Verifying one last time the stability of the tarps before steering into the slip, Cooper signalled to Bligh to keep watch for any persons of authority about the wharves. He made one final effort to establish with his cargo the necessity for silence, and hoped that they were quiet by effort, and not by any lack of vitality after the long night voyage.
Bligh again expressed concerns. “ Sir, I simply cannot fathom the imperative to involve us in this fiasco. These horrid creatures can bring no good in these environs, even forgoing the obvious risk of their flight from containment and inevitable infestation of the sewers.”
A muted voice came through the air holes in one of the crates, “Hey!”
“I do apologize,” Bligh protested. “No offense was intended. Merely that this is no place for fairies; no good from your presence shall come for any of us.”
There was some gentle shifting inside the crate, then a low “Yeah, okay. This really sucks, man.”
Cooper glanced at Bligh for a moment with serious concern, then scanned the docks again for signs of life as the running rigging fell slack and all sails collapsed obediently to await stowage. “Alowishus, you mustn’t allow such worry to distract you. Now isn’t the time to entertain second thoughts, but to immerse ourselves in strict observation of vigilance. One pair of eyes upon our efforts may indeed spell our ruin.”
Bligh sighed nervously. “Well, that certainly allays my terror”
Cooper chuckled softly at the rare burst of sarcasm. “Come, now. I mean only that we must remain at our stations wholly until this is behind us. Stay fixed on your tasks and before you know it we’ll be halfway through our first ales.”
Bligh shook his head apprehensively, “You are normally so very convincing. I think that’s the trouble with you.”
As the ship settled against its berth, there was a shudder and some of the crates were unsettled. The ‘cargo’ in the crates made some commotion as Bligh and Cooper urged calm and above all silence.
“If anyone hears so much as the gentlest peep from any of you, we shall all be hung in turns,” Cooper muttered in hushed tones.
Bligh quietly but sternly added, “Fairies first.”
Relative calm restored, the men set about tying up and securing rigging. At length Bligh made his way ashore and departed to fetch the wagon driver who would absolve him and Cooper of any further participation in this wretched affair.
Once Bligh was away, Cooper carefully set the gangplank and reached for the tarp to begin drawing it aside to expedite offloading this unwanted cargo, and to allow them a bit more air, as smoggy as it was at this early hour. Just as his hand gripped the tarp’s edge, he drew a breath to say something to the poor doomed souls in the crates when he caught glimpse of a shadow moving beside him and froze. Struggling to remain calm, he released the tarp unmoved and casually turned and stood to identify the cause of this shadow.
Standing on the loading plank, covering his face to keep a match lit while starting his pipe, was an obscure apparition in a familiar looking cloak. Having satisfactorily ignited the device this man turned to see Cooper looking at him, brushing dust from his hands.
“Morning, Mister Cooper,” came the unmistakable voice of Wadavyu Dunne, from a slowly emerging grin.
“Good morning, Mr Dunne. Have you arrived to offer capable assistance in unloading tea? I had hoped to await full light before commencing offloading. In any event the wagon wasn’t scheduled to arrive until light, you see…” Cooper bluffed.
“Ah, alas my wrist has given me some trouble. I do hope you’ll accept my excuse,” came the expected reluctance. “I did only come to express gladness at your safe return from voyage at sea—a custom of mine—in aid of continued good luck, that sort of thing. And of course to satisfy some curiosity concerning your manifests,” intoned Dunne, a smuggling investigator engaged by contract to the Royal Navy.
“Ah, of course. Diligence is crucial in such a task as yours, certainly. I of course shall have to await the return of my first mate, who has departed to fetch the wagon and driver for the previously discussed first load. He has the manifests with him to present to the wagon driver in aid of establishing fees and so forth. This is mostly market tea, some for restaurant service. Would you like to inspect the pallets? I’ve kept them covered to minimise dampness, you see,” Cooper gambled.
Dunne seemed to be considering the proposition, and then as predicted regarded that it all sounded like too much work. “I shall trust you, of course Mister Cooper. You’ve much to do and I shall not keep you from it.”
Just as he was about to turn on the gangplank and set along the docks and on with his morning, Dunne paused, peering oddly under the edge of the traps. Cooper knew at once that he had spotted the breathing holes cut into the crates. All was silent and still for a few moments.
Finally Dunne looked up at Cooper, who grinned nervously, thinking himself nicked and hoping to bargain for time to hurriedly plan some sort of escape.
Studying Cooper cautiously for a moment, Dunne remarked, “I see you’ve augmented your shipment with some live cargo. Also meant for local markets, I shall assume.”
“Ah, pets for one of my purchasing agents,” Cooper stammered. “I meant to register them for quarantine, but as we were late loading and in danger of missing our—“ He was interrupted by Dunne’s hand rising to cut him off.
“No matter, Cooper. Such a trivial oversight is miniscule held against the ills I seek to expose, and nothing to warrant the bother of putting any of this to paper. We shall joke about it over an ale some time, I have no doubt. At your expense, of course,” he winked, grinning again as he turned, tipping his hat and marching—whistling—down the wharf.
He had just cleared the corner, still whistling merrily, when one of the fairies in the crates sneezed. Cooper nearly fainted, falling sideways, and there was a cackle of quiet laughter as many nerves were freed of some of the tension holding them in suspension. He complimented them on their efforts to remain silent throughout the ordeal, and while everyone seemed elated that they had gotten through it, Cooper was tortured by two thoughts:
Firstly, that Dunne was clearly aware, and yet had taken no step to thwart the proceedings, indeed seeming oblivious to all implications.
Secondly, that the gentle creatures in these crates faced some fate unknown, but whatever awaited them would be unnatural if not wholly sinister.
It was these two thoughts which unsettled Cooper’s ease as Bligh arrived with the wagon and driver to begin offloading.