Under the Storm Shield
Chapter 1: The Blockade Runner
The flak cannons on Tower Bridge threaded the sky with shrapnel, as the countless warehouse lights around them dimmed and went out. Far above, the barely visible sheen of the shield that protected London from solar storms glinted in the twilight.
Drake Mason watched as the City’s gunners caught one of the small planes; it spiralled into the docklands below, a trail of fire streaming behind it.
“Scouts…” muttered Isla Mason, craning her neck to look out from the boat’s cockpit, without once taking her hands off the wheel.
“Damned if they’re not from Holland again.”
Drake was on the water with his mother, an Inspector in the Thames River Police, like so many of her family before her. They both wore uniform; navy coveralls with a slimline life vest, although Drake’s was slightly too big and had been cut back at the cuffs and ankles. Even the smallest sizes weren’t designed for fifteen-year-olds.
The Pool of London was packed with watercraft of all kinds; trading schooners from Istanbul jostled with Mercenaries Guild ironclads, their solid bulk sat in the water like squat little fortresses. The crew aboard a long-distance merchantman, emblazoned with the insignia of the Bank of Hamburg, frantically tried to reset it’s rigging to escape the air raid, whilst a monitor of the London Fleet slunk out towards its berth near Shadwell, its low profile hiding a lethal array of artillery. All around, the smaller, more agile craft of the watermen scuttled about, urgently taking cargo ashore.
As if on cue, the raid siren started to howl, and the frantic energy around the bridge intensified.
“Shouldn’t we head back to the station?” asked Drake, unnerved by the panic around them.
His mother’s auburn, braided hair flicked from side to side as she shook her head.
“It’ll be easier to spot them in the rush,” she said calmly, “now keep your eyes peeled. Don’t forget; you’ve got a job to do.”
They were searching for a smuggling vessel which was high on the Lord Mayor’s wanted list. It was a blockade runner called the Broken Irons, although it had cycled through many names in its lifetime of evading capture. Smuggling was a common enough practice in the Port of London, and so policing it sometimes felt like an impossible, endless task. The Broken Irons, however, had recently been linked to more lethal crimes - smuggling explosives to dissidents in Whitechapel, amongst other things - which warranted its escalation right to the top of the watchlist.
Drake held his spyglass ready, although everything was far too close for it to be of any use while they were nipping in and out of the barges and cargo sloops in the Pool.
It was one the busiest ports in the world and it throbbed with activity. Their patrol craft, the RP6, was a customised river police cruiser, and was agile enough to zip between the melee of bigger ships buffeting into each other amidst the swell and panic of the raid.
“Sloop…” Drake counted out as they passed ship after ship, tightly packed near the moorings, “brigantine…paddle steamer…diesel caravel…”
“What’s that?” asked Isla from the wheel, pointing to a gap between a couple of metal grain barges.
Drake extended his spyglass and peered past the barges. Sure enough, there was the distinctive, sleek and low-slung silhouette of a blockade runner, its armoured paddle wheels in the centre, with steam funnels above, and three sail masts either side.
“That’s it!” shouted Drake, trying to make his voice heard over the wailing sirens.
His mother gunned the engine and the propeller chopped at the water behind them. The RP6 reared up like a horse and powered forwards towards the suspect ship. Within a few minutes they had reached it, and they slowed down for the final approach. Even though the ship sat low in the water, its sides still towered over the small police craft. The familiar hum of the loudspeaker crackled over the air, as Drake’s mother prepared to call out to the Broken Irons.
But before she could say a word, there was the ‘crack!’ of a rifle, and the edge of the RP6 next to Drake sparked. He flinched and ducked below the armoured flank of the boat, and he heard the rumbling of the blockade runner’s engine, followed by the heavy ‘thwup, thwup, thwup,’ of the paddles churning into the murky Thames water.
“Are you alright?” came Isla’s voice, as she rushed out from the cockpit to check on her son.
