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As the weather outside is still frightful, I thought you might want to snuggle up with an appropriate story. This was written a few years ago and it ruminates on what life might be like in a sunken Bristol. The story originally appeared in Future Bristol, edited by Colin Harvey. I hope you enjoy it!

*****

 

Pirates of the Cumberland Basin

 

By Joanne Hall

 

The woman’s body splayed against the glass dome of the abandoned shopping centre. Sliced from throat to pubic bone, flaps of skin stretched out on either side of her torso, throwing a silhouette like a gigantic bat against the glass. Looking up, Harry saw where she struck the dome, a spider web of cracked glass, and a long smear of blood as she slid to her final resting place.

     “Berkley, can you get closer?”

     His partner said nothing, overwhelmed by the grim spectacle of the Circus. He lowered the paddle into the murky water, propelling them forward. The only sounds were the soft splashing as the dinghy inched through the Circus, and a persistent dripping from all around, echoing in the stillness.

     Harry fixed his eyes on the dead woman, preferring that macabre sight to the half-submerged, abandoned shops around him. As Berkley swung the torch, he could still make out some of their names, faded and water-ruined. He tried not to imagine what they might have sold. That was a world long gone.

     The dinghy struck something underwater and came to an abrupt halt, the stern swinging round sharply. The woman’s body loomed twenty feet above, pale and distorted in the wavering torchlight. “Now what, Harry?”

     Harry wasn’t sure. He had to take a sample so ICon could find out who she was, tell her family. If she had a family, if she wasn’t an illegal, travelled thousands of miles for a better life only to end up as a gory window display.

     He was surprised the fragile dome had survived this long. If he was careless he could bring the whole roof crashing down, and Ub-hot would have two extra bodies to deal with. But as Berkley swung the torch, Harry noticed a missing pane, barely five feet from the corpse.

     His eye-pod vibrated, a fluttering under his lashes like a tic. Victoria’s image appeared, hovering just beyond the end of his nose. Even at two inches high, she radiated irritation. “What are you two doing in there?  You‘ve been ages!”

     “Just getting the sample,” he assured her. “We’ll be back in ten minutes. Any trouble?”

     “Not yet, but the locals are getting very interested in the cruiser.”

     “Back off for a while. I’ll buzz you when we’re finished.”  He broke the connection, and the image dissolved.

     “Is Victoria all right?” Berkley asked. It was bad manners to Podshare without permission, but even though Berkley would have turned up his music to drown out her voice, he had still seen her hologram.

     “Nothing major.”  Harry took the drone from his backpack, a sleek black sphere the size of an apple. Using his controller, he steered it towards the missing pane, careful not to brush against anything.  It was delicate work, and he hoped Victoria wouldn’t buzz back until the operation was complete. The drone vanished behind the filthy glass, but the proximity warming on the controller beeped loudly as it touched the corpse. He manipulated the buttons, and a series of bleeps told him the sample had been collected. Relaxing, he ordered the drone to return, following the same path.

     “Are we done?” Berkley asked, as Harry caught the drone and returned it to his pack. “Let’s go; this place is weird. What is a Circus, anyway?”

     “Somewhere people shopped, I guess.”  Harry tried to imagine the aisles of the Circus thronging with life, but it was impossible. There was only the cold, the musty reek of mould, and the endless water.

     Berkley paddled quicker as he headed towards the entrance. Harry didn’t blame him; the oppressive atmosphere was getting to him, too. Pushing through the ivy that trailed over the entrance, he caught a welcome glimpse of blue sky, and quickly buzzed Victoria to pick them up.

     Berkley stowed the paddle, sighing in relief. “Being in there makes you appreciate how good it is out here, doesn’t it?”

     Taking in a deep breath, Harry agreed. The calm water threw back reflections of sky and clouds, disturbed only by the occasional gull. They floated above what was once the main entrance to the Circus. On either side, the tops of sunken buildings emerged from the water like bizarre geometric islands. Brightly coloured lines of washing flapped bravely from the roofs, and every zealously-tended window box was a riot of blooms. The city rooftops were a garden, lovingly tended by these upper floor dwellers who had stayed behind when the water rushed in. Their gardens were bright, their clothes garish, but their faces were dour as the little yellow dinghy bobbed past. Conversations hushed, and every eye turned to watch with quiet, futile resentment.

     “Where the hell is Victoria?” Berkley muttered, tightening his grip on the oar.

     “She’ll be here.”  Harry kept his gaze locked straight ahead. Making eye contact with the roof dwellers invited trouble.

     He heard the low throb of the police launch before he saw it. The rooftops emptied, as the long, low cruiser emerged from behind the old Primark building and skimmed up the Haymarket towards them.

     Safely aboard, Harry strapped himself into the passenger seat. Victoria smiled. “Did you get what you wanted?”

     “A sample. I had to leave the body to the gulls.”

     “Where to now, then?”

     “ICon. Let’s see if we can find out who the poor bitch was, and how she ended up there.”

