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Authors: Christopher Wakling

The Devil's Mask

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CHRISTOPHER WAKLING

The Devil's Mask

For Carole and Balazs

The seagull sidestepped along the rail. Against the dull water its back, neck and head were a phosphorescent white.

Too bright for Captain Addison, whose own head throbbed at the sight. Landfall, home, finally, after a year, seven months and nine days at sea, added up to pressure rather than release. Squinting, Addison stamped on the oak deck. The bird screamed once in reply. It was huge – Bristol bred the biggest, meanest gulls in the world, no doubt about it – and it regarded the Captain malevolently. Addison walked towards it muttering, ‘Get away, get off my ship,' and was almost upon the bird before it offered him the insolent semaphore of its wings.

Addison watched the gull flap away, framing his brow with a tanned hand, working his temples with forefinger and thumb.

Homecoming, an end to the voyage, brought with it uncertainty.

At sea a captain knew where he stood. But, looking to the distant village of Pill, home to the Bristol pilots, the tow-boat men whose job it was to intercept incoming ships and haul them from the river's mouth to port, Addison felt weakened; once the
Belsize
had limped those last miles to the quayside – nine of the most dangerous in the entire round trip – he would step from the ship leached of authority, and each additional step he took on land would threaten to undermine him further still. On deck he walked with a purpose that he never managed ashore.

Which might have explained why the Captain had been in no hurry to take the pilot's lead and proceed to port. For three days he'd stood the
Belsize
at King Road in the Mouth of the Avon, while rushing tides raised and lowered her above the safely distant silt. Three days in which the crew, as desperate to expend themselves ashore as Addison was fearful of finding himself so spent, warmed and boiled and finally raged against one another. Hendryx had knocked the boy Adams senseless over a game of cards, even as Morris buried the blade of his pocket-knife deep in the youngster's thigh. ‘There'll be nobody left to sail the thing upriver if we don't make a move soon,' muttered Waring, the ship's surgeon, as he tended the boy-sailor's leg, only adding ‘Captain,' when he realised Addison had moved within earshot.

‘That's a good job you've done there,' Addison said, nodding at the stitches. ‘Now, let me do mine.'

Defending his authority, extending his hold on the men by postponing their release, both these things helped explain the Captain's decision to put off his ship's progress to port, but neither was the real reason for the delay. Nor was Addison's reputation for caution, though spilling the
Belsize'
s precious cargo of unrefined sugar, tobacco bales and rum into the swirling mud of the Avon presented a real risk, which would be lessened by waiting to proceed upriver with favourable conditions. An inexperienced captain, mindful of Bristol's notoriety as a port – up a savagely tidal estuary, through a towering, rock-strewn gorge – might well have paused to take stock before deferring to the tow-boat guide, a stranger, in all likelihood. But the weather had been fair all week, and Jacob Swain, the pilot who had beaten off the competition to meet the
Belsize,
intercepting her some seventy miles down the coast, had known Addison for seventeen yea
rs,
guiding him to and from port on many occasions, even acting as midwife to this voyage, some nineteen months ago.

Still, it wasn't until the ship's fourth morning in the Mouth that the Captain gathered his crew on the foredeck. The rigging buzzed with breeze, timbers creaked, swell slapped at the hull. He drew the sailors close before he spoke, leaving Swain, who was struggling to light his pipe at the ship's stern, firmly out of the circle, and what he said, though muted by the wind, registered in each man's face.

On the rising tide then, the
Belsize
inched towards port. The haze began to lift. The tow-rope, taut between Swain's yawl and the ship, dripped diamonds. Addison stood squinting on deck, the sinews in his legs stiffening as the walls of rock began to rise. In the low morning sun the gorge's scarred sides glowed the pink of a deck running with blood. The Captain shuddered. Either side of his mouth, a dagger of silver in his short black beard emphasised the set of his jaw. His pulse was heavy and dull in his ears, the circuitry of his veins overwrought.

