Stranded – Sample

Chapter 1: River Duty

ANOTHER BLOATED CORPSE drifted slowly with the river current, until it nudged against the mud of the far bank. Lance Corporal Andrew ‘Socko’ Garrett yelled towards a recovery crew in a wooden rowing boat, pointing at the body and waiting for them to acknowledge before turning back to his own bank. So far this morning his team had pulled seven bodies out of the gloop, and he wasn’t counting all the ones that drifted past.

River duty. Why the hell was he on river duty? What he should be doing was figuring out how a massive explosion had destroyed half of Bristol, and who was behind it—that was what he was good at—not poking around in the river mud searching for bodies.

Socko watched the boat for a moment, then turned his attention back to scanning the shore. The tide was at its lowest ebb, and there were probably just three more hours of useful search time. The twice-daily scouring of the river banks would continue until there were no more bodies to find, or he got better orders.

Socko heard a much closer shout, on this side of the river. He turned to see Kingsmen Leon Reid and Tyler Edge, beckoning him animatedly from about fifty metres away. ‘What is it?’ he called back.

‘We think it’s one of ours!’ Edge shouted. He signalled at something in the mud.

‘Okay, I’m coming!’ Socko cursed under his breath as he squelched off in their direction as quickly as he could. The mud here was thick, gloopy and very smelly. Its colour seemed to match his olive complexion, or maybe he was just covered in it. His curly black hair was already streaked with the stuff, and every squelching step released more of the foetid stench that stung at his eyes. He couldn’t help but wonder who the poor soul was that they’d found. Two members of the team—Corporals Barnes and Chant—were still unaccounted for. Three if you included Kingsman Carter. Four with the lieutenant. That had left him de facto in charge. And that was why he now had the stripe on his arm.

Socko Garrett worked for KSI—Kingsmen Special Investigations—a small department within the technical section of the Corps. Corporal Dan Barnes had been in charge of the day-to-day running of the office, but in overall charge—their Officer with a capital O—was Lieutenant Jessica Dixon, affectionately known as PJ. This was partly because of her second job: princess and, as of a week ago, heir to the throne. But mostly because it irritated the hell out of her. That had all ended two days ago, when a bomb took out the entire Kingsman compound plus a good deal of the surrounding city, and turned the harbour into a very smelly hole. Princess Jessica had not been seen since, presumed somewhere under that lot.

‘What is it, Edge?’ Socko asked, breathing heavily. He might be fit, but that mud could sap the strength out of anyone.

Edge pointed at the crumpled heap on the ground. ‘Definitely a uniform, Corp, but more than that I wouldn’t like to say.’

The crumpled uniform was mixed in with a tangle of bits of driftwood and smashed-up building timber. Socko couldn’t tell from this angle whether that was all it was—just a uniform—or if its owner was still inside.

‘Help me get this stuff off,’ he said. ‘Reid, you grab that end and I’ll grab this. We’ll see if we can work it loose. Edge, you watch in case anything becomes… detached.’ They started working the bigger pieces of debris back and forth until they came free, and piled them up a few metres farther along the bank.

‘There’s definitely someone there,’ Edge called out. He was down on his hands and knees, sunk in the gloop halfway up to his elbows. ‘It’s…’ He retched, flailing about in the mud in a sudden impulse to get away. But the mud just clung and pulled him back down, toppling him sideways.

A putrid stench assaulted Socko, making his eyes water. The urge to retch was overpowering, but he managed to keep his breakfast inside him, only just. Reid, however, was not so lucky. He dropped his end of the log as his stomach let loose, leaving Socko struggling against the weight and the slippery mud to hold his end up. Eventually the mud won and Socko’s feet slid out from under him. The log splashed down heavily just centimetres from his left leg. He swore under his breath.

 Reid was the only one of the three still on his feet, although even he was doubled over and retching. When there was nothing left to heave, he straightened up. His nose was wrinkled against the stench. ‘Shit, Ty! What happened?’ he exclaimed.