Drake looked up at Isla, her eyes full of concern, and nodded.
“Let’s go,” he said, as his mother hoisted him up, and helped him to the cockpit. Their quarry had slipped away, hiding between the countless craft clogging up the river. With their eyes searching for the Broken Irons, the police cruiser cut through the turbulent water, nimbly jumping between the carnage of ships turning in every direction, as the bombs started falling around them. A barge on their port side exploded after it received a direct hit.
“Damn them,” cursed Isla, “these raids are getting worse. It’s like they know their way past the batteries.”
They shot out from the cluster of boats and barges into more open water around Rotherhithe. The river was populated by even larger ships here, waiting for their slot to enter the docklands peninsula to unload their cargo. The Limehouse ferry, distinctive by its chugging engine and multiple decks packed with travellers, was straining to reach the northern bank of the river and disgorge its passengers to the relative safety of the shore.
Outside the shield’s protection, the scorched, abandoned towers of Canary Wharf loomed over them. The bottom few floors, Drake knew, had been colonised by some of the poorer Londoners, and he could just make out the flickering of fires and coalsmoke. The regular solar storms meant there was no electricity beyond the shield, with all machinery burnt out a long time ago, but the ruined towers were at least safe from the land raiders that terrorised anyone too far from the City’s walls.
“There!” shouted Drake, but his mother had already seen it. The Broken Irons was halfway around the river bend. Isla kicked the patrol craft’s engine into full power, and they sped off in pursuit.
The water was deceptively choppy, and they crashed through it with a ‘thud! thud! thud!’ as the ships ahead of them scattered and dispersed, trying to avoid the bombs falling all around, peppering the river like stones landing in a pond.
A huge fountain erupted scarcely twenty metres from the police boat, showering them with water and deafening them with the dulled, underwater explosion. Drake quickly grabbed hold of the side of the craft as the first wave, over a metre high, rippled out from the impact and rocked them to the side. The engine spluttered as part of the propeller came out of the water, and Drake could feel his feet beginning to lift as the boat tilted to a steep, unnerving angle, before crashing back down into the swell with a shuddering, wet ‘thump!’
His mother was piloting the fast little boat with decades of skill and experience, but despite all of this, the blockade runner was expanding its lead.
“We’re going to lose it!” shouted Drake, over the churning river and thundering of bombs.
Isla, a picture of concentration, picked up the radio on the dash.
“Take control,” she said, and Drake lunged across to grab the ship’s wheel just as his mother released it.
“Patrol boat six to Surrey Gate, over,” she snapped into the radio.
“Repeat, this is patrol boat six to Surrey Gate, come in please, over.”
The static crackled over the line as Drake piloted them through the treacherous waters, focusing hard on the direction of the waves coming at them, and making sure they cut through them at just the right angle.
“This is Surrey Gate, over,” came the gruff response. Drake had met the militiamen who manned the dock forts before, often at the pubs and inns of Ratcliffe. They were intimidating to a man, and always spoiled for a fight – he was grateful they were on his side.
“We’re pursuing a blockade runner towards the shield edge, assistance needed, over.”
“We see you, six. Any concern over collateral? Over.”
“Negative, we need to bring them in, over.”
The gate towers of Surrey Quays came into view on their starboard side; huge, concrete bulwarks standing either side of a gap in an impenetrable wall. They guarded the main entrance to the biggest dock complex in London. Hidden behind the walls were innumerable warehouse complexes and dockers yards, arranged around several huge, rectangular slabs of water, all connected through a series of gates. The towers had enormous searchlights fixed to the outside on giant rails that ran all the way around, and sinister holes in the wall that concealed an arsenal of weaponry.
Their quarry sped away from them as fast as it could. Drake knew they would be trying to break through the invisible boundary of the shield, past the mercenaries that guarded the estuary, and out into the open, dangerous waters of the channel.
