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Authors: S. K. Rizzolo

On a Desert Shore

BOOK: On a Desert Shore
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On a Desert Shore

A Regency Mystery

S.K. Rizzolo

Poisoned Pen Press


Copyright © 2016 by S.K. Rizzolo

First E-book Edition 2016

ISBN: 9781464205484 ebook

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.

The historical characters and events portrayed in this book are inventions of the author or used fictitiously.

Poisoned Pen Press
6962 E. First Ave., Ste. 103
Scottsdale, AZ 85251

[email protected]



For Michael, with love and thanks


At entrance Theotormon sits, wearing the threshold hard
With secret tears; beneath him sound like waves on a desert shore
The voice of slaves beneath the sun, and children bought with money,
That shiver in religious caves beneath the burning fires
Of lust, that belch incessant from the summits of the earth.

— William Blake,
Visions of the Daughters of Albion
, 1793

Part One

“A modern voyager, relating the particulars of his being cast away on a desert shore, says, ‘After having walked eleven hours without having traced the print of a human foot,
to my great comfort and delight
, I saw a man hanging upon a gibbet; my pleasure at the cheering prospect was inexpressible, for it convinced me that I was in
a civilized country

—The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction
, 1823

Chapter One

Jamaica, 1796

The baby had cried for hours, a thin wail that grated on the nerves. He wished the crying would stop, but it would not let him rest when all he wanted to do was float untethered to the earth. Eventually, he gave up and came fully awake to who and where he was: Lieutenant John Chase of the Royal Navy in the hospital at Port Royal.
New-come buckra, / He get sick, / He tak fever, / He be die; / He be die.
When Chase's ship had entered the harbor, the singing and the clapping of the boatwomen selling fruits had seemed meant to give him merry welcome—that is, until he'd caught the words that floated over the water.
He be die.

It was one of the ugly realities of the disease that the patient sometimes rallied only to succumb to the dread black vomiting—the coffee grounds, they called it—followed by the appearance of the ghastly yellow complexion, delirium, and death. Thousands and thousands of Chase's countrymen defending the British Empire in the West Indies had been lost to this fate. He'd been lucky. In his illness a host of spirits—nurses and servants—had attended him. He'd heard them chattering or glimpsed them drifting by his door as they crossed the piazza. Now the voices had stopped, and he seemed alone in the world, except for a flapping sound and its gentle breeze. Well, he thought wryly, if the fever declined to release him, he hoped the kindly hands would place his pistol within reach and leave him to put an end to the wretched work himself.

Mostly he thought about the woman called Joanna, even smiling to himself at the similarity in their Christian names. Even at the height of his fever, Chase had sensed her there, directing events. She came to poke and prod, oversee the changing of linens, or force him to swallow one of her foul concoctions. He awaited these visits, desperately, as if only Joanna had the power to stitch his sweating, puking body back to his soul. Once he had awakened to find the doctor, who reeked of brandy, standing over the bed, shaking his head to pronounce a sentence of doom. From what Chase had heard of the conventional treatments for “yellow Jack”—the bleeding and purging and the calomel, which made the saliva run like a river down the victim's face—he was not entirely sorry when the doctor went away again.

As the rank odor of his own body assaulted his nostrils, Chase grimaced, shifting his head on the pillow, and opened his eyes. Pain lanced through his skull so that he had to hold himself very still and wait, teeth gritted. But at least one question was resolved. The breeze was a gift from a boy who sat in a chair by the bed. Ten or twelve years old, he wore an oversized, striped cotton shirt rolled up loosely at the elbows and trousers of some coarse material. He had hung his broad-brimmed straw hat over the chair post and hiked up one bare foot to the wicker seat as he leaned forward, his forearm sweeping in a graceful arc to wield his fan.

Gingerly, Chase took stock. The candlelight playing over the child's curly head told him the hour was late. His fever had abated. The torment of the retching that emptied his guts had ceased, and the ache in his head, though excruciating, had receded. He felt cooler and appallingly thirsty. He tried to ask for a drink, but all that emerged from his throat was a feeble croak. Fortunately, that was enough to bring the boy to his feet. “Drink, suh?”

He nodded. With surprising strength, the boy pushed aside the mosquito net, slipped an arm under Chase's shoulders and held a glass to his lips. Watered Madeira slid over his tongue and down his parched throat. He felt a deep gratitude that brought tears to his eyes, though he wondered what the boy would make of a lieutenant of the Royal Navy crying like the infant who'd been haunting his dreams.

