He was standing on the bridge of his ship, embedded in a dense, cloying fog that caused him to cough and choke when merely taking a breath. He tried to hold on to the railing of the bridge, but it was hot to the touch, nearly enough to burn his fingers.
He called for his First Mate, but there was no answer. He turned to go back into the interior of the ship. Perhaps he could breathe more easily there. But he couldn’t find the door in the fog. Coughing overtook him, and he felt himself sliding toward the deck … there were voices but he couldn’t make them out …
He opened his eyes and saw the blurred form of a policeman standing above him. Things slowly came into focus and he found himself on a sofa in the lobby of his hotel. The air was smoky and he coughed again.
Someone passed him a glass of water and he managed to drink, though some of it spilled onto his uniform shirt.
“There was a fire in your room, sir,” someone was saying. The hotel clerk? “Lucky for you someone was coming down the hall and noticed. We had to break down the door and I believe we got you out just in time. Luckily the fire hadn’t spread and the staff were able to put it out.”
“The window,” the Admiral said. “Something came through it.”
“Don’t know about that, sir,” the policeman said. “Seemed like you knocked over the lamp is what it was. But don’t try to talk now. You’re off for the hospital and someone will take your statement later.”
“Hospital?” the Admiral said. “No time … ” His words were interrupted by more coughing.
“Yes, sir, hospital it is and there’s no arguing it,” the policeman said.
It was several hours until the doctor who examined him pronounced him fit to leave. The hotel would give him a different room, and the police would be by in the morning. But the Admiral had the feeling that they wouldn’t be able to do anything.
No doubt that any evidence had been burned, as had the despatches. The Admiral was certain that his new mission and the attack upon him were related. But he couldn’t discuss any of that with the police. He’d have to try to see the Lord Admiral again, if that were possible.
# # #
The Admiral got back to his hotel after four in the morning. There would be little sleep. He dozed for a couple of hours and then prepared to go to the docks to see about the preparations of his ship. He’d get word to the Lord Admiral as well.
As he was about to leave, near nine o’clock in the morning, a message was handed to him. It was from Julianna.
“Come tonight after dinner if you wish. –J.”
After dinner, and if you wish. Not very encouraging, but he would go nonetheless.
In the meanwhile, though, there was much to do. He took a hansom cab to the docks, from where he sent a message to the Lord Admiral, urgently requesting a meeting.
His ship was a hive of activity. Tradesmen and laborers were everywhere, putting everything into shape for departure. They must have been working through the night from the looks of things; there was a tremendous amount to do, as the ship had barely arrived in port and had to be made ready for another long journey. Wagon after wagon pulled up to the loading ramps, delivering all manner of supplies.
The Admiral saw a long day ahead of him, just making sure everything was in order.
The crew would be filing in throughout the day as well. That was another problem. They wouldn’t be very happy and no doubt they would want explanations from the ship’s ranking officer— himself. And he wasn’t quite sure what he was supposed to say.
He threw himself into the work. He was signing off on a delivery of salt meat when a messenger came up to him. “From the Lord Admiral’s Office, sir,” the man said, and quickly left, not waiting for a reply.
Not a good sign. The Admiral quickly broke the seal on the envelope and extracted a small sheet of paper. “Lord Admiral is away for several days. Please make an appointment for some time in the next week.” It was signed by the Lord Admiral’s secretary.
There was no one else with whom to discuss the previous evening’s attack, given the high level of secrecy surrounding his assignment. The police had quickly concluded that the Admiral had stumbled or fallen and knocked the lamp off the table, starting the fire. The lump on his head was ascribed to his hitting his head on something as he fell. Short of additional statements to the contrary, they had nothing to pursue and were happy to close the case.
They couldn’t explain the shattered window, except to say it must have been caused by the fire. They conveniently overlooked the fact that most of the glass was on the inside of the room, not outside on the ground, indicating that the window had been imploded rather than exploded.
Things just didn’t add up— except in one way, if everything were to be inter-related. Perhaps that way lay paranoia, but what else was there to think?
Too many other things to worry about. The day would pass quickly.
The men indeed were not happy. But they were, for the most part, loyal and obedient, and by evening a large percentage of the ship’s complement had been located and had answered the call to duty. The Admiral expected that by morning, nearly everyone would be there, and the last few remaining berths would be filled with locally available Navy men.
