While William Falke walked from the flower vendors of Victoria Street towards the Grassmarket, on the far northern side of Edinburgh, a hansom horse cab pulled up outside of the Leith Docks on Commerce Place next to two others that were already there. Anthony Hunter opened the cab door and stepped down to the old cobblestones that paved the road into the docks proper. Around him, the road was far from empty. Horse-drawn cabs sat nearby in a neat row, the occasional chambermaid or housekeeper walked along with a basket in hand to see if any fishermen had come back with a fresh catch of the day. Dock laborers stood nearby at the entrance to the Leith Docks and chatted idly.
The Leith Docks rolled out away from the carriage, filling the entire view. Cries of seagulls and firehawks echoed overhead, while the loud, harsh clank of the skeletal CASS machines coupled with shouts and orders from foremen completed the wave of sound. Draped like an unseen shawl around the busy dock, the smell of sea salt and rotting seaweed lingered in the air under the ever-present smog.
Composed of three ‘wet docks’ for shipbuilding – named in honor of Queen Victoria – it was the major port for any water or airborne shipping for Edinburgh. Beyond the wet docks, crates were stacked high in orderly rows awaiting their moment to be loaded aboard a ship for transport. They towered as many as four or five crates high, reaching well above the height of most anyone working on the dock, unless perhaps they were caged inside a CASS. Past the crates, the piers stretched out like long fingers into the cold waters of the Firth of Forth, the estuary that flowed into river Forth.
Ships of all kinds were berthed there, from various-sized frigates to schooners, and even ships-of-the-line. Some were there for cargo, others to drop off, and last were the ships in for repairs on their gas bags, steam engines or other components at the well-equipped Leith shipyards.
Captain Hunter paid the cab driver and walked down the main cobblestone path that trailed its way into the middle of the docks. Normally, he would be here to return to the Brass Griffin who, like any ship in Edinburgh, berthed here. This time, he sought a different destination.
Navigating the near-constant organized chaos of sorting cargo, he arrived at a small row of weathered, gray wooden shipwright offices nestled on the water-facing side of the dock itself. Captain Hunter looked at the collection of faded signs until he saw one that read ‘Jones Brothers Shipwrights’. Giving a nearby CASS bearing four heavy crates a wide berth, he stepped over to the door and inside.
The office was a narrow arrangement with desks along the walls and a squat counter running from the left side of the room into the middle. Everywhere, charts and blueprints decorated the walls as fine paintings would in a home. A sturdy oak table, layered with a collection of ship plans, dominated the main room. Everywhere, journeymen worked at copying diagrams when they were not in a hurry out the office door on an errand for one of the master shipwrights. In the middle of this whirlwind stood the object of Hunter’s interest, Hiram Jones.
Hiram looked up from the drawings in front of him and grinned. An absolute bear of a man, Hiram drew himself up to his six foot height and ran a meaty hand through his sparse, curly black hair that had begun to show moderate signs of thinning. A twinkle shone in his water-blue eyes as he thrust out a hand.
“Anthony! Been a long time, lad!” Hiram said in a booming voice. “Did ya finally give up on that old tug o’ yers and come ta take me up on my offer?”
Hunter took the shipwright’s hand in a firm grasp and gave a warm smile of his own. “I daresay no, Hiram. I’d do far less damage aboard the Griffin than I would helping you to put any new ones to air or sea. I’ve come about something else entirely. Parts, mainly.”
The shipwright made a ‘harumph’ sound and put his hands on his hips. “Well, when one day ya up and realize that ya got a better callin’ waitin’ ya on land, the Shipwright’s Guild is waitin’. So, what else are ya on about t’day?” Hiram paused a moment, then narrowed his eyes at Hunter. “What have ya done to the Griffin? Ya better be takin’ good care of her.”
Hunter raised his hands in mock surrender. “Nothing of the sort, she’s as sound as the day you built her. I know the number of parts you traffic through here, I thought you might know of or could route me on my way towards some information.”
“Well, that’s not a question I get every day, but anything ta get your curiosity up should be worth hearin’. How can I help ya?” Hiram asked, eyes alight with interest.
