The King's Secret Service
by Derek Paterson
A Steampunk Adventure Novel.
Available on Amazon.
-Table of Contents-1. Dover Harbor
2. Moonlight Killers
3. The Black Swan
4. Colonel Trencher
6. Sea Urchin's Secrets
7. Sea Urchin Leaves Dover
8. Approaching Jolie-sur-Mer
9. Dead Ship
10. Clifftop Fort
11. Back To The Harbor
12. Back to Blighty
13. Trencher's HQ
14. Prussian Attack
15. In The Woods
16. Old Dan's House
17. The Deutschland
18. Brief Respite
19. Into the Jaws
20. Saint Malba
1. DOVER HARBOR
Not for the first time, Keagan glanced at the beautiful young Frenchwoman who lay asleep on the couch opposite his, and thought lustful thoughts he had no business thinking.
He didn't much like the French, as a general rule. They were an arrogant, argumentative bunch, always warring with their neighbors and suffering from grand delusions of empire. Yet he'd been forced to revise his harsh opinion after meeting Madame Dominique Bouchet. It wasn't her sparkling blue eyes or her dazzling smile that had left him smitten; nor was it the unruly mass of jet black curls that cascaded over her shoulders, accentuating her pretty face. It was the fact she was prepared to risk all by fleeing her native country and traveling to Albion to find her husband, whom she hadn't seen or heard from in six long months. He admired her courage, her daring. It was just Keagan's bad luck that she had a husband in the first place.
The child, Chloe, didn't seem to want to go to sleep. She sat quietly beside her mother, a pretty little girl of four or five, wearing a flower bonnet and clutching her rag doll to her chest. She was a miniature version of Dominique Bouchet and would grow up to be just as beautiful. Keagan didn't know Jean-Pierre Bouchet but thought him a very lucky man indeed.
Old Dan called down to him from above: "Shaun! We're nearly there. Shift yer arse, boy." All pomp and manners, was Old Dan. A sailor born and bred, he knew more about the sea and its dark moods than Keagan ever would.
With a sigh Keagan got up and climbed the stairwell, emerging into the open-backed wheelhouse as Old Dan brought Sea Urchin in toward Dover Harbor's south pier. He'd set the topsails, but only for show, in case anyone was watching. Sea Urchin was unlike any other ship in the harbor. She didn't need wind or sails, and in fact hardly needed a crew either, thanks to the ingenuity of the clever people who'd built her. Keagan felt privileged to be her master, but he also couldn't help but wonder when that privilege would end, as it surely must someday, and someone took her from him. His luck couldn't very well hold out forever.
On either side of them reared familiar giant shadows on tall legs—the huge gun platforms whose twenty-inch cannons pointed out to sea, part of Dover's elaborate defense system, constructed during the dark times when the all-powerful Espanyans and their Portugee allies had threatened Albion with invasion. These guns had blown the Armada out of the water, and only last year had done the same to the impudent Frenchies when the God-Emperor Napoleon had dared try to land troops on English soil. Bloody King Freddy had built similar gun platforms all along the coast, hundreds of them, all pointing toward the Continent. To Keagan they were a constant reminder of Albion's might, her indomitable spirit—and her monstrous cruelty. The same foundries that had cast these guns had also cast the muskets that had turned his beloved Ireland into a graveyard.
A dozen fishing boats and cutters already lay tied up against this side of the pier. Old Dan steered for an empty berth. "Another ten minutes and we'll be in the Nag's Head," he said, sounding pleased. Like any seasoned sailor, Old Dan liked his grog ration.
"You'll be in the Nag's Head, you mean," Keagan said. "I'll save my custom for more genteel establishments, thank you."
Old Dan threw his head back and laughed. Despite thirty years' difference in age, the two men were firm friends. They split profits from their ventures fifty-fifty, without argument, and Keagan firmly believed he'd got the better end of the deal. Old Dan was one of the few men he'd trust with his life. In some ways he reminded Keagan of his father, who'd been full of sage wisdom. Physically—unlike his father, who'd been thin as a rake—Old Dan possessed considerable bulk, most of which was still hard muscle. His curly hair and bushy sideboards reminded Keagan of snow-covered Irish countryside in winter.
"What about the sleeping beauty?" Old Dan said. "What's her story? How come she dresses like a lady but ain't got two brass farthings to rub together?"
"She has got money," Keagan said. "I just didn't take it, that's all."
Old Dan scratched his chin thoughtfully, one hand on the wheel. "Sometimes I wonder if yer mum dropped you on yer head when you was a babe."
Keagan grinned. "We were bound for Dover anyway, so I thought...."
"So you thought you'd give her free passage, did you?"
"Why not?" Keagan slapped his coat pocket; the coins in his money bag clinked. "We made enough this trip to keep you in grog and women for the next ten years." Old Dan's toothless grin said he'd like that lots. The night's voyage had indeed been profitable. Returning from the trip to France, they'd come ashore in various secluded coves along the English coast, dropping their passengers off in twos and threes. The Frenchies had all expressed their eternal gratitude to Keagan for bringing them to Albion, before fading into the night to avoid the vigilant Customs patrols. Keagan didn't mind taking their money, but Dominique Bouchet was different. It wasn't just her beauty and her manner that pleased him. He'd seen the haunted look in her eyes that suggested she was leaving everything behind, that her entire wealth resided in the little corduroy purse looped around her wrist. By contrast, her fellow Frenchmen had brought bags and chests and portmanteaus along with them, undoubtedly stuffed with moneys and valuables. They could afford to pay, so they paid.
Dominique had moved to the foot of the stairwell and was looking up at him with those deep, innocent eyes of hers. Such was the timing of her appearance that for an awful moment he thought she must have been reading his mind, listening to his innermost thoughts. Which was absurd.