     The scientific division of the city police department occupied the old museum building, all marbled floors and Roman columns. Now it was a labyrinth of flimsy bamboo partitions and signs in three different languages. Harry turned up the music in his Pod to drown out the high-pitched electrical whine that filled the air, but he couldn’t evade the hum of the generator, pulsing behind everything like a massive heartbeat. He could feel it in his own chest. It made him nauseous, and he increased his stride, hoping ICon would identify the dead woman quickly so he could get out of here.

     His metal-tipped heels clicked on the sweeping staircase. On the first floor the greasy, fried-potato smell of the generator was much stronger, making him feel simultaneously sickened and hungry. Opening the double doors, he found himself eyeball to chest with the stuffed gorilla. It was sporting an old-fashioned fedora, the kind archaeologists used to wear. He gave it a nod, and the gorilla nodded back, with the slow wheeze of dying animatronics. Its eyes, replaced by security cameras, followed him as he crossed to Magda’s cubicle.

     Magda’s cubicle was a bright monument to her drowned homeland. It was painted lurid orange, and little Dutch flags jostled for space with the stuffed ducks on her desk. It was like stepping into the heart of a tangerine, and it made Harry’s eyes water. Magda was a striking woman, pale, with hair so blonde it was almost white, but her orange mini-dress leached away what little colouring she had, making her look like a ghost. She sat hunched over her machine, swearing at it in Dutch, and only looked up when Harry cleared his throat.

     “Hey Harry!  What’s up?”

     He held up the drone. “Sample for you.”

     “Your mystery body from this morning?  Pass it here.”  She inserted the drone into a slot in the machine. “It’ll take a moment.”

     “I don’t mind waiting.”  He liked hanging around Magda, despite the relentless orange. Her cubicle was interesting, with its fading pictures of long-dead Dutch footballers and pop stars. There was always something new to see. This time it was a newspaper cutting heralding the 2018 World Cup winning Dutch football team. Their smiles were as faded as their strips. “Where do you get all this stuff?” he asked her.

     Magda shrugged. “Around.”  On the black market, of course. Dealing in items from the Drowned Countries was lucrative. People like Magda would pay a premium for memories from their lost home.

     She changed the subject. “You’re looking peaky, Harry. Are you eating your two portions of meat?”

     He snorted. “I don’t care what the government says, who can afford two helpings of meat a week?”

     She leant forward conspiratorially. “I’ve got some seal, if you want to barter.”

     The thought of seal, combined with the smell of the generator, made Harry’s stomach gurgle. “Where did you get seal?  No, don’t tell me, ‘around’, right?”

     “Right!” She winked. “I’ll bring you a portion tomorrow.”  Her computer bleeped. “Your sample’s done. Let’s find out who your mystery woman is.”

     She shifted her chair sideways so Harry could get a proper look at the screen, though the symbols and Dutch text meant nothing to him.

     “Her name was Cornubia Penhallow.”

     “That’s quite a mouthful.”

     “Don’t worry, I’ll give you a printout.”  She caught his expression. “And it’ll be in English, if you insist. I don’t know why you Brits can’t learn other languages.”

     Harry resisted pointing out that Madga, despite her Dutch heritage, was born in the Box Hill commune long after the Netherlands were swallowed by the sea, and was as British as he was. Why trample on her romance?

     Madga peered more closely at the screen. “That’s interesting,” she said. “She was registered as living on the Great Britain. Her sample tells me she’d recently had a baby – hormones in the blood – but there’s no baby registered here.”

     “Maybe it died.”

     Magda shook her head, tight lipped. “It would have been registered anyway,” she insisted. “There’s a note on her record that she was pregnant, so she must have seen a doctor.”  She looked up, lines furrowing between her almost-invisible eyebrows. “We can’t have unregistered children running about. You’d better find out what happened to that baby, Harry.”

     “Will do!”  He mock-saluted her as he grabbed the paper chuntering out of the printer. “Do you know when she died?”

     “I’m not a detective, Harry. I’d worry more about the baby. I guess you should start by looking on the Britain. They might tell you something.”

 

*

 

The cruiser bobbed at the edge of the water, halfway down Park Street. Victoria and Berkley were Podsharing in the front seat when Harry returned. He hadn’t realised they were so close. Neither of them had ever offered to Podshare with him, and he felt a twinge of envy. He banged on the tempered blue glass hull of the cruiser with more violence than usual. “Enough of that. Time for work.”

     Victoria broke the connection reluctantly. “Did ICon find anything?”

     “Yes, and you’re not going to like it. Berkley, go to Bemmie Down and break it to Mr and Mrs Penhallow that their daughter is Bristol’s latest piece of public art. Victoria, we need to find the Great Britain.”

     Berkley headed back up the hill towards the old museum, looking for transport. Victoria glared at Harry, making no attempt to move.

     “Victoria?”

     “The Britain?  Are you serious?”

     “I don’t like it either, but we’re looking for an unregistered baby now, as well as a murderer.”

