The Deceivers

The Deceivers

Mel Keegan

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Keegan is back at sea in the days of tall ships and high adventure. It's an age when sail and steam are at war. The thousand-year tradition of the tall ships is coming to an end. Men like Bill Ryan and Jim Hale are caught in the jaws of change, in a world where survival depends on courage, strength and a willingness to take terrible risks. 1862, on the English coast: the railway has destroyed the coastal shipping trade; lines like Eastcoast Packet are dying. Jim is about to inherit Eastcoast and the schooner Spindrift ... if he and Captain Bill Ryan can survive the explosive North Sea storms, and the schemes of the shipwrecker, Nathan Kerr. Always dangerous, Kerr has a score to settle with them. For men who have the courage to love in this time and place, the struggle is dire, the rewards astonishing. Meticulously researched, fabulously detailed, THE DECEIVERS will be treasured by readers who loved 'Fortunes of War.' WINNER OF THE 2003 STONEWALL FACT AND FABLE AWARD.
 
PUBLISHED BY: GLBT Bookshelf
ISBN: 978-0975088425
PUBLICATION DATE: 2003
WORD COUNT: 143668
SEXUAL CONTENT RATING: 2 2
EBOOK READER RATING:
CATEGORIES: Historical, Action/Adventure, Romantic Suspense
KEYWORDS: gay, gay adventure, gay historical, gay romance, glbt, mel keegan, sea story
 

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EXCERPT
COPYRIGHT Mel Keegan/2003
They ate in companionable silence, each busy with his own thoughts, saying nothing, though Ryan watched Jim for some time. He could almost hear the click and whir of cogs and gears as Jim chewed through Tremayne’s proposition. Even now, Joel could take Ryan by surprise. This interest in industry, the railroad, was something he had not heard before — probably an inspiration right out of an American newspaper.

A long time later Ryan checked his pocket watch as he leaned back in his chair, comfortably full and for the moment relaxed. The sun had angled down; late afternoon shadows wreathed the quay and the clouds which had been gathering since morning had begun to pile up like a mountain range on the horizon.

"I’ll be at sea again in a few days," Ryan said quietly. Jim merely nodded. He knew the schedule as well as Ryan. "The Orkneys, Montrose, Dunbar and home."

"And then the Skagerak run, Trondheim ..." Jim gave a sigh. "Sometimes I do envy you."

Because he was a prisoner at Marrick Hall, and the only escape was to turn his back on his responsibility to family and business, which would certainly make old Jonathan cut the turncoat son right out of his will. In fact, Jim could walk away tomorrow, Ryan thought, but he was not ready. He still nursed the old ambition. He wanted Eastcoast for his own, and the Spindrift. And after listening to Joel for an hour, the desire to decide the future the new schooner would be consuming. "Your father can’t hang on forever," Ryan said pointedly, for Jim’s ears alone.

Jim looked up at him out of troubled eyes. "He’ll hang on long enough to see the business in a shambles, and hand me the wreckage. It’s not much of an inheritance, Bill, and I’ve worked my whole life for it."

"You’ll still own the Adelaide," Ryan said thoughtfully. "And Duncan Linwood swears there’s no finer, faster schooner in the water than the Spindrift."

"Schooner," Jim echoed. "Steam, Bill. Damn it all, steam is where the future lies."

Ryan could scarcely believe his ears. "Don’t tell me you’d sell both decent hulls you possess and put the money they raised at auction into tin scows? Jesus God, I don’t believe what I’m hearing!"

"I said nothing of the sort." Jim gave him a glare. He scraped back his chair, took his mug of coffee and stepped out of the inn’s low door for a breath of air. Ryan followed, hands in pockets, a faint sense of foreboding on his mind.

The sea wind carried in the smell of the harbor and the hoarse cries of a thousand herring gulls. "Jim?" Ryan prompted minutes later, when Jim seemed lost in thought.

He stirred with a visible effort. "The past is the past. The old ways are vanishing, Bill. In a hundred years, even in fifty, nothing will be the same. There’ll be no place for the likes of you and me."

"I’m listening." Ryan frowned at Jim’s profile, absently admiring the curve of his cheek, the long lashes and the stubborn, determined set of his mouth.

It was past four o’clock; deep blue shadows marched along the quay now. An old woman hawked shrimps, mussels and winkles from baskets suspended from a yoke over her shoulder; a girl pushed along a hand barrow, taking filleted fish up to the smoking sheds. And on the horizon was a finger of black smoke, a smudge against the incoming clouds, marking the passage of a steam packet, eastbound for the Con- tinent. Jim pointed it out with a wry smile. "You see? Dirt and noise and rush. There’s the future, Bill, right in front of you, if you care to see it."

