The Crime Readers' Association

The Cargo, by E.M. Powell

The Port of Messina, Sicily, 1347

The first thing Alfonsus di Giuliano noticed about the twelve ships was how badly they were rigged. As he waited on the dockside for them to drop anchor, he scoffed at the useless flap of torn sails, trailing sheets, and half-furled flags.

The midday October sun boiled down with the fierceness of July on him and the other assembled men on the stone quay. A wind hot and dry as the blast from a baker’s oven blew across the hard glare of the blue ocean and gave no respite.

Even his skin, which had seen thirty-six summers and was toughened against the elements like his sleeveless leather jerkin, reddened again. He palmed the sweat from his face, waiting as the first of the ships lined up against the quay, its unseen captain making a long job of bringing it alongside.

“Out of my way.” He shoved through the knot of other dock workers to take his rightful place at the front.

Nicholo, half his age and the last man in his way, risked a respectful protest. “Many of us were here before you today, Alfonsus.” The young man gave a hopeful glance to where the harbourmaster’s man sat nearby, half-asleep under a wide canopy. “And we should be hired first.”

“You think that, do you, Nicholo?” Alfonsus hitched his woollen breeches, making sure the group could see his curve-bladed dagger stuck in his belt. His blade had opened cheeks, removed eyes and had ended one fight with the loser’s entrails spilled across the dockside like steaming sausage “Anybody else agree with you?”

The other men shook their heads, looked at their feet.

Nicholo swallowed hard and took a step back.

The first ship bumped hard against the stone quay, rousing the official.

“Have you time for idle gossip?” he shouted. “Alfonsus, bring me a couple of dozen men. The rest of you can go.”

Alfonsus smirked as he rapidly clicked his fingers to those he chose, missing Nicholo every time. “Don’t try to take me on, Nicholo.  I was working these docks when you were sucking your mother’s teats.”

“You mean last week?” came a jibe from one of those he’d picked.

Alfonsus laughed, the others joining in as he sent Nicholo back to those with no work with a hard push to his shoulder.

A sudden silence fell.

Alfonsus looked around to follow the crowd’s gaze. The gangplank was being lowered from the first ship by one of its men.

But what a man. Boils and sores erupted over his face. He seemed barely able to stand, sinking to his hands and knees to crawl across the plank to the quay.

“Help us, you must help us. We’re dying. All dying.” His voice choked on a wet cough, then blood spumed from his mouth and splashed over the sun-warmed stone.

The harbourmaster’s man shot to his feet, eyes bulging. “Jesu Christus. What ails him?”

No one answered. No one moved, save for the feeble, useless efforts of the sailor.

Then the second ship pulled alongside. A shriek from an old woman sat selling pegs at the water’s edge drew Alfonsus’s look.

Another sailor, half-naked and raddled with boils, was staggering to her for help. But the woman fled in a gabble of prayers and a scatter of pegs from her thrown basket. The sailor fell insensible to the ground to new cries from those watching.

The harbourmaster’s man sidled from his shelter, his gaze fixed on the stricken sailors. “I must…report this. Yes, that’s it. Report.” He turned and fled from the quay, with heavy, panicked steps.

The other men hung back behind Alfonsus in terror, calling aloud and pleading for help from every saint in the heavens. He scanned the remaining ships, all eerily quiet as they drifted to land. His heart tripped faster as his look returned to the gasping forms on the ground. No doubt, the men had the like of an ague he’d not seen before. The whole fleet must have it.

We’re dying. All dying.

Their sudden stillness told him that had happened.

Then the ships were unattended. Coming from Genoa, they would be laden with every sort of luxurious cargo. No sailors, no merchants. The only official on Messina’s dockside running to tell other officials, safely out of the way.

“I’m not missing this chance.” Alfonsus set off across the quay to a new set of cries, stepping over the corpse in his way.

“Hey, look at Alfonsus!”

“Should we follow him?”

“We could try.”

“By the Virgin’s blood, don’t!” A shout over the others. Nicholo.

Alfonsus paused and looked around.

The young fool had his arms wide, halting the men. “We should stay back. Look at those poor devils. Who knows what this affliction is?”

The dockers muttered and grumbled. But stayed put, faces pale with fear.

Alfonsus raised his voice. “And who cares?”

“Maybe you should.” Nicholo gestured to the dead men. “Look at them. You can’t fight what’s happened to them with your knife.”

“I don’t need to,” said Alfonsus. “I’ve faced every pox and flux in doing this work for so many years. None of it has touched me.” But he could see Nicholo’s words had halted the men. “Yellow-breeches, all of you.” He snorted and spat on the hot stone, then stepped across the gangplank and onto the gently moving deck.

Alfonsus drew close to the opening that led below decks. A quick glance up confirmed they all watched him like huddled, frightened sheep, not daring to do as he did.

A powerful stench met his nostrils and cloyed into his innards. The smell of death, strong enough to become a taste in his mouth. His courage flickered for a moment as he fought down his vomit. He couldn’t turn tail now. If he did, he’d never have authority again, blade or no blade.

He lowered himself into the stinking darkness.


Alfonsus made his way along the narrow street to his home, the tight-packed buildings and rubbish-strewn busy cobbled streets sending back the heat of the day. The roll of silk across his shoulders weighed on him but he carried it swiftly, looking out for who would greet him. There she was: Leni, his angel. The little one his wife had produced long after she’d finished giving him his older seven children, all with their own children now. The one who’d taken his heart.