     She scowled as she twisted her ponytail back into its usual neat bun, pinning it fiercely. “How did that happen?  The system’s supposed to be perfect.”

     Harry slipped into the passenger seat. “Something cocked up. At least, I hope it did.”

     “And if it didn’t?  If it’s deliberate evasion, rather than a system glitch?”

     He left her questions hanging. Maybe the pirates of the Cumberland Basin could provide some answers.

 

*

 

The SS Great Britain was moored in one of her usual spots, tethered to the roof of a building that once housed luxury apartments. Victoria ran the engine down to its lowest speed and let the cruiser chug along. “Should I hail them?”

     Harry scanned the ship from bowsprit to stern. At first he saw no signs of life, but as he stared he noticed slight movements in the rigging near the masts. Behind the gunwale, sunlight flashed on metal.

     “I think they’ve already seen us,” he said. “Hail anyway, and for God’s sake be polite!”

     Victoria hailed the dark ship, lying like a shark in the grey water. A heavily-built figure emerged on deck. He had a flag in each hand, waving them in a complicated pattern. Harry and Victoria exchanged glances.

     “Is that a signal?” Victoria asked.

     “Semaphore,” Harry told her. “An ancient form of ship-to-ship communication, according to ICon. The pirates started using it a few years ago, for some reason.”

     “Why don’t they just use their Pods?”

     Harry shrugged, concentrating on the message spelled out by the flag waver.

    “They welcome me aboard, alone, and request I leave behind any weapons. And they want me to switch off my Pod.”

     “I’m sure they weren’t so polite,” Victoria snorted.

     “Take me up to the ship,” Harry ordered, fiddling behind his ear. He hadn’t switched his Pod off in so long, he had forgotten exactly where the button was.

     Victoria looked at him in horror. “What are you doing?  You‘re not going to actually switch it off?”

     “Watch the water!”  He grabbed the wheel and swung it around. With a shriek of glass on metal, the cruiser scraped along the side of the ship, suddenly looming right above them. “What do you think they’d do if you damage their boat?”

     “Bugger their boat. Why did you turn your Pod off?  They won‘t know if you leave it on.”

     “They might. I‘m not going to risk being carved up for it. I can manage without it for a while.”  Harry felt a lurch in his gut. For all his confident words, he wasn‘t sure he could.

     “So how can I get hold of you?”  Victoria’s voice was strangely high, and she clutched the steering wheel tightly with both hands.

     “You can’t. You’ll just have to wait for me.”  With a soft swish, a rope ladder unfurled from the gunwale, and Harry grasped the bottom rung. “If I’m not back in two hours, call ICon.”

     Victoria nodded, her pale face receding beneath him as he climbed, hand over hand, towards the deck far above. Halfway up, breathless and perspiring, he stopped for a rest. I’m not as fit as I was in my twenties, he thought. Hanging there, reluctant to look at the drop below, or the strenuous climb still to come, the ladder swayed slightly in the breeze. Harry was uncomfortably aware of the silence, the isolation. He heard the mewling of gulls, the slop and gurgle of the water, the throb of engines. But the music, constantly playing in his ear, so softly it was like the rhythms of his own body, was gone, along with the sporadic upgrade beeps of his Pod. He felt small and very alone, brushing gently against the hull of the old ship. If he shouted to Victoria, would she hear him?  He opened his mouth, then thought better of it. It felt offensive to break the natural quiet.

     “Oi!”  The man leaning precariously over the gunwale waving to him clearly didn‘t share Harry‘s feelings about natural quiet. “Are you going to hang there all day, copper, or are you coming up?”  A large, curved knife flashed in his hand. “I can choose for you, if you like.”

     “No, I’m coming!”  The sweat turned chilly on Harry’s back, and he prised his reluctant hands from the rail, forcing himself up the last twenty feet. Strong hands gripped him by the armpits and hauled him onto the deck. A mug of cider was pressed into his hand.

     “Get this down you, copper!”  The knifeman spoke in a thick Bemmie accent. “It’ll steady you after the climb.”  He grinned, though his teeth were almost hidden behind a thick tangle of beard. He wore a stout wooden plug through his right earlobe, a pink bandanna, and a pair of faded denim shorts. His bare chest was thickly haired. He extended a hand. “I’m Wooky Hoyle.”

     Harry downed the last of the rough cider with a grimace. “Harry Muller. City Police.”  He shook Wooky’s hand, and took his first look around the deck of the SS Great Britain. He had not expected notorious pirates to be so friendly, or so domestic. Washing flapped in the rigging, while children chased chickens around the small cannons installed on the deck. Incredibly, a cow lowed in the byre. Harry was impressed. “Quite a community you have here, Mr Hoyle.” 

     “Call me Wooky.”  The bearded man frowned. Harry noticed a scar, just below his left eye. “It’s a good place, and we don’t want any trouble from you landpol. What we do on the water is under our own rules. It’s those bastards on the Amistad,” he spat loudly over the side, “you should be talking to.”

