The foreboding image of the ship came to mind relentlessly; Eagle fair smelled the sea and heard the cry of pillaging gulls. Their sound filled his dreams and was there when he awoke – in Liverpool. He had slept all the way, had a very stiff neck to prove it.
To escape the cold breeze blowing in off the river he went in search of breakfast. He remained at the tavern where he’d secured his viands till close on nine, then journeyed down to the docks. He went that way partly on instinct, and partly to call on Mr Dobney, a Liverpool attorney of his acquaintance. Possibly he might have heard some news, or might advise where best to start his search.
‘I’ve no news at all, I’m afraid,’ said the tall, stooping-framed lawyer, whose long grey hair seemed considerably older than the rest of him. ‘Though I’ve no doubt that the sort of crime to which you refer is commonplace in ports like this. If, as you say, your mulatto is here in Liverpool, then you have chosen the right quarter to look for him.’
‘Well that’s something, I suppose,’ said the visitor, who thanked him all the same.
‘Do be careful, Mr Eagle,’ said the other as they shook hands and parted. ‘The waterfront is no place for a gentleman at the best of times.’
Eagle turned away down the long sloping street, shadowed on either side by tall warehouses. He soon found himself on the broad quay that was the heart of the rapidly growing town. Its noises of trade and commerce assailed him now with full vigour. Such was the pulse throbbing on the air that even the gulls seemed actors in the drama. He stood on the cobbles, which were stained and cluttered, looking about him at the ruthlessly animated scene. Beyond the masts and sails of the boats moored in line, the wide flat Mersey, with its grey, corrugated surface, was indifferent to it all and would, thought Eagle, long outlive the man-made bustle polluting its banks.
The same breeze that ruffled the old river’s surface had made every smell run rampant. Sea-weed and fish; pitch, tar and hemp; the oddly mixed pungency of chests and barrels just arrived. Ale slops from the taverns blended tolerably, less so the reek from a nearby chop-house, and the waxy odours of a chandler’s store. Later, when he’d begun his enquiries, he would be able to explain another, more disquieting, smell, recognisable immediately as fear. He saw it in the eyes of the sailors, stevedores and dockside labourers. Given where he was, and when, he ought to have realised: the fear was of the press-gang rumoured to be in the vicinity.
For now, however, he was more interested in someone else rumoured to be at hand; a victim of a different kind of impressment. His enquiries up and down the quay yielded nothing except suspicious glances. He resolved to try again, this time by night. He’d be taking a risk, frequenting the dockside dens, but only that way was he likely to obtain a lead. A sailor in his cups might let something slip before a man who’d stood him treat.
Such was the theory at least. In reality, all were resolutely taciturn in his company, as contemptuous of that as his money. It was the same in every tavern, evil looks telling him plainer than day that he, a gentleman and a stranger, was not welcome. That he’d pushed his luck too far, became apparent near on midnight as he sat with his ale in a dark corner of the aptly-named World’s End. He oughtn’t to be here still, ought to have found lodgings long ago. But he had been there nearly two hours, in which time fear had got the better of him. He felt rooted to his stool, unable to move through the tightly-packed throng that stood between him and the door.
In the end, it was they who came to him, threateningly replete with tattoos, ear-rings and muscles. Their spokesman, who had a hook instead of a hand, embedded it in the table where Eagle sat. He spoke with predictable snarl: ‘I hear you’ve been asking questions about a certain nigger.’
Before Eagle could reply, the rest gathered round preventing his escape.
An Uncommon Attorney, my eighteenth-century crime novel featuring the cases and adventures of John Eagle, is available on Amazon: tinyurl.com/qylwxnq