Adventures of Alcmene
by Stephen 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.
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.
Part One: Oslo
Chapter One: 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.”
Chapter Two: The Discreet Expedition
Liam Byrne sank to his cabin following the meeting. Disguise as the French? He thought. He would have rathered almost anything else. Byrne had no love lost for the French. He had practiced in Paris during the Reign of Terror and had seen first hand the barbary of their beliefs. Sure, England also was less than civilized, but it had been his home for much of his life.
He longed to return to the east where liberty was practiced without judgement. On a day like today after a long sleepless night, back when he was living in India, he would go for a walk. He would walk and walk all the way to the far south of the island of Bombay and sleep on the sandy beach, listening to the tolling of the ships’ bells in the distance. He’d sleep until the tide reached his feet, wake up naturally, and strip and bathe, before returning home as the sun set once again. His patients were not the wealthy and brutish, but rather the poor and needy. They would come to him in the evening when their day’s labouring was done, and he would ease their suffering, if only for a while. In the cold wet of the Alcmene’s hold, he knew how they must have felt before he came along.
He snapped himself from the nostalgia. There was work to be done and today’s turn of events merited recording. He dug through his chest and retrieved a little black book with a golden dragon emblazoned on its cover. He placed it on his desk and collected a series of paper scraps strewn about. They were incredibly thin, delicate sheets, scribbled with a forest of random symbols. He found the first and laid them out in sequence to reveal a codex. A secondary codex was written in his black book. He retrieved his journal and began to write, referencing both codes in time.
12th April, 1801 - Int. S.St.G. William Byrne, HMS Alcmene, Oslo
Engaged unknown force eve. 11th. Carlisle injured.
Morn. 12th, encountered American, g.b. Beck. Enlisted assistance for rendezvous with Lady Tennebrisa. Lt. Jenson promised reward for assistance. Unsure what. American presents threat. Unclear alignment.
A knock on Byrne’s door. He slammed the journal shut, hid the code book beneath his shawl, and spread the papers across his desk.
“Dr. Byrne?” Jenson called through the door.
Jenson opened the door. He was dressed down in dark and worn breeches and had a loose tan shirt protruding in places beneath a dark brown coat. “We’re ready to disembark.”
Byrne stood, revealing he’d yet to change.
“At your leisure.” Jenson added. “And with what discretion you are able.”
Jenson left the door open and Byrne went about finding some duller clothes.
* * *
Beck snuck to his apartment along a scaffold securing the wall of a neighbouring building. He shimmied down a drainpipe onto his landman’s window ledge. He could see the landman still fast asleep inside. Perhaps the dose was too strong last night. He hadn’t expected the man to eat as heartily as he did. Beck slid past the window, hopped a small gap to his own window, and eased it open. He slammed it behind him and listened. There was a stirring on the other side of the wall. At least he isn’t dead.
Beck scrounged for some some essentials. He needed to take only what was absolutely necessary. If he cleaned out the property entirely it might look like a robbery, rather than just a tenant skipping in the night. He’d get less attention if the landman called the debtors rather than the authorities.
Most of what he took was hidden away discreetly. Lockpicks, vials of ink, a few rheams of official-looking letterhead from various states, his pistol, some shot, a fine hatchet, and a collection of royal signet rings and some sealing wax. He donned a regal-looking pair of dyed black breaches, a tanned shirt, and a slim jacket. His belt held the pistol and the hatchet close to his body. He filled the pockets of his nicest greatcoat, donned that as well, and grabbed a small tin of oil on his way to the door. This time, the door opened silently. The gate did as well, and he escaped into the muggy afternoon.
* * *
Jenson came on deck to see Brock kneeling in the forecastle with one of their ship’s passengers, an abnormally small man with a crinkled face and a thick highland accent. His name was Gaspode. Gaspode was an acclaimed inventor working in the niche of steam powered technologies. He was an absolute magician when it came to the miniaturization of sophisticated machines. It seemed he had done it again, now.