     “And if I talk to them, they’ll tell me you’re the bastards and they’re just law abiding pirates, right?”  Harry laughed, but Wooky did not join in. His eyes narrowed under uneven brows, and he tapped the knife. “So what do you want, copper?”

     The children vanished, their place taken by half a dozen shirtless men, each holding a blade or club. Harry tugged at his collar, longing for the comfort of his Pod.

     “I’ve come to talk to you,” he said, careful to keep his voice steady, “about the murder of Cornubia Penhallow. I understand she lived here.”

     Wooky let the blade fall. “Cornie’s dead?”

     “We found her body this morning.”  Harry avoided the gruesome detail. Wooky looked like he was about to throw up.

     “And the baby?”

     “There was no sign of any baby.”

     Wooky’s curse echoed around the deck like a rifle shot. “In that case, you’d better see Captain Cutler. You should tell him about Cornie.”

     A door on the deck that Harry had assumed was a cupboard opened onto a narrow metal staircase, leading down into the guts of the ship.

     “Follow me.”  Wooky led him down the stairs. The man’s back was as hairy as his front. They passed the great engines, cold and still. Looking down, Harry saw the great steel patches repairing the ship’s rusty hull, and hear the pumps throbbing. “Don’t you worry she’ll sink?” he asked. “Where do you get the fuel for the pumps?” 

     Wooky slammed the engine room door behind them. They stood in a narrow hallway. “Where does anyone get anything these days?” he chuckled. “Barter or theft. You‘ve got no authority here, landpol, so why does it matter?”

     “I was curious. I thought you might have solar panels.” 

     “We’ve got panels on deck, for heating and suchlike. They‘d need to be bigger than the old pitch at Ashton Gate to keep the pumps running all the time!”  He grinned, but his smile didn’t reach his eyes. Harry wondered what he was holding back.

     They ascended another flight of stairs to a long corridor, lined with cabins. “The dining room is just along here. That’s where I’m taking you.”

     An idea struck Harry. “Can I use the bathroom first?  I’m a bit sweaty after all that climbing.”

     “If you need to piss, just say so. No need to be delicate.”  Wooky opened a door at the end of the corridor. “All proper conveniences here!”

     “Proper conveniences” consisted of a bucket and an open porthole, but at least he was alone. Harry flicked on his Pod and spoke in a hushed voice. “Victoria?  Are you there?”

     Her hologram grimaced. “Harry, are you peeing?”

     “Only to cover my voice. I’m fine, they seem quite friendly. I’ve got a meeting with their captain, to discuss Cornubia‘s murder.”

     “Should I wait?”

     The stream slackened. Harry gave Victoria a nod and flashed his upturned thumb, shook off the last few drops, and switched his Pod back off. It was easier the second time. He dried his hands on the seat of his trousers as he returned to Wooky. The pirate regarded him with suspicion.

     “Everything all right?”

     “Fine,” Harry reassured him.

     “I thought I heard you talking.”

     “I sing when I pee. Bad habit.”

     Wooky chuckled. “Glad I don’t live with you, then. Here we are, just up these stairs.”

     Harry had once seen a movie set in a medieval court. The memory rushed back to him as Wooky threw open the double doors, and bowed deeply.

     “Captain, may I present Harry Muller, of Landpol?”

     Harry hesitated in the doorway, unwilling to bow, but not wanting to cause offence. He settled for an inclination of his head.

     “The first-class dining room welcomes Harry Muller, and bids him approach the Captain.”

     Wooky nudged him. “You’re ok,” he mouthed. “He’ll talk to you.”

     Long tables flanked the sides of the room, and down the centre, between two rows of narrow columns, ran a moth-eaten strip of carpet. It led to another table, where Captain Cutler sat in a large, heavy chair. It was a commanding position. The captain could see the whole room, and windows to either side warned him of any approaching ships. It would be impossible to sneak behind him with a blade. The Captain beckoned him closer, and Harry caught a hint of mischief in his eyes.

     “Join me at my table, Landpol. Bring cider for this man!”

     Harry declined politely. “I shouldn’t be drinking, Captain Cutler. I’m here on duty.”

     “Taking a nip of cider is hardly drinking. Please, call me Adge.”

     “Adge Cutler?  Sounds familiar…”

     “He was a Bristol folk hero, before the waters came. All captains of the Britain take the name in memory of him, although no one now remembers why he was famous. I’m Adge Cutler the Seventh, but I was born Ayhan Boral.”

     “That’s Turkish, isn’t it?”

     The big man grinned beneath his luxuriant moustache. “Quite so! My forebears ran a kebab shop, while I’m the captain of a great ship. But you didn’t come here to talk about me.”  He leant forward, his expression grave. Harry noticed he carried an identical scar to Wooky. “Why have you come aboard?”

     “Cornubia Penhallow was found dead this morning, on the roof of the Circus.  I understand she was one of your crew.  I came to tell you, and to let you know you can collect the body. I hoped you could help me find out what happened.”