‘It was a head,’ Edge spluttered. ‘When you lifted that branch, it must have come off and rolled out. There.’ He pointed to what looked like a large lump of mud in among the splatter field. Socko picked himself up and went to the place where Edge was pointing. The lump was certainly head-sized, but with all the mud he really couldn’t tell. He picked it up. It seemed fibrous in his hand, like… hair. He gingerly moved his fingers over it, trying not to think too hard about what he was touching. He tried to tell himself that it was the mud, but his stomach was making those spasming movements that warned him he was getting close to the edge. He didn’t want to embarrass himself by throwing up in front of his men.

Socko knew that if his hand touched the severed neck—if it really was a head—he’d lose it. But what else could it be? His fingers touched something sharp and pointy. A nose. His hand shot away. Now he didn’t have to feel any further.

‘Reid, since you appear to be relatively mud-free, go back to the wagon and bring some bags. We’re going to want to take this back with us.’ The relief sounded strongly in his voice.

‘The tide’s coming in, Corp,’ Edge observed.

Socko looked around. The level of the river was definitely higher than it had been a few minutes before. He called out to Reid, ‘Be quick about it—we’re working against the tide now!’

He realised that he still had the head in his hands, and carefully squelched his way up to the high tide mark, where he laid it on the ground. By the time that Reid returned, Socko and Edge had cleared an open space around the remains, and had started scooping back the mud with a piece of planking.

‘I brought a tarp, Corp,’ Reid said, unrolling the length of canvas. ‘It’ll help us get stuff shifted quickly.’ He stood for a moment looking awkward.

‘Good thinking,’ Socko said. ‘Now let’s get this body recovered before the tide gets it.’

***

‘It’s not her is it, Corp?’ The three mud-encrusted Kingsmen leant against the side of the wagon, having recovered as much of the body as they could find. Reid held a stone water bottle above Socko’s hands while he cleaned them in the thin stream of water. ‘I wasn’t going to look at the head, you know… just in case.’ Socko shook his hands dry as Reid replaced the bung on the water bottle and stowed it on the wagon.

Socko rummaged in his pocket and pulled out a small leather pouch. He looked at the river in silence as he took a small sheet of paper and some chopped-up dried leaves, placed the leaves carefully on the paper and rolled it tight around them. Still not looking down, he licked the edge of the paper, sealing it. As he placed one end between his lips, Edge struck a match and touched it to the roll-up. Socko nodded briefly and drew in the smoke.

It’s not her. Just for a moment he wondered whether Reid had meant Lieutenant Dixon, Flick Carter, or even Dee Chant.

There was a long pause before he finally exhaled. ‘No, it’s not her,’ he said. ‘It’s not any of them.’ He passed the roll-up to Edge who took a drag and passed it on to Reid in turn.

‘You think she’s still alive?’ Edge asked. ‘PJ, I mean.’ He took the roll-up from Reid and held it out to Socko, who waved a hand and shook his head.

‘No one’s seen the lieutenant since before the explosion.’

‘But she could still turn up, right?’

‘Sure. People are appearing all the time. She might not have been anywhere near headquarters when it was hit, we just don’t know. I do know Carter isn’t dead,’ Socko continued. ‘At least, she wasn’t killed in the explosion.’

‘Because you saw her after,’ Reid said. It was just a statement of fact, with no hint of accusation or suspicion, for which Socko was grateful.

‘More than that. I talked with her, she even carried my camera plates for a while. It was definitely her. Then she just disappeared.’

‘She’s not on the lists,’ Edge said. Every Kingsman in the city appeared somewhere on the lists. There were three columns: Alive, Missing, Dead. Everyone had started off on the ‘Missing’ list and moved to one of the others as the reports came in. Kingsmen that reported in person were also given an identity card. The only person who gave out identity cards was the sergeant who put your name on the lists.

‘She had a card,’ Socko said. He held up his own card, on a lanyard around his neck. ‘She couldn’t have got it without reporting in. The question we should be asking is, why is Flick Carter no longer on any of the lists?’ He took the dog-end from Edge and had a quick drag before flicking it into the water.