He cleared his throat and said, "Oui, Madame?"
She lifted his coat, which he'd draped over her while she slept. "I thank you for your kindness," she said in lilting English. "How much longer until we reach Dover?" She pronounced it Doveur. Until tonight the French language and its accents had never had any appeal for him; now he relished every word and inflection that issued from this woman's lips.
"We are here, Madame," he said. He beckoned to her, and she climbed the narrow stairs to stand beside him in the wheelhouse. He took his coat and draped it about her shoulders because the air had turned chill. She tensed as if about to resist, but then she stared open-mouthed at the immensity of Dover Harbor. The town's lights reflected upon the harbor waters, turning the place into a thing of beauty. They'd missed sunset by about an hour, which was a pity; he would have liked to have impressed her even more.
Old Dan pulled a lever. With the dark cloaking them, no one would notice that he didn't have to move from the wheelhouse to lower the topsails. Dominique looked up; she'd heard the movement. Sea Urchin's momentum took her in towards the pier.
"Remember she belongs to someone else," Old Dan whispered out the corner of his mouth. Thankfully the two-masted brigantine's creaking timbers and singing cables masked his words from the Frenchwoman.
Keagan bit off a sharp reply, took a breath, and spoke to Dominique instead. "We're going to tie up alongside the pier, Madame. We'll soon have you ashore." She didn't answer. He got the impression that Dover was much bigger than she'd expected, and she was only now beginning to realize the magnitude of the task that lay ahead of her. "Where does your husband live?"
She hesitated before she replied, "I do not know."
Her answer surprised him. "You don't know where he's staying?"
She shook her head.
He pondered this for a moment, then said, "Me and Dan have friends here. We could ask around and find out if someone knows your husband's whereabouts. If you wish."
She didn't answer. He knew it was because she was uncertain of him, which was understandable. He was, after all, a stranger to her, someone she'd only just met earlier tonight and hadn't yet learned to trust.
Something made him glance down the stairwell. Chloe stood there, looking up at him. He found her unblinking gaze unnerving, though he didn't know why this should be. Here was another one who looked as if she could read his mind. Maybe it ran in the family.
"I should be pleased, Monsieur, if you would do this," Dominique said. "Very pleased indeed." In the half-light from the lanterns he saw her relief and gratitude.
"I would consider it an honor, Madame," he said, wondering why her husband had never written to tell her where he was staying. Keagan would have written to her every day. Twice a day. More.
"Wake up, boy," Old Dan said. "Work to be done." He spun the wheel and brought Sea Urchin broadside toward the pier.
Keagan hurried midships and shoved the tightly bound cloth bales over the side, where they hung from their ropes. He measured the distance to the approaching pier steps, and leapt. He caught hold of the chain link imbedded in the stone blocks, put there because seaweed always covered the steps, slimy and treacherous as hell. And he did slip, but he recovered thanks to his grip on the chain, and pulled himself up onto the pier. Old Dan threw the stern mooring rope to him just as Sea Urchin gently nudged the pier, her outer timbers protected by the bales. Keagan caught the rope and looped it around one of the iron bollards set into the pier. Old Dan went forward and threw the bow rope, and Keagan did the same again. The source of their income was safe until they took her out again tomorrow night. More paying customers awaited them across the Channel, their passage to Albion arranged by Keagan's agent in Callay, Beauchamps. Thinking about Beauchamps reminded Keagan why he disliked the French. The man pretended he was a patriot when he was really a greedy swine who kept insisting upon a larger commission each month. But he was also good at lining up rich clients desperate to flee occupied France, so Keagan was content to let their arrangement stand. For now, anyway.
Old Dan was staring at him again. Keagan could have kicked himself—Dominique and her daughter couldn't be expected to navigate the steps, they'd both end up in the water for sure. He looked around for a gangplank and saw one alongside the harbormaster's house. He wheeled it over to where Sea Urchin lay and maneuvered it so it hung over the deck. The wheels became a pivot, allowing the gangplank to see-saw up and down on the edge of the pier; the raised edge stones prevented it from slipping over. Old Dan put his foot on the other end and pushed it down until it touched the deck. He beckoned to their passengers. Keagan expected Dominique to hesitate but she immediately stepped up onto the gangplank and climbed to the midway point, holding onto the gangplank's hand-rail. Chloe was grimly determined not to let her rag doll slip and fall in the black waters. When they were both midway, Keagan put his foot on his end and pushed down, tilting the other end of the gangplank up. He offered his hand but neither of them took it, they simply walked off the gangplank and past him. Mother and daughter certainly didn't appear to be afraid of getting wet.
"Welcome to Dover, Madame," he said.
"Merci beaucoup, Monsieur," Dominique said. She looked across the harbor, examining the small fleet of ships at anchor. "So many bateaux. But, who owns them?"
"Dover is a town of merchants and sailors. The Royal Navy is based at Portsmouth, further along the coast, but there's a substantial presence here, too. Because of the threat of invasion by the Frenchies." Damnation, he'd said it before he even thought.
"Frenchies?" She wrinkled her nose, but her smile said she was amused.
"I beg your pardon," he said. "Your people. Before Good King Johnnie and the Kaiserine defeated the God-Emperor."
"Ah." She pointed out the largest shadow among the fleet of shadows, a looming hulk that dominated the middle of the harbor. "Is that also a merchant ship?"
"She be a warship," Old Dan said, coming up the steps to join them. "A Royal Navy frigate. Seventy guns, unless I'm mistaken, which I'm not. A ship of the line. More than a match for anything that bitch's whelp Napoleon ever put to sea."
Keagan cleared his throat, embarrassed.