     Adge slammed both his hands, palms down, on the table, with a ferocity that made Harry jump. “Are you saying I had something to do with it, or any of my crew?  We loved Cornubia, she was like a sister, a daughter, to us. What those devils on the Amistad did to her –” he broke off, tears welling in his great brown eyes.

     “What‘s the problem between you and the Amistad?” Harry asked. “Your man Wooky couldn’t mention her without spitting. I thought they were pirates, like you.”

     “They are pirates, true, but nothing like us. The Amistad plies her trade up near the Suspension Bridge, and her crew take on work for Mr Yakamoto. Are you aware of him?”

     “No.”  Harry shook his head, noting the name. ICon would have a file on the man.

     “That doesn’t surprise me. He’s the kind of man who takes care not to attract official attention.”

     “Why would he want to avoid official attention?  We leave you pirates alone.”  An insect buzzed, somewhere in the room, a sound Harry wouldn’t have noticed with his Pod switched on. Now he found it irritating.

     “Mr Yakamoto is not a pirate, but a businessman, and a land dweller. That puts him under your jurisdiction, I believe.”

     “What business is he in?  The kind he would want to keep secret?”

     The buzzing grew louder, and Cutler’s heavy eyebrows knit. “Slavery is an ugly trade, my friend,” he said, rising. “Especially in this city.”  He moved across to the window. “What Mr Yakamoto does goes far beyond that. Did you use your Pod on board?”

     “No, of course not,” Harry lied. “You asked me not to.”

     Cutler eyed him coldly. “I hope for your sake you’re lying. If not, then you’re betrayed. By your pretty pilot, perhaps.”

     “What are you talking about?”

     “Why do you think we cut our Pods out?”  The big man indicated his scar. “If you transmit, they can hear you anywhere in the city.”

    The sound of insects was so loud now Harry’s head pounded in time with it. Cutler gestured towards the window. A helicopter, rotors spinning, sat on the roof of the submerged flats. It was as stridently orange as the inside of Magda’s cubicle, and the men leaping from it wore boiler suits of brilliant red. They moved as one, running lightly up the mooring rope and onto the ship.

     “Who are they?”  Fear knotted Harry’s intestines.

     “Yakamoto’s men. The only thing that would bring them here is you.”  Pounding at the door, and Cutler leant in close, speaking quickly. “Go with them. Offer no resistance. It’s your best chance to find out about Cornubia. She was pregnant when she fled to us from the Amistad, and near her time when they took her –”  He fell silent, and took a prudent step away from Harry as the door burst open. Two men stood there, short bare swords held across their chests. One of them pointed at Harry. “Muller?”

     “Would there be any use denying it?”  Harry’s relaxed countenance disguised the furious working of his brain, as he wondered how he could contact Victoria. His hand twitched towards his ear.

     “Keep still,” Yakamoto’s man ordered coolly. “You’re coming with us.”  They fell into step around him as they made their way back up to the deck.  Two of their companions waited by the mooring ropes, and the pirates skulked in the background. Harry spotted Wooky, lurking by the byre, but the hairy man wouldn’t meet his eye.

     The man who had previously spoken indicated a plank running from the gunwale to the roof. “We wouldn’t expect you to cross by the rope,” he said, with a slight smile. “Just take it at a run; you won’t fall.”

     Harry looked over the gunwale at the yawning chasm and the black, sucking water below. “If you say so.”  He put one foot on the plank, trying to not look down or show tension. It was broader than it first appeared, and seemed solid. Taking in a deep breath, he walked, swift and springy, across to the roof of the flats and jumped down. The red men ran along the rope beside him and sprang lightly onto the roof. “Bastards,” he muttered.

     “Excuse me.”  The leader reached for his ear. Harry instinctively swatted his hand away.

     “What are you doing?”

     “Switching your Pod off. Mr Yakamoto insisted on that.”

     “Did you monitor my transmissions to discover I was here?”  Harry scowled. “You know that’s illegal.”

     The man laughed as he flicked Harry’s switch. “What are you going to do, Mr Muller?  Arrest us?  Cut your Pod out, like the crew of the Britain?  Come on. Mr Yakamoto doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

     As Harry climbed into the helicopter, he wondered how long it would take Yakmoto‘s man to realise he had just switched his Pod back on.

 

*

 

Harry had never flown before. He thought he would be terrified, but the prospect of meeting the ominous Mr Yakamoto swept the other concerns from his mind. The image of Cornubia, splayed out on the roof of the Circus, would haunt him for a long time, but flying, even in the vibrating helicopter, was a temporary release from his worries, an unexpected treat. He could see the broad plain of water stretched out below him, dotted with boats. Up ahead rose the elegant span of Brunel’s famous Clifton Suspension Bridge, now a mere handful of metres above the slow-moving water. He was quite disappointed when the flight ended, in a fenced-off area of the Downs. They had been in the air only two or three minutes, and he could have happily stayed up there for hours.

     “Does this land belong to Mr Yakamoto?” Harry asked. Private land was precious, especially on the Downs.

     “No questions!”  One of the previously silent men glared at him. Harry pushed his luck.

