Just published: a standalone ebook edition of my novelette, “The People of the Sea”. It’s a story of duty and adventure, in an eighteenth century England where worlds collide and mermaids might just wash up on the beach. The ebook includes an afterword about where the story came from.
A brief extract:
He paused where the scrub gave way to salt-marsh. He would be a fool to follow the trail any further. A few years ago, when he had first been employed as a Riding Officer, he would have mounted his horse and set off in search of one of the regular patrols of dragoons and they could have returned to confront the smugglers on the beach. But circumstances had changed: the soldiers were in Europe, fighting the French, the Spanish and the Prussians over the succession to the Austrian throne; those that remained were too few for the protection of a mere officer of the Revenue.
He tied the mare deep in a thicket of gorse and pine, then emerged and climbed to the top of a low ridge, from where he could survey the saltings. The overgrown mud-flats extended for maybe three furlongs ahead of him, before being cut through by the silver ribbon of a tidal creek. Beyond, the shaggy grey-green mat extended to Pewit Island and across Hamford Water and more saltings to the earth cliffs of the Naze three miles away, now smudged grey by the clouds and drizzle.
He was about to go for his horse and ride out to investigate when he saw a line of dark figures returning across the marshes. He had decided there must be nobody out there, but they had merely been obscured by a ridge of dunes formed where the first creek joined a larger one. Wheatley scrambled back into the thicket. If he rode off now he would be seen and pursued. His best hope was to stay hidden with his horse and hope they would be too distracted to notice him.
He waited for what seemed like forever and then he heard the voices growing steadily louder. He had guessed right: they had been drinking while they worked, the liquor part of the payment for their labour.
Wheatley peered out from his hiding place. It was a group of about thirty — men, women and children. Most would work on the farms: their pay — and other benefits — from a few hours unloading boats in the saltings would probably double their week’s wage. He watched closely, willing his horse to remain quiet as he committed the evidence of his eyes to memory. He had only been in Harwich for a year, but still he was able to identify a number of those who paraded so unwittingly before him. Tall, cadaverous Robert Ames from Little Oakley was a man they had suspected for some time. So too were Robert Crompton and Forbes Clay from Dovercourt. And although he was not here in person, Wheatley was certain that the single chaise loaded with several half-ankers of spirit and two mud-daubed infants belonged to Thomas Cann, landlord of the King’s Head in Harwich.
As he watched, Joseph Wheatley considered that if he could prove charges against these people, they would be transported to the colonies and all their goods seized and sold. He knew they would do almost anything to stop him.
He froze, aware that movement would be the surest betrayal of his presence, as he saw four men following a little behind the main party. They were talking and laughing, but there was something in their expressions that marked them apart from the group they trailed. That, and the guns and broadswords they carried. The locals were merely the paid labour: these men were the real bandits, along with their colleagues out at sea.
If these men saw him, they would kill him without compunction. Under the Act of 1736, the penalty for any assault on a Revenue man was death on the gibbet, but he knew that the King’s law carried little weight out here. This was smuggler’s country and the laws people obeyed were the laws of the smuggler. The gangs were far more efficient than any force marshalled by the King or his Parliament.
The People of the Sea is available from: