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The Fireraisers

The Fireraisers

Book excerpt

Prologue

WASHINGTON, UNITED STATES, APRIL 1862

Silhouetted against the window, the man was rangy, with narrow shoulders and a head that seemed too large for his body. Allowing his companions to settle, he stepped forward to the table.  The room crackled with tension, barely relieved by the birdsong that sweetened the humid air. The rangy man adjusted the fit of his coat and placed his tall hat on the polished table.

   When the birdsong ceased, the only sound in the room was the remorseless ticking of a long-case clock.  The rangy man cleared his throat before he began to speak.

  ‘We are gathered here to discuss the possibility that our enemy could find a new ally.’ The rangy man looked around the gathering, analysing the resourcefulness of each person in turn. Everybody met his eyes in full approval, with most nodding to reinforce their determination. One man produced a Bible, which he placed in front of him. Gleaming through the window, a beam of sunlight settled on the gold cross on the cover of the Book.

  The rangy man continued.  ‘We all know that the struggle has already cost the lives of tens of thousands of men, as well as millions of our dollars. We are engaged in a war which is tearing the Union apart, and we cannot afford to oppose more than one foe at a time. We also know that there has been talk of Great Britain joining the struggle on the opposing side.’ He halted, cracking the knuckles of his great hands together as the men shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. A cloud blotted the sun, removing the light from the cross.

  The rangy man took a deep breath. ‘If the forces of Great Britain join those of the South, we will be facing a possible invasion from Canada, as well as the inevitable sea blockade and raids along the coast.’ He permitted himself a small smile. ‘We all know why this building is called the White House.’

  There was a murmur of agreement from the room. Everybody present was aware of the War of 1812 when a British force had burned Washington. The Capitol Building had to be painted white to mask the scars. One man fidgeted in his seat as if he had been personally responsible for that decades-old disaster.

  The rangy man spoke again. ‘It is therefore imperative that we keep Great Britain out of the war. To that end, we will enhance the interests of all who support our noble cause, and work against all those who oppose us.’

  One of the men at the table lit a cigar, puffing aromatic smoke around the room. Others followed his example. When a red-haired man offered the speaker a cheroot, he shook his shaggy head.

  ‘I propose that we use whatever methods we deem necessary to ensure Britannia pokes neither her trident nor her long nose into our domestic affairs. Whatever methods.’ Again he met the eyes of the assembled company. Not a single man flinched.

 The bird sang again, loudly. One of the men sought permission from the speaker, then stepped to the open window and pulled it shut. He looked outside, noting the blue-uniformed guards that paraded in the hot sun, and the flag that hung limply from its pole. ‘Sir, when can we start?’

  ‘Immediately.’ The rangy man spoke softly. ‘I will send each of you to a British city where agents of the Confederacy may seek to work against us.’ Producing a sheaf of folded and sealed documents from within his coat, the rangy man handed one to each man in the room. ‘You will all go to the destination written on the front of your document, and do your duty for the Union. Inside you will find two lists of names and addresses. The first gives details of those who may sympathise with us; the second gives details of those who may work against us. For instance, Mr F., you will work in Manchester, which is experiencing a great deal of distress because of the cotton famine. Mr H., you already know Dundee, with its connections to both North and South. Each of you gentlemen has all been assigned to equally important destinations. That is all, gentlemen. Any methods, remember: the future of this great nation is at stake.’

  One by one, the men left the room, all pausing to shake the hand of the speaker before stepping out of the building and into their waiting carriages. Only when they were gone did the speaker slump into a chair. He placed his head in his hands.

  ‘And may God grant you strength and wisdom,’ he said, ‘for this country is dissolving in tears and blood.’ For a second he remained in that position, then slowly stood, opened the window again and listened to the call of the bird.

Chapter One

DUNDEE, SCOTLAND, SEPTEMBER 1862

  ‘Sergeant Watters!’

  ‘Yes, sir?’ Watters looked up from his desk.

   Superintendent Mackay stood at the doorway.  ‘There’s trouble in Brown’s Street. Take a couple of constables and sort it out.’

   ‘Is that not a job for a man in uniform, sir?’

  Mackay nodded. ‘If I had one available I would send one. I have you so I’ll send you.’

  Sighing, Watters carefully put away his pen with its new Waverley nib, stood up and reached for his low-crowned hat. ‘Do you have any idea what sort of trouble, sir?’

  ‘There’s a crowd gathering outside a burning mill.’ Mackay said. ‘Take Scuddamore and Duff; they’re fresh on duty.’  