"Not all Frenchmen gave L'Empereur Napoleon their support, Monsieur," Dominique said. "My father most certainly did not." She might have said more, only two men carrying lanterns and with muskets slung over their shoulders walked toward them out of the gloom. Town Wardens on harbor patrol. One man held back and watched with wary eyes while the other did the talking.
"God save King Johnnie!"
"Amen," Keagan said. "The King and Albion both."
The Warden nodded affably. "You the owner?"
Keagan fished the papers from his coat pocket and the Warden diligently read them by the glow of his lamp. When they'd brought Sea Urchin back to Albion that first time, Keagan had bribed the harbormaster's clerk to issue him with docking papers, which also served as proof of ownership. Ten guineas well spent.
The Warden looked at Dominique and Chloe. "Your family?"
Keagan nodded. "That they are, sir. My wife and child, and my uncle." The lie came easily. Telling the truth would be asking for trouble. He prayed Dominique and the child would keep their mouths shut. Damn it all, he should have cautioned her before they left Sea Urchin.
The Warden glanced at Dominique again but if he had any suspicions he kept them to himself. "Will you be sleeping ashore tonight?"
"Aye, we will." Keagan rented a room above the Black Swan when he was in Dover. The couches aboard Sea Urchin were comfortable enough but he preferred to sleep in a real bed when he could, and have his breakfast cooked for him. Old Dan had a house of his own just round the corner from the Nag's Head, which suited him well, as he could easily stagger home when he'd had enough grog.
"Everything's in order." The Warden returned the docking papers, minus the shilling Keagan had slipped between them, and gave a nod and a wink to confirm they'd keep a watchful eye on Sea Urchin tonight. Keagan nodded back.
The Wardens went on their way. Keagan saw Old Dan relax. A lifetime of dealing with Town Wardens and their ilk had left scars upon Old Dan's face and soul. He carried a length of lead pipe up one sleeve and a wickedly sharp knife up the other, for those occasions when bribes weren't enough and more direct persuasion was required. Tonight good fortune had shone upon the Wardens, although they didn't know it.
"All right, then," Keagan said. "Here's what we'll do. Dan, you get off down to the Nag and slake your thirst. While you're doing that, you can ask your mates if they know anything of Monsewer Bouchet. I'll head up to the Black Swan with Madame Bouchet and ask the same question. If you hear anything, send word to me. I'll do the same."
"Fair enough," Old Dan said.
Keagan took out the money bag and threw it to him. It disappeared into Old Dan's coat as if by magic. The bag contained many different types of coins. There were gold French francs stamped with God-Emperor Napoleon's plucked eagle, fat Spanish doubloons, even some silver Prussian marks bearing the Kaiserine's frosty face. Keagan didn't care where they originally came from, him and Old Dan were amassing a bloody fortune between them, and that was a fact.
"I'll try not to drink it all away," Old Dan said. He smiled at Dominique and touched his finger to his hat brim before setting off.
"Do we not go with your friend?" she asked Keagan.
"No, we're going somewhere else. To a nearby tavern. I have a room there."
She stared at him coldly for long moments, amazing him with the emotion she could channel through her eyes. "Monsieur Keagan, I am not, not—" She fumbled for the words. "I am a married woman."
He didn't understand, until he considered what he'd said. "My apologies, Madame. I meant only that you could wait in the room until such time as we have news of your husband. I do not intend to stay there with you."
She bowed her head and wouldn't look at him, realizing the mistake she'd made. He wanted to reach out and touch her shoulder, just to reassure her he was nothing if not a friend, but knew that such a gesture might also be misunderstood. He remembered what Old Dan had said. She wasn't his. Once they found her husband, it was unlikely he'd ever set eyes upon her again. Then why was he being so bloody stupid?
"I apologize, Monsieur," she said, staring at her own shoes. "I thought—"
"You had every right to think what you did," he said. "But that is not my intention. I have brought you to Dover and I will help you find Monsewer Bouchet, as I promised." He looked at the smiling child, who wasn't in the least upset by their exchange. He wondered if Chloe understood English. "Let me take you to the tavern now. The owners are kind people. They'll look after you there."
"Merci," she whispered.
"Sure and there's no need to thank me, or apologize. I'd do the same for anyone." That was a lie, and he knew it. He wanted to tell her he would do anything she asked of him. Anything at all.
They began walking along the pier, side by side, with Chloe skipping a step behind, still clutching her rag doll to her chest as if it were the most precious thing in the world. And probably it was, to her. The poor girl had left everything else behind, just like her mother.
"Are all Englishmen as kind as you?" Dominique said.
Keagan smiled. "Well, see now, I'm not English, Madame, I'm Irish. The Irish are a hospitable race by nature. I only regret that we are not in Ireland instead of Albion, and I cannot offer you the hospitality of my home." It was out before he realized, but she didn't seem to see the unintentional double meaning. He wished his tongue would stop wagging. His Ma would have beaten the pants off him if she'd heard him flirting like this with a married woman.
They passed the empty stalls and barrows which, come the morning, would be filled with fish, eels, lobsters, crabs and other things of the sea, fresh and succulent. Over to their right, past the Nag's Head, lay the network of dark alleyways known as Murderers' Row because of the lawlessness that abounded there. Even the Town Wardens gave Murderers' Row a wide berth. To the left was the Old Quarter, part of the original town before Dover was rebuilt and rearmed by King Freddy and made into Albion's bastion against invasion from the Continent. Ahead of them, at the top of the gently rising cobblestoned road, sat the Black Swan, a welcome sight.
A sandy-haired boy came walking down this same road, hands in his trouser pockets and whistling to himself as if he hadn't a care in the world. Keagan recognized Toby, Alf Turner's son. Turner was landlord of the Black Swan. Toby grinned when he recognized him. "Hello, Shaun."
