Death Ship Episode 4

Anyone arriving by mistake or for any other reasons and who wishes to continue reading will find the explanation for this sequence of posts, not surprisingly, at the start of episode 1. But now we’ve reached…




I have been to Pensioners Court only infrequently and, each time, the degradation of the place has made me shudder. Drunks lie still and silent in their own and others’ urine and vomit. Groups rage and argue over a woman, a half empty bottle of whisky, or nothing. Few of Aberdeen’s forty-seven night watchmen ever venture there. For the most part they are older men and the eleven shillings a week they’re paid is not enough to persuade them to risk the fists, boots and knives which await them there. Every black doorway holds menace. Figures wait in their shadows, still and watching, and many innocents, children and adults alike, have been dragged into these corners to be filled with their own darkness by the knife which slides quickly across their throat. In Pensioners Court, life is brief and cheap.

I was glad of the company of Big John. He’d fought in bars from Newfoundland to the East Indies and China and feared no-one. He also seemed to know who he was looking for.

“Noah McPhee, we’ll start with him,” he said. “Find him and you’ll find all the scum you want.”

It was a name I knew well.

“Is it not dangerous to have such a man on board?” I asked.

Big John laughed. There was no joy in it.

“He’s no man. He’s raped and killed and robbed, but he chooses women and old men, or people too far into their drink to know who they are. He’s a coward. Take him away from his whisky and set him on a slippery deck. That’ll pull his teeth.”

I wanted to share his confidence, but I could not dismiss with such ease the history of McPhee and his gang. With Cammie Drewburgh, Rab Robertson and Davie Strachan, he seemed to have set out to move beyond mere crime into evil itself. Even as youngsters, they’d built themselves reputations as the blackest rogues, running into Mother Watson’s ale-house with live rats and throwing them on the fire, cutting the tendons of horses waiting patiently in the shafts of their carts. Once, they hacked off a dog’s leg and set the animal to run free in the street, trailing its blood amongst terrified mothers and children.

And then, as they grew into men, their attention turned to women, whom they treated just as they had the animals, perpetrating crimes on girls as young as eight, systematically raping them, selling their pale bodies to visitors in Pensioners Court.

They spent many months in the Bridewell Prison in Rose Street and seemed only to use their time there to refine their villainy. Everyone was afraid of them. Their crimes were rarely reported and the police officers themselves preferred to stay away from them.

“They should have been hanged long ago. Or sent to Australia,” said Big John, his voice low, barely audible.

I just nodded.

“What they did to those lassies,” he went on. “Slashing their horse’s neck, dragging them out of the carriage.”

I knew the incident he was speaking of. Everyone in Aberdeen did.

“The old one,” he said. “Stripping her, beating her, taking everything and sending her crying through the streets like that. In just a shift.”

“She was the lucky one,” I said.

“Aye. I’ve thought many times how the young one must have felt, lying on the cobbles, in the dung, with the four of them taking their turns with her.” He shook his head. “A lassie, Joe. What enters into men to make them do it?”

I could only shake my head.

“And then throwing her behind a fish store, like a bundle of rags. It would’ve been better if she’d died.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “She survived. She beat them in the end.”

“Aye, but she canna say so. Canna speak, canna walk, canna even wave her arm. It’s the devil’s work they do.”

It was hard to disagree with him. There had been no punishment. The drunken crowd in Sinclair’s Close had been entertained by it all but no-one was ready to speak to the police about it and the two women felt such shame that they simply retreated behind their doors to fight the memories in silence.

Death Ship. Episode 3.

I’m hoping that, by now, the title conveys all you need to know. I’m posting Death Ship, one of my longer stories, in episodes to try to help me overcome my slackness in posting blog entries. I hope it’s being enjoyed. If you want any, you’ll find slIghtly more information in the introduction to episode one. But here’s…


Big John put the sailmaker to work again and asked me to come back to his cabin with him. As soon as the door closed behind us, he swore and threw his heavy jacket across the chart table.

“What is it, Joe? A curse?”

I just shook my head.

“It’s worse than Baffin Island,” he said.

I knew that Big John had spent many years on whaling ships in the North Atlantic but I had no idea what he meant. My expression must have shown my puzzlement. He sat down and leaned forward.

“Dropped like flies there. We’d get stuck in the ice, victuals got low and you’d have them with their gums peeling back off their teeth from scurvy or their fingers snapping off with the frost. You’d see them going mad, dropping over the side and wandering away over the ice. Sometimes, there’d be hardly enough crew to sail her back when the thaw came. But at least you knew why. It was the ice, the cold. Here, there’s no reason.”

“There has to be. Two in two days. And no question but that they were murdered. And that they suffered. No-one murders by accident. Or just for pleasure.”

“Why those two then? And who’s next?”

I couldn’t answer him. He started filling his pipe.

“Jack Stretton found them both. A coincidence?” he said, half to himself.

“Can you see Jack doing such things?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“They’re all capable of it onshore, when they’ve had a few drams, but Jack would never be the first. And anyway, Davie and Rab, they’re not regular crew. Remember where we got them. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s unsettled business from back there.”


