Friday, April 14, 2006


The Havana Caper - 1

The Havana Caper – 1

A haze had settled over the island like a wet rag, turning the sun into a sickly yellow disk that barely penetrated the thick air. Mist clung to every surface in the harbor town and the surrounding waters.

Out of the haze sailed a ship, its black hull and red trim cutting through the choppy waters as it drove to its anchoring place. Though a Dutch flag fluttered from the transom, the few who could see the ship through the limited visibility weren’t fooled. Odds favored it being a pirate, like so many ships that plied these waters around Port Royal in this, the Golden Age of Piracy. And it happened that this ship was well known to all the buccaneering cognoscenti of Port Royal.

The Festering Boil.

The Boil was something of a legend in these waters. Besides being a very successful pirate ship, its crew was far more stable than most of the amorphous contingents to be found on the account; many of the Boil’s sailors and officers had sailed together for more than a decade.

The ship was also the center of strange and wonderful rumors. There was talk of a mysterious voyage to the Far East just a year earlier which had apparently brought in little booty but which the denizens of dockside taverns still whispered about. And now the ship was back from a sudden trip to Maracaibo, at the southern end of the Caribbean. They had left hurriedly six weeks earlier, and reports had come in from various locales of explosions, danger, mutiny, magic and death.

Now, just as suddenly as it had departed, the Boil was back. The report that she’d been spotted crossing Portland Bight the previous evening had been enough to get tongues wagging. Now there she was dropping anchor in the harbor.

To any who could see the pirate ship clearly through the thick air, it would have been even more surprising when they spotted the man standing so eagerly at the rail, awaiting the first opportunity to disembark. He was wearing a dress uniform of the English Navy. A rather torn and bedraggled one, to be sure, somewhat soiled and ill fitting, but clearly a uniform that had received all the attention that could be given in the confines of a pirate ship.

Mandrake Bulwer Pondicherry Tharp, lieutenant in the king’s navy and scion of an illustrious naval family, had no possessions at all but his saber, pistol and the clothes on his back, cleaned and mended as best he could manage. Everything else had been lost when the crew of HMS Tigershark had mutinied. How he had ended up aboard a pirate ship and what he had learned there about himself was something he’d rather not discuss or even think about. Right now, he just wanted off this ship. As Port Royal was an English port with an English governor, this was not just his first chance to disembark, it was his best.

The cry “all ashore what’s going ashore,” found Tharp eagerly at the railing, the first to clamber down the side into the longboat for the short trip to the quay. He was rather disgruntled to see that his shipmates for the voyage were none other than the captain and his ubiquitous companion.

Cap’n Slappy and Ol’ Chumbucket made themselves comfortable in the stern sheets and paid no attention to the officer perched in the bow, and he ignored them. As four crewmen rowed the boat in, the two discussed their plans for the brief stay in harbor.

“How many crewmen do you think we’ll need?” Chumbucket asked.

“I’d be comfortable with another 20,” Slappy said. “That’ll give us plenty of hands to put a crew on any prize we take and still be able to fight both sides of the ship.”

“Alright. I’ll start at the Dockside Doxie and see if there’s anyone there this early in the morning …”

“There’s always plenty of sailors at the Doxie, day or night. Just make sure they can stand up and make a mark on the ship’s roll before they sign on.”

“Don’t worry,” Chumbucket reassured him. “We won’t shove off with any walking cadavers. If I can’t find what I need there I’ll stroll down the pier. There ought to be plenty of good hands who’d rather take their shot at the treasure fleet than suck rope on a merchantman.”

Slappy nodded agreement, then said, “In the meantime I’m off to Hogshead Revisited where I should find the local Brotherhood officers – see if they have any more information on the Spanish. Maybe one or two would like to join us for a shot at ‘em.”

As they neared the pier, the pirates noticed the dock seemed unusually crowded.

“There’s the Red Dog, the Kraaken, the Polliwog, the Sudden Surprise, the Sunny Delight,” Chumbucket ticked off the ships as the longboat slid by.

