Hunted – Sample

 

Chapter 1: Madrid, Spain

PRINCESS JESSICA DISCREETLY adjusted the Ruger 9mm holstered beneath her long black dress. The gun was old—an antique really—dating from before The Collapse, but it was reliable, and it was still possible to get ammunition for it if one had the right contacts.

She had the right contacts.

The gun had been pressing uncomfortably into her hip for most of the evening, but only now, as she made her way up the wide staircase towards her room, did she have the chance to do anything about it. She pretended to take a sip from her wine to cover the action.
Palace balls were such a drag. She’d much rather be back in uniform, hunting down bad guys or saving the world, not trussed up in some awful evening gown, sparkling like an expensive bauble. Still the jewels were a nice touch.

‘Your Highness, may I accompany you?’

Jessica turned to watch Don Hector coming up the stairs behind her, a wine bottle and two fluted glasses in one hand. She realised with horror that he must have seen her adjusting her clothing.

‘Don Hector!’ she said, all smiles. She held out her arm and waited for him to catch up. Five years her junior, and heir to the Spanish throne, his full name was The Infante Don Hector de Borbón, Principe de Asturias. According to the OMSPEC report on him, the kid was an idiot. He hadn’t done a day’s work in his life—at least not real work. Instead he spent all his time getting drunk and bedding women, insofar as one didn’t make him incapable of the other.

But he was fit.

Jessica had barely spoken two words to him all night; he was always surrounded by a bevy of women and hangers-on. But earlier she had seen him making eyes at her across the dinner table, and knew that if she kept her distance, eventually he would come to her.

He took her arm in his. ‘If I didn’t know better, I would say you have been avoiding me all evening.’ His voice, though heavily accented, was soft and silky, and quite mesmerising.

‘You seemed to be enjoying yourself,’ Jessica said.

‘They were mere trifles,’ Hector replied dismissively. ‘They couldn’t hold a candle to the light of your beauty.’

Right answer. Don Hector smiled, flashing his brilliant white teeth. Jessica caught the movement of his eyes; he was firmly fixated on the plunging neckline and loose fabric of her dress. Good.

‘This is your first time in Madrid?’ he asked.

‘My first time in Spain,’ Jessica confirmed. ‘Now if you will excuse me.’ She released his arm and continued up the staircase. After a few steps she looked back at him and gave a little wave. Let’s see how he handles a brush off.

‘Your Highness, the night is young,’ he said. ‘I could show you the palace? If you want to go somewhere more… private?’ He held up the bottle and glasses, his expression almost pleading.

He’s not used to people being resistant to his charms, Jessica thought. If she didn’t have to complete her mission tonight, she’d just leave him standing there. But she had a job to do. ‘What did you have in mind?’

‘Through here… On this level are the state reception rooms. They are public, but we will not be disturbed, I think.’

‘Lead on.’

As he walked past, he swayed slightly and Jessica smelt the stench of alcohol and tobacco on his breath. Her nose wrinkled involuntarily. She didn’t intend to become one of his conquests, but the smell suggested that he was well on the way to being incapable in any case.

The room he led her to was dark, although not pitch black. Large windows stretched from floor to ceiling, and she could see a balcony and lights from the garden beyond. The party downstairs had obviously spread outside. Enough light filtered into the room that she could make out large items of furniture—marble-topped tables, recliners and chairs, all gilt. Massive pictures hung on the walls, their ornate frames glistening dully. It reminded her so much of Blenheim.

She walked over to the window and opened it. The sounds of laughter and music wafted up from below. She went out onto the balcony. It was chilly, but not cold. She quickly emptied the rest of her glass into the night.

‘I love the view from here,’ Hector said, coming up behind her. He reached his arms around her waist and leant in close. His mouth was right by her ear. ‘The trees and the hills during the day, and the stars at night. Some nights, you can see the glow from the city just across that hill there.’ He pointed. Jessica hoped he couldn’t see the face she was pulling.

Below them on the terrace the party was still in full swing. People were walking and mingling between large outdoor candles. Braziers were dotted about the terrace, although the chill of winter hadn’t really set in yet. The smell of wood smoke drifted up in the light breeze. Jessica caught the eye of one of the other guests and waved.

‘But my dear, your glass… it is empty! Why did you not say?’ Hector drained his glass and rushed across to a little table, where the wine bottle stood. He filled his own glass and brought the bottle out to Jessica. ‘It is a remarkably fine vintage, do you not agree?’ he asked as he poured.

‘Very fine,’ Jessica agreed. She noticed him watching her as she put the glass to her lips. This time she took a small sip. Hector smiled. She smiled back, keeping her mouth tightly closed.

‘You know, we grow the grapes here locally; the slopes are ideal, and we have many wineries. We have the best cellar in the whole of Spain, right here at the palace…’ Wine it seemed was Don Hector’s favourite thing to talk about as well as to drink. Jessica nodded and smiled and wished he would look the other way for a moment so she could spit out the wine in her mouth.