I waited. I knew what he meant. The opportunity of the Christian Rose had taken Mr Anderson by surprise. When his offer had been accepted, he still had not had time to gather a full crew. He always liked to talk to all of the men separately, to test whether they understood his special ways of doing business and make sure that they would ask no questions about what they saw. He’d come to see me in my boatyard on the afternoon before we’d sailed for Norway.

“I’m still wanting some half a dozen men,” he said. “And there’s no time to find them.”

“Then we’ll have to be short-handed. Given a fair wind, it won’t add too many days to the voyage.”

“One day is too many. All I need is six men. For two weeks, perhaps less.”

“But we need people who understand the Anderson style.”

“No,” he said. “They can be from anywhere. They need understand nothing. Their sole instruction is to sail with Captain Michie and do as he tells them. In a matter of days, they’ll be back in Aberdeen with money in their pouches and the freedom to do as they please. In the meantime, I shall look for proper crewmen to take their places when she sets sail for Jamaica.”

“So you don’t care whether they have experience at sea?”

“God, man, anyone can haul on a rope.”

“Then we should perhaps look in Sinclair’s Close or Pensioners Court.”

His look told me that it was an idea that had already occurred to him. The alleyways I’d mentioned were the breeding ground for pickpockets, prostitutes and others who grow like scabs on our society. Every evening, the cobbles are awash with drunken men and women, singing, sleeping, cursing and behaving like beasts. For anyone brave enough to risk the contamination of their proximity, it would be a simple matter to find six or more men drunk enough to be persuaded to take a short sea trip, at the end of which they would receive more money than they could beg or steal in the equivalent time onshore.

“Six men, then,” said Mr Anderson. “I leave it to your best endeavours. I shall talk to Captain Michie. I suggest you accompany him there this evening.”

I inclined my head by way of answer. I would have preferred to spend the evening with my Emma, but I was used to carrying out unplanned commissions on his behalf, many of them completely unconnected with the construction of ships, and, once you were part of his trusted circle, he paid well.

Death Ship, episode 2

If you’ve opened this because you read part one and wanted to know what happened next, thanks for coming back.  If you’re here by accident and are vaguely interested, maybe you could try episode one to discover whether it’s worth persevering.
It’s a longish story which will be made up of seven episodes. This is:


Mr Anderson was our employer. One of the most successful of Aberdeen’s many rich merchants, he’d built a fleet of vessels which carried people to the Americas and brought back timber. To my delight, he was resisting the call of the new steamships, reasoning that they were not always faster than sail and that boilers, engines and coal took up space that could be better used for cargo. He still preferred the traditional ways and his growing fortune seemed to confirm that he was right to do so. The ship we were sailing, the Christian Rose, would soon be expanding his influence even further, taking labourers and mechanics to Jamaica and, if the captain was willing, shepherds and agricultural labourers to New South Wales, at the bottom of the world.

Usually, as his shipwright, it was I who was charged with building any additions to his fleet, but news had come to him that the Norwegian merchant who had commissioned the Christian Rose had been killed in a dockside accident and that the builders were anxious to find a new buyer. With his customary skill, he’d not only negotiated a good price but also found a cargo of pulp and timber to bring back to Scotland. I’d inspected the final fitting out and was now part of the crew which was taking her back to Aberdeen.

We’d sailed across to Norway in another of his ships, not as passengers but as extra hands. It had been a crowded trip but, with a strong south-westerly on our quarter and a double crew to haul canvas, we’d flown across in little more than three days. This return voyage, though, was a different story. It gave us little time to brood on Davie’s death because, with a strong westerly blowing, the sailing was hard. We had to lay well off our preferred course and, when the time came to tack or wear ship, all hands were needed to clew up the sails, brace round the yards and get her on her new heading.


It was the continual bucking and crashing of the ship that explained the condition of the second body. Less than twenty-four hours after Davie had been sewn into his bag, the new discovery fell, once again, to Jack Stretton. He’d gone forward to the point of the bows to relieve Rab Robertson as lookout and was surprised to see no-one there. It was a cold, lonely, uncomfortable watch, but everyone knew how important it was and no-one, not even Rab, would be foolish enough to leave before his relief arrived. Jack had been in position for several minutes, scanning the grey sea with its boiling white crests, when he noticed that one of the forward belaying pins had no rope around it. It should have held the outer jib downhaul and, when he followed the line of the bowsprit out to where the rope was attached to the sail, he saw that it was hanging down into the water, held taut by some sort of load. He raised the alarm, the rest of his watch were called forward and, after some heavy hauling, they brought the load inboard and laid it on the foredeck.

It was the remains of Rab. The end of the rope had been knotted around his throat and the angle of his head showed that his neck had been broken. As the ship had ploughed through the big seas, he had constantly been smashed against the hull down at the waterline. His limbs all lay at unnatural angles and the ship’s bow had flayed and chopped the flesh from various parts of his body.

When Big John and I arrived, the men were standing or squatting around Rab. No-one was speaking. Jack Stretton’s eyes kept flicking from the sea ahead to the bundle of rags and blood beside him. I looked round at them all. These were the men who, on the way over, had been singing and hauling away, laughing and cursing as we rushed across the water. Now, in their faces, there was just fear.