Please forgive me, my dear man,
As you will observe by the pronounced illegibility of this scrawl and the departure from all formality of address, I am writing with no little haste.
You will, no doubt, attribute this missive to another one in the pantheon of my eccentricities. That I should take up pen and paper and write to you immediately after engaging you in a conversation of no less than two of the precious few hours allotted to leisure on this vessel is, on the face of it, hubris as well as madness.
But upon my oath, I am not writing purposelessly. And I am not mad, well, not mad in the manner you presume. Or I presume for you, you taciturn devil.
I write to you because I do not wish my words to be overheard and because I voiced a confession to you tonight which was as much falsehood as it was truth. And now it is my greatest desire to lay my burden, indeed, the whole business, bare before you, before another hour passes, before a new day dawns, recognising that dawn is something that cannot, by virtue of the tilt of the planet, mean much in such a realm as this, where night and day are ephemeral conceits.
Secrets demand privacy, and this ship is no more private than any other of her kind.
She is unusual, however, in other respects.
She is a ghost ship, a pirate ship, a ship of the damned and the doomed.
And she is mine.
I may not be her captain in title or rank, but she is at my command, nonetheless, for she, and all on her, are doing my bidding. They are here because I have contrived it.
She is a ghost ship. The men that sail her are not sailors, they are the remnants of sailors, husks of muscle and bone, strong, strapping, wiry husks, but none the less hollow for their strength. I selected her captain from the many of his kind hanging in market stalls, dried and salted and smoked like fish, in Archangel, and through him, and the exercise of a power of suggestion that bordered on mesmerism, but was not, I repeat, not, in any way occult, I acquired her crew, one by one.
Fugitive, criminal, bloodthirsty, mercenary, but most of all, abandoned. The last is the characteristic which unites them. I will swear on the Bible before me that not one of the seamen aboard will be missed by a single living soul on this earth. All who once might’ve cared have gone to their eternal rests. And the remaining members of society have forgotten them. Or would curse them if Providence was ever unkind enough to permit their memories to surface. They are the foulest of men. And their putrid reputations and their brittle faculties mean that they won’t be believed no matter what they say, should, at some instance in the future, they should choose to speak about me, or us.
If they live to tell any tale at all, of course, which I doubt.
Only the rottenest apples in the barrel would have sufficed, and I’m bound to say, with no pride whatsoever, I got ‘em.
But I could not leave you behind. Worthy, genuine, loyal companionship is so maddeningly rare, so precious. Indeed, had I not been twice blessed in my life with the only thing I truly count as miraculous, I would not have believed it to exist beyond fairytales and poets’ daydreams.
But I digress. Where was I?
Oh, yes, she is a pirate ship. I would not be surprised if, at some point, the crew ends their nightly brawling with a hoisting of the Jolly Roger. And a mutinous slaughter.
I could not care less.
Pirates are like dragons.
Dangerous, destructive, legendary creatures capable of being blinded by a dazzling reflection.
That’s the fly in the ointment, the crack in the lens.
Sow the myth of Arctic gold like a seed, nurture it with a few well-known but not publicised finds. Make it the wool of dockyard tavern yarns about someone’s cousin who once knew a fellow on a ship ‘pushing norrard.’ It was all my own doing. The testimonials, too. I have been pulling strings like a puppeteer, quite out of sight, for quite some time.
That is the ‘how’ of this voyage, and the how I have always found to be the most interesting part of detective work. The why of crime has always seemed less satisfying, but perhaps not in this case.
Why are we here, you ask, with exasperation?
We are here because I am going monster-hunting.
I would like to write that I have been dreaming of a journey like this one since I was a lad, gorging myself on the accounts of the early polar explorers in a favourite uncle’s library. I would also like to write that it is the natural wonders of this remote part of the globe which call to me, that I have always longed to see the glare of the white ice and the deep blue of the waters and the curious animals which thrive in the seemingly uninhabitable: seals, whales, bears, the rare Arctic fox and the narwhal as well as the many kinds of seabirds which fly and call to one another overhead.
The air is dry, crisp, and exhilarating. The fauna and the landscapes are extraordinary. The silence is singular. The notion that I am venturing where few have gone is, in some respects, compelling to the thrill-seeker, the traveller, the adventurer, in me.
But that is not why I am here, or why I have dragged you along for company and moral support, and it is certainly not why I have spent the last six months arranging this voyage, piece by piece, like a game of chess.
There is a monster lurking two days’ journey from here, and I mean to confront it. In all truth, I do not know what the outcome of that confrontation will be. It may kill me. I may kill it. But I will not rest until I see it for myself or perish in the endeavour.
I first heard of the monster more than a year ago in a watering hole in a port of ill repute. The story was that an English whaling ship had got blown off course, then had got stuck in the ice, and while waiting for the thaw, or a shift in winds to break up the floes, the first mate and ship’s medical man wandered off onto the ice, never to be heard from again, following a siren song that apparently only they could hear. A search party was quickly assembled and went after them with tragic results, and the accounts of that party’s two survivors begs the belief of any sane man, which one of them is now most decidedly not. He will spend the remainder of his days in an institution, according to the story’s epilogue.
