Thursday, November 01, 2007


The Havana Caper – 48

First, a note of apology. It's been three months since we last sent word about the doings on The Festering Boil. Far too long. We had a hell of a good Talk Like a Pirate Day there, of course, and a few other things keeping us busy. We'll have a very big announcement soon – very big. In the meantime, here's the penultimate installment of "The Havana Caper," and we hope to have the final chapter ready very soon. Enjoy.


“What have you done to my son?” Admiral Tharp snapped.

“What ever are you talking about?” Cap’n Slappy asked, eyes innocently wide. “I haven’t done anything to your son. Oh, well, yes, I did save his life a couple of times, engage his help in defeating a couple of plots against the crown, and generally bring him back to civilization after he was trapped in the jungles of South America – as you asked me too back in the Indian Ocean. I promised I would, promised on our mother’s grave.”

“Our mother’s not dead and you know it,” Tharp retorted.

“Well, she still has a grave, that plot next to your dad’s in …”

“OUR father,” Tharp snarled. “There is no reason to impugn our mother’s honor with that ridiculous story about …”

“About my claim to the Irish throne?”

“Just stop. Just stop for a moment. Quiet.”

The admiral paused, lowering his head into his hands and massaging his temples. From the other side of the desk, Slappy could see the admiral’s pulse pounding in his temple at about 130 beats per minute. In truth, Tharp was a lot more than annoyed, and only his fabled “stiff upper lip” kept him from showing it.

The day had started with tension as his fleet approached Havana, under orders to dispose of the threat to the old order that was rising in the New World. It was an assignment he’d fought for despite the peculiar political problems it contained, because he knew his son was missing somewhere in the Caribbean. As his squadron approached, sails were spotted in what appeared to be a chase, so his ships veered to meet the threat. He had seen the ships running hard, seen the last one in line plow into the reef, seen it spill what appeared to be gold into the boiling spray. Then he’d watched the smaller ship sink. It was only then that he realized the last ship left afloat was the notorious The Festering Boil. His heart had gone into his throat.

Then, as the marines he sent over began to report back from the pirate ship, he became more and more sick. The news that his son had been found and was alive on Slappy’s ship was good, but pretty much everything else was bad. To learn that Fanny was back and had been behind the plot was bad. Learning that Stubing had led a treasonous revolt of several of His Majesty’s ships was bad, as was learning of the apparent treason of several companies of Royal Marines. The fact that the threat had been put down without his having to lift a finger – although he’d make certain he got the credit for it, of course– was hardly enough to offset the knowledge that such a widespread plot had happened at all. Just thinking of it made Tharp sick to his stomach.

But the worst part was the reunion between father and son.

The Tharps were not a warm, cuddly family. In a family saga going back to the Norman Conquest, the Tharps had a long tradition of service to authority, proper behavior and perfect manners. There were no unseemly displays of emotion, no inappropriate behavior or over familiarity. With the exception of the occasional black sheep – such as Slappy – who seemed to crop up every generation or so, the Tharp story was one of duty, remembering one’s place and that stiff upper lip.

So Admiral Tharp had not expected a tearful reunion with his son, had not expected the two to joyfully throw themselves into each other’s arm, any of that. And he’d been right, as far as that went. But neither had it been the dignified, almost formal affair he’d been expecting when his son reported to his cabin.

“Hi pop! Is there anything to drink on this tub?” Bulwer Mandrake Pondicherry Tharp had said carelessly as he had thrown himself into the chair across the desk from his father. Admiral Tharp had just stared frostily at him.

“Boy, that whole Fanny thing was just crazy, wasn’t it?” the younger Tharp had gone on, oblivious to his father’s growing discomfort. “She almost pulled it off, too. And that Stubing guy, what a dick! How’d a guy like him ever get to be a captain in the navy? But anyway, you’ve probably heard most of what’s been going on out here. How’s it been with you? How’s mom? If she IS my mom – you’d never believe the story Fanny had to tell.”

