Cotton-like, gray puffs of rain clouds gathered in eager attendance over the hustle and bustle of the Leith Docks. They mingled with the yellowish vapors of burnt tallow and faint red-orange smog that lumbered in from the main part of the city. Below, workers went about their mid-day as usual, with only the occasional mindful glance at the sky above. Ever watchful, in case the weather chose to feel a bit more puckish and dump a torrent of rain down upon the unwary.
One of the familiar horse-drawn, black leather and wood paneled cabs slowly pulled itself from the regular stream of people and wagons that flowed around the Edinburgh port. The moon-faced driver tugged gently back on the reins. His horse snorted once, shook its head, then slowed to a stop alongside the curb. Quickly, the driver pulled up on the wooden break and draped the reins around the iron rail that ran next to the driver’s seat. He climbed down, just as Captain Anthony Hunter opened the cab door.
“Leith Docks, as ye asked,” the driver said with a smile.
Hunter dug into his pocket and handed the man a shilling, while Detective Oren MacTaggart climbed out of the cab. The driver tipped his worn bowler hat to the captain with a grin. “Do ye need me to wait?”
The captain shook his head and adjusted his weathered long coat, almost as an afterthought. “Gracious offer, but no, my good man. We’ve not the first idea how long we’ll take.”
The driver shrugged. “Ah’d considered takin’ a little stop at a pub just down a bit. If either of ye change yer minds, that’s where ah’ll be. Ask for Larry. They know me there.”
While the driver resumed his seat, Captain Hunter and Detective MacTaggart turned away and walked through the wide gate that was the entrance to the Leith Docks. Behind them, the sound of the horse’s hooves on the cobblestones faded into the background.
At mid-day the port was normally quite busy, what with the comings and goings of many kinds of ships, both cargo and otherwise. Today was no exception. Hammers rang against nails where workers under the guidance of shipwrights toiled away at what would later be the keel of a new schooner. Much closer to the waterline, workers in the massive CASS – the eight foot tall brass and steel clockwork suits – lumbered around, heavily laden with freshly off-loaded crates from a newly arrived ship. Hunter guided the detective safely around these and more until they stopped in a small open space between a pair of unused wagons.
Hunter pointed to a well-worn path along the wooden boards that ran between a wet dock for ship construction and a tall stack of crates waiting for their owner. “That way. Last time I recall, the Betsy was berthed just beyond the wet dock. Hiram didn’t always dock back there, but usually he did.” Hunter walked off in the direction he indicated, stopping a moment later when the top of a pair of masts came into view with its stained canvas sails. “You can just see the top of the masts from here.”
Detective MacTaggart nodded, then fell into step behind the captain. “How did ye two meet?” Oren asked. “If ye don’t mind a question about it?”
Hunter glanced over his shoulder briefly at the detective. A pained look crossed Hunter’s eyes at a surge of memories. The captain returned his attention back in the direction he had indicated and led the detective between the ship construction yard and the crates.
“I was a brand new lef-tenant commander, quite convinced I knew which way the wind blew. Too much so, looking back at it all now,” Hunter smiled a little at the memory. “I found myself in over my head in a pub brawl. A bad one that, honestly, I shouldn’t have walked away from. I was outnumbered by four broad-shouldered Frenchmen with a healthy grudge. It seems they took offense to Her Majesty’s Navy – in particular the part that involved me. You see there was a disagreement over a card game. They thought to cheat me and I, being rather inebriated and angry at the time, loudly surmised my take on their lineage as it pertained to swine. Amazingly, they took offense.”
The detective chuckled softly, “Ye be right, just amazin’.”
“In either case, Hiram stepped in and put a stop to the whole affair right before one of the Frenchmen was to run me through with a knife.” Captain Hunter walked past another stack of crates and paused. “I owed him for that. More than I could tell you.”
Oren slowed his pace to give Hunter an appraising look. Hunter, having lost himself to the memory a moment, quietly resumed his walk with a grim, silent expression that spoke volumes to the Detective. “Ah understand, no need ta try,” MacTaggart said in sympathy.
Hunter nodded in agreement, then gestured ahead of them at the weather-beaten sailing craft before them.
“Detective, The Betsy,” Anthony announced, as if to introduce constable and sailing craft to one another.
The boat was a ketch, sporting two masts: a main mast and a second, shorter mast immediately rearward of the main mast. Her hull was a dark, weathered wood, battered some by time but obviously cared for by expert hands. She was built for only the sea, as was evident due to the lack of overhead gas bag or a place to even store one.
“Ah see what ye mean that ‘she be not much to look at’,” Oren said with a skeptical glance at the rickety gangplank that spanned the space between boat and dock.
