A Watery Grave

St. Martin's edition, paperback

On Sunday, August 18, 1838, the six ships of the first, great, United States South Seas Exploring Expedition, commanded by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, crewed by 246 officers and men, and with seven scientists and two artists on board, set sail from the Hampton Roads, Virginia, headed for the far side of the world. Almost four years later, in June 1842, the remnants of the expedition straggled into New York. One vessel had been sent back in disgrace; one had been lost with all hands; another had been wrecked at the Columbia River; and a fourth had been sold into the opium-running trade on the coast of China. Much had been accomplished—huge tracts of the ocean had been charted, plus 800 miles of scarcely known Oregon shore and 1,500 miles of entirely unknown Antarctic coast. The Stars and Stripes had fluttered off the lagoons of well over 200 tropical islands, and more than 4,000 artifacts and 2,000 scientific specimens had been collected, an enormously rich fund that became the foundation of the collection of the new Smithsonian Institution. For uncounted thousands of Pacific Islanders the Exploring Expedition had been their first introduction to the official face of the USA. Yet, instead of returning home in triumph, Lieutenant Wilkes chose to slink on shore by hitching a ride on the pilot boat.

The strange voyage of the U.S. Exploring Expedition is the setting of the Wiki Coffin mystery series. While the novels are based on true events, and many of the participants in the stories are real, the mysteries and the people most intimately involved with them are figments of the author's overactive imagination—as is the brig Swallow, the seventh ship upon which most of the action takes place.

For the first chapter of the first book in the WIKI COFFIN MYSTERY SERIES, read on:

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Virginia, August 1838.

The man who was about to be wrongfully arrested waited in the black shadow of a tree by the Elizabeth River. His name was Wiki Coffin, and he had been waiting without moving for more than two hours. Thinking that it was surely time the appointment was kept, he restlessly touched the pistols in his belt. Stilling again, he listened intently for the sounds of people approaching—the rhythmic swish of oars or the rattle of harness and beat of hooves—but heard nothing.

When Wiki had taken up his station the moon had been high, glinting on the leaves above his head, its face occasionally obscured by high clouds. The soft breeze was redolent with the smells of cypress and swamp, warm growth, and salt sea; and the night was filled with the quiet rush and lap of the river, along with the almost inaudible chuckle of one of the creeks that fed the great stream somewhere beyond an upriver headland. Closer, crabs scuttled and shellfish plopped. Too, Wiki had heard small creatures prowl the thicket behind him, owls calling in distant trees, and faint ghostly cries from the Great Dismal Swamp, Whip poor Willy, whip poor Willy whip . . . Now the graying sky rang with the harsh call of hunting ospreys, while gulls swooped and squalled over the harbor. The moon and stars had faded.

Across the river the far shore was becoming distinct. The waters were a clear brown like strong tea, streaked with veins of mud, shimmering as the sun nudged the low horizon, waves rising and falling so that the seven ships of the United States Exploring Expedition rocked gently at their anchors. The flagship Vincennes, her massive hull painted black save for the white streak regularly interrupted with square black gun ports, was lit up by the first long rays; and the intricate rigging of the second-in-command, the sloop of war Peacock, became silhouetted against the sky. Then the chunky hull of the expedition's storeship Relief came into view. The smaller ships of the discovery fleet—Porpoise, Flying Fish, Sea Gull, and Swallow—were veiled in the mists that rose off the water, but Wiki could hear faint piping and drums as the watches were summoned to swab decks.

He thought that soon there would be antlike figures in the yards and masts, reminding all of Norfolk and Portsmouth that after years of dissention and controversy the great United States Exploring Expedition was truly bound for exotic shores and distant seas, and heard the distant sound of a trumpet, echoed by trilling calls from all the ships. It was the order to get ready to make sail and trip the anchor, and he realized with a lurch in his chest that the fleet was readying for departure. Boats were putting out hastily from shore, heading for the ships. He thought urgently that he should be on board the Swallow; soon he would be missed. Wiki shifted from one foot to the other, a knot in his gut, on the verge of abandoning his vigil.

With a queer mixture of foreboding and relief, he saw a small boat heading his way. Unexpectedly, however, it was coming from an upriver direction, not from across the harbor, so that it was only about forty or fifty feet away when he first saw it. It was a curiously derelict craft, too, but he stepped out of the shelter of the tree, raising his palm in a signal. Then, from the corner of his eye, Wiki glimpsed movement—not on the river, but in the thicket on the low slope behind him. He whirled around, heard the utterly unexpected crack of a rifle, and felt the wind of a bullet as it whined close by.