The admiral’s lips had begun moving, pursing and stretching as if he were speaking, but no sound came out.

“And what about that drink … never mind, I’ll get it,” the younger Tharp continued, spying the decanter on the sideboard. He hopped up, snagged the bottle and threw himself back into the chair, throwing his leg up over the arm. He took a long pull from the bottle of Admiral Tharp’s best brandy, then cocked an eye at his father and tilted the neck of the bottle toward him.

“You?” he offered. The admiral’s jaw sagged. “No? Fine.” The lieutenant shrugged then took another long pull. The only advantage the admiral could see was that the silence gave him a moment to collect himself. He forced himself to stop counting he bobs of his son’s Adam’s apple as the younger man drank, Tharp found his feet.

“Now see here,” he managed to get out. “I am delighted to see you well and whole, of course, and I realize that circumstances have thrown you into most trying circumstances with the most disreputable of company …”

“Including family members you never even hinted at,” the younger man said. His tone wasn’t accusing, just matter of fact, but the admiral felt accused anyway.

“Yes, well, my brother, Mortimer, was never …”

“Mortimer!!?!” Lieutenant Tharp said with a gasp, sitting up sharply and spewing a mouth full of brandy all over the tapestry hanging on the cabin wall. He grinned “MORTIMER!!! What the fuck! I thought his name was Slappy!”

“As if your grandfather would have saddled his offspring with such a vulgar appellation,” the admiral said. The chance to show condescending scorn put him back on more familiar footing. “Mortimer was named for your great great uncle, who had been a member of the king’s equerry, but the example did him little good. He was always an odd one, a rebel, a scoundrel, a …”

“A pirate,” young Tharp said.

“Well, yes, after he ran off we’d heard he had gone to sea. But back when I sailed with Admiral Keeling …”

“Keeling?” Tharp asked. “Could he be related to the Keeling who’s in charge of discipline on The Festering Boil?”

“Well I don’t see how. Admiral Keeling was a fine man who disappeared, washed overboard, during a storm 35 years ago in these very waters. There’s a legend about how his valet, Midshipman McCormack, had tried to rescue him in a longboat but they’d both been lost and were never heard from again. Neither man had any issue, according to the records. In fact, it was by saving the ship when all seemed lost that I first earned my promotion to captain and started on the road that led me to this position. Much as you have now begun building a record for accomplishment that will help in your rise, to the credit of the Tharp family history.”

“Yeah, it would, pop, if I planned to go back.”

“What do you mean? What are you saying?”

“I’m not sayin anything, haven’t made up my mind. But what if I decided to stay out here in the Caribbean for a while? The weather’s better than England, the women more amenable – as apparently Admiral Keeling and Midshipman McCormack discovered. And it would give me a chance to get to know my brother.”

Lieutenant Tharp watched his father’s reaction closely. If he’d shown guilt, or even shock, that would have told the younger man everything he’d needed to know, and he would have chucked the whole family tradition aside and, as he’d been thinking of it, “become a Slappy.” But his father’s whole manner revealed total confusion. So the younger man knew that, no matter what, his father hadn’t been lying to him about that all these years. So maybe he would go back to England; it seemed his father might be worth getting to know.

“Brother? What are you talking about? Are you suggesting … what?”

Bulwer Mandrake Pondicherry Tharp put the bottle down, put both feet on the floor and leaned toward his father.

“We need to talk,” he said, not unkindly.

Two hours later, Admiral Tharp looked over the desk to where his brother now sat and finished explaining what had happened.

