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 prologue to a longer record of the adventures of the HMS Alcmene.
The iron gate protested as Beck eased it shut. He’d need to come back and oil the hinge later. To remind himself, he coerced one of the door nails out of the rusted mechanism and slipped it into the pocket of his greatcoat. Subtlety would be key here, especially since he wouldn’t be overseeing the next part of this job personally. Any hint of sound could arouse suspicion, and trusting paid help to be discreet was difficult enough. He wouldn’t make the job any harder than it needed to be.
In the starless darkness Beck struggled to keep his bearings and his balance. The rocks were slick with spray and he was mostly working on feel. He kept the sound of the ocean on his left, and it’s echo from down in the grotto on his right. The tide was rolling in and the usually calm harbour was unsettled. Inside the grotto had been comparably nice but here the air was cold and the humidity cut right through his heavy coat. He was already chilled to the bone.
He shimmied along the rock away from the gate and onto the ledge. Six feet below the water was lapping angrily. The perilous twenty yard ascent was an unfortunate necessity. The grotto was accessible through a trapdoor in Beck’s shop and then a maze of tunnels and natural caverns. But, a legitimate businessman like Beck, owner and operator of India’s Finest Tapestries, could not be seen coming and going from his place of business in the little hours of the night. An infallible alibi, that would never make.
As far as anyone was concerned, Beck was home. He had closed the shop at sundown, made a trip to the market for some fish, offered supper to his landman, and turned in for bed after a cordial meal. He certainly hadn’t left in the night. Beck’s door and the apparement’s gate both were terribly old and no degree of oiling could calm their hinges. The landman, a well known light sleeper with a very short temper about it, would have heard any comings or goings. He was a very credible witness.
Beck’s greatcoat hung heavily on his shoulders. He clambered the last few feet up to the market square over the low rock wall erected to keep idle-minded merchants from tumbling into the sea. His entire being was wet from the ascent. He paused to take in his surroundings. The cold air flowed around him silently, freezing the tail of his coat. The market square was empty, as it should be. No one had followed him, or if they had, they were very good. There was a hint of something in the air. Gunpowder, maybe? He couldn’t quite place it. The market always faintly smelled of fish which tended to overpower any other scents, but something was definitely different.
There were new ships in the harbour. At least one navy ship, no doubt. Beck had seen them come in during the day. Maybe their marines had been practicing their gunnery, but the smell shouldn’t have lingered, and if there had been a commotion recently there should have been soldiers about. Something was wrong.
Beck followed the edge of the market square to the jetty where the fishermen unload. The smell of fish was overpowering here. If there was something else in the air, it wouldn’t be detectable. Something was different here too, however. Two jolly boats were butting against the base of the jetty, completely unguarded. Who would have left these all night? Beck wondered. He poked around the market square to find other things amis. The gentle breeze carried the faint sound of a distant commotion. Whatever it was, it was upwind. He could smell gunpowder again too, there was no question. He was hesitant to investigate. It was in the direction of his shop and he didn’t want to risk being seen. As he weighed the options, he heard a shot. A series of shots, in fact. Four or five small guns all at just about the same time.
He ran to the sound. He wasn’t going to risk this cargo because some hooligans shattered his windows. His greatcoat was stiff so he couldn’t move freely. He dropped it, and with it most of his disguise. No time for subtlety. If he was seen, he was seen and that would be that. He ran hard up the hill and into the commercial district. He made it within sight of the back of his shop. Then he was in the air. It was like something punched him in the chest. He flipped backward and landed hard, face down on the cobblestone. His head was ringing from impact. His mouth stung like he’d bashed all his teeth in. He rolled over. The sky was light above him. Had he been knocked out? What time was it? It was hot too. Unnaturally hot. Head spinning, he rolled over and struggled onto his knees. Then he saw his shop. It was an inferno. The building was completely gone, replaced with a mangled burning heap.
Through the flame, out on the street, he thought he saw red coated soldiers, guns slung, trotting away in formation.
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