Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Archive for October 2012

Riverboats Part 12: Mrs Hunter

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When I stepped onto the Sunrise for the first time since I had left, it was as if I boarded a different boat. The crew were quieter, more solemn; there was barely any laughter and song as there had been weeks before. And not a single sailor would look at me except to glare. Of course they should hate me: I was the one who had asked for their captain to be taken in by the police, who had stolen Alexander Strong away to be hung, and for all that had I helped them even once?

That was why I was there, of course. To apologise…and to see if I could find one last scrap of courage before the most difficult task.

Laneham beamed as he led me through to the dining area. The rest of the crew stayed outside, avoiding us, so I was surprised when I saw Clark sitting at the table, as if he had been waiting.

‘Well?’ he asked as soon as he saw me. Laneham sat down and asked the same question with his expression. Two expectant gazes, one happy and one stern. I quailed.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘They still don’t know where he is.’

Laneham’s face darkened and he looked at the table, fingers tapping on the surface. I expected an outburst from Clark – a rant about how I had betrayed their trust and played them – but instead he merely said:

‘Then what do they know?’

‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Next to nothing. The Hunters who have been brought in don’t know a thing or they’ve refused to talk – Isabel knew the most, but he left the hideout she knew of over a year ago. I’m sorry.’

Clark looked disgusted with my apologies. That was more like what I had expected.

‘So that’s it? You’re giving up?’

‘No,’ I started ‘we–’

‘You know all this is his fault?’ Clark said. ‘You do know that, don’t you? When he killed Mr Grey, everything went out of control – that’s when Uncle and Father and David and everyone became involved. He’s the one who started the murders, he fired the first shot – you can’t just let him go!’

I had heard something similar from Christian: there had been resentment and rivalry between the two families, but it never gone further than drunken fighting until Archibald Hunter killed Mr Grey during a petty argument. I looked to Laneham, who was watching Clark with dead eyes.

There is one thing we can do, I signed.

‘You should just take Mrs Hunter in and make her spend a night in the cell,’ Clark sneered.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s something like that.’

Both men turned to me in surprise.

She’ll never talk, Laneham signed, bursting into a flurry of hands. If other Hunters have not talked, she will never talk.

‘And that’s if you can convince her to come to the station,’ Clark added. ‘No matter how many policemen you have, she still has her friends and relatives to protect her.’

‘They won’t even consider bringing her in,’ I said. My heart had sunk as they voiced all my own objections. ‘She’s too powerful. They would have too many complaints – they’re getting complaints as it is, from interrupting the boat services.’

They can’t make her do anything. Surely you know this and always have?

I sat down, weary when I had barely started.

‘The police can’t make her to come in for an interview. So…I have to convince her instead.’

A pause, and then Clark burst out laughing.

‘As if! She’ll eat you alive!’

Laneham made a cutting motion across his mouth: the sign to shut up. He leant across to me, his eyes sparkling with intrigue.

Do you think you can?

‘Please, as if Mrs Hunter would ever listen to Edie.’

Another motion to be quiet. Laneham waited for my reply, grey eyes lit up.

‘He’s right,’ I said, finally ready to pour out the feeling that had bubbling in me all day. ‘I don’t think she’ll listen to me. Christian has said this is our only chance – but I can’t do it. Mrs Hunter thinks I’m a nuisance, at best. She probably hates me after everything that’s happened. If even Isabel can’t convince her to do anything, then what chance do I have?’

But after starting this, she has to pay attention to you, he said.

‘But I can’t convince her to do anything!’ I said. ‘What reason could she have for talking to the police? Everyone who has harmed her family is either dead or taken in. Mr Hunter’s the only one left – and she won’t give up her only son.’

Clark gave a sardonic smile.

‘It seems we agree on something for once, Miss Heinlein.’

Laneham had his hand at his mouth, full of thought.

There must be a way, he signed. She must have been hurt by her family fighting and dying. You need to show her that it’s better if this feud ends.

‘Tell her that the sooner she talks, the sooner her business can return to normal,’ Clark added. ‘That will appeal to her interest.’

I tried to laugh. Though I had received no answers, visiting the two of them had still improved my mood considerably.

‘I’ll see her tomorrow morning,’ I said. ‘With luck, she’ll agree. I’ll let you know.’

‘If you go to the station, spit in John Cooper’s cage for me,’ Clark said as I rose from the table. I smiled but agreed to nothing (Christian didn’t let me in to that part of the station). Laneham rose and walked with me until I was on the dock again.

Edie, he signed, hands hard to see in the dim light. I know you can do it.

You’re kind, I replied.

I mean it. Mrs Hunter is what brought us together, and her son is what tore us apart. You have done so much, and convinced so many people to do what’s right. I’m sure that if you put your heart into it, she’ll know what’s best.

His words touched me, and gave the courage I needed. I kissed him in thanks, and had to break away to stop myself from kissing him more. With a hard-beating heart, I said goodbye and turned away home. Back to work: my biggest challenge yet.

*

My hands were shaking as I was led into Mrs Hunter’s house. She lived away from the river, in a well-to-do townhouse in an area where my lack of fashionable clothing marked me out to all the residents. I was more akin to the servant girl who showed me in – in another life, I could have been her. And yet here I was, intending to talk to the owner of half of the fleet as if I was her equal. I stood in the hallway for a few, long minutes – staring at the paintings on the walls and attempting to see up the stairs – until the maid told me that Mrs Hunter would see me in the drawing room.

As nervous as I was, I was surprised at the opulence of the room. I say “opulence”, of course, because I had grown up on boats, and around the tiny houses by the docks; as far as townhouses were concerned, I learned later, Mrs Hunter’s was minimally furnished. Still, I was not used to sofas, and bookcases, and paintings, and a desk with an inkwell and a modest piano in the corner: it struck me as very fancy. And Mrs Hunter, in her rich brown dress with black embroidery, seemed the most opulent of the lot. She barely glanced up from her book as I was brought into the doorway, but called across to me:

‘Come in and sit opposite me, Miss Heinlein.’

I did as she said, and the maid shut the door on us both. I wished she could have stayed. I said nothing, waiting for her to begin, and after a moment she put a slip of paper into her book and laid it beside her.

‘I’m surprised to see you in this part of town, though I cannot say I am surprised at your temerity in coming here. Ten of my relatives have been taken into that dreadful station, and four have been told that they will never return. My boats have been delayed, my customers are outraged, and my family is in uproar. And you, Miss Heinlein, bear the blame for all of this.’ She fixed a steely gaze on me. ‘And, no doubt, you have come to me today to beg my forgiveness, or ask an even greater inconvenience of me. Am I right?’

I felt that I should be intimidated, but her words were exactly what I had expected, and her glare failed to faze me. My nerves faded away. All I could think of was how strange she looked without her hat – I had always seen her with her wide-brimmed hat covering her head, and without it she seemed much smaller.

‘If not for me, Isabel would be dead,’ I said. ‘And Laneham, and who knows who else. I don’t regret what I have done.’

Her look turned into a withering stare.

‘Have you come here to preach to me?’

My sudden lack of fear unsettled me, but she could not see that.

‘I want you to come to the station, and talk to the police about what you know.’

‘You have no right to tell me what you want of me,’ she said. ‘I made you, Edith. I gave your family a living when their boat fell apart, and I gave their only daughter safety with my kin. I have protected you and helped you your entire life, and yet you repay me with disobedience and wide-spread strife. I should have put you in a house in town, instead of with Isabel – then you would have learnt your place.’

‘This isn’t about me,’ I said, struggling not to show how her words struck me. ‘It’s about what’s right. I will always be grateful to you for what you’ve done for me, but this isn’t about my problems – it’s about helping others. The police are stuck, and you’re the only one who can help them.’

‘I have no obligation to help them to do their work,’ she sniffed.

‘You have no obligation to help anyone,’ I said. ‘But I’m asking you to help.’

‘And what good would it do me?’ she said, eyebrows pinching together. ‘I have nothing to gain by talking to them – and they have even less to gain from me, since I have no desire to speak to them.’

Lie, Edie, lie.

‘Anything you say will be helpful,’ I said. ‘So many people involved are related to you in some way. You can strengthen the case for them or against them, since you know everyone and you know all that happens at the docks. And,’ I added, seeing how unconvinced she looked, ‘as for what you gain – you’ve already gained from this.’

‘Have I?’ she said, full of scorn. ‘Pray tell me what advantage having my family interrogated and my business interrupted gives me?’

‘The man who killed your cousin’s son is caught,’ I said. ‘The man who killed the May family is caught. All these people who harmed your workers and your family are being brought in. You won’t have to mourn anymore; you won’t have to worry whether you will see your younger relatives again, or whether they’ll be shot dead the next night. Once this feud has been stopped, then you won’t have to lose work over grieving families, or patching boats, or sailors choosing different routes so they don’t run into rival boats – you’ll have a normal, working fleet. This fighting doesn’t come without cost to you, so it’s best for you if it stops. A few weeks of interruption is worth years of peace, is it not?’

She considered what I had said. I tried to imagine her being upset at John Eynham’s death, or at the May brothers’ deaths, or at anyone’s death, but I could not see it.

‘I think you assume too much about me,’ she finally said.

My shoulders dropped as the despair set in.

‘You won’t help, not even for that?’

‘I have no obligation to help the police do their work,’ she repeated. ‘This will all clear up in time, and poor fools those relatives of mine who are caught. I shall carry on without them, and this peace you speak of will come naturally – with or without me.’

It wouldn’t. I wanted to cry it at her: without your son behind bars, that resentment will keep festering, and blow up all over again. What would Laneham and Clark say? I wouldn’t have smiles from either of them ever again; I would lose Laneham forever. The Coopers would keep looking for Archibald Hunter until they found him, and I knew Mrs Hunter would think little of peace if her son was killed. Then what? It would all have been for nothing – all my worry and heartbreak for nothing!

I couldn’t help it. She turned her back on me, took up her book and said that I should leave, and the tears sprang into my eyes.

‘I always thought you were a good person, Mrs Hunter,’ I said, not disguising the hurt in my voice. ‘You brought Laneham to us when you could have put him out on the street, and you put me with Isabel when you could have put me in town. But if you don’t care that people have died because of this, and that people will keep dying if we don’t stop it – then what can I say to you? You might live away from the boats, in a fancy house, but you’re not apart from it all…’

She turned and looked at me as if I was worth less than the mud on her boots.

‘I think you should leave now, Miss Heinlein,’ she repeated. I didn’t say another word to her. I left the room, walked past the servant girl and out onto the street, and I barely noticed the distasteful looks I received from the people nearby, as I was too busy wiping away my tears, and choking back the bitterness of my failure.

*

I took the long way back to Scotland Yard. I tried to think of how to tell Christian what had happened. Once I calmed down a little, I realised that Christian would merely shrug and say bad words about Mrs Hunter, before deciding what to do next. No, it wasn’t the thought of telling him that upset me: it was admitting that I may have ruined everything to myself. And telling Laneham and Clark was unthinkable; had I let myself dwell on that thought, I would have kept walking and never reached the station. Eventually, I regained the scraps of my courage and entered the station.

‘Where’s Mr McNeil?’ I asked Mr Perry at the front desk. He nodded to a side room – the same where Isabel had talked to Alexander Strong.

‘Someone’s in with them, arguing about that man you brought in the other week. You’d best go in – McNeil will probably want your help.’

I thanked him and walked to the door, wondering who it could be. Would there have been enough time for Mrs Hunter to come here? Surely she could have taken a carriage in the time it took me to walk…

I opened the door and the two men inside turned to me. One was Christian, and the other I didn’t recognise, but looked vaguely familiar. He was an older man – somewhere in his fifties, I guessed – slim, and in a well-made grey suit.

‘Miss Heinlein,’ Christian said, looking relieved to see me. ‘Good to see you. Perhaps you can convince Mr Cooper that he cannot see his nephew.’

Mr Cooper. A man who I had long heard of, but never seen with my own eyes. I was too bewildered to speak at first, as I imagined him taking in Laneham, and becoming his surrogate father when all else had failed for him. He looked a little like Clark, I realised: same thin face and dark eyes.

‘It is my right to see the man who killed my son,’ he said, paying me no attention.

‘And it is our right not to risk another person killing him!’ Christian snapped. ‘No-one from the Hunters or the Coopers is to see John S. Cooper. Understand?’

‘I merely want to talk to him,’ Mr Cooper said.

‘I’m sorry, Mr Cooper, this is my fault,’ I said, stepping forward and interjecting. ‘When he was brought in, my friend Harriet was with me, and Christian let her talk to him – and she nearly shot him.’

Mr Cooper examined me as if he had only just noticed me, and I did not like the feeling of his eyes after the meeting I had just had.

‘What is your name, sorry?’ he asked.

‘Edith Heinlein,’ I said. Mr Cooper looked faintly amused.

‘So you’re Miss Heinlein. I’ve had no rest of complaints because of you – even before you had the police involved.’

I said nothing. I had no more apologies to give that day.

‘Tell me, did John S. Cooper say anything of David, before you took him in?’

His words were fresh, as if they had been scored into my brain – it must have been my panic that did that.

‘He said he killed David at his own wish, because he didn’t want to live with his injuries.’

Mr Cooper’s face twitched.

