The Riddle of the Amazon

 

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Southampton Docks

19/04/1927 - 1:00 AM

A mist had gathered over Southampton, causing the electric lamps to cast glowing orbs of light that failed to pierce the dark of the night. A solitary, dark figure carrying a Gladstone bag moved silently, embraced by the fingering tendrils of mist, hidden by the patches of light that lined the dock. His was not the aimless wandering of one who was lost but the firm tread of one who knew his direction and his purpose, in spite of the confusion of the mist.

He continued his slow, regular pace until the moment he saw the mooring ropes of the great ship. He stopped and turned casually, as if he was making sure of his location. He walked over to the nearest light and, leaning against it, put down his bag and reached into his great coat for a cigarette and his lighter. The lighter flamed into life and he lit his cigarette, inhaling deeply.

The darkness that followed was as unexpected as it had been sudden. All that could be seen for any appreciable distance was the dull, angry glowing of the cigarette. The heavy dampness of the mist muffled any sounds, save the quiet noises of water lapping against the hull of the ship. The sudden darkness had not confused the dark figure, he had expected it from the moment that he had pulled out his lighter.

He stood smoking, waiting. All was going as it had been arranged. He had proceeded down the wharf to where the mooring ropes of RMS Amazon marked a convenient location for his meeting. The well-paid engineer had waited for the lighting of the cigarette before cutting off the lights along the wharf. All that remained was the one thing that the dark figure had no control over; the arrival of his contact. The cigarette smouldered in the dark, marking the point of meeting.

He found the sound of nervous footsteps approaching along the dock most satisfying. He took another pull of his cigarette, threw it to the ground and crushed it as he exhaled. The footsteps stopped and were replaced by a nervous voice.

"Are you there?" inquired the nasal voice. The response of the dark figure was most shocking after his silence.

"Of course I'm here...I keep appointments that I make"

"To be sure. It's just...you can't be too careful," the footsteps resumed as they came closer. The dark figure placed his hands in his pockets before starting to quiz the nervous ship's steward.

"Did anyone see you leaving the ship?"

"No...everyone else is asleep. I say...can we get this over with? I don't want to be missed from my rack."

"But of course. Do you have what I asked for?" The steward passed a bundle of folded pages to the dark figure.

"As you asked, the ship's manifest. Every passenger, every piece of cargo, every last one of the ship's supplies, just as you asked. Though I can't understand why you needed it so badly from me." The dark figure chuckled mirthlessly.

"I'm sure it is hard to understand. Maybe this will help." The steward did not know anything was wrong until the blade had passed between his ribs and into his heart. The tearing pain would have made him cry out, but the breath had also been knocked out of his lungs. As he hit the deck and tried to keep himself up on his knees the sickening thought occurred to him that this would be the place that he died. He could do nothing as the dark figure knelt beside him.

"You see, I'm taking your place on this voyage. No hard feelings old boy, just business. There is something that I absolutely have to do, and the only way that I can do it is to be on this boat. And seeing as how we are quite similar in appearance and size, and you have an unfortunate habit of keeping to yourself while in the middle of the rest of the crew, it will be all to easy for me to take your place. Believe me when I say that if there was any other way to do this, I would."

The dark figure reached into the Gladstone bag and retrieved a set of weights attached to a rope which he tied around the steward, even as the poor man fought for his last breaths. Having attached the weights the dark figure took hold of his bag and stood.

"Like I said old boy...no hard feelings," and with a final shove of his foot sent the steward plunging into the dark waters below the dock. The dark figure turned, tossing the blood-stained knife into the harbour after his victim, and walked to the gangplank. He ascended to the deck and walked to the where he knew the Steward's quarters were located. It was only when he closed the door that the lights sprang to life again, their jaundiced glow showing nothing of what had just passed.

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