I swayed in the mouth of a filthy alley not far from the Galata Bridge in the Fatih district of Constantinople, staring down at the man who’d served as my surrogate father for as long as I could remember. The toes of my boots nudged the dark puddle spreading around his head. The slit in his throat gaped black in the moonlit night, a macabre echo of his slack mouth.
No. I must be mistaken. Captain Rollins had remained at the airfield. This couldn’t be him.
But it was.
Bile rose in my throat.
“Melly, lass! What’re you looking at? We have to get back to the ship!” Obadiah’s slurred voice barely registered through the pounding echoes in my head. He staggered from the next alley over, where I’d left him pissing against the wall.
“Obadiah,” I said, sounding hollow even to my own ears. “It’s Captain Rollins. I think… I think he’s…”
“What, drunk? Not he, lass. Captain Rollins knows his limits.” Obadiah peered blearily over my shoulder at the captain’s still form.
“Not drunk.” My head reeled. Too much fermented raki. Too much shock. “He’s dead.”
I sank to my knees, feeling the hot blood seeping through the wool of my uniform’s trousers. My hand shook as I reached for the slash on Captain Rollins’ throat. I needed to stop the flow.
But the captain wasn’t bleeding anymore; not really. No more than a sluggish trickle oozed from the gaping wound, soaking into his normally pristine collar. His eyes stared sightlessly up into the clear night, as if, at the last, he longed for one more glimpse of the sky that had been his home for so many years.
He still felt warm, whether because he hadn’t been dead long or from the stifling, near blood-temperature air, I couldn’t tell.
Obadiah put a hand on the mud-brick alley wall to steady himself and rubbed at his chest, a habit he’d acquired in the last few months. With a name like Obadiah Butterfield, one might expect a round, jolly old man, but he carried corded muscle under his baggy uniform trousers and coat, and could be considered jolly only well after he’d passed three sheets to the wind on his way to unconsciousness.
He’d been nearly in such a state tonight, but now any chance of jollity had fled.
Obadiah stared at the captain’s mortal remains and cursed, using at least five languages and great creativity. I hardly heard him.
I looked over my shoulder at the street. Deserted at this late hour, but for Obadiah and me. If anyone had seen who had done this, they were gone. Impossible to find in Constantinople’s maze of streets.
Obadiah scrubbed a gnarled hand over his age-spotted face. “I always thought I’d go first. That’s how it shoulda been, him being younger and all. He was a good man, our captain. Who would have done this?”
“Captain Rollins was as fine a man as any I’ve ever known. I have no notion who could possibly have hated him at all, let alone enough to slash—” My voice gave out, and I shook my head without looking at Obadiah, unwilling to reveal the moisture filling my eyes. Doughty airmen didn’t cry. I hadn’t when I’d left Maman to join the Mercury’s crew at twelve years of age. I wouldn’t now, ten years later.
“Come away, lass. Naught we can do now, but call the watch.” Obadiah grasped my shoulder, his voice gruff.
I shrugged him off. “You go. I’ll stay with him.”
A small scuffle rose from the depths of the alley beyond me, as of an empty basket tipping over and rolling. Obadiah froze.
“Who’s there?” I called in Turkish, my voice harsh.