“You must believe I never knew about the boy,” Tharp said. “The story about Fanny being his mother is all balderdash, of course. I never … well, I never did. Not then. Even then you could see that though she might be a scullery maid, she was really something predatory, something best kept at arm’s length. But she knew about me and Victoria, and obviously saved that information all these years until it could cause the most pain. I’d loved Victoria and was going to marry her and to hell with what the family said.” He gave an ironic grin. “Perhaps if I had, our positions would be reversed. You’d be the lord of the manor, the admiral, and I’d be the black sheep pirate with the absurd alias. All I knew was she disappeared one day and I never could find her. She must have left the instant she realized she was with child. And I never knew …”

The admiral’s voice trailed off. Slappy hated seeing his brother like this. It was only fun to see the admiral upset if he had been the one to cause it.

“Look, for what it’s worth Dogwatch is a good kid, turning into a fine sailor. And – I didn’t even think of this – I guess he must be my nephew. Damn. That seems weird, doesn’t it?”

“So what should I do, Mortimer?”

“First, stop calling me Mortimer, at least as long as you refuse to hand over the title and estates and everything. No? Alright then. How the hell should I know what you should do? All I know is what I’m going to do. Go diving at the wreck of Fanny’s ship to recover that gold. I stole it fair and square, and I’m damned if I’m going to let it get away from me now.”

“I’m sorry brother, but that’s one thing I can’t let you do.”

“I’d like to see you stop me.”

“I already HAVE stopped you, you poltroon. That gold belongs to the king of Spain and I …”

”The king of Spain? What the hell do you care about the king of Spain? He’s Spanish!!! All the more reason to let us at it, before the Spanish can start recovery operations.”

“Things have changed,” Tharp said, grimly. “The threat from Fanny has caused London, Paris and Madrid to reevaluate our hostilities. You might have noticed that three of the ships of this squadron are Spanish and another is French. This is a joint operation to put down the common threat, and while neither of us completely trusts the other, it has gone well so far and no doubt thanks to you, our bloodless re-conquest of Havana will lead to further lessening of tensions. I’m afraid there soon will be no room for private operators such as yourself. Statecraft, diplomacy and negotiation are destined to replace war and plundering in the international arena.”

“That’s unnatural,” said Slappy.

“I’m afraid it’s what’s coming, and the fact that this joint expedition worked is just another nail in the coffin of piracy. In fact …” the admiral coughed apologetically, “… I’m under orders to arrest any members of the Brotherhood I find, including you. Ships that worked with the government are exempt for now, but renegade crews such as yours, I’m afraid, have no place in the world as it’s becoming.”

“What? You’re sayin’ you’re here to arrest me?”

“No, you know I can’t do that, it would kill mother, but …” here Tharp paused, looking very uncomfortable. “I’m afraid my orders are very specific. Any such ship not found working with the government is to be seized and her crew detained for later disposition. I’m sorry. It’s already being done.”

“Now just wait a second, you cockroach, if you think …” Slappy stopped, and a smile spread across his face. “Wait …”

Tharp paused, wondering what harebrained idea his brother was hatching now.

“Okay,” Slappy continued, “if we’re pirates, you’ve got to seize my ship – let me rephrase that, you’ve got to try to seize my ship. But if we were all officially authorized and such, you’d let us sail into this brave new world in which Spaniard and Englishman and Froggie are all talk and no fight, is that it?”

“Yes, but you and I know … Mortimer! What the hell are you doing?”

Slappy’s manners had never been the best, especially when it as just the two of them in his brother’s cabin, but now he was pulling off his boot, revealing his malodorous striped sock, the big toe poking through the hole. Slappy thrust his arm down the boot and was rooting around the bottom of the boot as if a gold nugget were caught down there. Finally, with a smile of satisfaction, he withdrew his hand and triumphantly flourished a piece of soggy paper, thrusting it under the admiral’s nose. The admiral recoiled at the smell.

“If you open this, you’ll see it’s a king’s letter of marque, all properly signed and executed by one of the king’s agents – at least we had no reason not to think that’s what he was at the time he signed it – not only authorizing the activities of The Festering Boil but actually ordering us into these waters. It also served very nicely as a temporary patch for the hole in my boot.”

