September 1799, the River Thames off Deptford Creek
Tom Pascoe sat in the stern sheets of the police galley and stared at the thick blanket of fog enveloping the river Thames, the usual noise and bustle of the port reduced to a dull rumble. He didn’t see the shape in the water. It was doubtful he would have seen it even if the fog had not blanketed everything in its grey embrace, so slightly did the curved form protrude above the surface.
The force of the collision threw him forward.
‘Floater on the larboard bow, sir,’ said John Kemp, leaning over the gunwale from his position at mid-thwart and hauling a man’s head clear of the water.
‘Is he alive?’ Tom pressed his fingers to his temple and tried to concentrate. It made no difference. His head was throbbing from the effects of a night spent drinking. He closed his eyes for a second, then tried to focus on the bedraggled shape slumped half in and half out of the galley. The hammering inside his head continued unabated.
‘No, he’s gone, sir,’ said Kemp, examining the face with less than total interest. ‘Ain’t been dead long, though. I reckon less than an hour. Looks to have drowned. No, wait . . .’
Kemp pulled the body further into the galley. ‘Belay that, sir.
The cully’s been shot.’
John Harriot, resident magistrate at the police office at 259, Wapping New Stairs, regarded the slouched figure in a chair on the opposite side of the desk, with a concerned frown. Tom Pascoe did not look well; his face was drawn and unshaven, his eyes bloodshot, his clothing dishevelled. It was not, Harriot had to admit, a sudden change in the man he had once regarded as his finest officer.
He sighed. It was easy to look back. With the benefit of hindsight, he could see the moment when Tom’s destructive slide had begun. The drinking had begun soon after Peggy’s death, the warning signs there for all to see. In the months since then, the magistrate had, more than once, been forced to consider his subordinate’s dismissal from the marine police. What stopped him was a belief in Tom’s ultimate ability to overcome his malaise.
‘You were about to tell me about the body you found this morning in Greenwich reach,’ said the magistrate, getting to his feet and limping over to the sideboard, on which stood a silver coffee pot. ‘I believe you said he’d been shot.’
‘Yes.’ Tom rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. ‘Hadn’t been in the water long. Probably less than an hour. Weren’t your usual floater, though. Dress was too good for that. Looked to have been a gentleman.’
‘Any idea who he was?’ Harriot waved the coffee pot in Tom’s direction and raised an enquiring eyebrow.
‘Thank you, sir. I think I will.’ Tom forced a weak smile and, with an effort, seemed to gather his thoughts. ‘No. He had no papers on him and his pocket book had either been lost or taken.’
‘A bit out of the way for a gentleman,’ said Harriot. ‘What d’you suppose he was doing down there?’
‘I don’t think he was killed there,’ said Tom. ‘There was a strong ebb tide which would have brought the body down from somewhere like Limehouse. We found a couple of folk who said they’d heard what sounded like pistol shots. But neither of them was sure.’
Harriot grunted. ‘Where’s the body now?’
‘Deptford. The Navy’s looking after it until we can get the inquest sorted. In the meantime I’ll get some posters printed. Might help identify the man.’
‘Good,’ said Harriot. ‘By the by, talking of the Navy, I had a lieutenant in here yesterday asking me to back an impress warrant. Seems they want to send out the press gangs along the waterfront. I think we can expect trouble over the next few weeks.’
‘Aye,’ said Tom. ‘I’ve seen them. The fights have already started.’ ‘Where are they keeping the pressed men?’
‘The Black Boy and Trumpet down by St Catherine’s Stairs,’ said Tom. ‘Leastways, that’s what I think, judging by all the bunting they’ve strung up over the door.’
‘Keep an eye on things, will you,’ said Harriot. ‘And let me know how you get on with the body down in Deptford.’
‘Very well, sir.’ Tom gripped the side of his chair and climbed unsteadily to his feet, a line of perspiration visible across his forehead.
Harriot watched him head for the door, his sense of unease about his subordinate’s condition deepening. There seemed to be nothing that the fellow would or could do to put himself onto the road to recovery. Perhaps nothing short of the capture of the man responsible for his condition would achieve that.
But there wasn’t much chance of that. André Dubois was safely back in his native France and unlikely to want to return.
