Revenge in a Cold River (7 page)

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Monk reached the fighting men and made a grab for the larger one as he swayed closer to him. He caught one arm, and swung the man round, off balance.

Hooper reached the smaller man and held him back, pinning his arms behind him.

The larger man let out a bellow of rage and kicked hard. Monk moved just enough to avoid being struck, and allowed the man's impetus to carry him further off balance.

They both swayed back and forth, striking and evading. Monk caught one or two blows, but mostly they glanced off his arms or shoulders. He would have bruises. He landed a few of his own, but the man seemed to be built of rock.

The other man caught Hooper where he had been wounded, and he staggered back. The man slithered away like an eel, Hooper after him, but holding his wounded arm slack, as if the pain had robbed him of its use.

Monk's inattention cost him a hard blow to the chest, momentarily knocking the wind out of him. If he were not more careful the man would escape. It was only a few yards to the barge in the river.

Except that, as he turned to lash out at the big man, he saw the barge begin to move away again, the lighterman leaning on the oar and turning it with the customary grace of his kind.

There was a loud splash as the small man fell into the water. Monk stared. Hooper had also disappeared.

The big man roared a string of abuse at Monk and broke away to charge over to the far side of the wharf.

Monk lunged after him, throwing himself at the man's back and bringing them both down hard, sprawling across the wooden planks of the wharf, rolling and kicking, each trying to punch the other, and avoid being hit.

Even above the breathlessness and the curses, Monk could hear Hooper and the other man thrashing about in the water. He concentrated on what he was doing. Hooper could swim, but with the weakened arm he would be at a disadvantage.

Monk feinted at the big man, then altered his aim, half-turned, and struck him hard on the side of the head with his elbow.

For an instant the big man went slack, allowing Monk the chance to scramble to his feet and regain his balance. He rushed to the side of the wharf where Hooper was floundering and the small man came to the surface, momentarily dazed, gasping for air.

Then the big man was on his feet. He gave a roar of fury, put his head down, and charged at Monk, bellowing all the way.

Monk waited until the last possible moment, then sidestepped. He felt the turbulence of air as the man passed him, missed his step, and went crashing over the side and down into the water.

The wave of his wash caught Hooper in the face and went right over the smaller man's head.

The barge was now more than a hundred yards away, and increasing the distance.

The big man came to the surface, arms thrashing, sending water all over the place. He clearly had no idea how to swim, and the river was far too deep for him to reach the bottom with his feet. Even if he could have, it would be only soft, sucking river mud.

Hooper moved slowly toward the small man, who also seemed to be in trouble. He was coughing and spluttering as if he could not fill his lungs. Judging from the way he had attacked the other man, he was the policeman, and the big man the fugitive.

“Help him!” Monk shouted to Hooper, waving his arm at the small man. He could not leave him to drown. More important to Monk, he could not send the vulnerable Hooper after the big man, who was now going under the water for a second time, his mouth open, his face distorted with terror.

Monk took off his pea coat and leaped into the river. The water hit him like a wall of ice and, with a shock of fear, he felt it close over him momentarily, almost paralyzing him.

He came to the surface gasping, and struck out toward the big man, now struggling desperately about seven or eight feet away from him. By the time Monk reached the spot, the man was below the surface. Monk dived down after him and managed to catch hold of his arm. He came up for air, heaving the man as much as he could, but he was heavy, a leaden weight.

He gasped, saw Hooper a few yards away, and then the big man came to the surface behind him and the next moment he was held tight and hard in an arm grip. For an instant he thought the man was trying to strangle him, then he realized it was the panic of someone who knew he was drowning.

“Let go!” Monk shouted at him. “Let go, you fool! And I'll help you!”

The man's grip eased for a moment as he gulped for air and took in water. He choked and his arm closed like a vise around Monk's neck. Another moment and he would take Monk down with him.

Monk used his elbow again, then as the grip eased, he turned round and hit the man on the side of the head, as hard as he could.