But just as the smugglers passed the gates to the docks, there was a muffled ‘thunk!’ and a volley of huge, whale-hunting harpoons shot out from the southern guard tower on the Surrey Gate. One landed in the water, short of the Broken Irons, but two others thudded straight into its hull. Great, thick steel cables now stretched from the blockade runner up to the immoveable, concrete guard tower. The Irons, rocked sidewards by the impact, nevertheless continued to speed forward, until the great cables used up their slack and pulled taught. With a vicious grinding noise, it buckled back, the prow of the ship even rearing up out of the water as it strained to escape. Under the effort, Drake saw the engine plume with black smoke and then, suddenly, with a shattering explosion, completely give in.
The Broken Irons crashed back down into the water and lay there, still, like a dangerous animal playing dead.
With their quarry now motionless, it took less than five minutes for their patrol boat to catch up. Already, though, a barque of dock militia had sallied out from the Surrey Gate, and fired boarding cannons over the side of the ship. As they approached, Drake could hear the commotion aboard the smuggler’s vessel, as militiamen hauled themselves up the ropes, and over the sides.
“Wait,” said Isla, and Drake steadied the craft, letting it bob close by the much larger vessel. The sound of a brief, vicious battle erupted; a few gunshots, the clashing of steel, and shouts of surprise. A few moments later, the face of a grizzled militia captain peered over the edge of the Broken Irons.
“Six?” he grunted.
“Confirm!” shouted Isla in response.
“Ships clear,” came the response. “Want to inspect the haul?”
Isla and Drake anchored their boat and threw up a rope ladder. The militia captain caught it, and secured it on deck, allowing them to scramble up the ladder with the ease of a well-practiced drill.
The captain looked exactly as Drake imagined; stocky, rugged, with a thick, wiry beard that was practically a hallmark of the militiamen across the Port of London. He had assembled the captive smugglers on the deck of the Broken Irons.
All around them, anti-air turrets across the docklands were pumping rounds into the night sky, creating a patchwork of searchlights and tracer rounds that danced with the dark, menacing shapes of the bombers that rumbled through the air. There was a sudden flash, where one had been hit, followed quickly afterwards by a huge, roaring blast as the explosive cargo detonated. Drake shielded his eyes from the bright, incandescent light from the destroyed bomber, as it’s blackened, hollowed out chassis crashed into the river close by.
The captain, unperturbed by the maelstrom above them, invited them to inspect the prisoners, who were all lined up with their hands tied. Several militiamen stood behind them, with guns raised. Drake pulled a piece of paper from his jacket, and checked the picture on it for resemblance amongst the men in front of him.
Faust Hackett. A smuggler of renown, well known to the Port of London; he had been rampaging through the waters of Europe for close to a decade.
Halfway along the line was a man that matched the picture almost perfectly. He was a stocky, scarred man in a weather-beaten coat and big workers boots. At first glance, he could have been just another waterman, but there was just something peculiar about him; despite the bloody skirmish on his ship, he remained calm and unruffled, and simply stared back at Drake as he walked along the line.
“That’s him,” said Drake, gesturing back to his mother, who walked over to grab Hackett by his handcuffs.
“Get the ship into dry dock and lock the others up; I’ll send some officers around to tidy up the paperwork.”
The militiaman nodded.
“Righto,” he said, with a casual salute.
Drake swung himself back down to the patrol craft as his mother supervised the smuggler down the rope ladder, like they’d done dozens of times before. Isla sat with the smuggler on the back of the boat on the return journey, as Drake piloted them through the water. The bombing raid had subsided, and the river was littered with burnt out ships and crashed planes. On the riverbanks, warehouse complexes were blackened and riddled with shrapnel, but the few fires that had broken out were not spreading with speed. London had been seeing off raids of this kind for a few years now, and so was well accustomed to protecting its valuable docks. However, they had definitely increased in regularity over the past few months, and the rival port of Rotterdam, the largest on the continent, was the public enemy firmly in the frame.