“Mr. Brock, what’s this now?” Jenson asked, approaching the pair with curiosity.
Brock turned around to reveal the metal vest Gaspode had built for him. “New gun!”
“On your chest?”
Brock looked down at the vest. “No, this is the support system.”
“It’s a heavy mechanism.” Gaspode grumbled. His low voice didn’t fit his stature. He stepped over Brock’s leg and went about working on the back of the vest, hiding himself completely behind the marine captain. The vest was dark rolled steel formed to the shape of Brock’s body, even curving tightly around his pecks. Adorning the plate were a series of gauges, tubes, and buckles. It was a bulky piece, but Brock was a bulky man to begin with.
“What’s it shoot?” asked Jenson, craning his neck to see Gaspode.
Gaspode had a leather strap in his mouth, pulling it tight while he tied it off. “It’s a steam cannon.” he mumbled. “How’s that tightness?”
“Snug.” said Brock.
“Can ya’ breathe?”
“Good.” Gaspode tied off the remainder of the straps and walked around to Brock’s front. Even with Brock kneeling, Gaspode only rose to the center of his chest. “Where’s your jacket? I need to put some holes in it for the water connection.”
Brock handed Gaspode his leather coat. The inventor snapped open a knife, as if from nowhere. He carved two perfectly circular holes in the back of the jacket a few inches apart, and handed it back.
“Stand up, put it on.”
Brock donned the jacket and turned around to show Gaspode the result. The two holes lined up perfectly with two circular ports on the rear of the vest. Jenson was impressed by the accuracy.
“Jenson, a hand?” Gaspode asked.
Jenson looked down and saw Gaspode holding two large metal canisters. Each had a circular port on its side that looked to match the receptacles on Brock’s back. Jenson took one and nearly dropped it under its weight. Gaspode had made it look light but it must have weighed at least forty pounds. He adjusted his grip and hoisted it to Brock’s back. The ports clicked together effortlessly and the canister stayed where it was. Jenson did the same with the second and looked down to see Gaspode had disappeared.
“How’s the weight?” he asked Brock.
“No worse than the regular kit.” Brock wheezed, a little encumbered.
Gaspode reappeared on deck waddling towards the pair. He was carrying what could only be the cannon itself. It was a long metal weapon with wooden ribs and a painted white muzzle. It had a big wooden handle halfway down the barrel, and a third canister hanging parallel beneath it. It was covered in pipes and gauges, just like Brock’s vest, and trailed two long corrugated tubes behind it.
“Take this.” he said to Brock. “Left hand on the top, right hand on the butt. You fire with the valve on the rear. Pull out and twist, and everything in front of ya disappears.”
Brock’s eyes lit up. He took the weapon and weighed it in his hands. “We have something I can test this on?” he asked Jenson.
Gaspode went about connecting the tubing to Brock’s vest under his jacket. He tightened the straps a little more, and looked satisfied with his work. The canisters were conspicuous as all hell, and the gun didn’t look like anything seen in the regular army, but beyond that Brock looked normal enough. Mostly, he looked excited.
Jenson walked to the rail and called down to the jolly boat where a sailor had been waiting for some time. “Ho there! Lob a barrel into the water, will you?”
The sailor had plenty of empty barrels to be filled in the market, and did as we was told. The barrel bobbed alongside the boat, so the sailor shoved it away with an oar. It floated gently, not in any great hurry to get away.
“A little farther would be best.” Gaspode said to Jenson.
“A little farther, if you please!” yelled Jenson in turn.
Another nudge and the barrel did little to escape the jolly boat.
“Brock,” said Jenson, “How about you get in the boat and we can maneuver you where Gaspode thinks is best?”