“And what’s that one out there at the jetty?” Slappy said. “Can’t say I like the looks of that. That’s Royal Navy or I’m Davy Jones and all the little Joneses.”

Tharp was pointedly not paying attention to them, which meant he’d heard every word. At the mention of the navy he sat and scanned the water till his eyes fixed on the ship, a frigate. A smile flitted across his face. When they arrived at the pier Tharp scrambled out and turned on his heel to leave, but Slappy stopped him.

“So, lad. Yer off?”

Tharp paused, but didn’t turn.

“Well boyo, I won’t say it’s been fun havin’ ye on board, because it hasn’t, but I’m glad we were able to be of service. Give my best to yer father when you see him.”

Tharp turned with a cold look.

“I will be saying as little as possible to my father about all this. It is no more a subject he’d want to hear about than I wish to dwell on.”

Slappy took the insult with a grin.

“Look lad,” he started.

“Don’t call me ‘lad!’” Tharp spat back. “I’m not your lad or anything else, you ocean-going parasite.”

Chumbucket took a step forward to intercede. He had seen men receive savage beatings with Slappy’s fists and forehead for less than what Tharp had said. To his surprise, Slappy did nothing, just eyed the youth coldly for a long moment, then took a step closer to the young man.

“Lieutenant Tharp,” he said. “You’ll find your voyage through life a lot easier if you keep your eyes open and are honest about what you see with ‘em. What have I done to you, other than save your life a couple of times? A reasonable person might wonder if you’re really mad at me, or mad at your father for not telling you he had a black sheep brother, or maybe even mad at yourself. A nice fancy pedigree is a lovely thing on land, but at sea the only thing that matters is what a man does. And I think what I’ve done has merited a thanks from you, not a tantrum. What do you say?”

Slappy held out his hand. Tharp opened his mouth as if to reply, then snapped it shut with an audible click. He stared at Slappy a moment longer, then spun on his heel, and stalked off.

“So long Junior! See you at the next family reunion,” Slappy called after him, then chuckled. “Shouldn’t have done that, but he’s just like his old man. There’s nothin’ easier to prick holes in than a nice starched shirt. Oh well, to business. See you back aboard in a few hours.”

The two men went off in their different directions, Chumbucket in search of sailors in various waterfront dives, and Slappy to the slightly more respectable watering hole where he expected to find the representatives of the Brotherhood of the Coast. His should have been the shorter of the two expeditions, but by mid-afternoon Ol’ Chumbucket had returned to the pier, signaling to the Boil for the longboat, which came in and took the recruits off to the ship while Chumbucket waited for Slappy.

And waited. Two hours passed, and Ol’ Chumbucket finally signaled for the longboat to fetch him when he heard footsteps coming along the dock. He looked and saw the captain.

Followed, Chumbucket was surprised to see, by the familiar figure of Tharp. Both of them seemed in particularly foul moods.

“What’s up?” Chumbucket asked. “And what’s he doing here?”

“Long story. Long, unpleasant story. Totally fucked up long damn story,” Slappy stewed.

Tharp just looked away in disgust.

“Well, are you going to tell me this long fucked up story?” Chumbucket asked.

“Oh, very well. I got to the Hogshead, but there was no one there. No one. Hiram said everyone had been called up at the governor’s office. So I figured, what the hell, I’ll head over there and see what was going on. When I got there I found eight captains from the Brotherhood in the conference room with the governor and another man. And Junior here, of course.”

Tharp glowered. “Would you please not call me that?” he snapped.

“Whatever. Anyway, the other man was Captain Steubing, commander of that frigate we noticed.”

“Not another futile attempt to shut down the Brotherhood is it,” Chumbucket asked.

“Oh no, far from it. He was recruiting them. For a raid. On the coast of Panama. Seems he got someone in the Admiralty to approve a plan to try to wipe out the Spanish on that stretch of the coast and supplant them with English outposts. And he brought with him enough gold to convince eight Brotherhood captains to join him. They were hoping I’d make it nine.”

“You laughed at them, right?” Chumbucket said as they climbed down into the ship’s boat to head back to the Boil.