“Looks can deceive, Detective,” Hunter replied, quickly walking across the gangplank and boarding the Betsy. “Aside from the cargo hold, there’s not many places Hiram kept anything of import. His cabin would be the ideal place to start.”
Detective MacTaggart glanced warily at the gangplank again before he stepped onto it. It wavered a moment under his weight, but did not give way. “Good enough to start there, then,” he replied.
Once aboard, the two men made their way across the deck to the main cabin of the ketch. Anthony glanced around. The boat was much the way he remembered it. The usual collection of old barrels that Hiram always swore he needed to put ashore, the coils of treated hemp rope stacked and stored neatly against the main mast, and the sails for the two masts stowed as securely as ever. At the short steps from the deck to the main cabin, Hunter descended first then reached up to a concealed spot above the door frame to retrieve an iron key. After that he took a firm grip on the cabin door and tugged. The door, once a modest green color whose paint had begun to flake away, was slightly swollen from the age and weather. Despite this, it opened obediently when Hunter tugged at the door handle. The captain gave the detective a warning look.
“Hiram was many things, and fastidious about his own security was one of them,” Anthony whispered. “The door sticks, so one has to tug on it to seat it correctly for the key to work. It has been that way for all the years I’ve visited this boat. Hiram would never have left the door unlocked. Not for any reason.”
“Ah see,” Detective MacTaggart replied flatly, then reached within his coat and withdrew a well-cared for, gray steel LeMat revolver. “Ready,” he confirmed.
Hunter jerked open the cabin door, then jumped aside to stay away from the detective’s field of view. Immediately, Detective MacTaggart leveled his revolver towards the muted interior of the cabin. Inside, even the air was still, as if it waited in anticipation.
The detective eased inside first, followed a moment later by Captain Hunter. Inside, the cabin was devastated. Papers were tossed about the cabin, the bunk had been sliced by a knife and the pieces tossed aside. One the far side of the cabin a small door had been flung wide open, and the small locker beyond emptied of all its contents.
Closer to the cabin door, a wooden banker’s chair had been overturned and the contents of a small writing desk spilled about the floor. A puddle of pencils, wax seals, envelopes and previous correspondences all addressed to Hiram collected about the legs of the desk itself. Tattered coils of rope, once neatly stacked near the door, were now strewn about the room as if in frustration.
“Seems we not be the only ones to think of searchin’ here,” MacTaggart said in a low voice while he carefully picked his way across the cabin. “Someone else knew about Sirrah Jones’ note.”
Hunter walked over and knelt down by the half-folded letters and other correspondence, some of which were from him. “Perhaps, but how? If it had already been found at Mrs. Carpenter’s house, why leave it for anyone else to find?” The captain thought a moment, “It could also be that they knew of what Hiram was trying to lead us to find. Something they couldn’t find themselves.”
The detective looked around the cabin slowly, satisfied they were alone with the damage. “What would that be? Wait now, a better question … do ye think they found it?”
“I really couldn’t say,” Hunter replied and let the letter he had picked up fall from his fingers.
“That bein’ the case, ” MacTaggart said, replacing his revolver in a holster under his coat, “We’d best do our own searchin’. At least we know where not to be lookin’.”
“Quite true.” The captain sighed while he glanced at the mess around him. At that, the two men each took a side of the cabin and slowly picked through the wreckage.
While he searched the remains of the bunk, Hunter’s mind returned to the writing desk. Something nagged at the back of his mind about it. Finally, he left the bunk and returned to the writing desk to begin sifting through the contents. Then it struck him like a bolt of lightning. “Detective, have you seen any logbooks?”
“Eh? What?” Detective MacTaggart looked up from mess of overturned bottles that had spilled their contents across a small wooden chest. Ink and a blue nameless chemical stained the wood in long, oozing lines. “No, not here Ah’ve not.”
Hunter ran a hand along the top of the aged wood of the writing desk thoughtfully. “Neither have I, which is rather odd. Hiram may not have sailed all that often these days as opposed to when I first met him, but he kept a daily log or journal. He rarely missed recording a day, from what I recall.” Suddenly, he felt a subtle bump hidden behind the writing desk near the top. Carefully, Hunter slid the desk away from the cabin wall. At passing glance, the bump looked to be just another wooden peg that held the entire desk together. However, it was out of place. Where all the others were uniformly spaced, this one was not. The peg was not raised up enough to turn, so instead Anthony pressed it like a button.
The captain smiled at the sound of a soft click from deep within the desk. Following that, a hand-sized section of the wooden back slid open to reveal a narrow compartment. Hunter reached inside. When he withdrew his hand, he held a water-stained leather logbook bound to a few time-worn letters. Beneath that, he saw there was a glass vial.