‘Is that so? If that is true, then I dearly wish he had refused. Please, then, Miss Heinlein – since you started this, and know so much – tell me if you are any closer to catching the killer of Mr Grey, my brother-in-law? I know it was that death that separated you and Laneham, and I know he has always wanted to bring that villain to justice at least as much as I. Please tell me you are close to finding him.’

My mouth was dry. Christian looked at me expectantly, knowing the outcome of my interview with Mrs Hunter would come out now – and I did not know what to say. I opened my mouth, said ‘I…’, and then the door burst open behind me.

‘Madam, you cannot go in there!’ Mr Perry was shouting from the hallway. Mrs Hunter paid him no attention. She took two strides into the room, mouth open to say something, before her eyes caught Mr Cooper. She froze. She seemed twice as large as she had done earlier – she had her hat on again – but at the sight of her business rival, she seemed to shrink again, while Mr Cooper looked even paler and thinner at the sight of her.

‘Mr Cooper,’ she said in stiff acknowledgement.

‘Mrs Hunter,’ he said. ‘I did not expect to see you here.’

‘Edie petitioned me for help,’ she said, without looking at me. ‘And I decided to oblige her, as I do consider her a ward of sorts.’

‘Indeed,’ Mr Cooper said. ‘That is unexpectedly kind of you.’

His cool words only added to the friction in the air. Christian coughed and moved.

‘Mr Cooper, I believe we’re done speaking. Mrs Hunter, if you wish to give information then would you please–’

‘Why don’t you both talk to each other?’ I said, before I considered what I was saying. Everyone stared at me and my confidence faltered again. What was I saying? Did I think they could work out a happy agreement between them, when they clearly couldn’t stand seeing each other? Yet I continued, as if my mouth knew what to do when my brain had the opposite idea.

‘I mean, I doubt you’ve had the chance to talk about this feud between your people. And it’s hurt you both, so…’

Mr Cooper gave a wan smile.

‘It has been a long time since we spoke properly, has it not?’

‘I came here to protect my people,’ Mrs Hunter said, with a glare at me as if I had planned this all along. ‘Not for idle chatter.’

‘Please, if–’

A knock came at the door. Christian looked at our strange situation, clearly eager to answer the knock and get away.

‘Neither of you are armed, are you?’

Mr Cooper shook his head and Mrs Hunter said, ‘Do I look like a marksman, sir?’

‘Good, because I’ll be back in a moment,’ he said, with a look that told me to keep things under control. I wanted to object, but he was gone before I knew it. Mrs Hunter and Mr Cooper still stared at each other in stand-off. After a moment, Mr Cooper moved to the end of the table and sat down, and after a longer pause, Mrs Hunter sat opposite.

‘I have little to say to you,’ she said, once she was comfortable. ‘I am only here at Edie’s wish.’

‘Are you going to tell the police what you know?’ Mr Cooper said.

Mrs Hunter’s cheeks coloured.

‘I will say what I choose to say, and that is none of your business.’

‘It is my business,’ Mr Cooper said, strangely calm, strangely earnest compared to her. ‘This needless fight has killed my nephews, my friends, even one of my sons. And your business is my business, because while those murderers have been found, we still don’t have the man who killed my brother-in-law.’

‘I don’t know what you are talking about,’ Mrs Hunter said, cheeks red now.

‘Don’t act ignorant, Marianne, it doesn’t suit you,’ Mr Cooper said. The use of her first name brought an unexpected level of intimacy to the conversation (it was strange enough that Mrs Hunter had called me “Edie”). I stepped back and tried to blend into the wall. Mrs Hunter locked her gaze on him.

‘Do not be so presumptuous as to use my Christian name, John, when you have not spoken to me directly in years. I do not have to tell you anything if I do not want to, and speaking to me is worthless. We cannot stop this idiotic fight between our people by discussing it at a table.’

‘Truly, you must not have lost anyone important to you, if you can call it “idiotic”,’ Mr Cooper said, with such dignified pain in his voice that I saw how Laneham could be so devoted to him.

‘I have lost those I love,’ Mrs Hunter replied acerbically. ‘I merely know how to handle myself.’

‘But the one closest to you, whom you have lost, is still alive.’

‘I do not need to speak to you about that.’

‘Your son killed my brother-in-law,’ Mr Cooper said, every word slow and emphatic. ‘And that is why my nephews set on your family, and that is why this all came to be. Please, Marianne, I’ve lost more than you – I’ve lost more than enough. If we can find the original culprit, we can put all this behind us, and return to mere competition.’

‘I have nothing more to say to you,’ Mrs Hunter said, scraping her chair back and standing up. ‘I came here to speak to the police, and I cannot see why I’m wasting my time with you.’

‘Do you think Miss Heinlein asked you here for anything other than your son’s whereabouts?’ Mr Cooper said. ‘He is the only one you chose to hide, so he is the only one they cannot find. Really, they were able to find my nephew John hidden away in town – of course Archie’s the only reason they need you.’

Mrs Hunter gave me a glare so powerful I thought I might die under it.

‘Is this true?’ she said.

I nodded.

‘And I came here because I was touched by your tears,’ she said. ‘I should have known better.’

Her words felt like a kick to the heart, but I couldn’t let her feel she was the superior one. That was what she thought, but she was wrong. She was wrong.

‘It’ll all be for nothing unless we find him,’ I said. ‘Please. You want peace, don’t you? This is the only way.’

‘You want me to give up my only son?’ she asked, and a shadow off sorrow crossed her features.

‘Your son is a murderer,’ Mr Cooper said. ‘He has ruined lives, and he needs to be taken in. My family deserves justice as well as yours, Mrs Hunter.’

She turned to him.

‘How much pain did you feel when David died?’ she asked.

‘I felt as if my world had collapsed,’ he said, ‘and I would never be happy again.’

‘You have three other sons,’ she said, and that statement held the accusing tone of a wounded child.

‘I will have less than that, unless we stop this fight,’ Mr Cooper said. ‘Please, Marianne. You’ve said yourself that you’ve already lost Archie by hiding him. Do the right thing. Tell the police where he is.’

At that moment, Christian came back into the room. I half suspect he had been listening outside and chose this as the opportune moment to return.

‘Sorry about that,’ he said. ‘Now, Mrs Hunter – what is it you wished to tell me?’

She looked at me, and at Mr Cooper and his pleading eyes, and I had never seen her look so immeasurably sad.

‘I will tell you where my son is,’ she said slowly. ‘I am sick of death.’

Christian’s eyes lit up, but he merely nodded and looked to me. I asked Mr Cooper to come outside with me, and as he passed Mrs Hunter, he touched her arm and said:

‘Thank you.’

She did not reply; she looked away to another corner, as resigned as if she had decided to face her own death. I gladly shut the door on her and Christian, said goodbye to a disgruntled Mr Perry, and walked outside, aware Mr Cooper was still at my side.

‘Miss Heinlein,’ he said, turning to face me. ‘Thank you for everything you have done. I know that I would like Archie Hunter to suffer, and John, and Matthew May, and everyone else you have caught; I know that imprisonment and even hanging does not feel as just as revenge from my family’s hands. But, if I never have to suffer hearing that awful news again, then it is far preferable to me to go this way. Thank you.’

I was flattered, and a little at loss to respond, but knew I had one important thing to say to him, that had been in my heart for a while.

‘Thank you, sir, for taking Laneham in that time.’

Mr Cooper laughed and put on his hat.

‘I think I have benefitted from that kindness far more than you, my dear.’

He bowed, and stepped into his waiting carriage. I watched him leave, before turning and running down the street, eager to catch the Sunrise before it sailed, and to tell Laneham of my unexpected success.

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Written by G.J.

28/10/2012 at 12:51 pm

Posted in Riverboats

Tagged with , , , ,

Excerpt: Checking the Talent

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Sorry Sunday posts have been a bit sloppy. I was working up to finishing Riverboats and then life decided to pull dick moves on me. Sigh.

Another excerpt here. Seriously considering writing this book for NaNoWriMo. I’ve never done NaNoWriMo before. Thought I am a bit reluctant to throw myself into another book when the last one isn’t Good Enough yet…

__

Cherie had taken half an hour to choose her outfit for the day. Most mornings she woke with a feeling for what would suit her that day, and today her feelings had screamed ‘Red!’ while her logical mind had picked that wish apart, along with every other compromise she tried to make. She had to make a delicate balance: it had to be decent, suitable for daytime and not overdressed, and yet she had to be noticeable, and her outfit had to be sexy. Not subtly sexy, in an unapproachable way (as she often liked to be), but sexy-sexy, “come and get me” sexy, in a way that was still appropriate for sunlight. In the end she decided on an old red and white striped dress with a full knee-length skirt, with girlish pumps and a wide-brimmed red hat. The neckline was slightly lower than what was respectable, and she liked that, only wishing that she had the cleavage required for its full effect, instead of her stretch of lightly mounded pale chest.

This was a delicate and important mission, after all. Three weeks had passed since Hugh had last contacted her. He never answered his messages and he was always out of the house when she tried to visit. He wasn’t ill or away on business, as Ms Raeline mentioned him whenever she came for her fittings – oh yes, he was still out in society, probably with some other woman. The blow to Cherie’s ego was harder than she would have liked. A whisper in her ear said it was because she was lacking, said that she was socially below him and somehow deficient and that was why he had dropped her. And of course she had to prove it wrong, didn’t she?

‘How do I look, honey?’ she asked Belle once she reached the kitchen. Her sister was reading over a score, alongside what looked like a history book. Without looking up, she pushed a plate with toast and marmalade in Cherie’s direction, then a glass of apple juice. Cherie took one bite from the toast, and waited for Belle to look at her.

‘Belle, Belly, how do I look?’

Belle’s eyes flicked up, ran up and down the outfit, and turned back to the score.

‘What’s it for?’

Why couldn’t her sister just tell her she looked pretty?

‘I’m going to visit Randi at the base. Do you think it’s too much?’

‘You’re getting dressed up to visit Randi?’ Belle asked with a smirk. Cherie took a swig of apple juice in irritation.

‘As a matter of fact I am, and I’ll have you know that I look wonderful this morning, thank you. I’ll see you later. Have fun at school.’

With that, Cherie grabbed her bag and left the house, not noticing how her sister sighed and pulled the nearly untouched plate of breakfast back towards herself.

She took a dress box, neatly tied with ribbon and a handle as she always made them, but unusually empty. It was for her ruse, if she needed one. She had never been to the new Court Base, so she didn’t know how strict they would be on letting her in; at the Docks, of course, they asked for proof of invitation and seemed immune to her charms, but she had always found that the closer to the Palace one came, the softer the men were. The Court Base was repurposed from the old Embassy building, and so was large and white and remarkably pleasing to the eye, indistinguishable from all the Court buildings except for the uniformed men and women walking around outside. Cherie smiled at everyone she saw and was able to walk through the front door by only flashing her identification. The lobby was cool and dark, and at the large front desk there sat only one person: an older woman who shared the same approach to fashion as Bernadette. Damn.

‘Hello,’ Cherie said, walking to her immediately though the woman was facing her files. ‘I’m looking for Officer Randi? Artemis Randi?’

The woman looked at her and rolled an appraising eye over Cherie and her ensemble.

‘What is your purpose?’ she asked, returning to her paper.

‘It’s very important, see, I have a commission to deliver to her and she was most insistent that it came today so –’

‘Officer Randi is currently training a squad in the East Quadrangle,’ the woman said – a rote speech, considering how little effort she put into it. ‘Very dangerous training involving gem refraction.  Absolutely no civilians are permitted.’

Cherie took a moment to judge how much this woman would permit, and took the chance.

‘I see. Well, this is very urgent – could I possibly drop it off at her locker or somewhere near about?’

‘Check your I.D.’ the receptionist said. After the briefest of glances at Cherie’s card, she nodded at the door behind her. ‘Rooms are on the left. Hers is 221.’

Cherie thanked her and walked away as quickly as she dared, quietly unsettled by the shoddy security even though it worked in her favour. Must be because it’s a new base, she thought to herself. Or, she added as she walked past one of the several mirrors along the wall of the corridor, it’s because a base so close to the Palace doesn’t need much security, since the Queen is nearby…

She calculated which way was east, and walked in that direction, smiling and nodding at every soldier who passed her, certain to make eye contact. All three of them stared after her as she walked past, and her confidence returned with that gaze. Thinking happy thoughts, she soon found the East Quadrangle. A few windows looked out onto it from this side, and her smile grew as she saw row after row of bodies standing in lines – predominantly male.

She pushed open the door and patted the top of her hat as she looked around. About thirty people stood in the quadrangle: two-thirds male. All were dressed in the royal blue shirts and trousers of the sky-mage troop, their signature fingerless gloves weighing heavily in their hands. A few recruits turned and saw her, and nudged their neighbours to look. Nudging and staring was all they could do, since someone at the front was speaking to them in a commanding tone – surprisingly effective, considering Randi’s husky and relatively high-pitched voice.

Cherie walked around to the side of the group with the self-conscious grace of a princess, until she saw the officer herself. She had never seen Randi in her work outfit before, and marvelled at how well she suited having her hair scraped back into a high ponytail – though of course if it was up to Cherie then she wouldn’t be allowed to do anything with such marvellous hair. Randi had said it was a common in the North for people to have naturally white hair, but surely it couldn’t be common for hair to flash rainbow colours in the light? It was like the sun when refracted through a clear crystal; which, funnily enough, was similar to what Officer Randi was teaching that day.

