by Stephen G Dodge
with Alec King, Robert Follows, Rory Tassonyi, and Ryan Kroon
The following actually happened, though the details have been lost to history, and the men who lived these stories were guilty of extreme embellishment. Undoubtedly, alcohol was involved.
This is the first chapter of a longer record of the adventures of the HMS Alcmene.
An Irate American
The Alcmene was the only new ship on station. She was an odd little ship, she looked British but not remarkably so. A ship-of-the-line in stature--a fifth rate most likely, a two decker bristling with guns--she looked like a merchantman in order. Her compliment was thirty-two guns in all, including six carronades on the upper deck and some antique pieces which looked French and regal on her quarterdeck. Those probably made thirty-four by Beck's count. Her only remarkable British feature was a few redcoats crawling around on deck. That was enough for Beck. He had some experience with British warships. Once, Beck had seen many ships of many colours traversing the Atlantic, but that was a long time ago.
He hadn't returned home since the fire. He'd chased after the soldiers and had his suspicions confirmed. They were definitely British, some officers among them too. That made him feel better. There was no reason the British would have any legitimate interest in his operation. Neutrality with the Danes and Norwegians or not, this was a local matter, so his cargo should be safe. That made him feel worse too. Why would the British attack his shop, and in an organized way? What were they looking for? Was he compromised in some other fashion? The winning theory was simple gross incompetence, Beck figured, now gazing upon the Alcmene bobbing quietly in the harbour. Last night, there was evidence of an altercation on the street. Things happen. A drunken shove leads to a brawl and someone shoots a lantern in his store through a window. Beck had seen British sailors on shore leave many times before. But why the organized retreat? Usually they should be too drunk to do much of anything, let alone run. And who let them away from their posts in full dress? That’s the sort of thing that causes political incidents.
He watched the Alcmene from a rooftop overlooking the market square. Nothing happened before sunrise. No one came to claim the jolly boats. The sun crested the mountains to the east. Bells across the harbour tolled and watches changed. He could see sailors clamoring up and down ratlines on all of the ships, the Alcmene included.
In the night he had decided the best course would be the strong-man approach. He’d make a public scene. Make a commotion. There would be plenty of witnesses on the docks in case there was something more nefarious afoot, and if gross incompetence was the underlying factor, he’d be in and out with his pockets lined and his shipment uninterrupted. When his goods departed on schedule tomorrow he would leave town with them. It was a good plan, but he would have to wait until the market was at its peak of activity. Beck knew this was when people paid the least attention. The merchants would be looking for a good mark, and the buyers a good bargain, and no one would be paying mind to anything out of the ordinary. Beck also knew that the British wouldn’t know that. Navy men don’t think like criminals. They’ll see the busy market as an opportunity for witnesses and they’ll try to get away from the interaction as soon as possible. For Beck, this meant payment. The opportunity would come near midday, so long as he had someone to yell at.
Today was lucky. With an hour to go before the crowd was at its largest a third jolly boat rowed from the Alcmene to the jetty. A gaggle of sailors went into the market to collect provisions with a regular officer who could only be their boatswain. He was a portly, jowly man with white curly hair. He barked orders and both the sailors and merchants jumped to action. The boatswain’s authority seemed to contradict the state of disorder aboard the Alcmene herself. He seemed to be getting the job done just fine.
The crowd at the market grew ever more dense. Before long, a contingent of British soldiers entered from the district opposite the ruins of Beck’s shop. Four fully dressed marines, weapons slung, carried a stretcher down to one of the boats. On the stretcher was an officer with a massive bruise above his right eye. He was a lieutenant, Beck could see, taking a closer look through his spyglass. He was young looking, but his uniform suggested seniority. Perhaps he was the reason the soldiers lost their temper. When a senior officer is hurt discipline can break down quickly. Beck watched the marines load the officer into the jolly boat, wrangle a couple of sailors, and shove off. He took this as his moment.
* * *
Beck stomped down the jetty. He built up a base of redness in his complexion on the approach, huffing angrily. The boatswain was overseeing loading of provisions into the remaining two jolly boats when he noticed the irate merchant approaching.
“Ho there!” the boatswain boomed.
“That’s right!” Beck yelled in response. The boatswain was visibly surprised by the answer in English, let alone English with an accent late of South Carolina.
“What seems to be the matter, good sir?” the boatswain adjusted his temper a touch.
“You people are the matter!” Beck carried on, without adjustment. “And my life’s work is a burning heap because one of you people thought it was a good idea to use my store as target practice!”