Waring's voice cut through the pounding. ‘It's a peculiar feeling, coming home. So much to relay, never mind get on with. It's hard to know where to begin!' The surgeon rubbed his hands together in gleeful anticipation.

Addison nodded, grimacing.

Reading the Captain's mood, Waring fingered his ginger whiskers and changed tack. ‘No, it doesn't matter whether you're a clerk coming back from the counting house at the end of the day, or a soldier returning from war, nothing much ever alters at home. It casts a sort of … doubt, don't you think? On the nature of mutability. Yes, in my experience the fact that nothing has changed can make a man question whether he's been away at all.'

‘Everything changes,' Addison stated. ‘Jessop's diverted the river and completed his ingenious dock, for one.'

‘Yes, but –'

‘Which makes it all the more important for me to concentrate on reaching port safely, much as I'd like to spend the morning philosophising with you.'

The surgeon's fingers were plump as sausages, and though they'd switched to wringing one another now in concern, something about his hands still bore the smug look of a farmer whose cow had produced twin calves. Which made sense; although they hadn't spoken of it directly for over a year, the Captain knew the extent to which Waring had put his personal savings behind this voyage. The surgeon stood to see his investment well advanced by the
Belsize
's safe return.

Addison drove his point home. ‘You'd not thank me if, for example, distracted by your theories of mutability, I were to split the ship open on St Vincent's Rocks.'

‘No. Quite right,' said the surgeon, backing away from the rail.

In truth the Captain wasn't worried about docking safely. The breeze had dropped in the gorge, the tide bore the
Belsize
forward gently, and Swain was more than competent to pilot the ship into the arms of the new lock. Approaching Hotwells, the plashing of oars ahead and the ringing of birdsong from the wooded cliffs were the only sounds to disturb the still morning air. Yet Addison felt no sense of peace. He took in Dundry church, a notch on the distant blue hills, shut one eye, and thought of a gun-sight. Barbarity, the Captain knew, thrives whatever the colour of the sky.

Jessop's fancy lock, now that he'd completed it, was
disappointingly 
small. Behind it lay a wet dock of some eighty acres, but the
Belsize
barely made it through the lock gates. Tomorrow's ships certainly wouldn't. Galvanising the Merchant Venturers to make this investment had taken the best part of forty years, and what they'd come up with was too little, too late. They'd sooner spend their money on building castles in Clifton than sink it back into the port that made them rich in the first place. Quick cash, made through toil – and the Devil's own risks – undertaken by the likes of Addison, that was their game. The Captain spat and stumped back up to the quarterdeck. What he stood to make from this voyage would barely float him out of the reach of bankruptcy. No, he hadn't even Waring's measure of money; the stuff was like water, forever running through his hands.

‘Christ, you'd think banishing the tide would serve to improve the smell,' Addison growled. ‘If anything the place reeks worse than it did before.'

‘Less of a flow to flush out the harbour now, Captain,' a voice said in response. It belonged to Blue, the Negro sailor, who was on his knees, running a hemp rope around itself in mesmerising figures of eight. Aldridge, with whom he was at work squaring away the tackle, underlined his agreement with an oath.

In fact the smell, though brackish, did not approach the potentially bad stench of a ship's hold, and both men knew it, and their dutiful charade pleased the Captain, lifting his spirits as the
Belsize,
trailing weed and clouds of sediment, bumped its way through the lock.

For a moment the completed floating harbour, as compared with the old river port he'd sailed from all those months ago, impressed Addison as a miracle. The tow-boat's oars ahead dropped pearls into a lake of liquid silver, and the ship's timbers 
beneath the Captain's feet, innocent and steadfast throughout the voyage, came alive to him again.

He felt, in the slowing of his heart, the
Belsize
's shameless relief at returning home safely.

Sheets above him slackened. Lines unfurled ashore.

Church bells vied with those of the cathedral, blurring the hour.

The tension drained from Addison's face. He dropped his head and rolled his shoulders: never mind his own financial ineptitude – the consignment would see him right in the short term anyhow – he had done what was asked of him, and of that he could be proud.

