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The Tide Watchers

Chapter One
Étaples, France (by the English Channel)
August 16, 1802
“Commander, we got another semaphore message from the ship.”
The muffled words were a shade too loud, proud and English for their current position, on the Étaples-Boulogne road. King’s Man and unlisted ship’s commander Duncan Aylsham parted the curtain of the hired coach, and let the window right down. His skinny, freckle-faced cabin boy Mark met Duncan’s quelling frown with a grin. Instead of knocking on the coach roof from his seat on the box as his commander had ordered, he’d leaped down and was hanging monkey-like onto the running board of the moving coach. His eyes, blue as the summer sky behind, laughed too; even his shock of spiky red hair glistened as if in comical argument. The damn boy knew the protocol, the way to act and speak, but never did unless it was forced from him.
“What did you say? Who am I? And what country are we currently journeying in?” he demanded in French, in a tone calculated to dampen pretension.
“Lor’ love yer, monsieur, I tol’ yer, I got it,” Mark switched to French while managing to keep his Cockney accent. Duncan longed to grab one of the ears sticking out from his head and pull it. “I’m Marcus René Balfour, coach boy from the slums o’ Paris. Ye’re nobody’s commander, an’ you ain’t got no ship. You’re a gennelman of means—a Frog gennelman. But what’s the point in wastin’ time on the lies when there ain’t a body about to appreciate it?”
Duncan spoke through gritted teeth. “You obviously do not get it, or you wouldn’t half-scream the word ‘semaphore’. And once you start using an identity, never leave it until it’s dangerous or no longer needed. No selfrespecting agent would dream of being so stupid.”
The boy’s face fell to ludicrous proportions.
“This is your first mission, and it will be your last with me,” Duncan reinforced the lesson in icy tones. “I don’t reward disobedience and insubordination.”
The boy stammered, “But, monsieur, I didn’t … you know I’m good –”
“What you’ll be is thrashed before you’re much older, boy, unless you respect your betters and obey,” Second Lieutenant Burton growled from the box in flawless French.
Mark stiffened, and muttered a sulky apology beneath his breath. If there was one person that did frighten him, it was the stiff-rumped Burton, who no doubt would thrash him … later.
Not even Burton would dare to beat Mark when their commander was near. Abusive sailors were sent back to England without pay or recommendation, a semaphore message sent ahead informing Duncan’s superior officer so any complaints were cut off at the feet. Mark might irritate Duncan to the point of thinking about whipping him, but he’d never do it—even if the boy deserved it all too often. Naval discipline was harsh and inflexible; but they weren’t in the Royal Navy, and Duncan’s title of commander was a courtesy. Otherwise Mark’s back would be flayed to shreds by now, his spirit cowed. What would an intimidated Mark look like? He’d never find out … no matter how tempting it was. He was a child.
Mark had been discovered picking pockets on a London street, and was whisked to Whitehall before he could be adopted by a local street-gang, which was why he’d been assigned to Duncan. The look in the boy’s eyes when they’d met that day in London—the fear and the defiance—had sung a familiar song. Two peas from the same pod. Brothers from a different mother, the same kind of father: lessons learned at the end of a fist, or the point of a whip.
“You’re not good yet. We’re in a perilous situation so for God’s sake, practice self-discipline. No one can become an effective team member—or leader—without it. Any member of my crew is sent home without a recommendation for further work unless they display obedience and respect—and don’t think you can get around that. You’ve worn out your chances. Do exactly as you’re told, without argument, or you’re gone.”
“Oui, monsieur. I’m sorry, monsieur.”
Duncan almost laughed at the boy’s hanging head, the chastened tone—now in perfect, fluid French. The boy wanted to be a King’s Man that much. “Now, unless Le Breton”—he remembered Burton’s cover name just in time—“decoded the flags, I won’t hear it from you.”
Mark nodded. “Oui, monsieur, I’m sorry, monsieur.” Even his obedience managed to sound cheeky: a mystery Duncan, cut from another cloth, would never be able to unravel.
“What’s the message, Le Breton?” Duncan called, satisfied the boy understood he wasn’t in charge of the mission.
In a long-suffering tone, Burton said, “He has it, monsieur, word for word. I didn’t teach him,” he hastened to add.
Duncan almost chuckled at the thought of it. Of all his crew, only First Lieutenant Flynn was more enamored of the rule-book, or versed in respect for his betters than Burton. “It’s as well I believe you.” Speaking in harsh tones to inferiors kept order on a mission; but after almost a year on this one bloody mission, both order and patience were in short supply.
Six months they’d trawled through Paris, which was barely any cleaner or more civilized now than during the hideous Reign of Terror. The past five months they’d combed the cities and towns of France, performing sundry missions for the highly secret British Alien Office as they went. But now, even he found it hard to find reasons to tell his loyal crew that Eddie’s daughter was still alive. Both Burton and Flynn had told him the men were muttering about going home to their families. One or two men were bordering on mutiny.
Duncan had no family to go home to, and owed Eddie too much to give up. A month ago he’d sent the worst two mutterers back to England on half-pay, with no recommendation for further missions. The other mutterers were confined to ship, with the austere Flynn in charge. Now Duncan had only the stoic Burton—and, reduced to desperation, Mark—on this final leg of the mission: the Channel Coast, the last stop before they returned to England. The boy had been begging and bragging of his abilities for months. How much of a disaster could it be?