"You paint a grim picture," Ryan said quietly.

"Did Duncan Linwood say anything different?" Jim stepped back into the inn to set down his empty mug.

Ryan waited for him at the door and he was back in a moment. "Linwood is like us, and your father," he said, following as Jim stepped out along the quay. "Steam may be where the future of commerce and industry lie, but give him a hull like the Spindrift and he’s the master of his world."

They strolled along the waterfront away from their inn, watching and listening as the fishing fleet tied up. They had been making their way in by twos and threes, during the last hour. Twenty Yorkshire cobbles were systematically secured fore and aft, three abreast, along the quay, and the catch was shouldered ashore in baskets.

Offshore, a smack butted southward, probably with a load of coal for Norwich, or wool for King’s Lynn. Jim’s eyes followed it but his feet were restless. A moment later he was moving again and Ryan followed. If they climbed the steep path up the cliff, the sun was still bright up above the town while the harbor was deeply shadowed and would soon be chilly.

For the moment, if you could only find the sun, the afternoon was warm and mild. It was one of those rare times — never lasting a day through — when the wind stilled and the sea air seemed hardly to move. For miles in every direction nothing stirred but the gulls, which swirled around them as they climbed the old stone steps, counting each of the hundred-and-ninety-nine of them, up to the clifftop, with its fortress-like church and the lighthouse.

The climb was long enough, steep enough, to set Ryan’s heart pounding a tattoo. He paused at the top to catch his breath and take in the view of red-roofed houses and blue-green sea, and the River Esk, which ran home to the ocean at Whitby.

A thousand years ago the Vikings raided down this coast, and some settled here; before them, Romans built signal stations on the sea- ward crags and drove roads through the moors. And millennia before Mankind’s ancestors walked the earth, this very place was busy with strange creatures almost beyond Ryan’s imagination, animals who left their shells and bones in these cliffs right under his and Jim’s feet.

The past shimmered, he thought, just on the verge of sight or in the very corner of a man’s eye; if he turned too quickly the will-o’the-wisp vanished, but the shades of other ages surely lingered on. Ryan thought he could feel the past as they ambled along the cliff, by the dark stone walls of the old church and into the stone embrace of the ruined abbey.

Local legend had the site haunted and Ryan could easily believe it. According to the stories, the fossils which seemed to fill the nearby hills and cliffs had once been serpents, great snakes beheaded by St. Hilda and turned to stone; and the ghost of the saint still embraced the abbey. It was sometimes seen, even in sunlight, shimmering with a pale, weird light among the ruins. Old Whitby folk swore they had seen birds com- ing in from the sea drop their wings as they passed over the abbey, pay- ing homage, and it often appeared that the holy St. Hilda was less venerated than worshipped.

For himself, Ryan had seen and heard nothing strange in the abbey surrounds, but he felt much he could never describe. Ages ago a deep calm had settled over the ruins, and no matter the storms, these stone bones would be peace until the wind and rain weathered them to noth- ing. The roof was gone but two walls endured, and the triforium soar- ed, still graceful and beautiful, with the traceried window in the gable.

There, Jim sat down on the close-cropped turf to catch his breath and let the blood run back into his muscles after the taxing climb. Ryan sat beside him, warm against him, and was gratified when Jim leaned heavily on his shoulder. One arm hung about the more slender body to hold him, and Jim let himself fall backward to lie in the grass. Ryan held his weight propped on his hands, one on either side of the wind-tangled hair. Dark eyes looked up at him, at once filled with misgivings yet dark with affection.

"I love you," Ryan said unexpectedly against the rush of the sea. "No matter what becomes of us, no one can ever rob us of that."

Jim’s arm hooked about Ryan’s neck and pulled his head down to kiss. Ryan let himself go down, covered Jim and let him carry the con- siderable weight of his body while they kissed. Then, on a whim, he lifted Jim, rolled them both and took his lover on his chest.

The tousled head lifted at last and Jim’s breath was heavy as he looked into Ryan’s face. Ryan teased a strand of grass out of his hair, thumbed his lips and tugged the lobe of his ear.

"I won that race. Have you forgotten?"

"Of course I remember. And the stakes —"

"Your arse," Ryan finished. "We’ve a tavern roof over us and a soft bed under, for the night. I’ll take my due when it pleases me." The lofty tone was undermined by a chuckle which mocked himself. He struggled up onto both elbows and kissed Jim soundly.

