If you’ve been here since the start, congratulations and thank you. If not, explanations of it all are back in December 2023’s posting. Now read on for…
These were the men who were sharing our ship. We’d found them in the London Tavern on Waterloo Quay, drinking with Windy Geech and Tam Donald. I was surprised to see Tam with them. His daughter had been one of their early victims. Perhaps time does let you forget. But Big John was in a hurry. He told them that he had two ‘spare’ bales of Mr Anderson’s silk in his hold and that whoever helped him to bring them ashore would share the money they fetched. The six of them stumbled to the ship and down into the hold. Once they were below, Big John simply fastened the hatch over them and there they stayed until we were well out of Aberdeen the following day.
And now two of them were dead. Big John’s remark about ‘unsettled business’ made sense.
He finished filling his pipe, lit it, and the blue smoke hung in the air of the cabin.
“Death follows them wherever they go,” he said.
“Aye, and we’ve brought it on board.”
“Better to have it out here than stalking the good folk of Aberdeen. We’ve no family at home to worry about, and I’m glad of that every time I sail.”
I said nothing. Neither Big John nor any of the others knew that Emma Fielding, the woman I was to marry, was already living in my house in York Place. It was an arrangement that would scandalise the ‘good folk’ Big John was speaking about, so we kept it our secret, shared only by Lizzie, our maid. And, as for Big John’s own marital status, everyone knew his appetites. Each time he sailed, he left not one but a dozen women behind him.
“Does that not chill you,” I asked, “that we have a monster on board?”
He thought for a moment.
“Aye, but it’s an ill wind . . .”
He sucked long and hard at his pipe, coughed, and then continued.
“I’m thinking there’ll be a fuss when we get alongside, but that Mr Anderson will maybe not be too upset by it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“By the look of it,” said Big John, setting his pipe in a bowl on the chart table, “we’re going to be another week or more at sea.”
I nodded. The wind was still steadily against us.
“He’s paying the six rogues we found in that tavern a shilling a day. With two of them dead, he’s already saved himself a guinea or so.”
“Have you not thought, then, how much more he could save if the victims were yourself or me?” I said.
He looked at me, his eyes dark, unsmiling.
“Look,” I said, “I know our master is a powerful man, but he’s in Aberdeen. Not even he can kill men on a vessel some five hundred miles distant.”
“But someone could do it for him.”
He raised his shoulders and spread his hands.
“Mr Anderson has enemies, too,” I said. “Perhaps they have a hand in it. Perhaps these deaths are not meant to help, but to embarrass and inconvenience him.”
Big John nodded.
“In that case, we’re all in danger. We’re going to have to stop him doing it again. I’ll make sure the crew always work in pairs.”
“Which means that someone will be with the killer,” I said.
Big John gave one of his great laughs.
“Grand. So when the next body’s found, we’ll put the man he worked with in irons and sail home happy.”
I was surprised at how quickly he could find amusement in it all.
“And who will you and I be paired with?” I asked.
His response was immediate.
I was glad of his choice and saw the sense in it. Our responsibilities for the trip overlapped in many areas and we were both answerable directly to Mr Anderson.
“It’s the way our master would want it,” he added.
He put on his jacket and we went back on deck. We left just the helmsman and the lookout at their posts and Big John called everyone else together in the forward hold where they’d slung their hammocks. Their small sea-bags were jammed into corners and gaps in the timber and they crowded together in the low, narrow gloom. There were two mates and twenty-two men and boys there, including three of the four remaining of the six Big John and I had found in the London Tavern. Cammie Drewburgh was on lookout duty. As I listened to Big John, I thanked God that my trade was building ships rather than sailing them. The constant noise and movement, the filthy, cramped conditions on board, the stinking, insistent presence of others, all gnawed at me, and only the need to work together to survive kept the frustrations and angers beneath the surface. And now, this extra, nameless fear brought new tensions to our exchanges. For myself, I wanted only to be done with it all, and back with Emma.
“The slayer seems to prefer your friends,” Big John was saying to Noah McPhee. “So maybe the four of you should work together.”
“We shouldna be here,” said Noah. “Shouldna be working for Anderson.”
“Well, you are, so look out for yourselves.”
“I’m no wantin to be paired up with anyone,” said Tam Donald.
“I’m no asking you to do it, I’m telling you that’s how it’ll be,” said Big John.
Tam stared at him but kept his lips shut tight.
“Should we double up on helm and lookout too?” asked Daniel McStay, the boatswain.
“Not the helm. I can see him from the charthouse. Anyway, nobody would be foolish enough to leave the ship drifting. But we’ll keep two up forward.”
He looked round at the men. Their bodies swayed with the ship’s pitching and rolling and there was a strange silence in the hold, a stillness at the heart of the rushing wind and sea. All their eyes were on him.
“Right, Daniel,” he said. “Get the new watches made up and organise the pairings.”
He motioned for me to follow him as he climbed up to the deck.
“Do you trust me?” he asked as we turned to keep the wind at our backs.
“Good. I like your company well enough, but the thought of spending every minute with you pains me. I’m going to settle the course then have a silent pipe in my cabin.”
“Then I shall go back down and see what the crew are saying.”
He swayed his way back along the deck, moving easily to counter the ship’s movement. His strength with the men and with the unusual situation in which we found ourselves was admirable. I can only think that he had seen more things at sea than I could imagine and that the killings were almost a diversion in the daily task of thrashing across the wind towards Scotland.