Suddenly she noticed the silence. Don Hector was looking at her expectantly.

‘Mmmm?’

‘I said, we must arrange for you to take a shipment of our finest wine back with you to Oxford. My father’s long-standing ties with the English Crown are well known. We have been allies since before the days of the—how do you say it—crash?’

‘Collapse. We call it The Collapse. Yes the wine would be lovely, I’m sure father will be delighted.’ She put the glass down on the balcony rail. ‘Do you really think I’m pretty, Hector?’ she asked. She twirled around, allowing her dress to billow out. She swayed slightly and held out her arms to balance, and in the process knocked her glass off the balcony. It fell to the floor and smashed.

‘Oops-a-daisy.’ She giggled.

‘Let me get you another,’ Hector said quickly.

‘I swear you’re trying to get me tipsy.’

‘Nothing could be further from the truth, my dear.’ Hector poured two more glasses and handed her one.

They clinked glasses.

‘Bottoms up,’ Jessica said, raising the glass towards her mouth. She stopped before it got there. ‘What?’ Hector was watching her again.

‘I was just thinking to myself how much…’

Jessica didn’t let him finish. ‘Why don’t we swap drinks? You drink mine and I’ll drink yours?’ She giggled for good measure. Hector said nothing; he seemed confused. ‘It’s a drinking game we play at home.’

‘Oh, a drinking game!’ That seemed to energise him, and he took her glass. ‘As you English say, bottoms up!’ He downed the glass in one, swaying slightly as he did it.

‘Lets go inside,’ Jessica said. ‘It’s getting a little chilly out here, and you’re getting a little tipsy. We don’t want you falling off the balcony.’

She took his arm and led him through the French window, tipping her glass out behind her. Then she whispered in his ear, ‘I was told you could help me find someone. He goes by the name of Don Asesino.’

Hector swayed slightly as he pulled himself away. ‘You want a what?’

‘It was just a name someone gave me, no matter,’ Jessica said, watching his face closely for any reaction.

The don made straight for the wine bottle and drained the last few drops into his glass. ‘Must get another one,’ he muttered. ‘For a moment there I thought you said…’ He looked at the label on the bottle quizzically.

Jessica put her glass down. ‘I’m sorry, Your Highness, but I really should retire. It’s been a long day.’ She made her way to the door; Hector didn’t protest. In fact he didn’t say anything, and that surprised her. A small scraping sound set her on edge. She turned slowly. Hector was silhouetted against the window, but there was something else: another figure behind him, all in black. And she caught the glint of something metallic. A knife.

Shit!

She screamed, ‘Hector! Drop!’ Rapidly pulling aside the folds of her dress, she grabbed her gun, bringing it to bear in a well-practised fluid motion. Her left hand came back to steady her right and she fired.

The next few seconds happened in a blur, the sound of the shot ringing in her ears, and the flash from the muzzle leaving a brilliant red after-image across her vision. She saw the body slump to the floor, but it wasn’t the assassin; it was Hector. There were screams from outside, and she clearly saw the assassin climbing up onto the balcony. She fired again, but the assassin was gone and she couldn’t tell if she had hit him.

There was shouting from outside the room. Then the door burst open and half a dozen palace guards rushed in shouting, with guns and swords held at the ready.

Slowly, Jessica placed her own gun onto the floor, kicked it away and raised her hands.

 

Chapter 2: Faringdon

FELICITY ANNE CARTER stared intently into the green beer bottle, barely noticing the flickering patterns it made in the light from the fire. Her long blonde hair hung to her shoulders, ragged and unkempt. She was only concerned with one thing: the last reluctant drop of amber liquid that didn’t want to come out. ‘I know you’re in there somewhere,’ she muttered, her rural Oxfordshire accent sounding slightly slurred. She upended the bottle into her mouth, and shook it slightly, but nothing came out. Finally the empty bottle joined a dozen others on the table.

The bar was about half full, fairly typical for most nights, and she sat alone in her dark corner, out of the way. Most people had learned by now to give her a wide berth, although Flick was a quiet drunk. The shouting would come later, in the middle of the night when she woke, screaming from the night terrors that haunted her.

She reached inside her jacket and pulled out a small hip flask. She’d have to be surreptitious—the landlord would get upset if he caught her drinking her own booze—but the flask was empty. Damn! There was nothing else for it, she’d have to make a trip to the bar.

The Bell seemed to have attracted a worse kind of drunk since Flick had started drinking there, or probably because she was drinking there. Seventeen years of age and already drinking to forget. To forget the two men she’d killed, one she’d shot with an arrow and one she’d stabbed with a knife. Both men had been trying to kill her, but that was beside the point; she’d killed them and that would haunt her for the rest of her life. And of course there was Adam, her little brother. Only fifteen when he had died, killed in the same attack on that bastard Griffin.

