Monday, January 15, 2007


The Havana Caper – 39

Five soldiers marched along the seawall toward the sally port on the harbor side of Morro Castle, their armored breast plates and helmets gleaming, their swords clanking menacingly at their sides, pikes swinging from their shoulders in perfect precision. Indeed, if it weren’t the dead of night they’d have made a martial display worthy of any battlefield in the world, though one of them was significantly shorter than the others, and the second in line kept bumping into the leader.

“Would you watch your step?” the leader hissed after another collision.

“Sorry,” Dogwatch said. “This helmet thingy keeps slipping over me eyes. I can’t see a thing.”

“Then take it off for now.” Keeling admonished.

“But we’re supposed to look like soldiers.”

“But it’s night and there’s no one out here who can see us. Put it back on when we get inside.”

“Both of you shut up and keeping looking for that sally port,” Tharp muttered. “Now, forward, march.”

The quintet of pirates, including cabin boy Gabriel, set off again in stride, keeping cadence with a chant that sounded for all the world like a sound that would be used a few centuries later to sell a brand of cookies.

Oreo – Yoooo Huh!
Oreo – Yoooo Huh!



“Shut up!”

High up in one of the castle’s turrets, Cap’n Slappy continued his drug-induced vision – the horseback ride through hell. The images of tree branches like bone closed over his head, the way narrowing until they clutched at him from all sides like fleshless fingers, plucking at his clothing, tearing at his hair. Then, suddenly the phantom horse stopped dead, and Slappy was almost thrown from the back of the beast.

Looking ahead through the eerie, green light that suffused the vision he realized his mount had stopped at the edge of a river – but not any river the pirate had ever seen before. It oozed sullenly between its fetid banks, the color was all wrong and the smell was overpowering.

“What the f …” he started to say, and then he realized. This was a river of warm blood, its reek clogging his breathing like a hand closing over his throat. He reeled back and grasped the reins more firmly trying to pull his spectral steed back, but the thing he was riding chose that moment to fling itself forward, and Slappy found himself wading into the foul stench. The river was deep, and as the horse-thing swam, Slappy found himself up to his armpits in the disgusting ooze. Retching, he clung to the demon beast’s back for dear life as it plunged through the miasma.

It finally reached the opposite bank and drove on through the ossified forest, both beast and rider leaving a horrid trail of blood behind them as the ghostly gallop continued. The thudding of the hooves and the whistle of the wind couldn’t keep out the shrieks of murdered children and the screams of tortured men that filled the air, turning the pirate’s marrow to ice.

Slappy was beyond wondering what the purpose of this ride was, beyond remembering that his body was really sitting in a chair before a warm fire in Morro Castle. Horrified, he clung to the beast, whose flesh had shriveled until it was more skeleton than living thing. Up ahead was a light glimmered through the trees, and the beast plunged toward it faster than a real horse possibly could. Whatever was up ahead, Slappy was pretty sure he didn’t want to see it, but he was powerless to slow the mad dash. Amid the rush of the wind and the howl of the demented, tortured souls, Slappy realized there was another sound.

His own screaming.

And then all noise stopped, and the horse stood still at the edge of the circle of light thrown by a bonfire in which doomed souls were being consumed. And Slappy saw her.

Lady Fanny.

In the vision, Cap’n Slappy fainted.

Outside the castle walls, the pirates had found the sally port.

“Okay, everyone at attention. Make sure your armor’s rig and your helmets hide your faces,” Keeling all told them. “Gabriel, try to look a little taller.”

“I’m just a kid,” the cabin boy protested, peering out from under a conquistador helmet that he could have used as a canoe.

“Well, grow. All right, this is it! I’ll do the talking. And remember I’m speaking Spanish, so even if this gets written in English, I’m really talking Spanish.”

“Si,” Tharp, Dogwatch, Spencer and Gabriel all said, preferring not to deal with the existential issue of their dialogue being written for them.

Keeling knocked on the heavy postern door. They waited.

And waited.

“Maybe you should knock in Spanish,” Tharp said.

“¡Silencio!” Keeling said as he knocked again.

There was a sound of footsteps, then a grating sound as the small window opened and a face looked out at them.

“What’s the password?” the man asked in Spanish.

“Ah, the password, yes, a clever idea, passwords,” Keeling said, stalling for time as he tried to remember what Pascal had told him.

“Yes, they’re terrific devices.,” the inquisitor agreed. “Keep out the riffraff. Now what is it?”

“Oh yes, I remember: Ahhhh, wait, it’s on the tip of my tongue.”

The window started sliding shut.

