Now Reading ‘Dead Men's Tales’
The cold, morning November winds off Scotland’s Eastern coast danced through clouds of smoke and stirred burnt rigging, slowly making the ropes shudder in the wind. Sailcloth lay strewn about the blackened deck of the Fair Winds, collapsed into burnt piles where it had been torn from the masts above. Overhead, the gasbag of the ship remained tight, straining against rigging frayed by grapeshot. Here and there, the dead bodies of crew members lay still and silent, like so many scattered, bloody and broken toys.
From out of the smoke, Captain Anthony Hunter eased over the railing like a dark spectre, pistol drawn and at the ready. Once his tall boots touched down on the abused deck, he reached beneath his worn brown longcoat to tug at the tether that trailed out behind him in the smoky veil, checking to make sure it was still attached to the Griffin’s rail far behind him.
Kneeling down, he brushed his leather-gloved clockwork hand over the worn deck tenderly, with a great respect. The charred wood flaked at his touch, crumbling between the artificial fingers of his left hand. All around, he could hear the ship crying out, with faint cracks and groans in the pre-dawn. They were the sounds of a ship nearly beaten to death.
With the faint rasp of cotton cloth brushing against the cracked wooden railing, Moira Wycliffe, blacksmith and clockwork engineer for the Brass Griffin, dropped down next to the captain. Behind her, Conrad O’Fallon emerged out of the smoke, warily scanning the silent deck.
“Cap’n?” She whispered quietly, kneeling beside him. Her eyes combed through the morning gloom and thick smoke, a single action Colt revolver in hand. Her other hand shifted her shoulder bag behind her, then pulled lightly at the tether attached to her belt, making sure it was still fastened.
Hunter shook his head. “Nothing alive so far,” he replied quietly, “and I’ve my doubts about the ship’s stability. I count fifteen bodies here on deck. Look to be mostly crew. No sign of any longskiffs, yet.”
O’Fallon listened carefully to the groans of distressed wood for a long moment. “Ah’d be takin’ some care Cap’n,” the Scotsman said thoughtfully. “If Ah be any judge, Fair Winds here be good enough for the air, long enough to make it close to Edinburgh cause of them new steel plates on her outsides, but Ah’d not trust her to keep afloat. Her bones might be a bit brittle from the blasts we saw along her sides.”
“Then we won’t stay any longer than we need to,” The captain said, rising slowly and stepping aside to make room while three more of the Brass Griffin’s crew came aboard. “The Fair Winds sent out her distress, at most, one hour ago. The message from the opti said she carried about one hundred and fifty passengers. Out of all that, someone has to be here. Let’s check for survivors.”
O’Fallon glanced around at the thick clouds of gray smoke that clutched at the ruined ship. “She’s got the look of a clipper. Ah’d put the passenger berths mid-ship.”
“Mr. Whitehorse?” Hunter said, looking at Krumer, “take two others with you and check below decks, the rest with me. We’ll search the officer’s cabins. If we’re lucky, someone is left.”
“Aye,” Krumer said with a short nod, unhooking the tether from his belt. He looked over at the two young men who had just joined the others on deck. “Lucas, you and William are with me. Look and listen sharp, lads, if anyone survived, they may be hiding.”
Once the trio had walked off towards the mid-deck, where a ladder sat waiting to allow them access to the dark bowels of the vessel, Captain Hunter removed his own tether, then motioned for Conrad and Moira to do likewise and follow him into the thick smoke obscuring the stern of the ship.
Moira sidestepped around a blackened spur of wood, thrust upwards at an angle through the main deck like a jagged claw. She glanced nervously at the ruined decking, then towards the scorched metal and wood around it. Respectfully, she averted her eyes from a dead crewman who had nearly been cut in half by artillery shot. From her quick glimpse, he looked not much older than herself. His body sat propped up against the burnt spur of wood.
“All this and then gone in an hour,” Moira said in amazement. “Pirates, ya think?”
