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The Hawks of London


Chapter 1 - sample


The fifteenth night of November, 1767, and I upon a dock by Deptford, waiting.

‘You would be warmer in the Greyhound, sir. I will fetch you when he comes.’

‘How old is Langridge?’


‘Did you not think to go with him?’

‘Langridge with the wherry, and me to stay and wait for you. That was Mr Carrington’s order.’

‘And Mr Carrington to the theatre,’ said I quietly, to which Baxter made no answer, for in truth he was as little pleased as I. His hands were tucked beneath the arms of his heavy coat and his shoulders were hunched against the cold. He did not look at me but out across the river.

The lanterns on the ships standing off from us in the Limehouse Reach shone dull through the river mist, and were very still, for the tide was almost at the turn. After a time Baxter offered to fetch me a broth from the tavern and I gave him a few coppers for it. Then I went to the edge of the small dock, drew my coat tighter about me, and leaned against the great oak bollard by the water.

It was very quiet on the river. The lightermen were all abed or in the taverns, and most of the wherries gone up above London Bridge for the theatre trade, so that there were no cries upon the water now but only a faint bell from over by the far bank, which rang out three times while I listened, and then faded to nothing.

Soon Baxter returned. ‘She has put it in an ale-pot for you, sir.’

‘How long has Langridge been up there?’

‘Not two hours. Mr Carrington ordered him to be back on the tide.’

I took the broth, grateful for the warmth of it now, and drank it very slowly.

Carrington had no business to be giving such an order. It was the two Sons of Liberty, Pearce and Flanagan, that Langridge had been sent up to the Greenland Dock for. And since my return to London in September the search for the two murdering sons of bitches had been my affair, and none of Carrington’s Messengers involved excepting Baxter, and he not pushed onto me, but come to me by my own request.

Baxter mistook my unhappy gaze, which had settled upon a ship out in the Reach.

‘She is another from Boston, sir. They are too many.’

‘You are not asked to watch every one of them.’

‘Two men, and all London to hide in. It is too much, sir. If Mr Carrington thinks he may find them – well then, let him try it awhile.’

Indeed, let him try it awhile; and there were many times these past weeks I would have passed the whole business to the chief of the King’s Messengers, Nathan Carrington, and very welcome. For it was only by chance that the search for them had first fallen to my care.

I had come up from the south, my work with our Superintendent by the Mississippi completed after almost two years, and had been in Boston only to take passage back to England. I was very jaded, and my every thought upon London, so that when one of our Customs men there was murdered at the Boston docks I had kept myself clear. The killing caused a great stir in Boston, though having witnessed so many killings in my recent time with the Choctaws and the Cherokees, I had thought very little on one poor fellow’s unfortunate end. It was the business of the Vice-Admiralty court, and none of mine, and though I heard some rumours of the escape of the murderers, Pearce and Flanagan, I had hardly thought to ever hear their names again once I took sail for London.

But almost the first day after my arrival in England Mr Fitzherbert had charged me with finding them. And I had not found them.

Now I finished the broth and tossed the pot into the river.

‘Is it a Boston ship Langridge has gone up to?’

‘It is a whaler, sir. She is Danish, but there will be Americans aboard of her.’

A bell sounded again across the river, and south of us a night-watchman called and was answered by his fellow. Eleven o’clock. Upriver, the theatres would be emptying now, and some going along to the Vauxhall Gardens and some going home, and the wherrymen jostling for fares.

Henrietta must be sleeping.

The water whispered against the dock now, for the tide had turned towards the sea, and the stench of whale oil came down.

At midnight came another bell and another cry from the watchmen, and then the lamps went out in the Greyhound, and only the ships’ dim lanterns now lighting the water. Nothing moved on the river.

An hour more, another cry, and I said, ‘The Greenland Dock is not far.’

‘Mr Carrington said I must wait here, sir.’

‘I will answer for that,’ said I, and then I stepped away from the bollard toward the Greyhound.

‘Sir?’ he said, and I turned with a sharp word, but Baxter was peering upriver.

It was a wherry coming down, with no oars in the water, but drifting.

It came on slowly, its bow bumping into the Stairs just above us; but then its stern swung out, it caught the tide and moved again.

‘There’s no one aboard of her,’ said Baxter.

She came on slow, touching the bank and turning once more, and we went down the steps to the water. I held Baxter’s arm and he leaned out and took hold of the gunwale as she came by. Then he drew her in to the steps, and there was a tarpaulin lying in her and he lifted it. His head came up.

‘Holy Christ.’

‘Hold her steady.’ I knelt and took hold of the tarpaulin and drew it back. But there was nothing more to see.

‘He wasn’t much more than a lad, sir.’

I let the tarpaulin fall and told Baxter to release the wherry.


Rising, I put my boot on the gunwale and shoved hard, and it slipped from Baxter’s grasp and went away from us, drifting slowly, turning like flotsam on the tide.

‘It must be very late.’


‘Shall I go?’

I made no answer but only put more coals on the fire. When I sat to take off my boots I noticed the new sketchbook on my dresser. It was tied in a white ribbon, as a present for me. I took off my shirt then, and breeches, and climbed into the bed with her and she stayed almost till daybreak, when she rose and moved about quietly that she make no disturbance to my sleep. After a time she went down the stairs, and then I rolled onto my back and thought on what Baxter had told me, that Langridge had left a young widow, and a child.

The front door closed, and I heard Henrietta’s light tread on the paving stones below my window, going quickly now, and away from me, back to her own house and her husband.

  © Grant Sutherland