“King Phillip’s sucks donkey dicks!’ Dogwatch shouted in English.

“Correct,” the voice said in Spanish.

“Er,” Keeling said in Spanish. “Remind me again why the password is in English.”

“Because we’re Spanish folks and it’ll fool the English pig dogs, who’ll never expect such cunning from us. Now get in here. You boys are late, and I want to get back to the barracks and get some sleep before the killing starts tomorrow.”

“Yes, the killings. And who exactly are we killing again?”

“A handful of those pirates the lady captured, of course. Unless you don’t get in here and get on duty quick, because we could always substitute you, instead. The lady doesn’t care much who dies, she just likes watching.”

“No problem, we’re here. Just open the door.”

Within minutes the pirates were ushered through the portal, the guard had been changed and the pirates were handed the massive ring of very heavy keys. Soon they were alone.

“All right, so far so good,” Spencer said. “Now where’s that staircase we’re supposed to go down to find the dungeon?”

“Esteban said it would be off to the right,” Keeling said.

Dogwatch turned to look for the opening.

“No, Dogwatch. The other right.”

“Oh, of course. Sorry.”

“Before we go any farther, could I just point out again, for the record, that this is insane?” Tharp said. “We could still get out of here and sail off to find the fleet.”

“We could, except you heard that guard, the killing starts in the morning. Besides, we traded Spencer’s boat for the uniforms and information,” Keeling said. “We’ve got nothing to fall back on except our own comrades and our belief that we will prevail because of the pureness of our hearts.”

All four pirates stared at Keeling for a second. It was Gabriel who broke the silence.

“We’re fucked.”

“Pure hearts are all well and good,” Tharp said, “but a couple of dozen more men with pure hearts and, oh, maybe pistols, swords and knives would make me feel a lot better. We’re four men and a midget.”

“I’m not a midget!” Gabriel said, aiming a kick at Tharp’s shin. It was just as well that he missed because the shin was armored and that would have hurt.

“Right, right, you’re a kid, I get it,” Tharp said sulkily.

“Just don’t you start,” Gabriel muttered.

“Leave off,” Keeling hissed. “We’re supposed to be Spanish soldiers guarding the fort. Now let’s all stick together and find our friends and get them out of here. Let’s go. I’ll take the lead, then Spencer, Gabriel and Dogwatch. Tharp, you take the rear. Let’s go.”

As the faux footmen started off to heroically rescue their friends, Cap’n Slappy found himself, in his mind, seated on a cold hilltop, the stars hard and bright points of light. Somehow the fire and the ghostly forest and even the spectral horse had vanished. Now he was alone with Fanny.

“You know, Mortimer my love, it took me a long, long time to decide exactly how I was going to kill you,” Fanny said.

Still quaking from his nightmarish ride, Slappy didn’t even have the energy to protest the use of his name.

“Fortunately, I had LOTS of time to think, thanks to you. Lots and lots of time to think about skinning you alive, or feeding your entrails to a goat while you watched, or burning you alive, or … oh, just so many wonderful reveries. Well, there were so many choices I just couldn’t decide. And then it hit me, the perfect end to your sorry life. Guess. Go on, guess how I’m going to kill you.”

Slappy said nothing. Fanny’s voice took a harder edge.

“I said guess. Now Guess! Guess! Guess! Guess! GUESS!” With each repeat of the word Fanny reared back and slapped the pirate in the face, finally making a fist and punching him on the last, shrieked, “GUESS!!!!”


“Oh, you were always such a spoilsport! Never willing to play my little games. Well, fine. Be that way. But I’m going to tell you anyway, because I don’t want it to be a surprise. You knowing exactly what is happening is the best part. Not just the humiliation, but the complete loss of every thing you’ve ever thought about yourself and whatever anyone else thought as well.”

Slappy’s eyes flicked up towards her.

“Slappy my dear, I’m going to kill you with kindness.”

Keeling held up a hand to warn his comrades to slow down. They were approaching an arch. According to their information, they’d see a pair of guards right around the turn and they’d have to deal with them one way or another.

“Are we all set,” he hissed. “I’ll greet them in Spanish. If I say ‘cumquat,’ that means we have to take them out as quietly as we can. Spencer, you and Dogwatch take the one on the left, Tharp, you and I … Where’s Tharp?”

The pirates all looked around. Tharp wasn’t there.

“Where the hell did he go?”

“Who saw him last?”

“He was right behind me a few minutes ago.”

“Should we go back and find him?”

“No, there’s no time,” Keeling said. “We can’t waste hours looking for him. He knows where we’re going, he’ll just have to catch up. I just hope he doesn’t mess things up or alert the garrison. Right now, Gabriel, you’ll stick with me if we have to take out the guard on the left. Just watch yourself. Let’s go.”