The man went limp, and at last Monk was able to get hold of him and keep his head above the water as he struggled to make his way back to the wharf steps, where he could drag him up onto the boards.

But the man was deadweight, and he kept slipping. Monk was freezing cold and losing his strength to keep them both afloat. He was dimly aware of other voices now. He thought they came from the wharf, but he was still six or seven yards from it, and making no headway.

Then Hooper was there, helping, holding the man up by the other arm.

It still took them several more minutes to get the big man's inert body to the steps and feel more hands reach forward and help to haul them up.

Monk clambered out of the water and the cold air hit him like a blow, making him stagger before regaining his balance. Hooper came right after him, white-faced and shaking.

Monk stared at the workman who had helped him. He looked like a docker or laborer of some sort, as did the other man beside him, giving Hooper a hand up the last step. Where on earth had they come from? And where was the smaller man Hooper had gone in to save? Surely not drowned!

“How…?”

The first man smiled and shook his head. “Lighterman told us,” he replied. “Good thing, too. Better get you wrapped up.” He signaled to his companion. “Bert, pass us that coat, eh?”

Bert obliged, handing over Monk's own pea coat, and a rough jacket for Hooper, whose coat was soaking. He had had no opportunity to take it off before he went in after the small man.

Monk turned to look for him properly now.

Hooper must have thought of it at the same moment, because he swiveled round and went to the top step again.

Then they both saw him, sixty yards away and swimming toward the schooner moored at the far side. They could see quite clearly a figure on the deck, letting down a knotted rope for him to climb.

The man reached the schooner, no doubt exhausted and half numb with cold, but alive. Had it not been slack tide with barely any current, he would have had no chance.

Monk breathed a sigh of relief as he saw the swimmer clasp on to the rope and the man on the deck begin to haul him up. He did not wait to see the rest.

Hooper also went back to the big man lying on the wharf, barely moving. One of the dockers, Bert, was doing what they could for him, but to little effect. His friend had disappeared.

“There's a doctor not far from 'ere,” Bert told Monk, explaining his workmate's absence. “Good feller, won't ask no money if yer in't got it. This feller 'ere looks real bad. Reckon 'e must 'ave swallowed 'alf the river. Stupid sod.” He said it with disgust, but also some pity.

Monk's sense of pity was for the whole wasted life of a man who turned to smuggling, was convicted, and escaped from custody only to die of his own panic in the water. He was powerfully built. Monk had felt some of his strength when he had tried to rescue him. If he had not succeeded in knocking him out, the man would have drowned both of them. Oddly enough, very few men who worked on the water, either the river or at sea, could swim. Sailors who spent their whole lives on the oceans could not swim, nor could dockers, ferrymen, bargees, or for that matter, most of the River Police. The water was both life and death.

Was it courage that sustained them, or ignorance, or the blind belief in their own immortality?

Monk went over to the man still lying motionless on the wooden planks of the wharf. What was visible of his skin was white.

“Is he breathing?” he asked Bert.

Bert shook his head minutely. “Think so. 'Ard ter tell. Could be foxing, like. Any moment 'e'll get up, 'it someone, an' be off again.”

Monk kneeled down and touched the cold, wet skin. “I don't think so,” he answered grimly. He moved his hand to the man's neck. He felt what he thought was a faint pulse. “Hope that doctor comes soon…”

He looked up as a shadow crossed him and he was aware of another presence.

“Can I help?” the new man asked quietly. He was tall, remarkably handsome with a refined, aquiline face and dark eyes. “My name's Aaron Clive. That's my warehouse just behind you down the river.” He looked at the docker. “Bert, did you send for a doctor for this man?”

“Yes, Mr. Clive, sir. Local one, pretty close.”

Clive nodded, then turned back to Monk, waiting for him to introduce himself. There was a calm in him, an air of authority he held without effort.

Monk stood up. He was still horribly cold under his dry pea coat. “Monk,” he responded. “Commander of the Thames River Police. How do you do, Mr. Clive?”

“Who is he?” Clive asked, looking at the man at their feet.

