I said I'd post the first chapter of the second Professor Gothick novel up her (very much a work in progress) because Robin was enthusiastic about it. It's much longer than I expected, though, so here is just the opning bit.
The black sky cracked open and spat fire at the sea. The storm was at its height. Thunder crashed down from the boiling clouds and the waves crashing on the harbour wall thundered back. Hours before, the fishing boats in Boggartsey harbour had been dragged as far up the quayside as it was possible to drag them, but white surf now splashed over and around them and they rocked and bobbed as if they were upon the open ocean. Rain lashed the roofs of the little town and its flooded streets gurgled and shimmered silver in the light of a racing moon. The church bell chimed twelve, each feeble note lost among the din of the storm. Hardly a light was to be seen; Boggartsey was black and silent. Its houses seemed to huddle together for warmth and company and none of their occupants were to be seen out of doors.
But there was one man who braved the storm. Old Skipper Jackson crept his way along the glistening wall of the harbour. To protect himself from the wind and the rain and the regular drenchings of the breakers, he had wrapped himself in layer upon layer of black and shiny oilskin and he resembled an enormous, creeping beetle, his arms outstretched to help him keep his balance on the slippery rocks. Only the fluttering wisps of a raggedy grey beard and the blue tip of a dribbling nose were visible of the man himself. He was keen not to be recognised, for the business he was about was one of theft – or salvage, as he preferred to call it.
Skipper Jackson had once been a sailor, though never a captain, as he liked to pretend. Seaside towns like Boggartsey attracted old sailors like Jackson, down and outs with no home and no future. Fishermen were kinder to them than ‘land-lubbers’ and the few skills they had learnt, such as gutting fish or tending nets, could sometimes earn them a bob or two. Jackson had been sleeping under an upturned boat on the drier side of the harbour wall when the storm had broke and the oilskins he now wore had been acting as his sheets and blankets just a few minutes before. Jackson knew that storms like this could spew all sorts of useful things up onto the beach, items that had been dumped or lost overboard from ships far out to sea and which may have been bobbing about in the ocean for months. Anything could be worth selling but what he really hoped for was some ‘grog’. An unopened bottle of rum, or brandy, or whisky – what a find that would be!
Lightning suddenly burst like a flashbulb upon the scene and Skipper Jackson saw that the beach was littered with boxes and crates. There were dozens of them, some smashed and spilling their contents on the rocks, many more unopened and just waiting for him to open and help himself. He swore delightedly, but thunder drowned it out. He danced a little jig upon a rock, and nearly fell over. Then he made his way down to his treasure, glorying in the fact that only he knew it was here and that he could pick and choose what to plunder.
‘There’s been a wreck, that’s what it is,’ he muttered. ‘All the crew dead, most like. Poor loves. But it’s an ill wind that blows nobody some good ... and it’s blowin’ me some good this night.’
At that moment, the ‘ill wind’ nearly blew him off his feet, but Jackson was undaunted. Gurgling and wheezing with glee, he began to pick his way among the flotsam and jetsam of the washed up cargo. Most of it was unexciting stuff, such as bags of nails and cans of soup (Jackson didn’t own a can-opener), but he knew that even these would be sellable to somebody. He laughed outright when he stumbled against one smashed crate and found that it contained a stock of umbrellas. He tried to open one for a bit of fun but it proved impossible in the raging gale, so he soon cast it aside. Then he began to search in earnest for what he really wanted.
‘Brandy...’ he muttered. ‘Rum...’ And it became a sort of chant: ‘Rum, rum, rum-tum-tiddly-grog.’
But then another flash of lightning made Jackson stop in his tracks. Something lying a few yards away had flashed back, something bright and metallic. Intrigued, he made his way towards it. The darkness and the blinding rain made this very difficult, however. It was one thing lurching from big box or crate to its neighbour, but trying to find something specific among all the rocks and rubbish at midnight and in the middle of a storm was quite another. He stumbled along, groping the air again like a giant insect, and then tripped on something and fell flat on his face. He had fallen onto a wooden box lying on the beach. It was only about a foot high. The wood was smooth, polished, and as Jackson’s hands groped along its edges so that he could raise himself up again, he realised that the box had a distinctive shape.
‘Oh gawd,’ he said, ‘I’m lying on a coffin!’