Slappy dropped the note on the admiral’s desk. Tharp showed no sign of opening and reading it. He looked as if he suspected it would pick itself up and crawl off the desk on its own.

“No, I’ll take your word for it,” Tharp said. “Please put that somewhere safe. I mean, for safekeeping in case you need to prove the point later.”

“So there’s not going to be any difficulty about taking my ship?”

“No, no, your papers are in order. Now, if you’ll excuse me, this flotilla is due in Havana to install the new governor of Cuba. He’s aboard that large Spanish galleon to the west. This will go much further toward cementing good relations between the two countries and ending the threat of war. You are free to sail off, but again I warn you, the growth of international cooperation leaves little room for those of your ilk, and if you don’t soon mend your ways I’m afraid the world will band together to hunt down you and those of your ilk.”

“Yes, I can see that if countries trust each other, that’s the end for me. I’ll certainly do something about that,” said Slappy solemnly.

Tharp looked over his brother dubiously. Such seriousness hardly seemed like him.

“No,” Slappy said, seeing the doubt, “It’s what I have to do. The world is changing and I have to change too, or get left behind. But I’ll need your help. I’m counting on you to remind me of my new plan – OUR new plan – it at every opportunity.”

Tharp was touched.

“Your plan. Our plan. Yes, that would be excellent. I hope for you it succeeds.”

“You’ll have to help me. Constant support is what I’ll need. Constant reminders! Especially when I’m sailing away and won’t see you for months or years.”

“Mortimer,” Tharp’s eyes were brimming; it had been a long day and he was overcome with conflicting emotions. “Brother, you can count on me. But I see your longboat is waiting to ferry you back to your ship, a ship that some day soon I’m sure we’ll be the talk of Britain for your contributions to our way of life.”

“I have no doubt we’ll be the talk of Britain, with your help. By the way, the coxswain in the stern?” Slappy said, pointing to the longboat. “That’s Dogwatch.”

Tharp drew in a sharp breath. The similarities were striking. “A handsome young man.”

“And a fine sailor. And very musical, I wonder where he got that,” Slappy said.

“His mother.”

Slappy was soon back on deck of The Festering Boil, and within minutes the ship was getting ready to sail.

“McCormack! I want all four guns moved to the starboard side. George! Let’s get under way, and bring us within 200 yards of that galleon. Pass her to starboard, with a good head of speed. Keeling! Get ready to send up a signal to the admiral’s flagship.”

All orders were carried out. The wind filled the Boil’s sails and soon she was moving swiftly, bearing down on the Spanish galleon.

On the galleon’s quarterdeck the captain was warily eyeing the approaching ship.

“Capitan!” his first mate called. “That ship is signaling the English flagship.”

“What is he saying?”

The mate quickly looked up the signals in the book.

“He asks if he should stick to the plan.”

“The plan? What plan?

“The flagship is responding.”

“What does the message say?”

“Yes. Keep to our plan.”

The captain frowned. On the approaching ship, Slappy gazed over at the galleon. They were drawing near their closest point of approach. He looked down at the deck and with a nod, said a single word to McCormack.


Four guns roared from the deck of The Festering Boil, splintering railings, snapping a yardarm and punching one hole right at the Spanish ship’s waterline.

“Excellent shooting McCormack!” the pirate chortled. “And now, gentlemen, let’s get the hell out of here! Oh, and Keeling. Send up one more message. ‘Plan accomplished.’”

The seven ship’s in his wake stirred to life, but no one knew exactly who to fire at or what to do. The enraged Spaniards withdrew into a defensive shell and fired at a distance at the three English ships. Tharp sent repeated messages trying to explain, but the Spanish were not willing to listen. As night fell, they withdrew to Havana, and Tharp anchored offshore, just out of reach of Morro Castle’s guns. The single French ship tried repeatedly to surrender, but under the confused situation, no one bothered to accept it’s white flag.

Somewhere to the west, a fast ship plowed on through the night, the sound of laughter echoing across the water.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?