Griffin had been mayor of Faringdon, but it seemed that in his spare time he had built some sort of private army and been thoroughly nasty to anyone that got in his way. It was Griffin that had burnt down The Crown, where Flick had lived with her father, her brother Adam and little sister Rosie. Adam had gone to Oxford after his Choosing, but Dad and Rosie hadn’t been seen since the fire. Griffin had accused her of their murder and in a sham trial, sentenced her to hang. But she had escaped thanks to Griffin’s own son, Joe, who had slipped her a key. Something she later learned that he had paid for with his life. That was another death on her conscience.
Flick arrived at the bar with a loud belch. The beer she’d already drunk had just been the warm-up, now it was time to start getting serious. She peered at the line of bottles arrayed along the back wall, and as the barman approached, she pointed. ‘That one!’

The barman took the bottle down and brought up a small glass from below the bar. He was about to pour a shot when Flick held her hand over the glass. ‘No. Bottle,’ she said.

The barman eyed her cautiously. ‘Are you sure? You’ve already had quite a lot tonight.’

Flick nodded. ‘Yup. Bottle.’ She rummaged in her pockets and pulled out a handful of coins which she spread on the bar.

The barman took the money. ‘Okay, but I don’t want a repeat of last night, is that understood?’
‘Wasn’t my fault, he started it,’ she muttered as she grabbed the bottle and took a long swig. Flick slipped off the bar stool and weaved her way between groups of people on her way back to her little corner. ‘Mind yourselves, coming through!’ she shouted as she swayed past one big man and straight into the back of another.

‘Watch what you’re doing, you nearly spilled my drink,’ the man said, turning and glaring at her.

‘Woah, take it easy, big fella, you bumped into me I think,’ Flick said. She grinned what she hoped was a placatory smile, but was probably more of a leer. She took another swig from the bottle.

‘Whatever you say,’ the man said dismissively, and turned back towards his companion.

‘I’m just saying,’ Flick said, a slight slur creeping into her voice, ‘that you bumped into me. If anyone should say sorry, it’s you.’ She realised she was talking to the man’s back. ‘You’re not listening to me.’ She pulled at the shoulder of the man, who did his best to shrug her off, but spilt some beer in the process.

‘Now look what you did,’ he growled.

‘That was definitely you,’ Flick said, ‘and you still owe me an apology.’ She poked the man with her finger to emphasise the point.

‘You’re drunk,’ the man said, turning away.

‘S’not the point.’ She leaned right in until her mouth was close to the man’s ear. ‘And you’re playing hard to get.’

He spun around. ‘Look, will you just piss off…’ He broke off as Flick lost her balance and started flailing her arms around wildly. She went over backwards, knocking two other drinkers as she fell, sending their drinks flying. She let go of her own bottle, sending it spinning to join the glasses arcing through the air as if in a juggling trick gone horribly wrong. They all crashed noisily into a heap of broken glass and alcohol and bodies.

There was silence.

‘Oww.’

‘I think you’ve had enough,’ a voice said, somewhere above her.

‘Fred?’ Flick stirred and tried to struggle to her feet. The room seemed to sway, and she grabbed hold of something for support. It felt like a leg, but she didn’t really care, as long as it didn’t move. The Watchman loomed over her, large and fuzzy, and she blinked a few times to try and clear her vision. There was a familiar iron taste in her mouth. Blood. She wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. Even though she couldn’t focus, she could see that it was red. ‘I seem to be bleeding,’ she said.

‘Come on Flick, we need to get you home,’ Fred said. He grabbed hold of her and pulled her up, swinging her arm across his shoulder.

‘Must get another drink. Lost that one.’

‘You’ve had all the drink you’re going to have, for tonight anyway,’ Fred said.

‘Make them go… away,’ Flick slurred.

‘Make who go away? Your friends? They’ve all gone. You’ve driven them away with your drinking and fighting and shouting. There’s just me and Maggie left, and if you weren’t paying us for the room…’

Not them, Flick thought, THEM. The demons. The dead. The ones that wouldn’t go away, no matter what she did.

The blast of cold air barely registered as Fred half-dragged, half-carried her out into the night.

‘The Volunteer is on the way home,’ she muttered. ‘We could stop there for a quick one…’

‘No,’ Fred said, firmly.

***

Flick woke suddenly, drenched in sweat from another nightmare in which she’d been pursued by the bodies of her victims, bloody and zombie-like, until she’d finally fallen headlong into an earthen grave, screaming and drenched in blood and gore. It was still dark, and her head pounded from all the drink she’d had the night before. Somewhere under the bed was her emergency bottle, and she reached down, fumbling blindly until she found it. The hair of the dog that bit her. She flipped open the stopper and drank. The movement made the room spin momentarily and she steadied herself against the wall while she waited for it to settle. Somewhere in the distance a baby was crying.

She flopped back down, one arm dangling limply over the side of the bed. The bottle slipped from her fingers onto the floor, its contents spilling onto the carpet with a quiet glug.

