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Where the Dead Wait

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Where the Dead Wait

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Author: Ally Wilkes
Publisher: Atria Books, 2023

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Horror
Sub-Genre Tags: Ghosts
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An eerie, atmospheric Polar Gothic following a Victorian explorer in search of his lost shipmate and his own redemption...

William Day should be an acclaimed Arctic explorer. But after a failed expedition, in which his remaining men only survived by eating their dead comrades, he returned in disgrace.

Thirteen years later, his second-in-command, Jesse Stevens, has gone missing in the same frozen waters. Perhaps this is Day's chance to restore his tarnished reputation by bringing Stevens--the man who's haunted his whole life--back home. But when the rescue mission becomes an uncanny journey into his past, Day must face up to the things he's done.

Abandonment. Betrayal. Cannibalism.

Aboard ship, Day must also contend with unwanted passengers: a reporter obsessively digging up the truth about the first expedition, as well as Stevens's wife, a spirit-medium whose séances both fascinate and frighten. Following a trail of cryptic messages, gaunt bodies, and old bones, their search becomes more and more unnerving, as it becomes clear that the restless dead are never far behind. Something is coming through.



Camp Hope, the Arctic archipelago, 31st August 1869
Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one.

The smell hits Day in the face.

Crouching in the hut's narrow entrance, he tries not to heave. He can't afford to bring anything up: his last meal was boiled boots and lichen, supplementing the last of their rations. He presses a hand against his mouth. Grimy, his skin shriveled and yellowed, it looks more like a claw. All the fat has melted off him; even kneeling hurts. He's only twenty-four, but might as well be four-and-seventy. He knows he won't see another summer.

Day takes a deep breath. With his mouth covered, the smell is stronger, separates out into its component parts. Blubber, clinging to his nostrils. Urine, from the rusting can next to him -- a latrine for those men too weak to make it outside. Sweat, layered deeper and deeper until it's something meaty. He pinches his nose, but now the smell comes in over his dry tongue and swollen gums, and he can almost taste it, like chewing on a week-old piece of liver. It's cold, he thinks dully, it shouldn't smell. Late summer in the Arctic, the temperature hovering below freezing, today's noonday sun staring perpetually down at them like a hole cut out of the sky.

This is a terrible place.

He squints. His eyes adjust to the gloom as his knees continue screaming. They all crawl around in here; there isn't enough space to stand. Nine faces look at him, pale and ghostly, eyes too large, huddled in their sleeping bags. The stillness is awful.

"What is it, captain?"

William Day, now leader of the Reckoning expedition -- not that he wanted it -- crouches in the entrance to Camp Hope, and surveys his meagre kingdom. The ceiling is the overturned hull of an eighteen-foot whaleboat, greenish and damp with condensation, and the walls are oars packed tight with boulders, moss, anything they could prize from the frozen ground with fingers and nails. Their sleeping bags are stacked in two lines facing each other, like galley slaves. A quiet sucking sound as someone wriggles their feet, disturbing the muddy surface, and their neighbour curses as the cold soup trickles slowly down the incline towards him.

It almost makes Day long for a good hard frost.



The speaker is young Tom Sheppard, and his concern sounds perfectly genuine. When Day finds him in the dark, Sheppard's got his journal clutched to his chest; he'd nursed it under his clothing all the way from the ship, taking it out each evening to cross the pages with a dense tight hand, leaving nothing out. There's a stubby pencil tucked behind his ear: Sheppard sometimes licks the tip with a pink tongue, not particularly caring where it's been. He's younger even than Day, barely into his twenties, all long lean legs, and had begged by post for a place on this expedition. Day can imagine him on the deck of an ironclad warship, the air redolent with gunpowder, sun on his face. Scribbling his appeal, touchingly expressing his faith in The Open Polar C.

Day stares at him. Wonders how he could have been so wrong: about a man, about the Open Polar Sea. About everything.

There's a shuffling in the entrance tunnel. Bent double, like a bear rooting out its prey, First Lieutenant Jesse Stevens pushes his way into the stinking warmth. Day can smell the cold on him, the unrelenting dark chill of the ice, and the men in the nearest sleeping bag sniff the air like bloodhounds. They're all animals here.