"Hello, Tobe. And what brings you abroad at this time of night?"
"Me Dad said I was to look for you coming in on the high tide," Toby said. He looked at Dominique and interest played across his round, twelve-year-old face.
"Did he, now?" Keagan lowered his voice. "Best stick with girls your own age, lad. She's too old for you." He winked, and Toby looked away, embarrassed. But he recovered quickly and said,
"Me Dad said to tell you Captain Harker's been on the prowl again. Been asking all sorts of questions about you, he has."
Keagan instinctively looked around, checking the shadows. Captain Harker was Customs & Excise, a swine if ever there was one. Slowly but surely he was whittling down the smuggler population along the southern coast. He'd been after Keagan for months—had boasted, in fact, that he'd hang Keagan from his own mast when he caught him with contraband aboard his ship. Not if, mind you, when. Keagan wondered whether Frenchie aristocrats fleeing to Albion counted as contraband. Very probably, in Harker's book.
"I'm heading for the Swan now," Keagan said. "You might as well come back with me. This is Madame Bouchet." He considered introducing Chloe but the little girl was looking back the way they'd come. He wondered if her young eyes were sharp enough to pick out the Wardens patrolling the harbor below.
"Pleased to meet you, Madame Boo-shay," Toby said, carefully pronouncing her surname. He pursed his lips for a moment. "I heard that name before somewheres."
"In your dreams?" Keagan suggested.
"No, Shaun, really I have."
Keagan placed his hand upon the boy's shoulder. "Tobe, lad, you mean to tell me you truly know someone who goes by that name?"
"Sure I do. Or leastways, Eddie does."
"The butcher's boy. He delivers meat to his house. Says the Frenchie only eats horse meat. Won't touch nothing else."
The bizarre coincidence rocked Keagan to his heels. "Could you look Eddie up in the morning and ask him where this fellow named Bouchet is staying?"
"Oh, is that all you want? Sometimes I go along with him when he makes his deliveries. We have a good laugh. I can tell you where Monsewer Boo-shay is staying. It'll cost you, though."
Keagan pulled a penny out of Toby's ear, a daft trick his Da had taught him when he was a boy himself. Toby's eyes widened.
"Yours, if you tell me where he lives."
Toby snatched the coin. "For a penny, I'll take you there."
Dominique stepped forward. Her puzzled frown suggested she'd only followed a small part of their conversation. That was his fault for not speaking slowly and asking Toby to do the same.
"We are in luck, Madame," he said. Funny how he didn't feel lucky. "This is my friend, Toby. He knows where your husband is staying. At least, I think it may be your husband. He is a Frenchman and his name is also Bouchet. Toby will take us there."
"Dare I ask when, Monsieur?" She tried to be calm but her voice cracked with emotion. Keagan felt for her, even though he had no right to.
"Toby, how far is the house?"
"You could see it from here if it was daylight, I think."
Keagan groaned inwardly.
"Can we, allons, can we go there now?" Dominique asked.
Keagan badly wanted Toby to say no, so he could at least have her company until tomorrow morning, but the boy grinned and said, "Sure we can."
Keagan stifled a sigh. Finding Monsewer Bouchet so quickly was the last thing he wanted, but only a coward would lie to a woman seeking her husband. "All right, Tobe. Lead the way, then."
2. MOONLIGHT KILLERS
They followed the boy, who moved with a surety born of living in Dover all his life. Toby took them up the street and along an alley that ran between darkened buildings, and opened into another street Keagan didn't know. The houses hereabouts were enclosed by high walls and thorn bushes that would deter all but the most determined thieves. Lanterns dangled from window-poles to illuminate some corners, but by no means all. Keagan examined the darker spots for cut-purses and the like. And also for Customs uniforms. While Captain Harker professed to work strictly within the boundaries of the law, Keagan didn't doubt he would step outside its limits if an opportunity presented itself.
Toby whistled as he moved ahead, pausing now and again to look at the front of a house, as if trying to identify the building he was looking for. Dominique, ignoring Keagan, hurried to keep up with the boy. Keagan offered Chloe his hand and she took it, clutching her rag doll to her chest with her other hand. She smiled up at him. He doubted whether he'd ever met a happier little girl. The sea voyage, the strange surroundings, the strange language, didn't seem to bother her at all.
Toby stopped at an iron gate. The house that lay beyond was sandwiched between overgrown bushes. More bushes partially concealed the front door. Lamplight glowed in one of the upper floor windows. Toby looked back at Keagan. "This is the one."
"Bet you another penny he's in there."
Keagan, who'd have thrown all his money into the sea if it made Dominique give up her husband and come with him instead, fished a second penny from his pocket and flicked it into the air. Toby caught it and looked at him, surprised. "There's no need to bet anything, lad. You did a good job. Back to the Swan, and no loitering, you hear me?" Toby nodded and ran off, no doubt dreaming of how he'd spend his newly acquired fortune come the morning.
Dominique stared at the house, biting her bottom lip. Keagan lifted the latch and opened the gate for her. "Do you wish me to walk you to the door, Madame?" he said.
She shook her head. "Non, Monsieur. You have been very kind to me. Will you not allow me to show my gratitude?" She lifted her little purse and began to open the drawstring, but he placed his hand over hers. The brief contact throbbed through him as if he'd been shocked by an electric eel.
"There is no need, Madame. Truly." He took a deep breath, steeling himself to say goodbye forever. "I wish you much happiness, Madame. You and your family."
Dominique looked at him for what seemed like an awfully long time. He half-expected her to say she'd changed her mind, that she wouldn't be going inside, that she wanted to stay with him instead. But then she turned without another word and went through the gateway. Chloe went after her, toddling up the path with her rag doll under her arm. She glanced over her shoulder at Keagan once, before she and her mother disappeared behind the bushes.