The Admiral wasn’t sure when to go to Julianna’s. “After dinner” at her home might mean nine or even ten o’clock in the evening. He decided on ten as a safe option, and it would give him some extra hours to complete the endless checks, rechecks, and attendant paperwork. He thought he was done with that for a while, but if government runs on anything, it is paper.
# # #
Time passed quickly. The Admiral had to deal with a few squabbles among unhappy crew members, and was still awaiting the arrival of some of his officers when he realized it was already nine o’clock in the evening, and he had barely eaten all day. There was no time for dinner now; he would have to find a cab to take to Julianna’s in the next quarter-hour or so. Just enough time to change into a dress uniform; his everyday uniform was, by now, soiled from a long day of work.
He went to his cabin and had tea sent in, his normal work-a-day tea: Huang Shan Mao Feng, a classic, large leaf Chinese green tea.
He had just finished freshening up and changing when there was a knock at his door. First Mate Hurley, he hoped; it was about time the man appeared.
Not that the Admiral would be angry with him. Hurley lived some distance to the north of London, and had set off at once to see his family; it would have taken a little while to get word to him and even more time for him to return. And, however reluctant he might have been to cut short his family time, he would follow orders.
The knocking at his cabin door grew louder and more insistent. That was very unlike Hurley, who was unfailingly polite and respectful with his superior officers.
“Come!” the Admiral called. If it wasn’t Hurley, it was an unwelcome visit; he had to get off the ship and on his way.
The door opened quickly and a man in Naval officer’s garb entered. The Admiral had never seen him before.
“Yes?” the Admiral said.
The man was tall and thin, with a swarthy complexion and a thin moustache trimmed in something approximating Naval fashion. Something didn’t sit right, but the Admiral couldn’t tell what it was.
“I am Rudolfo Monticello,” the man said.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know you, Captain Monticello. What is your business here? I have only a minute, as I must leave for an appointment.”
The man smiled, showing uneven teeth. “I can imagine,” he said.
The Admiral bristled but didn’t reply. What sort of impertinence was this?
“But in any case, I am here to tell you that I will be your First Mate in the absence of Mr. Hurley.”
“What are you talking about?” The Admiral couldn’t avoid taking a sharp tone.
“As I clearly said. Mr. Hurley cannot be found, so I will take his place.”
“By whose authority? I was told nothing of this.”
Monticello pulled a despatch from his jacket pocket and silently handed it to the Admiral, who opened it and read it.
“By order of the Lord Admiral … ” The rest confirmed what Monticello was saying.
“This is highly irregular.”
“You would contradict the Lord Admiral?”
“This is my ship. I will do as I see fit and you will not question me, Mr. Monticello.”
The man said nothing.
“The correct response is ‘Aye, aye, sir’,” the Admiral said.
“Aye, aye, sir,” Monticello said, saluting. It seemed as much defiance as it was obedience.
What was it that was out of place with all this?
“Dismissed, Mr. Monticello. I have no more time. You will spend the night on shore until I can look into this further.”
“Admiral, I have already moved my sea bags into the First Mate’s cabin.”
“Then move them out again. You do not have permission to be aboard.”
“As you say, Admiral.” Without a further salute, Monticello left the Admiral’s cabin, slamming the door behind him.
The Admiral checked his timepiece. Already nine forty-five! He went out quickly, but took the time to carefully lock his cabin door. On his way down the gangway, he told the sailors on watch, “Be sure that Mr. Monticello does not board the ship again without my permission.”
The sailors looked at each other, bewildered, but the Admiral was already hurrying across the docks in the direction of the street.
Our next episode, “Goodbye, Then,” will appear on or about April 23, 2019.
Story Copyright (C) 2019 Bob Newell. All images used are believed to be in the public domain.
You can enjoy Admiral Grey’s work-a-day tea at your own home or office. Huang Shan Mao Feng is a classic, large leaf Chinese green tea, mild and sweet with enough caffeine to keep the work going but not enough to add any tension to already strained nerves.
It’s a classic Chinese green tea where only the new tea buds and the leaf next to the bud are picked. Light and fresh, slightly nutty with a floral sweetness and a pale apricot color. It can be ordered from Tea Trader.