     “Your boss must be very rich. How can he afford fuel for a helicopter?”

     “I said no questions!”  The heavy raised his hand, and the leader caught him by the arm and addressed him sharply in a foreign tongue. The second man gave Harry a foul look, but let the matter drop.

     “Follow me, please.”  The leader directed Harry and his team to a gate in the metal fencing of the compound, and through it into a tunnel made of the same substance, with a double-locked door at the end. Ushered through, Harry found he stood at the edge of the water, in elegantly parkland. On the far side, the edge of the gorge rose in a tangle of woodland, and to his left, scything across the vista like a great blade, was the Suspension Bridge. He had never seen it so close.

     Harry followed his captors towards one of the immense twin towers that supported the bridge on either side of the river. There was a small door in the base of the structure, guarded by two more men in red. The guards let them pass without question, through an elegant marbled entrance hall, up to the double doors beyond.

     “You might find this disorientating,” the leader warned him, as the doors slid open.

     The supporting abutment was a giant honeycomb. Brunel designed it as a great, secret cathedral, with immense sweeping arches to support the structure. It housed a small, underground town. From where they stood on a broad gantry, Harry could see down a dizzying five stories. Every floor was lit up like a carnival.

     “It’s incredible, isn’t it?  There‘s an even bigger town, on the other side of the river,” the leader observed chattily, as he drew Harry towards the lifts. Harry tried to take in every aspect of the sight, praying his Pod was recording. Hopefully, if he didn‘t transmit, they wouldn‘t notice.

     The lift whisked Harry and his captors down to the lowest floor, where they left him to the company of a neat little Japanese woman. She swept him through a richly-decorated antechamber, into Mr Yakamoto’s office at the base of the abutment. The room was even bigger than the dining salon on the Britain, decorated in rich shades of red and orange. There were paintings on the walls, and framed football shirts. He recognised some of the names from articles Magda had shown him; Cruyff, Bergkamp, Van Basten. Harry took this in with a glance, before turning his attention to Mr Yakamoto. He had formed a picture in his mind of a blustering loudmouth, intoxicated with power, but the man coming forward to shake his hand was dwarfed by his own office. Small and trim, he had wisps of grey in his hair and a kindly smile. Harry supposed he could afford to be kind.

     “Mr Muller.”  Yakamoto gestured for him to sit. “I understand you have been inquiring into the tragic death of Cornubia Penhallow. I require you to stop.”

     Harry leant back in the chair, a study in calm. He picked up a pen from the desk and toyed with it. “Any reason why?”

     “Cornubia worked for me. My own men are looking into it. Further investigations by you will only bring pain.”

     “I’m sure her family will endure any pain to bring her killer to justice.”  The pen was topped by a figure of a small boy taking a leak. It looked familiar, but Harry couldn’t place it.

     “I wasn’t talking about her family, Mr Muller.”

     “I hope you’re not threatening me, Mr Yakamoto.”

     “Call it a friendly warning. You’ve attracted my attention today; I’ll be keeping a close watch on you.”

     Harry waited to see if Yakamoto would mention his Pod, but the buisnessman merely regarded him calmly, waiting for his reaction. Harry wasn’t going to give him the pleasure.

     “Nice place you have here,” he said, casually. “Who did the paintings?”

     “They’re all copies, but good quality. My family fled Japan after the Rice Wars, with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. I suppose my desire for material possessions comes from then. I always feel it’s good to be surrounded by beautiful things.”

     “Indeed it is.”  One of the paintings caught Harry’s eye. He recognised the print from Magda’s shrine.

     “Do you like art, Mr Muller?”

     “I don’t know much about it, to be honest.”  Harry took a long look at the painting, which was of a pensive-looking girl in a blue and yellow headscarf. Not to his taste. “So you can’t tell me any more about Cornubia?  Why she ran away from the Amistad, for example?  Or who the father of her baby was?

     “Who knows the minds of women, Mr Muller?”

     Damn, he was as slippery as a politician!  “Do you know where Cornubia’s baby is now, Mr Yakamoto?  The crew of the Great Britain are very worried about it.”

     Mr Yakamoto rose, with a sorrowful expression. “So am I, Mr Muller. Please tell Captain Cutler I’m doing all I can.”

     “So you don’t know anything?”  Harry slyly pocketed the pissing-boy pen. Magda would probably like it.

     “The matter will be taken care of, and you will be kept informed. Until then, if you value your health, I suggest you leave the subject alone. My daughter will show you to the lift.”  Yakamoto shook his hand and steered him towards the door. The interview was clearly over.

     The neat girl, Yakamoto’s daughter, handed him over to two new red-suited men, who frogmarched him back to the entrance. “Goodbye, Mr Muller.”  One of them shook his hand, pressing something into his palm, then vanished back into the abutment, slamming the door. Harry made certain he was out of sight of any watching cameras before he read the sweat-dampened note.

     Red Gables, on the Downs, it said. Because slavery is an ugly trade.

