The Crown Agent, by Stephen O'Rourke, part three: The mission is revealed

In the penultimate extract from Stephen O’Rourke’s historical thriller The Crown Agent, a secret agent is born.

Thursday, 18th March 2021, 7:00 am
Stephen O’Rourke QC, author of The Crown Agent
Stephen O’Rourke QC, author of The Crown Agent


‘Well Lyon,’ began Sir John, pouring two brandies. ‘Tell me this. Are you familiar with the town of Greenock, on the west coast?’

I’d seen mention of it in the shipping pages, but it might have been China for all I knew of the place. The railways were still a decade away, and even Glasgow was a city I’d visited only once. I had taken a carriage that time, but thanks to navvies like Burke and Hare the city could also now be reached in a couple of days by canal.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

‘Greenock’s on the River Clyde, twenty miles west of Glasgow,’ he continued, ‘and it’s Scotland’s largest port. Every day its Custom House regulates more shipping than anywhere outside London. Last year its receipts exceeded half a million pounds.’

I turned that figure over. If half a million pounds was the duty paid, say at five percent, then the annual value of goods going through the port ran to more than ten million. A huge sum.

‘Now think of this. Customs receipts rely on trade routes, and that means safe passage in and out of Britain’s ports. That means lighthouses, Lyon, and His Majesty’s government has committed a fortune to building them. The keepers of these lighthouses are the guardians of our trade routes, so any irregularity is a serious matter.

‘Now then, Lyon,’ he said, edging closer, ‘let me tell you about a ship. At the beginning of the year the Julietta was spotted in the Firth of Clyde, her sails torn and listing to her starboard side. She was a triple-masted schooner, sailing from Jamaica with a cargo of sugar. But viewed through the telescope there was no sign of life.

‘Now drifting like that she posed a danger to navigation, so the steamboat Comet, under the command of an officer of Customs and twelve marines, was dispatched from Greenock to investigate. When they boarded the Julietta they found the entire crew dead. It was fever had killed them, Doctor Lyon. Yellow fever.’

‘What did they do?’ I asked, wide-eyed.

‘They hurried her dead ashore and buried them in lime. Then she was towed to quarantine and her hatches left open. And so she remained, for forty days.’

‘But surely none of that is unusual?’

He swirled his brandy and frowned.

‘Of itself, Lyon, no. Yellow fever is rife in the Indies. But there were certain other... irregularities. Three things.’

He gave me a sharp look, but I held his eye.

‘What three things?’

‘First, the Julietta has sailed between Greenock and Jamaica for many years, and its voyages are well recorded. After the incident Gabriel Birkmyre, my brother Controller at Greenock, inspected the records and discovered that the Julietta returned to Greenock every three months, averaging just over six weeks to cross the ocean.

‘Now that’s slower than you’d expect for a sleek keel like hers, even allowing for a sluggish turnaround at Jamaica. What’s more though, whenever she arrived at Greenock her cargo of sugar was always below capacity. It was the same with her return trips t Jamaica, carrying manufactured goods. Always below capacity.’

I agreed that for a cargo ship this seemed unusual.

‘Second,’ he continued, ‘three days after the Julietta was quarantined, Birkmyre learned that one of his Customs officers had disappeared.’

‘From Greenock?’

He shook his head. ‘From Campbeltown. Further west on the Kintyre peninsula.’

Again, I agreed that while this was unusual it could also be just a coincidence.

‘But then there’s the third point,’ he said, and leaning in I caught the brandy on his breath. ‘After the Julietta was rescued the keeper of a nearby lighthouse was found dead. He’d been murdered. Almost certainly by his assistant, who’s also missing.’

I stared at him for what felt like an age.

‘Smuggling?’ I suggested. I glanced out over the ordered little world that was Edinburgh. Such a word, smuggling, seemed out of place in this dawning industrial age. It seemed to come up from a darker world.

Sir John tapped his ash. ‘It’s possible. Perhaps that’s why Birkmyre notified the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s office in London.’

‘A significant step.’

‘But the right one. Commander Birkmyre knows his business.’

He sighed. ‘The wheels of state grind slow, however, and it was weeks before I received my orders. I’m to open an investigation and report back by the end of the month.’

‘By the end of the month?’ It was already the tenth of April.

Sir John gave an impatient wave of his hand and leaned closer.

‘There’s not a moment to lose. I need someone resourceful, someone able to go west immediately. More importantly, however, it has to be someone unconnected with the Customs or any branch of government. Whatever the devilry behind all this may be, Lyon, I’m convinced an outsider is best.

‘When I raised the matter yesterday with the Lord Advocate he suggested you. Naturally, I was sceptical. But now that we’ve spoken, I think you’ll suit very well.’

There was a pause while he leaned back, gazing at me. It was time to decide, but in truth I already knew what my answer would be.

Tomorrow: The mystery deepens

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.

If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription