feet were shod in what appeared to be a pair of stout but well-scuffed military boots.
"A sou for your thoughts, my friend."
The words were spoken in French. They came from an aristocratic-looking individual dressed in a dark grey jacket and grubby white breeches, seated on the dark-haired man's right.
Matthew Hawkwood remained silent but continued staring over the water towards the black-hulled ship.
"Heard she fought at Copenhagen," the speaker continued in a quiet voice. "She was a seventy-four. They took the idea from us. Extended their seventies. They use them as standard now. Can't blame the bastards. Good sailing, strong gun-power, what is there not to like?"
The speaker, whose name was Lasseur, grinned suddenly, the expression in marked contrast to the unsmiling faces about him. The neat goatee beard he wore, when added to the grin, lent his features a raffish slant.
The grin disappeared in an instant as a series of plaintive cries sounded from beyond the longboat's prow.
Ahead, another longboat was tied up against the boarding raft in the shadow of the ship's grime-encrusted hull. A cluster of men had already disembarked. Huddled on the walkway under the watchful eyes of armed guards, they were preparing to ascend the stairs. Several of the men had difficulty walking. Two were crawling along the grating on their hands and knees. Their progress was painfully slow. Seeing their plight, their companions lifted them to their feet and with arms about their shoulders shepherded them along.
There were still men left on the first boat. From their posture, it was clear that none of them had the strength to make the transfer on their own. Their cries of distress floated over the water. The two marine guards on the boat were looking up towards the ship's rail as if waiting for orders, breaking off to jab the barrels and butts of their muskets against the supine bodies around them.
Lasseur bared his teeth in a snarl.
His reaction was echoed by dark mutterings from the men seated about him.
"Silence there!" The order came from one of the marines, who stared at his charges accusingly and brandished his musket, bayonet affixed. "Or so help me, I'll run you through!" Adding, with ill-disguised contempt, "Frog bastards!"
A face had appeared at the ship's rail. An arm waved and an inaudible command was given. One of the marines in the boat below responded with a half-hearted salute before turning to his companion and shaking his head. At this the rowers raised their oars and they and the two guards climbed out on to the boarding raft. Turning, one of the rowers used his oar to push the boat away, while one of his fellow boatmen unfastened and began to pay out the line connecting the longboat to the ship. Caught by the current, the longboat moved slowly away from the ship's hull. When the boat was some thirty or so yards out, the line was retied, leaving the boat's pitiful passengers to drift at the mercy of the tide.
Angry shouts came from the line of men on the grating. Their protestations were met with a severe clubbing from the guards. Retreating, the quietened men began their slow and laboured ascent of the stairway.
Hawkwood watched grim-faced as the men made their way up the side of the ship. Lasseur followed his gaze and murmured softly, "We'd have been better off with the damned Spanish."
"Bastards," a voice interjected bitterly from behind them. "I've seen this before."
Hawkwood and Lasseur turned. The speaker was a thin man, with sunken cheeks and watery eyes. Grey stubble covered his jaw.
"I was in Portsmouth last winter, on the Vengeance. They had a delivery of prisoners transferred from Cadiz. About thirty, all told. As thin as rakes they were; ghost white, not an ounce of flesh on their bones and not so much as a set of breeches between them. Only ten of them made it on to the Vengeance on their own. The rest were too ill to leave the longboat. The Vengeance's surgeon refused to take them. Ordered them to be delivered to the hospital ship. Only the commander of the Pegasus refused to have them on board, not unless they were washed first. So the Vengeance's surgeon ordered them thrown into the sea to clean them and left the Pegasus to pick up the bodies. Most of them were dead by the time the Pegasus's boat got to them." The man nodded towards the drifting longboat. "Looks to me, that's what's happening here."
"My God," Lasseur said and fell into a reflective silence as their own longboat, its way now clear, began to manoeuvre towards the ship's side.
Hawkwood regarded the manacles around his ankles. If the men on the drifting boat, who presumably had also been wearing shackles, had been thrown overboard they would have been beyond help, sinking to the bottom of the river like stones.
He took a look at his fellow passengers. No one returned his gaze. They were too preoccupied, staring up at the ship, craning their necks to take in the vast wooden rampart looming above them. The sense of unease that had enveloped the boat was palpable, as if a black storm cloud had descended. Behind their masks, even the guards looked momentarily subdued.
He could still hear weeping. It was coming from the stern. Hawkwood followed the sound. The boy couldn't have been much older than ten or eleven. Tears glistened on his cheeks. He looked up, dried his eyes with the heels of his hands and turned away, his small shoulders shaking. His clothes hung in rags about him. He'd been one of a consignment of prisoners, Hawkwood and Lasseur among them, picked up earlier that day from Maidstone Gaol. A midshipman or powder monkey, Hawkwood supposed, or whatever the French equivalent might be, and without doubt the youngest of the longboat's passengers. It seemed unlikely that the boy had been taken alone, but there didn't appear to be anyone with him, no shipmates to give him comfort. Hawkwood wondered where the boy had been captured and in what circumstances he might have been separated from the rest of his crew.