Intrigued, I did some cursory researches. Then I boarded a ship myself and went in search of more tales. A few months later, a few dozen stories richer, I found an asthmatic old sea dog wheezing into his last drop of rum who’d viewed the monster with his own rheumy eyes. Each of my earlier interviews had added a piece to the frame, location, timing, description, sightings and related disappearances recorded by scientific expeditions and commercial crafts in the area, but that gentleman’s testimony was what sealed my fate and forged my resolve.
My curiosity was beyond whetted. I became, indeed, am at the moment of writing, obsessed with observing this monster myself.
I feel the heat of your incredulous stare, my dear, dear man, even though those eyes, those bottomless wells into which I’ve fallen so many times, are tucked away.
How could you, those eyes say, scoffing, a man of cold reason, a man of hard intellect and logic, be drawn into such a superstitious hoax? Wild goose chase doesn’t begin to describe it!
I have spent my life unraveling mysteries. I have devoted many of my waking hours to discovering the truths of the natural world.
Here is a mystery. Here is a natural puzzle. And I mean to solve it!
I have my journals. I showed them to you tonight. Each item, each testimony is laid out in fine detail and cross-referenced with others. They form a composite picture, do they not? One that no one has put together so far because no one was looking for it, no one was collecting it.
But as soon as I had all the pieces, my mission, my charge was clear.
Find the monster!
I knew that I required appropriate transport but was too impatient to put myself at the mercy of another’s whim or itinerary, so the fable of the Arctic gold was borne.
In two days, or less, if the wind favours us some more, the ship shall arrive at the spot. I will arrange for the grog ration to be generous that evening and, at the choice moment, simply slip away into the white. There will be no search party. The supplies I take with me will not be missed.
They are not those kinds of sailors.
They are rogues, they are pirates, they are ghosts. They will be consumed in their own ire and chaos when they realise that they have been duped about the treasure awaiting them.
But, and here I can hear your delightful voice, still boyish and plaintive ringing in my ears 'Why, you beg, why, for the love of God, are you wasting your precious minutes writing all of this? Apart from the revelation that the Arctic gold does not exist and was, in fact, a myth which you yourself propagated, and your role in the organisation of the expedition, none of this is news.
Why, you just spent the last two hours confessing your monster-hunting plans to me!' You say.
But it was a lie, my dear man.
News spreads fast on a ship. My conversation tonight was meant to be overheard and meant to be shared. They will watch me go and be glad of it, spoils divided by one fewer.
They will think me a lunatic, a crackpot, chasing monsters.
Good. That is what I want them to think.
Because I am as much a rogue, a pirate, and a ghost as they are.
I am a ghost. I died four years ago at a waterfall in Switzerland. I am a rogue. I hurt the one I loved, grievously and, perhaps history will say, needlessly. I hurt you, too, once upon a time, by speaking the truth. I was young then.
I am not young anymore. I will never be that young again.
When I first heard the story, sitting on that stool in that godforsaken place, I nearly died again: my beloved Watson, having lost a wife as well as a friend, the raconteur described the medical man as a ‘poor wid’w’r,’ took a post as ship’s doctor on an Arctic-bound vessel and then just disappeared into the white, swallowed up.
I mean to find him.
Orpheus. Lot. None has ever felt such despair or been so determined.
I will find his bones. And I will lay mine beside his and beg, from my very marrow, his forgiveness for all my trespasses against him.
I must know what has happened to him. I will not rest until I do.
I have, as I have said aloud and in writing, collected all the information available about this monster, and I am steering this ship, vicariously, to the precise point where Watson and his shipmate abandoned their vessel. I have learned all I can about my foe, and I go armed, swathed in skins, with the knowledge acquired over the past year and the wisdom earned over a lifetime and the heart of a man who will not be swayed from his purpose by anything.
Your father once said, ‘Of all ghosts the ghosts of our old lovers are the worst.’ And he was right. I am a ghost, the ghost of detective who died in a watery grave four years ago, but you are a ghost, too, my dear Victor. We are both ghosts on this ghost ship. Pirates on a pirate ship. Rogues on a rogue ship.
I brought your photograph with me. I often talk to it at length, aloud, as I did tonight. The other men hear me and think me mad.
I could not complete my mission without a stalwart partner. Watson has spoiled me in that regard. And there could be no better companion for this project, what, in all probability, will be my very last bow, than you. The rest of the world already thinks me dead, but I would have you know the whole truth.
And now I must close in haste. The last southward-bound merchant ship to be seen is passing by, and I will tuck this, along with my journals, in an oilskin pouch with your name on it and pray that it reaches your safe hands one fine day.
Oh, my beautiful Victor, I hate to say good-bye to you, but I must find Watson. I must push norrard and take my bearings by this strange compass that beats in my chest.
But I remain, ever your friend, ever your servant, the rogue, the ghost, the pirate,