"You have to tell them," Stevens says. He has a very pointed nose, and the cupid's bow of his lips has never been disturbed by swelling gums. Scurvy tore through their party back on the ship: now starvation is the most common cause of death, though it's truthfully hard to distinguish the two. But Stevens's mouth has never bled, and in the dim light of the single blubber lamp he still looks handsome: golden hair and thick red-tinged beard. The angel on Day's shoulder.

Day finds himself shaking his head.

There's a murmur from the men; a small sound of interest, at the two of them in disagreement, and Stevens gives him a look. He doesn't say it out loud, but Day can hear as easy as if he'd shouted. They don't need words, the two of them.

If you won't do it, I will.

"What is it?" Sheppard says again, in his lilting Southern accent. His eyes are wide and apparently guileless, but then, they all have wide eyes, now. Skin retreats, hollows out, as their bodies consume themselves. Sheppard looks between Day and Stevens, then back again. A mute look of horror as he appreciates the danger he's in.

Day puts down the bundle he carries. He notices, with some interest, that he's trembling. "Second Lieutenant Tom Sheppard. You're under arrest."

A sharp intake of breath.


"You heard him," Stevens says softly, from his position just behind Day.

Day's hands shake as he pulls back the cloth, displays the contents of the bundle they'd found concealed by the creek. A few pieces of hardtack, dried to the texture of a raisin and the hardness of a cannonball; Day estimates -- as dispassionately as possible, trying to swallow down the rush of saliva -- that this represents the daily ration for four or five men, depending on how carefully it's broken up. A Virginia tobacco tin which sloshes with fuel alcohol. The sealskin cloth itself, when they've been chewing anything they can get their hands on, anything that will keep mouth and teeth busy, when the rations are so meagre as not to be worth the name.

Men crane their necks to look at these treasures, because that's what they are: treasures. It's been nearly a year since they left the ship.

If Sheppard were merely hoarding, Day might have been able to find a way to show mercy. He could maybe have confined him to his sleeping-bag, like poor Blackman near his end, lashed in tight as the delirium of scurvy made him babble, sing snatches of hymns, and bend his wrists back at the joints, crab-like and pained.

But that kindly narrative is no longer possible. In the dim light of Camp Hope, the gleaming handful of copper cartridges tells all. They make a chinking sound in Day's shaking hands.

"You're under arrest for theft and attempted desertion --"

"You dirty little --" one of the men bellows, and tries to climb from his sleeping bag and launch himself at Sheppard. Kicking and thrashing, he has to crawl over several men, and there's a shriek of pain, a horrible stink, as he crosses Campbell, whose feet are badly frostbitten. A hubbub of raised voices. Coughs and splutters. Shadows dancing around the walls.

Sheppard doesn't move, his mouth hanging open in a perfect circle of surprise, making him look almost unbearably young. His attacker bares his remaining teeth, clenches his fist laboriously. Day doubts he has the strength to do any real damage, but it's the principle of the thing. Now, more than ever -- today, more than ever, with what Day knows is up on that grave-ridge -- discipline is important.

There's a sharp taste in his throat when he thinks of the grave-ridge, and once again he has to fight down the urge to heave.

"Have Sheppard separated," Day says to Stevens.

His second-in-command nods.

They go out to execute young Tom Sheppard later in the evening, well before civil twilight falls. It's nearly all the same in the Arctic summer, where daylight never truly relents, but Day wanted to give Sheppard time to make peace with his god.

He doesn't see how such a thing would be possible, himself: there's no god at Cape Verdant. Ewing, sensitive Ewing, sometimes leads them in bleating prayer, but they only have one Bible left. All the others have long since been torn up for kindling. Nearly every single verse in that Bible has been underlined, pages thumbed translucent with greasy fingers, and someone has ripped out the Book of Job, so beloved by their dead Captain Talbot. Sheppard leaves the Bible behind when Day and the other officers come to fetch him; places his hand flat on its cover for a moment, as if trying to absorb some -- comfort? Absolution? Day doesn't know.

The grave-ridge looms, watchful, above their camp: the overturned boat and little red tent sit in its long horseshoe shadow, protected from the worst gales blowing in across the frozen water. The signal flag flaps in the hollow breeze.