‘You all know the basics of projection,’ Randi said to the soldiers. ‘It’s very important that you make sure your aim is correct before you project – and remember to compensate for the increased weight in your hands from the crystals. You may not think it’s much now, but when you’re trying to aim quickly, it can make a big difference. Now, in order to be an effective soldier, you need to make sure your blasts work with each other, and with your body – you’ve gotta have them in harmony, else you’ll blow yourself one way more than the other. And there is one very effective way to teach yourself to keep the four projections in balance.’

She changed her posture, putting one leg ahead of the other so they were slightly ahead and behind her torso. Palms down, she spread her hands away from her body on either side and, without any visible effort, four rippling, translucent pillars of colour erupted from her gloves and boot soles, pushing her up and off the ground. Cherie’s heart beat a little faster at the sight of Randi hovering two feet above the grass, at such a simple demonstration of the power of the crystals that Artemis Randi – the first sky-mage – had discovered. The recruits forgot about Cherie (that was fine, she forgot about herself) and snapped to attention, eyes shining with the wish that had brought them to this troop: the desire to fly. Randi smirked as she settled back on earth.

‘If you can’t balance the projections, you’ll fall immediately. Don’t think that this is like swimming, or standing slightly higher up – there is nothing to support you but your crystals, and gravity is always waiting for you, so every little movement requires a balancing of effort. Without the same weight on them and support underneath them, your feet can easily slip away from each other – and believe me, you don’t want to fall to the ground doing the splits!’ (Everyone winced, including Randi) ‘Don’t neglect your hands either – they’re essential for support, otherwise you’ll fall right onto your side. And always, always make sure they’re pointing downwards when projecting – you could seriously hurt someone if you don’t. So, today I want you to try what I just did – lift a little off the ground, and then come down. Split into groups of five, and try your best.’

Cherie leant against the wall and watched as the recruits formed teams. With all the movement, everyone who hadn’t previously noticed her now immediately spotted her red-and-white ensemble (she knew trusting her instinct for red was a good idea). Many of them whispered to each other and glanced at her, and she tried to return the gaze of everyone who laid eyes on her. There weren’t any truly handsome men here, only average-looking ones, but a few had cute features or genial eyes or straight and confident posture and that was all she needed. The true test, though, was which men would have the guts to approach her.

Of course, being so visible meant that she did not escape the notice of the commanding officer. Randi saw her and gave her a questioning look, and Cherie merely waved at her in reply, wondering whether she would come over and talk. No. Randi had a job to do, and she wasn’t going to waste her attention on this strange not-friend she had in Cherie. She turned to the teams and watched as they arranged themselves, one of the five preparing to make the hovering attempt, the other four surrounding them, ready in case something went wrong. Within a few moments, one man jolted himself high in the air, flipping over backwards and nearly falling on his neck, barely saved by his teammates.

‘Too much power,’ Randi called to him. ‘Be gentle at first! Just a few feet, remember?’

The next person was more successful, initially pushing herself too high then sinking down to hover above the grass. She looked as if she was on an invisible ice rink: her legs wobbled and threatened the splay apart at any moment, while her arms waved around her body. After a few seconds, she fell onto her back with a smack.

‘Good, everyone see that? Just balance your hands a bit more, and make sure your weight is centred. Good.’

So they continued, and with all the mistakes and falls it was very fun to watch. Many of the recruits glanced at Cherie, and she liked to think that some of those falls were caused by men trying hard to impress her, and choking spectacularly. The shouts of surprise and talk of technique were compounded with low muttering about the spectator. Cherie was happily engaged, watching it all, when Artemis Randi came over to her, pink-cheeked and angry.

‘What are you doing here?’ she demanded. ‘You know civilians aren’t allowed in the base. If I didn’t know you, I might think you’re a spy.’

Cherie raised an eyebrow but decided it would be low to make the obvious response. No-one knew why or how Randi had so quickly turned from spy to Queen’s favourite, or how she had managed to beg forgiveness at all from the monarch. It wasn’t a mentioned thing: only those who had been at the Lowlight Ball knew that she had been a spy, and luckily upper-class gossip normally went ignored by the military. The memory of that night grated on Cherie’s good will, as she remembered how the sky-mage had smashed Bernadette’s jaw and left her permanently scarred. No matter the Queen’s favour and Bernadette’s forgiveness, Randi was forever tainted in her eyes.

‘Oh, don’t mind me,’ she said, making her voice as light and casual as possible. ‘I’m just checking the talent.’

Randi looked confused, so Cherie helped her by looking at the recruits, finding one who was staring at her, and waving at him with her best smile. As the realisation grew on Randi, so did the disgust in her expression.

‘Get out,’ she said.

‘What?’ Cherie said. ‘I’m not hurting anyone, am I? I’m only standing here–’

‘I will not have you distracting my recruits just so you can window shop!’ Randi cried, far louder than she likely intended, since most of the students stopped and turned to them. ‘Get out, and if I ever catch you here again I’ll report you to the Royal Guards!’

Time to accept defeat. Cherie patted the top of her hat and called out to all the trainees watching.

‘I’ll be outside at Maxwell’s Café if you want to see me, boys!’

Randi looked as if she would hit her.

Cherie walked over to the doors back inside, soaking up the whispering as she passed. Before she had shut the door behind her, she heard Randi shouting at the recruits to shut up and concentrate.

She wasn’t going to leave yet. Watching the training was far too fun. So Cherie knelt by the window that looked onto the quadrangle and stayed until the end of session, watching as the group gradually learnt how to balance themselves above ground. As their faces flushed with success and happiness, Cherie couldn’t help but feel a little jealous at their defiance of gravity – the same jealousy she had whenever Belle did something amazing by Singing, a jealousy that would quickly dissipate when she remembered how different her wants and talents were from those she envied. As singing all day and being obsessed with music did not appeal to her, running around all day and being trained to risk your life was opposed to all of her interests. No, better to stay at home with her pins and material, and set her own schedule, even if it meant she could not calm someone with a note or divorce herself from the ground.

At the end of class, Randi gave another speech – this time facing the other direction, so Cherie could see her back and hear her clearly from the window.

‘So today you’ve learnt the basics of balancing in the air, and it’s good to see that most of you got it in the end. I’ve got one important thing to say, though, about conduct. While I applaud your situational awareness, you cannot let yourselves get distracted by every good-looking idiot who comes into your view.’

A few people tittered but Randi did not move.

‘I’m serious. The projections that come from your refraction are really, really dangerous. Yours probably aren’t too powerful yet, since you’re just starting, but once you get in full control, you absolutely cannot let yourself get distracted. Understand?’

A few half-hearted assents were muttered, and that wasn’t good enough for her. Randi raised a hand to the side, and with a crack, a blast of colour erupted from the circle on her palm and slammed into the wall on the other side of the quadrangle. Everyone watching her jumped in fright. Cherie had to move to the other side of the window to see the white plaster of the wall crumble to the grass, leaving a large circular dent in the stone.

‘That was not full power,’ Randi said, as the recruits goggled at her destruction. ‘Get it now? The projections can burn straight through a human body, killing you instantly. This is not a game, guys, so never let yourselves get distracted, or someone could die. Understand?’

The trainee sky mages straightened to attention and said ‘Yes, officer!’

‘Good. You are dismissed.’

Cherie took that as her cue to leave. She was surprised at how shaken she still felt as she walked back along the corridor, past the uncaring receptionist, and out into the sun. Randi’s words – and the implications behind them – had unsettled her, and she wondered if she could have possibly been hit by a stray beam. What would Belle do without her? And their mother…Cherie hated to think what havoc her birth mother would create if she held any wrath against the capital. One war was enough.

‘Ms Cherie, you look great today,’ Augusta said as she reached Mawell’s Café. Cherie’s shoulders dropped, as if those were the magical words she had needed all day.

‘Thank you,’ she said to the waitress as she sat down at her favourite outside table and threw her empty dress box onto her neighbouring seat. ‘Oh, I tell you, I need some creamy tea. Something hot and sugary.’

‘Had a hard day already?’ Augusta said with a suppliant smile. ‘It’s not even midday.’

‘Oh yes, there’s a thought,’ Cherie said, realising it was nearly lunchtime. ‘Be a dear and bring me some cake – a big slice to share. I’m expecting visitors.’

‘Of course,’ Augusta said, before disappearing inside.

Cherie took off her hat, and patted her hair where she could still feel its pinch. She told herself to forget about Randi, and her crystals and flying and treachery. She was alive and safe, unharmed by projections, and her birth mother would never have an excuse to go against the Queen. And, she thought as she spotted three royal blue outfits walking towards the café, it seems my adventure may have been worth it in the end.

Written by G.J.

24/10/2012 at 12:46 pm

Savage Writing: Ru Fortescue

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This week’s theme was “Chichester-Fortescue”, inspired by a portrait on the wall of the pub room where we meet. Ended up spilling this at the last minute, and it turned out to be a longer piece which reads pretty quickly. Read it in your best Scottish teenager voice.

__

I started going out with Ru because I was bored. You know, that kind of life-boredom that sinks in every so often, where you just want to stand up and do something crazy. It was like that. Well, going out with Ru wasn’t crazy back then – in fact, it was pretty normal, and it was apparently obvious to everyone around us that we’d go well together, and they’d just been waiting for it to happen. I didn’t really think about it until he asked me out, and then I thought for a couple of seconds, realised that I had nothing really fun going on at the moment, and said ‘Sure.’

It’s not like either of us was the romantic type. I mean, we would just hang around with our friends, talking and listening to music and watching Ross Cable and his friends fail at skateboarding. Ru had only started at our school a few years ago, and he was really quiet and first and probably only hung out with us because we were the only other people in our year that had lip piercings and dyed hair. The first time I remember even noticing him was when I made an obscure Simpsons quote and he was the only one that laughed, so it went from there. We were friends, and that was cool. His family lived away in the country so he lived with his grown-up cousin instead, and that was cool, and he had a guitar and three different games consoles and LOADS of music and CDs, and that was awesome. Apart from that, we just hung out, and one time at his he said, ‘D’you fancy going to the cinema later?’ and I said ‘Sure,’ and he said, ‘Like, as a date,’ and I said ‘Are you asking me out?’ and he said, ‘Like, I guess.’ Not much changed after that for a while; took him two weeks to get the courage to put his arm round me, let alone kiss me.

Anyway, none of that’s the point. The point is I wasn’t exactly in to him, and was only going out with him for a change of pace, to mix things up in the group, that sort of thing. He didn’t really talk much about his old school – said they were all wankers – or why he was living with his cousin and not his family, but we didn’t ask that kind of thing as long as there were better things to talk about, which there always was. So I was surprised when I said I wanted to go see Squirrel Bait but they were only playing in Edinburgh, and I’d have nowhere to stay, and he said ‘You can stay at my house.’

‘I thought you lived out in the middle of nowhere?’ I said.

‘Yeah, but I can get us a lift back after the gig,’ he said.

‘Well, okay, whatever,’ I said, because I didn’t really like the idea of seeing his actual family. I guess I imagined they were pig farmers or something.

Still, I wasn’t going to miss the chance to go see my favourite band, so I wore my best gig clothes – everything black and tight except my pink hair, with fishnets and boots bigger than my head. Most of the time we wore practically the same clothes – if he’d been a little shorter we could have swapped them – but that night he wore a black shirt and tie with piano keys on it, had an entire tub of gel in his hair, and we looked AWESOME. We went through on the train, and the gig was great. During one of the romantic songs Ru kissed me and I actually thought it was rather sweet. Afterwards, I was buzzing from the music – ears literally buzzing – and we went outside to wait for his parents to pick us up. I was looking for a big dirty landrover, but he pointed at this sleek car I could barely see in the dark, and his parents weren’t there – instead, he got in and said ‘Hi Mark,’ to the driver so I assumed it was his uncle or something. I still didn’t get it; I got in, said ‘Nice to meet you,’ to the guy up front, then gibbered about the music all the way back. You know, the countryside is DARK at night, so I didn’t bother looking out the windows until some lights came up ahead – brighter lights than I expected, a bit much for a farmhouse I thought. Then I looked out the window – and I swear, it was like a cartoon, my jaw hit the floor.

It was like some kind of stately home – long, loads of windows, old and dignified-looking with big steps out the front and bushes and walls at the back, leading to gardens I guess. And the car was heading straight for the front of it, as if that was its destination. I turned and looked at Ru, and he seemed completely calm, like it was normal.

‘Dude,’ I said, ‘no way is this your house.’

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Did I never tell you?’

‘Tell me what? That you lived in a castle?’

‘It’s not a castle, it’s a house. Fortescue House.’

The car stopped and he stepped out and jogged up the steps like it was nothing, me grabbing my bag and running after him. He pushed open the door – what kind of family doesn’t lock their stately home? – and walked in, shouting ‘Hey guys, it’s me!’

‘Rupert, we’re through here!’ a voice called. I snorted.

‘Rupert?’

‘It’s my name,’ he said, looking a bit hurt, I admit. ‘Rupert Chichester-Fortescue. I’m just Ru Fortescue at school.’

I wouldn’t know – I wasn’t actually in any of his classes. ‘So, what, you’re secretly some duke or something?’