The fog of early morning had cleared by the time Tom left Harriot’s office and descended the river stairs to the waiting patrol galley. He nodded at the crew and climbed into the stern sheets. For a moment or two, he sat looking about him, shielding his eyes against the reflected glare of the sun. It seemed as though the entire width of the tideway had disappeared under the press of brigs, snows, barges, skiffs and lug boats, the tall masts of the ships adorned with patches of white canvas brailed up like so much bunting. He suddenly wished himself back on the quarterdeck of his own command, surrounded by a vast expanse of blue water, the wind tugging at his coat tails, the salt-laden spume in his face.
‘Cast off fore and aft. Let fall. Give way together.’ Tom’s orders came in rapid succession as the galley slipped its moorings and creamed away from the pontoon, the sweeps dipping and pulling in long, powerful strokes, the backs of the crew bending and straightening in perfect unison. Soon they were amongst the fussing tangle of lighters and wherries jostling for position at the legal quays in front of the Custom House.
‘Where’s we heading, sir? Somewhere special?’ asked Sam Hart, seated at stroke oar.
‘Limehouse.’ Tom smiled for the first time in several days as he caught sight of the surprised expression on his friend’s face. ‘It’s time to find out more about this morning’s floater.’
Sam Hart chose his moment with care. It didn’t do to upset Tom these days. He glanced at the passing shoreline and then back at Tom seated in the stern sheets, a person he’d long regarded as his most particular friend. They had had their ups and downs, of course, but that was only to be expected, given the work they were required to perform and the circumstances under which it had often to be carried out. But this was different. Tom’s behaviour had nothing to do with the stresses of their professional lives, or even those of personal differences.
‘Begging your pardon, sir,’ said Sam. ‘But ain’t we going the wrong way for Limehouse?’
He watched as Tom turned his head from side to side, as though waking from sleep. Then, without a word, he drew down on the larboard guy and brought the galley round to face the way they’d come. No one spoke for the rest of the journey. Sam kept his eyes focused on the tip of his oar, wondering if he had done right in publicly drawing attention to his friend’s mistake. It wasn’t the first time in recent months that Tom’s judgement had failed him. So far, the consequences had not been serious and Sam had been able to cover for him, but for how much longer? He felt the galley swing towards the stairs at Ratcliff Cross.
‘Way enough,’ said Tom.
Sam glanced over his shoulder and waited for the soft grinding noise of the boat’s keel touching the bottom. A moment later, they jolted to a halt, and Tom clambered over the gunwale into shallow water. He turned to look at Sam.
‘Get yourself down to Limehouse reach,’ he said. ‘I want every ship between St Anne’s and Deptford Creek checked to see if anyone saw or heard anything that sounded like gunfire.’
‘You want us to meet you back here, sir?’ said Sam.
‘No, I’m going to see an informant. I don’t know how long I’ll be.’ Tom paused as though considering something. ‘See me at the Devil’s Tavern about six. I should be done by then.’
Sam opened his mouth to object – the tavern would only bring further temptation – but thought better of it. He’d deal with the consequences, later. Meanwhile, he had work to do.
Tom’s anger flared as he noted the concerned frown on Sam’s face. He thought of telling him to keep his opinions to himself, but changed his mind. He waded through the shallows of the gently rising bank, his boots sinking into the soft clay of the river bed. The headache that had been with him all day, the result of the previous night’s drinking, was beginning to subside. He climbed to the top of the ratcliff Stairs, stopped and looked back towards the Thames. Sam had taken his place in the stern of the galley and was already heading out amongst the maze of scuttling craft. He turned away and walked east along a highway thronged with the usual assortment of coopers, sail-makers, carpenters and sailors, all of them seemingly gripped by the need to shout at the tops of their voices.
He thought about the man he was going to see. He’d known Jack Morrison for years. They’d been shipmates for a while and Tom recalled the other man’s uncanny ability to gather information on any number of subjects. He was the one man who could nearly always be relied upon to know the ins and outs of every incident on board ship and while invariably discreet, would usually be prepared to indicate a favourable line of inquiry if he were asked. They’d lost touch when Morrison had retired from the Navy.
They’d met again quite by chance and Tom had, in the months that followed, often made use of his talent. Now he was hoping that Jack would again be able to help. He turned in through the door of the red Lion on Narrow Street and looked round the almost deserted taproom. It was Jack’s usual watering hole, but there was no sign of him. He nodded at the landlord.