His gaze traveled over the nightstand, the small linen press, and the cane chair across which his dress uniform coat was draped, his black boots standing sentinel on the wooden floorboards nearby. He checked that his cutlass still leaned against the wall under the jalousies, the slatted blinds that allowed air to circulate in this hot climate. Over them, transparent curtains stirred softly.

With an effort, he summoned the memory of a dinner at the home of a local planter to celebrate the end of the recent rebellion of the free Negroes known as the Maroons. When was this party—two days ago? Three? The guests had watched him with concern as his fingers fumbled at his fork and polite conversation withered on his tongue. All that food he hadn't been able to eat: turtle soup; duck and broiled salmon; roasted plantains; cassava cakes; platters of pineapple, oranges, mango, and pomegranate; a profusion of pastry. After dinner they'd tossed the white cloth in the air to remove the crumbs, not minding when a dish left in place crashed against the wall to shatter amid gusts of laughter. By then Chase had felt far too ill to join in the fun.

They had brought him here to this house near the harbor, where Joanna had guided him to bed, her touch like balm on his burning skin. When he was lying on his back, she'd cupped her hands over his cheeks and kissed his forehead, lingering over him as she tucked the coverings around him. Then she gave commands in her musical voice.

Joanna came in again now. A supple and stately young woman of medium height, she wore a stern aspect and balanced a clay pot between her hands. It was a clever face, lacking neither sensitivity nor kindness but speaking somehow of mystery, of hidden danger. The face interested Chase. It was as if she drew the energy in the room to herself, even the candle flame bending toward her in the slight disturbance of air.

Approaching the bed, she said, “Awake, suh? That be good news.”

“What's that?” Gesturing at the pot, Chase got out the words with difficulty.

“Boiled thistle seeds to stop the purgin'. Lemongrass for fever. Something more, best not to know.”

“You mean to poison me, Joanna?” A feeble joke. But Chase saw in dismay that the boy had leapt back, terror in every line of his body, his chair toppling to the ground. “Joanna.
John Crow
,” the boy hissed. His eyes flashed a desperate defiance. In an instant, he was out of the room and the door banged behind him. Grimness hardened Joanna's expression. Deliberately, she picked up the chair.

Chase's brain felt too thick to understand.
John Crow
, he thought. The Jamaican turkey buzzard—harbinger of death. He saw himself riding down a blinding white road, gazing at the summits of mountains, their sides profuse with bamboo and prickly yellow and sweetly aromatic logwood. A guide rode at his side, pointing up at the buzzards with their bald red heads and black feathers. The buzzards circled in the sky, perched at the tops of the cotton trees, or feasted on the putrefying flesh of horses and cows. Chase shook off this memory impatiently. “What was wrong with that boy?” he asked Joanna.

“Nothing, suh. He no trust a woman with medicines, that's all. You take what I gib you now and go back to sleep.” She lifted one of Chase's hands from the bedclothes, folded it tightly around the pot, and kept her own grip in place so that it wouldn't spill. Chase began to drink, trying not to choke. The mixture was thick and bitter with an underlying sweetness that cloyed, but he drank it all down obediently.

When he finished, he said, “I've been hearing a baby cry.”

“No, suh. No baby here. You dreaming.” But recognition had flickered across her face, and her attention on him seemed to sharpen. She was looking deep into his eyes as if trying to see to the bottom of a well.

Stubbornly, Chase persisted. “I heard it. A child wanting its mother.”

A smile tugged at the corner of her lips. “You got some good ears on you, suh. Only baby I care for is miles away from here, and she got no reason to cry, far as I know.”

“Your baby, Joanna?”

“Don't you worry. Sleep now.”

She was already lowering him to the bed, but curiosity nagged him. “Why are you not with her?”

“Why, she goin' to be a fine English lady, suh. Mebbe someday you be dancing with her at a fancy party.”

“It would be an honor, Joanna,” he said and closed his eyes, too tired for more.

She straightened the covers and lifted her pot. “Go to sleep. You soon wake and be better.”

“You mean
I wake up?” Again, it was a pathetic attempt at a joke.

“Nah, suh. Do what I tell you. You is goin' to live.”