Ambush! Wiki dived full length, rolling in the mud to keep a low profile as he discarded his pistols, spinning them into the cover of a bush. The rifle cracked a second time as he hit the water, and he dug his head into the first wave and struck out strongly for the boat.

When he lifted his face to suck in a breath the gun was silent. He had no way of telling how many shots had been fired in the meantime. There was no movement in the thicket, but the instinctive feeling of being watched persisted. Then he looked for the boat. It was just a few yards away, revolving with the current. There was no sign of any oarsmen. To all appearances, it was empty. Perplexed, Wiki paused, kicking slowly to keep still in the water.
Something white lifted up from inside the boat. It was just a flicker, but looked like a woman's arm gesturing for help. A superstitious shiver lifted the wet hairs on his neck. A man in a Norfolk tavern had told him the story of the Lady of the Lake—the ghost of an Indian girl who had died in the Great Dismal Swamp on the way to a tryst with her lover. The sight of her canoe always came as a dire warning, the man had said. However, Wiki ducked his head down and swam for the boat because he reckoned he had no choice.

Another dozen strokes and he was there. Wiki gripped the rough wooden gunwale on the side away from the beach, shaking his head vigorously to flap his long hair away from his face and blinking water from his eyes. Then he froze, his grasp convulsive. There was a dead woman lying in the bottom of the boat.
She was laid out formally, as if in a coffin, stretched out on her back beneath the single thwart with her gown spread neatly all the way to the toes of her satin slippers, her hands clasped together on her breast. A paddle lay tidily beside her, its blade still wet. Wiki knew something of boat burials. In the remote Pacific he had visited atolls where it was the custom for a funeral canoe to be pushed out to sea with the corpse inside. Too, he had read about Viking funerals, where important cadavers were placed in longships and buried or burned or set adrift; but this was definitely his first personal experience of any such thing. He was also certain boat burial was not the custom in Virginia.

The dead woman appeared to be quite young, not much older than himself. Her muslin gown was white, and he saw that a fold of this, catching the breeze, had tricked him into thinking it was a beckoning arm. Realizing that she had not been dead many hours, he shivered again. The yellow curls that escaped from her lace cap still held some of the shine of life. Then, as the boat bobbed with his weight on the gunwale, the woman's head fell to one side, and her mouth gaped. She had been beautiful, but now she looked grotesque.

He heard shouts and the thump of hooves and looked up to see that people had burst out onto the riverbank, followed by a big man on a horse, who held himself as if he was someone official. The low sun caught the glitter of the badge he wore on his coat. The law, Wiki realized—maybe even the sheriff, which meant there was a good chance it was safe to return to the beach. Perhaps they had arrested the rifleman. He slid hand over hand along the side until he came to the trailing painter, and then, drawing the rope over his shoulder, he gripped the cut end between his teeth and began to swim, lugging the boat with its macabre burden behind him.

He swam slowly because the going was much harder than he had expected. The boat was getting heavier by the moment, and when he turned his head he saw it was lower in the water, sinking visibly. Then he saw that water was pouring in from two holes bored into the hull just below the waterline. The loose fold of the woman's white gown was now too sodden to lift with the breeze. Another ten minutes and the body would have disappeared forever. The boat would have sunk, the current dragging it along the river bottom toward the waiting sea, and the thwart would have prevented the decomposing corpse from floating free.
Wiki swam hard to get the boat to the beach before it foundered, thinking it was going to be a close call. As it was, if people had not dashed into the water to help, he would have been forced to give up. When they finally got hold of the boat, Wiki crawled up onto the grass with what felt like the last of his strength. He sat slumped, waiting for his breathing to settle. The sound of the hull grating on mud and sand and people shouting was muted in his thundering ears. Then he heard the rattle of leathers as the horseman dismounted. Wiki slowly clambered to his feet.

However, the officer was paying him no attention. Instead, he was hunkered down by the beached boat, so Wiki took the opportunity to look about for his pistols but without success. Then, when the man finally stood up and turned to face him, Wiki saw he had the two heavy weapons held by the barrels in one massive hand.