O’Fallon, pausing to stamp out some rigging that still burned with a bright, but small fire, shook his head, “Pirates? Na likely. Especially not around these shippin’ lanes in the Channel. Pirates na be a problem in quite some time, not since the French be runnin’ ‘em ta ground when they took Algiers some forty to fifty years ago. Course, coulda been pirates outta Ireland.”
“Not all pirates come from the Barbary Coast,” Hunter said darkly, then paused at the open doorway leading down into the officer’s cabins in the stern of the ship. He eyed the wrecked door, nearly battered from its hinges. “Though you have a point about the Irish air pirates. I had heard some were operating out of Galway again.”
Beyond what remained of the door, the short stairs spilled out into a small common room. It was not unlike the one aboard the Griffin, only this one was larger. Hunter squinted through the acrid smoke, trying to see into the semi-darkness. Through the doorway, the gloom was interrupted by the filtered half-light of morning. Chairs were overturned, and the silhouettes of two bodies lay among a small pool of debris on the floor.
When nothing moved, he set his mouth in a hard line, then pushed lightly. The sole hinge that supported the wooden door creaked in aggravated protest, a mournful howl that shivered in the gloom while the door swung wide. The captain stepped carefully inside.
“They put up a stand here,” Hunter commented, stepping over the body of an officer, dead from a bullet wound to the chest, “at least some of the crew did.”
Moira followed the captain inside, but O’Fallon stopped at the twisted door. “Door’s a good stout wood with steel bracin’,” O’Fallon said, running his hands along the mangled frame. “Take a good bit to be hammerin’ it open. Batterin’ ram maybe? Barrel of powder might do it, too.”
“Hard to tell if they made off with anythin’,” Moira said, dropping her pistol into the holster at her waist. She put her hands on her hips, glancing around, getting a feel for her surroundings.
The room was in a shambles. The lone table had been snapped in two, and one of its legs had been used as a makeshift club during what had to have been an ugly fight. Blood coated the jagged end of the wooden table leg, pooling beneath it on the deck. Neither the person who wielded it or the person struck by it were to be seen.
Along the walls the few cabinets, most often used to store charts and other small items for use by the ship’s officers, had been thrown open and hastily searched. Broken bottles of ink, fountain pens and torn maps littered the deck. Next to dark gouges where bullets had torn open holes in the surrounding walls of the room, blood splatters stained the doorways.
Captain Hunter sighed heavily, feeling the weight of the moment settle on his shoulders like a yoke. “We’ll need the ship’s manifest and passenger list to get an idea of who or what she was carrying, and why it was valuable enough to incite … this,” he said, slowly gesturing at the two dead ship’s officers and ruined room. “I’ll search the captain’s cabin for his logbook.”
“Aye, Cap’n,” Moira replied somberly. She watched Hunter cross the room, to disappear through an open doorway into one of the adjoining cabins. Kneeling down, the young woman lifted a wooden chair, setting it upright to begin her search.
O’Fallon, intent on the door, traced out the damage with skillful fingers. “Just don’t be makin’ sense,” he muttered half to himself.
“What don’t?” Moira asked, peering curiously at a winding mechanism obviously torn from a clockwork servitor.
“How they be getting in here,” the Griffin’s quartermaster replied. “Using a barrel of powder would’ve pushed the door an’ the frame out a’ the wall. Some of the wall would be comin’ loose with it, too. There’d also be powder burns runnin’ all over. None of that looks to have happened here, though.”
“Probably one of them bigger servitors, the rest might still be here. Maybe it remembers somethin’,” Moira muttered to herself, stuffing the winding mechanism into her shoulder bag. Remembering her previous question, she glanced over her shoulder at the door O’Fallon was currently interested in.
“Well, so they didn’t use any barrel of powder. It means they beat it open, right?” She asked before sifting through a loose stack of maps near one of the two dead bodies.
O’Fallon grunted a wordless reply, then squinted at the huge dent that comprised the lion’s share of damage to the door. “Ah suppose,” he said finally. “It’d be one mighty big ram, Ah be thinkin’. Who’d be goin’ to all that trouble to carry such a thing when boardin’ a ship, though? This dent be two to three foot across.”