‘Probably just a cock up,’ Reid said.

‘I hope you’re right. Come on, we’re wasting time here.’ Socko and Edge moved on to the next section of river bank while Reid moved the wagon. The mud soon gave way to firmer gravel and they made rapid progress downstream.

‘Corp!’ It was Reid, standing on the wagon, waving and beckoning.

Socko scrabbled up the bank. ‘What is it?’

‘Rider coming, fast.’

Socko popped the cover of his holster as he watched the dust trail from the approaching horseman.

‘Trouble, Corp?’ Edge had his own sidearm out.

‘Dunno,’ Socko said, ‘but be ready just in case.’

The rider brought the horse to a halt by the wagon and dismounted. It was a dark-skinned woman, wearing the uniform of a Kingsman corporal.

‘Socko, glad I found you,’ she said.

‘Chant? We were just talking about you. You weren’t on any of the lists…’

‘I should be, I have a badge.’ She indicated the lanyard around her neck.

‘See,’ Reid said. ‘A cock up.’

‘They’ve had me doing all sorts of stupid stuff though,’ Chant continued.

‘Tell me about it. We’re on river duty. I reckon their priorities are all screwed up. Have you seen any of the others? Barnes? PJ? Carter?’

Chant shook her head. ‘That’s just it. Prince Edward has been down by the wharf, searching through the rubble. He’s found the Princess. PJ is dead.’

Chapter 2: Waking Up

FLICK CARTER SCREAMED in the darkness. Her chest hurt like all the fires of hell had concentrated themselves in one spot. Being dead really sucked. After a few moments when nothing happened, she let her scream subside. Gradually she realised that she was lying on her back on something soft, like a bed. Only it was moving; rocking gently from side to side and up and down. Strange bed—maybe she wasn’t dead after all.

The rocking motion was definitely… unpleasant, a bit like being drunk. And now she thought about it, she did feel somewhat queasy. Flick rolled over onto her side and retched. Her stomach must have been empty, because the only thing that came out of her mouth was a strangled sound, part dry-heave part scream, as the movement sent stabs of searing pain through her. She lay back much more cautiously. But it did seem to have done some good; her mind started to feel a little clearer and she started to remember things.

Flick was seventeen, she was sure of that, and she was a Kingsman. There was a big graduation parade, and a banquet with the King; she definitely remembered that. She had been flying—this bit seemed uncertain—and there was an explosion on the ground.

Shea!

No, Shea had been with her. Then there was a note. Rescue the Princess. It all seemed so jumbled up. A rowing boat, or a big ship. Black Ghost. Someone had shot her.

Rosie!

She screamed the name out. Her little sister, whom she had lost, had believed to be dead, had even been accused of murdering… she was alive and on this ship! A ship. That’s where she was; it explained the swaying motion anyhow. She had been taken prisoner and tied up next to Shea and the Princess—where were they now? And then someone had brought out one of the slaves, handed them a gun, and they’d shot her.

And the slave had been Rosie!

That couldn’t be right, could it? It seemed like one of the nightmares that had haunted her sleep for the past year. But here she was on a ship. A deep ache coursed through her chest, as if someone was sitting on it. She gingerly reached out a hand and her fingers touched the rough texture of fabric. She was wearing some kind of loose-fitting linen garment and someone had bandaged her. But who, and why did they not just toss her over the side? There was something strapped to her left ankle. She probed it tentatively with her right foot. It seemed to be a small box of some kind.

And something was wrong with her left cheek—it stung like a whole nest of wasps had attacked her.

She needed to find Rosie and the others, and get off this ship.

There was a brief glimmer of light. Flick watched, staring into the darkness. There was the glimmer again. It seemed to be moving upwards. Then a moment later it came back down. Then up. It seemed to be moving with the swaying of the ship. Of course, it had to be something outside moving past a window.