Joanna had been right about that. But soon after his illness Chase had left Jamaica. He'd fought at Cape St. Vincent and Aboukir, where he'd been struck by the piece of metal that had ended both his dancing and his naval career. Like the hero of the fleet Horatio Nelson, he'd recuperated in Naples and, as Nelson frolicked with his mistress, Chase had enjoyed a similar relationship with Abigail, daughter of an American merchant. Abigail became his nurse and lover, got pregnant, and refused his offer of marriage. Back in her hometown of Boston, she'd borne Chase a child called Jonathan, having invented a suitably respectable dead husband. Chase had returned to London. A magistrate with a son in the navy had offered him a job working for Bow Street, charged with sticking a plug here and there in the crime that flowed through the city, as inevitable as the tides of the Thames.

But at stray moments, especially when he was tired or the filthiness of human beings weighed him down like a stone, Joanna would rise again in his memory. Chase had left the hospital without a backward look. He'd done nothing to thank a woman to whom he owed a great debt. He hadn't realized—then—that she, or rather the baby he'd heard crying in the night, would come into his life, many years later, in a different world, in England.

Chapter Two

London, 1813

There had been no marriage for the West Indian nabob's daughter that season, even though everyone knew it was her father's dearest wish to see her settled in life. Men like Hugo Garrod got what they wanted, at least most of the time. They moved their ships across the globe, managed their sugar plantations from thousands of miles away, or penetrated faraway lands, seeking beautiful things to adorn their collections or grow in their gardens. They had survived hurricanes, the yellow fever, and slave revolts. They made their fortunes and returned home to live as English gentlemen. They reveled in their wealth and secured their legacies. What they didn't ordinarily do was employ a Bow Street Runner.

John Chase, the Runner in question, was no reader of the society columns, so he hadn't heard the speculation about Garrod and his family. Chase had done several tours in the West Indies when he was in the Royal Navy, but he'd never met Garrod or had any dealings with the West India Committee, the powerful merchants who influenced Parliament, hoping to fend off any further restrictions on slavery after the British slave trade had been abolished six years ago.

On that July day the summons brought Chase to the West India Docks in the Isle of Dogs. This was a tongue of marsh and pastureland formed where the River Thames looped in its progress toward Gravesend and the English Channel. Here the directors of the West India Company had constructed their modern marvel—a sweep of wet docks and warehouses encircled by a towering wall. A fortress, in fact, complete with a military guard, constables armed with swords and muskets, and a twelve-foot-wide moat. Chase crossed the bridge over the moat and paused to study the carving of a ship atop the stone gatehouse. It was the replica of a vessel that transported the sugar, rum, coffee, and tropical woods to these docks.

“Help you, sir?” inquired the guard. Several other constables, along with a smattering of what Chase took to be customs and excise men, flanked him, all staring at him with a barely veiled belligerence. Apparently visitors to these docks were discouraged, but he had a ticket signed by Garrod. Had Chase been brought to the docks to investigate an outbreak of theft? It seemed likely and would explain the wariness of the guards. He took out his Bow Street insignia, an ebony baton surmounted by a gold crown, and unscrewed the cap. Removing the paper stowed inside, he used the baton to gesture at two nearby roundhouses. “Lockups? Doubt many thieves run their rackets here.”

“A few, sir, a few,” replied the guard, his expression lightening as he recognized the Bow Street emblem. “They find a way, as I'm sure you know. Excuse me a moment.” There was a pause as he patted down a laborer who had emerged from the staff entrance at the side of the central arch, running efficient hands over his numbered uniform smock, checking each of his pockets, and inspecting his shoes. The laborer looked sullen but submitted, before slouching away down the pavement.

Chase handed the guard his ticket. “John Chase, Bow Street. I have an appointment with Mr. Garrod.”

“Yes, sir.” The constable raised his eyebrows at one of the other guards, who gave a shrug eloquent of ignorance. Obligingly, the second guard went to deliver Chase's message.

A few minutes later he was shaking hands with Garrod and being led under the portico and past a statue erected in memory of one of the merchants responsible for these docks. Hugo Garrod carried a malacca cane, which he didn't seem to need, as he set off in a long, loose-limbed stride. From his perfectly barbered head to his shiny top boots, he looked like what he was—a successful gentleman of commerce. Power defined his high-colored face, which bore the ravages of age and long exposure to the sun—a webbing of lines at the eyes and around the mouth as well as faint discoloration spots on his cheeks and a tawny cast to his skin that had yet to fade despite his years in England. As they strolled together through the teeming scene, men fell back at his approach, touching their caps or murmuring respectful greetings. Garrod waved them away, his blue eyes aflame with a zest for life.