They haven't bothered to tie up their prisoner -- there's nowhere to go from this rocky little semi-circle of land. Miles of featureless gravel cliffs to the west; ice to the north, east and south, shining like a shattered mirror. It seems to rotate like a puzzle-box whenever you turn your back. Look, to the east: a berg shaped like a bear. Now it's turned to face south. Now it's crept back on itself. Now it's sunk out of existence.You can make it into anything, anything the mind can conjure.

Visibility in the channel ends after a few feet, and the haze never seems to lift entirely, not for pounding sun nor howling winds. Day thinks there's never been anywhere more cut off, more profoundly distant from all human civilization, than Cape Verdant. Even the name is a lie. The ground is hard black rock, sharp enough to cut their hands.

This land is savage. Here all savagery dwells.

Perhaps Sheppard hasn't run because he hopes Day will relent; hopes his inexperienced acting commander will stumble over the limits of his own authority (can he have a man executed?) or, more likely, can't bring himself to bury yet another body. Day isn't a hard man, after all. But hope -- the word has become something they spit, sneer, imbue with all the irony of dying men.

Day swallows. The exertion of climbing the shallow ridge has him bent nearly double. Up here, the peaceless wind tugs at his tattered clothing, scours the dirt and shrapnel away from the row of graves. He steers the party until they're out of sight. He feels, rather than sees, Penn's brass buttons winking through their thin covering of gravel. The dead are always watching him; reminding him of their presence. As if he could forget.

He didn't want this. He didn't want any of this.

"I will --" He coughs. "I will read the order." He pulls it out. His own handwriting looks like a swarm of ants, barely recognizable.

"Second Lieutenant Thomas Sheppard, trusted with our only firearm, has been found stealing food an ammunition. Those taken together show he intends to abandon his colleagues to their deaths..." Day moistens his wind-chapped lips. "Abandon his colleagues to their deaths by starvation. These actions display a wickedness --" his voice drops -- "and treachery that cannot be tolerated. Sheppard is therefore to be shot today, as we have no sure means to confine him."

Sheppard continues to stare up at him, trusting. Day wishes he'd look away. Sees, in his mind's eye, Sheppard's hand lingering on that Bible, fingertips pressed lightly on the cover.

"This is necessary for the expedition to survive. After the death of Captain Nicholas Talbot, I, William Day, give this order as acting captain."

It's the day after their rations finally ran out. He'd consulted with the doctor, with their scratched-off calendar, to get the date as accurate as possible. Keeping a record is the bread-and-butter of any officer; this scrap of paper will explain what happened here, will go into the official log -- whether or not it will ever be read by another living being. It shows he had good reason, legitimate reason, to execute Sheppard. The paper feels commensurately heavy. It's precious.

Day looks around. They only have one working rifle, the one Sheppard usually bears. Normally there'd be some anonymity for executions: several guns, one loaded, allowing each man to comfort himself with the thought that the fatal bullet came from another. But what are they going to do -- get out knives, up here in the open air, and take him to ground like prey?

"Stand still," Stevens says, gently. Stevens is a good shot, good at everything to which he turns his hand. He'd volunteered. Day had noted, with leaden humor, that it wasn't as if there were any chance of missing. Stevens had shrugged, pale eyes narrowing.

Day realizes now that Stevens thinks Sheppard might run. The sun shines down on them, makes the back of Day's neck itch.

"I didn't do it," Sheppard says suddenly. He seems to come to his senses, recognize where he is: out on the grave-ridge, surrounded by the emaciated officers who'd survived the Reckoning.

They shouldn't have left the ship, Day thinks, with a clarity that startles him.

Sheppard must be freezing, because he hadn't put his mittens on after relinquishing that Bible, but it hardly matters now. He turns around, looks Day in the eye. "Please! I didn't. You have to believe me!"

Day won't look away. He won't. Sheppard deserves this much.

"Did you find it, Captain?" Sheppard says urgently. "Captain -- the things they're saying I stole -- it wasn't you, was it? I've been set up -- Stevens --"

Stevens steps forward, rifle raised. The expression on his face is almost unreadable.

But Day knows him better than anyone.

Their grim duty complete, the execution party crawls back inside the overturned boat of Camp Hope. They'll have to bury Sheppard in the morning; he's been left to freeze up where the clouds are starting to blow out sleet.He's just a body now.

"Camp No-Hope," Campbell mutters, his gaze feverish. "I'm going to die in here. Or get murdered, like poor Sheppard."