Brock nodded and slung the gun on his shoulder. He clinked and clanged as he climbed down the side and the vest, gun, and cannisters bashed together. The sailor looked befuddled, but knew better to say a word. Brock directed him to twenty feet down the rail of the Alcmene so the barrel was twenty feet away, still bobbing happily.
“He primes it with the red lever.” Gaspode said to Jenson.
“Mr. Brock, prime with the red lever, if you please!” Jenson relayed.
Brock turned the lever and the gauges along the barrel jumped to life.
“Then the valve.” said Gaspode.
“Fire when ready!” relayed Jenson.
Brock stepped to the head of the jolly boat. He steadied himself with one foot at the peak of the gunnel, the cannon slung down at waist level.
“How do I aim?” he yelled up.
“It’s not entirely necessary.” Gaspode said to Jenson.
“I don’t think you do, Mr. Brock!” relayed Jenson.
Brock shrugged, and pulled the valve outwards. The cannon hissed in anticipation. He turned the valve gently, and the cannon erupted. The jolly boat was propelled backwards and a bright white geyser of water and steam shot out with a tremendous woosh! The sailor flew into Brock and unsteadied the pair, who fell backwards into the boat. The geyser ripped across the water, causing the ocean to bubble and turn white beneath it. It reached the barrel and for a moment little happened. The geyser passed gently over. Then the barrel started hissing. It’s cork bulged, and the whole thing exploded. Splinters flew twenty feet in the air and bits of wood were strewn across the water. One wedge hit the rail by Jenson with a massive thud! and was embedded two inches into the side of the ship.
Sailors cheered from around the Alcmene and as suddenly a the celebration broke out, Mr. Bones appeared on deck and boomed, “Back to your stations! Quit this tomfoolery!”
Bones approached Jenson and Gaspode. “Very subtle, Mr. Gaspode.”
“A good plan B.” Jenson allowed. “Let us hope plan A is enough.”
* * *
Beck was at the jetty when the party landed. In addition to Brock, Byrne, and Jenson, three marines were with them, dressed down in their shore clothes. One of the marines was the brutish one from earlier with the shockingly positive demeanor. He hummed pleasantly as they unloaded the boat. Also with the British contingent was what Beck thought, at a distance, was a child. When they reached the jetty he could see it was actually a peculiarly small man. These people just got stranger and stranger.
Some things were different about the Alcmenes since Beck saw them last. Dr. Byrne’s dress was a little more drab than before, but no less interesting. His bright red and orange scarves had been exchanged for deep browns and muted greens. If he were in the desert, he could stand very still and be liable to disappear. Jenson and Brock had exchanged their uniforms for shore garb but still looked shockingly navy-like. It seemed as if they didn’t have a lot of options. Beck should have expected that. He’d never known sailors to look anything but. Brock was a bit of an exception now, however. He was carrying a rather conspicuous bag of implements which the little man was pouring over. If this was the British sense of discretion, no amount of planning on Beck’s part would save them. For now, it would have to do.
Beck led the party into the market square. The throng had dispersed so they had an easy way through, but Beck knew this meant more prying eyes. Between the biggest and smallest man in their little contingent there was a four foot difference in height. Even the dullest merchants might be liable to notice. He kept them at a brisk pace. They weaved between stalls and bolted up an alley headed inland. A quick right through a narrow arch, a quick left down a quiet street, another right into a peaceful courtyard and they had arrived. Ahead of them lay a shop with a little sign which read Emporium. Beck knocked on the door and it swung gently open.
In the dim light inside, a man sat behind the counter writing in a ledger. He looked up and saw Beck and challenged in German, “The rain hasn’t fallen like this in years.”
Beck responded in English. “Indeed, it’s a lovely day for a picnic.”
The shopkeeper stood promptly. He was a little stooped, and looked very old, but he strided around the counter with energy unlike his age and grasped Beck’s hand in greeting. He watched the Alcmenes as they stepped into the shop. It was silent. He held his grasp. The brutish marine was the last to enter. He had a little difficulty with getting through the small frame of the door. Everything valuable in the shop to jingled. The shopkeeper smiled a toothless smile to Beck, and said “You have some interesting friends.”
