He controlled the breath rasping in his lungs with an effort. “And how would they do that if no one let down the ladder for them?” he asked.

“The thieves?” Louvain said. “It must have been more than one, with an accomplice to stay in the boat, possibly hired for the job.” He glanced towards the rail again, and the water beyond. The sun was lowering already and the shadows were long, though in the gray light it was not easy to tell. “They’d climb up ropes,” he said in answer to Monk’s question. “Throw them up from below, grapple the rail. Simple enough.” A brief, hard smile curved his mouth for a moment. “Ladders are for landsmen.”

Monk looked at Louvain’s tight-muscled shoulders and effortless balance, and was quite certain that the lack of a ladder would not have stopped him, had he been intent on boarding. “Would the grapple leave any marks on the wood?” Monk said aloud.

Louvain drew in his breath sharply, then let it out again as understanding came to him. “You think the crew were in on it?”

“Were they?” Monk asked. “Do you know each one well enough to be certain?”

Louvain thought before he answered. He was weighing some judgment in his mind; his eyes reflected it, and the moment of decision. “Yes,” he said finally. He did not qualify it or add any assurances. He was not used to explaining himself; his word sufficed.

Monk looked around the deck. It was broad and open, scrubbed clean, but still it was a small space to imagine in the vastness of the ocean. The hatches were closed but not battened down. The wood was strong and in good repair, but the marks of use were clear. This was a working ship; even at a glance one could see the ingrained stains of hands on the surrounds of hatches, of feet on the tracks to and from the way down. Nothing was new, except one piece of shroud going up the foremast high into the rigging to be lost in the web above. Its pale color marked it plainly.

From the aft hatch, which was standing open, a hand appeared and then a huge body, climbing through and up. He stood well over six feet; his round head was covered in a bristle of brownish gray hair, his chin similarly. It was a coarse face, but intelligent, and it was apparent he made no move without thought. Now he walked slowly over to Louvain and stopped a little distance short of him, waiting for his orders.

“This is the ship’s bosun, Newbolt,” Louvain said. “He can tell you all he knows of the theft.”

Monk relaxed a little, deliberately. He regarded Newbolt with care: the man’s immense physical power; his callused hands; the weathered clothes; dark blue trousers worn and shapeless, but strong enough to protect him against cold or a loose rope lashing. His jacket was thick, and the front of a rough woollen sweater in fancy stitches was visible at the neck. Monk remembered it was an old seafaring habit to wear such garments, the different stitches identifying a man by family and clan even if his dead body had been in the sea for days, or weeks.

“Three of you here, and the dead man?” Monk asked him.

“Yeah.” Newbolt did not move at all, not even to nod his head. His eyes were fixed on Monk, steady, clever, unreflecting.

“And where was it you found Hodge’s body?” Monk asked.

Newbolt’s head moved fractionally to one side, a minute acknowledgment. “Bottom o’ the steps from the aft ’atchway down to the ’old.”

“What do you suppose he was doing there?” Monk asked.

“I dunno. Mebbe ’e ’eard summink,” Newbolt answered with ill-concealed insolence.

“Then why didn’t he raise the alarm?” Monk enquired. “How would he do that?”

Newbolt opened his mouth and took a deep breath, his huge chest swelling. Something in his face changed. Suddenly he was watching Monk quite differently, and with far more care.

“Shout,” he answered. “Can’t fire a gun around ’ere. Might ’it someone else.”

“You could fire it in the air,” Monk suggested.

“Well if ’e did, no one ’eard it,” Newbolt replied. “I’d guess as they crept up on ’im. Mebbe one of ’em made a noise, like, and when ’e turned ter look, another one whacked ’im over the ’ead. As ter ’is bein’ found at the bottom o’ the hatchway steps, that’d be where they threw ’im. If they’d a left ’im lyin’ on deck someone else could’ve seen ’im, an’ know’d there were summink wrong. Thieves ain’t fools. Least not all of ’em.”

It made excellent sense. It was what Monk himself would have done, and how he would have answered such an enquiry. “Thank you.” He turned to Louvain. “May I see where he was found?”

Louvain took a lantern from Newbolt and moved to the aft hatch, climbing over onto the steps, twisting his body in a single movement. He went downwards, disappearing into the dense shadows of the interior, only the space immediately around him illuminated by the flame.

Monk followed, with less grace, feeling his way rung by rung. Ahead of him floorboards and bulkheads were visible, and beyond the dark, the open maw of the hold, denser outlines of the cargo emerging as his eyes became used to the gloom. He could just make out stacks of timber lashed tight. He could imagine the destruction if it broke loose in heavy seas. In weather wild enough it could pierce the hull and the ship would sink in minutes. Even through the wrapping of oilcloth and canvas, he could smell the strange spices, but they were not strong enough to mask the mustiness of closed air and the sourness of the bilges below. His own boating experiences had been above deck, open to the wind and the seas. He had known the coast, not the ocean, and certainly not Africa, where this cargo had begun.

“There.” Louvain lowered the lantern until the light shone on the ledge nearer the steps down onto the floor of the hold. It was clear enough to see the marks of blood.

Monk took the lantern from Louvain and bent to look more closely. The stains were smears, not the still-damp pools he would have expected if a man dead of a lethal head wound had either been killed here or placed here within moments of being struck. He looked up. “What was he wearing on his head?” he asked.

Louvain’s face was upward lit, giving it an eerie, masklike quality that accentuated his surprise at the question. “A. . a hat, I think,” he answered.

“What kind?”

“Why? What has that to do with who killed him or where my ivory is?” There was tension in his voice.

“If a man is hit over the head hard enough to kill him, there’s usually a lot of blood,” Monk replied, standing up to face Louvain levelly. “Even when you nick your skin shaving.”

Comprehension flared in Louvain’s eyes. “A woollen hat,” he answered. “It gets very cold on deck at night. Air off the river eats into your bones.” He drew in his breath. “But I think you’re right. He was probably killed up there.” He glanced upwards towards the ladder and the darkening square of sky through the hatchway. “As Newbolt said, they’d have thrown him down here to stop the chance of his being seen by a passing boat and the alarm raised.”

Monk turned back towards the hold, lifting the lantern higher to see the space more clearly. “How do you unload the timber?” he asked. “Is there a main hatch which comes off?”

“Yes, but it has nothing to do with this. It’s locked fast.”

“Could that be why they took the ivory? Because it could be carried up the steps and out of this hatchway?”

“Possibly. But so could the spices.”

“What does a tusk weigh?”

“Depends-eighty or ninety pounds. A man could carry them, one at a time. You’re thinking a chance thief?”

“Opportunist,” Monk replied. “Why? What did you think?”

Louvain weighed his answer carefully. “There’s a lot of theft on the river, everything from piracy to the mudlarks, and people know when a ship comes in and has to be at anchor before she can find a wharf to unload. It can be weeks, if you’re unlucky-or don’t know the right people.”

Monk was surprised. “Weeks? Wouldn’t some cargoes rot?”

Louvain’s face was sardonic. “Of course. Shipping is not an easy business, Mr. Monk. The stakes are high; you can win a fortune, or lose one. No errors are forgiven, and no mercy is asked or expected. It’s like the sea. Only a fool fights with it. You learn its rules and, if you want to survive, you obey them.”

Monk believed him. He needed to know more about crime on the river, but he could not afford to expose his ignorance in front of Louvain. He loathed being obliged to court a job and equivocate about his own abilities.

“Could anyone assume you would be anchored here for several days before being able to unload?” he

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