Campbell hasn't been out of his sleeping bag in nearly a week, not even to use the latrine tin, his system torpid on their diet of mostly inedible things. The smell from his bag tells them his legs are likely lost; the doctor says operating in these conditions will kill him from lockjaw.

"They're gonna murder me," Campbell mutters. "Kill me and eat me. Dead weight, I've heard them saying it. I've heard 'em."

He doesn't specify who -- but conversations are broken off as the execution party returns. Sheppard had been very popular amongst the men, sometimes conducting careful 'interviews' which largely seemed to consist of noting down their favorite songs, meals, girls. Any distraction welcome. He'd also trained with their Native hunters, now long-gone and much-missed, along with all the larger game. An Arctic fox here, a hare there: Day had joined the others in insisting Sheppard must have the largest portions, their chewy little hearts. Still, barely a mouthful. But they had to keep his strength up, so he'd be able to catch more.

"I won't let you down," Sheppard had said quietly to Day, with all the earnestness of youth. Day feels ancient by comparison, warped and stretched like refractions in ice. "I won't let us starve."

But now James, who used to share Sheppard's sleeping bag, is bartering his way out of that sodden sheepskin and into the relative comfort of buffalo. Sheppard's possessions have become the camp's new currency. Every man for himself.

Stevens nudges Day. He doesn't need to speak.

Day knows he should insist Sheppard's diary is located and turned over. It's expedition property, and should be surrendered. But Sheppard lies unburied, and Day's heart squeezes. He can't bring himself to do it.

Stevens gives him a look that's a whisker from insubordination, and sighs. Day's thought of sharing his sleeping bag, yearned for it -- curling in beside him for the heat, their bodies together making a semi-colon, connecting two separate but closely connected ideas. They'd done so back on the Reckoning, when it was so cold below-decks that the thermometers froze, but now he doesn't know how it would look to the men.

"Captain," the doctor says urgently, emerging from the canvas flap at the rear of the hut. The horrible ruin of his face, criss-crossed with scars, makes him look like a gargoyle half-eaten by weather.

Day crawls down the small gangway. Behind the flap, beside their stove, Paver lies dying, his eyelids sometimes fluttering as if struggling to wake from a dream. Day hopes he's somewhere else entirely. He's been given the liquid from the soup they made yesterday, lichen and the last of the crumbled biscuit, the consistency of thin snot.

It's the day after their rations finally ran out.

"How long?"

"Tomorrow, maybe," Doctor Nye says, taking off his broken glasses to polish them. It would be humorous -- an affectation, they're all so grubby -- if it weren't so pitiful. "His organs are shutting down."

Paver feels boiling hot to the touch when Day loosens his collar, presses a hand to his throat. It's probably an illusion.

"The others will die," Nye says, and Day reads accusation in his tone. "We will all die."

There's still no sign of night, not even past supper-time, and the sky crowds in on them.

Day sends Stevens up onto the grave-ridge with Jackson; now, he supposes, Second Lieutenant Jackson. Normally no-one leaves the hut after dinner -- which tonight is just tea-dust, they can hardly spare the fuel to boil water -- and they settle down to discuss food, maddeningly, right down to the drinks and desserts, conjuring five-course meals from the air. Raisin pudding with condensed milk. Hot rum and lemon punch. There's a hallucinatory realness to it. But this evening, trying not to listen, trying not to let it gnaw at him, Day had caught snatches of whispered conversation.

"Someone will be held responsible --"

"Another few weeks, and then, and then, if no-one comes --"

They suspect that this is a closed season: Lancaster Sound is blocked to the whaling fleets by the same ice they can see off Cape Verdant. And so rescue is unlikely to come, and they will continue to dwindle, far from civilization, in a state of pure savagery. Not even the Bible can save them now.

When Stevens returns from the grave-ridge, he has a glint to his sharp eyes. Jackson, on the other hand, looks sick; pale; greenish. Day meets them outside, where he's been pacing and looking up at that teeming sky, whispering curses.

"Is it done?"

Stevens gives a single nod. Day knows, in this moment, he'd rather have Stevens than a thousand other men. He's golden, from his hair to his hard-edged glitter; his value.He couldn't have done this without him.

"It wasn't hard to cut," Stevens says quietly.

Sheppard hadn't yet grown cold.