‘No, I’m a Lord,’ he said. ‘Come on, mum wants to say hi.’

I followed him into a side corridor – this all took place in a MASSIVE woody-panelled hall, by the way – and he went into this HUGE living room, the sort of thing from a period drama, with a roaring fireplace and hound dogs and two people in jeans and jumpers sitting reading next to it.

‘Hey mum, dad. This is my girlfriend, Linzi.’

They were average looking parents. I mean that in a bad way. Don’t rich people know they’re not allowed to look like everyone else? Didn’t Ru know that?!

‘Nice to meet you,’ his mum said with a nice smile. ‘Did you have a good gig?’

‘Yeah, it was good. Gonna head to bed. Is a room made up?’

‘Yeah, the grey room’s ready for you. David’ll wake you up for breakfast. Don’t be late!’

‘Cool,’ he said, and whisked me away. I googled his parents later and found out his dad – who didn’t say a word to me – was a goddamn earl. Just not fair, for rich people to look so normal. He wasn’t even wearing any tweed!

‘Wait, wait,’ I said as Ru took me back into the hall and up the stairs. ‘You’re a lord. And you have, what, servants to drive you about and make you breakfast?’

‘They’re not servants!’ he said, sounding pretty offended. ‘They’re staff! Anyway, I’ll show you your room. If you like, tomorrow I can show you about the grounds -‘

‘Wait one fucking minute,’ I said, stopping on the landing. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were mega rich?’

‘I’m not mega rich. We’re just an old family,’ he said. ‘Why are you going off on me, man?’

‘I dunno! I didn’t expect it! If you’d warned me I would have worn a dress or something!’

It was a lie – I didn’t own any dresses. But most of my clothes would have been better than my foot-stomping boots and leather miniskirt.

‘Jesus, we’re not like the royal family or something. We’re just like normal people.’

‘Dude,’ I said, ‘this is not normal!’

‘I know!’ he said. ‘Fuck’s sake, man. I knew it was a good thing I never mentioned it. I moved to town to get away from all that snobbery shite, Linzi. I thought you’d be better than to judge me on it.’

Why the hell would he think that? He barely knew me, like I barely knew him. But he sounded upset and I guess it caught my imagination, the idea of someone wanting to get away from private schools and people who say “ooh, yah”, into whatever rich-person idea of normality he had. Like three games consoles and a guitar in a big detached house.

‘I don’t judge you,’ I said. ‘I mean, if you wanna live normally, I guess that’s cool. I just wish you’d warned me. I’m totally losing my buzz from the gig here.’

He smiled. He was pretty cute when he smiled.

‘Come on then,’ he said. ‘Knowing mum, she’ll want us up at stupid o’clock for breakfast, so we should probably sleep.’

You know that bit in Pride and Prejudice where Lizzy Bennet sees Mr Darcy’s house for the first time, and even though she’s been all principled up til then, she admits she’s a shallow bitch and likes him more because he has a nice house? I want to say it was like that, because that’s simple and makes me seem like a bad person. But it wasn’t like that. I did like Ru more after that, but I actually hated visiting his house, and I never told anyone that he was some Lord from the country until they found out themselves, because that Lord wasn’t him, that was the Rupert Chichester-Fortescue guy whose name was on the peerage registry. I guess I liked him more because I admired how well he’d left it behind, or something. I dunno. What it comes down to is that, though I only started going out with him because I was bored, I stayed with him because I suddenly appreciated how cool it was to hang around with a guy that laughs along when the skaters fail their flips, and who gets all your obscure Simpsons quotes. The rest of it just grew from there, and I was never very bored again.

__

I have a friend who is an actual lady. She had a dyed pixie crop at the time I found this out, and a giant tattoo of a cherry blossom branch all over her back, so I couldn’t believe it, but it’s true. She’s also a writer and was in my first writing group in Glasgow. Life’s funny sometimes.

P.S. Ru is a perfectly acceptable shortening of the boy’s name Ruaridh (roo-ree). Rupert is a completely non-acceptable name for a Scottish boy 😛

Written by G.J.

17/10/2012 at 10:50 pm

Riverboat Part 11: The Three Ladies of The Endeavour

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Helena was the easiest to resolve. Clark’s cousin Margaret was the woman in question who had “stolen” her man. One look at Margaret told us all that she could never steal anything. She was petite, brunette and pale, and when I told her of what was happening she fretted and wrung her hands very prettily.

‘Oh dear,’ she said. ‘My poor Edward. He’s been so afraid of her, with you all shooting at him each time he passed. What an awful woman.’

Laneham raised his eyebrows at me and I ignored him.

‘We want to stop all this fighting,’ I said. ‘Would you two please talk with her, and come to peace?’

Her eyes grew very large.

‘Oh, no, that would be far too dangerous!’

I looked at Laneham and consulted with him. Christian and his men were interviewing more people that day, related to the deaths of John Eynham and Thomas Bainbridge – ‘But golly, we’re going to press them for every piece they can give us about all the rest’ – and had requested I do something else helpful, such as end a matter that was of no concern to the police. Another crime not yet committed.

‘What if we made sure it was safe? Would you do it then?’

‘Well…I suppose it would be for the best, but–’

‘Then it’s decided.’

We arranged a meeting. Laneham kept close to me on the way out.

Why are you smiling? I signed.

I like everyone to see us together.

He was happy that I was not on the Endeavour, and relished taking me to Margaret without anyone else between us, including Clark. Clark had told Laneham where Margaret was, not me; he was silent towards me now. Both he and Laneham waited impatiently for Archibald Hunter’s capture and until that happened he would not even attempt to be civil, especially because of what I had done to Alexander Strong. I understood. It did not make me happy – none of it made me happy – but I understood.

Both the Sunrise and the Endeavour were still working, so such meetings with Laneham or Isabel were rare and had to be well-prepared. Both their captains had cut back the scale of travel, never going more than a few days away, but still it made some things difficult. Laneham left that night, and I had to wait two days for Isabel and her crew to return. I let her know the arrangements and she brought the full force of her position down on Helena. When I saw Helena the next morning, red in the face and sulking, I was glad I was no longer on that ship. I missed their chatter, and I missed Isabel’s arms, and her soft lips – but here on land, walking by myself, and thinking how to make things better, I felt free, truly free, for the first time in my life.

We sat them all down in my house. My parents were, as always, unimpressed, but Isabel gave them some money – ‘for looking after one of my crew’ – and they let us be. She had regained all her strength and authority as if she had never faltered, or never heard of a man named Alexander Strong. No, her passion was directed elsewhere now, and we were finally no longer at odds – though I refused to return to her boat until this was all over.

Helena coloured when Margaret and Edward came in, and I knew it was only Isabel’s presence, looming behind her, that stopped her from moving. Margaret squeaked and scurried away from her. Edward put his arm around her and stepped forward to begin.

‘Helena,’ he said, voice full of solemnity. Helena looked away and folded her arms awkwardly over her chest.

‘I have nothing to say to you.’

‘You seem to have plenty to say when my ship passes you.’

‘That’s no matter here.’

‘Your friend Edie obviously thought it was a matter,’ he said, glancing at me. ‘Please, Nelly. Don’t you think this has gone on long enough?’

‘Don’t you dare care me “Nelly” in front of that whore!’ Helena snapped, turning the full force of her glare onto him. Margaret shivered beside him, but Edward only dropped his chin and looked at her sadly.

‘Helena,’ he said. ‘We had fun. You know it was fun. But I never thought it was more than that, and I never lied to you or gave you any wrong impressions. You knew I could never marry you.’

‘You’re a lying scoundrel,’ Helena said, turning away from him, her face flaring red.

‘I told you, and you knew it,’ he said, voice firm but bushy eyebrows twitching. ‘And I don’t hold with all this Hunter-Cooper nonsense, but you’ve made us part of it and now Maggie fears for her life and mine. It has to stop. You have to stop your grudge against us.’

‘“Not part of it”?’ Helena spat. ‘You made yourself part of it when you pushed me away for a Bainbridge, and traded all your Hunter contacts for Coopers. Do you know how much that cost my parents? Do you have any idea what they thought of me?’

I could feel Isabel’s shock – everyone’s shock – as we noticed the tears gleaming in her eyes.

‘They thought they were going to have a daughter on a ship and well looked after, firm business, and instead they lost it all and got a fallen woman instead. I can’t look them in the eye any more, because of you – and you ask me to forgive you?’

Edward didn’t say anything. I was transfixed. I’d never seen Helena show any weakness before, and I had never truly known about her situation – I’d just thought she was a spurned lover.

‘Miss Bailey,’ came a nervous voice, and Margaret stepped out from behind her beau. She was visibly trembling.

‘I don’t ask you to forgive me,’ she said. ‘But please understand – we couldn’t help falling in love. I didn’t know about your parents expectations – and having business with my family was, was easier – but whatever went wrong for you, please understand…it’s hard for us as well. We’re frightened. I – I’m frightened – of you! We haven’t married yet because of this – our lives are paused because of you!’

Helena had fixed her stare on Margaret, but the girl didn’t quail under it. She kept speaking to the end, even though I felt I would have faltered under such a penetrating, tear-filled look.

‘Please,’ she finally said, meeting Helena’s eyes. ‘Please.’

Helena looked at the ground. She didn’t speak for a very long time, and I was sure that Edward or Margaret or even Isabel would say something else, but no-one spoke. Finally, we heard her voice again: quiet, stilted, her breathing uneven.

‘I keep telling myself that I don’t care,’ she said. ‘I don’t care what pain it causes you because it can’t be anything like what I feel. But look at you – you’re a mouse. You’re not like the other Bainbridge scum. How did that happen?’

She swallowed and breathed in.

‘I don’t care. I don’t. You’re both scum.’

But even as she whispered it, she closed her eyes and shook. Edward must have sensed her weakness.

‘Will you please leave us be?’ he said. ‘I’m sorry if you thought we were more than we were, but we both have new lives now. We need to move on.’

Helena opened her eyes and glared at him. Her pride was high, but the fight was over.

‘I’ll let you move, then,’ she said. ‘You’re not worth it, anyway.’

She stood up and left the room. Edward and Margaret thanked me from their hearts – Margaret looked like she was going to cry – and said that if I ever needed anything, I should ask.

‘You can’t repay goodness,’ Isabel said, her voice stern.

‘I’d disagree,’ Edward said, ‘and I’ll prove it in future.’

‘Helena’s safety is all I want,’ I said, and I let them think what they would about my wishes for their own safety.

Helena had walked through to my bedroom. She was sitting on the bed, head in her hands, cursing and cursing like a true sailor.

‘Bastard,’ she said as Isabel sat down next to her. ‘Claiming he never said anything – claiming not to realise. What kind of fool sleeps with a girl and thinks she’s not in love with him? I would still kill him. In a heartbeat, I’d still kill him, but the girl…’

She sighed and sat up, brushing her hair behind her ears.

‘She’s welcome to him. I feel sorry for her. She’ll realise what she’s done in a few years. My time is better spent than on her.’

‘And we need you more,’ Isabel said, putting her arm round her and kissing her head. Helena gave a weak smile.

‘I don’t feel glad, Edie,’ she said, looking up at me, ‘and I still hate you for making me see them both together – but maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow. Maybe it will feel better in time.’

I squeezed Isabel’s hand as I saw them back to the boat, and she nodded to me. It wasn’t a clear resolution, but I hadn’t hoped for such. Emotions took time to calm and grudges weren’t easily forgiven. Isabel had been quieter than normal since it began; Laneham more grim. I understood. A web of resentment was hard to untangle, and some knots just needed to be left to unfurl over time.

*

            It was all interconnected, it seemed. One spark had set the kindling of competition and resentment in the docks into five simultaneous fires, and picking those fires apart, with their crossing motives of vengeance, was hard. The police had found information on deaths beyond my knowledge – Robert Cooper, Thomas McBain, a nameless man dropped in the Thames – and I was little help in such depths.

‘What about Archibald Hunter?’ I asked. Christian snorted.

‘Miss Eynham’s information was a year out of date, and the other Hunters we’ve had in very tight-lipped about it. We’ve next to nothing to go on.’

My heart sank. If I didn’t keep my part of the bargain with Laneham and Clark, I would lose their help forever, love or no love. I had counted on Isabel’s information being helpful – but then, as she herself had said, she was not a favourite Mrs Hunter’s by a long way. How long would it take before the men on the Sunrise grew too impatient to wait for the police? I wasn’t playing favourites, but in such a situation it would look no other way to them.

‘Well…’ I said, struggling for something else to hold to, ‘what about John S. Cooper?’

‘Ah,’ Christian said, ‘we know he’s holed up somewhere near Clapham, but beyond that we’ve no clue.’

‘None?’

He gave me a keen look.

‘Unless our young street detective can help us.’

‘I’ll try,’ I said, even though I had no idea what I was doing. When I reached home I sat with my head in my hands for a long time, wondering what to do. Those two men were the only ones I cared about now; I was happy to leave the rest to Christian. I didn’t know Clapham. Laneham had assured me that no-one on Clark’s side of the family knew where John S. Cooper was. Even Mr Cooper himself didn’t know, he said, and – though the whole matter was kept quiet – he said everyone knew that Mr Cooper had a good reason to want to find the fugitive himself. Wherever he was hiding, no-one in the two families knew. On the other hand, appealing to Mrs Hunter, who was likely the only person that knew where her son was, was unthinkable. If I couldn’t do anything to find them, then what was the point of my being on land? What was the point in any of it? I would have failed in my resolve to help both the Endeavour and the Sunrise.