Flick didn’t know what time it was, but she must have slept because it was now light. Her headache still thumped away like a jackhammer, and that damned baby crying didn’t do anything to help. Why didn’t Maggie do something to shut it up? And there was something cold and clammy in the bed with her, and it stank, and she’d just put her hand in it and, eww, puke. She pulled the bedding over it and wiped her hand on the sheets. That got rid of some of the smell, at least for a bit, and she backed up away from the sick patch until she tumbled onto the floor with a loud crump. She spotted her bottle, lying on its side under the bed. She reached out, finding the carpet was damp and the top was missing from the bottle. Empty. She could smell the booze though, in the carpet, and she rubbed her hand in the damp patch, bringing her fingers to her lips… boozy sick. Ugh!

‘What the hell is going on?’ The voice came from the doorway behind her.

‘Maggie…? Baby’s crying.’

‘Never you mind about the baby,’ Maggie retorted. ‘Just what on earth are you doing on the floor? The room reeks of booze, and… eww, have you been sick in the bed?’

Flick muttered something under her breath. She winced as Maggie threw open the curtains and the room flooded with light.

‘Oh for heaven’s sake! Felicity Anne Carter, you are a mess! Just look at yourself.’

‘Won’t happen again,’ Flick slurred. She felt a slight twinge of guilt for saying that, as she was already thinking about where else she had put a bottle. There must have been an edge of insincerity in her voice, or something to give her away, because Maggie wasn’t having it.

‘You will not bring any more booze into my house, and if I find any more bottles, or I think you’ve been drinking, you will be out. Is that understood?’ she said.

‘Whatever,’ Flick mumbled.

‘And don’t go sloping off to the bathroom and thinking you can get the bottle in the cistern, because it isn’t there; I’ve already tipped it away.’

That was too much. ‘That was my bottle!’ Flick shouted, the sudden ferocity almost startled her. ‘You had no right to do that, bitch!’

‘Don’t you “bitch” me! I have every right! This is my house and you are here under sufferance!’

‘Sufferance? Sufferance? Is that it? After everything that’s happened, and I’m here under “sufferance”? Some kind of friend you are!’

Maggie hauled Flick to her feet, anger showing in her eyes. ‘That’s enough. You go and get yourself cleaned up before I lose my rag. Just look at yourself in the mirror—you’re a disgrace!’ Flick struggled ineffectually as Maggie pushed her along the corridor and into the bathroom. ‘And don’t come out until you are presentable, then you can clean up the mess you’ve made.’

Flick slammed the bathroom door shut. ‘Cow!’ she yelled. She pulled off the heavy porcelain lid of the cistern, and sure enough, it was empty. ‘Bitch!’ The lid fell to the floor with a loud crash. Flick thought that maybe she’d broken it but she didn’t look to check. Instead she sat on the edge of the bath and cupped her head in her hands. How the hell had she managed to end up like this?

Back in the summer she had been optimistic; the trial was over, and the verdict had come in that Dad and Rosie might still be alive, out there somewhere, if only she could find them. But then the nightmares started, and legal wrangles over the ruin of the inn. She never had a Choosing—Mum had died when she was fourteen and she had simply dropped out of school to be mother to Rosie and Adam and help Dad. She was so busy she never noticed when her fifteenth birthday came and went, and it didn’t seem to matter. But because she was Unchosen, she couldn’t legally own property, and with Dad missing or dead there was nothing she could do about it.

There was a pitcher of water by the sink, and she poured it out. She plunged her face into it and held it there. It would be so easy just to take a big breath and the nightmare would be over. But even she wasn’t that stupid or desperate. Besides, a drink would sort everything out. A few bubbles broke the surface; the shock of the cold water gradually dragged her mind out of the fog. She lifted her head up out of the water, keeping her eyes shut so she didn’t have to look at herself in the mirror, and fumbled for the soap. It took some effort to work up a lather, with the water being so cold, but she managed to scrub her face and hands clean, and then soaped the rest of her body as best she could. She was getting quite hairy, she realised, but she didn’t care enough to do anything about it, and anyway there didn’t seem to be any blades in the bathroom.

Once she had dried off, she padded back, naked, to her room and tossed her night clothes into a corner. She pulled out clean pants and a shirt from the chest of drawers and dressed quickly; now she was fully awake, she was starting to feel the winter chill. She still wanted that drink, but the bottle under the bed was gone; Maggie must have taken it downstairs. There should be another in the space under the bottom drawer. Flick pulled the drawer out and reached in.

There was no bottle; Maggie must have found it and got rid of it, the cow. Flick shoved the drawer roughly back into its hole, trapping a finger in the process. ‘Oww, shit, bugger!’ She kicked at the drawer and sucked her finger; she had drawn blood.

‘What’s going on up there?’ Maggie called from below.

‘Trapped my finger in the bloody drawer,’ Flick shouted.

The baby started crying again.

That’s where the bottle was, Flick remembered. She’d moved it to somewhere Maggie would never look—the baby’s room. Flick rushed almost gleefully into the next room. The cot. It was under the cot.