Not quite a disaster, but no matter how hard he or Burton made it for the boy, the cheeky brat adored every moment of the experience. The boy reveled in showing off his fluent French—how he’d learned it was a mystery he wasn’t sharing—and showing off other knowledge he’d gleaned by illegitimate means. Since joining the crew, he’d been shooed away from beneath the ship’s forecastle too many times to count. Fifty, sixty times he’d been caught memorizing the movement of the coder’s arms and position of the flags that made up a letter, number or a coded sentence. Burton and Flynn, his best coders, had thrashed the boy until a furious Duncan had forbidden it, but the little blighter only ever said, “Me da could show you lot a fing or free about a good whippin’,” and laughed as he danced away.
If Mark had been born in France, no doubt he’d have led the rabble to the Bastille. Burton would have been one of the valiant guards that fell at the gates, fighting for his king—and the chalk and cheese of his current team made it bloody exhausting to be the commander.
Tiring of the wait, Mark jumped into the conversation, but kept low. Thank God for that. Even in Napoleon’s France you never knew who was listening, or where. A wrong word and anyone could end up in prison to rot, or with their heads lying beneath the guillotine. Memories of the Terror were slow to fade, especially from the minds of ambitious men, or spiteful women—and none were in greater danger than agents from the British Alien Office. “Mr. Zephyr sent the message, monsieur.” His words were subdued, even a little respectful.
Duncan held in the laugh at the awed tone in which the boy gave their spymaster’s codename, and the ‘Mr.’ in front. William Windham, codename Zephyr, didn’t give a damn if he was respected or not. One simply obeyed, because one didn’t dare to do otherwise.
During his few weeks of basic training, Mark had made the mistake of demanding while in Windham’s hearing, “I want a codename like what the ‘nob’ agents got.”
A haughty face, a single lifted brow, and the belligerence stuttered to silence.
“Codenames are for those who have a position to uphold, a great deal to lose if they’re discovered. You are bloody lucky to be here. If you don’t like the way I do things, go back to your East London stews.” With that, Windham had turned his back on the boy.
Odd, how three sentences had done what months of thrashings and threats had not. Mark held a passionate admiration for, and morbid fear of angering his spymaster.
He’d once been that boy with his first spymaster, William Wickham, now retired to Ireland. And Eddie Sunderland. Always Eddie.
Leaning back against the badly sprung squabs of the coach, he listened to Mark’s bragging tone with half an ear, wishing the day wasn’t so damned hot. He felt as if he was breathing in wet heat. If he could shrug off his jacket, as he would back on board ship—but his current cover was that of an up-and-coming businessman too conscious of his social position to ever let his inferiors see him so dishabille.
“What?” he barked on catching a word. “Say that again!”
The boy refrained from rolling his eyes this time. “Mr. Zephyr said that bonkers Lord Camelford’s on the lam again. Mr. Pitt, ’e’s right upset about his cousin lobbin’ off. Wants ’im found afore he kills some other poor blighty. Ought to ’ave been put in the Fleet years ago, or Bedlam, more like. Leastways, you’re to look out for ’im. They fink ’e’s headin’ this way.”
“Not that, the other,” he snapped, but taking that piece of information into account. Bloody Camelford, what’s he up to this time? Mark’s right, he ought to be locked up.
After being tossed off a few ships in his early naval career, Thomas Pitt, known as ‘The Mad Baron,’ had stalked his former Captain and caned him half to death on a London street in revenge for administering correct naval discipline, and had been ousted from the Navy for shooting a lieutenant for insubordination; but because of his rank, and being first cousin to Prime Minister Pitt—not to mention a great deal of hush-money paid to Camelford’s victims, or family—there had been no further punishment. Since then he’d been involved in two public duels, and probably several more Duncan hadn’t heard about. Just four months ago he’d been deported from France for a spoken intention to kill First Consul Bonaparte. Boney’s men had found him in Calais, confiscated his faux travel pass, saw him onto a packet for Dover, and made it clear to the British government that he was to never return to France.
Ten to one he was planning to kill Boney for the public humiliation to the great name of Pitt. In Camelford’s mind the Pitt family could only find their equal in the king and God himself (and being German Stuart descendants, mere Scots royalty, maybe even the king didn’t rate).
So now as well as trying to find the runaway girl and learn what her husband was up to now, he had an insane baron to add to the list. Wonderful. It seemed the aristocracy couldn’t keep their family members under control.
Mark’s loud expulsion of breath brought Duncan back to the words that had grabbed his wandering attention in the first place—and he noted with satisfaction that Mark had at last begun to use the mint paste he’d given the boy to clean his teeth and mouth. “Mr. Zephyr, he said”—pause, for dramatic effect—“‘Letter from Bertie Greatheed. He says you might find Eddie’s girl in Abbeville, working in a tavern on the Amiens-Calais road’.”
Duncan’s heart sank. Abbeville was almost forty miles south, and on bad coastal roads. “Turn the coach south, and spring ’em. I want to be in Abbeville by morning.”

The Tide Watchers
by by Lisa Chaplin

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0062379127
  • ISBN-13: 9780062379122