My ship came in the next day, and I decided to ask Harriet what she knew, as painful as I knew it would be. However, when I saw the crew on the dock, my eyes fell on Frances, and I remembered where we had picked her up: near Battersea, not far from Clapham. Isabel welcomed me and asked me how everyone was with the police; I ignored her in favour of asking questions.

‘How do you know Frances, captain?’

She looked surprised, glancing back at her.

‘She was a friend growing up – her family worked on the shore, and she stayed doing that. Her husband was one of the few business owners left who dealt with both Hunters and Coopers, before he fell to gambling.’

I nodded, an idea spreading in my mind. She took me on board, and everyone sat by the table and asked how it was going.

‘Not well,’ I admitted, trying to avoid Harriet’s eyes. She looked as if she had been living on a knife edge since her cousin had been taken in for Robert Cooper’s murder. ‘Well, the police are doing well, but they’re struggling to find some people.’

‘Like who?’ Mary asked, though everyone else knew who.

‘I gave you all I knew,’ Isabel said. ‘Surely they have –’

‘No,’ I said. ‘They’ve no idea where Archibald Hunter is. Or John S. Cooper,’ I added. Harriet stood up.

‘I should have known it’d all be useless,’ she muttered, before leaving the room. I glanced at Frances, and saw her eyes down, pale-faced, biting her nails. Some of them looked as if they had bled, since she had been bitten so far down.

‘But surely there must be way,’ Isabel said. ‘There must be some way to find information. I’ll – I’ll ask Uncle Charles. If I do, he’ll tell Mrs Hunter, but I can take her wrath.’

‘No, don’t do that yet,’ I said, shuddering inside. If Mrs Hunter knew that Isabel wanted the police to find her son, she would take the boat – and that would ruin everyone, including me. ‘Wait a little longer. I’ll find a way.’

I stayed for dinner, and then I searched out Frances when everyone split up, making an excuse to Isabel as to why I couldn’t stay with her. She must have suspected something – her eyes were very searching, knowing she was being deceived – but it couldn’t be helped. This was for everyone’s good.

‘Fran,’ I said casually, sitting beside her as she scrubbed the washing. ‘Do you need help?’

‘I’m fine,’ she said, but I helped her in silence for a minute or so.

‘I wish I could do something more for the police, but I can’t.  I don’t know enough to help anyone.’

She said nothing. I considered mentioning her wrecked fingers, but that would have been too obvious. Instead I let the silence sit a little longer before saying:

‘How has Harriet been?’

Her shoulders tensed.

‘Since Mr Armitage was taken in, I mean. Must be awful for her to lose more of her family.’

‘She’s had a bad time of it,’ Frances said quietly.

‘I imagine so. And now there’s no sign of John Cooper…’

Frances scrubbed the clothes harder, and I looked at her, wondering which way was the best to tackle this. She was quiet, and meek, and secretive – and as I remembered how she had admitted to knowing about Alexander Strong’s whereabouts, without telling Isabel, I realised how I should go.

‘Well, actually, there is. I lied.’

‘What?!’

She dropped the clothes in her hand and turned on me.

‘They’ve an idea of where he is.’

‘Then why didn’t you say that?’ she cried. ‘You don’t know how upset Harriet’s been – the only thing keeping her going is the idea that he’ll be caught!’

‘If you care so much about her,’ I said, ‘then why don’t you help the police to find him?’

She started back, bewilderment mixing with the anger on her face.

‘What do you mean? I en’t going near the police.’

‘He’s somewhere in Clapham. I don’t know the place, but you do – don’t you?’

The fear in her expression intensified and she shook her head.

‘He wouldn’t be…he wouldn’t be…’

‘Why not?’ I asked. ‘Have you ever met him? Did your husband ever work for him?’

The mention of her husband set her standing and I knew I must stop her from running away.

‘If you know anything, Harriet’ll never forgive you. No-one on this boat will ever forgive you!’

She stopped, turned, and sat down again, and I quietly sighed with relief. She picked up the washing, and after a few minutes she started speaking in a choked voice.

‘I want to help her, Edie, I do, but I can’t.’

‘Why can’t you?’ I asked, careful that I was gentler this time.

‘Because,’ she said, and sniffed. I waited, but she said no more.

‘But she’s your friend, Fanny. You said yourself how much this means to her–’

‘I know,’ she said. ‘But I can’t. I – I don’t want to go near that place again.’

‘What place?’ I asked, suddenly alarmed. ‘You mean you actually know where he is?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘I mean prison.’

I didn’t understand. I looked at her for a few seconds as she wiped her face on her elbow. I had never seen her look so thoroughly miserable since the day we took her on board. It took me longer than I like to admit to realise what she meant.

‘You husband might know where he is?’

She nodded. ‘When Wat was hiding from the debtors, he found places all round town for us to hide, and said he knew more. The prison’s in Brixton, just near Clapham. And John liked Wat, even if he never forgave him for never giving his money back…’

‘So this whole time, you’ve known you could ask your husband, and he might know where he is?’

I didn’t mean to hurt her – just to state what she had done – but being faced with it seemed too much for her.

‘I hate prison!’ she sobbed. ‘And I hate my husband! I want him to rot behind bars and never see him again! I can’t go back there, Edie, I can’t…’

This was the best chance I had of helping the crew, and it relied on my ability to convince Frances. I did not trust myself to be that persuasive. But in the end, she only needed one thing:

‘Please,’ I said, ‘just once. I’ll come with you.’

She jerked her head towards me, shocked.

‘You would?’

I instantly regretted my offer, but what else could I do?

‘Yes. If you don’t want any police involved, I’ll come along and then afterwards I’ll tell them everything – and you can come back here and forget about him. Will you do it then?’

She sniffed, gathered her courage, and said yes. We made plans to meet the next morning, and travel to Brixton prison.

Isabel caught me on my way out.

‘What are you up to?’ she demanded.

‘I’m taking Fanny to see her husband tomorrow,’ I said. ‘Don’t tell anyone else.’

She frowned.

‘Why would you do that?’

‘Just a favour for a friend,’ I said. She narrowed her eyes, clearly thinking I meant one of the men she disliked so much. It was a shame I could not tell her the truth, but I knew even her forgiveness might not stretch if she knew how far Frances’s secrecy had gone this time.

*

I very quickly understood why Frances hated prison so much. It was a large, imposing building, surrounded by guards. As soon as we stepped in the front door we could hear the clamour of hundreds of people talking and complaining and shouting, and louder voices shouting over the top to keep quiet. The very walls seemed colder here than any other building, and the gaolers glared at us every moment we were in their eye range. The entire place stank of sweat and metal.

Frances’s husband had not begun work yet – we arrived early, just after breakfast. We were taken to a small room, where the wall had small, barred windows into the adjoining room. I had held her arm until this point, but as soon as she saw that adjoining room, she stopped shaking.

‘Edie,’ she said. ‘I think you’ll need to wait outside.’

‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘I came here to support you. If he knows where John S. Cooper is, then I need to hear it so I can tell–’

‘I don’t think he’ll tell me anything if you’re here,’ she said, biting her nails again. ‘Wat’s not…he won’t talk if he thinks you’ll squeal. Thanks for taking me this far, but – please, go outside.’

I frowned, unwilling to trust her.

‘If he knows something…you will tell me. If you say he knows nothing, I’ll tell everyone why we really came here.’

Her eyes widened, and we heard footsteps nearing.

‘That’s not fair! Please, I will tell you – you’ve brought me this far, please! Just leave!’

I left as I heard the door in the adjoining room clang open. There were no seats outside that room, so I had to stand there for a long time, and had to repeatedly justify my reason for being there to every bull-faced guard that passed, including a few that thought I might be smuggling something in. All in all, by the time Frances came back out, I was red-faced and incredibly angry – but my anger had to fade when I saw how shot she looked. I asked her what had happened, but she walked past me and said nothing until we left the prison, and the grounds, and were safely out on the street again.

‘He is in Clapham,’ she said. ‘God help me. He visited long ago and Wat told him where was safe. Can you believe it, I’ve hid there myself!’

I grabbed her hand again, and took her by the arm as we walked towards the docks. She told me the address of John S. Cooper’s hiding place.

‘How was your husband?’ I asked, trying to be kind. She shook her head.

‘I had to lie to him to get him to tell me. Said I needed help. He actually looked upset at the thought! As if he has no idea what it was like for me to be beside him the whole time…’

‘You’re safe now,’ I said.

‘I know,’ she said, voice cracking again. ‘Everyone on the boat is my family. How could I have been so bad to them all this time?’

I tried to placate her, and tell her that her fear had merely overcome her, but I could give her no real solace. We reached the docks and I let her go, knowing the Endeavour was within sight. I double-checked the name of the hiding place, and ran to Scotland Yard.

‘You’re a star, Miss Heinlein,’ Christian McNeil said, as he scribbled down the address and grabbed his jacket. ‘I knew I could count on you.’

I had thought he had been sarcastic. He grabbed the men and rushed out, and I sat in the station and waited for their return. But before long, the door opened and an entirely different troop walked in.

‘Isabel!’ I said, jumping from my seat. ‘What are you all doing here?’

‘Fanny told us the truth,’ she said. Frances was at the back, red-eyed and looking virtuous. The idiot.

‘Where is he?’ Harriet asked, voice hoarse. ‘Where is he?’

‘Get out, you can’t be here,’ I said, glancing at Isabel and hoping she would back me.

‘I have every damn right to see that man,’ Harriet said.

‘They’re not back with him yet – please, leave, you’re not calm enough for this Ha–’

‘Don’t you tell me what I’m calm enough for! You think I can sit by happily while you all have your closure, without a single look at the man who ruined my life?’

She didn’t want just a look.

‘Isabel, please, she’ll cause trouble–’

‘I’m doing what’s best for my crew, Edie,’ Isabel said. ‘After this, we’re all free. We need to be here to support her.’

I opened my mouth to argue more, when the door opened again, and four men came in, with another in cuffs between them. John S. Cooper looked as if he had been hiding under a bush for months. His hair and beard were straggly, his clothes torn and patched, his eyes bloodshot. Christian saw me.

‘Hey, halt a minute boys,’ he said with a smile. ‘Miss Heinlein, have you brought friends to see your spoils?’

I was about to tell him to keep walking, that for heaven’s sake he should take his prisoner away from that hall, but Harriet stepped forward, her beautiful face a white rictus of hate, so filled with rage that I thought it must destroy her.

‘Is this John S. Cooper?’ she said. The prisoner laughed and straightened.

‘Pretty lady, are you the May girl that’s they say is out to get me?’

‘Christian, please–’ I started.

‘You killed my husband,’ Harriet said, icy voice cutting through everything – even the footsteps in the other halls of the station seemed to stop at her words.

‘Indeed I did,’ John S. Cooper said, with a grim smile.

‘Why?’ she demanded. ‘He never did anything to you!’

Why would the policemen not keep moving? They, and the crew of the Endeavour, seemed entranced by this conversation.

‘Lemme tell you something, pretty lady,’ the prisoner said, because everyone let him keep talking to her. He seemed glad to speaking about his crime to an audience. ‘When David Cooper lost all feeling in his legs, and faced being crippled the rest of his life, he asked me who it was that shot him. I told him it was one of the May family. And then he – the dearest cousin anyone ever had – asked me two things: to end his life, because it wasn’t worth living no more, and to avenge him against the May family.  And I did both those things, his last wishes on earth. And for doing that, I have had no thanks but being hounded by both sides.’

Harriet took another step forward and I tried to pull her back by the arm.

‘It was Elijah did that!’ she said, shaking me off. ‘He’s the one that shot David Cooper – we had nothing to do with that! How can justify killing an innocent man for no reason?’

John S. Cooper gave her another grimly satisfied, lop-sided smirk.

‘Family’s family. You had everything to do with it. Sins of the father, and such like.’

Harriet’s eyes flared wide. In one quick motion she pulled up her skirt, drew out her pistol, raised her arm – and I jumped on her, grabbing her wrist and wrapping my arm around her neck even though she was taller than me. She stumbled back, and I jerked her hand upwards as she tried to fire the shot. Her fingers slipped, and she cried out as I tore the pistol away from her grasp, and threw it onto the floor. Isabel swiftly picked it up as one of the officers and Mary grabbed the struggling woman and restrained her better than I could.

John S. Cooper started laughing.

‘Get him through!’ Christian shouted, before turning to me, red-faced. ‘And get her out of here!’

He and the policemen took the murderer down the hall, and the cackling laughter echoed down the hall long after they were out of sight. Harriet cried to be let go, but Mary, with help from Isabel and I, dragged her outside before releasing her. Harriet did not look at us. She stumbled away from us, and looked at the ground, breathing heavily. Then she put her face in her hands – and screamed.

I can’t imagine that I could have felt any more pity than I did for Harriet at that moment, so frustrated beyond anyone else on earth. She screamed into her palms and trembled, and we surrounded her and hugged her and tried to shield her from the stares of passers-by. She shook silently for a while afterwards, face still hidden in her hands, before she took two deep breaths and straightened, pushing us all away from her.