“I’m looking after some parts,” Hunter asked carefully, “but only by way of a certain parts-monger. A young lady by the name of Allison. Allison Newt to be precise. Ever hear word of her?”
The big shipwright looked thoughtful, but for a moment Hunter swore he sensed a momentary, and subtle, change in his old friend’s demeanor. Hiram eventually shook his head. “Allison, Allison. No, can’t right say as I do. Not all that unusual, mind ya. There’s a horde of ’em that find their way here every week. Sometimes they’re carryin’ quality parts, other times I’ll see my own dented cast-offs returnin’ to me like a bad coin. Why ya askin’? She owe you some parts? I doubt you’d be owing her money, seein’ as I’d never known you ta be caught in a debt.”
Hunter chuckled, “No debts of any kind. I’ve been seeking her out due to a mutual acquaintance it turns out we share.” Again, Hunter noticed Hiram’s back stiffen almost imperceptibly. Anthony hesitated a moment. “Hiram, are you well? You’re looking a spot peaked?”
The shipwright shook his head and smiled. A touch forced, his smile did not reach his eyes, though it seemed a hint of nerves had. “No, lad. Just been workin’ too much. Ya know how I can get, stayin’ with it day and night till a ship’s got her sea legs and wings about her. You were sayin’ about this mutual friend ya have?”
“Right,” Hunter began again with a suddenly wary eye towards his friend. “Friend of a friend, you might say. She sent me Allison’s way for some quality gunnery gears and calibration joints. I met with her the other evening, and she didn’t have the parts on her. However, she mentioned that she’d have them on her next trip down by the Leith Docks.” Hunter lied. “I knew you’d be down here, so I thought I’d stop in to ask after her. I thought, given you know most anyone that comes and goes here, you’d have the best chance to know of her.”
Hiram flushed a bit, but still he smiled. “Well, quite flatterin’ lad, but I can’t say as I know her. But I can ask around. One of the boys here might have bought a part or two from her.”
“I’d be grateful. You see, I came across her cart just late yesterday at the cattle market. I’ve been concerned that she’d forgotten we were to meet.” Hunter replied with more of his fable.
“Cattle market?” Hiram said after a flash of nervous alarm crossed his eyes. “Not the sort of place I’d expect to hear ya ever vistin’.”
Hunter shrugged, “Running down a lead on a contract, old boy. Never leave a stone unturned, you know.”
The shipwright nodded with a chuckle, subtly avoiding Hunter’s gaze. “Aye, right ya are about that. Well, I hate ta send ya out, but I’ve got a busy day spreadin’ out for me. I’ll ask about. Surely one of the boys knows of yer Allison, or even has bought a part or two from her.”
Hunter shook his friend’s hand again. “Quite. Here’s luck to that. Just send word to the Griffin if you hear of anything.”
“Naturally.” Hiram said with a relieved smile.
With a final wave, Captain Hunter turned on his heel and strolled out the shipwright’s door. He strolled along the narrow avenue that led between the crates and the small cluster of offices. Once past the corner of the buildings, he turned his back on the docks and walked out to the edge of Commerce Place, the road adjacent to the docks. He was about to hail a cab when a woman’s shout cut over the crowd.
“Cap’n! Cap’n Hunter!” Moira shouted and waved from where she stood several yards away.
Hunter jumped slightly, then looked over and returned Moira’s wave. Moira trotted up the road to join him.
“Cap’n!” She panted while she caught her breath. “I’m glad I caught ya. Somethin’s happened.”
“Easy Moira, catch your breath. While you do, let’s step over here away from the road.” Hunter guided Moira closer to a fence that ran between the docks and the road. Moira nodded, then leaned against the fence to catch her breath. Beside her, Hunter glanced subtly over his shoulder towards the main entrance to the docks, as if expecting someone.
Moira noticed the captain’s motion. “Ya expectin’ something?”
Hunter glanced back at her. “Hm, what?”
“Yer lookin’ back over yer shoulder. Like yer expectin’ someone. Constables runnin’ after ya?” She asked quickly while she looked in the direction Hunter had been.
“No, not constables. Sadly, our old friend Hiram.” Hunter replied.
Moira looked confused. “Hiram? Why’re we layin’ in wait fer him?”