The officer was a middle-aged, burly fellow, his face mottled red with good living and creased with years of sun. His coat and riding breeches were well-tailored and fashionable, so that despite the five-pointed nickel star on his lapel he looked a lot more like a prosperous landholder than an agent of law, order, and the collection of taxes. For a moment there was silence while this individual looked from one muddy pistol to the other, balancing them on his broad palms; then he lifted his head to stare at Wiki from under the brim of his wide planter's hat, saying, "These folks tell me they heard you firing these here pistols. What did you think you were shooting at, son?"

Wiki paused, disliking the word "son"—though, as he admitted privately, he had been called a great deal worse of late. Then he admitted, "They're right. Those pistols are mine. But I wasn't firing them. I was the one being shot at."

"Wa'al, is that so?" said the officer, sounding as if he did not believe a word of it. "And jes' who was this feller you reckon was taking potshots at your carcass, huh?"

"I haven't a notion."

"And you can't think of a reason?"

"No, I can't. He jumped out of the bush and fired without warning."

"And your name?"

"William Coffin Jr. I'm with the exploring expedition." Even as he spoke, Wiki could hear distant piping and the shouts of officers echoing across the water as the preparations to sail became more urgent.

The officer's thick eyebrows shot up. "You're a navy lad?"

"I'm a civilian—with the brig Swallow."

"Dod dog it, he ain't no civilian!" a voice hollered from the midst of the crowd. "He's a seaman jes' like meself—and his name ain't William Coffin, neither."

Everyone turned to gape at a scruffy old salt with an unshaven face and a dirty bandanna tied about his head. Wiki did not recognize the fellow at all, but it was all too obvious that the speaker remembered him. "Don't you be fooled by them blue eyes, Sheriff," this sailor declared with a smirk. "He's a Kanaka—a native from one of them savage islands in the Pacific. I sailed wiv 'im onct and not for long, but I know it for a fact. His Kanaka name be Wiki Kehua, which folks say means 'Willy-the-Ghost.' I reckon he's a runaway, sir!"

"Kanaka?" echoed the sheriff, pronouncing it "kernacker" in his long southern drawl. Turning back, he tipped up his hat with the barrel of one of the pistols to study Wiki at leisure, all the way from his long black hair to his flat broad feet planted strongly in the mud.

Wiki withstood the scrutiny in silence, knowing from experience that it was a bad idea to point out that though he was half New Zealand Maori, since the age of twelve he had been raised as an American and was probably better educated than any of these pakeha who were gawking at him now. It would not help, either, to inform them that though he was the direct descendant of famous warriors and powerful chiefs, he was also the son of a Salem sea captain—a man who had christened him "William Coffin" after himself. And it was certainly risky to mention that his Maori nickname, "Kehua"—which did indeed mean "ghost"—was a mocking play on the name "Coffin," plus his chameleon-like ability to talk and behave like a true-blue American one moment and a beach-bred native of the Pacific the next. The joke would be quite beyond them, he was certain, the pakeha understanding of the Polynesian sense of humor being so unreliable; and he certainly did not feel like laughing himself. Wiki was overwhelmingly conscious of the sounds echoing across the river from the fleet—the rattle of chains and the increasingly urgent shouting. Seagulls whirled and screamed above the sails that were unfurling in jerky succession.

The sheriff said meditatively, "Kernacker, huh? Up to this minute, I thought you were an Indian. How long you been here, son?"

"In Norfolk? A week."

"On this riverbank, I mean."

Wiki shrugged. "A couple of hours or more, judging by the stars. I don't have any kind of timepiece."

"You were here during nighttime, huh? You got your pass to show me?"

"My . . . ?"

"Your pass. All darkies got to carry a pass after curfew."

Wiki stiffened with rage. Then he reined in his temper. There was a corpse in that derelict boat, and he'd already been accused of firing the shots that had drawn this crowd. If it turned out this woman had been done to death, he would be the obvious scapegoat—and this was territory where lynch law once reigned. He thought of a gravestone he'd seen under a tree in a field the other day that read: JEB JOHNSON, HANGED BY MISTAKE.

He said with forced calmness, schooling himself not to look at the ships making sail on the far side of the harbor, "I do not need a pass, and I knew nothing about a curfew. I was simply standing under that tree there minding my own business when I saw the boat come drifting downriver—from beyond that headland. I stepped out to see better and I glimpsed a man behind me—he had a rifle, lifted it, fired. Once, twice, maybe more times, I don't know how many."

"How far off was he?"