‘Seen Jack, have you?’
‘Not for a day or so.’
Tom walked out, unsure of where to look next. He’d not considered the possibility that Jack would not be there with a pot of beer in his fist. It was the only place they ever met. Ahead of him, the street was blocked by a sizeable crowd, its attention focused on something in its midst. He approached and looked over the shoulders of those at the back. He could see two men. One of them was holding a chain attached to the neck of a scrawny-looking black bear. The creature was performing a series of forward rolls in time to the beat of a drum held by the second man. Tom pushed his way through the crowd and caught the eye of the man with the drum. He beckoned him over.
‘Awight, Mr Pascoe? Ain’t seen you for a while.’
‘Morning, George. I’m looking for old Jack Morrison. Seen him around, have you?’
George pulled a face and shrugged his shoulders. ‘He ain’t in no trouble is he, Mr Pascoe? Wouldn’t want that to happen.’
‘No, just a chat, George, that’s all.’ Tom considered telling him more but decided it was none of his business.
‘I ain’t seen him for a while, Mr Pascoe, and that’s the honest truth.’
Tom was conscious of the watching faces from the crowd. He drew the man to one side and spoke quietly. ‘I need to find him, George.’
The man hesitated and looked back at the crowd.
‘First turning on the left, your honour,’ he said, a hand covering one side of his mouth. ‘The house what’s got caged birds in the window. Only don’t tell him it were me that told yer.’
‘I won’t. Thankee, George.’
Tom continued along Narrow Street, the sun obscured by a dismal blanket of choking smoke rising from the dozen or so glue factories that stood on either side of the street. He put a handkerchief to his face. The stench was worse than he remembered. Passing a chandler’s shop, its yard a jumble of coiled ropes, lengths of canvas, spars, rusting anchors, lengths of chains, and much else besides, he turned sharp left into an alley that led north, away from the Thames.
Here, a terrace of houses occupied one side of the street, their front doors facing a high wall that ran along the opposite kerb. There was an air of faded gentility about the place, a kind of quiet determination to remain aloof from the decay of the surrounding area; a mood that fitted well with what he knew of the man he’d come to see.
Tom stayed close to the wall as he walked past the line of houses, inspecting each in its turn. A minute later, he stopped in front of one of them. On a window sill, immediately to the left of the front door, stood a wire cage containing a pair of small birds, chirruping noisily.
He knocked at the front door. It was answered by a stout woman in her mid-fifties, her grey hair swept back off her face, accentuating her reddened cheeks and the folds of fat below her chin. She ran an appraising eye over him, her hands on her hips.
‘Yes?’ she said, her manner brusque. ‘Is Jack in?’
‘Who is it wants to know?’
‘My name’s Tom Pascoe. If Jack is—’
‘Who is it, Ma?’ a man’s voice roared out from somewhere at the back of the house.
‘A gentleman what calls himself Mr Pascoe, as wants to see you,’ she bawled back, her stout frame still barring the way.
Jack Morrison was a solid, broad-shouldered man, over six feet in height, his face and hands pitted with innumerable scars, his hair a rough, untidy thatch of grey sitting atop his massive skull.
‘Why if it ain’t Captain Pascoe.’ Jack’s voice was loud at the best of times. ‘Come in. Come in. Sit yourself down.’ He pointed to the only chair in the room while he picked up an old wooden box, dusted it down and sat opposite his guest. ‘It don’t answer to stand on no ceremony with old Jack. How did you know where to find me, anygate?’
‘Oh, just asked around,’ said Tom. He turned to watch Jack’s wife leave the room. ‘You know how it is.’
The room was small. No more than about eight feet square, a flight of stairs occupying one corner. Below these stood an iron cage in which a ferret was slinking up and down, stopping every now and again to fix its small, pink eyes on the assembled company. On shelves around the walls were a number of stuffed birds, rabbits, a polecat and a large carp, each one in its own display cabinet. Next to one of these, on a small table, were the tools of what Tom assumed was Jack Morrison’s trade of taxidermy – a pair of leather breeches, a quantity of knives and a bottle containing some sort of liquid. Against the back wall was the door through which Jack had come.
‘Still busy, if I’m not mistook, Jack,’ said Tom, nodding at the display cabinets.