“I just spoke with him about Allison. I thought of anyone, he would have dealt with her as he runs most of the shipwright work here on the docks. Most all parts merchants have done business with him at one time or another.” Hunter explained, glancing over his shoulder again. “He claimed not to have heard of her, but … he seemed uneasy when I mentioned meeting her, and quite uneasy when I mentioned her cart was at the cattle market.”
Moira looked stunned. “Not Hiram! He couldna have anything to do with this.”
“I’m not so certain Moira,” Hunter said sadly. “He knows something, and for the first time ever that I’ve known him, Hiram’s frightened. Something about Allison, her cart or her vanishing has unsettled him greatly. I’ve a suspicion that he was in a hurry to have me leave. I think I’d like to know why.”
“Why not just come out and ask ‘im?” Moira said curiously. “We’ve known him for quite a bit. Ya’ve known him longest.”
“I nearly did.” Hunter admitted. “However, in front of his journeymen? Bad form, that. In addition, what little I first told him rattled him quite a bit for Hiram. He might have just lied more to save face, thinking he could deal with whatever he’s gotten himself involved in. So, we follow, watch and learn. Then we come back and speak with him privately, once we know how to breach the topic with him.”
Moira nodded. “I understand. Oh, I came ta warn ya. Be careful. I was in Tinker’s Close and stumbled across that detective and his constable.” She held up a hand before Hunter could interrupt her. “They’re right suspicious over all this, as they’re out askin’ questions. But they’re most suspicious over you, Cap’n.”
“Me?” Hunter looked surprised. “Whatever for?”
“Seems they’d been over that cattle market a time or two before. Only then, they’d not found any cart, nor flowers, nor gears.” Moira explained quickly. “Not till you showed up and pointed it out for ’em.”
Hunter frowned. “So they suspect I’m at fault. Understandable. I’m an easy, simple solution. A quick one as well.” He sighed heavily. “Finding Allison may have just become much more difficult.”
“And a sight more dangerous.” Moira added. Suddenly, she grabbed the captain’s arm. “Cap’n, it’s Hiram!”
Hunter turned in time to see the shipwright, already out of the docks, walking briskly down the road. The captain swore under his breath.
“Come along, Moira, we must not lose sight of him.” Anthony quickly walked after the shipwright, not quick enough to overtake him, but just fast enough to hopefully keep him in sight.
Their quarry darted between the crowds and wagons, giving them a merry chase until Hiram reached where Regent Street ended at Commerce Place. There he ducked among a set of horse-drawn cabs and out of sight of Hunter and Moira. The pair came to a stop and looked around.
“Where’d he go?” Moira asked, looking around.
“I’m not certain,” Hunter replied. Suddenly a horse-drawn hansom cab trundled out from among the other cabs along the roadside and wheeled quickly by. It passed in front of Anthony and Moira, then turned down Regent Street to join with the flow of people and carriages. Inside, Hiram Jones sat, white faced and nervous.
Hunter touched Moira on her arm and gestured to the departing cab. “There!”
The pair darted across the street and dove into a cab. Before they could point out which cab for the driver to follow, the one with Hiram was lost among the river of traffic that moved through Commerce Place and down along Regent Street. Hunter stepped up on the edge of the cab a moment to look both directions along the road, then down the side tributary of Regent Street.
“Bloody hell,” Hunter cursed bitterly while he stepped down from the edge of the cab. He climbed inside to join Moira on one of the leather seats. Once settled, he leaned out the window a moment.
“To Grassmarket,” Hunter said to the driver, then settled back into the seat.
“Roit, Guv’nor.” The driver replied, urging the horse into a slow trot.
“We lost him?” Moira said with a disgruntled look at Hunter.
“I’m afraid so. My fault entirely. I took my eyes off his cab for only a moment. I should have been more careful in tracking that cab.” Hunter said apologetically. “At least we know Hiram is, for whatever odd reason, involved in this. Hopefully, William will have found something that helps shed light as to why.” The captain glanced at Moira, “Speaking of which, what did you find? Aside from the constables thinking I’m a killer?”
Moira grinned, “Wait till ya hear this Cap’n. His name’s Rodney.”
“Indeed,” Hunter said, curiosity peaked. “Please, go on.”