“Escaped custody on his way to prison,” Monk replied. “The customs or policeman chasing him made it as far as the schooner over there.” He inclined his head without looking at the ship still at anchor.

“Stupid devil,” Clive responded. “Still, I suppose we'd better do what we can for him.” He turned to look downriver toward his own warehouse and saw a man and a lanky boy of fifteen or sixteen now running along the water's edge toward them. The man carried a black bag. There was no need to comment; it was obviously the doctor Bert had had his colleague send for.

Monk followed his gaze and recognized the boy immediately. He would have known him anywhere. It was Scuff, the riverside orphan who had adopted him and Hester several years ago when he was thin, undersize, hungry, and streetwise, guessing himself to be eleven, which was probably an overestimate. Which meant that the lean, black-haired, and long-legged man wearing black was Crow, to whom Scuff had, at his own insistence, become apprenticed. The name Crow was both the slang term for doctor, and a reasonably accurate description of his appearance.

They arrived, breathless, and Crow instantly kneeled down beside the big man on the wharf. He acknowledged the others only with a brief look to make sure they were not hurt. With expert hands he felt for a pulse in the man's neck, then under his nose to sense for any breath at all.

Then, with Scuff's assistance, which was more practiced than Monk would have expected, they turned the man over on his face, with his head to one side, and began with considerable pressure to try to force the water out of his lungs. The strokes were even and rhythmic. A little water dribbled from his mouth. Crow stopped for a moment and looked at him hopefully. The eyelids fluttered. Crow began again, moving easily, putting his weight behind it. He was a tall man, Monk's height, and his face reflected his emotions like a glass.

Scuff crouched beside him, watching intently, ready to help the moment he was asked.

No one spoke.

Finally Crow gave up and sat back on his haunches.

“Sorry,” he said quietly. “He's gone. The cold and too much water. What happened?” He looked at Monk, not Clive.

Monk should not have been surprised, and yet the fact that he had struggled to save the man and felt the violent, surging life in him, made his death shocking, even though he was a fugitive from the law.

Monk cleared his throat. “He is an escaped prisoner. The policeman or customs officer chasing him caught up with him here on the dockside. The policeman tried to take him down. Hooper and I attempted to separate them but there was a struggle between us and each of them and they both went into the water. Hooper went in with the policeman, and I went in after this man. Hooper kept the policeman up long enough, but it looked as if he could swim pretty well. Slack tide, so the current didn't carry him down. This one panicked. Thrashing around all over the place. I tried to get him out.” Monk realized only now how hard the man had hit back. His head was still ringing from the blows.

“Did you have to strike him?” Crow asked, as if it were the most ordinary question. Perhaps it was.

“Yes…a couple of times. Or he'd have drowned us both.”

“Happens quite often,” Crow said bleakly. “Our own worst enemy. There isn't anything I can do to help him. He drowned, but it was his panic that killed him.” He climbed to his feet and looked at Monk with some pity. They had known each other for many years, and more than once faced desperate situations together. “Sorry,” he added. Then he turned to Scuff and put one arm around his shoulder. He did not say anything. Scuff wanted to be a doctor. He would have to get used to death, and Crow would not embarrass him by treating him as a child.

Scuff stood a little straighter, his chin up, and stared for a long moment at Monk, then gave a half smile.

“Sorry, sir,” he said with barely a tremor in his voice. “There in't nothing more as we can do for 'im.” His grammar slipped back to his old mudlark days in moments of tension and all Hester's schooling of him vanished.

Monk wished he could protect Scuff from this, but he knew better. “Had to try,” he said gravely. “Thank you for coming.”

Crow seemed to be on the edge of a smile, but kept it from showing. “And the other man, the policeman?” he asked.

“He made it to the schooner over there,” Monk answered. “He got out up the rope, so I daresay the skipper, if that's who it was on deck, will give him a stiff tot of rum and some dry clothes, then set him off somewhere.”

“What schooner?” Crow looked puzzled.

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