Revenge in a Cold River (8 page)

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Monk turned round to point it out, and saw only an empty stretch of water where the tide had turned and was beginning to ebb. The ship's leaving had been fast, and silent. Or perhaps on the wharf they had been so absorbed in trying to save the big man that they had heard nothing anyway.

“Maybe he took him downriver to the nearest doctor,” Clive suggested. “Or if he was all right, to anywhere that he could go ashore and make it back to his station. He'll be spitting fire at having lost his man. You'll have to tell the police that he's dead. That'll be some comfort.” He smiled and offered Monk his hand. There was a warmth to the gesture, even in this miserable circumstance.

Monk took it and held it hard for a moment before thanking him and letting go.

He and Hooper walked back toward the road. They would have to inform whoever was pursuing the prisoner that he was dead. Presumably they would want the corpse just the same. Somebody had to bury him. It was certainly not Crow's responsibility, or Clive's.

As they reached the street they saw a hansom coming toward them at a brisk pace. As it pulled up, two uniformed police got out and started across the pavement toward them. On seeing that Monk and Hooper were sodden wet, apart from Monk's coat, they stopped abruptly. The elder of the two looked Monk up and down.

“You seen two men come this way? One big, bearded fellow following an older, smaller one?”

“You're after the escaped prisoner,” Monk concluded. “River Police. We were here when they appeared. The prisoner's dead. I'm sorry. The two of them were fighting and eventually went into the water. We tried to get them out, but the prisoner panicked. We couldn't save him. Your man got away. He's one hell of a survivor. It was slack tide so there was no current to battle. He made it to the far side and was helped up onto a schooner moored there.” Monk gestured toward the now-empty mooring. “It pulled up anchor and went. Tide was just past the turn, so I expect they went downstream. No doubt he'll have got off at the first wharf where he could get dry clothes, and medical help if he needed it.”

The older man stared at him, his face white.

“God damn it! Pettifer couldn't swim to save his soul! Terrified of the water, for all he was Customs.”

Monk felt his stomach churn. “Pettifer? A small, thin man, but strong?”

“Hell, no! A big bloke, built like an ox, and a beard…” The man closed his eyes. “Don't say he's dead, and that bastard Owen got away. Please don't say that!”

The other man behind him blasphemed. “McNab'll kill us! Pettifer was one of his!”

“Never mind that!” the elder retorted, glaring at him. “Owen got clean away. He'll no more stop now than fly in the air! He'll get another ship and be in France by tomorrow. That's the second one they've lost in a week. First Blount, and now Owen. He's not going to take the blame for both of them!”

“If I know 'im,” his companion retorted, “he won't take the blame for either!” He looked at Monk. “The first one evaded us with an elaborate escape plan, though someone got 'im in the end—this one'll be down to you!”

M
ONK FELT TOTALLY WRETCHED
about the whole affair. He had set out with the hope of catching Owen before McNab got to him, although perhaps not for the best of reasons. He had thought he might learn something about the escape, or a whole series of events that might be connected. First there was the escape of Blount, and what seemed to be his murder, and then the escape of Owen, within a few days of each other. Perhaps they were part of some organized plan. At a glance the events looked fortuitous, but were they? They were both connected to Customs. Monk was still certain that the gunrunners who had brought about the battle on the decks of their ship, which had cost Orme his life, had been tipped off about Monk's raid by McNab. Whether it was for money, prestige, or simply enmity he did not know. Nor did he know what that enmity was about. But he wanted to find out, and then prove it, all of it. He had already waited too long.

Monk wondered if he had fallen neatly into a trap McNab had set up for him. That was a scalding thought. McNab, of all people! Had Monk allowed a certain arrogance to flaw his judgment, and land him in this disaster?

He remembered with a sudden lurch of his stomach the moment he had seen that McNab knew he was vulnerable. It was a couple of weeks ago. They had been sitting in McNab's office talking about some trivial matter of business they had in common—something to do with a few missing kegs of brandy, probably a miscount.

McNab had stopped in the middle of a sentence and looked very directly at Monk, meeting his eyes.

“You remember Rob Nairn?” He pronounced the name very carefully.

Monk had no idea who Rob Nairn was. The silence in the office had been intense as McNab watched him. He was trying to keep the emotions out of his face, and failing. Clearly it was something of intense importance, and that Monk had to have known, which meant it was in the past, before the accident.