“Indeed I do. They’re all very French, and are in dire need of new clothes.”
“Perhaps we should help them.” said the shopkeeper. He bolted to the back room.
“We should follow.” Beck said.
He led the party through a shabby lived-in hallway. The shopkeeper’s cot was leaned up against a wall. Beck opened a side door and stepped into a striking warehouse. It descended down two stories. The walls were lined with shelves and bars which sported every sort of uniform and finery imaginable. It was silent, the clothes absorbed every sound but the faint ringing of hangars.
“Ser Richard is a collector of sorts.” said Beck. “He repairs and provides a home for clothing and implements no longer being used by their owners.”
Ser Richard rolled past on a ladder. “What sort of French?” he yelled.
“Noble” said Beck.
“Sir, where were you ordained your title?” called Byrne, as Ser Richard rolled along.
“Ser is his given name.” corrected Beck. “Though it is convenient, of course, at times.”
Ser Richard called back, “New nobel, or liable-to-have-their-heads-chopped-off nobel?”
“I don’t want to wear something that belonged to someone who had their head chopped off.” said Byrne, now grasping the scope of Ser Richard’s collection.
“New nobel then!” Ser Richard yelled from the other side of the warehouse. “I’ll make a pile!”
Beck led the party down to the bottom floor. “Will armor be in order too, Lieutenant?” he asked Jenson.
“It may well, Mr. Beck.”
“We’ll be in close, if anything” added Brock. Jenson cracked a smile at that.
“Something that can take a cut too, if you can!” Beck yelled up to Ser Richard.
“That will be harder!” was the response. “That’s how much of this was procured.”
* * *
A pile formed in the center of the warehouse. At the top of the heap were eight half rusted tangles of chain. They looked antique and almost glistened in the lantern light.
“Here we are!” Ser Richard slid down the ladder and went to the pile. “First thing’s first. These are quite valuable.” He lifted a tangle of chains from the pile. It was chain mail. The sheet nearly covered him from view. “This one is for the big one.”
He handed the piece to the larger marine who let out a single hardy laugh of joy. He sounded almost like a seal to Beck.
“Keep some cloth between that and your skin.” said Ser Richard. The marine had half removed his shirt in excitement. He rebuttoned and slid on the mail. He looked very well protected, and as the rust broke the chain moved more freely. It shone more intently.
“Never know with these things,” Ser Richard continued, “I believe these pieces are Hunnic. They are miraculously well preserved, but you never know what people put in things in the past. If you’re not careful you’ll end up with a hole burned in your skin from some unknown reactant.”
“Take what fits.” he concluded.
Beck felt he was dressed enough so didn’t partake. The rest of the party dug in and came out very well adorned. While they dressed Ser Richard took notes in a ledger at the side of the room. Beck went to share the desk.
“Mr. Jenson!” Beck called.
Jenson was mostly dressed. He looked very noble and very probably French. His shirt was fluffed out around his lapel, his dark blue jacket was short in the front and trailed long in the rear, and below his breeches his gaiters were ornately fringed. A hint of chain was visible inside his collar, but could easily be covered by his shirt. He also sported a little blue flower on his lapel. Beck wondered where it had come from.
“Mr. Beck?” he asked.
“Two matters. Ser Richard, here, of course, needs payment.” Beck gestured, Ser Richard looked up and smiled his gummy smile. “Also we need to ensure our invitations are accurate to all casual observance. This is a difficult task because I know nothing about this party tonight.”
“Pounds will do.” whispered Ser Richard.
A short barter ensued and Ser Richard was paid. Jenson looked somewhat upset with the result.
“Onto my second need.” said Beck. “Who has invited you, to start?”
“We’re not invited.” said Jenson.