This place was a monument to men of his kind, its scope immense, awe-inspiring, and grand. A mechanism with countless moving parts, machinery that functioned through the synchronized efforts of several thousand human beings crawling over the landscape. The works, Garrod explained, consisted of two wet docks, the import and the export, which were connected to the Thames by basins and a system of locks to control the flow of water. As Chase and Garrod walked down a wide road in the import dock, a row of brick warehouses loomed to the left, their copper roofs glinting in the sun. Next to the warehouses the iron cranes used to hoist the goods looked like monsters stretching their necks to the sky.

A breeze lifted the tails of Garrod's coat, ruffling his white hair, but he didn't seem to notice. “The Jamaica fleet has just arrived. Otherwise, we could have met at my office in Mincing Lane. I'm glad you found your way here. Come, I'll take you inside one of the warehouses.”

Chase inhaled the pervasive sweetness of rum overlaid by the stench of tar and bilge water. “No problems en route?” In wartime, it was necessary for merchant ships to sail under convoy, seeking safety in numbers and avoiding enemy vessels—French or American—or, just as bad, the swarm of privateers infesting the seas.

“No, we were fortunate.” Smugness warmed the merchant's tone, and Chase wondered just how much money Garrod had made from this one shipment. If he'd grown rich from his sugar plantations, he must be vastly wealthier now that he was a director of these docks, an alderman for the City of London, a former member of Parliament, and the Agent for Jamaica.

When Chase didn't comment, Garrod said, “I am interested to hear more of your profession, sir. Am I correct in thinking it one that requires a sharp wit rather than a young man's strength? A happy circumstance in your case.” He pointed at Chase's knee with his cane.

How had Garrod known about his old injury? Chase had left his own walking stick home today, for the summer heat had alleviated much of his usual stiffness. Garrod's letter had asked for him by name, but this was not in itself unusual because the Runners all had individual reputations, their exploits often described in the papers. Still, Chase suspected someone had spoken of him to this man. This suspicion was confirmed when Garrod added carelessly, “At the Battle of the Nile, was it? How did it happen?”

His injury wasn't something Chase cared to discuss. “You are well informed, sir.”

Garrod made a gesture that took in the busy coopers hammering at all manner of casks, hogsheads, and barrels that had been damaged in transit—a gesture that included the weighers, measurers, and excise men; the thicket of masts in the dock; and the score of lighters and barges moving goods from ship to shore. He laughed. “Don't you think I have to be?”

He had a point. Chase had noted the man's not-quite-masked assessment, as if Chase had been brought in to audition for a role on the stage. Well, what did Garrod see? A plainly dressed, beak-nosed, harsh-featured man. John Chase knew he had blunt manners and an untidy appearance. He had eyes still keen but hair gone gray after years of battling thieves, murderers, and swindlers. By his next birthday he would have lived a half century, which seemed an age to him, especially when he remembered the twenty years in the Royal Navy that had come before he ever picked up his Bow Street tipstaff. Too old to bandy words or play games; he knew that, too. “Tell me why I am here,” he said.

“All in good time, all in good time. I must beg your patience. First, accompany me on a brief tour, and you will be satisfied. But I'll ask you to keep your tongue between your teeth should we encounter a small surprise along the way.”

Chase stopped on the pavement. “A surprise? You are mysterious, Mr. Garrod.”

The merchant turned back when he saw that Chase hadn't followed and frowned. “This way, sir.”

He led the way toward the warehouses, pausing so that Chase could admire the foundation stone and its inscription, then conducting him into a brick warehouse with spiked iron windows on the lower floors. After they climbed the staircase to look over the tightly packed bags of coffee, they descended to the lower floors. Chase took a few paces down the rows of hogsheads, his boots sticking to the boards where sugar had leaked. “Impressive,” he said, but he walked back to the exit and stood waiting.

They descended the stone steps together, the narrow space too close for Chase's comfort. He watched Garrod's beringed hand gliding down the banister, the jewels sparkling in the dimness.

After a moment Garrod turned his head toward Chase and smiled. “I see you have your own mind. I expect that's a good thing in a Runner, though perhaps not

He could not mistake Garrod's meaning. Chase did his job and did it well, but he had never managed to ingratiate himself with his superiors. Often he went his own way without asking for anyone's help, and often he paid the price for that stubborn independence. He had, in fact, resigned from Bow Street recently and been reinstated. He said, “Having my own mind—and the freedom to act upon it—is one of the only things I care for in the world, sir.”

