Revenge in a Cold River (6 page)

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“Thank you,” she said gently to Rathbone. “But it would not be taken kindly by everyone, even if those we care about know that you are merely being courteous. I am quite able to ride home, and my maid will look after me. The fires will be burning and all will be warm. I think no one will disturb me with any more condolences for several days.” She smiled at him, and meant it. She was in control of herself again, at least for now.

“Are you certain?” They were standing at the roadside by her carriage. The footman held the door for her.

“Yes, thank you. I hope you will feel free to call at a later date, when there will be no shadow on your reputation.”

“Of course,” he agreed. “I mean to do this well.” He looked at her for a moment longer, and she saw the warmth in his eyes, and knew exactly what he meant.

She swallowed hard. “Thank you, Oliver.” She wanted to think of something else to say, but there was nothing that could not be misread.

Another carriage passed them, and through the window she saw Miriam Clive. For a moment their glances met, then the Clives' carriage passed, and Beata accepted the footman's hand and climbed into her own, leaving Rathbone on the path, watching her until she was out of sight.

M
ONK AND
H
OOPER WERE
on the river on one of those unusual November days when the sky was almost cloudless and there were moments when it seemed as if the river were made of gray glass. Not a breath of wind stirred the surface. The only movement was the occasional wash of a boat going up or downstream, all but silently. The voices of lightermen calling to one another echoed, and the splash of an oar could be heard.

Now and then a water bird dived for a fish. It broke the smooth surface almost without sound, and then came up victorious. It was an hour short of high tide. Soon the river would brim its banks. An hour after that it would turn.

They rowed randan, that is, holding only one oar each, on two separate seats, one slightly in front of the other. It was swift, maneuverable, and when rowers were well matched they could keep up the pace for hours.

Hooper was a good partner and now that his injuries from the battle on the gun smugglers' ship were almost healed, he was extremely strong. It was a challenge to keep up with him, but one that Monk enjoyed. They were returning from the successful solution to a robbery.

“Hear any more about the drowned man?” Hooper asked curiously. “The one that was shot.”

“No. I've got Laker on it,” Monk replied. “But whatever happened to Blount, it's probably to do with smuggling, or even someone he rubbed the wrong way before he was caught. I daresay it was to keep him quiet, in case he talked to Customs.” He smiled bleakly. “Anyone with knowledge of smuggling is McNab's problem, not mine.”

“Right,” Hooper agreed. Monk could not see his face because they both rowed facing the stern so all he could see was Hooper's back. But he heard the pleasure in his voice, and he shared it.

Five minutes later they pulled in at the steps up to the Wapping Police Station and saw Laker standing on the dockside, clearly waiting for them. He came down the steps easily, the sun gleaming on his fair hair. He was in his late twenties, overly sure of himself, graceful, quick-witted, and definitely a touch arrogant. Monk had seen the more vulnerable side of him only once, during the gun battle on the smugglers' ship. But it was a part of the man he had not forgotten, and it was the reason he had not disciplined him harder.

“Sir!” Laker said as Monk shipped his oar and stood up.

“What is it?”

“Another escaped prisoner, sir.” Laker's handsome face lit with a smile of pure pleasure. “Customs again. This one had just been convicted. Sentence came down this morning. He escaped when he was being transferred into the wagon to go back to prison.”

“What's it got to do with Customs?” Monk stepped out of the boat onto the flight of stone steps up to the dockside. Hooper came on the other side and tied the boat.

“One of their convictions, sir. Bad bastard, by the name of Silas Owen.”

“Owen?” The name caught Monk's attention immediately. “Isn't he an explosives man? Got caught with gelignite?”

They reached the top of the steps and stood in the sun.

“Yes, sir. They were pretty lucky to convict him,” Laker replied. “He's a demolition expert and has done a lot of regular professional work: tunnels, bringing down old buildings, and the like. But he's skipped it this time.”

“Any reason to think he's coming our way?” Monk felt a spark of interest, but it was far more likely that the regular police would catch him. He would go inland or maybe across the flat stretches around the Estuary, and hope to get a lift on some sort of barge or collier going north.

Laker looked pleased with himself. “Well, yes, there is, sir. Sort of. Bit of information I got from a snitch downriver from here. Said he thought Owen might make for France, but not the way you'd expect, which would be the first boat down to the Estuary that he could get, then something going across the Channel from there. That's where everybody else'll be looking for him, I reckon. But apparently there's a schooner moored well upriver, sir. Fast two-master. Clean cut, oceangoing. We haven't got much that could keep up with something like that, especially not in the hands of a good sailor.”

“And where is this schooner moored, then?” Monk asked.

“Thought you might want to know that.” Laker smiled with satisfaction. “Just beyond Millbank, sir. He'll have to go a roundabout way to get there. South bank, just about under the Vauxhall Bridge.”

“Skelmer's Wharf.” Monk jumped to the conclusion. He knew the place. For a small fee, an oceangoing two-master could well lie there without causing comment. And nobody would be looking for it. Clever. “Any reason to think it's that one, Laker?” he asked.

Laker bit his lip. “Informant of mine. Thing is, the customs men know it, too. It's not for sure, but if we get to Skelmer's Wharf now, we could be there before them. They don't know that stretch of the river. Too far up for them to be there regularly. You could cross over on London Bridge, sir….”

“Right! Then get us a fast, light hansom, and—”

“Got one, sir. Just waiting…” Laker increased his pace as they followed him across the open stretch of the dock. Instead of going into the police station, they kept on with even longer strides toward where a hansom was waiting at the curb, the horse sensing the excitement and moving restlessly.