“Certainly not if you go around saying that. Who is the party for?”
“The Prince, of course.”
“Which prince? Do you know how many princes there are on this continent?”
“Prince Frederick.” clarified Jenson. “Of Oldenburg.”
Thinking more clarification might be needed, Jenson added. “Prince of Denmark.”
“Well I can’t write that on the invitation.” said Beck. “People will assume that you’re someone important if the Prince invited you himself. You want to be marginally important. You’re important enough to be there, but not important enough to actually know anyone or be doted on too heavily.”
“We do know someone. We’re meeting a contact there.” Jenson stumbled over the word meeting as if he was reconsidering whether he should give Beck the information or not.
“Is he important?”
“She, and in a sense. She’s well connected.”
“Then she invited you. What is her name?”
“Lady Tennebrisa, late of Austria. I’m not certain specifically where.”
“We can make do.” said Beck, lifting his quil. “How do you spell Tennebrisa?”
Jenson helped and Beck forged their invitations. He penned four, and produced from his coat his collection of signet rings. He laid them out on the table and could sense Ser Richard eying them. He rummaged through the pile until he found a suitable one, and pulled a red wax candle from his other pocket.
“Ser Richard, pass me that lantern?” Beck gestured to the wall behind the desk.
Ser Richard turned and Beck quietly slid the other rings back into his pocket. He sealed each invitation with a dollop of wax, and pressed them down with the ring. Jenson took three of the invitations and Beck retained his own, admiring his handiwork. The seal was very believable. It looked Austrian, to be sure. It was a gaudy thing featuring a two headed eagle with long protruding tongues and far larger wings than were reasonable.
In the center of the warehouse the Alcmenes looked fantastically French. Brock was dressed similarly to Jenson. He had a poofy blouse, a tight fit trailing jacket, and ornately adorned gaiters up to his knees. Brock had not opted to use the mail. He was moving stiffly as if he already had some sort of armour. Byrne had dressed similarly, but had made the outfit very much his own. He replaced the jacket by tightly binding himself in deep blue scarves. He replaced the breeches by fashioning something like a kilt out of tanned, patterned cloth. On his head, in a similar style to the kilt, he wore a turban. He could pass as an eccentric aristocrat, perhaps.
The little man was dressed as a coach driver in browns and blues that suggested wealth of their own. He might not look so peculiar up high on the box of a carriage, Beck thought. The marines had transformed themselves too. They wore clothes not dissimilar to Beck’s. They had tan shirts hiding their mail and blue waistcoats overtop. Adorning the coats they wore white sashes which formed an X across their chests. Overtop they had big dark blue greatcoats flowing down to their knees and they replaced their usual round hats with more casual tricorns. Beck liked the look, but it didn’t look like there were any more tricorns available for him.
“Rather convincing, wouldn’t you say, Mr. Beck?” said Ser Richard.
“I think it will do.” said Beck, “Mr. Jenson do you have a method to reach the estate? Or will Ser Richard need to steal us some horses?”
“Procure.” Ser Richard corrected.
“That’d be where I come in.” grumbled the little man. He waddled back to the stairs.
“Mr. Gaspode is our local guide.” said Jenson. “Gaspode, it seems we failed to introduce Mr. Beck properly.”
“Pleasure.” said Beck. Gaspode was halfway up the first flight and brutally uninterested. He waved down the greeting and carried on upwards, grumbling.
“Grog, go with Gaspode to help with the horses.” said Brock.
Grog? thought Beck.
The big marine lit up, lept forward with a massive grin on his face, and trotted up the stairs behind Gaspode. Grog overtook the little man in three steps, scooped him up into his arms, and carried him out the door. The door slammed shut and the party could hear a muffled yell of “Horses!” through the wall.
Beck looked at Brock.
“He’s incredibly useful.” Brock said.
“Surely.” replied Beck. “We should be on our way too. I have some dealings with Ser Richard but will follow along in a moment.”