“Spoken like a true Englishman, Chase.”

They had reached the cellar, which reminded Chase of nothing so much as a crypt. In this confined space, the sickly smell of the spirits was overpowering, and it was difficult to see in the gloom.

Garrod spoke, his voice loud enough that several men working nearby looked up. “No fire is permitted anywhere in the docks. We must do all possible to avoid a conflagration, whether by arson or accident.”

Chase nodded. Rows of casks stretched into the darkness beyond his line of sight, the dim figures of the coopers fluttering around them like moths. He noticed that Garrod stepped slowly and glanced at each face as he and Chase went by.

Still in that same lecturing tone, Garrod went on: “Several thousand pipes of rum are stored in this one warehouse, and we have built new rum sheds with vaults for the better storage of our spirits. Enough comes through these docks to make the Thames into punch.”

They passed several massive columns and some enormous vats with propeller agitators that were used to amalgamate the various types and strengths of rum. “We've had some issues,” Garrod was saying, “with settlement in the structure of these warehouses, so we've refitted some of the falling timber posts with cast-iron. You there,” he called to a man who was kneeling on the ground, apparently engaged in examining the wood, “our guest would like to ask you a few questions.”

Chase had opened his mouth to snap off a retort to Garrod's officiousness when he took a closer look at the workman leaping nimbly to his feet. He was a tiny man no more than five feet tall with a haggard, ghostlike face; pointed, elfin chin; and anxious, ever-moving eyes that missed nothing. He met Chase's gaze with glee; then his eyes slipped away.

It was Noah Packet, Chase's occasional spy, criminal world connection, and friend. Packet was a thief by profession, a pickpocket, a file, a gallows bird, a cutpurse—a thief in a fortress expressly designed to keep predators like him out.


“Turning over a new leaf?” Chase asked. Packet had slipped into the corner of the administrative building, where Chase sat waiting after Garrod had been drawn away to consult with a dock official. Packet, likely breaking the rules of his employment, had followed Chase and Garrod into this area and was lucky to have caught his friend alone.

When Packet merely smirked in return, Chase went on. “You've found God? Turned respectable? Maybe you're plotting a rig to go down in the history books? Got the gentleman fooled, do you?”

“Nah,” said Packet, “he's a downy one. He knows what's what.”


“You could say it goes back to my blue coat. You know, the one that got itself ruint, thanks to you.”

A few months before, while assisting Chase with another inquiry, Packet had taken a beating and spoiled his new coat. The coat had been bright blue with brass buttons. It had seemed a strange choice for a pickpocket, making its owner entirely too conspicuous, as Chase had enjoyed informing him, not to mention that it was an oddly luxurious possession for a petty thief. Now Packet, in his character of dockworker, was dressed in drab cotton trousers and a canvas jacket, a dusty, red handkerchief knotted about his scrawny throat.

Chase said, “The ‘gentleman in the shipping line' you told me you did a favor for. You earned the money for that coat from Hugo Garrod?”

“I always knew you was a downy one too. Told Mr. Garrod as much.”

Chase took a long pull of the grog that a clerk had served him and set the glass on the table with a thump. “What the devil does the West India Company want with a thief in its sanctum?”

“I got my uses.” Packet sounded aggrieved. “I never met a bunch o' coves so mortal scared of a spot of pilfering. Spoils the perfection of their operation, see? So they bring me in to keep my glims open and report back. Easiest job I ever had. I walk around with my hammer and my memorandum book and pretends to be inspecting the floors or tapping the pillars. They's paying me a tidy sum for my trouble.”


“Don't think it could amount to much. A piece of mahogany in the trousers or a lump of sugar in the pocket.”

“How would a thief convey stolen goods out of the docks? The defenses look tight.”

“That's what Garrod means to know, but I expect someone's been greased in the palm to look the other way. They's to be stopped,” Packer said in a pious tone.

“By you?”

“I got my eye on a few of the bastards. Never fear. I'll deliver on my promise.”

“Good lord, Packet. You mean Garrod trusts
? He must be touched in the head.”

The little thief looked hurt. “That ain't nice, Chase. He trusts me. I already told you—he pays me. Ain't I a man of honor, same as you?”

BOOK: On a Desert Shore
3.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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