Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. An officer opened the door and a young midshipman came running up from below holding a sack out in front of him. The contents of the sack clinked as the boy ran.
“Sir! Captain Doubleday, sir!” he shouted as he passed me.
“Easy, Mr. Wesley, settle down,” the captain said calmly. “What’s this all about?”
“Sir,” the boy said, breathing heavily. “I was cleaning below with Williams and Samuel, well Samuel was dodging work as usual and I was trying to get him to count the barrels of hard tack, but he wouldn’t and then he called me a…
“Speak plainly, Mr. Wesley,” said the captain.
The boy coughed and then started again. “I found these down below, sir. They’re empty wine bottles. They were full when we left port, I swear it! I counted them myself. And no one has drunk this wine, sir. No one! It was in the box of wine we haven’t used yet. Like I was trying to say, Samuel was dodging work and he opened up the box just so he could see what was in it, and we saw this sitting…”
“That’s enough, Mr. Wesley,” said the captain. “I’m sure it’s some misunderstanding.”
“But wait sir, there’s more!” The boy reached inside the sack and grabbed a torn sheet of parchment and a quill. “There’s writing on it!”
The captain grabbed the parchment and gazed upon the writing. I craned my neck to see what I could. Sure enough, a quill had graced the surface just enough to mark a few numbers and words. The captain’s stern face did not change, but his eyes lifted to the boy.
“Thank you, Mr. Wesley,” he murmured. “Now go down below and finish your job. Inform Mr. Samuel to stop delaying his duties.”
“Aye, sir!” He ran back out of the room as boisterously as he’d run in.
The captain wiped his mouth one last time. “Gentlemen, if you could excuse us. Mr. Morgan, Mr. Fowler, and I have some business to attend to.” We stood up and followed the captain to his quarters, where he sat at his desk. The mahogany room was barely lit by a single dying candle, almost ready for a replacement.
“So,” the captain turned around and addressed us, “what do we think?”
Mr. Fowler and I both stood silently.
“A sack of empty bottles, some red cloth, and a bit of parchment with coordinates, our coordinates no less, printed plainly in English,” the captain started. “I don’t think you’ll have a hard time imagining where the rest of this parchment has run off to.” He pointed to the missing segment of parchment in the bottom corner.
“What are you suggesting, captain?” asked Mr. Fowler.
The captain reached in his coat pocket and pulled out a piece of parchment. “Before we set sail, the constable escorting the inmates handed me a note concerning an inmate of ours down below. It goes as follows.” He cleared his throat and held the paper eye level. “‘To Captain Francis Doubleday. I press that you regard these words with the utmost sincerity, as anything less could lead to the ruin of your voyage. If you look at your list, you will notice a Mr. Robert Tacker. Although probably an unfamiliar name to your ears, he is well known within the criminal underworld, and I would not consider it unlikely that he might attempt a mutiny while on board the Intrepid. For the safety of your crew and yourself, I implore that you exercise every caution. Signed’…you understand.” The captain put the parchment back on his desk.
“I have heard of this Tacker,” said Mr. Fowler. “He was in an edition of the Newgate Calendar not a year ago. Something of a devilish figure he fancies himself, demanding almost holy obedience from his gang. He receives it too, in fear of horrific retribution. However, if there were a saboteur on board under Tacker’s command, why wouldn’t he just steal the keys and release him? Why go through the trouble of leading his men all the way out here?”
“It would take more than thirty-eight malnourished convicts to overtake this ship,” answered the captain. “What else do you know about this man?”
“His gang was responsible for sacking an armory in Sussex. The man is notorious for paying well. He recruits those who are in such financial strangles that legality weighs lightly in their avoidance of the poorhouses. Debt is the most common reason. He can afford to pay his men so well because he keeps little for himself. His subordinates demand the material. His stipend is anarchy.”
“Mr. Morgan,” the captain said, drawing me into the conversation. “You were aboard when the crew signed in, were you not?”
“I was sir,” I replied.
“Do you think you could accurately tell whose handwriting this is?” He held up the parchment.
“Very accurately, sir.”
“Good man. I’d like you to match this handwriting straightaway.” He handed me the list of crew members along with their signatures. My hand shook as I took it. “Something the matter, Mr. Morgan?”
I considered my response before I spoke. “It’s just that…I read the Newgate article too, and the men in the armory…none were left alive.”
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