     Especially in this city. That was what Cutler said. Harry wondered why Bristol should be singled out. Slavery was ugly everywhere, surely?

     He longed to talk to Magda, but he was sure any transmissions he made would be picked up at once by Yakamoto‘s monitors. She would know all about the painting, and the tasteless pen. He was torn between returning to ICon, on foot, or investigating Red Gables. The distance decided him. While he was up here, he might as well check out the house. He could put up with going through Tent Town, but he would have felt much more comfortable if he could transmit.

    Tent Town stretched for over a mile across the Downs, a city under canvas. Harry could smell it long before he reached it, a potent reek of human waste and burning plastic. He walked quickly, heels ringing on the metal walkways, trying not to inhale. On the far side of the massive, stinking campsite, there were houses still in private hands. Large ones, with electric gates and guard dogs. Red Gables, Harry was sure, would be one of these.

    He found the name on the gate. The house was invisible behind a high wall, topped with iron spikes and a pair of prominent cameras.  There was bound to be less visible security, too. He wouldn’t get five feet inside the gate without being ripped apart by dogs. He’d have to send a drone, and hope no one spotted it.

     It took a few nervous, sweaty minutes to link a drone to his Pod, so he could see what it recorded. He wished Berkley was with him, the boy would have done it in half the time, and known he was doing it right. He wouldn’t be so paranoid, thinking Yakamoto might detect what he was up to. Harry hoped he had programmed the drone to return to ICon when he gave the command word, but he wasn’t completely sure.

     His preparations complete, he steered the drone in a high arc over the cameras that crowned the gate. It dropped down the other side, showing him a view of a well-manicured lawn and a wide, three storey house of grey stone. There was a steel grid across the front door, and bars on the downstairs windows, which were closed despite the summer heat. No way in there, so he guided the drone around the side of the house, lifting it high over the head of a Doberman snoring on the path.

     As it swung round the back of the house, the drone’s sensor picked up the squeals and shrieks of children at play. Harry steered towards the sound, keeping it high, hoping no one would look up.

     There was an outdoor pool behind the house. At first, with his view from above, Harry thought the children were just splashing around, but as he inched closer he overheard the conversation of the men who paced the poolside. One of them knelt down, and took a small object from a little boy.

     “Well retrieved, Shakespeare,” he said. “See if you can do it again.”  He flicked the sparking object back into the pool, and the boy kicked away from the side and dived after it, narrowly avoiding two girls who were struggling to land a heavy picture frame.

     “They’re not bad, are they?” the man remarked to his companion, as they helped the girls with the frame. “When do they sail?”

     “The Amistad leaves next week, so they’d better be ready, if they don’t want to drown!”  The picture frame crashed to the concrete, and he launched a torrent of abuse at the girls. One of them burst into tears.

     “I’m cold!” she wailed. “Can I come out?”

     “You’ll be a lot colder at sea,” he warned her. “Ten more lengths and you can come out.”

     The nature of Yakamoto‘s business dawned on Harry. These children must be unregistered. Bought children, or stolen, like Cornubia’s missing baby. They had nobody to mourn them if they drowned. He clutched the pen in his pocket and slowly withdrew the drone. It was level with the sleeping dog when a rough hand clamped down on his shoulder. He felt the cold bite of a blade against the nape of his neck.

     “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”

     Harry raised his hands, still clutching the thumb controller. “I’m Harry Van Basten,” he said. “Van Basten, from Tent Town.”  At the repetition of the code, the drone should follow his programming and head straight for ICon. Hopefully.

     “Drop that, stand up and turn around slowly. Keep your hands away from your Pod.”

     Harry knew with sinking certainty that his discoverer would be one of Yakamoto’s goons. He turned, the unsheathed blade tickling his neck, to find two men glaring at him.

     The man holding the sword spat. “Harry Van Basten, my arse. You’re Muller. We heard you might be snooping around.”

     Harry spread his hands in a gesture of innocence. “I didn’t even get as far as snooping!  How about pretending you haven’t seen me, and I won’t dig any further into your boss’s business. Sound fair?”

     “Too late.”  The second man fiddled with his Pod. “Yakamoto’s on his way. He’s livid with you.”

     “A man who uses unregistered children to retrieve sunken artefacts isn’t someone I’m too fond of, either,” Harry retorted. “That’s what he’s up to, isn’t it?”  From their silence, he knew he was right. “Come on, these are little kids!  And the Drowned Lands are designated as a grave. You know this is wrong. Does he cut you a share of the profits in exchange for your silence?”

     “Everyone knows about it,” the swordsman muttered, the tip of his blade wavering a fraction. In the distance, approaching rapidly, Harry heard the buzz of the helicopter.

     “Everyone knew about slavery, hundreds of years ago. Being aware of something makes it all right to ignore it, does it?”  He had to raise his voice; the helicopter had arrived with incredible speed, and hovered directly overhead. Harry shielded his face from the fierce downdraft. The men strapped a harness around his body, and he was lifted from his feet. The webbing dug painfully into his armpits and crotch. By the time he was winched into the helicopter, it was more than whirling dust making his eyes water.

