Mariah Mundi and the Ship of Fools

BOOK: Mariah Mundi and the Ship of Fools
3.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

G. P. Taylor

The Ship of Fools

HE long black line of railway carriages stopped suddenly. Steam hissed viciously from the engine and mingled with the stench of smouldering coal that now filled the dark tunnel. The train shook and tremored as if it had been struck by an earthquake. The metal wheels screeched against the iron tracks. Shards of bright blue sparks flashed against the dripping brick walls. Mariah Mundi was unexpectedly thrown forward from his sleep. He crashed against the empty seat opposite before sliding to the floor. In his sudden waking he heard the faraway screams of frightened children. The train juddered. Carriage battered against carriage as the echoing madness rolled on and on like a coming thunderstorm.

Twenty-eight miles from Liverpool Mariah had sunk into slumber. For the six-hour journey from the town-at-the-end-of-the-line, only he and Captain Jack Charity of the Bureau of Antiquities had inhabited the compartment. Charity was a tall man with a muscular frame and a thick scar across his right cheek. He had filled the seat opposite Mariah and sprawled across the compartment as he read his penny dreadful. The blinds had been pulled down, the door had been locked and a
sign stating
Out of Order
had been placed in the window.

‘Don’t want to be disturbed by people …’ Charity had whittered as he slipped the ticket collector a neatly folded and ironed five-pound note.

That seemed like another day. Now, Charity had gone and the train shook again as it briefly juddered along the track. The hissing of the engine subsided. All was then silent. Mariah looked up, waiting for Captain Charity to reappear. The gas lamp that illuminated the First Class carriage flickered. It dwindled in luminosity and then, like a September firefly, abruptly died.

Mariah could see nothing. The gloom of the tunnel was like a double blanket to the darkness of the night outside. It was completely black, eerily silent with the stench of sulphur. Getting to his feet Mariah reached out like a blind man to find the door handle and took hold of the brass lever.

Footsteps clattered outside the compartment. Steel-capped heels cut against the wooden boards of the narrow corridor that ran the length of the carriage. Mariah listened as they stopped outside the door. It was as if whoever was outside was snooping intently before moving on.

Mariah stood still. He tried to hold his breath.

‘This one?’ asked a gruff voice outside the door.

‘Can’t tell,’ replied another voice as a dim light flashed against the faded, rolled-down blinds.

‘The Captain is locked in the khazi – won’t be going anywhere. Got our chance now to find the lad …’ the first voice said, grumbling each word.

The handle of the door rattled. The lever dropped as someone pushed against the door.

‘Locked,’ the voice sniffed. ‘Out of use,’ he went on as he shone his lamp towards the hastily made sign on the greasy pane of glass.

‘Must be the next door,’ whispered the other man as if he choked on his words. ‘Thought he said it as the first compartment? You know what to do …’

The footsteps paced quietly away and then hesitated, the two men walking as one. Mariah pressed his ear to the window of his compartment, shielded from view by the drab blinds. He could hear the door next to him open slowly. Something inside him made him want to shout a warning, as if he knew what was going to happen. The door trembled on its metal runner and then clicked open.

‘HE’S THERE!’ screamed one of the men, and two loud shots from a military pistol broke the silence. The hand lamp swayed violently back and forth as screams rang out. Passengers leapt to their feet and filled the dark corridor.

‘He’s been shot!’ screamed a man as Mariah pulled the handle of the door to be free from the compartment.

‘Guard! Help! MURDER!’ Mariah heard another man shout as the news of the attack filled the train.

Mariah pulled on the handle once more. It held fast. He reached up to the baggage rack. His hands scrambled to grab hold of the first travelling case that came to his grasp. Taking the handle of a small Gladstone bag, which Captain Charity had so neatly packed that morning at the Prince Regent Hotel, Mariah smashed the window. Within a few seconds he had knocked out every shard of glass and, jumping from the seat, had leapt into the corridor.

‘Who has been shot?’ he asked the shadowy man blocking the passageway.

‘In our carriage. I saw the flash of the gunshots … he’s slumped to the floor.’

‘Get a light,’ Mariah insisted as he pushed by the travellers and stepped inside the compartment.