Hooper was on their heels and swung up into the cab, making room for Monk.

“Thank you, Laker. Good job,” Monk said, then gave the driver instructions to find the fastest way, generously offering him an extra couple of shillings if he got there within thirty minutes.

“Forty, if the traffic's right,” the cabbie agreed. “Over London Bridge should be right at this hour. 'Ang on, gents!”

They leaned back and Monk settled in for a long and fast drive. It was their only chance of catching Owen, even if Laker was right, and if they really had as good a start on Owen as they thought. But Skelmer's Wharf was a good guess. It was a sheltered mooring where even a large oceangoing schooner would not be remarked on. At this hour there would be few people about: mostly workmen, shipwrights and carpenters, possibly a few dockers, but all well involved in their own labor.

A man coming or going, perhaps with a fishing rod and a few sandwiches for lunch, would not seem strange to anyone. His having a friend who turned up in a rowboat was to be expected. It would be a good day on the river, even if they caught nothing. Fishing, the odd pleasant conversation, a couple of pasties and a few bottles of ale, well wrapped up, a fine day, even if cold. Nothing unusual about that.

They had arrested men there before, not fugitives from the law so much as from being asked a few very inconvenient questions.

Neither Monk nor Hooper spoke. Monk was thinking that it would be a nice score against McNab if they managed to catch his man for him. That was two escapees in the space of a week. He would not forget the malice in McNab's face as he had stood over the body of Blount watching Monk turn him over to reveal the bullet wound in the man's back.

They crossed the river at London Bridge and the cab picked up speed along a stretch where the traffic was light. The driver was really taking Monk at his word. He was going to have to pay the extra fare he had promised. They cut inland then joined the river again along the Albert Embankment.

Another few minutes and they crossed the Vauxhall Bridge and swung in beside the dock and the open stretch of water. There was an old man sitting on the wharf with a fishing line dangling over the edge. It was a bright, windless morning and there was barely a ripple on the flat surface of the river. The grim mass of Millbank Prison towered above like a fortress, casting its shadow. Nothing on the river moved.

The two-masted schooner anchored in the lee was reflected on the river as if in a mirror. It looked fast and sleek, perfectly balanced, oceangoing. A flash of admiration crossed Monk's mind, before he alighted and paid the driver, including the extra he had promised.

The driver glanced at the money, estimated it, and put it in his pocket.

“Want me ter wait for yer, sir?” he asked hopefully.

“No, thanks,” Monk replied, fearing that he might regret the decision. However, if he had guessed correctly from what Laker had been told, then this was where Owen would be making for. Perhaps it was something as inconspicuous as a string of barges, heavy laden and covered in canvas tarpaulins under which he could hide. He could disappear in some dock unloading the cargo farther downriver. A change of clothes, and he would look like any other docker or waterman. But more likely it was the beautiful schooner he was making for, and the open sea. Either way, the presence of a waiting hansom would give away the possibility of the police, or anyone else, watching.

“Sure?” the driver asked.

“Quite sure,” Monk replied. “There could be trouble. That's a good horse. Get her out of here before it starts.”

The cabbie's face changed. “Right y'are, sir.” Without another word he urged the horse on and within minutes they were out of sight.

Monk looked around. It was pretty open: just the wharf itself, a couple of old bollards for mooring, and some rickety steps down to the water, which were half-submerged now with a high tide just about to turn.

On the bank there were deserted boat sheds. The nearest one had a workshop attached, the door hanging by a broken padlock. Farther along were two benches, the warehouses, and slipways for taking boats down to the water's edge. A hundred yards farther the huge bulk of the brewery and more workshops. This was the only wharf for half a mile or more.

Monk looked at Hooper. At a glance he appeared like any other workingman along the river. His trousers were well worn, his heavy pea jacket like anyone else's, and he had an old blue waterman's cap on his head. It was Monk himself who stood out. His trousers were well cut, his pea jacket new. He was bareheaded, and his hair barbered with some skill.

He could not take his coat off; a man in crisp white shirtsleeves would attract attention on a November morning.

“You stay here,” he ordered. “I'll get in that workshop; the door won't take any effort to break. Just keep down.” No explanation was necessary.

Hooper nodded, then walked slowly over to the river's edge, as if he was contemplating something.

Monk went to the broken door and gave the lock a sharp blow. It fell off and he was able to go just inside but stop where he could observe, without being seen from the path.

The fisherman took no notice of either of them. Possibly he was asleep.

Ten minutes went by in which two barges went upriver with no sound except the splash of their wash against the uprights of the wharf, and then a tiny ripple on the bank. A rowboat passed the other way, a young man pulling hard on the oars, looking as if he were enjoying the speed and the sense of power. It was slack water, but the tide would turn any minute.

The fisherman stood up and walked away.

The minutes dragged on.

Monk moved restlessly from one foot to the other. Hooper had gone out of sight down the bank.

Then suddenly a man appeared, small and slight, running from the direction of the road, straight toward the wharf in a purposeful fashion.

Just as Monk came out of the work shed, a second man appeared. He was taller, bearded, and heavyset, coming from the left.

Hooper rose up from the bank just as the two men collided hard and staggered to keep their balance.

A single barge came from the west, heavy laden, low in the water, its cargo masked by a tarpaulin.

The smaller man lashed out at the larger, striking him a quick, hard blow on the jaw as if he knew how to fight. The big man staggered, but regained his balance, swinging wildly and missing altogether.

Hooper moved toward them as the smaller man struck again. This time, he connected only with a shoulder, and they both lurched sideways, kicking and punching.

The barge was closer, the lighterman with the oar standing motionless.

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