‘There’s water heating on the stove, when you bring your bedding down,’ Maggie called, ‘and… oh.’

Flick looked up. She was on her knees by the baby’s cot, with bedding strewn about and the half-full bottle in her hand. There was blood on the sheets from Flick’s cut finger, which was bleeding freely.

‘That’s Rosie’s bed!’ Maggie screamed.

‘No, Rosie’s dead!’ Flick pulled herself up, adding a smear of blood to the cot’s wooden frame.

Maggie squared off to Flick, hands on her hips. ‘We’ve gone over this a hundred times.’ Her voice had that forced air of calmness. ‘That Kingsman at the trial said there was no evidence and they must have fled.’

‘So why didn’t they come back?’

‘I don’t know. Look, you wanted us to call the baby Rosie. You said it would keep her memory alive, remember?’

‘Well, you shouldn’t have!’ Flick pulled the stopper from the bottle and took a swig. The pale liquid dribbled down her chin.

Maggie’s jaw dropped. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ she shouted. ‘Give me that!’ Maggie made a grab for the bottle, but Flick pulled it out of reach. It wasn’t enough to stop Maggie though, and she forced it out of her hand.

‘Give that back you cow, it’s mine!’ she shouted.

‘You had that in the same room as my baby? In the bed my baby sleeps in!’ Maggie was livid.

‘Look, I can explain…’ Flick started.

‘I don’t want to know!’ Maggie pushed Flick out through the doorway. ‘I warned you what would happen if I caught you with another bottle in my house!’

‘It was medicine, to put on my cut finger.’

‘Don’t you lie to me, Felicity Carter.’

‘I’m not lying.’ Flick waved her bloody finger. ‘See?’

‘You hid booze in my baby’s cot, and that’s just the last straw. Get out!’ She pushed Flick down the stairs.

‘But Maggie…’

‘Out! Get out of my house!’ Maggie was crying, her face turning red and puffy.

Flick grabbed the railing, stopping herself from falling down the stairs. ‘You can’t chuck me out, where will I go?’

‘You should have thought of that.’ She opened the door and pushed Flick out onto the street. ‘I don’t want you in the same house with my baby. Now get out!’

‘Look Maggie… Maggs, we can talk about this,’ Flick sobbed. ‘I can change, really I can. It’s just been so difficult.’

‘I know you had a hard time, and I’m sorry about your sister and dad and everything, but you’re not helping yourself,’ Maggie said.

‘Helping myself? How the hell am I supposed to help myself? I’ve lost my home, my family, I’ve got nothing! I thought you were my friend!’

‘Look, I am your friend, but you don’t make it easy. But this is for your own good.’

‘For my own good? That’s rich! You’re throwing me out on the street and it’s for my own good? You disgust me!’

I disgust you? You disgust me! Now go away, I don’t want to see you again.’

Flick stood on the doorstep uncertainly. Was this really it? Was she going to be thrown out? Where would she go?

‘Can I at least have my bottle back?’

‘You want this?’ Maggie brandished the bottle. ‘You want this bottle? I’ll give you this bottle!’ She threw it as hard as she could out into the street where it smashed, spraying the amber liquid over the pavement. The door slammed shut.

‘Bitch,’ Flick shouted, then she sank down onto the ground and burst into tears. What had she done?

 

Chapter 3: Bristol

SHEA LEANED BACK on his elbows in the long grass of the hillside, and gazed down on the two-masted schooner slowly making its way up through the gorge. It was late autumn, and probably one of the last mild days before winter. He still had his flying overalls on from the morning sortie.

‘Looks heavy,’ Hannah said beside him. Her long chestnut hair was tied back with a red ribbon.

He shrugged, chewing briefly on the stem of grass in his mouth before spitting it out. ‘It’s the Spaniola, come all the way from Portugal,’ he said. ‘We’ve been following its progress up the channel for the past few days.’

‘And what’s that small boat going out to it?’ Hannah asked. She pointed, and as they watched, a small rowing boat drew alongside the ship and several men climbed up ropes and ladders from one to the other.

‘Boarding party,’ Shea said after a moment. ‘Kingsmen, by the looks of it. Since that business back in the summer with all those guns, they’re not letting any ships near the town without doing a thorough search first. Them or us.’ He spat.

‘Let me take your mind off that nasty affair,’ Hannah said as she rolled over. Her hand found its way to his chest and Shea closed his eyes. His mouth opened slightly as he felt the light touch of Hannah’s lips on his. Her hand felt cold as it touched his skin and he nearly broke contact. Then her fingers found his scar and he winced.

‘Does it still hurt?’ she said.

‘Not as much as the memories it brings back,’ he said. ‘That bitch—she shot me! On purpose!’

‘But she missed anything vital. Deliberately by all accounts.’

‘That’s not the point!’ Shea pushed Hannah away and sat bolt upright. ‘As far as I’m concerned, all Kingsmen are now enemy number one, and that bitch princess is the number one number one. I’ll get my own back one day, you’ll see.’