The order came to boat oars. A dozen heartbeats later, the longboat was secured to the raft and the transfer began.
The odour from the open gun ports was almost overwhelming. The river was bounded by marshland. On warm days with the wind sifting across the levels, the smell was beyond ftid, but the malodorous stench issuing from the interior of Rapacious eclipsed even the smell from the shore. It was worse than a convoy of night-soil barges.
Hawkwood shouldered his knapsack. He was one of the few carrying possessions. Most had only the clothes they stood up in.
The marines set about prodding the prisoners with their musket butts. "Goddamn it, move your arses! I won't tell you again! No wonder you're losing the bleedin' war! Useless buggers!"
Legs clanking, the men started to climb from the longboat on to the raft.
"Shift yourselves!" The guards continued to use their weapons to herd the men along the walkway. Movement was difficult due to the shackles, but the guards made no allowance for the restraints. "Lively now! Christ, you buggers stink!"
The insults rained down thick and fast, and while it was doubtful many of the men shuffling along the grating could understand the harsh words, the tone of voice and the poking and prodding made it clear what was required of them.
Slowly, in single file, the men clinked their way up the ship's side.
"Keep moving, damn your eyes!"
Hawkwood stepped from the stairs on to the pulpit, Lasseur at his shoulder. A jam had formed in the enclosed space. Both men stared down into the belly of the ship. Lasseur recoiled. Then the Frenchman leaned forward so that his mouth was close to Hawkwood's ear. His face was set in a grimace.
"Welcome to Hell," he saidCHAPTER 2
I should have bloody known, Hawkwood thought.
Ezra Twigg's face should have given the game away. Hawkwood wondered why he hadn't picked up the signals. The little clerk's head had been cast down when Hawkwood entered the ante-room in reply to the Chief Magistrate's summons. Normally Twigg would have looked up from his scribbling and passed some pithy comment about the marks on the floor left by Hawkwood's boot heels, but this time Twigg had barely acknowledged the Runner's arrival. All he'd done was look up quickly, murmur, "They're waiting for you," and return to his paperwork. The omens hadn't been good. Hawkwood chided himself for not being more observant. Though he had absorbed the warning that the Chief Magistrate had company.
As Hawkwood entered the office, James Read stepped away from the tall window. It was mid-morning and sunlight pierced the room. Hawkwood wondered why the Chief Magistrate, a man who made no secret of his dislike for cold weather, looked so pensive. Given his usual disconsolate manner when confronted with inclement skies, he should, by rights, have been dancing across the carpet.
The second man looked around. He was heavy-set, with short, sandy hair, a broad face and a web of red veins radiating across his cheeks. He was dressed in the uniform of a naval officer and clearly suffered from the habitual stoop, characteristic of so many seamen, which, Hawkwood had come to realize, was more a testimony to the lack of headroom in a man-of-war than any lingering defect of birth.
The officer looked Hawkwood up and down, taking in the scarred face, the unfashionably long hair tied at the nape of the neck and the dark, well-cut attire. The Chief Magistrate walked to his desk. His movements, as ever, were measured and precise. He sat down. "Officer Hawkwood, this gentleman is Captain Elias Ludd. As his uniform implies, Captain Ludd is from the Admiralty."
Hawkwood and the captain exchanged cautious nods.
"The Transport Board, to be exact," James Read said.
Hawkwood said nothing. The Transport Board had been created initially to provide ships, troops and supplies during the American War of Independence. But the wars against Bonaparte had seen the Board expand its range of activities far beyond the original borders of the Atlantic. Now, due to Britain's vast military and naval commitments, the Board was responsible for the movement of supply ships to the four corners of the globe.
"The Admiralty requires our assistance." Read nodded towards his visitor. "Captain, you have the floor."
"Thank you, sir." Ludd looked down at the carpet and then raised his head. "I've an officer who's gone missing; name of Sark. Lieutenant Andrew Sark."
There was a short silence.
Hawkwood looked towards the Chief Magistrate for guidance, then back to the officer. "And what, you want us to find him? Isn't that the navy's job?"
Ludd looked taken aback by Hawkwood's less than sympathetic response. James Read said, "There are other factors to consider. As you know, the Transport Board's jurisdiction extends beyond what might be viewed as its traditional bailiwick."
What the hell did that mean? Hawkwood wondered.
"The Board also administers foreign prisoners of war," James Read said. "You recall it took over the duty from the Sick and Hurt Board."
Hawkwood wondered if the Chief Magistrate was expecting a vocal acknowledgement. He decided it was probably best to remain silent. Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought an idiot than to speak and remove all doubt. He decided a noncommittal nod would probably suffice.
"My apologies, Captain," Read said. "Please continue."
Ludd cleared his throat. "Over the past several weeks, there's been a sudden increase in the number of prisoners who've escaped from detention. We sent Lieutenant Sark to investigate whether these were random events or part of some orchestrated effort."
"And he's failed to report back?" Hawkwood said.
Excerpted from Rapscallion by James McGee. Copyright © 2013 James McGee. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
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