‘Right enough, Master Tom,’ said the older man. ‘But it ain’t birds no more. Nor even rabbits or fish, neither. Ain’t no money in that. It’s mostly ratting these days. Folk pays me to catch ’em and then I sells the brutes to the sporting gentlemen.’
‘Dangerous work, I’ll be bound.’
‘Aye, that’s the truth of it,’ said Jack, fingering one of the many scars about his face and neck. ‘Them creatures can bite awful hard. But, the Lord help me, it don’t happen too often, and I’ve still got all me fingers.’
‘Rather you than me.’ Tom smiled.
‘So what brings you to see old Jack, Captain? If you don’t mind me asking, like.’
‘We found a floater in the tideway,’ said Tom. ‘Early this morning, it was. Bottom end of Limehouse reach. He’d been shot. I don’t think he was from these parts but I need to find out who he is and why he died. Can you help me?’
‘Why, bless you, sir,’ said Jack, a sly smile crossing his lips. ‘Why should old Jack know anything about a body in the river?’ ‘It’s important, Jack,’ said Tom, leaning forward and resting his forearms on his knees. ‘The victim was a gentleman, judging from the way he was dressed.’
‘And you don’t know nothing about him?’ The older man stroked the underside of his chin and stared at the ceiling. After a moment or two, he got to his feet, went over to the cage under the stairs and inserted his finger through the bars. The ferret, who had noticed the approach of his master, sniffed at the finger, discovered it was not food and moved away.
‘See this little critter, Master Pascoe?’ he said, without looking round. ‘One of the finest ratters I ever did see. I puts him down a bolt hole and he runs, maybe a hundred, maybe two hundred yards, looking for them rats. But he always comes back to me when I call. You know what I’m saying, your honour? This ’ere ferret does his job, and then he comes home. He won’t go to none other. It’s the same with me, sir. I live and I let live and then I comes home. What other folks do ain’t none of my business.’
‘You and I know each other very well, Jack,’ said Tom. ‘You know I always play fair. All I’m trying to do at this moment is find out who this man was.’
There was a long pause while Jack seemed to weigh things up in his mind.
‘There is something what I heard . . .’ he said.
In the Parish of St George in the East, a mile or so north of the Thames, a phaeton drew up outside the Fox and Hounds, in rosemary Lane. A tall, thin man got out and went into the premises. After some hesitation, he made his way along a row of booths, looking into each before stopping outside one and pushing open the door. Sir William Bolt was not in the best of moods. He looked down at the man sitting alone at a table, his head bent over a copy of The Times.
‘They’ve found it, my lord,’ he said.
‘What!’ Lord Camperdown looked up from his paper, half rising from his seat, a look of agitation on his face. ‘How could they?’
Bolt shrugged and said nothing. He slid onto the bench opposite.
‘But it’s not possible. You told me it would sink.’
‘It was found within the hour. Another hour and it would have disappeared, and no one would have seen it for weeks, perhaps never.’
‘Who found it?’ said Camperdown.
‘A police boat.’
Camperdown wiped the palms of his hands on his breeches and stared at the table. ‘What happens now?’
‘I’ve spoken to some people. They tell me a man named Pascoe found the body.’
‘A constable. The best there is. Or at least he used to be. I hear he’s seldom sober these days. You’ve got to hope he stays that way. If he gets his claws into you, he could be a problem.’
‘But you say he’s a drunk.’
‘Best you don’t rely on that.’ Bolt glanced at the steady stream of people moving back and forth across the entrance to the booth, the hum of their conversation rising and falling. ‘There’s more.’
‘I can’t find his pocket book. It had a visiting card inside. I took it from the body but I must have dropped it.’
‘Christ, you bloody fool.’ Camperdown looked across at his companion, his mouth tightly drawn, his eyes narrowing. ‘If this man Pascoe finds out what happened, he’ll come looking for us and I’ve no intention of going down for this.’
‘Have a care how you speak to me, sir.’ Bolt rose to his feet, pointing an accusing finger. For a second or two, neither spoke.
‘You need to stop him,’ said Bolt. ‘How, pray, am I supposed to do that?’
‘Put him on a ship, why don’t you?’ said Bolt, getting to his feet and moving towards the door. ‘That should save us a deal of trouble.’
Excerpted from The Rising Tide by Patrick Easter. Copyright © 2013 by Patrick Easter.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Quercus Editions Ltd, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.