     Yakamoto scowled at him, as the helicopter veered away from the Downs. “What a shame!” he shouted over the engine noise. “You should have listened to me. Cornubia wouldn’t listen, either.”

     “What did you say to her?”  The helicopter banked, and Harry clutched the seats to keep from falling.

     “Cornubia knew the deal when she joined the Amistad, but she didn’t want to give up her child. She foolishly ran away. I went to great trouble to get her back from the Britain.”

     “Is that why you killed her?  Because she caused you trouble?”

     “She killed herself, Mr Muller.”

     “Don’t give me that. I saw her body. She was slit right open.”

     “We were taking her to Scotland when she threw herself from the helicopter. As she hit the roof of the Circus, she must have become caught on a protruding piece of glass. A tragic accident.”

     “You’re a sick man, Yakamoto, sending children to do your grave-robbing for you.”

     “I find ’grave robbing’ an ugly phrase. Why shouldn’t I make a profit from retrieving artefacts and selling them?  I give those children a home, and food, out of the profits.”

     “Those that survive, you mean?  Why little kids?”

     “Grown men would demand too much money to dive into waters that are toxic with death. And children are small. They can reach places adults can’t.”   He rose, moving sure-footed as the helicopter hovered. A red man pushed the door open. Glancing over his shoulder, Harry saw the glass dome of the Circus. The hum of the rotors disturbed the gulls feasting on Cornubia’s body, and they rose in a shrieking white cloud.

     Yakamoto took a step towards him, a knife gleaming in his hand. “It‘s all about convenience, Mr Muller. You have made yourself inconvenient today. I warned you it could be painful.”

     Harry lashed out with his foot. The blade spun out of Yakamoto’s hand, and the old man cursed. “Get him!”

     Two of the red men leapt on Harry, wrestling him towards the open door, when a massive explosion sent the helicopter spinning. As it whirled, Harry caught a sickening glimpse of the Great Britain, sails billowing as she raced up the Haymarket. He clicked his Pod. “Victoria!”

     “Harry! Where are you?”

     “On the helicopter. What the hell was that?”

     “A warning shot. Get out of there!”

     “Where to?”  But she had gone, and the thugs, regaining their feet, advanced on him. Harry, at the door, saw a puff of smoke rise from the Britain’s deck, heard the report of the cannon. He had nowhere else to go. He jumped.

     He crashed feet-first through the roof of the Circus, feeling the glass tear searing lines along both legs. Tangled with Cornubia’s body, they fell together, slamming into the sun-warmed water and down, far into the chilly depths. Harry saw mannequins staring at him from sunken shop windows as, with a burst of adrenaline, he kicked free of Cornubia and back up towards the light. And then the sun exploded, a fireball of red and orange flame. Harry dived, as the remaining glass shattered raining down around him. There was nowhere to go but down, until his lungs burned as hard as the sky.

     “Harry?”  He heard Victoria’s faint voice in his ear, but darkness gathered in his eyes, and it was impossible to answer.

 

*

 

Harry woke up in hospital, every limb bandaged and stinging. Victoria sat on his bed, eating grapes. His grapes, he was sure.

     “Grapes are for sick people,” he croaked. “Government rules.”

     “You’re not sick,” she replied, tartly. “Besides, Magda got you a whole seal, and the Dutch exiles gave a banquet in your honour. Too bad you missed it.”

     He tried to sit up without wincing, and failed. “Yakamoto?”

     “In a million bits, along with his helicopter. Those pirates are good shots. I wouldn’t want to piss them off.”

     Harry groaned. “How did you get there so fast?”

     “The Britain was coming to pick up Cornubia. I followed them, and gave them the drone data you sent ICon. When the helicopter turned up they weren’t going to miss their chance to avenge Cornubia and save those kids. Don’t blame them, either.”

     “The kids!  Did they find the baby?”

     “You mean this baby?”  Berkley appeared in the doorway, holding the baby awkwardly. Victoria tutted.

     “You’re holding him like a sack of spuds,” she chided. “Give him here.”  She offered him to Harry, who put his hands firmly behind his back. He was as clueless with babies as Berkley.

    “Captain Cutler said I could bring him in to see you,” Berkley said. “They’re naming him Coran. Coran Harry Penhallow.”

     “Hell of a name, poor kid.”  But Harry smiled. With the pirates of the Cumberland Basin looking after him, Coran Harry Penhallow would grow up with nothing larger than his name to worry about.

*****

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

(c) Joanne Hall 2009

If you enjoyed that, Future Bristol is still available from Amazon and includes stories by Liz Williams, Stephanie Burgis, Jim Mortimore and Gareth L Powell.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Future-Bristol-Colin-Harvey/dp/1934041939/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1392469810&sr=8-1&keywords=future+bristol

And for more futuristic West Country fun try Dark Spires, published by Wizard’s Tower.

http://wizardstowerpress.com/books-2/dark-spires/

Stay safe in the storms!

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