The party exited slowly. When they were gone Beck produced sealed letter from his coat and gave it to Ser Richard.
“I hear you’ve had an interruption.” Ser Richard whispered, taking the letter.
“It was our friends there. Nothing more than incompetence, it seems.”
“I hear there was quite an incident. They caved in someone’s veranda and it crushed them.”
“Any idea what caused it?” asked Beck.
“I understand there are some French agents lurking in the area. I imagine these men may be the reason for their presence, or at least they all have the same objective in mind.”
“Well that means it’s worth something, then.”
“I agree.” Ser Richard held up the letter. “And what am I to do with this?”
“Send it to my man Shibley. You know him?”
Ser Richard nodded. Beck started up the stairs to the exit. Ser Richard stayed.
“Good,” Beck continued. “My last shipment leaves tonight. I imagine these sailors won’t be staying long either. I’m going to fall into their company and find myself in England. You will not see me for a while.”
“Until then.” Ser Richard whispered.
* * *
Gaspode had a little shop across the commercial district close to Beck’s. In the rear he had a stable with two horses, a couple of horse carts, and a reasonably ornate black coach. Grog had been less than helpful wrangling the horses, but the horses seemed to really like Grog. By the time Jenson led the rest of the Alcmenes into the yard, Gaspode had placed Grog strategically so the horses wouldn’t move while he bridled them. Grog was singing softly to the mares, petting one’s snout.
There were two ways into the yard. The Alcmenes entered through the large coach gate. Down the side of Gaspode’s store was an alley. Jenson thought he saw Beck coming up the alley. It was only for a moment, but he thought he saw the flash of a blue greatcoat slip into the alley and then right back out.
“Mr. Beck, we’re down here!” Jenson called to reassure.
He walked down the alley when Beck didn’t reappear. Perhaps he’s gotten turned around, he thought, but the street was quiet.
Brock came up behind him. “What was that?” he asked.
“I thought Mr. Beck was here.”
“There he is.” Brock pointed and Jenson followed his line.
There he was, lurking in a shadow, greatcoat and tricorn. He was half hidden behind a shop two doors down.
“He’s not as good at hiding as he says.” said Brock.
“Who’s not?” asked Beck, coming up behind the pair.
Jenson looked at Beck, looked at his blue greatcoat, looked at his bare head, looked at Brock still pointing, and looked to the shadow two doors down. The figure was gone.
Brock was off first. He yelled “Stop!” and ran down the road. Beck and Jenson followed.
“Is Mr. Brock armed?” Beck asked, huffing.
“He usually is!” said Jenson.
The three reached the mouth of the alley together and saw two figures standing twenty feet away against a wall, pistols leveled. Jenson dropped. They fired. A bullet whizzed past his ear. Brock cried out. Big white plumes of smoke hid the assailants from view.
Beck sprinted down the alley. Brock, apparently unharmed, made chase as well. Jenson stumbled to his feet and pursued. He burst through the smoke to see Brock flying through the air to his left, tackling one of the assailants to the ground. The assailant wasn’t ready. He crumpled down, his hands still firmly on his pistol, and his head crunched on the ground. Brock stumbled up and wheeled around, breathing hard. On Jenson’s right Beck was engaged with the other assailant. They were holding up each other’s hands. Beck had a hatchet, the assailant had his pistol, each had a grip on the other’s wrist. Their build was identical, and their coats matched almost perfectly.
Brock barged past. He ripped the pistol from the attacker’s hand, pushed Beck off, and grabbed the man by the scruff of his shirt. With a single swift motion, he hammered the man into the wall and he crumpled to the ground. His tricorn fell down next to him.
Byrne came running up the alley with the two regular marines. They had their rifles ready. The trio stopped next to Jenson.
“Smith, Klein, guard the accesses.” said Brock.
