Thursday, February 23, 2006


A Pirate Tale – 128

Florencio Porras, adjutant and administrative assistant to his Excellency Don Taco, governor of Maracaibo and viceroy of his majesty, the king of Spain, signed his name to another document and returned his quill pen to the holder, taking care that the plume extended precisely 45 degrees diagonally from the grid his mind’s eye could see clearly transecting the writing surface. He picked up the document, a report on the month’s consumption of wine by the palace guard, and placed it carefully in the tidy stack on the left corner of his immaculate desk. Then with equal care he took another document from the stack on the right and placed it precisely in front of him. “A report on the coffee trade through Maracaibo and surrounding ports for the previous six months,” he read. Excellent.

A faintly disagreeable aroma wafted in from the window, disturbing his studious concentration on the report. Damn and vexation!. There was so much to do, so many documents to read and sign. How could he be expected to concentrate with such petty annoyances? He pushed his chair back precisely 12 inches, stood, and walked the eight paces from his desk to the window, which he closed firmly. He took his handkerchief, as always scented with menthol to guard against the offensive odors which often seemed to present themselves in this humid, stifling city. He breathed in, breathed out. The familiar, antiseptic smell calmed him as it always did. Eight paces and 12 inches later he was back at his desk, losing himself in the romance of carefully calculated columns of numbers. His eyes scanned the neat parade of figures, and he frowned once as he noticed an error in the arithmetic. Reaching for his pen, he quickly corrected the figure before replacing his pen, again at a precise angle so that his desk was as neatly ordered as a palace changing of the guard.

A noise from the antechamber drew his attention. What was this? Was he not to be allowed to get about his official business? He stood, and drawing himself to his full 5-foot, 2-inch stature, marched the 14 paces to the door.

He only managed 13 of them. The door burst open, sending Florencio Porras flying backwards at least six of those paces where he landed in a crumpled heap. Above him stood Cementhands McCormack. On any day the pirate was an imposing figure. Angry, he could fill a room, even one as palatial as the adjutant’s office. Now Cementhands was angry enough that he actually seemed to fill both this room and a couple of adjacent ones. He reached down with one ham-sized fist and grabbed the target of his wrath by the frilly lapels of his coat and raised him to eye level, which left the dapper little man’s feet dangling more than a foot above the floor.

“Who paid you?” McCormack bellowed.

“Mpphhgh!” Florencio said, his eyes wide with terror.

“I said who paid you?” Cementhands asked again, his grip tightening on the lapels.

“Mpphhgh!” the governor’s aide repeated, adding, “Rrrggglikkk flurrrddlt!!!!!” by way of further explanation.

“Don’t give me any of that double talk! Now I’m gonna ask you one more time, who paid you?” McCormack drew back a fist the size of Portugal for further emphasis.

Blood was spurting from Florencio’s nose, which had born the brunt of the door. Fortunately, his coat and vest were a bright magenta, so they might be salvageable. Florencio was pretty sure his face wouldn’t be, so he repeated, ““Mpphhgh!”

“I don’t think he can breathe,” came a voice from the doorway, arresting his fist just before McCormack could launch it at the little man. “That might explain why he’s not answering your question. I’d suggest letting go of him.”

McCormack did so, and the bureaucrat dropped to the floor like a gunnysack of unrelated kitchen utensils. McCormack turned around to see Don Taco, who was calmly waving away a squad of solders who seemed just as happy not to have to try restraining the angry giant.

“So, before we repeat the question of who besides me is paying my little friend here, perhaps you could explain to me what it is you think he’s been paid for and why it was necessary to rearrange his face. And perhaps that will give him time to find his voice.”

McCormack looked from the governor to his aide, then back to the governor.

“It’s about a snake,” he said.

“A snake.”

McCormack took a deep breath, which coincidentally was exactly what Florencio was trying to do. McCormack noticed the little man trying to crawl towards the relative safety of his desk, so he moved his foot slightly, pinning the man’s ankle to the tiles. Florencio whimpered. McCormack paid no attention to him, turning back to the governor and explaining about his breakfast meeting with the snake, which had nearly struck Sawbones Burgess, and how he had dispatched the serpent with his cutlery.

“Very resourceful,” Taco commended him. “You’re quite right, the cobra does not belong here. Believe it or not, the surrounding jungles have even more amazing reptile life than any you’ve yet found in your travels.”

McCormack tried to interrupt and bring the discussion back to the issue at hand – or foot in this case – but Taco was on a roll.

“I have seen – with my own eyes I have seen! – a snakeskin that was fully 18 feet long and would have covered a snake as big around as your …” Taco eyed McCormack, then shifted gears, “as big around as my own thigh! And I have heard reports from those coming up from the jungles of Brazil, reports of beasts much larger and more deadly than that!”

McCormack had known Taco long enough not to put any credence in his stories of giant jungle snakes – 18 feet long? No way! – and waited until the tide of the governor’s enthusiastic exposition began to ebb. Finally he found an opening and threw in, “So anyway, I had seen the snake come slithering from a nearby shed – didn’t realize what it was at first – so I went to investigate. Sure enough, there was a basket there that the snake had obviously come from.”

“And what makes you think our little friend – would you mind not standing on him like that, it seems to hurt – had anything to do with this lethal beast?”

“Yes!” gasped Florencio, “Why do you come to me with this?”

“Because in the shed, there was the strong smell of menthol!”

“That … that proves nothing!” Florencio said.

“It proves you were there!”

“No!” Florencio scrabbled across the floor toward his files. “There are many shipments of menthol into the town, look!” he dug through the files. “Look, three months ago, four pounds of menthol aboard the trade galleon El Cerdo del Mar! I’m sure I can find it …”

McCormack grabbed the report and with his massive arm sent it and the carefully arranged contents of the desktop flying, reducing the adjutant to incoherent whimpering.

“It proves you were the one who set the snake loose!”

“No,” Porras protested. “No it proves nothing!”

Taco looked grave. “I’m afraid it does look bad,” he said. “Even if there are others in the city who use menthol, it certainly seems more than a coincidence that its trace was found where this slithering destroyer was released. Certainly we know of no one else who both uses the material and is close to me and my friends.”

Florencio Porras looked from Taco’s stern face to McCormack’s volcanic one. He gulped.

“You must believe me!” he whined. “I had no idea what was in the box. He just told me to take it to where your guests were dining and open it. A gift, he said, a small practical joke. When I opened the box and saw what it as – ¡Madre de cabras! – I am afraid I had to change my pantaloons! I had no idea! You must believe me!”

“WHO?” McCormack bellowed. “Who told you to deliver it?”

“It was him! It was him” Florencio shrieked.

The door closed quietly behind them.

“It pains me that things have gone this far, mi gobernador querido. It would have been much better if the snake had done its work and none were the wiser.”

McCormack and Don Taco turned. Standing there was the governor’s constant companion, Los Mariachi. But he wasn’t carrying his guitar. Instead each hand held a large dueling pistol, the flintlocks cocked, the barrels pointing at them.

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