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.