‘Careful what you say,’ Hannah cautioned, ‘you know Kingsmen have eyes and ears everywhere, and saying something like that could get you in real trouble. They could hang you.’

‘We’re in the middle of a bloody field on the top of a hill, more than a mile out of town!’ Shea exclaimed. ‘How the hell are they going to know what we’re saying up here?’

Hannah shrugged. ‘Dunno. But when they get you, I’ll come and watch; I’ve always liked a good hanging. I hope you kick lots…’ She poked him in the ribs.

‘I never knew you were so bloodthirsty,’ Shea said, laughing. He pulled another grass stalk and started chewing. The two boats in the river were still locked together; it looked like a long inspection.

‘Do you still think about her?’ Hannah asked

‘What, the princess?’

‘No, the other one, Flick.’

Shea was silent.

‘Thought so. You know she isn’t coming back. If she was coming, she’d have been here by now.’

‘Something’s probably happened, a delay with the inn or something. No doubt she’s on her way here right now.’

Hannah wound a finger through Shea’s wavy hair. ‘Do you want us to say hello on our way up to Oxford? I’m sure Dad won’t mind a little detour.’

‘When are you going?’ Shea watched the little black figures climbing back down the ropes into the small boat.

‘Next week. You can come with us if you like? I’m sure Dad will say yes if you ask him.’ She suddenly sat upright. ‘Oh no, wait! Dad says he’s meeting a passenger off a ship—I wonder if it’s that one—I think he’s hoping to get a paying fare. He was being a bit mysterious, someone wants to travel without being noticed, I think’.

‘What, in that vardo of yours? Its hard to be more conspicuous in that big yellow and red thing!’

‘That’s what makes it so good!’ Hannah said, thumping him playfully. ‘Nobody in their right mind would smuggle somebody in a wagon that noticeable…’

‘And you’re not in your right mind,’ said Shea, finishing off Hannah’s sentence.

‘Maybe not, but the Kingsmen didn’t find your girlfriend when they searched us.’

‘She’s not my girlfriend,’ said Shea. ‘You are.’ His eyes darted to her cleavage and then quickly back to her face as he reached over and pulled her towards himself, puckering up his lips.

Hannah batted him away. ‘Stop kidding around, Shea O’Connell. I can tell you’ve only got eyes for Flick, even if she isn’t here.’ Her hand quickly readjusted her blouse.

He adopted his best hurt-puppy pout. ‘When do you go?’

‘Next Tuesday. We’ll be gone about two months, so we’ll be back in time for Christmas.’

‘You’ll bring me back something exotic from the capital?’ Shea asked.

‘If you get me something even more exotic off the ships to trade,’ she said. Then she pointed at the Spaniola in the river. ‘Make it off that one.’

‘Deal!’

***

Shea hid in the shadows near the gangplank of the Spaniola. Somewhere on this ship, he knew he would find some exotic trinket to give to Hannah. In the distance he could hear the sounds of merrymaking coming from one of the dockside taverns, but it wasn’t close enough to be of any concern. The moon, waxing gibbous, was still high in the western sky, intermittently throwing stark shadows across the quayside whenever there was a big enough gap in the clouds.

The Spaniola was fresh into port. He had watched the ship’s cargo being unloaded earlier that day, and since it had been at sea for some weeks, it was likely the whole crew was ashore getting drunk. They were probably responsible for the racket he could hear. Shea heard the distant sound of a glass breaking, followed by jeers. He shook his head quietly.

The next time the clouds covered the moon, he made his way cautiously out from his hiding place, and up the gangplank. He couldn’t see anyone about, which confirmed his guess that even the officer of the deck—someone that should be on duty at all times to guard against thieves or stowaways—was ashore, or at least taking it easy.

Shea wasn’t interested in the cargo in any case; that would all be manifested, with bills of lading, and if anything went missing, it would be spotted very quickly. No, he was more interested in the little trinkets that would be lying around in the cabins and deck spaces. He knew that his Scav nose would sniff out something valuable that he could give to Hannah. It might take a little time, but he was sure he could do it.

Shea looked about the deck. He had watched earlier in the evening as the crew disembarked. Seven men, A ship of this size usually had eight, which meant someone was unaccounted for, and he’d have to keep an eye out. He was sure he’d be okay, so long as no one came back and there wasn’t a random shore patrol checking on the ship.

Now he just had to figure out where the captain might have stashed his loot.

He crept towards the stern of the ship, where there was a small cabin set onto the deck. He peered though a window and could see no one inside. There looked to be a table with charts and maps on it; nothing he found particularly interesting. Something clattered behind him and he froze. Heart pounding, he turned slowly around, but there was no one there. He waited, eyes searching the darkness for movement.
There was another clatter, followed by a yowl, and he relaxed. It was just a cat. Probably found a rat or something.