The boatswain, shaking his head and jowls in turn, clearly a little taken aback by the display, said “I’m afraid I haven’t a clue what you mean.”
“I mean, ten of your boys over there” pointing at the Alcmene, “were lurking around my shop last night and someone shot it up and blew it to hell!”
“I’m sorry, but it couldn’t have been our men.”
“You’re right!” Beck threw up his arms. “It must have been all of the other Royal Navy Marines crawling around the docks!”
The boatswain looked defeated. This was Beck’s moment.
“I lost my livelihood!” he yelled, just inches from the boatswain’s face. “Thousands of krone in imported textiles just gone. Do you know how flammable Indian rugs are?”
“I do not.”
“Let’s just say, I no longer own any Indian rugs. Or any rugs, for that matter! Because you people destroyed everything I had!”
The sailors had stopped working. Two looked particularly concerned with Beck’s show. A third was staring past Beck with even greater concern. Beck followed his gaze to see two more officers approaching on the jetty. They were British too, which gave Beck hope. He could take three men in a battle of wits, especially three drilled British navy men. Military thinkers all think the same. One officer was another lieutenant. He was older looking, probably the first lieutenant, probably someone with bargaining power. The other was a marine captain by his uniform. He was a wide man and tall with a beard and hair all the same length and eyes that could kill. Not a thinker, Beck thought. The officers were accompanied by a peculiar party. They had a regular marine and sailor with them, both of whom looked fully aware of what they’d done. The third escort was another marine, a barrel-chested man who stood a foot above the rest of the party. He had hands like boulders, and an expression like he was having the best day of his existence. Behind him, hidden almost entirely, was a fourth man who looked thoroughly Irish, with fiery red hair, a beard, and a complexion to match, but who was dressed like a healer who’d just stepped off a ship from Bombay. The lieutenant spoke first.
“What is the meaning of this?” he asked, lingering longer than should be normal on the word meaning.
“Lieutenant Jenson,” the boatswain said, calmly. “This man here claims we have had some hand in the destruction of his shop this past evening.”
“I’m doing more than claiming, friend.” Beck interjected, keeping the tension.
“Well, Mr.,” the Lieutenant, Jenson, paused, “What is your name, sir?”
“Mr. You Blew Up My Shop” Beck shouted. “Mr. Beck will suffice for now, but I don’t want you to forget that first part.”
“Mr. Beck, then.” A long pause.
Beck wouldn’t break the silence on principal, so Jenson was forced.
“Mr. Beck, it’s a tragic accident that’s befallen you.”
“I would certainly think so.” Beck allowed.
“I offer deep apologies.” He paused oddly again on offer.
“That’s a good first step.”
“But I can assure you we had no involvement.”
“Like hell.” Beck snapped.
“Sir,” the marine captain cut in, “I can say with some certainty that we have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“None at all?”
“Not a shred.”
Beck pivoted. “Then allow me to apologize. I thought I saw troops in red coats, not dissimilar from your own very red garments, marching by my shop just after the incident. But, I think, since you were uninvolved, I should simply go and report my problems to the harbour authority and have them investigate these men in red coats, shouldn’t I?”
Glances were exchanged about the officers.
“Unless, of course, we can just all forget about this.” Beck offered.
“Maybe we should.” Jenson agreed, cautiously.
“It seems to me you may not want the Norwegians involved here.”
“Perhaps we don’t.” Jenson agreed again, lingering long on perhaps.
“Perhaps I can help.” Beck said, sniffing a bigger prize.
“Mr. Beck, Lieutenant,” grumbled the boatswain, keeping his voice down, “Perhaps this is a conversation better had aboard.”
* * *
Lieutenant Jenson had a space cleared in the officer’s mess for the meeting. Beck was expecting the great cabin, but this would do. He wouldn’t argue. If he was only to be dealing with the lieutenant he could exert much more leverage than he could on a captain. A lieutenant acting above their station had more to gain from a good deal, and would be eager to impress his superiors later.
The marine captain and the boatswain came below decks on either side of Beck. The boxed him in so he couldn’t maneuver freely. Once the four men had taken their seats they were joined by the odd Irishman from the jetty. He was even more of an oddity in the relative dark of the lamp light. Sequins and patterns reflected off his shawls and scarves. He was wrapped in a variety of intricate yellow, red and orange fabrics, but none of the colours were as intense as his beard. He clearly wasn’t wearing pants, either.
“Dr. Byrne, please have a seat.” Mr. Bones gestured the Irishman forward.