“Papa, Papa!” She hopped with excitement, then hurtled to greet him, shrieking with joy all the way. He bent his knees and lowered his face to kiss her rounded cheeks, then made his way to the door of their house, Leni skipping alongside him. His legs began to ache with the effort of carrying the silk. Jesu, but he was getting old. He grinned to himself. Maybe. But it didn’t matter. He’d shown every man that worked those docks that he still feared nothing. And nobody.

“You’re back early.” With a surprised look, his wife Ioanna straightened from her work over the cooking pot as he walked in. “Was there no work today?”

“Oh, there was work.” He threw the roll of bright yellow silk to the ground and scratched with relief at a couple of insect bites on the back of his throbbing neck.

Ioanna put her hands to her mouth, eyes wide. “How did you come by such expensive cloth?”

“Pretty.” Leni tried to push it open with a pant of effort.

“Leave it be, Leni,” said Ioanna quickly. “It cannot be ours.”

“Oh, but it is.” Alfonsus bent to help Leni, unrolling a length of the cloth in a hard shove. “Took it from under the official’s nose.”

But the pure shimmer of silk didn’t meet his gaze. Instead, hundreds of black specks despoiled it. Moving specks that leapt high and free.

Ioanna exclaimed in disgust. “Fleas.” She snatched Leni up into her arms, slapping at the child as she did so. “We’ll be scratching for days.”

“No matter.” Alfonsus rolled it back up tightly and the dull ache in his head hammered harder. “For we’ll scratch like kings.” He kissed Leni on the cheek. “Or a queen. Don’t fret so, wife. I’ll clean it tomorrow.”

“I’m afraid your meal won’t be ready for a few hours,” said Ioanna. “I didn’t expect you so soon.”

“Who cares?” Alfonsus gave a few hard coughs. “My throat’s dried in this heat. I’m off for some wine. I’ve earned it.”


Alfonsus left the wine vendor’s counter with unsteady steps, about to head for home as the sun sank low. A stomach full of drink beat a meal any day. But there’d been so much talk of the strange ships, Alfonsus decided he’d go back for another look and remind himself of his victory.

The quiet dock was quiet no more as he approached. He pushed through the crowd that lined the quay.

His gaze found Nicholo near the front as he worked his way through.

“Still waiting to grow some balls?” Alfonsus asked as arrived beside him.

Nicholo gave him a wary glance but said nothing.

The ships sat calmly in the water as before. But unlike before, a line of Messina’s guards formed a wall to prevent anyone getting through. The bodies of the dead crewmen who had made it onto land lay untouched on the hot stone, bright, busy flies coating them and dark, fetid fluid seeping from their still forms. Many people had covered their mouths and noses from the appalling stench that came from them.

Standing well back near the guards, a group of the harbourmaster’s men conferred in low voices. A monk led prayers for the dead, joined by most in the crowd. Yet he too stood at a distance.

Alfonsus nudged Nicholo. “You left it too late. Missed your chance. Now all you’ll get to do is carry the stuff off like the donkeys you are. Not sell it.”

Nicholo shook his head. “There’s nothing to come off them. Those ships are to be burned.”

“Burned?” Alfonsus gaped at him.

“The officials have ordered it. Because of the strange ague the men have died of.”

“But cargo doesn’t give you an ague! If that’s what they’re worried about, they should just burn the bodies.” He spat on the cobbles. “There’s fine cloth on there. Barrels of wine. Sacks of spices. A fortune. Fools.”

A new buzz rippled through the crowd. Half a dozen guards made their way through, flaring torches aloft. People moved away in a slow surge as the men walked up to the first ship. The dry wood of the deck caught in an instant crackle of smoking flame.

“Fools.” Alfonsus spat again. “No balls. Any of them.” He gave a sour hiccup that ended in another cough and turned away to push back through the noisy crowd.


The cock crew outside, repeating its loud cries in the pale, early light. Alfonsus knew he should rise and get to work selling his silk. He’d spent all day yesterday cleaning it of every flea. He’d never seen so many in one place, nor been bitten so badly. He cursed them all, from the ones that landed a new red weal to the ones that had got him on the neck on the day he’d carried the silk. When he’d gone outside for some air, the sun had seemed to burn down on him with extra strength, strength which his limbs had lost as the day went on. Exhausted, he’d made for his bed, unable to look at food or drink.

He should be rested. But his head hammered, pounded. Sweat poured from him and his limbs would barely move.

Ioanna had got up at the first sound of the bird’s call, was lighting the fire as she hummed quietly. “Good morning, little one.” The rustle of her skirts as she moved to bend over Leni’s small heaped bed.

Then her scream. And her screams, and her screams as her rapid footsteps came to his side. “Alfonsus!”

He forced his lids open. And now, finally, he knew fear. Knew terror. A terror that ripped through him sharper, more agonizing than a blade through flesh could ever be.

For in his wife’s arms, was his own angel, his Leni, her perfect face a mess of boils, her little lips caked with blood as she panted in shallow breaths. And her arms, covered in the raised, red bites from the hungry, relentless fleas.

“Sweet Virgin, Alfonsus. What ails her?”

The cargo. Alfonsus struggled in vain to get the words from his own parched mouth. He clawed open his nightshirt with numbed hands so Ioanna would see his bites too.

But her white face turned whiter still as she took in the septic pustules that coated his body. Her screams broke from her again.

The cargo. He tried to form the words but couldn’t. Couldn’t because of the blood that rushed into his mouth and overwhelmed him.




Find out more about author E.M. Powell here.

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