 

At that moment, high above the docks on Clifton Hill, Ivan Brook was searching for his spade.

To the uninitiated, one spade may look very like another, but no two are the same. Never mind the thickness, smoothness and weight of the wooden shaft, or the balance of the tool in your hands, the real difference lies in the blade. One blade is as distinct from another's, to those who use them daily, as quills are to scribes. A really good one, like the one Ivan Brook had been using the day before, is worn and thin; not so old as to be snag-toothed, but light, sharp at the tip, and – in the right hands – precise.

Ivan should have taken his spade back down the hill with him when they finished up last night. But yesterday had been pay-day, and a spade is no use to a man in the pub. So he'd stood it at the back of the works' shed, apart from the others, before dropping down to the Mandrake first, then the Old King and on to the Admiral's Purse. Where he'd ended up after that, God alone could remember. Still, Ivan Brook understood himself well enough to 
know the urge to retrieve his spade would help him out of bed in the morning, and drive him back up Granby Hill to work.

Which it had. But although he was first on site his spade wasn't where he'd left it. This annoyed him. It meant that somebody had stayed behind, or returned, to hide the thing, either in earnest, so that they might use it instead of him, or – he had to admit this was much more likely – as a wind-up, a surprise.

Ivan Brook did not like surprises.

And from bitter experience he knew his workmates knew this. So he sorted through the remaining spades, inspecting each one until he found a halfway decent replacement, determined to ignore his loss and deny satisfaction to whoever had duped him. He would keep a step ahead of them this time.

He'd be cutting foundations today. More holes. Lately that was just about all they had him doing, digging the footings for great houses up in Clifton, high above the city and docks. Why anybody would want to live so far from the heart of things baffled Ivan Brook, but then the sort of people he was digging holes for were a mystery to him, too. From up here the big merchants didn't have to tilt their heads so far back to look down their noses at the rest of town, he supposed. Each of these houses had to be bigger than the last, and each footing had to be dug correspondingly deeper, so that Ivan thought, as he trod the planks spanning the trenches and dropped down to where the earth, turned yesterday, was still a dark, reddish brown, there'd soon be more hole in Clifton than hill.

He looked about the trench. Then he looked at the earth flung down the slope. He ground his teeth. A good labourer takes as much care with where he throws the spoils as he does over the shape of the hole he's digging. Somebody had destroyed Ivan's neat 
mound. The same joker as had hidden his spade, no doubt. He skirted the ragged pile of earth to where butterflies wove amongst the newly flattened buddleia stems. The slope fell away steeply here, so that the dock and sheep-spattered hills of Somerset were visible through the treetops. He put his hands on his hips, felt the breeze on his face, took a deep breath – smelling wet-earth and crushed greenery – and let his gaze fall through the view.

And then he saw it.

His spade!

Flung handle-first into the undergrowth, so that the blade appeared to be raised in salute.

He picked his way quickly downhill, through broken plants and another drift of dirt, which should have given like snow when he trod on it but didn't, because it covered something hard which rolled like a log beneath Ivan's foot, pitching him on to his hands and knees in the nettles instead.

‘For God's sake!'

He brushed himself down, took up the spade, then turned and prodded at the offending ground with it, and uncovered a blackened human head.

His breath, hooking on disbelief, hung in his chest.

Ivan bent to look more closely.

One eye gone completely. Lips peeled back. Gums studded with brown teeth. Burnt parchment skin, almost … counterfeit. But no, no, no, unmistakably, a real human head. It was attached to a woman's body, complete with arms and legs, all of which Ivan scraped clean of earth with gentle expertise. Adders churned in the workman's stomach: a charred smell filled his nostrils. This body was not long burned, meaning – he guessed – the woman was not long dead. His spade caught on something metal between 
her legs. Manacles: she had been chained ankle to ankle. And there was something not right about her middle as well, something was missing from it. The snakes rose up Ivan's throat. There was a hole where the woman's belly should have been: she'd been disembowelled.

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