“Pleasure to meet you,” the apparent Doctor offered a hand to Beck.
“Thank you.” Beck returned the gesture.
“Perhaps other introductions are in order.” the Lieutenant, Jenson, sighed. “I’m Patrick Jenson, acting first lieutenant aboard this vessel, His Majesty's Alcmene. Dr. Byrne here is our ship’s surgeon and good council. You’ve met Mr. Bones, our bosun, and of course my compatriot and our marine captain, Richard Brock.” Nods were exchanged but no words. “Our Captain has fallen ill so we may deal here.”
“I don’t want to waste any of your time.” said Beck, coldly. “So far I’ve observed two things on this ship. First, this is the most freely managed British vessel I’ve ever seen, which leads me to believe that you’re more concerned with looking British than actually carrying out Royal Navy business. Second, the way you jump when I mention Norwegian authorities tells me you’re presence here may not be necessarily welcomed. Since you sailed into the harbour surely they know you’re here, but perhaps they don’t know why or to what end.”
Beck scanned the table as he spoke. Captain Brock had locked a scowl on him and hadn’t broke once. Jenson rubbed his chin, apparently trying to hide some emotion by looking pensive. Bryne had an almost jolly look about him. Beck struggled to get a read on his thinking.
“So, gentlemen,” Beck continued, after letting the accusation sink in. “I see this one way. I see that you have a mission here where subtlety is key. It may not have been apparent to now but I am skilled in the art of subtlety. I watched your ship all through the night and I know that you are not weighed down by any goods in which I would find any value, but I suspect that what you are here for is very valuable, indeed. So, seeing as you owe me a debt for the value of the lost wares in my shop, allow me, a friendly American, neutral in your conflicts, to help you.” Beck raised his hands to welcome agreement from the table.
Jenson released his hand from his chin and gestured in the air, grasping for a word. “Mr. Beck, I think you misread the situation.” he finally concluded.
Brock broke the long silence. “Why would we want your help?”
“Because you need to value discretion, more.”
“And you’re discreet?”
“How many market stalls have you seen me destroy since you got here?”
“Mr Beck,” Jenson again, “We will be more than happy to compensate you for the tragedy that has befallen you, but we’re here on the King’s business and do not have a policy to hire contractors.”
Byrne broke a smile, only for an instant.
“What sort of the business?” Beck pressed.
“That is a sensitive matter.”
“Sensitive enough you don’t want the locals involved?”
The table was silent again. Bones worked his jowls.
Beck continued. “And I imagine they’re already involved, unfortunately. I saw your other lieutenant being carted off with a nasty head wound. Who gave him that? Don’t you think that’s going to arouse suspicion next time you land your marines?”
Bones was first to break. “Lieutenant, perhaps Mr. Beck here could be of some service. He appears to have a keen sense of observation.”
“Bones, I like you.” said Beck. “And you’re right. I do. More keen though, is my sense to not be observed.”
“Let’s say you’re right.” said Brock, folding his arms and rocking back in his chair. “How can you help.”
“Well, where do you need to go?”
“Let’s say for argument’s sake, the Royal Estate.”
“That’s a tough nut. Do you expect opposition?”
“There may be some political turmoil from some action down in Copenhagen.” said Jenson.
“What is happening at the Royal Estate?”
“A reception for the Prince of Norway by the Governor General from Denmark”
“I see your problem. You can’t look British then. You’ll need disguises and aliases. And your marines need to stop looking so conspicuous.”
“We can have them dress down.” said Brock, waving away the jab.
“French may be the way to go.”
“We clearly don’t have French uniforms available.”
“Not French military, noblemen. I can procure some finery, and your marines can play the part of household guards.”
“And we just walk right in the front door?” Brock retorted.
“Can you speak French? Or emulate a French accent in English?”
“Many of us can speak French.” said Jenson.
“Then I can procure some invitations.” concluded Beck. “Speaking theoretically, of course.”
Brock nodded slowly and Jenson watched him for a queue.“Speaking theoretically.” said Brock.
“So, theoretically, would whatever we find in the Royal Estate be worth the damages done to my shop?”
“They very well could.” said Jenson.
“Then perhaps we should take this theory to practice.”
Jenson stood, and the rest of the officers turn. “Mr. Bones,” he said, “Scour the ship and ensure no insignia are visible from shore which could betray our presence. And, please ensure Mr. Beck can make it home in good time.” Turning to Beck, “We will set ashore at seven bells. That should give you a few hours to make preparations.”
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