Gabriel nodded, his eyes as big as the mouths of two cannon. The pirates stood and walked through the archway, turning right.

In the vision, Slappy’s eyes goggled at Fanny as she smiled a self-satisfied smile.

“You’ll kill me with kindness?” he finally said.

“Oh yes. It will be wonderful. For the next month you’ll have the finest food, the most sumptuous lodgings, warm comfortable clothing, and eager, talented young women to see to your every carnal desire. You will lack for nothing except sweet death, which I won’t give you. And you’ll hate every minute. Do you know why? Of course you do, but I’ll tell you anyway. Because while you’re wallowing in luxury, your friends and shipmates will be living in miserable squalor, deprived of every necessity for life including simple dignity. They will be starved and subjected to horrid, random tortures. They will die in agony. And you will watch.”

“The hell I will.”

“Oh, you will. This is the best part! Every day they’ll be dragged out to the courtyard and three or four will be chosen at random and executed in some creatively excruciating manner, while you stand beside me on the balcony, smiling and watching. You won’t be able to help yourself because of the drug you’ve been given. They’ll think you’ve abandoned them to save your own skin, and they’ll die hating you. And when they’re all gone – Oh, this is the best part of the best part. When they’re all dead, I’m NOT going to kill you! No!!! You’ll be set free! Isn’t that wonderfully awful? I’ll have spread word of your treachery ahead of you. Wherever you go, people will believe that you traded your crew’s life to save your own. Everyone – EVERYONE – will hate you, think you’re a loathsome coward. In the end, you’ll kill yourself in despair. Isn’t it wonderful?

Slappy couldn’t bring himself to look at Fanny, because she was right. It was the most awful, most diabolical thing he’d ever heard of – ever. He could face a firing squad, or alligators or torture. But she’d picked the one thing that he couldn’t bear.

“Fanny, you’re the most evil, horrible being an inattentive God ever allowed to be spawned on the face of the earth.”

“Thank you Mortimer! I love you too.”

The two guards were easily dispatched, Gabriel supplying the coup de grace to one on the left. Now the four pirates descended the staircase to the lower level of the cell block.

“When we go through the door, there’s a guardroom on the left. Dogwatch, you slam the door shut and lock it with this key.” Keeling handed Dogwatch one of the heavy iron keys from the ring. Three other guards will be posted down the corridor. We’ll have to take ‘em one by one. Our friends are in the big cell at the end of the corridor. Let’s go!”

They dropped down the last few stairs and hit the floor running. Dogwatch threw the door closed and leaned on it as he shoved the key in the lock and twisted. Just moments after the bolt shot home he could feel the shoulders of the surprised guards inside hit the door and try to open it, but it was too late. Most of the company was trapped.

Dogwatch heard a clatter and looked up to see one soldier fall, Spencer driving his blade through the man up to the hilt. Keeling was engaged with two others a few paces beyond, but the surprise had been total and both men fell in moments. The pirates paused just a moment, but besides the thump of the trapped guards trying to get through the door, the castle was silent.

“Gabriel, keep an eye on the stairs. We’ll rescue the crew.”

“Aye sir.”

“Which key did they say it was?” Keeling muttered as he raced to the door.

Inside, the crew of the Boil had been alerted to something going on in the hall. They could hear the sound of a fight, then the sound of footsteps and the scratching of keys in the lock.

“Who is it,” Sawbones Burgess asked Wellington, who had his ear to the door.

“Can’t tell.” He listened closer, then smiled.

“That was Keeling’s ‘damn’ or I’m a Barbados whore. Keeling? Is that you?” he shouted, stirring the rest of the pirates.

“Wellington? Hold on all of you. We’re here, but I’ve got about thirty keys here and I can’t figure out which one it … wait! I’ve got it!”

They heard a creak and a snap and the door flew open, revealing Keeling, Dogwatch and Spencer spent over the lock.

“Good work, lads!” Ol’ Chumbucket said. “Where’s the exit? We’ve got to get most of the crew down to the ship, but we still have to find Slappy.”

The rescuers didn’t get the chance to ask Chumbucket what he meant or why the captain wasn’t there, because at that moment Gabriel came flying down the hall.

“Leftenant! Chumbucket! We’ve got a problem!”

They looked down the long passageway and saw a figure. In the flickering light, they realized it was Tharp. The problem was, his hands were in the air and he wasn’t alone.

Behind him, his pistol pointed at Tharp’s head, was Captain Stubing, followed by a dozen armed marines.

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