When he got to the hatch leading down into the interior, he took another look around, before pulling up the cover. Inside it was pitch black. He thought he heard something over the lapping of water against the side of the ship, and stopped to listen, but there was nothing. Maybe it was just the rustling of canvas. He wrinkled his nose as he climbed down the ladder; they clearly didn’t bother with opening the hatches to let fresh air in. The dank smell, laced with sweat and… well, something unpleasant, was overwhelming.

The one interior deck seemed small and cramped. Large wooden beams stretched from side to side, and he had to duck his head so that he didn’t hit them. A solitary candle in a lantern provided a small circle of light, and he took the lantern down from its hook and looked around. The space was open and empty. Towards the bow, bunk beds lined the walls, presumably for the crew. The other way, towards the stern, there appeared to be a small cabin. This must be the captain’s. Shea knew that whatever he was going to find would be in there.

He tried the door… locked.

Shea sagged against the door, disappointed. There didn’t seem to be anywhere else that something valuable could be hidden. He wasn’t going to find anything to give to Hannah after all. He went back to the ladder that would take him up to the deck. He was just about to put his foot on the first rung when he froze. Somewhere above him, he could hear voices.

Shit! Whoever it was—no, whoever they were—they were bound to come down here and find him. And even if they didn’t, how would he get off the ship without being seen?

The voices were getting louder. They were coming closer! Shea could feel his heart pounding in his chest. He could see the effect of his heartbeat in the fluttering of the lantern in his hand, the slight shake setting up ripples in the shadows.

The lantern!

If he was holding it, he’d surely be caught, but if he hung it back on its hook… well maybe they wouldn’t notice.

The voices had stopped moving. They were just beyond the hatch, still far enough away that he couldn’t see them, and more importantly they couldn’t see him. He hung the lantern back on its hook and looked around, frantically seeking somewhere to hide.

Behind the spar, the massive crossbeam, he decided. It was in shadow, not out of sight but it was the best he could manage. He slid into place just as the stars beyond the hatch became obscured. They were coming down the ladder.

Now Shea could finally see who these people were in the light from the lantern. One was the captain. He’d seen the man before, in the port office. But the other he didn’t recognise. His features were obscured under a black cloak and a black wide-brimmed hat. Shea leaned forward to get a better look, and his hand slipped into a gap between the spar and the hull planking. He felt something there, wedged into the crack, as if it had been hidden.

He probed it carefully. It appeared to be wrapped in soft cloth, velvety to the touch, and tied with string. For a moment, he wondered if he should take it or leave it where it was. After all, wasn’t it stealing? Don’t be silly, he told himself, you’re a Scav; it’s scavenging, that’s what you do! He smiled to himself and gently pulled at the cloth, but it seemed to be stuck, wedged in somehow. He tugged harder and it came loose, sending him falling backwards. He flung his arm out to try and regain his balance, but in the process managed to nudge the lantern, making beams of light and shadow dance around the deck. Shit! He pressed back against the bulkhead as fast as he could.

‘What was that?’ the man said. Shea thought his accent sounded Spanish or Portuguese. He had been fortunate that both men had their backs to him.

The captain turned to glance across at the lantern. It was still swinging, but there was nothing that Shea could do about it without giving himself away.

‘Ah, probably just a wave,’ the captain said. He also spoke with an accent. ‘After all this time you’re still a landlubber at heart eh?’ He laughed and clapped the other man on the back. There must have been some unspoken signal between them, because the captain quickly withdrew his hand and his expression turned serious. He pulled out a key and unlocked the door to his cabin. ‘Come, Señor Asesino my friend, share a night cap with me.’ The captain pushed open the door.

The other man hesitated. ‘No. I have business ashore,’ he said. ‘You have it?’

The captain nodded. ‘It’s safe; no one will find it. But please, señor, Just one drink? Honour demands it…’

The man already had one hand on the ladder, but he let go. ‘Very well. I will share one drink with you, for the sake of honour, and we conclude our business.’

That was close! Shea waited until both men had gone into the cabin and closed the door. He wondered what ‘it’ was. Surely it couldn’t be the thing that he had found, after all, the captain said no one would find it. He carefully slipped the package into his pocket, feeling the softness of the fabric covering something hard and round, almost like a knife. He wondered what it could be as he crept back to the ladder and climbed into the night.

***

The vardo was parked close to the docks when Shea came to say his farewell. Chas was fussing around the back, hooking up a second, smaller wagon. This was a much plainer affair, painted green with a simple green canvas cover hooped over the top. He looked up when he heard Shea approach.

‘Wotcher!’ he called out cheerfully. ‘Hannah’s inside with her mum.’ He indicated the big wagon.

‘Thanks, Mr Foster,’ Shea replied, grinning.

‘While you’re here…’ Chas said before Shea had a chance to get past him.

Uh oh, what have I done now? Shea thought. He stopped and looked inquisitively at Chas.

‘Just give me a hand with this hookup would you?’ He indicated what he wanted Shea to hold while he coupled the two wagons together. ‘I can do it myself, but it’s easier with two,’ he said.

Shea held while Chas pulled the bar over the coupler on the back of the vardo.