Someone will be held responsible.



London, 1882

The relentless symmetry of the Admiralty building had always given Day a headache. Columns rose regularly, disappeared in orderly and predictable lines like soldiers, and square ceilings pressed down on him: a stone sky, like being buried under the earth. Looking to his right, he saw a set of mirrors marching off into the distance, reflecting him into eternity -- unbroken, undistorted. A hundred perfect William Days, as if he'd come back from the Arctic shining and whole. He looked away quickly. He almost preferred the spitting, hissing rain outside, although this wasn't proper weather, merely the suggestion of it.

They'd been expecting him. He didn't dare hope this was a good thing. Some Admiralty man might have guffawed, slapped his thigh with mean glee: "Do you know who's come forward about the Stevens rescue? Do you know? Who does he think he is?"

Day rubbed his forehead, surreptitiously tried to get some of the rain out of his hat. Water pooled around his uncomfortable chair, his coat dripping like a shipwrecked mariner. Fitting, because -- on his return from America all those years before -- he had indeed been marooned; not on a distant island, or some foreign shore, but in his family's three-story townhouse in Russell Square. Although he had cause to be grateful that his father and supercilious older brother had somehow managed to pass on without him, and he'd never want for anything -- although that idea almost made him laugh -- it meant he'd live alone until the end of his days. Alone, but not quite forgotten.

And now he'd washed up back at the Admiralty again.

Sitting even more upright, Day fixed his eyes on the green door leading to the private offices. Change came creakingly slow, and everything was still as he remembered it from that rather cursory 'investigation' years ago. The Reckoning expedition had never been under Admiralty command, hence no real court martial, and no-one had wanted indecent things to be made public; he supposed he was one of those indecent things.

Turning his hands over, he inspected them for cleanliness. Neat fingernails. His hands were soft. He would be forty in a few years, and his mid-brown hair was streaked firmly with licks of grey at his temples. His face was an honest one, people said, when they wanted to be kind. An ugly scar on the back of his left hand made him self-conscious; there were only so many situations one could wear gloves indoors.People always assumed it was something dramatic. He was quick to disabuse them: told them it was an accident in the rigging as a midshipman, and they looked disappointed.

He wasn't -- quite -- the monster people said he was.

But he'd always known, even back then, that William Day could never be fully exonerated. Not in the eyes of the public, or the press, or God. It would be madness to try. He could see them now, just as clear as before: all those whisperers in uniform, elbowing each other when they saw him, falling silent as he passed them in these echoing halls.

Murderer. Cannibal.

The green door opened, and a man left in high temper; he was very pale, with high well-bred cheekbones, a swoop of mahogany hair and a face like curdled milk. Another, older, followed him by walking-stick and determination, upper lip and chin covered with badgery whiskers. "It's hardly to be borne," the younger hissed. "Him? Hopkins has over-stepped himself this time, the Arctic Council will --"

"Oh, the Council will, will it?" the old man said with coolness. "The Council has nothing to do with it. Let them sort this new disaster out themselves."

They broke off, abruptly, when they saw Day sitting there, back pressed against the wall as if he were trying to disappear. "Excuse me," he said.

The pale man made a strangled noise, and grabbed his companion by the arm, ushering him quickly and roughly around the corner out of sight. Day heard them speaking to each other in low voices, and swallowed. He'd seen the widening eyes, the flicker of contemptuous recognition: the moment he was judged instantly on the basis of the worst things he might ever have done.

Lieutenant Day of the Reckoning. Or, as the papers insisted on calling it, the Reckoning disaster. His likeness had been passed around the illustrated news, a monster with beard and wild hair. Desperate and emaciated, they said, and it was utterly true: desperation was the constant state of Cape Verdant.

Day sighed. Who did he think he was? Stevens, his former second-in-command, had left civilization in 1879 and disappeared once again into the frozen North. He, at least, still believed in the Open Polar Sea. But only two years of provisions, for an expedition three years lost -- despite Stevens's winking insistence that they could all fend for themselves, Day knew the idea of such a large party surviving on hunting was ludicrous. The crew of the Arctic Fox would by now be on short rations, shortening rations, maybe no rations at all.

Day, more than anyone, knew what that was like.