“Rather clever, Hiram.” Hunter said, praising his dead friend’s ingenuity. “I nearly missed it.”
He set the collection out on the top of the writing desk and browsed the letters. He nearly jumped in surprise. They were no normal correspondence, but letters of affection between Mrs. Carpenter and Hiram! Anthony quickly located the date of the earliest letter, it was dated almost a year ago to the day. He briefly scanned over them. Some of the letters were rather heartfelt; others, a great deal more passionate.
“So, you had gone to visit your lady. But who would want to take her and kill you, my friend?” Anthony muttered under his breath while he set the letters aside and picked up the logbook.
Hunter flipped open the logbook to the most recent entry, dated just the day before. There Hiram had made a note of his meeting with Hunter in the shipwright’s office. A meeting which had apparently caused Hiram no end of concern for Mrs. Carpenter’s safety. However, he did not explain as to why. The captain turned to previous entries. There, he found a reason.
“Detective!” Hunter exclaimed. “You need to read this. I’m convinced this is what our searchers were after.”
Detective MacTaggart stood and pushed his glasses from the end of his nose. “Oh? Let’s be havin’ a look, then. What’s it of?”
Hunter turned a page while Oren joined him next to the writing desk. “It’s Hiram’s logbook, though journal would be more accurate. According to this, he was the one who located one of your dead bodies.”
“What?” The detective exclaimed in surprise. “A boy found the bodies.”
“Not so, look here,” Hunter pointed to an entry written in a hastily scrawled handwriting at the top of a page. “Hiram actually found the body – one of the dock workers in the mortuary to be exact – while looking into what he thought was smugglers using the south end of the Leith Docks as a hidden cache. Instead, he found the body, some glass bottles and the body of a dog wrapped in wool that had an artificial, metal leg.” Anthony hesitated. “A dog with a metal leg … why does that ring bells?”
Finally, he set that elusive thought aside and turned another handwritten page. “Hiram was flustered, didn’t tell anyone immediately. Because he waited, he wound up blackmailed into acting as a watchdog over the ligan.”
The detective frowned at the page. “Blackmailed? How so?” When Anthony offered the logbook, Detective MacTaggart flipped quickly between the pages himself. “Be not a word as to whom.” The detective hesitated, “but that there be the how. They threatened to hurt Mrs. Carpenter if he didn’t send along regular messages to the blackmailers about anyone curious over their little stash along the docks. No mention how he was to get the messages to ‘em, though.”
Hunter collected the letters from Mrs. Carpenter to Hiram and carefully stored them away in a coat pocket. The vial he gathered up with a pocket handkerchief for the constables to examine later. “His note at Mrs. Carpenter’s house mentioned the late watch. In his logbook, he wrote that the people he thought were smuggling came and went during late watch. I think we might need to see this ligan for ourselves.”
The detective shut the book and tucked it under his arm. “Fine idea. Durin’ the day means less chance anyone would be near it.”
With a last look around the cabin, the two men stepped out the door back towards the deck. Captain Hunter locked the door while the detective walked across the deck towards the gangplank. The noise and bustle of the dock had quieted down some, with the activity focused at the north end of the dock where two large cargo airships had just made a water landing. MacTaggart waited quietly for Anthony, looking around the deck of the ketch. The collection of large barrels, gathered together but not strapped down, sat to one side of the gangplank. Oren looked from there to coils of rope neatly stored – at least as he understood it – against the main mast.
Once Hunter joined him, the detective turned to cross the gangplank but hesitated, then half-turned towards Anthony at an odd sound. “Did ye hear that …” he began, then his eyes went wide with shock, and his free hand leapt for the revolver under his coat. “Captain! Behind ye!”
Captain Hunter spun in a blur, his hands raised automatically to defend himself. However, he was a moment too slow. A well-used oar, stained dark from the water, slammed into the left side of the captain’s face. Knocked from his feet, he reeled from the blow and rolled back to land against the main mast. In his place a large, broad-shouldered man in a black cotton hood brought the oar up to swing again.
MacTaggart leveled the gun at the man’s chest. “Now, enough o’ that! Drop the oar, lad, and pull off that black hood ye wearin’.”
The big man’s shoulders slumped slightly in defeat. However, just before he reached for his black cotton hood, he hesitated, then instead resumed the grip on his oar.
“Not a chance, ye cabbaged peeler,” the man said with an Irish accent.
MacTaggart scowled at the insult, then jerked as a barrel slammed into his side and knocked him off his feet. The detective’s revolver skidded across the wooden deck with the logbook. As for the detective, he collapsed like a doll whose strings had been cut.
The Irishman in the black mask chuckled nastily and walked over to recover the logbook. Meanwhile, his similarly dressed companion stepped out of hiding in the rear of the boat.