Only now did she realise that her wrists were not tied as they had been when she’d been shot. Maybe they didn’t expect her to survive? Well, she’d certainly show them, if that was the case.

Flick pulled herself carefully up into a sitting position, stopping frequently to wait for the pain to die down after each little movement. Now she thought she knew where she was, she could make out dark shapes as the dim light from the window moved to and fro. The window, with strangely rounded corners. There was a desk, chairs, cupboards. She couldn’t tell what might be in them, but Flick realised that if she was going to escape, she needed a weapon.

Ideally she’d like her gun, but realistically anything would do, if she could turn it into a weapon. One of the guards—she remembered now, she had called him One-Tooth—had beaten her quite badly. She’d rather like to return the favour on the way out.

She inched slowly across the room, stopping after each footstep to wait for the pain to subside long enough to take another step. Finally she reached the desk and pulled open a drawer. She rummaged inside but it was empty. Whoever worked here was obviously not a trusting soul. She tried several other drawers. One was locked, the others were empty. No matter. She’d just have to improvise; there was bound to be something out on the deck she could use.

A shadow moved across the window. Someone was outside. Flick ducked instinctively back against the wall, wincing at the sudden pain in her chest brought on by the movement. She heard the door handle rattle, and even though she couldn’t see it, she imagined it moving in its travel. A crack of light appeared as the door started to open. It got rapidly wider and Flick saw the flutter of motion as whoever was there started to come into the room.

Part of her hoped it was One-Tooth. But she knew that she would be no match for him in her weakened state. Her first instinct was to charge, to make use of the element of surprise and push past. But that would be a disaster with her injured chest. So she stayed where she was, as still as she could be, in the hope that she could slip past once whoever it was had come fully into the room.

Flick could feel her heart thumping in her chest. Her breathing, as shallow as she could make it, was still movement enough to stir up the pain of her injury. But she only had one thought: to escape. The shadowy figure was now in the room. She made her move.

Flick tripped over the high door sill and went sprawling. She shrieked as something tore in her side. There was a curse from behind her, although the voice was female, not at all what she had expected.

‘Now where do you think you’re going?’ Hands reached down to pull her up. Flick realised that she didn’t have the strength to resist even if she had wanted to. Maybe trying to escape so soon had not been a good idea.

‘Let’s get you back into bed, shall we?’ the voice said. Flick allowed herself to be led back across the room. ‘We’d better check that you haven’t torn your stitches.’

The woman produced a lantern from somewhere and lit it. Flick saw that she was short—probably shorter even than Flick—around fifty kilos, and appeared to be in her late twenties. Short black hair was styled into a bob, and she wore a green one-piece. A tattoo curved around one side of her face, marking her out as a slave. Judging by the depth of the black and the redness around it, it was a recent tattoo, so she hadn’t been a slave for long.

‘My name is Steiner,’ the woman said. ‘I’m a doctor not your enemy, and I’m as much a prisoner here as you are.’ She tapped a finger lightly against the tattoo on her cheek. ‘Right now, you are my patient and I need for you to stay put. If Captain Fowler thinks you’re fit enough to be up and about, he’ll lock you up in the hold with the other slaves. And trust me, you don’t want that.’

Flick listened in silence as the doctor unwrapped the bandages and examined the wound site. ‘You’re lucky, the stitches have held,’ Steiner said. ‘You’re going to have a good scar when it’s healed up. But it’s not the first time you’ve been shot, is it?’

Flick grunted. The woman seemed friendly and chatty enough, but that was no reason to share her life story. Anyhow, she had more pressing things on her mind.

‘My sister… Rosie. Is she…?’ This was the million-quid question; nothing else mattered beyond the answer. Flick tensed, dreading what the doctor might say.

‘Alive? Yes, she’s alive.’

Flick relaxed, relief flooding through her. Rosie was alive!

‘They have her down in the hold with the others. I had to give her a sedative—that’s where I was when you woke up. Goodness only knows what drugs the captain gave her. My only hope is that she doesn’t remember what he made her do.’