The quartermaster’s question fell away, lost on the wind as Moira discovered an engraved wooden box beneath the scattered maps. Excited, she opened it, only to find it empty. She tossed the box aside with a deflated sigh, then located a pair of leather-bound books.
Picking up the first one, she glanced over at O’Fallon and the door. This time she noticed what had drawn his attention. She frowned, “I see what ya mean. That’s one big dent. Somethin’ like that would be a good-sized log. Maybe they used a broken mast end?”
The quartermaster grunted again in reply. He looked out at some of the ruined wooden beams littering the deck beyond the cabin doorway. “Could be, could be.”
A few feet away, Captain Hunter could hear snatches of the conversation from the other room while he searched the captain’s cabin. It was as decimated as the previous room, but was devoid of any dead crew members. He slid his pistol into its holster, squatted down, and lifted the lid on a modest sea chest of dark wood and iron. Carefully, he rooted around among the scattered belongings inside for anything that looked similar to what he would know as a log book.
“Nothing here,” he commented, shutting the lid to the chest. He glanced around the room, trying to imagine what it had looked like before it had become ransacked.
“Not many personal belongings, so either you were quite frugal, or this was not a vessel you were going to stay long with,” Hunter said aloud. His eyes settled on a small, glass-paned cabinet with its lock intact. Inside stood a pair of glass bottles that both held an amber liquid. He crossed the room.
“Now that is odd,” Hunter said, tugging at the lock. Through the glass he recognized the bottle labels, one being a Glenlivet Scotch, the other a very old Highland Malt Scotch whiskey. Neither would be cheap to acquire. “Who attacks a ship, obviously sacks it, yet overlooks this?”
As Hunter examined the scarred lock, the dawning light streamed in through the small cabin window across the room. For a moment, something unusual about the sea chest nagged at his mind. He left the bottles and returned to the sea chest.
The chest itself looked simple enough, being nothing more than a large box, criss-crossed with dark iron bands. A pair of key locks adorned the top, each with a key protruding from them. The captain had seen a similar construction like this before.
It was an older type of chest, where both keys had to be turned in unison to work the elaborate mechanism inside. If not, the six iron bars and two-inch-thick cogs would not turn, thereby not allowing the lid to be opened. Hunter lifted the heavy top and looked closely at the mechanism.
“The rails look rather long,” he said thoughtfully, “I wonder …”
Anthony closed the lid and turned both keys in unison. The keys stopped with a click, the bars slid into place, and locked the chest. On a lark, he tried twisting the keys farther. At first, nothing happened. Then, slowly, the keys turned. The iron bars slid again and a panel in the right side of the chest popped open. Inside was a thin leather journal, stained dark with droplets of blood.
“Aha, brilliant!” Hunter said with a grim smile. Lifting the book out, he flipped through the pages then nodded. “Good choice of a hiding place Captain … Baker is it? Well, Captain Baker, lets see what you have to say, hm?”
“Cap’n!” Moira’s shout of alarm echoed from the outer room, breaking through his thoughts. Hunter snapped the log book closed and raced for the door, drawing his pistol in a single, smooth motion. He stopped to one side of the open doorway and peered through towards Moira and O’Fallon. Both were huddled in the middle of the room, pouring over a wide journal bound in red leather.
The captain dropped his pistol back into the holster and walked over towards them, “What is it Moira? Is it the manifest?”
“Aye, for the passengers,” she replied. “Most names I don’t recognize. Two I do, though. You know ‘em too!” Quickly, she turned the book around and stabbed a finger at a pair of names, her eyes wide with alarm.
Hunter took the book from Moira and scanned the page. His eyes raced down to the two names Moira’s finger indicated. He felt his heart jump.
“Maria Von Patterson, Doctor,” Hunter recited slowly, “with daughter Angela Von Patterson. Cargo: Personal baggage, a small crate of alchemy scrolls, and other ancient antiquities bound for Royal Museum of London.”
Hunter sighed heavily and rubbed his eyes. “Angels and ministers of Grace, defend us … I think we’ve found an answer to why someone might have attacked the Fair Winds.”