Jim only laughed. "When it pleases the both of us, rather." He stretched and yawned in Ryan’s face. "I always thought this is one of the most beautiful places in the country."

"In the world," Ryan corrected. "Trust me. I’ve seen enough of the world to know. I always thought, it’s a crime this place is a ruin."

"It fell to pieces when King Henry took the lead off the roof, the glass out of the windows and the gold out of their treasury." Jim settled comfortably on him. "Everyone here knows the stories and legends about this place. I was born in Whitby, did you know? All the Hales are Whitby folk, but Scarborough got big and fancy, and my father thought we ought to go where the gentry are, when we started to get well-heel- ed. Eastcoast was a damned good business."

"Jim, don’t fret yourself," Ryan began.

"I’m not." Jim propped himself on his forearms on Ryan’s chest, rested his chin on his hands, and considered the abbey ruin. "Did you know, King Henry also took the abbey’s bells?"

"I haven’t heard that story." Ryan pillowed his head on one forearm and with his free hand stroked Jim’s hair. "My family are from ‘down south’ — three or four different towns while I was growing up. The Medway, the Thames."

"I remember." Jim was still intent on the ruins. "The story goes, the bells were looted and loaded on a ship in the harbor. It tried to put out to sea, and they’d had a decent nor’east sailing breeze off the Esk est- uary. They were trying to leave on the evening tide, bells and all, but the wind died. The sea was a pond, the ship was completely becalmed, she just sat there while the sun set ... then she sank. No one knows why. She never sailed out of sight of the abbey, and the wreck’s there, bells and all, somewhere over towards Black Nab."

"Someone opened up her sea cocks and flooded her," Ryan guess- ed. "She had to be scuttled by someone who’d thought it a sin to loot an abbey’s bells, and maybe he’d caught a glimpse of St. Hilda up here. Maybe," he added, "they believed St. Hilda had stopped the wind to keep the ship, and the bells, here." He stroked Jim’s hair thoughtfully. "There’s no mystery in how and why the ship sank, but the evening wind off a river estuary, dying just then — there’s your mystery."

"So I always thought." Jim took a breath, seemed to blink himself back to the present, and gave Ryan a smile. "I thought you’d be the skeptic, make fun of the whole thing."

"I’ve been at sea long enough to see a lot of things I can’t hope to explain," Ryan said easily. "One stormy night when you’d enjoy scaring yourself white, I’ll tell you about them."

"One night," Jim agreed. And then he gave a start. "Do you —" Movement out of the corner of his eye had caught his attention and he moved swiftly away from Ryan. "What was that?"

"What was what?" Ryan sat up quickly and brushed dry grass from his coat.

"I’d swear someone was there." Jim pointed at the skeletal remains of the Cistercian Abbey. "A bit of white, a flash of blue, like a flag. Damn! Someone was watching us, Bill."

"You’re sure?" Ryan stood, both hands shading his eyes, and took a long, deliberate look around in every direction before he glanced down at Jim and made scornful noises. "There’s not a human being within a mile, dear heart. Nothing white, nothing blue. Just the gulls, and they don’t care. You know, it’d be easy to take discretion to the point of madness. It’s living in your father’s house that’s making you see spies behind every bush. Not your fault, Jim — I know, living with old Jonathan would drive an angel mad, and you’re no angel to begin with."

"You’re quite sure?" Jim sat up, eyes creased against the late after- noon sun as he searched the bleached abbey ruin. The stone bones look- ed as if a dragon had died here, been buried in the earth and now the skeleton was weathering out, the way the great sea serpents of some age before the Flood often appeared in the cliffs, worn out by wind and water.

"I’m quite sure." Ryan shook his head over Jim in a moment’s ex- asperation. "You’ll be better, far better, when you’re master of your own establishment."

Not even a blade of grass was moving, now he was alert, and Jim subsided. "I suppose you’re right. Living under my father’s eye is not quite what I had in mind for us."

"We’ll have our turn," Ryan said easily. "All things in their own good time. You can only play the game the way the dice let you."

"I imagine Joel Tremayne would agree with that!" With a quick twist Jim was on his feet, brushing down his coat and trousers. "It’s get- ting cold, anyway. The sun’s already down and we’ve a good walk back. A mug of something hot, a game of skittles...?"

"And a soft bed," Ryan added with undisguised and unashamed glee. "I’m due a prize, if I recall correctly."

 
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