A bell tinkled somewhere within the house. An irritated voice called out, demanding to know who was calling at this late hour. The voice spoke in English but carried an unmistakable French accent. Feeling like a scoundrel, Keagan crept up the path until he could just see Dominique standing at the door with her back to him. Chloe looked at Keagan and smiled again. The door opened. Such was the lighting that Keagan only saw the silhouette of a tall man. Dominique gave a cry of relief and flew into his arms.
Keagan turned abruptly and went back the way they'd come, chin down, feeling sorry for himself. Why? For God's sake, he'd only just met the woman a few hours ago. They'd exchanged—what? A dozen sentences? Hadn't he just done the good thing, with Toby's help? He'd seen Dominique and her child safely to their loved one, and should be proud of himself.
He considered following Toby to the Black Swan, but decided he might as well let Old Dan know how easily they'd located Monsewer bloody Bouchet. He headed for the Nag's Head, located just this side of Murderers' Row. Accordion music and off-key singing reached him long before he sighted the tavern, favored by sailors and those who worked around the harbor and the shipping warehouses. As Keagan approached, the door burst open and a figure came tumbling out to sprawl on the ground. The man tried in vain to push himself up but his bloody injuries overtook him and he collapsed with a groan. Keagan stepped over the body and opened the door. Hostile faces glared at him, then looked away when they realized he wasn't the same man coming back inside, looking for more trouble.
"God bless all here," Keagan said, which seemed to please everyone. He looked around for Old Dan but couldn't see him. Maybe he hadn't gotten here yet. Keagan took a seat by a table in a quiet corner. The accordion player struck up another tune, a bawdy sea shanty Keagan knew well. A serving maid brought him a flagon of grog without being asked and banged it down upon the table. He placed a shilling on the table, which she snatched up without a word of thanks. He caught a glimpse of her face. She'd once been young and pretty. Working in the Nag's Head hadn't preserved her beauty or encouraged a kindly disposition. Keagan lifted the flagon to his lips, but stopped when he saw how dirty it was. And God only knew what they put in the grog here. He pretended to take a sip in case someone was watching, then set the flagon down upon the table.
As it turned out, someone was watching. A sailor sat down opposite him. His dancing eyes told Keagan he was more than a little drunk, but there was cunning in his gap-toothed smile and he kept one hand below the table. Keagan sensed a subtle shifting of bodies nearby. The sailor's friends, maybe, moving closer to overhear their conversation, or to lend their shipmate a hand if things got rough? Coming in here was a mistake, he decided, too late.
"An' who might you be, with your airs and graces? Why ain't you drinking? Our grog not good enough for you, is that it?"
"Your grog's fine, and I'm not wanting any trouble."
The sailor scowled at him. "Irish, are ye?" He hawked and spat on the floor. "That's too bad, because trouble's what you're—"
Keagan kicked the bastard's shin as hard as he could. The sailor half-rose out of his chair, mouth open wide with pain, and holding the knife he'd slipped out of his boot when he sat down. Keagan threw the grog into his eyes and smashed the flagon over his skull. The man slumped down across the table and then slid senseless to the floor, leaving gleaming blood on the dark wood. Quick as a flash Keagan had his own knife out, daring anyone to come a step closer. They didn't, for which he was thankful. He'd no wish to kill anyone. Killing led to questions and questions led to a judge, a jail cell, and a rope.
The maid pushed through the crowd. She looked at the sailor, then at Keagan. "You broke that flagon. You'll pay for it, or you're out the door."
"He broke it, not I," Keagan said, studying the grim faces behind her. "Take the money from him, if he has any. I'm waiting for a friend and by God I'll not be shown the door, by you or anyone else in this hell-hole."
"Harold!" she shouted at the top of her voice, frightening him. A huge bald man with a bushy red beard pushed forward to stand beside her. Men stepped away from this giant, evidently fearing him. Keagan couldn't blame them, not in the slightest.
"Wot's the trouble?" Harold demanded.
She pointed at Keagan. "Him. Won't pay for breakage."
Harold, presumably the Nag's owner or one of his deputies, stared at Keagan, then at his knife. Keagan knew beyond shadow of doubt that if Harold wanted to, he could take the knife from his hand and shove it up his arse sideways. Instead, the huge man reached down, grabbed hold of the unconscious sailor's shirt and pulled him up off the floor with only one hand, as if he weighed nothing. He dangled the sailor in front of the maid. She took the hint and searched him, grinning when she found coins hidden in his belt.
"That enough?" Harold said.
"Yeah." She slipped the coins into her apron pocket.
Harold stalked to the door, opened it and heaved the sailor outside. Keagan supposed it was marginally better than exiting through a window. Harold glared at the sailor's friends, who suddenly found reasons to look elsewhere. Ignoring Keagan, he stalked to the back of the bar and ducked his head to pass through the door he'd appeared through. The atmosphere seemed a lot more settled, so Keagan returned his knife to its sheath. Now they knew he was armed, maybe the Nag's Head's customers would give him a wide berth. He hoped so.
Old Dan came in. He headed for the bar counter, then caught sight of Keagan and pushed his way to the corner table instead. He righted the stool the sailor had toppled and sat down. "Surprised to see you here, boy. Thought you was saving yourself for more genteel establishments?"
"I came to see you," Keagan said.
"Where's the Frenchie woman?"
"In the loving arms of her husband. Young Toby Turner recognized the name right off. Took us to the bugger's house. It wasn't far. I left her there."
The maid brought a flagon of grog for Old Dan. He picked it up and guzzled it as if he hadn't had a drink in weeks. The hard-faced woman gave Keagan an accusing look. "You didn't say you knew Dan."