“He has nothing to do with this.” Monk had spoken because he had to.

But he realized now that it was too late. McNab had seen the moment of blankness in his eyes, and he knew.

Now, as he and Hooper walked away from the wharf to face the long journey back to the city, Monk knew that he would have to think of an explanation for McNab as to how one of his men had been drowned in an incident that should have had nothing to do with Monk.

He had no doubt now that McNab seemed to know him far better than he knew McNab. At the beginning that had seemed reasonable. McNab was colorless. One met him, and the next day, or week, one could barely remember his features. He was apparently thorough at his job, but not dashing, not spectacular, like Monk. He had not solved any cases that stayed in the mind.

Monk, on the other hand, had carved a considerable legend for himself, not all of it good. He was clever, and brave. Evidence also proved that in the past he had been ruthless. That horror, the terrible fear, that he had been the one who had beaten Joscelyn Gray to death, had changed him. He had not been guilty of that. The relief still drenched him, in occasional dreams when the past intruded again to darken the present.

He was a different man now. Certainly he was still clever, still dressed rather better than a man of even his new superior rank usually did. But he had seen his own image in other people's eyes, and hated it.

He was also happy now in a completeness he had never tasted before, and that made all the difference. But a man who could only aspire to some element of compassion, even when he was happy, was not worth much. The achievement would have been to be spontaneously generous when he had so little that really mattered to him. It was too late for that now. He had Hester—and Scuff. And he had friends: Rathbone, Crow, Hooper, even Runcorn from the past, who was now so different from the man he used to despise.

And of course there had been Orme. If McNab was responsible for Orme's death, was it because of Monk, and something that he could not remember?

Certainly there was nothing from the last thirteen years to account for the look he had seen in McNab's face, briefly, and then deliberately hidden again.

As they rode back through the wet, gray streets to the heart of London, he went over and over the incident on the wharf, and in the river. He was wretchedly cold, his wet trousers stuck to him, and his feet were numb in his boots. Hooper must feel the same.

He tried to recall exactly what had happened. They had been waiting for the escaped prisoner to appear, followed by the police or one of McNab's men. The two had appeared from different sides of the row of buildings. Owen, smaller and faster, had been ahead, racing toward the wharf, when the big man, Pettifer, had come from the other side. They had collided, but had Owen attacked Pettifer, or was it the other way around?

Certainly they had fought, striking out at each other, getting closer and closer to the water. Looking back, Monk saw it could indeed have been Pettifer who was the pursuer and the small man he now knew to be Owen, the fugitive.

God, what a mess!

When Pettifer had panicked he had all but drowned Monk along with himself. If he had done so, Owen would still have escaped. Who the devil could have expected him to swim like that?

The schooner captain, maybe? He had been on deck. Was that chance? Or by design? Had the shouts brought him up from below, to see what was going on? How many men would there be on a boat that size? Not necessarily more than two or three, not for a two-master.

How did he know that? Had he at some time in the past learned more about sail than he recalled? He had grown up on the coast of Northumberland. Old letters he had kept from his sister had told him that. He knew the sea, the smell of it was familiar, the swing and balance of standing in a small boat on the water, the rhythm of the oars. He had taken easily to being on the swift-flowing, tidal Thames.

Where was the schooner now? Did anybody know its name? He should have asked the local police at the wharf. Or perhaps Aaron Clive had noticed it. It was a beautiful ship, and had lain at anchor near his warehouses. It must have passed them on the way up, and down again.

Any seaman at all helps a man in the water. They would have to find the ship, and pursue the issue, for whatever it was worth. Everyone, on water or on land, would be searching for Owen, the explosives expert, the wanted man.

But Pettifer's death was not Monk's fault, except in the most indirect way. It was Monk who had struck Pettifer, to save them both. Had he hit him so hard that the blow had killed him? He had not thought he had the strength or the weight, especially in the water with no purchase on the ground. Surely he had only temporarily stunned him, as had been his intention. But then he had drowned—which had not been Monk's intention at all!

They would not know that until the autopsy, although Crow had implied it was not the blow that had killed him.

He should go to the police surgeon and ask him to be very precise. It was imperative that they be certain.