"Not far. Back there." Wiki pointed at the thicket, thinking the marksman must have made a very quick escape since none of this mob had spied him.

"Yet he didn't manage to hit you, even though you was so close?" This time the tone was openly derisive.
Wiki was beginning to feel desperate. The Vincennes had now set her square sails, the broad canvas sheets luminous in the early sunlight. He tore his gaze away and said, "I shucked my pistols because of the weight and dived for the water. I was moving fast."

"But by your own accounting, he took you by surprise, and he had at least two chances to shoot you dead. And, what's more, you can't think of any reason he would want to do that. You're certain sure he was firing at you and not at somethin' else?"

"Aye," said Wiki. Then he paused, his mind suddenly filled with an altered picture of what had happened. He remembered the sounds of the first two shots, the double crack, the almost inaudible whine of the bullets—but suddenly he recollected, too, faint thunks in the distance as bullets hit something wooden.

The officer was watching him closely. Then he said, "So how come he hit that there boat instead of you, huh?"

Wiki frowned, remembering the two holes that had leaked so fast once the water reached them. It was certainly possible they were shot holes. Had the rifleman been firing at the boat? It had been higher in the water then, presenting a good target. He wondered with a grimace where the bullets had finished up. They were lodged in the corpse, he supposed.

The sheriff snapped, "I reckon those shots were fired in the wild hope of sinking the boat. What d'you think of that theory, huh?"

Wiki was silent a moment, thinking about it, and then said, "It's possible."

"So how long have you known the victim?"

Wiki said, aghast, "She's a total stranger to me!"

"You don't know who she is?"

"Of course I don't!"

The crowd was growing as more people streamed down through the trees. "Mrs. Tristram T. Stanton, she," an ancient beldame volunteered. "Richest woman in the whole of ole Virginny, married to the son of old man Stanton hisself. Not a happy situation. Threatened to do away wiv herself often. Looks like she done it. Poison, I 'spect," she added with an air of omnipotence.

"You think she committed suicide?" Wiki turned to stare at the corpse, which somehow looked more lifeless. The head was awry, the jaw sagging open. The muslin dress was sodden and sullied. The yellow hair looked as dead as wet hay. In many parts of the Pacific this would be considered a time of great danger, when the potentially malevolent spirit was loosed. The Polynesian side of Wiki's nature craved some kind of ritual to send the hungry ghost on its proper path to the realm of darkness—te po, "the place of departed spirits." The pakeha part of his mind dismissed the idea, but the hairs on his forearms kept on rising.

Then he thought about the manner of the woman's death. He felt certain that the old crone was wrong, but was not sure why he was so convinced that Mrs. Tristram T. Stanton had not done away with herself. The body was reposed in such a consciously artistic fashion that it was easy to envisage Mrs. Stanton pushing the boat out, wielding the paddle until she felt the poison take effect, and then sliding under the thwart and taking up this pose, preparing herself for a melodramatic end. But still the image was unconvincing. Something about her dress . . .

"Hysterical sort she were, the poor mad creature," the old crone nattered on. "I know it," she claimed, "on account of my granddaughter is help at the Stanton plantation house. Mistress was so 'ysterical at the very notion of 'im bein' gone for three or more years, there were strong doubts he'd get away."

This made no sense at all to Wiki. Then, as everyone stared at the old besom, the rapt silence was broken by the rolling thunder of a single cannon, setting the seabirds to wheeling and shrieking. It was the signal that the fleet was ready to drop down the river.

The sheriff didn't even bother to look at the source of the commotion. Instead, he turned his head to watch as two more horsemen came galloping through the thicket, reined in beside the beached boat, and leaped to the ground. Because they also wore nickel stars on their coat lapels, Wiki deduced they were the sheriff's men—his deputies, his comitatus posse. They knew their job, he saw, because after nothing more than a nod from the boss they embarked on a businesslike examination of the boat.

First, they picked up the paddle and studied it as if the damp blade could tell them something. Then, putting it aside, they set to poking fingers through the two holes in the hull. An animated but muttered conversation ensued. One produced a pad and pencil, and laboriously recorded the details of this discovery, along with the name of the victim.
Then they started in on the corpse. The head with its bedraggled lace and ribbon cap was pushed back—rather too easily, Wiki thought with a preternatural shiver—and the mouth pried farther open. "No signs of poison," the sheriff said sharply, as if this confirmed his suspicions. "No blistering of the mouth." The hands got the same treatment. "No burns, no gunpowder marks, no blood. Wa-al," he said, straightening as this was noted, "let's get her out of the boat."