‘I’ve seen what’s going on between you two,’ Chas said casually.

Shea almost dropped the bar. ‘Going on?’ His voice squeaked, and he swallowed to try and cover the embarrassment. ‘Nothing’s going on, Chas. Honest.’

‘That’ll be Mr Foster to you.’

‘Er, Mr Foster, sir.’

‘Glad to hear it, because I wouldn’t want my little girl… disappointed, if you catch my meaning.’

‘No sir, I wouldn’t do anything like that, sir.’

‘Good. Just so we understand each other.’ Chas winked, and Shea felt a surge of relief; a bullet dodged.

‘You still interested in that Carter girl from up Faringdon way?’

‘Flick, you mean?’

‘That’s the one. Saved our arses from that madman back in the summer.’

‘I was there, you know!’ Shea proclaimed indignantly.

Chas snorted. ‘As I recall, you slept through most of it with a little pinprick in your side.’

‘That’s not fair! I got shot by that witch!’

Chas raised an eyebrow. ‘Witch?’

‘That bloody Kingsman Princess—Dixon!’

‘And you’ve been dining out on it ever since, by all accounts.’

‘Your point being?’ Shea was starting not to like where this conversation was going.

‘Flick got shot too, you know.’

Shea grunted.

‘But not before she’d freed the hostages and taken down the bad guy.’

‘Okay, so she’s a bloody hero. What’s your point?’

‘Do you know what happened to her?’

‘They cleared her of all charges and sent her home.’

Chas secured the locking pin in place and checked over the linkages. Once he’d finished, he straightened up. ‘It wasn’t as straightforward as that,’ he said. ‘It never is. Fortunately for you, I keep my eyes and ears open.’

‘She’s all right though?’

‘The good news is, they think her sister and father are still alive. The bad news is that they, along with your man Bumpenny haven’t been seen from that day to this.’

‘Does the Council know? Is anyone out looking for him? I bet the Kingsmen are looking!’

Chas shrugged. ‘That assumes they knew he was a Scav agent. As for the Council, you’d better ask them.’

‘I’ll come with you! I’ll clear it with Bradshaw… no, I’ll just send word that I’ve gone, then he can’t say no! I’ve got to see her.’ Shea started for the front of the wagon.

‘You’ll do no such thing,’ Chas said, pulling him back. ‘For one thing, we’re not going that way, and for another, we have a passenger and there’s no room for anyone else.’

Shea’s expression dropped.

‘But I’ll tell you what, if we come back that way, we’ll call in and check on her, if you’d like?’

Shea brightened. ‘Would you? That’d be excellent.’

‘Then it’s settled,’ Chas said.

‘Shea? I thought I heard your voice out here!’ It was Hannah. She’d come down from the vardo. Her long green dress was mostly covered by a big grey coat, although the buttons were not done up, and her hair was woven up into an intricate pattern of braids. ‘We’re just getting the wagon loaded up ready for the trip. I’m glad you came.’ She held her arms out wide and Shea hugged her, kissing her on the cheek.
‘Of course I came,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t miss my last chance to kiss you for a month!’

She thumped him on his arm. ‘Now don’t get frisky on me, Shea O’Connell,’ she said. She pulled on his arm, dragging him to the front of the wagon. ‘Ride with us, at least as far as The Benbow—that’s where we’re picking up our passenger.’

Chas had come around the other side of the wagon. He must had seen the flicker of indecision that crossed Shea’s face, because he said, ‘Well, go on then, hop up, we can take you at least that far!’

Shea grinned and pulled himself up onto the front porch. He settled down next to Hannah and the wagon set off.

Soon they reached the inn, and Chas stopped the vardo outside. Almost immediately, the door opened and a figure stepped out. He was dressed all in black, with a wide-brimmed fedora. For a horrible moment, Shea thought that maybe this was the same man that he’d seen talking to the captain on the Spaniola.

‘Señor Ferrar, welcome!’ Chas called.

That wasn’t the name the man had used last night—if it was the same man. Chas jumped down and helped the man secure his bags in the rear wagon. Then he climbed aboard.

‘I was not aware there were other passengers,’ the man said, frowning.

Shea was gripped by a sudden panic. The voice. It was definitely the same voice from the ship. What if the man recognised him? He had been careful—at least he thought he had—and avoided being seen. But maybe he wasn’t as clever as he believed.

‘This is a friend of my daughter, he—’ Chas began.

Shea cut him off. ‘Got to go,’ he mumbled, and jumped down before anyone could say or do anything.

‘Shea—’ Hannah called after him. But he kept his head down and disappeared into a side alley as quickly as he could.

He stopped in the mouth of the alley and pressed himself into the wall, listening. He heard Chas talking to the man in black, and he thought he caught a snatch of a reply, but he couldn’t tell what was said. Damn! He should have stayed and brazened it out, at least for a minute or two. After a while he heard the clop-clop of hooves as the wagon moved off. Soon the sound faded and there was silence.

End of sample

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