A man in a plaid suit, with tiny feet and uncomfortable
shoes, struck a match and held it high above him. In the faint light Mariah saw the face of a young man. His lips were tinged blue and already the colour had drained from his face. He was the same age as Mariah, no older than sixteen, and wearing a dark suit. Next to him, holding his hand was an older woman.

‘Is he dead?’ she asked Mariah, her eyes firmly shut as if unable to look at him.

‘I don’t think so,’ Mariah replied softly. ‘He’s unconscious. The bullet has grazed his head.’

‘He’s my son. We are going to America with my husband. We were to meet him at Liverpool docks,’ she said as tears rolled down her face.

‘Shot him, shot him in the head,’ said the man, holding the burning match in the tips of his fingers. ‘Never looked, just opened the door – flash of light and then shot him.’

‘He’s alive – but badly wounded. Did you see them?’ Mariah asked.

‘Just the hand and the pistol … a revolver,’ said the man nervously.

‘Quickly,’ Mariah said as he got to his feet. ‘Find the guard!’

The train lurched forward. There was a shrill hiss as the winding pump pushed gas through the pipes again. Without speaking, the man with the matches lit the wick of the lamp and rubbed the soot from his singed fingers. The gas lamp lit the drab walls and blinded windows of the carriage. It began to billow gusts of hot air that rolled across the painted ceiling of the coach and out of the open door.

‘Best leave them be,’ Mariah said as he stepped towards the door. ‘We need to get him to a doctor.’

‘Stay,’ said the woman. ‘I don’t think I can be alone.’

‘Mariah! Mariah!’ shouted Charity as he stormed through the passageway.

‘The boy’s been shot,’ bawled the man by the door as Charity
forced his way through a gaggle of people all trying to stare inside the compartment.

‘SHOT?’ Charity shouted as he pushed harder against the mob blocking the corridor. ‘Let me through!’

Soon Charity had forced his way through the crowd. He stood in the doorway of the compartment, his immense frame casting a deep, dark shadow.

‘They said you had been shot,’ Charity said.

‘Not me,’ Mariah replied as he saw Charity’s eyes cast upon the lad behind him.

‘Let me see to him,’ Charity said. He stooped down and lifted the lad and lay him across the long bench seat opposite. ‘Just a graze … Boy, can you hear me?’

‘He’s called Lorenzo … after his father,’ the woman said as Charity attempted to wake her son. ‘Lorenzo Zane …’

Charity raised his head for a moment as if in recognition of the name as he felt for a pulse in the boy’s neck.

‘He seems well to me, a strong lad – he will come to no harm. Tell me, Madame Zane, do you know of any reason why someone should want to shoot your son?’

‘I know of nothing. My husband lives a quiet life. He is an engineer, an inventor,’ she replied as she sobbed.

‘The creator of the Zane Generator,’ Charity said as her son regained his mind. ‘Like father like son – he is with us again.’

‘Mother,’ said the lad feebly.

‘Did you see who shot at you?’ Charity urged as he propped the boy against the seat.

‘Just for a moment. I think I have seen the man before. I can’t recall where. There was the darkness of the tunnel and then a blinding light.’

‘They ran by me,’ said the man in the uncomfortable shoes. ‘Two of them, ruffians and squalors … jumped from the train as they pushed me out of the way.’

‘Won’t they still be in the tunnel?’ Mariah asked.

‘They will be long gone and far away,’ Charity replied as he nodded for Mariah to leave the compartment. ‘We will soon be at the harbour and there is sure to be a doctor to take care of young Lorenzo. Keep your son calm,’ he said to the woman. ‘It should only be a matter of minutes before we arrive.’

Charity took hold of the man in the plaid suit and sat him next to Madame Zane as if he were a lap dog.

‘I would be grateful if you would care for them whilst we are gone,’ Charity said. He patted the man on the shoulder, then turned and pushed Mariah from the compartment. ‘Things are not what they seem to be,’ he whispered as they entered their own compartment.

‘I know,’ Mariah replied. ‘I heard the men in the corridor – they were looking for the first compartment.’

‘And I was locked in the lavatory. Not the most convenient convenience, but locked in I most certainly was.’ Charity shrugged in his usual way and raised an eyebrow.

‘That is what I heard the man say – the Captain was locked in the khazi …’

‘Then it must be that they wanted me out of the way,’ Charity replied as the train juddered yet again. ‘They had pulled the emergency cord in the next carriage. When the train stopped it was plunged into darkness. They took no chances and must have known they had just three minutes before the train would start again.’ Charity stopped and looked at Mariah anxiously. ‘I have a great worry that they shot the wrong person.’

