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Authors: John Smolens

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Mystery & Detective

Quarantine: A Novel

BOOK: Quarantine: A Novel
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Quarantine

Books by John Smolens

The Schoolmaster’s Daughter

The Anarchist

Fire Point

The Invisible World

Cold

My One and Only Bomb Shelter (Short Stories)

Angel’s Head

Winter by Degrees

Quarantine

j o h n s m o l e n s

pegasus books

new york london

Quarantine

Pegasus Books LLC

80 Broad Street, 5th Floor

New York, NY 10004

Copyright © 2012 by John Smolens

First Pegasus Books cloth edition 2012

Interior design by Maria Fernandez

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher, except by reviewers who may quote brief excerpts in connection with a review in a newspaper, magazine, or electronic publication; nor may any part of this book be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or other, without written permission from the publisher.

ISBN: 978-1-60598-418-6

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Printed in the United States of America

Distributed by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

For Peter, Elizabeth, and Michael

Part I
Miranda
,

Under the Yel ow Flag

Newburyport, Massachusetts

June 1796

One

It was past ten bells when the harbormaster sent his

son to fetch the doctor. Leander Hatch was nineteen, and as

he sprinted from Sumner’s Wharf, across Market Square, and

then up State Street, the smell of the salt marshes at low tide

filled his lungs until he arrived, winded and sweating, at Wolfe Tavern.

Roger Davenport, who sat on a tall stool outside the open

doorway, clutched Leander’s shoulder. “What’s your rush there?”

Davenport seemed to have spent his entire life determining who

should gain admittance to the ordinary.

“Doctor Wiggins is needed down to waterside.”

Davenport let go of the boy and folded his arms. “Now why

would that be?”

Leander stared at the man, his hairless, round skull, his bulging neck. He was missing the lower portion of his right ear, which,

according to rumor, had been bitten off by either a drunken

sailor or a Water Street prostitute. “I was sent by my father, the harbormaster.”

“Caleb Hatch—he be your father?”

3

j o h n s m o l e n s

“Yes.” Leander hesitated, and then added, “Sir.”

Davenport leaned close, tilting his head to one side. “And

what would he be wanting with Doctor Wiggins, at this

hour?”

“I cannot say.” Leander peered into the smoky tavern, which

reeked of tobacco, meat, and clam chowder. The room was

crowded with men, sitting around tables, standing along the

bar, the din of their voices at once jocular and angry. Women

served them tankards of beer, bowls of f lip, and platters of

charred beef.

“All right. But you wait here.” Davenport slid off his stool and went inside the tavern, his big head just ducking beneath each

low ceiling beam. He stopped at the booth nearest the fireplace, where a man was slumped over the table, his head resting on his

forearms. Taking hold of his coat collar, Davenport lifted up Dr.

Wiggins’s head, his wire-frame spectacles cockeyed on his face.

Davenport yanked him out of the booth and pushed him back

to the door, bringing jeers, laughter, and some applause from the other men in the room. Wiggins tried to resist, but he was too

unsteady on his feet.

“You’ve been summoned,” Davenport said pleasantly as he

shoved the doctor out onto the porch. “Take a whiff of low tide

out there and you’ll be tolerably sober.”

The doctor stumbled down the steps and began wandering

along State Street. Dr. Giles Wiggins was, by Leander’s estimate, in his late thirties, but he had the constitution of a man a full score older. He wore a frock coat that was rent, patched, and ill-fitting, and he appeared in perpetual need of a decent meal. Dark hair

fell about his shoulders in disarray; yet, even though intoxicated, Leander thought his gaze suggested decorum and a manner of

kindly inquiry uncommon in this harbor town. He was one of

only three physicians in Newburyport, and merely a surgeon,

whose only distinction was that he had learned his trade at sea

during the war with England.

4

q u a r a n t i n e

“What’s this about?” he said over his shoulder.

Leander followed a few steps behind, as though he were

herding livestock. “My father wants you to accompany him out

to a ship at anchor in the river basin. He has denied its request to tie up at the wharf.”

“Denied? Why?”

“He needs you to perform a medical inspection, Doctor.”

“What ship?” When Leander hesitated, the doctor stopped

walking. “It has a name.”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“You don’t know?” the doctor asked, turning around. “Or

you cannot say?”

“I was told only to fetch you down to the wharf.”

The doctor began walking again, now with Leander at his

side. “Tell me, how did the harbormaster determine that this ship might need to be inspected?”

“The pilot, Mr. Wainwright, he had been rowed out to Plum

Island to guide the ship around the shoals and upriver.”

“Nothing unusual there—”

“He came right back to the wharf claiming that there be some

illness aboard the ship.”