"Give way," said one of the deputies, and the crowd obediently shuffled backward, Wiki with them. Mud squirted around his feet—the riverbank was becoming very trampled. He expected the sheriff to give the order to break the thwart so the body could be lifted straight upward, but apparently he didn't think it necessary. The deputies, one on each side of the dead woman, gripped her stiff arms to pull her out from under the thwart. For a moment it looked as if the boat would refuse to yield its burden, but all at once with a ripping of cloth the body came up—with such a jerk that it arrived at a standing position before the officers could stop their hauling. When they staggered to a halt it dangled from their fists like a monstrous puppet, the head lying on the shoulder in a parody of life that was horribly grotesque. "Jee-rusalem," someone in the crowd muttered sickly—and yet another rider came galloping down from the thicket.

The deputies hastily laid the body on the grass and stepped back, brushing their palms against their sides and looking sheepish. The horseman vaulted to the ground and ran over to the corpse, crying in a low voice, "Oh my God, so she did it." Then he whirled on his heel and stared at the sheriff. "Who found her?"

Wiki saw that he was another big man, as brawny as the sheriff. Despite his wrestlerlike build, though, the newcomer had every appearance of a fine gentleman—albeit a most disheveled one. He wore a top-quality tailored coat, its black velvet collar turned down to display the lapels of his white vest, the high wing collar of his shirt, and the elaborate folds of his white silk cravat, but everything was spattered with mud. His knee-high boots were water stained after what had evidently been a wild gallop. He had lost or discarded his hat, and brown hair flopped over his broad, meaty forehead and heavy eyebrows. His ears were low down on his head and as protuberant as an ape's, sticking out from behind thick sideburns, and his small, alert eyes were set far back in the sockets.

This, Wiki had no doubt, was Tristram T. Stanton himself. Several of the men in the crowd had taken off their hats, presumably as a mark of respect to the bereaved. The sheriff, however, was unmoving, impassively waiting for Stanton to go on.

Stanton muttered, "I shouldn't have done it."

"Done what, Mr. Stanton?" asked the sheriff.

"I've been invited to sail with the expedition as an astronomer. She did not want me to go, and we quarreled about it. Last night I sent her a note, telling her I was determined to go. But I did not believe she would carry out her threat."

"Threat?"

"To put an end to her life."

The sheriff pursed his lips judiciously, and then said, "She didn't."

"What?" The tone was astonished.

"I don't believe she committed suicide."

"Not suicide?" Stanton's face had gone scarlet. "But surely . . ."

"I regret to inform you that I reckon your wife was murdered."

"Murdered?" Stanton cried.

"I figure she was killed, put in the boat, and then set adrift. When it was floating down the river, the murderer shot two holes into the waterline—two shots in quick succession, as many of the fine folks here have testified. His vain hope was to sink both boat and body without a trace, but people responded to the sound of the shots before the boat could founder."

"But that's insane!"

"A nasty business," the sheriff agreed. "The product of a savage mind."

Savage. Wiki's mouth was abruptly dry. Every eye in the mob was on him.

Stanton said blankly, "You've found the murderer?"

"I believe so," said the sheriff, and again looked deliberately at Wiki, who took a backward step, saying hastily, "Now then, just a moment—"

It was not the sheriff who seized him, however. Instead, it was the two deputies who sprang forward and gripped his arms. The sheriff was busily contemplating Wiki's pistols, back to bouncing and balancing them in his broad palms. "Two shots," he said reflectively. "Close together, which don't seem to allow much chance to reload. It appears to me a pair of pistols was exactly what the murderer needed—and that makes a lot more sense than an invisible fellow with a rifle."

Then, with ponderous deliberation, he thrust the guns into the wide leather belt that encompassed his massive waist and said, "Willy Kernacker, or whatever you call yourself, I am taking you into custody on suspicion of the murder of Mrs. Tristram T. Stanton and the desecration of her corpse."

As they escorted Wiki Coffin away, over his shoulder he could see the seven ships of the expedition taking their departure. They were sailing in order of rank with their canvas billowing straight and the yards manned, the Vincennes in the lead, and the others following, while cannon thundered over and over in a rolling salute from the Gosport Navy Yard. With a terrible sense of desperation, he realized that the fleet was sailing, and had left him behind.