The marines snapped to action and ran to the two ends of the alley. Brock lifted up the man on the wall. He was still breathing. Byrne had already gone to the one on the ground. He shook his head.
“Mr. Brock are you ok?” asked Jenson.
Brock looked at his shoulder. His coat was ripped and there was a red gash in his skin. “Glancing.” he said. “I’ll need a stitch-up.”
Beside Jenson, Beck was fiddling with a door. It looked like it led to an abandoned shop.
“I can get this open,” he said, and started rummaging in his pockets.
Brock took one stride to the door and smashed his boot into the locking mechanism. It flung open.
“Or you can.” said Beck.
Jenson could see Brock was still breathing heavily. He dragged the surviving attacker into the shop. Best not to get in the way. Jenson followed them in.
Inside was dark. The door opened at the top of three steps. The room below was lit only by a little skylight that cast a bright square onto the far wall. Across from Jenson was the shop’s original entryway, also three steps high, all boarded up. The floor below was covered in dust and dirt and hay. There was a loft on the far end of the shop that looked like it was liable to cave in. Underneath was a stack of hay bales. They looked structural. Jenson thought maybe this was once a feed store. Brock dragged his captive over to the loft’s only support post and leaned him up. He was still completely out. Smith and Klein carried in the other body. They dumped it onto the hay under the loft, behind the captive, and went to guard the door. Jenson stepped inside. Byrne was behind him.
“Dr. Byrne,” he said. “Is he going to be alright?”
“Who is he?” asked Byrne, going over to take a look at the back of the captive’s head. He had to push by Brock, who was binding his hands.
“They look like us.” said Jenson.
“Which would mean they look French.” Beck said, pushing in the door past Smith and Klein, now wearing his own tricorn.
“Mr. Brock did you get a good look at the men who attacked us last night?” asked Jenson.
“No.” he huffed. “It was dark, they were dark, and Carlisle blinded me with his musket before I could get a look.”
He kicked the captive in the foot. He didn’t move.
“This could be them, then.” said Jenson.
The man was dirty. It was hard to discern his features. He had dark oily hair cut short, and he had darkness under his eyes. His mouth hung open and revealed dark teeth to match.
“Are you able to wake him up, Dr. Byrne?”
Byrne, still crouching behind the post, reached around and put a hand on the man’s chest. He looked pensive, weighing his options, it seemed. He closed his eyes, as if trying to conjure something from inside him. His eyes shot open. He stood quickly, stepped to the side, and smacked the captive up the side of the head as hard as he could.
The captive shot up with a shout, eyes wide open, legs flailing. He leapt up in the air almost a foot before his hands caught their binding and he smashed back to the ground. Brock lunged at him and grabbed his collar again.
“Who are you?” he screamed.
The captive was mumbling something unintelligible. It sounded vaguely French but Jenson couldn’t make it out.
Brock screamed again. “Qui-es tu? Qu'est-ce que tu veux?”
The captive was clearly terrified. He kept repeating “Je veux--je veux” over and over.
Brock reared up and smashed his fist into the wood just above the Frenchman’s head. If he hadn’t ducked, he would have been glanced. The post vibrated fiercely.
The impact seemed to stir the Frenchman, who yelled “I will never talk!” in French.
Brock stood. Brushed himself off and looked to try to compose himself. It didn’t have much effect. He swung his leg and slammed his boot into the man’s ribs. The Frenchman shrieked, and struggled hard against his bindings.
Jenson approached Brock, seeing it may be time to intervene.
“Mr. Brock, he may not be involved.” he said in a low voice.
“He’s obviously involved.” Brock snapped.
“But he may not know anything.” Jenson paused long on know.
“Then why did he fire at us?”
“We chased him.”
“Why was he lurking?”
Jenson didn’t have anything for that.
A long pause. The Frenchman continued to struggle.
“Ok, he may know to follow us but that doesn’t mean he knows anything.” Jenson concluded.