  ‘Send them after me, sir,’ Watters lifted his cane, smacked the lead-loaded end against the palm of his hand and headed for the stairs. ‘Tell them to hurry!’ He took the stairs two at a time, pausing momentarily at the landing to have a practice golf swing.

   Sergeant Murdoch looked up from the newspaper he had been reading at the Duty Desk. ‘Where are you off to, George?’

  ‘Brown’s Street,’ Watters lifted his cane in salute. ‘It’s either murder and mayhem or a missing dog, I don’t know what, yet.’

  ‘Probably murder and mayhem because of a missing dog,’ Sergeant Murdoch said. ‘You know what Dundee’s like!’

  Watters grinned. ‘That’s entirely possible, Willie.’

  ‘See if that missing Honourable Peter Turnbull is at the back of it.’ Murdoch pointed to a paragraph in his paper. ‘So far he’s been seen in Paris, Cape Town and America. He may as well be in Dundee as well. That fellow certainly gets around.’

  ‘He’s not my case,’ Watters said. ‘I’ve much more important things to worry about than missing gamblers. I have a crowd of people in Brown’s Street.’

  Murdoch shook his head. ‘That sounds like a major case, George. Take care.’ He returned to his newspaper and the missing Peter Turnbull.

    Watters heard the babble of noise the instant he walked into the narrow stone chasm that was Brown’s Street. On both sides, cliff-like mill walls soared sheer from the pavement. Smoke was clouding from the mill on the right, with scores of people congregated around the two fire engines that were parked on the road outside. Most of the crowd were mill operatives, hard-working, tired-eyed women. 

  ‘Dundee police!’ Watters parted the crowd with his voice. ‘Move aside, please.’

  ‘You’re no bluebottle,’ a gaunt-faced woman challenged him. ‘Whaur’s your uniform, eh?’

   ‘I’m Sergeant Watters of the Dundee Police,’ Watters pushed past as a fireman appeared at the main entrance to the building. ‘What’s happened here? Is anybody hurt?’

   ‘Nobody hurt, Sergeant Watters,’ the fireman tipped back his brass helmet with the embossed DFB, ‘Dundee Fire Brigade’ partly obscured by smuts of soot. He surveyed the damage to Matthew Beaumont’s Brown’s Street Weaving Manufactory and Mill, ‘but it’s made a fine mess of the building.’  Water slithered slowly down the cobbled street, carrying the crisped leaves of autumn plus fragments of charred wood. Watters peered through the blue smoke that hung acrid and heavy, trapped by the high-walled buildings. The chimneys of neighbouring mills added to the smog as the now-idle workers of Beaumont’s mill clustered round, pressurising the firemen for information. Through the chatter of the mill hands, Watters could hear the unending clatter of neighbouring mill machinery, the noise seeming to repeat one phrase: ‘more profit, more profit, more profit.’

  Well, Watters thought, there will be less profit for Matthew Beaumont until he gets his mill repaired.   

  ‘How long are you going to be, for God’s sake? You’re blocking the road!’ With his wagon piled high with bales of raw jute, a carter glared at the fire engines that blocked his passage. He cracked his whip, unsettling the horses but not the equanimity of the imperturbable firemen.

   ‘Any idea what caused it?’ Watters watched as the firemen loaded their coiled canvas hoses into their wagons. The matched brown horses flicked their ears against the irritation of smuts of soot.

  ‘Our job is to extinguish fires, Sergeant Watters, not to find out how they started.’ The senior fireman slammed shut the hinged compartment that held the hoses, checked that the water pump was secure and clambered onto the engine. ‘That’s the fire out now, so I’ll leave the cleaning up to the mill manager.’ Raising his hand in farewell, the senior fireman cracked his whip. The horses jerked the machine away, with the second engine following a few moments later.

  ‘About bloody time.’ The carter said, cursing again as a group of women swarmed onto the road in front of him.

  ‘Can we get back to work, Sergeant?’ The gaunt-faced woman was at the forefront of the crowd.

  Watters ignored the questions as he tried to peer through the charred doorway to the still smoking remains of the mill.

  ‘Will we still get paid? I said: will we still get paid?’ A shrill-voiced woman followed Watters through the threshold of the mill, plucking at his arm. ‘I’ve got bairns to keep, and a man.’  