‘Captain,’ she said, turning to Isabel. Sorrowful and defeated, she still retained a shadow of the quiet strength she had shown us for so long.

‘I think it’s time I went home.’

Isabel nodded.

‘We will always be here if you need us,’ she said. Harriet shook her head.

‘There are people who need me more,’ she said, and with that she walked away. Mary and Helena and Frances trailed after her. Isabel tried to push something into my hand, and I instinctively pushed it away: I did not like guns.

‘Thank God you stopped her,’ she said, looking at the pistol in her hand. She looked shaken, as if she couldn’t understand such violence.

My heart was still beating too quickly. No-one else could have done it; no-one else, not even the officers, were waiting for her to act as I was. I didn’t reply to Isabel’s comment, because I knew I would only have scolded her stupidity. After all, the police officers could easily assume that Harriet had no weapons, but Isabel and everyone else from the Endeavour knew the truth.

‘Go after her,’ I said at last. ‘She needs you.’

She found my hand and squeezed it.

‘Please come by soon,’ she said, and left. I sighed, gathered myself, and walked into the station.

‘What the hell was that?!’ Christian said as soon as he found me. ‘You said you’d have people come in unarmed! Jesus, she could have killed any of us, Edie!’

I had to explain what had happened, and added plenty of angry remarks of my own about his men and his assumptions and inability to recognise when someone is trying to talk to him. It took a long time for us both to calm down. Finally, once everything was explained, he sighed and gave me thanks for helping to find such a wanted man.

‘It’s all coming together,’ he said. ‘We should be done with arrests soon. Most of the murderers in this mess are dead from revenge killing, so we can only grab those at the end of the line. There’s still the big one left, though – and we’ve reason to believe he’s the very one that started this whole mess.’

I nodded. One left. The man that started everything:

Archibald Hunter.

Written by G.J.

14/10/2012 at 8:17 pm

Posted in Riverboats

Tagged with , , , ,

After Diary – October

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02/10

Got a new bunch of survivors in today. Group of teenagers from Hillhead High. They said they would’ve been here sooner, but they stopped and checked for people in nearly every house, shop and flat between the west end and here. I’m guessing they’re all Immunes, since they should’ve all been at school when the plague hit.

Leader’s a 16 y/o boy called JJ. He said they left most of the younger immunes back with the surviving students and lecturers and came here to see if we had any electricity or working tech. Did he really think anything in Buchanan Galleries would have working tech if the uni didn’t?

Sent them on to Osian, he’ll see if they’re immune and check any other health problems. That’ll get some grumbles from Old Eddie, since it’s been weeks since Osian looked him over and he’s always complaining of pain. I’d really hoped one of them wouldn’t ask the usual stupid questions, but of course one girl – when I told her who Osian was – asked if we had any idea what the Plague was. Stupid bint. Not even the best chemist could explain ninety-something % of people just falling to dust for no reason.

Still, it’ll be good to have young folk for work on storage, and maybe some of them can train up to help Osian. Can’t believe it’s October. Still haven’t found all the non-spoiled food, or all the seeds we need for when spring comes around. The green’ll have to do for them, but I’m sure the first crop will taste like piss and heroin no matter what. At least a few people know how to grow plants – old people good for something!

Another girl asked if we hadn’t gotten a generator yet, saying the infirmary must have one. Had to explain it doesn’t have enough power for more than a day, and we’d have to take most of us away from everyday work just to find it, let alone move it. Keeping the rats away is more important. We have plenty of fur and fake-fur and duvets and all things to warm us up as it gets colder.

She said she just wanted a hot shower. Manky bastards have been washing in the Kelvin in the west end, and I don’t care what they say, it’ll be years before all the muck runs out of that dump. Told her to make like chinchillas and rub the dirt of with sand. God knows we’ve plenty of useless fucking smelly liquid too keep away the stink.

A boy, young one, said couldn’t we just use it to check the net and see if anywhere else was affected, and we all had to explain how everything went down within hours of the Plague hitting. Dumb fucks just think this stuff runs magically without people to maintain it. I miss being able to imagine that too. Mentioned that all the international students are crying back at the uni, and all the English and rest-of-Scotland people not knowing whether their families are alive. Scouting groups haven’t come back from Leith, let alone Edinburgh. They always get caught up in the East End somewhere. Osian says the biggest mistake we ever made was stopping using carrier pigeons. Made me laugh for the first time in a long while.

 

05/10

JJ’s girlfriend, Crystal, is pregnant. Free condoms in every shop, and a shop every three feet, and still the eejit managed to get her pregnant. Relieved, coz I thought she was chucking up bad food and Christ we can’t have cholera or any 19th century shit before we find a living sewage worker, or a plumber that’s not Eddie. Pissed off too, coz the chances of her living through birth are shit if a single thing goes wrong, and she’s tiny.

Most everyone else is happy – continuation of life is good for morale, I guess. Wonder what they would have said before the Plague. No more overpopulation/burden on the state Daily Mail bullshit, huh?

Took Crystal into the shops for bagging up, since she was a bit lost and I guessed some easy work would cheer her up. Had to explain how we find all the bags in the shop – we were in Internacionale under the station – and pack all the excess clothing (so all of it) into them, to protect them from damp and drips and rats and moths, for when we’ll need them. I thought telling her that she can just take whichever clothes she fancies and bag the rest would cheer her up, but I guess she’s used to just taking things now and doesn’t find it fun anymore. I know how she feels. When I first realised I could just take anything I wanted, I felt like I’d been let loose in the sweetie shop (in some literal way I was). But the buzz wears off when there’s no-one to chase you, or congratulate you, or even care – when it’s all just sitting there waiting to be taken. And when you realise that all this has got to last you for weeks and months, then it’s not fun any more.

‘Are we gonna burn them when it gets cold?’ she asked.

‘We’ll wrap up before we start burning things,’ I said, though I know full well that Eddie and Mark and Claire are all going to start a fire as soon as they get the chance, since there’s plenty of lighters and flammables about. I just hope they do it in an old pub fireplace and not in the concert hall foyer.

I told Crystal that if we did start burning things, the Disney store plushies would be the first to go, anything with a large amount of useless fuzz and flammable tat. She looked a bit upset at that – you know, the pregnant thing I guess – so I left it. At the end of the day, when we were walking back to the Hall for the evening, she looked confused and I asked her what was wrong.

‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘I just didn’t think the apocalypse would be so boring, that’s all.’

Same for everyone left alive. We expected fire or zombies or riots, but all we’ve got is a fat load of nothingness. We don’t even have bodies to bury. Just dust.

 

10/10

Keep thinking about all the people in tiny villages in the highlands, and all the people on the islands, and how fucking awful it would be to be the only person alive for miles and miles and miles. I’d probably steal a horse and ride it to civilisation. Can’t ride a bike. That’s why I’ve stayed here with the older and younger ones. Osian says I should learn, but I’ve got a whole fucking city centre to sort out and God knows sometimes I wonder if he even cares about us all surviving, sitting in his lab looking at dust that’s probably 50% his own dead skin and the rest made up of twenty different dead people. I’m not religious, but if I was I’d think this was an act of God, wiping out most of the people to start anew.
Most of the teenagers have gone back to the West End. JJ and Crystal are staying for the minute. JJ wants to wait until a scout party comes back with news of other survivors. I told him about the people in Govan, shacked up in Ibrox and the Asda, but he said he doesn’t give a shit about the South Side and just wants to know if any of his family in Kirkie are still alive. Don’t know why he’s holding his breath.

Louise is working well. Says she wants nothing more than a cup of hot coffee, but apart from that I’m glad she’s finally being useful in helping me while Claire and Mark look after Ben. After all, just because she found the kid doesn’t mean he’s hers. ‘Village to raise a child’ and all that – Claire’s been saying that a lot. Back to the old days. Yeah, but with a lot more useless junk. Every time I pass Paperchase and Red 5 I want to climb in and smash them to fucking pieces, all the toy helicopters and flimsy Superman bathrobes. Eddie says they’ll be useful somehow. Back in the past they used to recycle everything, the codgers say. It’ll all be useful in the end.

 

14/10

Worried about how our nutrition’s going to be in the winter. We’ve got a makeshift grill working in the ground floor of the hotel (fires started sooner than I expected) and plenty of pans and things, but everyone’s on the tinned spaghetti and ignoring all the tinned fruit and veg and beans (fucking beans, we’ve hundreds). Osian says don’t worry, people have lived off of worse. Still doesn’t give a shit. Has he never heard of scurvy?

 

17/10

Wish silk was warmer to wear. Wish the shops had stocked more winter jackets instead of “Fall” (wtf?) ones. The guys love their expensive real leather from down near the green – could never have afforded it if the owner was alive.
Louise and Crystal are friends. They’ve been cooking all the stuff from KFC and the other fast food places. That stuff’s so bad I bet it never goes out of date. Like honey. Anything so stuffed with sugar stays edible for years. Thank god for chocolate biscuits. Have restricted myself to three a day. They’re all that keeps me going.

 

20/10

Marie came back today. She looks exhausted but weirdly happy. Says that the East End’s come a long way. All the alkies dropped like flies of poisoning, but all the junkies ran out and started going spare and the last gang members were trying to be tyrants, so it was war until everyone else put their foot down. She’s buried actual bodies – that anyone could kill anyone after the Plague makes me fucking sick.

‘But the community’s come together,’ she said. ‘All the decent people who were sick of the trouble, they’ve all come together and they’re helping each other. It’s a real family!’

‘Does this mean we can finally get to east of Glasgow?’ Osian asked.

‘Robbie and Andy are already on their way there,’ she said. ‘Don’t worry.’

That made everyone happy. The sooner we know if Edinburgh is okay, the sooner we know how to sort ourselves out.
She said she was going to go away again – people in the East End need doctors more – but when Louise told her about Crystal she reconsidered. Still wasn’t enough to fully convince her, though. Said she’ll come back and check on her, and the rest of us, every few months. Flying Mary Poppins doctor, beautiful lady on her bike, has to go where she’s needed like a superhero. Turns out English Lit is even more worthless after the apocalypse than before.

JJ’s said he’s not going to wait much longer, and will go to Kirkie himself. Said he’ll come back and look after Crystal after that. Bet £1,000 he doesn’t. It’s okay to bet now – we’ve all got fucktons of money if we ever need it again.

 

27/10

It’s fucking cold and icy. Even with a whole city centre and more, I can still barely find decent winter boots. Swear it’s colder than it used to be. Must be the lack of electricity. God I miss it. I miss the news, if you can believe it. I miss the internet. Wonderful fucking magical internet. Connecting the whole world. Now I’d given anything for just a working phoneline.

I do not look good in these winter clothes. Dunno why that bothers me so much – I’ve got far bigger things to worry about – but it does. Crystal and Louise have that heroin-chic look that half the girls in poor cities do, where they’re stick-thin no matter what. Try to console myself that at least I know what I’m fucking doing to get this place back up and running, but it doesn’t work.

Might walk to Govan one day. Just to spite them all. But knowing my luck the people there wouldn’t need me and the people here would realise they don’t need me either. Osian says there’s no much to do in winter in agricultural societies, so we should just sit tight and try to make a working battery or some sort of power source. I can’t do that. I can’t do anything like that. All I’m good for is needless busywork and worrying. That day when nearly everyone on Sauchihall street just fell to pieces, I’d never felt so incredibly lucky to still be alive. Now, sometimes, I’m jealous of them.

 

31/10

Everyone’s pretending Hallowe’en still works to Ben. He got annoyed and said he was smart enough to know that Halloween doesn’t mean anything now, if there’s no houses to go round to, and sweets anywhere he wants. Shame. I felt like dressing up for a bit. There’s loads of Halloween stuff in the shops – been there since early September, before the Plague hit. Might get myself some jelly sweets just for myself when I’m reading by the fire tonight. At the rate I’m going, I’ll be halfway through Waterstones by next year. It’s kind of nice to try to concentrate while everyone’s talking, if that makes sense. Osian says I should interact more, but I think just being there’s enough. I was never much of a people person, and that doesn’t change when there’s less people.

Louise is upset because her cheapy clothes have died on her already. Duh. They did that beforehand. Crystal is annoyed because JJ’s not back yet. They never come back when they say they do, the people who scout. Especially not 16 year old dads.

Wish we had an oven. I fancy baking a cake. Can you grill a cake? Sure there must be a way. When Ben was angry he came over to me and we talked for a bit, and he said it’s his birthday soon. Icing keeps, I’m sure.

(That reminds me, must find some water filtration stuff in one of the hiking shops along the road. If everyone keeps washing their hair in bottled water – fuckers, it cleans itself! – we’ll be out of it before the Clyde runs clean.)

Wish book shops had sold less cook books, and autobiographies. Mark and Tom have been trying stuff from the few survivalist handbooks, but most of them apply to living in the forest. Hope the poor island/country people have book like these. Would be fucking typical if they were here, where we don’t need them, and none out there!

Written by G.J.

10/10/2012 at 3:52 pm

Riverboats Part 10: Change Tack

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I can’t remember those few days until we came to London. I cried and cried as if I would never stop, spending hours sprawled on the bed or curled on the floor, unable to move. I was near useless. I could do laundry, and Mary let me help her prepare dinner, but I was a sorry sight and try as she did, she could not console me. I didn’t eat. I slept in the pantry as Christian had done, and I avoided Isabel as much as possible.