Flick tried to struggle up. ‘I must go to her…’

‘You’ll do no such thing,’ the doctor said sternly. ‘You need to stay here and build your strength. But don’t try to escape, because you won’t make it—we’re a long way from shore, and you’d die long before you reached it.’

‘How long have I been here?’ Flick asked. Her hopes of a quick escape were fading rapidly.

‘Two days,’ Steiner said. ‘The captain set sail more or less as soon as you were brought in here. The bullet didn’t hit anything vital, but you lost a fair bit of blood, lying up on the deck. And of course I had to dig it out with what—even by my standards—is a pretty rudimentary set of tools.’

‘Shea? The lieutenant? Are they okay?’

‘Shea is fine, he’s down in the hold now with the others. Your lieutenant, she’s with the captain.’

Flick’s eyes widened. ‘She wouldn’t…’

‘No, you misunderstand me. The captain has her held prisoner in his cabin. But she’ll not be having an easy time of it. Captain Fowler is not a nice man.’

‘We have to get back,’ Flick said in the strongest voice she could manage. ‘That man—Edward—he killed hundreds of people in Bristol, and he wants to do the same in Oxford. We’ve got to stop him!’ She started to swing her legs out of the bed.

Steiner pushed her back. ‘I sympathise, really I do. But I can’t let you go.’

‘We’ll take a boat,’ Flick continued. ‘Rescue the lieutenant while the captain’s asleep, get Rosie and Shea, and we’ll be gone in no time. The others can row, so my stitches won’t be a problem.’

‘I might be a trustee, but I’m still a slave. If you escape, the captain will kill me.’

‘Come with us!’ Flick urged.

Steiner shook her head. ‘I can’t leave the other slaves. They’re my friends. Some of them are younger even than your sister, and some are quite sick. I’m the only chance they have to get better—that’s the only reason the captain even allows me to be up here.’

‘But I have to get back,’ Flick persisted. ‘I need to warn them or hundreds will die!’

‘You can barely walk to the other side of the room, there’s no way I’m going to allow you to put everyone’s life in jeopardy. I’m sure you mean well, but… I’m sorry,’ Steiner said.

Flick slumped back onto the bed in frustration. The doctor clearly didn’t believe her. She would think of a way out of this mess, she had to; everything depended on it.

***

She must have dozed, for when Flick opened her eyes it was light. She could see a grey sky through the window, and whatever roughness had been on the sea, or the river or wherever it was they were, had evidently gone.

Flick gazed up at the ceiling. Pipes and ducts crossed from one side to the other, and patches of different-coloured paint indicated other things up there had been removed. There was some sort of grid beneath it all that suggested it once held ceiling tiles. Looking about her, the room was small. Some of the cupboards attached to the off-white painted walls had glass doors, others appeared to be solid wood. They all had complex latches holding them shut. That explained why she had thought them locked in the dark. The bed she lay on backed against one wall and had rails down each side, presumably to stop people from falling out. The doctor was sitting at a small desk with her back to her. She wore white overalls and appeared to be deep in some paperwork.

Steiner put down her pen and turned to Flick, smiling. ‘Good, you’re awake, how are you feeling?’ Her voice had an accent; definitely English, but from some part of the country Flick didn’t know. Some of the words sounded a little odd to her—‘awake’ sounded like ‘a week’, and it took a moment for her to register the meaning.

‘Sore,’ Flick said, flopping back against the pillow.

The doctor crossed over to her, lit a match and waved it in front of Flick’s eyes, watching her reaction. When the match was spent, she dropped it into a small bowl. ‘How much do you remember?’ she asked.

‘About last night? I tried to get out but I tripped over the door…’

Steiner scowled. ‘No, I meant about before—how you got here, how you got hurt.’

Flick opened her mouth to speak, then she shut it again. How much did this doctor already know? And more importantly, could she be trusted? She claimed to be one of the slaves, and she had the tattoo on her left cheek, but she wasn’t treated like a slave. Did that mean she would run to the captain and report everything she said?