“That’s a very timid way of things.” said Brock. “Byrne, can you make him talk?”
“Not magically.” Byrne wiggled his fingers in the air, smiling.
Brock’s look could kill. He swiftly kneeled next to his captive and ripped the Frenchman’s shirt open. He whipped a knife from inside his jacket and firmly grasped the Frenchman’s nipple. The Frenchman screamed “No! Stop! I’ll speak!” this time in English.
Brock stood and flipped the knife in his hand, grinning. “Simple as that.” he said to Jenson.
“Then speak.” Jenson said to the Frenchman.
The officers and Beck leaned closer.
“Our lady told us to track you,” he said. “I was there last night when you started shooting at my people.”
“I got away but had to find out where you went. I was lucky and saw you following the dwarf. Then you saw me and I ran.”
“We know that part.” said Brock. “Which lady sent you?”
“I will not tell!” said the Frenchman, feebly.
“Do you want me to hurt you?” Brock yelled.
“I cannot tell! She will hurt me more!” the Frenchman yelled in return.
Brock looked at Beck. “Give me your axe.”
Beck obliged. Jenson watched him pull the hatchet from beneath his coat and pass it over, not so quickly to indicate agreement but not so slowly as to show discontent.
Brock took a stride away from the Frenchman and held the hatchet at arm’s length so the head hovered over his crotch.
“I can hurt you plenty.” he said. “I had two marines killed in that blast last night because of you.”
The rest of the party stood firmly. Jenson weighed his options but came out even.
“Who sent you?” Brock yelled.
“I cannot tell!” the Frenchman yelled back.
“Who is she?”
“She will kill me!”
Brock swung the hatchet upwards and started down towards the Frenchman.
“Lady Demeter!” he screamed.
Brock stopped the hatchet an inch from the Frenchman, turned the head, and smacked him with the flat side.
“That’s a former associate of Lady Tennebrisa.” whispered Byrne.
“Where is Lady Demeter?” Brock growled.
The Frenchman was squirming, obviously in a considerable amount of pain. “At the estate.”
“Why?” snapped Jenson.
“I don’t know! I have told you all I know!”
Brock stood and turned to Jenson, hands out in triumph, hatchet still hovering over the Frenchman. “See? Answers.”
The door burst open. Klein and Smith were thrown into the room with force. Jenson wheeled. A third Frenchman emerged onto the steps above them. He was bathed in daylight, his face invisible. He raised his arm. A pistol shone in his hand.
Beck dove. Jenson drew. The Frenchman shot. Behind him he heard the captive Frenchman scream in agony and Brock’s gun went off . Byrne cried out. Jenson fired. Brock’s shot found its mark and the Frenchman spun to the side, clutching his gut. Jenson’s shot embedded itself in the door’s frame. Gunsmoke filled the room and the Frenchman stumbled out the door.
Beck, Smith, and Klein were up in a moment and after him. Jenson spun to see a terrible scene. Brock was upright, a pistol having replaced Beck’s hatchet in his hand. The hatchet had fallen as threatened and embedded itself on the inside of the Frenchman’s upper thigh. There was blood everywhere. Byrne was on the ground too, lying on top of the Frenchman, clutching his chest and panting heavily. Jenson rushed to the doctor and lifted his hand. Byrne was clutching a flattened pistol shot. His mail had taken the impact and forced the wind out of him. The Frenchman beneath him was no longer squirming. Jenson and Brock helped Byrne to his feet. He was a little shocked but otherwise fine. The three stared down at their captive.
It was quiet, but most of all, Brock was very quiet.
“Help me gather some hay.” said Jenson.
* * *
The Frenchman had evaded Beck and the marines, one of whom was named Smith, and the other Klein. Which was which Beck didn’t want to ask. They returned to the back of the feed shop to see the roof ablaze and Brock, Byrne and Jenson standing outside.
Knowing looks were exchanged, and the party walked back to Gaspode’s.