Keagan shrugged. "You didn't ask."
"Shaun's a good friend of mine, Rosie," Old Dan said.
She grunted. "Ought to be more careful picking your friends. A troublemaker, this one." She cleared empty flagons from another table and carried them back to the bar.
Old Dan chuckled as he wiped his upper lip with the back of his hand. "You think she'll be all right?"
"Who, Madame Bouchet? I dare say she will be."
"Then stop thinking about her. A lady like her is far too good for the likes of you anyway, even if she wasn't married."
Keagan smiled. "When you're right, you're right. I just wanted to let you know. I reckon I'll be heading up to the Black Swan for some supper and a good night's sleep."
"That's sensible. Come the morning you'll wonder what you ever saw in her." Old Dan burped and banged his empty flagon down. "More grog for a thirsty man, Rosie!" he shouted above the hubbub of voices and laughter. The maid appeared like a ghost with a fresh flagon in her hand.
"What about him?" she said, meaning Keagan.
"Best ignore him. He's lovesick," Old Dan said, clapping Keagan on his shoulder with enough force to jar his teeth.
Their laughter followed Keagan to the door and outside. The two sailors who'd been ejected from the Nag's Head lay across each other, still unconscious. Keagan walked around them and set off up the road toward the Black Swan. Maybe a drink—good quality ale from a clean cup—would cheer him up, after all.
His footsteps echoed off the walls of the surrounding buildings as he climbed the hill. He looked back once, trying to discern Sea Urchin, but she was well and truly lost in the clutter of shadows below. All he could make out were the outlines of the big gun platforms rising up out of the sea, and the Royal Navy frigate, and a moving spark of light closer to hand that could be a Warden's lantern.
A scraping sound came from somewhere behind him, carried on the still night air. Keagan quickened his step and when he passed under a shadowed archway he glanced back over his shoulder. There were three of them, big swaggering lads used to giving and receiving knocks. Wharf rats, who'd think nothing of beating him to death and dropping his body into the black waters of Dover Harbor. Why they'd decided to pick on him was anyone's guess. Perhaps they were friends of the sailor he'd brained with the flagon? Yet he'd not seen or heard anyone follow him out of the Nag's Head.
One of them vanished down a side alley, his soft footsteps fading. He'd show up again soon enough. Then the other two would come up fast from behind so they attacked him from front and rear at the same time. Keagan knew he could make a run for it, but if he put a single foot wrong they'd be on him like wolfhounds. He kept walking at a normal pace, listening and watching and sweating beneath his coat.
Footsteps sounded behind him, much closer than before. A shadow lurked in the alley up ahead, to his right—the wharf rat who'd separated from the others. As Keagan passed the alley opening the shadow flew at him, cudgel raised, but Keagan was ready for him, he lowered his shoulder and bulled into the surprised rat, smashing him off-balance so his cudgel missed by a mile and his head slammed into the wall. The rat sank down, his senses scattered. Keagan snatched up the cudgel and drew his knife.
The other two came running in, one armed with a club, the other with a short sea cutlass. The latter drew ahead of his comrade, eager to reach Keagan first. Keagan threw the cudgel as hard as he could, catching the bugger full in the face. An instant later Keagan was upon him, his knife driving into the man's belly. The wharf rat shrieked and fell to his knees, clutching his stomach. Dirty fighting, but this wasn't a time for niceties. Keagan snatched up the fallen cutlass and the third wharf rat skidded to a halt, wary of the blade. The man looked at Keagan, looked at his two fallen comrades, licked his lips, weighed his chances, then turned and ran for it. Keagan chuckled. At least one of the three had shown good sense.
But his smile faded in an instant. His instincts told him it wasn't over yet, that someone else was out there in the dark. He pressed himself against the wall and waited, hardly daring to breathe, because if whoever was watching him had a pistol then he was a sitting duck.
As the fleeing wharf rat drew level with a darkened doorway, a flash of steel intercepted him. He staggered another couple of steps, then folded in two and collapsed. Even from that distance, Keagan knew the man was dead.
Long seconds passed, then the swordsman who'd been hiding in the doorway stepped into view. He appeared to stare directly at Keagan. Damn the shadows, Keagan couldn't see his face! Only the outline of his hat, with a buckle catching the moonlight. The swordsman turned and walked away as if he were out for a casual stroll, swinging his sword like a walking-stick. The night swallowed him. Keagan bared his teeth. He could give chase, but a cutlass was no match for a longer sword, and again there was no guarantee the bastard wasn't carrying a pistol. Who was he? The answer to that question was obvious. He was the man who'd paid the three wharf rats to slice and dice Keagan, and who didn't appreciate their failure. Keagan promised himself he'd find out who this was. He didn't know how, but he would find out. When he did, there would be a reckoning, and no mistake.
The rat Keagan had stabbed in the belly was dead. So was he whose head had struck the wall; blood ran from his nose and one ear, suggesting the impact had cracked his skull. A pity, that. Keagan might have been able to make him reveal the name of his employer, the swordsman. Keagan tugged his knife free, cleaned it on the rat's coat, and returned it to its sheath on his belt. He wiped his hand, too. He didn't want anyone to notice blood on him and ask awkward questions.
Because he was a practical man, he robbed the dead of whatever coin they had in their pockets, just as they would have robbed him. They each had a silver guinea, the price of his death, and a smattering of copper coins between them. He added this wealth to his purse and set off for the Black Swan again. He also took a knife from the belt of the rat who'd wielded the cutlass, and threw the cutlass away. It was too heavy to carry around but an extra knife might well come in useful, the way things were going tonight.