“No, that wouldn’t have been polite. Some of my best friends were at that table. But I did decline to join them, and told them what I had in mind. Believe me, when some of the fellows heard we were going for the treasure fleet, you could see they wanted to tell Steubing to go to hell and join us. But they’d already signed on, and Steubing had sent Marine squads to each ship to keep them from changing their minds.”

“He isn’t going to try to stop us, is he?” Chumbucket said with concern.

“No. As a matter of fact he loved the plan, thought it would make a great diversion for his own little effort,” Slappy said. “He liked it so much that he made us his official representatives in this venture.”

“You don’t mean … ” Chumbucket interjected in horror.

“I do indeed.”

“He didn’t give you … “

“Oh, he did. He most certainly did. Here it us, right here.”

Slappy held up the offending piece of paper.

“A letter of marque,” Chumbucket said with dread.

“Yes. We are now officially representatives of the crown in its war against Spain, whether we want to be or not.”

“Didn’t you tell him ‘Thanks but we’d sooner have our living entrails eaten by goats?’ After all, it doesn’t change what we’re planning to do. All it does is give the Spanish another reason to be pissed off at us.”

“Yes I did explain exactly that – surprisingly in those very words. But he was insistent, and you know, it’s hard to argue with a man when he’s surrounded by a company of Marines. There’s nothing for it. For now, we’re ‘privateers.’”

“I guess I’d better go back into town and buy myself some fancy silk under breeches,” Chumbucket said.

“Steady on, lad” Slappy said, “It gets better.”

“I take it that’s what Junior is doing here,” Chumbucket said, jerking a thumb at Tharp, who winced at the repeat of the nickname.

“Well, it’s funny you should mention that. When I explained that in our own, unofficial way we’d be able to manage just fine with the treasure fleet, Steubing insisted that we too needed an escort. But he’d already dispatched all his spare troops. So he ordered this fellow along to keep us company, to keep an eye on us. This,” Slappy said, pointing to Tharp, “is a squad of Marines.”

Chumbucket looked at the young man, and his smile slowly turned into a belly laugh.

“Welcome aboard, lieutenant,” he finally said when his laughter subsided.

“How’d you do?” Slappy asked. “We bulk up the crew?

“A little,” Chumbucket said. “although now that I’ve heard your story I know why I was only able to find eight really good sailors, and another six of somewhat suspect credentials. Plus there’s one fellow who was a little reluctant about signing on, but I convinced him. I think it’s worth it.”

“Reluctant? Why? And why do we care about someone who doesn’t want to join the crew?”

“It’s Spencer.”

Slappy stopped short. Spencer was his former cabin boy who two months earlier has been promoted to seaman. In celebration the crew had taken him for his first night at a Port Royal sporting house, and he had fallen in love with the working girl in question and they’d run off together.

“So his love, the girl he left the ship for? What was her name? Daisy? Maisy? Mary?”

“Mahren,” Chumbucket supplied.

“Mahren, right. She was less interested in him than …”

“His share of the swag, yes. When it was gone, apparently so was she. She’s back at Madame Svetlana’s place, I gather.”

“I’ve had more than a few of those. Better than the ones I married, who stuck around after the booty was gone and tried to ‘improve’ me,” Slappy said. “So I assume he’s feeling a little sheepish, a little embarrassed.”

“A little like he’s going to be killed for desertion. I had to give him my solemn word that you wouldn’t.”

“Kill him?” Slappy said with disbelief. “Kill Spencer? No. Look, we were in port after a long mission. The crew had been paid, and though I’d promoted him he’d never actually signed the articles. So he certainly isn’t a deserter. Some lessons can only be learned the hard way. ‘A sadder but wiser man’ and all that. I suppose I should have a talk with him.”

“I expect so. I put him in charge of getting the new men organized, and you’ll have to meet them all, of course. But I’d start with Spencer. I told him to wait in your cabin.”

“Right,” Slappy said as the boat pulled alongside the Boil. “Well Lieutenant Tharp, welcome to your new home. I hope you’re very happy aboard the Festering Boil.”

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