“Thanks to ya, lads. We’ve been lookin’ far and wide fer this,” the brute said, scooping up the logbook in one hand. “Lucky fer ye that its just the book we’re needin’. So’s ye both have a nice nap.”
Hunter blinked away the fog from his mind, he saw his attackers just within his reach and paying him little attention. Carefully, he turned without a sound then rammed out with the heel of his boot into the Irishman’s leg. “You’ll go nowhere with that book!”
Immediately, the brute howled in pain, the muscle of his thigh knotted from the kick. He tried to walk or even limp away, but the man’s wounded leg would not allow it. Tripped by his own feet and the painful cramping in his leg, he collapsed to the deck, nearly falling onto the dazed figure of Detective MacTaggart. With a howl of pain he clutched at his leg, oar and logbook momentarily forgotten.
Using the main mast like a crutch, Hunter clawed his way upright. The moment he stood up, a blur of motion just at the edge of his vision startled him. Anthony ducked just before a barrel flew above his head and crashed against the mast. Wooden planks rained down on the captain. He knocked the debris away, seeing the second man behind the barrels next to the gangplank. Captain Hunter snarled in anger, and started forward. He managed two more steps before he dropped to a crouch to avoid another thrown barrel. So pre-occupied by the man with the barrels, the captain had not noticed the first attacker hastily grab the boat oar and thrust with it like an over-sized spear.
Hunter tried to dodge aside, but the rush of dropping down into a crouch then standing abruptly had aggravated where he had been hit in the head a moment ago. The world spun drunkenly around him for a second before the oar struck him again, hard in the mid-section. Anthony collapsed in a heap on the deck, wheezing desperately for air. Immediately, he struggled to rise, unwilling to lie helpless on the deck.
“Quit playin’ about at it and finish ‘im!” The man behind the barrels snarled nastily. “We still have to catch that other one headin’ to Greyfriars Kirk.”
“Shut yer bone box!” The Irishman snapped back. “Ah’m movin’ the best ah can.”
At the next swing of the oar, everything went dark for Captain Anthony Hunter.
Light mercilessly stabbed at Hunter’s eyes when he next opened them. Normally, this would be the primary cause for the groan that escaped his lips. This time, however, it was actually the splitting headache. Slowly, with all the grace that could be attributed to either a man beaten by an oar or perhaps a floundering water buffalo, Anthony rolled onto his side in an attempt to get his feet under him.
The captain looked around. He had been dumped inside the boat’s cabin alongside Detective MacTaggart. Hunter staggered towards the door, his vision still slightly blurred. Behind him, the detective groaned his way to consciousness.
“Och, what hit me?” He asked in a thick voice.
“Barrel.” Anthony croaked in reply before he tried the cabin door. “From a walking mountain of muscle.” The door latch rattled, but the door remained firmly in place and locked. “And … they have the logbook.”
The detective recovered his spectacles, then sighed as he found one of the lenses boasting a spiderweb of cracks. “An they were just new, too.” He slipped them on despite the damage. “Oh me head … wait. Someone said somethin’… about Greyfriars Kirk?”
Hunter nodded, then immediately regretted it as his headache complained loudly. “Yes, one of the two men that attacked us. Which is all the more reason to leave with all haste. William and your constable won’t know to be on their guard. How those two blaggards knew, I can’t imagine.”
“Only two reasons for it,” The detective theorized. “It could be they’re part of the lot blackmailin’ Sirrah Jones, and had somethin’ to do with his death. With him gone, they’d want to destroy that book since it points out they exist.” Oren sighed. “The other option be that they be gettin’ their information from a constable. Either one be a nasty piece of business.”
Hunter rubbed his eyes for a moment in an attempt to relieve his headache. Unfortunately, the effect did little to remove the ache. “Agreed.”
“Did ye happen to get a look at either one?” MacTaggart asked while he checked his pockets. He swore under his breath once he realized his pistol was gone. With a scowl he crossed the room to join Hunter at the door.
“Not a one. Both wore a black hood,” Hunter said bitterly while he rattled the lock in frustration once more. “Not that I didn’t try, mind you. Fire and damnation!”
“Allow me,” MacTaggart offered.
Hunter stepped aside, and MacTaggart rammed the heel of a hard right boot against the wood next to the lock itself. Wood splintered and erupted out the other side, and the door swung lightly open.
“Capital!” Hunter exclaimed, and pushed the door the rest of the way open. “In my mind, the ligan and whatever it might hold can wait. We’ve no idea how long they’ve been gone, so we need to send word ahead. We’ll need to warn Moira as well, in case we need the help.”
MacTaggart thought a moment, then dug a couple of coins out of his pocket. “I know a good lad, light on his feet. He’ll do the job right.”