3. THE BLACK SWAN
The Black Swan, located on a terrace overlooking the harbor, tended to attract traders and ship owners, as well as serving better quality ale. Keagan regularly conducted business with Alf Turner—discreetly of course—and thus he received a warm welcome when he came down the steep flight of stairs and passed into the already crowded common room. Turner poured a tankard, placed it on the counter and shook his head when Keagan reached into his pocket.
"God bless all here," Keagan said. Those who knew him raised their cups in salute. Keagan emptied half his tankard and sighed with pleasure. Madame Dominique Bouchet was already a dim memory. Well, maybe. A memory, certainly. One of the better ones, to be sure.
His friend Dirk Peabody pushed his way through the crowd and clapped him on the back. "Shaun, you rogue," he said, laughing. "It's good to see you again. Did you just get in?" Dirk wasn't drunk but he was certainly happy. Keagan caught a glimpse of Alf Turner's eldest daughter, Marion, serving behind the bar. She was watching Dirk closely. Maybe she had something to do with his happiness?
"Aye, I did." Keagan sipped his ale. It tasted grand. He surreptitiously inspected himself in the brighter lighting and couldn't detect any bloodstains. Well and good. "How have you been, lad? And is it my imagination or does yon pretty colleen have eyes only for you?"
Dirk lowered his voice. "Quiet, you fool. Alf Turner would see me off with a stick, if he knew." He smiled as he said it. "I'm fine, thanks, though Nate seems intent upon working me to death." Dirk indicated his older brother, sitting at a table by the window with two men Keagan didn't recognize. Perhaps it was coincidence but Nate Peabody suddenly stopped talking at that moment and all three men turned their heads and looked directly at Keagan.
"There are worse places to work than your brother's office," Keagan said, wondering why they were being so bloody nosy. "And worse jobs than a factory clerk." As he always did, Keagan considered his surroundings in terms of making a fast exit if necessary. The common room's windows overlooked the quayside. A desperate man could climb out and drop nearly twenty feet onto hard stone below. Keagan would only attempt such madness if his life was at stake. Mayhap he should carry a grappling hook and rope with him for such occasions? The idea amused him for only a moment. The only other way out was the stairway he'd come down. "Have you been behaving yourself while I've been away?"
"Oh, yes," Dirk said. "Nate sees I do. The same can't be said for you, I hear."
Keagan's attention snapped back to Dirk. "Oh? And what makes you say that?" He feigned good humor but he wanted to know what was being said about him, true or otherwise. Someone in his line of business couldn't afford to ignore whispers and tattle-tales. These were often the measures by which a man might live free or die painfully.
"The Customs aren't happy with you."
Keagan relaxed. "So I heard. But before the bastards can prosecute me they have to catch me, and they've not managed that trick. Not yet, anyway."
Turner's daughter slid a tankard across the bar to Dirk. Her eyes flashed with promise and her cleavage threatened to spill out of her bodice. Keagan appreciated her beauty but stopped himself from ogling her. Dirk might not like it, and Alf Turner certainly wouldn't. He tried to remember what clothes Dominique Bouchet had worn but it eluded him. But he remembered the color of her eyes, and the curl of her hair, and her soft accent, and her perfume, which still lingered on his coat, he realized.
Dirk picked up the fresh tankard, nodded his thanks to Marion, thumbed the lid open and drank as if he'd been marooned at sea for days. He emptied the tankard in one. At the other end of the bar Alf Turner was watching them out the corner of his eye while pretending not to watch.
"Best pay the lass, Dirk," Keagan said.
Dirk nodded easily, fished a coin out of his pocket and put it down on the bar. The girl hesitated to take it, as if her refusal would show Dirk how much she cared for him, but Keagan flicked it toward her, giving her no choice. She dropped the coin into the slot behind the bar, which fed down into Turner's concealed cash box. Dirk leaned back against the bar, propping himself on his elbows, making a good show of ignoring her. Keagan smiled to himself. Young Dirk Peabody was playing hard to get.
"She likes you," Keagan said.
"I like her, too."
"You could do worse than marry a tavern owner's daughter."
Dirk grinned. "There's a thought." Then his eyes widened. "Jesus," he said, his grin vanishing.
Keagan turned round and saw what had prompted Dirk's reaction. Three men had just entered. They wore long blue coats and tricorn hats with white feather cockades. Two carried muskets fitted with bayonets, whose points scraped against the ceiling. The third man, who came down the stairs last, wore an officer's scarlet sash about his waist. There was a sharp, dangerous air about him that would have warned Keagan to expect trouble even if he hadn't known who the bastard was.
Conversation died as everyone became aware of the new arrivals. Captain Augustus Harker of His Majesty's Customs & Excise slowly turned his head, allowing his cold gaze to sweep the room. He gave the impression of being able to memorize each and every face he saw, and of intending to use this knowledge to his advantage in the very near future. So Keagan thought, as Harker's gaze came to rest upon him and the man's thin lips curled into a contemptuous half-smile beneath his neatly trimmed mustache.
"Why, here you are, Keagan. I thought you'd crawled into some hole in the ground, as you usually do when I'm looking for you. But I'm too fast for you tonight, hmm?" His false smile vanished and his icy blue eyes glinted like jewels. "You can either come quietly, or I'll have my men shoot you. The choice is yours."
Before Keagan could say anything, Dirk spoke up. "What's the charge, Harker?" he demanded.
Harker fixed Dirk with a deadly look. "Best you stay out of this, boy. I'll break your head myself if you dare interfere with Customs business. That's fair warning. Not everyone would get that much from me, so think yourself lucky."
Dirk swayed as if ready to lunge at Harker but Keagan put an arm across his chest, denying him.
"Sure and it's a pleasure to see you, too, Captain Harker," Keagan said, as calm as he could manage. He judged the distance from here to the windows even as he spoke. "My friend does have a point, however. What's the charge?"