‘Who?’ Mariah asked.

‘I think that
were their intended victim,’ Charity replied solemnly.

‘But why?’

Captain Charity paused. He turned, brushed away broken
glass and then sat down on the bristled fabric that tightly covered the seat.

‘I have not been fully honest with you. This isn’t just a trip to Liverpool, Mariah. I have taken the liberty to pack your trunk. We are going to America.’

‘America? But that is another world away – an ocean and everything.’ Mariah gulped excitedly.

‘America – a place that if it didn’t exist we would have to invent it. A colony stolen from its rightful owners.’ Charity tried to smile. ‘I had a letter from Isambard Black. This is Bureau business. We are booked on the
– the biggest and fastest ship ever to be built – unsinkable. It is to race the
, a vessel that it is said can never be beaten. Whoever crosses the Atlantic first will win one million dollars.’

‘So why is that the business of the Bureau of Antiquities?’ Mariah asked.

‘For such a prize, men will do many things and we are to ensure fair play. No one knows we are about to make the journey, but from what has just happened I think our presence is no longer a secret. An interesting coincidence is that Lorenzo Zane invented the means by which the
will be propelled. The Zane Generator – it is a steam engine so powerful that at full speed it will take the vessel five miles to stop.’

‘And the Bureau of Antiquities is to guard the ship?’ Mariah asked.

‘Indeed. The prize money will be placed upon the
. Five hundred gold bars are to be stowed in its hold. They are guarded for the time being by officers of the Royal Navy. We put to sea at midnight.’

Charity shrugged his shoulders and rustled the collar of his coat to keep out the draught that billowed through the broken window of the compartment. Reaching into the pocket of the coat he pulled out a leather pouch. ‘Your ticket for the ship.’

‘What about the Prince Regent?’ Mariah asked as he thought about the hotel they had left behind. ‘Who will manage it whilst we are gone?’

‘Taken care of. All will be well … if perhaps a little different.’ Charity replied as if he were the keeper of an amusing secret. ‘We mustn’t think of it at all. But should anyone ask, you are a magician’s apprentice and I the owner of Europe’s grandest hotel.’

With that, Captain Charity closed his eyes and allowed himself to sleep as the carriage rocked back and forth.

The train ambled on between long grubby terraces of drab houses. It twisted and snaked past dimly lit streets as it approached the harbour. Mariah looked out of the window as he thought about the young Lorenzo Zane. He had an anxious and nagging doubt. He rolled the words of the assassin over and over –
the first compartment

the first compartment
. He realised that what Charity had said was true: Lorenzo Zane was a mistaken victim.

There was another shudder as the train crossed the double rails of a junction, then a blast on its whistle signalled the approach to Liverpool docks.

Mariah looked at the neat leather pouch that Charity had given him. It was embossed with a three-pronged spear held in the hands of a bearded giant with the tail of a fish. Mariah opened the flap and peered inside. The ticket for the
looked as if it was made of a wafer of solid gold. It was cold to the touch and sharp as steel. Beaten into the metal and painted in black was the number 395. Engraved below the number was just one word:

There was a gentle tapping on the door. Mariah hid the ticket pouch in his pocket as Captain Charity opened one eye, not wanting to be disturbed.

‘Come in,’ he drawled in a bored voice, his hand deep in the
pocket where Mariah knew the Captain always kept a small dandy-gun.

The door opened and in stepped Madame Zane. Mariah noticed for the first time how incredibly tall and how incredibly beautiful she was. She looked at them both and smiled as, without being asked, she sat down next to Mariah.

‘I have been less than honest with you,’ she said. ‘My son, Lorenzo … I was frightened he would not understand.’ Madame Zane looked at Charity and then to Mariah as if asking permission to continue. Charity did not speak but merely smiled and nodded. ‘My husband has made some enemies. It is purely by accident – an argument over the generator. He has been threatened, but he will not tell me who by. That is why we are travelling separately. He thought we would be safe.’

‘Why do you tell me this?’ Charity asked. ‘We are just fellow travellers.’

BOOK: Mariah Mundi and the Ship of Fools
3.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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