  Watters gently removed her hand. ‘That’s something that I can’t answer. You’ll have to speak to the mill manager.’  Pushing open the door, Watters stepped inside the mill, coughing as smoke engulfed him. The interior was more cramped than he had expected; two storeys of closely-packed machinery that left little space to walk on the floor of stone slabs. The ground was a mess of wet ash, with scraps of jute lying on top. Light filtered in from the now open door and high, multi-paned windows.  

  ‘You’d better be careful, Sergeant Watters.’ Fairfax was the mill manager, a man of middle height and middle age. ‘We don’t know what problems the fire has left us with.’

  Watters nodded. ‘Aye, you’re not wrong there, Mr Fairfax. Are fires like this common?’ Standing in the centre of the floor, Watters surveyed the mess. The damage was not as extensive as he had first supposed; the fire had swept through around one-third of this floor, putting ten spinning machines out of action.  

  ‘Not normally, but that’s the second fire in one of Mr Beaumont’s mills this week.’ Mr Fairfax shook his head. ‘Terrible.’

Watters narrowed his eyes. ‘Oh? That’s unusual. Is there some weakness in Mr Beaumont’s mills, perhaps, that makes them more vulnerable to fire?’

   Fairfax shook his head. ‘Not that I am aware of, Sergeant. There was a spate of such fires in the ‘40s and ‘50s, but we tightened up since then. It’s more likely to be carelessness from the hands than anything else.’ Fairfax spoke with a broad Dundee accent, a man who had educated himself as he worked his way up from a half-timer to mill manager. He was pale-faced and shrewd eyed, with specks of soot polka-dotting his sandy whiskers. ‘It could have been oil-soaked waste placed near heat, or a man going for a fly smoke who dropped his match in a pile of paper or something similar. I doubt that we will ever know. We can only be grateful that the Lord did not see fit to take any lives.’

  Watters stirred the ash with his cane. ‘Maybe so, but Mr Beaumont will not be happy to see his profits drop. Do you know where this fire started?’

  ‘Not yet,’ Fairfax shook his head.

  ‘I’d like to find out.’ Watters looked up as his two constables pushed into the mill. ‘You lads, send the mill hands home, they won’t be working here today.’

  ‘Or tomorrow, neither,’ Fairfax said.

  The constables nodded and returned outside. Watters knew them as reliable men, although Scuddamore liked his drink and Duff could be hot-headed.   

 ‘If you’ll excuse me, Mr Fairfax, I’ll have a look around.’ Swinging his cane, Watters stepped over a charred beam as he moved deeper into the mill. The interior of any workplace was sad when the machinery was silent, but when acrid smoke drifted between the looms, the place was particularly forlorn. Watters followed the trail of devastation from the merely scorched to the wholly destroyed, from the ground floor to the storerooms in the basement where the smoke was at its most dense.

  ‘Down here,’ Watters said. ‘It started down here.’ He poked at the now-sodden remnants of jute bales. ‘Mr Beaumont is not going to be a happy man when he sees this shambles.’

 Tapping his cane on the ground, Watters looked for anything that might have caused the fire. After fifteen minutes he frowned and headed back to the working levels.  ‘Mr Fairfax!’

  Fairfax hurried up. ‘Yes, Sergeant Watters?’ 

  ‘You seem to believe that carelessness caused this fire.’  Watters was not impressed by the mill manager’s actions. Rather than taking control the minute he discovered the fire, Fairfax had allowed the flames to take hold. ‘It’s a mercy that nobody was killed.’

  ‘I run a tight ship, Sergeant.’

  Watters tapped the brim of his hat with his cane. ‘I heard about some unpleasant practices at this mill. I heard that the overseers were bullying youngsters, using their belts too freely.’

  ‘Not in my mill.’ Fairfax shook his head violently. ‘I don’t allow any bullyragging in my mill.’

  ‘Good.’ Having suitably unsettled Fairfax, Watters listed the improvements he had thought of while down in the basement.  

  ‘In future, Mr Fairfax, I suggest that you do not permit smoking within the mill walls, nor the use of any naked flames, such as candles or lamps, unless the needs of the business demand it.’  Watters paused, knowing he was far out stepping his authority. ‘I suggest that you place buckets of sand and water in convenient places, and instruct a responsible member of your workforce in their use. It would also be an idea to order your overseers to watch for any possible hazards and take appropriate action.’ Watters paused. ‘Plus, given the complaints I have heard, I want you to ensure nobody bullies the youngsters In return, the youngsters can watch for any fire danger.’

  Mr Fairfax nodded. Watters watched him closely. The workers did not seem to dislike him, which was in his favour.

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