McNab would have a field day with it if Monk were directly responsible for Pettifer's death. He would believe it was revenge for Orme. Monk could still feel the weight of Orme's body in his arms, the blood everywhere, dark red and sticky as it congealed, bright and wet where it was still pumping, and nothing they could do would stop it.

He remembered his own heart beating with panic as they set Orme ashore, men in the water up to their chests, all the helping hands, faces, wretched with pity. Then the long wait in the hospital. Monk had sat with Orme all day and most of the night, hoping, praying. He was exhausted and numb when Orme died. McNab would say Monk was beside himself after the battle and keen to blame anyone else for the fiasco on the gunrunning ship.

But that would still invite people to wonder if McNab had betrayed them to the pirates.

When the cab stopped and they paid the driver, Hooper took the omnibus to the station. Monk went straight to the morgue, and found Hyde just coming out of the room where he performed autopsies. He was drying his hands on a rough, white towel and he looked cold.

“Ha! Was just going to send for you,” he said with satisfaction. “This fellow of yours—Blount? What the devil's going on with him?”

“Not much,” Monk replied. He was far more concerned with asking Hyde to attend to Pettifer immediately, and if possible give Monk some warning as to what he had found. He needed to know the cause of death was drowning, not an immediate result of the blow Monk had dealt him. Surely it could not have been hard enough to have damaged his skull. Had Monk himself panicked enough to do that?

He had lost the thread of Hyde's comment.

“What? What did you say?” he asked.

Hyde looked more closely at Monk. “God, man! You look awful. And your trousers and boots are sodden. Where the hell have you been? It's not that wet outside.” He led the way toward his office and opened the door for Monk to go in. As always, every shelf was crammed with books and there were piles of papers stacked on every surface. But there was a brisk fire burning in the hearth and the air was blessedly warm.

“Sit down,” Hyde ordered. “You look worse than some of my corpses. What's happened?”

“Just had an escaped prisoner and the customs man chasing him fall into the river,” Monk said miserably, moving some papers and sitting down.

“So of course you naturally jumped in after them,” Hyde concluded with a bleak, twisted smile. “I hope they're suitably appreciative.” He walked over to a small wall cupboard and opened it with a key on his watch chain. He took out two glasses and a bottle of excellent brandy. He poured a generous helping into each glass and handed one across to Monk.

Monk was glad of it; he was beginning to feel a little queasy. He took a large mouthful and swallowed it. Its fire burned into his stomach immediately, and then seemed to leak into his blood.

“Grateful?” Monk examined the word. “Well, the prisoner damn well is. He got clean away. The customs man rather less so. I'm afraid he's dead. He's your problem for the time being.”

Hyde took a deep breath. “Really? What happened? Prisoner kill him?”

“No. Either the river did, or I did.”

Hyde took a long, luxurious mouthful of the brandy, rolled it around his mouth, then swallowed it.

“Stop being so cryptic and explain yourself,” he ordered.

“He fell into the river and panicked. I had to hit him fairly hard to stop him drowning us both. We got him out onto the wharf, but he died. You know Crow?”

Hyde's eyebrows rose. “Of course I know Crow. Lunatic, but he's actually a more than half-decent doctor. Your lad's with him, isn't he?”

“Yes…”

“Good decision. Why? Did Crow see this panicky customs man?”

“Yes. Came just after we got him out of the water.”

“What did he say?”

“Not much. Just that he couldn't save him.”

“Was he dead when you got him out?”

“I don't think so. I saw his eyelids flutter, and it looked as if he coughed up a bit of water. Could be I just wanted him to live.”

“Got useful information for you?” Hyde asked curiously.

“No! I just didn't bloody well want to be responsible for his death!” Monk took another mouthful of the brandy and swallowed it, steadying himself. “I'm sorry. I thought he was the prisoner, but I still did everything I could to save him.”

“And he turned out to be the customs officer?” Hyde shook his head. “Not your day, was it? I'll look at him carefully when he gets here. One of McNab's men, was he?”

“Of course…”

“Not doing well, is he, our McNab?” Hyde said it with relish. “His men who lost Blount, wasn't it? Well, I've got more news for you on that. Poor sod was well dead by the time he was shot. An hour or two at the very least. Now why would anyone shoot in the back some poor devil who was already thoroughly dead? A little exercise for you, Monk.”

Monk realized that Hyde was watching him with far more interest than his casual air would suggest. What was he looking for?

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