Harker laughed, a horse-like sound that grated on the nerves. "Charge?" he said. "What's the charge? Why, smuggling, of course. My men just searched your boat and found a bottle of brandy in your cabin." He gestured to one of his men, who tossed him a dark glass bottle, the label unmistakably French. "That's enough to earn you a jig at the end of the hangman's rope." Again his humor vanished, as if someone had closed a storm shutter over his face. "Step lively and don't even think about trying anything fancy, you Irish monkey. I'd prefer to take you alive, but I won't hesitate to kill you if you resist arrest. Again, that's fair warning, before witnesses."
Keagan's stomach shrank. He knew as well as Harker did that Sea Urchin was clean; if there was a bottle of brandy then Harker had brought it along himself and planted it for his men to conveniently discover. Keagan cursed himself for not paying more heed to the warnings he'd received from Alf Turner and from Dirk. Thinking back to what had happened outside, he wondered whether Harker might have been responsible for sending the wharf rats after him. Could Harker have been the swordsman who'd stepped out of the doorway to impale the fleeing rat? Easy for him to change his hat before paid the Black Swan a visit. Then again, if Harker was planning this arrest, it seemed unlikely he'd hire three wharf rats to slit Keagan's throat.
Harker gestured to his men. They pushed forward and took up position on either side of Keagan, shoving Dirk and other customers out of the way, none too gently.
"I appear to have underestimated you, Captain Harker," Keagan said. "That's what I get for listening to people who said you were a man of honor."
"Watch your tongue, you Irish scum, else I'll cut it out," Harker said, his hand resting upon the engraved pommel of his sword. He looked around the common room again and announced, for all to hear, "Anyone tries to stop me from carrying out my duty, you'll hang along with this rogue. Be warned."
At that moment the crowd parted to let Nate Peabody through. Little similarity existed between the two brothers; the elder Peabody was portly and bald, while Dirk stood tall and possessed a full mop of dark curly hair. Nate Peabody was older by fifteen years, Keagan knew, Dirk's mother having given birth to her youngest son late into her forties, to the surprise of all, not least Dirk's suspicious father. People who didn't know them well often mistook Keagan for Dirk's brother, since they were physically alike to a degree.
Harker suddenly lost a measure of his self-assurance. As well as being a respected factory owner, Nate Peabody was also the local magistrate, which gave him no small measure of authority.
"May I ask what this is all about, Captain Harker? If I heard you rightly, you have accused Mr. Keagan of smuggling?"
"I have indeed, sir," Harker said. "I've been after this scoundrel for an age, and tonight he made his first mistake. A single bottle of French brandy is all it takes to condemn him. With your permission—"
But Peabody interrupted. "The bottle was mine. I have had it in my house for some years. I gave it to Mr. Keagan as a gift, out of gratitude for his kindness towards my brother,"—he smiled easily at Dirk—"who occasionally needs a firmer and more experienced hand than I can provide. So you see, Captain Harker, this is all a dreadful mistake. Mr. Keagan did have a bottle of French brandy aboard his ship, but that is my doing."
Harker opened his mouth to speak, closed it again.
"A simple misunderstanding," Peabody said, driving the point home. Keagan watched as Harker's face registered surprise, then realization that he'd been publicly out-maneuvered by Peabody. He could hardly say, You are mistaken, sir, the bottle is not yours! I put it aboard the ship myself!
Harker's face reddened but he kept his anger in check and said, "I'm afraid I will require you to verify—"
"I'll be seeing Colonel Witherspoone tomorrow night," Peabody said, naming Harker's superior. "We play whist on Wednesday evenings. I'll mention this business to him, and apologize for causing you so much trouble. I think that should be sufficient, Captain Harker. Don't you?"
Harker's shoulders slumped. He had enough sense to know when he was beaten. He nodded and said, "Thank you, sir, for clarifying the situation. I bid you good night." He touched a respectful finger to his hat and made to turn away, but Peabody cleared his throat.
With extreme reluctance, Harker gave the bottle to Keagan, who forced himself to resist smashing it into Harker's face. Somehow he managed to stay his hand, but it wasn't easy. He slipped the bottle into a coat pocket instead.
Harker turned abruptly and left the Swan before his men realized they were supposed to follow him out. They retreated upstairs after Harker. Only when they were gone did Keagan dare let out a shuddering sigh of relief. He was shaking, and bunched his hands into tight fists to try to stop it from showing.
"Join me at my table when you're ready, Mr. Keagan," Peabody said, with no visible sign of emotion. "Dirk, you too." He caught Alf Turner's eye. "A drink for every man here, Alf, if you please. Let's celebrate sticking our fingers up Captain Harker's nose, eh?"
Amid the laughter that erupted from the crowd, Keagan turned back to the bar, picked up his tankard, drained it and set it down again. Marion, smiling, had another ready for him. Alf Turner leaned past her and said, "Good health to you, Shaun. Always remember, you're among friends here." Turner made a show of decocking a blunderbuss and returning it to its hiding place under the bar counter. As Keagan looked around he saw cudgels disappearing back inside well-cut coats and jackets. It occurred to him that the Swan's customers had as little love for Captain Harker and His Majesty's Customs & Excise as he did. If not for Peabody's calm intervention, bloody hell might have erupted here tonight. He wondered if Peabody had acted simply to avoid bloodshed. Or was there another reason?
"You coming, Shaun?" Dirk said.
Keagan nodded. It was time to see what the elder Peabody wanted in return for saving his neck. He picked up the fresh tankard and followed Dirk to the table.
End of sample
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THE KING'S SECRET SERVICE
by Derek Paterson
Copyright © 2014. All Rights Reserved.
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Copyright © 2014. All Rights Reserved.