It took them close to ten minutes to make their way back to the police station at Inverness Wharf. It was an old, jumbled mix of buildings, some over four hundred years old, that merged together under a cascade of roofs. A cluster of electronic radio equipment protruded from the very top, and on the river front, a bulky enclosed pier held the repair yard. Drake piloted them carefully into the pontoon dock and slipped the rope lock over the mooring.
The three of them stomped up the metal gantry to the police station, with Drake’s footfalls notably lighter than the two adults ahead of him. Isla nudged open the door and they walked in, but what was normally a bustling, jovial hive of activity and comings-and-goings was unnervingly quiet. It took Drake a moment to realise that it wasn’t empty. Sergeant Briggs, usually a stern, dominating presence in the station, was sat meekly behind his desk, taking care not to look up. At the far side of the room, near the door to the garage, Constable Arkwright was standing, nervously alert.
“What’s going on?” asked Isla, sensing the strange atmosphere. It was as if a spectre had descended on the station and was haunting its occupants. Briggs nodded his head towards the Inspector’s office.
“Help me with his fella, would you,” asked Isla, as she walked towards the office, with Drake following closely behind. Briggs stood up and attended to Hackett. Isla and Drake approached the small room, the glass panels facing into the main office space covered by full length shutters, and pushed open the door.
Stood behind the desk was a tall, sinister man in a flat cap and a dark blue trench coat with a high collar, that obscured his real outline. He was flanked by two, even larger men in black, functional jackets, with their heads bowed and their hands behind their backs.
Even before the tall man revealed his badge, Drake knew what he was. Rumours swirled around the City about the Lord Mayor’s Spycatchers; shadowy figures who operated in a grey area of authority, hunting down perceived threats to London with unrepentant zeal.
As the man pulled the dull, iron badge from the deep pocket of his trench to confirm his rank, Drake’s mother straightened up.
“Sir,” she said, in an uneasy voice.
The tall man breathed quietly for a few moments, allowing silence to settle uncomfortably into the small office.
“Congratulations,” he said, slowly, “on your work this evening.”
“Er…thank you…” said Isla.
“I will be taking him off your hands now.”
“Hackett, you mean?” asked Isla.
“Why? He’s just a smuggler,” inquired Drake, his curiosity momentarily overcoming any fear. His mother turned and shot him a look to be quiet, but the tall man just smiled.
“Faust Hackett is a Grade IV threat to the City,” he said.
“Grade IV?!” exclaimed Isla Mason, “but that’s…”
“Well above your station, yes,” said the tall man, “and not anything you need to ask any more questions about.”
He remained perfectly still. All his movements were slight, measured, and calculated. It reminded Drake of the spiders he would see under the docks; stationary until they needed to pounce, and then fast as lightning.
“Would you kindly bring him in?” he asked, and Isla called out to the policemen in the main office.
Briggs jostled the smuggler through into the office. As soon as he laid eyes on the spycatcher, the gruff, intimidating man turned sheet-white. He immediately turned and tried to barge his way out, but Briggs, the strongest officer in the river police, held his ground. It was clearly a struggle though; there was a wild terror in the smuggler’s eyes and he flailed wildly trying to escape. Just seeing this effect on such a man unsettled Drake.
One of the two bodyguards, who had remained like statues up to this point, pulled his hand from behind his back, revealing a small, strangely long-barrelled pistol. He raised it up straight and, without hesitating, fired at Hackett with a muffled ‘thwunk.’ The smuggler immediately slumped to the floor; Drake could see a feathered dart protruding from the man’s neck.
The two bodyguards approached the man on the floor and hoisted his limp body as if it had no weight at all, before carrying him out of the office.
“Thank you for your time,” said the spycatcher in a polite, emotionless tone. He strode out of the room, his coat billowing behind him, and the officers breathed a sigh of relief. The spectre, for now, had been banished.