“What form of illness?”

“Fever, it appears, sir.”

“I see. You might have said so in the first place.”

When Leander didn’t reply, Doctor Wiggins studied him for

a long moment. “Your eyes, they do take after your mother’s,”

he said. Leander’s surprise caused the doctor to smile. “Well, we best not tarry with idle talk.”

He quickened his pace as they entered Market Square.

Spars and masts stitched the night sky, and as they neared

the water, the doctor appeared to take better possession of

his faculties.

R

5

j o h n s m o l e n s

As the harbormaster’s skiff pulled away from Sumner’s Wharf,

Giles Wiggins leaned over the side and heaved his guts into the river.

“Feel better now?” Caleb Hatch asked from the bow.

“I do, yes,” Giles said, wiping his mouth on the sleeve of his

coat. “As a man of medicine, I’m a great believer in the benefits of vomit.”

The four oarsmen laughed. They were Thomas Poole, the

current high sheriff, two constables, Jotham Poe and his brother Elisha, and Leander. They sculled downriver on the falling tide, entering the wide basin that was bordered to the north by the

salt marshes of Ring’s Island and to the south by the clam beds

of Joppa Flats. Due east, Plum Island’s dunes were lit by a three-quarter moon rising above the Atlantic. Straight ahead, a three-mast brigantine lay at anchor.

“Starboard,” Caleb Hatch called out. “Keep us upwind of her.”

“This is the
Miranda?”
Giles said.

Jotham Poe raised his head from his labor, grinning. “Aye, one

of your brother’s ships, Doctor, come north from the Caribbean.

Named after your own mother, I believe?”

The doctor glanced at Leander. “I asked if you knew the name

of this ship.”

The boy looked to his father, who said, “Upon my instructions,

Doctor. The boy was only following orders.”

“I see.” Giles settled a haunch on the port gunwale. “Everyone

knows that at night I can usually be found in the public house.”

Jotham and Elisha Poe laughed again as they pulled at their

oars. Constables had a rather dubious distinction in Newburyport, and the title often brought more fear than respect. Some of the

high sheriff’s men had served in the militia against the British, while others merely shouldered sticks during marching drills

on the training field at the Mall; all worked for small coin and required other forms of employment.

Giles looked toward Joppa Flats, which was dotted with dozens

of clam diggers’ lanterns as they worked the low tide. Suddenly he 6

q u a r a n t i n e

stood up and cupped his hands about his spectacles. In the middle distance he thought he made out two low black lines, moving

through the water. The splash of an oar caught the moonlight.

“They’re rowing ashore.” Giles pointed toward the two boats.

Caleb Hatch turned his head and leaned forward. “Two?”

“No,” Leander said. “Three.” He pointed toward another dark

line in the water that was closer in toward shore.

The boy was long-limbed but not awkward. He had his

mother’s lean face, her fair hair. “Very good, Leander,” the

doctor said.

“Jotham,” the harbormaster said. “I sent you out with explicit

instructions that no one was to disembark from that vessel without my consent.”

“Aye, sir,” Jotham said, and then he snorted. “But you can’t

keep sailors on deck when they can smell the rum and pussy

ashore. And I wager you’ll find goods from the
Miranda
sold in Market Square tomorrow. Enoch Sumner—there’s a man who

knows how to line his pockets.”

The skiff drew alongside the
Miranda.
Several of the ship’s crewmen were standing along the rail. “Who’s your captain?”

Caleb Hatch called out.

There was a moment when the crew looked amongst them-

selves, and then one man said, “I am in command of this ship.”

His voice was laced with a French accent.

“And you are?” the harbormaster asked.

“Captain Antoine Delacourte.”

“Captain, I’m Caleb Hatch, the harbormaster, and you were

given instructions that no one was to leave this ship.”

“That is so.”

“We saw boats rowing ashore.”

“Boats? We have seen no boats rowing ashore.” Delacourte

looked to his left and right, and then held his hands out over the railing as though to show that he wasn’t concealing anything. “I assure you, we have complied with all requests.”

7

j o h n s m o l e n s

“I see,” Hatch said. “I’ve brought the doctor here to inspect

your ship.”

After a moment, the captain said, “Very well,
Monsieur.”

Delacourte then barked orders in French, and lines were

thrown to the oarsmen. Once the skiff was secured, a rope ladder was rolled down the side of the ship’s hull. Giles climbed aboard and found a small band of crewmen on deck. Their clothes were

reduced to rags, and several wore no shirts. They stared at the

doctor as though they were prepared to draw knives and defend

their ship to the last.

Delacourte was an obese man in a tattered white coat that was

BOOK: Quarantine: A Novel
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