‘I don’t rememmmf…’ The doctor had thrust a small glass thermometer into her mouth and clamped it shut.

‘Shh!’ The doctor held up a finger. Then she strapped a cuff around Flick’s arm took her blood pressure, writing it down in her notebook. Finally she pulled the thermometer from Flick’s mouth and studied it.

‘…ber.’ Flick finished what she was saying as soon as her mouth was empty.

‘Temperature’s a bit high, but that’s only to be expected,’ the doctor said, making another note in her book.

‘Are they all right? Rosie and Shea, I mean. When can I see them?’

‘As I said last night, they’re locked up in the hold with the other slaves. The captain will send you down there soon enough, but it’s a one way trip, I’m afraid, and you’re still too sick to be moved.’

Flick was silent for a moment. Then she struggled into a sitting position, wincing as she did so. ‘I’m fit enough,’ she growled. ‘Take me down there.’

Steiner grabbed her arm, not roughly, but firmly. Flick heard a metallic snap and sensed something cold against her wrist. She looked down in time to see the doctor fasten the other end of the handcuffs to the bed rail.

‘I’m sorry. This is for your own good. If the captain hears that you’re out and about—and you can be sure that he’ll hear it…’

Flick’s eyes widened.

‘Oh, not from me,’ the doctor continued, ‘but there are always guards about and one of them will see you. But as soon as the captain hears, he’ll have you moved down to the slave quarters, and your wound will probably get infected and you’ll die.’

Flick swallowed. Maybe this was more serious than she realised.

‘Don’t get me wrong. It’s not your death that bothers me, but all the wasted effort in keeping you alive, and all the blood your friend Shea wasted on you…’

Now Flick was confused. ‘Shea wasted his blood on me? What do you mean?’

‘I mean, little girl, that you lost a lot of blood. And if your friend Shea hadn’t donated an armful of his own blood, you’d be dead already.’

‘I didn’t realise, and thank you.’

The doctor smiled. ‘No reason why you should,’ she said. ‘I’d probably do the same if it was me on that bed. But listen, your sister and me are good friends—we’ve known each other for months, since before all this.’ She moved her hand tentatively to the tattoo on the side of her face. ‘I try to look out for her when I can, and I’ll try and figure out a way you can see her without the captain clapping you in irons, but it’ll take some time.’

Flick nodded. ‘Okay.’

‘Look, I’ll tell her you’re okay when I do my rounds. No doubt she’ll be just as keen to break out and run up here as you were. But I don’t want to see either of you dead, is that clear?’

‘Yes, Doctor. What about Shea and the Prin—lieutenant?’

‘Shea is in the hold with the others. I had to declare him fit. The other woman is being held in the captain’s cabin. What were you about to call her?’

Flick frowned. ‘Nothing, just “lieutenant”. She’s my commanding officer.’

The doctor grunted. ‘Well, if you do remember anything, I won’t be far away. Neither of us is going anywhere, I’m sad to say.’

Flick sank back on the bed. The feeling of defeat welled up inside her and a tear moistened her cheek as she exhaled noisily.

Shit.

Chapter 3: Locked in the Head

PRINCESS JESSICA CURSED her brother for selling her down the river, cursed Captain Fowler for being the moron that Edward had sold her to, cursed Flick Carter for that half-arsed rescue attempt and for getting herself shot, and cursed herself for being stupid enough to get into this situation in the first place.

Her auburn-red hair that was always so stylish had been shaved off completely. She’d been dressed in an orange jumpsuit with the word SLAVE stencilled on the back. Her feet were bare and the cold metallic floor of her prison sucked the warmth from them. Still, it was better than being tied naked to the mast up on deck, and at least she hadn’t been marked with that horrid facial tattoo. Not yet, anyhow.