"Mr Day." A face appeared. "Captain William Hopkins." The stranger offered his hand. He had eyes set close together, like some small carnivorous animal, all sleek fur and pointed nose. "Won't you come in? I'm sorry to have kept you waiting."

The room beyond the green door was dimly lit, a fire in the grate, rain tap-tapping half-heartedly against the windowpanes. By the fireplace, twin high-backed armchairs in olive velvet, and a low table covered with correspondence and newspaper cuttings. It looked disordered, but Day immediately had the impression that the room's occupant knew where to lay his hands on every single scrap of paper.

"Sit, please," Hopkins said. Although outside it was too lazy to snow, the room was warm; Day could feel the heat start to suffocate him. A large chart table displayed the official map of the North-West Passage, and Hopkins bumped into it, with an air of annoyance, on his way to the liquor cabinet.

Day accepted a whiskey. Hopkins sat opposite. Up close, he was even younger than Day had first appreciated. But something about him appealed. He seemed like the rare kind of person who got things done.

"I had hoped to speak with the First Lord," Day said delicately.

Hopkins frowned. "But he's busy, busy. You know. Resources. Egypt."

Day took a sip of whiskey. He rarely drank, and it sat like acid inside him, in the tight hard knot of disappointment that had been building since he'd reached the Admiralty. Of course there were resource issues. Of course he'd come for nothing, and Stevens would be abandoned to his fate. Just another lost Arctic expedition, an American one at that. Whose interests would be served by saving him?

Another act of vast indifference by the machine of British bureaucracy.

"If there's another time, perhaps --"

"Not at all. I'm the one who answered you, Mr Day. Needs must."

Needs must -- and the other half of the saying, when the devil drives. It reminded Day so strongly of Jesse Stevens he found a prickling sensation running down his spine.

"The Stevens business is a concern of mine. Here -- take a look." Hopkins leant forward, perched on one bony buttock, and plucked something from the pile of papers between them. With a horrible creeping sense of humiliation, one that made sweat gather under his arms, Day recognized some of those newspaper cuttings.

They came back in iron caskets! shrieked the headlines. Just six caskets, sealed for repatriation, to hide decomposition and -- the rest. The separation of spirit and body, played out in ruthless and gruesome detail. All those other lives extinguished in the Arctic without a trace. And the Reckoning lost.

Hopkins, like everyone else, had heard the very worst about him.

The velvet cushions exhaled as Hopkins handed something to Day, with arched eyebrow, and sat back again. But it wasn't what he'd expected: letters, addressed in a feminine hand to the First Lord. It felt wrong to be handling someone else's correspondence. For the sake of the debt which at least one of your countrymen owes my husband --

Day's wrists prickled. He tried to put it down to the heat of the room, but there was something about that scrawling hand, and its vehement message.A debt.


"I don't suppose you ever met Mrs Stevens?"

Day shook his head, swallowing the sour taste in his mouth. "They married after I'd left America."

After he'd fled back to England to escape the reporters and the rumors and that horrible nick-name, the one that followed him everywhere. He hadn't even been invited to the wedding; there was no place for William Day at the feast. He found it hard to imagine Stevens married. Hard to imagine him anywhere but at Day's own side.

"People say, don't they, that he's a great man. But you can imagine how indifferent the Council has been, after that -- Passage business."

He wouldn't say the name of Sir John Franklin out loud, and Day supposed he knew why: two ships lost, hundreds of men, nearly as many search parties, and all the Admiralty had got out of it was that line on the map showing a wavering ice-filled strait, never seen passable. Quite useless to the plans of Empire.

Hopkins refilled Day's glass. "Mrs Stevens --" a small snort at the name, as if the title were reserved for those of a loftier character -- "is determined that her husband is still alive. Tell me, Mr Day -- do you believe the same?"

That was, after all, why he was here, in the third winter of Stevens's expedition. Day couldn't believe -- refused to believe -- that Stevens was dead. The man would have found a way to survive. He might be chewing on frozen blubber with the Natives. He might be manning the darkness of an ice-locked ship, hunting rats in the hold, small deer. He might even be eating his own boots. But he was alive. The North couldn't kill that ceaseless, searching ambition.

And Day would know when Stevens died.

How could he not?

"Yes, absolutely," Day said without hesitation.

"Good." Hopkins unfolded his arms. "Good. Because you're going to find him."

Copyright © 2023 by Ally Wilkes


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