If anyone’s stayed the course, I hope you’ve enjoyed the story. You might even like my books, but for now, here’s the end of Death Ship,…
We both scanned the deck ahead of us. Tam was right. No sign of Noah. We saw only the silhouettes of the bell, the rails and a single vent. The wind and movement had uncoiled several of the ropes from their belaying pins and they shifted back and forth on the deck. It was only when we came right up beside them that we saw that the bundle was made up of more than ropes.
Noah lay among them, his left leg tangled with them, his arms flung out and his neck a long cut from ear to ear, so deep that his head lay back at a preposterous angle. His blood had poured everywhere but there was still some left in him and it oozed out onto the deck and slid beneath his shoulders. I grabbed him and pulled him clear of the ropes, pushing his head forward to try to close the gaping flesh at his throat. The chill of the wind seemed to bite more deeply into me. I stood up and looked ahead at the grey tumbling seas. I grabbed Tam’s shoulder and pointed back at the rest of the crew. Together we made our way towards them and, from the top of the foredeck steps, I shouted to Big John.
It took a while to get his attention but, at last, he came forward and stood looking at the body, his head shaking slowly before he raised it to look across the waves running towards us. He turned once to where the crew was beginning to climb the rigging to set more sail on the topgallants and royals. As he watched them, he suddenly shrugged and turned back.
“Grab his shoulders,” he said to Tam and me.
We moved to Noah’s head while Big John bent to take his feet.
“Right,” he said, when we’d lifted him clear of the deck. “This one’s going straight over the side. I’ve wasted enough time with villains this trip.”
Tam and I looked at one another, but Big John was already pulling Noah towards the starboard rail. We had no choice but to follow and, as soon as we were near enough, Big John heaved the legs over and, as Noah’s chest lifted, we stumbled forward and let go of his shoulders. We had no time to see the splash and heard nothing over the shrill wind.
“You say nothing of this,” said Big John. “I’ll tell them in good time. But now, I want to get on as much sail as she’ll carry to get us out of here and back on shore. Understand?”
We both nodded.
“Right. Are you willing to stay together as lookouts? Just the two of you?”
Tam and I looked at each other and said nothing.
“It’s either that or one of you stays here and takes his chance with whoever comes along.”
“Aye,” said Tam. “We’ll stay.”
I nodded my agreement.
“I’ll send a boy up with a bucket and scrubber,” said Big John. He pointed at the dark stains on the deck. “You can start getting rid of this.”
We said nothing when he left us and, for a while, we took turns in looking at the sea ahead and scrubbing the blood from the deck. Then, as we stood with our arms bracing us against the forward rail, I saw Tam’s head nodding. His lips moved but I couldn’t hear what he said.
“What?” I shouted.
He looked at me, as if surprised to see me there.
“I was just saying a wee prayer for my lassie. She can rest now,” he said.
I just nodded.
“Every time I saw them,” he went on, “I couldna get her out of my head. Thirteen year old, she was.”
There was nothing I could say. Tam’s daughter had been raped and strangled. They’d found her in a fish barrel.
“Now they’re away,” he said. “Down with the devil they’ve been serving all these years.”
“It must make you happy,” I said.
He shook his head.
“If I could still hear her singin, that’d make me happy. But at least they’ve paid. That doesna happen all that often.”
“There are many who think like you,” I said. “Many who’ll be grateful they’re gone.”
The words made him turn to look straight into my eyes. He was quiet for a long moment.
“We’ve all got our secrets,” he said at last. “Who’s going to care who killed them? The world’s better off without them.”
I nodded and we fell back into our silence again.
It wasn’t until we were relieved by the next two lookouts that he spoke again.
“Dinna be feared, Joe,” he said. “I don’t think there’ll be any more. Do you?” And he skipped down the steps without waiting for me to answer.
As I said, my experience of being on board ships was confined to testing the planking while they were still on the stocks, so I had no way of measuring just how different the voyage was from the usual. Tam’s confidence was certainly not shared by the rest of the crew. The silences and the strange groupings and the number of lamps that were kept alight through the dark hours all spoke of the fear that still haunted everyone. They worked hard to keep the ship pushing through the water, all desperate to be on land and away from the hands that had killed four of their fellows.
In the afternoon of the day after Cammie and Noah had been killed, the wind backed through a hundred degrees and we were suddenly dancing along under full canvas with a force six coming over the larboard quarter, the figurehead’s outstretched arm pointing directly at Aberdeen. We moved around in groups, watchful, trusting no-one. I spent most of my time with Big John and the boatswain, and we were rarely out of sight of several others. When we eventually saw the low profile of the Scottish coast up ahead, Big John laughed, slapped me on the shoulder and said, “Well, Joe. We kept him quiet after all.”
I couldn’t help smiling with him.
“What of the dead men?” I said. “You’ll have to tell the police.”
“Just consider, though,” he said, his arm still at my shoulder, “Noah McPhee, Cammie Drewburgh, Rab Robertson, Davie Strachan. There winna be much grieving for the likes of that. They may even give me a reward.”
“And what about Mr Anderson?” I said.
“You can do the sums,” he said. “Four men times the number of days since we left Aberdeen. That’s how many shillings he’s saved. I canna see him shedding too many tears.”
He was right, of course. When we made harbour, Mr Anderson came on board and quickly dismissed the “worthless scum”, as he called them, concentrating instead on asking Big John and myself about how the ship handled and how she’d fare on the crossing to Jamaica. He charged me with the task of keeping him informed of how the police investigations progressed and invited us both to take a drink with him. Big John had no woman to go back to and so was glad to accept. I gave my excuses, anxious as I was to be back with Emma and tell her of the strangeness and horrors of the voyage.
As I walked down York Street, the sounds of horses, handcarts and the calls of the people working on the quays were soothing. They reminded me that I was back where I belonged, and safe in my own element again. I opened the door and went through to the bedroom. Emma was lying in her usual place, her eyes fixed on the door. As she saw me enter, the happiest smile came across her face. I smiled back, went across and kissed her. With great difficulty, she pulled her left arm from under the covers and lifted it to touch my cheek. Her right arm lay, still and useless as always, hidden in the sheets.
At first, we said nothing, I because my throat was full of tears, she because one night, in Sinclair’s Close, her voice had been ripped from her.
Then, “They’re gone, my darling,” I said. “All of them.”