She looked through the tiny porthole at the ever-changing coastline. It was pretty much all there was to do. In another day, she guessed, even that coastline would be gone and all she’d have to look at was open sea. She was locked in a tiny room with metal walls painted pale green. The outside wall with the porthole sloped inwards, and a line of rivets crossed horizontally. Sailors would probably have described the room as the Captain’s Head. Basically it meant that she had a seat to sit on, and that seat had a lid. Her right wrist was chained to a railing. It gave her enough movement that she could stand up, sit down, do a few rudimentary exercises and so on, but little else.

Thanks to the design of the room, she had little need to go anywhere else.

She heard the sound of the lock, and the door opened. The captain stood outside with a nasty grin on his face, and a tray of food in his hands.

‘Hello, Princess,’ he said.

Jessica ignored him and turned back to the porthole.

‘What? No demands to be set free? No insistence that I release your friends and row you to shore before your father sends his fleet to sink me? I’m shocked!’

‘You know damned well that I still demand those things, but you’ve made it perfectly clear that if I say it you’ll walk out and throw that food over the side.’ Jessica’s eyes flared.

‘As I did this morning, and yesterday, and shall continue to do until your attitude improves. So what if your father sends his entire fleet? It’s a big ocean, they’ll never find us. And even if they knew where we’re going, they’d never catch us in time.’

‘And where are we going? Where are you taking me?’ Jessica demanded.

Captain Fowler laughed. ‘You think I’m going to tell you that? I’m sure you’re thinking of ways you could get a message off this ship even if you can’t escape. It’s not going to happen, girly. By now, your father will be convinced that you died in the explosion. Flags will be at half-mast, there will be national mourning. Nobody is coming after you. It’s time to stop thinking of yourself as a princess—that woman is dead—and face reality. You are a house slave, and nothing more. Farewell, Miss Dixon, until tomorrow.’ He shut the door, taking the tray of food with him. Jessica could hear him laughing as he walked off.

Jessica hammered on the door with the one fist that could reach it. ‘You bastard!’ she yelled. ‘I’ll kill you, you utter fucking bastard.’

Chapter 4: Where’s My Boat?

SOCKO, REID AND Edge watched glumly as Dee Chant rode off to tell others the news. Socko wanted to ride back to the city at once, but he was still under orders to continue his search of the river bank—at least until the tide had risen enough to make it impractical.

Reid spoke first. ‘Do you really think that Prince Edward has found PJ?’

Socko shook his head in bewilderment. ‘I really don’t know. I suppose its possible, but my gut tells me she can’t be dead. Yet…’

‘How did he know where to look?’ Edge asked. The other men turned to look at him, their expressions questioning. Edge stammered under the sudden glare. ‘I… I mean, he only arrived in town yesterday, and half the wharf hasn’t even been touched. So how did he know where to look?’

Socko grunted and kicked at something on the ground. He bent down and picked it up, examining it before tossing it aside. ‘I suppose…’ he said slowly, ‘he knew what part of the building her office was in, so that’s where he went. I’m assuming that’s where the body was found. Dee didn’t say.’

‘Seems like too much of a coincidence to me,’ Edge said. ‘We should check it out when we get back.’

‘Oh I intend to, have no fear of that,’ Socko said.

‘Oi, you, stop! I want a word with you!’ The voice came from somewhere in the trees. Socko moved a hand to his gun, although he didn’t draw the weapon. A quick glance told him Reid and Edge had done the same.

An elderly-looking man came out from the trees. He was brandishing a walking stick. ‘Where’s my boat?’

‘Er…’ Socko looked at Edge and Reid. Both men shrugged.

‘What boat?’ Edge asked.

‘I keeps it there,’ the old man said, pointing his stick towards the river bank. Socko gazed after it. There was some sort of small jetty there, but there was no sign of any boat.

‘And who are you?’ Socko asked.

The man stepped back defensively. ‘I’m the man who’s had his boat nicked.’

‘The corporal asked you your name, scum,’ Edge said with a note of contempt in his voice.

‘I don’t have to tell you, I know my rights,’ the man protested.