When I saw her, she didn’t look me in the eye.

Harriet seemed to despise me, giving me the stern look that was as close as she ever came to a glare. Helena and Frances were awful.

‘Please, Edie, don’t go,’ Frances said. ‘We like you here, we need you here. Please, just come with us!’

‘It’s all stupid, this Laneham thing,’ Helena said. ‘Stay with us, stay with the Captain. She’s always treated you right. It’s stupid to get so worked up over him.’

‘As if you have any say on the matter,’ I said. She went red and looked down, but they kept pleading and pleading. I would not hear any of it. They only ever left when I started sobbing again, saying how I couldn’t let them kill each other, I couldn’t, I couldn’t.

*

We arrived at port. My belongings were gathered. My eyes were red, but all the grief had been cried out of me, leaving only a fatal determination.

‘Edie,’ Isabel said softly to me as I went outside, ‘please, reconsider–’

‘I can’t.’

‘I love you, Edie!’ she said, and I looked at her and could not feel a single shred of sympathy for her angst.

‘I love you too,’ I said. ‘And that is why I have to leave. I won’t be a part in your death, Isabel.’

The others came out before she could reply. We said our muted goodbyes. I hugged no-one. I turned my back on them and walked away, and the cold air hit my warm cheeks like a slap, a slap that I needed to keep me going. I was done with it. I was done with sitting quietly and wringing my hands over people killing each other needlessly, with listening to tears and accounts of death, with splitting my loyalties in half. No more.

I did not walk to my parent’s home. I walked far away from port, far away into town, farther than I had ever been in my life. I walked and felt the chill on me and knew there was no turning back.

I walked to Scotland yard, home of the London Metropolitan Police.

*

Christian McNeil was shocked when he was called out of the office to see me.

‘Edie – Edie Heinlein? What on earth are you doing here?’

‘Could we speak in your office? I asked.

‘What for?’

‘I think you know what,’ I said. He gave me a worried glance, obviously unnerved by my change in demeanour, and took me into the back room.

‘Now,’ he said. It was the middle of the day and most of the police were out – I had been lucky to catch him indoors. ‘What on earth brings you so far into London? So far off the boat?’

‘I have been sacked from the Endeavour,’ I said, my head held high, ‘because I refused to participate in the killing that is going to happen. And I came here to warn you of it.’

‘Killing? What – who?’

I explained to him what was going to happen, how Isabel was going to storm the Sunrise. He listened to it all with a solemn look.

‘You tell me this,’ he said. ‘And if we can prevent death, then we should, but – what can we do? We work on land.’

‘Precisely,’ I said. ‘Catch them at port. Catch them all at port. Take them in.’

‘But Miss Heinlein, most of the crew have not even participated in any crime, we can’t take them in with no reason.’

‘Then I’ll give you reasons,’ I said. ‘Every single person on every single boat has information relating to a murder that has happened. Every single person will be able to give you information to solve a crime. Isn’t that a reason?’

‘With all due respect, we can’t take that many people in at once–’

‘Then only take three,’ I said. ‘Just three.’

‘Three? I assume you mean the captains, but who–’

‘There is a man on board the Sunrise who is believed to be a murderer. Mr Alexander Strong.’

He sighed and moved some of the papers that were sliding off the desk beside him.

‘Edie, please,’ he said. ‘Be honest with me. You’re acting out of personal interest.’

‘I don’t deny it,’ I said. ‘But shouldn’t protecting people be your first priority?’

‘Of course. But if we don’t have the resources? If we don’t have the backing? As awful as it sounds, in a few years one family will have been killed into submission, and an easy monopoly will form with the boats, and no more trouble. Why should we do this?’

I was appalled. I struggled, so astounded at the complete lack of humanity in what he said, when the other sentences came back to me. Resources. Backing.

‘My God,’ I whispered. ‘You’re cowards. You don’t want to anger Mrs Hunter of Mr Cooper.’

He reddened.

‘They are powerful, both of them. They control a great amount of trade – enough to have a huge influence with those who control the money in town. It is in our interests to gain the wrath of neither.’

‘My God,’ I said again. My legs seemed to lose feeling, and I backed into the wall. ‘You don’t care. You don’t care at all.’

I couldn’t think of anything more to say. We seemed to have come to a standstill, and I had no way to bargain with him. I struggled silently with what I should do, and he sighed again and stood up.

‘Miss Heinlein, go home. Go home to your parents and reconsider. You still have time to get on the tub again. We all have to choose our loyalties in life.’

His words hit me like a bolt of lightning, causing a flash of agony and bursting me into life. I stood up, and knew I could not allow myself to be beaten.

‘Christian,’ I said, and he blinked at the confidence in my voice. ‘What is worth more to you – remaining subordinate, a plain bobby forever, or being reknowned?’

He only frowned. ‘What-‘

‘What is more important,’ I continued. ‘The respect of the police, and their independence, or kowtowing to every magnate in town, no matter who they kill?’

‘Edie–’

‘Listen to me!’ I cried, walking towards him. ‘You help me. You take in Isabel, Laneham and Mr Strong. You question them all. And you find the people behind all they say. You find Archibald Hunter. You find the Bainbridges who dumped you in the river. You find all the Coopers and Hunters and associates who are involved in this mess. And you jail them. You get the witnesses, you trial them, and you jail them. Within two months, you will have the most respected police force in all the country.’

‘But this – this will go all the way to Mrs Hunter and Mr Cooper!’

‘Then you question them too! They are not above the law, are they? If they have committed any crimes and we can prove it, then you jail them too! Justice doesn’t bow to money, Mr McNeil!’

Silence rang out after I finished. Christian stared at me as if I had suddenly shone light and sprouted wings. He thought for a very long time, and I had spent all my energy and could think of nothing more to say to him.

‘You know how to capture a man’s heart, Miss Heinlein,’ he finally said. He sounded defeated. He sighed.

‘We will do it your way. I will send a few men to the next few ports along, and take in Isabel Eynham, the Mute Laneham, and Alexander Strong. Then, if we do not find anything that can help us, they will immediately be set free to kill each other at their leisure. Understand?’

My heart thumped.

‘And, if it is possible – could I speak to them all? Please?’

He sighed.

‘You’re lucky I like you, and that it’s none too busy around here lately. Fine, I’ll play your game. You get to help.’

For the first time in days, hope flooded my system – I breathed in, and out, and closed my eyes for the sheer relief of it. It had worked. I would have died had it not worked – and I came so close to failure.

‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘Thank you so much. I will never, never forget what you’ve done for me, Mr McNeil.’

He smiled, then stood up off the desk, and walked out into the foyer with me.

‘Tell the boss I’m going to meet Carter and Morris and their men,’ he said to the man at the desk. ‘We have a new job.’

*

I don’t need to recount what happened when I went home. My parents were very sore with me, and found the leaving money I had been given to be little recompense for my disgrace.

‘So who would you have had me support? Isabel or Laneham?’

My mother looked down but my father said:

‘We have to say Miss Eynham, Edie. She’s the one we owe you to.’

‘Not the boy you thought would take over your ship and marry your only daughter?’

He shook his head.

‘Times change, girl.’

Of course they did. I would make sure of it.

*

I was called in two days later. Christian looked glad to see me.

‘Both Miss Eynham and Laneham refuse to cooperate unless you are here,’ he said. ‘And that Bainbridge boy insisted on coming for translation.’

I grimaced. I did not want to be near Clark, but then I thought it over and realised it could be to my advantage.

‘Please,’ I said, ‘let me talk to both Laneham and Isabel at the same time, with Mr Bainbridge there to translate.’

His eyebrows lowered even further.

‘You know that is not wise.’

I nodded but did not bend from my plan. He sent a man to fetch them all and we started walking towards the meeting room.

‘Please sit in with me, for my protection,’ I said.

‘Of course. If you truly plan to take this further, for both the reputation of the police and your own safety, I will need to be in with you. For all official accounts, I am in control here and you are an involved bystander.’

I smiled.

‘You are too good, helping me with this.’

‘Don’t be fooled,’ he said. ‘If I get this done with, I’m looking at a promotion at least, if not something tastier.’

‘I don’t mind your motives. I just want the killing to stop.’

He smiled ruefully at me.

‘You’re too pure, miss.’

‘Exactly the opposite,’ I said, as we reached the door. He looked puzzled, but didn’t ask any more.

We opened the door and the first thing I saw was Isabel sitting at one end of the long table. She started up when she saw me but Christian barked, ‘Remain seated Miss Eynham,’ and she sunk back down. She looked awful: pale, worried – I realised with surprise that I had never seen her anxious before.

‘Oh Edie, please, please don’t say you’re behind this,’ she started. ‘I know I got rid of you, and it was wrong, but it was all I could do to keep you from interfering and–’

The door opened again and two men escorted Laneham and Clark to the other side of the table. She was silenced as she looked at them in shock, then both parties glared at the other. Laneham started to sign and Clark started to translate but I spoke over them.

‘Don’t talk,’ I said. ‘I’ve brought you all here so we can finally end this.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ Clark snorted. ‘You can’t end-‘

‘She said, be quiet,’ Christian said, and Clark shut his lips. I was relieved to see there was someone in my view that he would listen to.

‘I asked Christian to take you in. My first priority was making sure you didn’t kill each other. Now, my plan is to use you two – you three – as starting points for ending this needless feud.’

‘One question,’ Isabel said quietly. She did not look at me; her gaze was fixed at the opposite end of the table.

‘Yes?’

‘Why is he here?’

‘We need to come to a conclusion together.’

‘No,’ she said, that beloved quiet intensity coming back into her voice. It rattled me, feeling the animosity sparking between them all. ‘Why is Clark Bainbridge here?’

‘He is here for impartiality,’ I said. ‘He will translate for Laneham, but if he mistranslates or ignores him – as he has been known to do – then I can translate as well. I didn’t think you would trust a translation from me, knowing my bias.’

‘I trust you more than him,’ she said.

‘That is beyond the point. I want to remain as outside this as possible.’

‘That’s stupid,’ Clark said. ‘You’re not impartial at all.’

‘Shut up and let her proceed,’ Christian said. I swallowed, feeling the stress settling on my shoulders and seizing them up. All my nerves were steeled, but already I was failing inside.

‘Here is the deal,’ I said. ‘Alexander Strong is in our custody. Isabel, I know there are many questions you have about the nature of your brother’s death. That is why I am going to allow you to talk to him – supervised, and with no weapons, so you cannot harm him. However, I will only allow this on one condition: that you disclose all you know about the whereabouts of Archibald Hunter.’

Isabel started to speak and Laneham started to sign furiously while Clark spoke his own thoughts and Christian had to shout at them to regain control again.

‘Isabel, what do you say?’

‘I can’t,’ she said, and she finally looked at me, her eyes full of pain. ‘You know how much this means to me. I do want to talk to him – I need to know why he killed John – but I can’t tell you anything about Archie. My entire family would disown me!…or worse,’ she added, and my heart shivered at the thought.

‘You will not be implicated at all,’ I said. ‘We’ll go after him on our own terms, and after we have more information. He’s implicated in many crimes that the police know about, and likely more. Once we’ve interviewed more people, we’ll have enough information to bring him to court.’

‘This is hardly fair!’ Clark cried out. ‘To trade an innocent man for a guilty one! Taking Sandy in at all is criminal!’

‘So you deny he killed my brother?’ Isabel spat.

‘That’s completely different,’ Clark continued. ‘You have no idea what happened – how can you go around proclaiming others’ guilt when you’re so ignorant? Your brother was a scoundrel and –‘

Shut up, Laneham signed, hands in his face. Isabel’s cheeks were red and she looked ready to punch him.

‘We’re just here to find out the truth,’ I said, trying to disguise how shaken I was. ‘That’s all. Innocence and guilt will out. These are the terms of my deal, Isabel. Do you take them?’

She tore her eyes away from Clark to me.

‘You promise it won’t get to my family?’

‘I promise.’

‘No, no, you can’t promise that, they’ll know I’ve been taken in,’ she said, shaking her head to herself. ‘They’ll be wary. They’ll know. Aunt Hunter will know, she knows everything.’

‘You’ll be perfectly safe,’ Christian said. ‘There’ll be a time delay between today and when we find him, by the nature of gathering evidence. We’ll protect you.’

She bit her nails for a minute, considering it all, then looked to me.

‘You think I should do this?’

‘I know you should,’ I said gently.

‘But he’s my cousin.’

‘Even you admitted to me that he’s not a good man. This is in exchange for what you truly want – it’s just.’

Laneham silenced Clark as she nodded her head at the desk.

‘Right,’ she said. ‘Right. Then…I accept. I’ll tell you what I know of he is.’

‘Good,’ I said, exhaling. ‘Now, I have one more-‘

Wait.

I looked to Laneham. He was sitting back in his seat, hands resting lightly on the edge of the table, frowning at Isabel.

‘What is it?’

She hasn’t told us where he is.

I had hoped neither of them would notice, but of course that was in vain.

‘She will tell us after you two have been taken from the room.’

What? That is hardly fair. She has her man, and we don’t have ours?