Socko sighed. He frowned at Edge, who merely shrugged. ‘Fine,’ he said to the man. ‘If that’s the way you want to play it.’ He shook the reins. ‘Walk on.’ The cart started to move off.

‘Wait, I was being hasty,’ the man called, hobbling after them. ‘Fox. Me name’s Fox.’

Socko stopped the cart and leaned back to the man, who was wheezing. ‘Very well, Mr Fox, what sort of boat?’

‘Just an ordinary rowing boat,’ Fox said. ‘I uses it to cross the river. Saves a long walk into town and back.’

Socko grunted.

‘I don’t use it for smuggling, nothing like that,’ he added quickly.

Socko doubted that last bit was true, but he said nothing.

‘You sure it didn’t get washed away in the surge?’ Reid asked.

‘Course I am,’ Fox said. ‘I keep it tied up out of the water, I ain’t stupid. It was took. By your lot, and I want it back.’

‘By our lot?’ Socko asked.

Fox nodded. ‘Black uniforms and that armour stuff you sometimes wear.’

‘You guys know anything?’ Socko asked.

Reid and Edge shook their heads. ‘No, Corp. We’ve got our own boats. Why would we want to take this guy’s?’

Socko turned back to the old man. ‘When was this?’

‘Right after the explosion—four nights ago. About midnight.’

‘What were you doing out here so late?’ Edge asked, suspiciously.

Fox chewed on something for a while, then he grinned mischievously. ‘I ’eared a noise, din’t I. And I went to investigate.’ He stuck his chin out as if he were challenging them to disprove him.

‘You’re positive it was a Kingsman?’ Socko asked. ‘Do you think you could identify him if you saw him again?’

Fox spat out the piece of root he had been chewing. ‘It weren’t a him. There was two of ’em. Woman and a man.’

Socko sighed. ‘Okay, do you think you could identify either of them?’

‘What’s it worth? Got a few coppers for an old man?’

‘We should just take him in and torture the information out of him, Corp. We’ve got good cause—out after curfew, suspicion of smuggling…’ Edge looked pointedly at the old man’s stick. ‘Going equipped…’

‘He was probably involved in the bombing too,’ Reid added enthusiastically.

The old man took a step back, blanching noticeably. ‘I… I… Look, this is just a walking stick, it ain’t a weapon. And I din’t have nothing to do with what happened in town.’

‘Maybe you did, maybe you didn’t,’ Socko said, carefully picking at the dirt on his fingernails. ‘But all that could go away—or not—depending on how helpful you are.’

‘Well, as I said, there was two of them,’ he said hurriedly. ‘A woman and a man.’

‘It was dark, how could you tell?’ Socko asked.

‘You sure you haven’t got a few coins? It’d help loosen me tongue.’

Socko stared at the old man thoughtfully. ‘You do know that we never pay for information? No exceptions?’

‘I can beat the information out of him, Corp,’ Edge said. He brandished his weapon and took a step towards the man.

‘It weren’t that dark,’ Fox said hurriedly. ‘There was a moon of sorts. And I heard them. They was bickering.’

Socko motioned Edge back. ‘What were they bickering about? Did you hear what they said?’

Fox shook his head. ‘Maybe it was dark after all.’

Socko sighed. The bugger wasn’t getting the message. ‘Edge, Reid, put him in the wagon with the corpses. Make sure he’s well tied up.’

Edge and Reid made a move towards Fox.

‘All right!’ he squawked. ‘But I only caught a few words here and there. Estuary was one. Plan was another. I didn’t hear anything else, I swear.’

‘They didn’t mention a name?’

He shook his head.

‘The woman, was she tall, ginger-haired? Old? Young?’

He shook his head again. ‘They was both young. But to me, everyone looks young. The bloke, he was taller, scruffy, I thought. The other one was short. I thought you lot had a minimum height or something. I’d of said she was too short. Blonde an’ all. Not that I’ve got anything against blondes.’ He cackled.

The three Kingsmen looked at each other in shocked silence. Then as one they said it.

‘Carter.’

End of sample

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