‘She doesn’t “have her man”. We have him in custody. We are going to find Archibald Hunter and take him into custody as well.’

So you’re keeping his location a secret from me?

He looked at me as he signed, his grey eyes boring deep into me, and I had to look away and resist his will, his urge to control me.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘For good reason. I am not going to let you get at him. I won’t let you become a murderer, just as I won’t let Isabel become a murderer.’

‘It’s not murder, it’s justice.’

I shook my head at Clark as Laneham turned and gave him a stern look.

‘There, you did it again. He said “It is worth being a murderer for him.” Are you protecting him?’

‘No, I’m just saying the truth,’ he said, tone sulky that I had caught him out – that he could no longer have free rein over Laneham’s voice.

Please, Laneham signed, untranslated. Edie, do it for me.

‘What’s he saying?’ Isabel demanded, and my cheeks reddened. I forced myself to repeat him. He turned away from me, folding his arms, and Isabel looked ready to jump out her seat.

‘We don’t give police information to civilians,’ Christian stated, his stern voice so welcoming to my failing spirit. ‘Don’t ask it.’

‘We’re going to release you all after we’re done,’ I said, gathering my strength for the final hurdle. ‘But I have a request for the both of you. You don’t have to comply, but it will make my task easier, and help the people you love.’

They all looked to me and I relished the silence.

‘I want you to go back to your ships and ask your crew members to report anything they know, or anything they want us to solve. If they know anything about a murder, or someone close to them was murdered and they want us to find them, they can tell us. Please, use all your influence to convince them. With the right information, we will bring them to justice, I swear.’

‘And if we don’t do this?’ Clark said.

‘Then Christian will use what he can and request information from them formally,’ I said. ‘This just saves us time and men.’

‘You will find John S Cooper?’ Isabel said. I nodded.

‘Then I will help you,’ she said.

As will I, Laneham signed. My crew have seen too much death already.

‘Thank you,’ I said, from the bottom of my heart. Christian turned to the other men, ready to tell them to escort Laneham and Clark away, but I spoke quietly in his ear.

‘Can I speak to Clark and Laneham alone?’

He frowned.

‘Is that safe?’

‘Laneham won’t let him harm me. I need to speak to Clark. I need more information.’

‘Fine. Carter, escort Miss Eynham into my office, I’ll speak to her there. Weeks, stand outside for me.’

He gave me a concerned look as the other men nodded and moved.

‘Shout if you need me.’

‘I won’t need it,’ I said. I was confident that Laneham would protect me, but more than that, I had seen a hint of panic in Clark’s outrage; plus, I knew he must have decency underneath his contempt for me, and I knew that it would make him heed my request. Isabel looked back at me pleadingly as she left, but I didn’t respond. I would support her at another time, when it was needed. Right now I had something more important to see to.

I moved the chair and sat down closer to Laneham and Clark, on Clark’s side of the table. Laneham moved as if to touch me but I sat back away from him.

‘Clark,’ I said. ‘I know you must hate this, but I have another question for you.’

‘I have nothing to say to you,’ he said.

‘Please. What you say may help Alexander Strong.’

He frowned. ‘Like you care about what I say compared to her.’

‘Tell me the truth,’ I said, ignoring him. ‘You know a lot about his death. Please, tell me – tell me what you know about John Eynham.’

He glared at me, but he spoke, and kept speaking until he was nearly shouting. He spilled the truth, and sunk into himself afterwards. With it laid bare like that, I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do. Isabel…

‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘Thank you for trusting me. Even if Mr Strong doesn’t tell Isabel this when he sees her, I’ll tell her. I’ll make sure she knows.’

‘Stupid girl,’ he said. ‘She really doesn’t know anything, any of this, does she?’

‘I suppose sometimes we don’t know the most about those closest to us,’ was all I could say. I tried not to catch Laneham’s eyes. ‘You’re both free to go.’

*

Two hours later Isabel was once again sitting at the table. She fidgeted, biting her nails and then sitting on her hands, then pushing her hair back, then twisting it around her finger, then biting her nails and starting it all again. Neither I nor Christian said anything to her; she had forgotten we were there already. Her eyes were fixed on the door.

Carter and Morris came in, and with a man between them. Isabel instinctively jumped up but Christian barked at her to sit down. The man started and coloured at the sight of her.

‘Don’t worry,’ Christian said. ‘You’re safe. We’ll protect you.’

He nodded, but seemed unconvinced, glancing nervously at Isabel as he sat down, as if he had a tiger in front of him instead of a young woman. He kept his head down.

‘This,’ she said incredulously, ‘is Alexander Strong?’

He was small, and wiry, with large eyes set in a baby-like face. Nothing in him betrayed arrogance, let alone evil; instead, he looked a picture of sincere timidity. I could only imagine how he had been when taken from Laneham’s ship.

‘Why am I here?’ he said quickly, looking to the side. ‘I’ve already confessed. You’ve no reason to bring me in here.’

‘We struck a deal with Miss Eynham here,’ Christian said. ‘This is our part.’

Alexander’s eyes grew even larger and he started up, trying to get past the men behind him.

‘No, no, no, this isn’t fair, this isn’t right–’

‘Please, Mr Strong,’ I pleaded, and he started at my unfamiliar, female voice. ‘Isabel won’t hurt you. She merely wants to know the truth.’

He stopped and finally looked at her, met her eye. She was shaking just as much as he was.

‘Is that right?’ he said. She nodded. He sat down, suddenly full of composure.

‘Why? Why want anything that gets in the way of your revenge?’

She struggled to speak, and everyone was silent and watching her, waiting for her answer.

‘I…want revenge, I do, but…what’s more important…what’s been…plaguing me, these years…is why. Why.’ She looked up at him, the intensity back in her eyes.

‘Why did you kill him?’

‘It’s a long story,’ he said. ‘Not a pretty one. Not one for you.’

‘I don’t care!’ she cried. ‘I’ve been through hell. I am strong enough to know the truth. And we have all the time we need.’

‘We shouldn’t speak ill of the dead,’ he said. ‘That’s what I was always taught. He lies in his grave and you have moved on in life, and I…am for the noose.’ He gulped, and continued. ‘What more do you want?’

‘I just told you! I want to know why!’

‘It shouldn’t matter why.’

‘”Shouldn’t matter”?!’

Her face flushed scarlet and started to rise from her seat before seeing us and stopping.

‘How dare you?’ she said. ‘I’ve devoted my life to finding you and destroying you, and here, now that I’m deprived of all that, when I ask you the simple why – why you did it – you refuse to answer! How dare you?’

‘You don’t want to know! It doesn’t matter!’

‘You killed my brother!’

‘He killed my best friend! He nearly ruined the people I loved! He was a monster!’

Silence. The ringing aftermath in everyone’s ears. Alexander Strong caught his breath and all the blood drained from Isabel’s face.

‘I didn’t want to tell you,’ he said, looking again at the table. ‘No-one did. Anyone who knew of you knew what a sweet girl you were, and how you idolised your brother. We didn’t understand how you were so taken in. He was a cad. All the Bainbridges and Coopers knew it. He cheated everyone in his business, fiddling numbers and using all dirty tricks. He took up women and dumped them like coal bricks. And he went through money like it was water, borrowing more and more and laughing at anyone unfortunate enough to not have the power to force it back from him. I don’t know how many Cooper-Hunter relations he soured. He was an awful man.’

‘You’re lying,’ she said softly, her voice breaking.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I warned you. We tried to avoid him – me and Tom, Thomas Bainbridge, Clark’s brother, All the Bainbridges are like my family, and I loved Tom like my blood brother. John Eynham had borrowed some money from the Coopers a long time ago, but Mr Cooper said to leave it and treat it as lost, and said it wouldn’t do good to go anywhere near such a man. But he came into a bidding war with Tom over some work and, well, that was that. Tom’s reputation beat his and that lost Eynham a lot of money – and then it was war. It was petty, we laughed about how petty it was, but then one night your brother started firing rounds into the hull of Tom’s boat, drunk and saying he was going to sink it, and Tom saw red and confronted him…’

He swallowed and did not look at Isabel.

‘John shot him dead.’

‘No,’ she whispered, shaking her head. Tears threatened the corners of her eyes.

‘You moved off of port the next day, and the police said they could do nothing, and I – I was so angry! Clark and James and Fred, they were all raging, and decided to go after him – so we skipped work, bought horses and rode on to the next port. Then, when he docked and he went to the public house, we got a hold of him, and I couldn’t help it – when he insulted Tom after everything, I went mad. I shot him, and we ran.’

He rubbed his brow.

‘If you asked me if I meant to kill him, I suppose I would say yes. But any one of us would have done it. And others would have too: swindled merchants, fathers of broken daughters, irate lenders. No-one looked badly on me for it. But then Mrs Hunter absolved all his debts, and gave you your boat, and I heard she wanted you to kill me – so everyone rallied round me and kept me from you…until now.’

He looked up at her.

‘That’s the truth. You can ask Clark or Mr Cooper or anyone you like. Even Mrs Hunter knows all of it.’

‘Everyone knew?’ she whispered. Tears were streaming silently down her cheeks. He looked down.

‘It’s harsh to say how bad he was. No-one wanted you to know because of that. We always felt sorry for you, being so related to such a man, and so taken in by him.’

Isabel turned to me.

‘Edie,’ she said, her voice louder, sounding out all the shaking underneath it, the juddering of her chest as she tried to keep her emotions in. ‘Please, look surprised. Tell me he’s lying.’

How I pained for her! How I detested having to shake my head.

‘Clark Bainbridge told me this, this morning.’

She turned back to Alexander Strong. He was looking at her with admirable resolution.

‘It’s the truth?’

He nodded. Her face convulsed. Her hands scrabbled on the table as she tried to push herself up, her chair scraped back, and we all started.

‘I’m sorry!’ Alexander Strong said.

She stopped. Her body was turned to the door, ready to run away, but she had to turn back at such an unexpected phrase.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said again. ‘It seems every man has someone willing to avenge him. I mean, Clark and Laneham were prepared to kill for me earlier. I’m relieved they didn’t have to…I don’t want them to have that weight.’

She leant against the wall behind her, as if she could no longer support her own weight. Alexander Strong did not take his eyes away from her. It was as if he was sapping her strength; he grew in confidence as he kept his gaze on her, while she withered away.

‘I’m sorry, but I did warn you that it’s not pleasant. I don’t hold your anger against you – I understand it. I understand why you wanted revenge,’ he said, ‘if you didn’t know the truth.’

‘No,’ she choked out. ‘No you don’t.’

I could tell she was going to run out of the door before she moved. The last of her pride depended on leaving at that moment. The door shut itself behind her, and Christian raised his eyebrow at me, obviously expecting me to run after her. But I took one last look at the man who had ruined my lover’s life, as earnest as any man could be, and I had to say one last thing to him:

‘Thank you.’

I left before he could respond, the door closing just as I heard Christian tell the officers to take him away again. Isabel had collapsed into a chair just outside the door in the quiet corridor, and I dropped down next to her, not bothering to find my own seat. She had folded into herself, hands over her eyes, hair falling in front of her face, only the tip of her nose visible beyond those two shields

‘It’s not fair,’ she said, so softly and shakily that I barely understood. ‘It’s not fair. He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t – he doesn’t–’

And she leant on her knees, gripped her hair with her hands, and finally let out the torrent of sobs that she had been repressing for so long. I watched her and wished I could do something to make her stop, but there was nothing that could have possibly made her better. I didn’t even dare touch her, in case that slip somehow stopped her from letting this all out. After the first burst, she calmed just enough to speak between sobs.

‘It’s not fair, not right, he doesn’t know, they all don’t know – John was a good man, he really was – they don’t understand, he looked after me, he always looked after me. We didn’t have any help from Aunt Hunter – that’s why he cheated sometimes, and whenever it seemed like we would sink, like we had no money, he would always make some, and I was so hungry and tired and worried I never asked where it came from. He spent it all on me, on the boat, on us, we needed it – we had nothing, no family, no parents, and he had me and I was useless, less than useless! If only I had done something, he wouldn’t have…oh God…’

She paused for breath and sniffed, not attempting to stop the fresh wave of tears. ‘I knew he liked to drink, of course I did, but I thought all men were like that, and I knew he was competitive but I never thought he did anything wrong, he said it was just some little pranks…oh God…oh God…to think that night…that night he had killed someone…to think I couldn’t even tell the difference! But he was a good man!’

She looked at me and shouted it out.

‘Edie, he WAS a good man! I…I swear he was…I…’

She broke anew, and I could resist no longer. I hugged her as tightly as I could, and she held onto me and cried for many minutes more before she stopped completely. I stayed by her side, glad that I did not know her pain.

‘Isabel,’ I finally said, after a few minutes of silence.

‘Don’t say anything,’ she said, breaking from my embrace. She breathed, in and out, in and out, and seemed to inflate to her normal size with each breath, until finally she was sitting up straight, her hair back, and looking forward. Even with her red eyes and discoloured face, she looked so regal that it caught my breath. I loved her – no, more than anything, I admired her to the deepest of my core in that moment.

‘Let’s go, Edie,’ she said. ‘We have to get the rest of the crew down here. We have to catch the others.’ She faced me and for the first time I felt that I met her eyes instead of cowering under them.

‘Let’s end it all.’

Written by G.J.

07/10/2012 at 10:00 am