Wednesday, January 09, 2008


The Curaçao Caper – Chapter 1

All was quiet as the great wooden ship churned its way south towards the warm water of the Caribbean. The crew of the Swedish merchant ship, Kejsardömen av Sverige, had enjoyed their Christmas celebration, singing, drinking and eating a variety of ethnic dishes that were all too rare at sea.

Their distinguished passenger had not seemed to enjoy the meal, refusing anything. Those few sailors who thought it odd that a member of the Swedish aristocracy didn’t enjoy Swedish delicacies, especially after weeks and weeks of typical seagoing fare, shrugged it off. Such traditional dishes as lye-soaked lutefisk, the boiled crayfish known as kräftskivor. and the spicy sausages called falukorv (traditionally made from oxen that had dropped dead from overwork) was probably only suited to peasants, they told themselves. The rich probably ate much differently – fancy foods the crew couldn’t even imagine. Even the captain’s table probably paled in comparison to the banquets the passenger was used to. And there was the sea sickness factor as well. Though they’d left Sweden more than six weeks ago, some stomachs just never seemed to adjust.

“Oh well,” the sailors had decided. “More for us.”

The party had gone on quite late, but finally the last song had been sung, the last toast drunk and the last drunken sailor had tottered off to the fo’c’sle. All was silent save the slap of the waves on the hull, the hum of the wind in the rigging, and the unsteady tread of the watch as he made his rounds accompanied by the bottle of akvavit, the potent, caraway flavored alcohol that the captain had allowed in honor of the holy day.

Deep below decks a careful listener (had there been any on the ship) might have heard the softest tread of a pair of feet. This would have been followed by a rattling, a muffled oath, then a click and the slightest squeak of a hinge as a hatch opened and closed. The midnight prowler seemed to know just where the cargo in question was stored. The crates and trunks – carefully marked with signs only two people would have noticed – were undisturbed. All was as it should be, carefully sealed. Satisfied that all was in order, the intruder exited the hold, carefully relocking the passageway before starting up towards the stateroom. Suddenly the dark figure froze as a voice called out a challenge.

“Who goes there?” Ensign Marck Ericsson asked.

The figure stepped into the light of Ericsson’s lantern, and the young officer who had the command of the night watch instantly relaxed, his stern expression fading into puzzlement.

“Countess Sonja?” he asked the woman who stood before him. “What are you doing down here in the middle of the night?”
The woman looked embarrassed, her face turning almost as red as her fiery hair.

“Thank God you found me!” she gasped. “My stomach was still feeling a little queasy, but when I went to look for … well, you know, I’m afraid I got lost. I’ve been wandering around downstairs for almost an hour. Can you help me back to my stateroom?”

“Certainly ma’am,” the ensign said, ignoring her use of the word “downstairs” instead of the nautically correct “below decks.” The elegant noblewoman was clearly a lubber, he thought to himself, offering her his arm. “You’ve been lost below for an hour? How horrible for you. Even I would have trouble finding my way down there in the dark.”

“Oh, you’ve no idea,” the countess said. The officer could feel her tremble as he took her shoulder to steer her aft. “I was afraid I’d end up like that Flying Frenchman …”

“You mean Dutchman,” he gently corrected.

“Flying Dutchman? Yes, Dutchman,” she said. “Forgive my being so silly about these things. But I was afraid I’d be wandering down there forever, never to see the sun again. Then, after every turn got me more lost, I was mostly just afraid.”

“Don’t worry ma’am, we’re almost back to your stateroom now.”

“Oh lieutenant …”

“Ensign, ma’am, I’m just an ensign.”

“You’re a lifesaver is what you are. You won’t mention this to the captain will you? I’m afraid I’d feel so silly that …”
“No harm done ma’am. It’ll be as if it never happened. You have my word as an officer.”

“And a gentleman, I’m sure,” the countess said, favoring him with a smile that melted the young man.

“And here’s your cabin. If you need anything ma’am, and your servant isn’t available, go up to the quarterdeck, not below.”

“Of course. Upstairs it is. I’ll remember that next time. Good night.”

“Good night ma’am.” The young officer snapped his heels together and offered a low bow, then took a step back, turned and resumed his rounds.

The countess stepped back into her room, dropping the latch on the door with one hand while tossing the stiletto she’d had concealed in the other hand on the shelf beside her bed.

“Well, I’m glad I didn’t have to use that,” she said to herself. “He seems like a nice boy.”


Meanwhile, several hundred miles away, the holiday party on The Festering Boil, the sleek, black ship tied up to the dock of Port Royal, had taken a contentious turn. Amid much laughter and carousing, a giant pirate was looking for the present from his captain which he was sure had to be around there somewhere.

“Am I getting warmer or colder?” he asked playfully.

“You’re getting drunk is what you’re getting,” Cap’n Slappy said. “I’m telling you, Cementhands, there’s no present hidden for you anywhere.”

“Of course there is. There’s ALWAYS a hidden prezzie for me.”

“I TOLD you, Cementhands. Those cannons everyone unwrapped came out of my personal booty and it’s my gift to the entire crew! It’s a group present. And since you’re a part of the group just sit down, enjoy it and stop being a prat!”

“Well you sure don’t know much about the Christmas spirit,” Cementhands McCormack sniffed.

“Now don’t get all sulky” Slappy snapped. “I bought them guns as a gift for the crew, you bastard, and they were all I could afford so don’t expect anything from me in your stocking!”

“No, no. You’re quite right, I’m sure. Just because this is the first Christmas since I started sailing with you that I didn’t get a prezzie, and I’ve been a VERY good boy this year, and I did get you that wonderful present.”

“Mittens! You got me mittens again!”

“Well what did you want? Socks and underwear?” Cementhands asked.

“You got me mittens! AGAIN! We’re in the Caribbean for the love of cheese! I ask ye, have you ever seen me wear mittens?”

“No, and what does it say about YOU, when I go to all the trouble each year to knit you these mittens and you NEVER wear them. How’s that supposed to make me feel?”

“Well, if I wear ‘em, it’s gonna make ME feel as if me hands are on fire. It’s 85 degrees!” Slappy said.

“Fine. Now I know how you really feel about me. I’ve only risked my life for you … how many times? And bailed the whole crew out just a month ago, but I guess that doesn’t mean …”

“Fine!” Slappy bellowed. He muttered to himself, “Every Christmas I drop subtle little hints like, ‘God Damn! It would be nice to get a gold ring for Christmas this year instead of another pair of mittens you great stupid git!” but even as he muttered, he pulled the mittens out of his gun belt and tugged them over his hands. “Look! I’m wearing the mittens! Are you satisfied?”

“You really like them then?” McCormack said in a tone that surprised Slappy with its neediness.

“Yes, yes, love ‘em. The best mittens you’ve made me yet.”

“Well, I figured that, since they’re the first you’ve ever put on.”

Slappy decided that the conversation had gone far enough – he’d never be able to one up McCormack. So he reached for his flask and held it out to the massive pirate.

“Merry Christmas, Cementhands.”

“For me? Oh, thank you captain! It’s just what I wanted! A flask! Half full of rum!”

“No! I was just offering you a drink! I wasn’t gi … Oh never mind. Merry Christmas.”

While Cementhands might have been miffed, the rest of the crew was having a great Christmas, if for no other reason than just a month earlier they’d have bet they wouldn’t live to see it. The adventure (chronicled in “The Havana Caper”) had left the crew poor but appreciative of the chance to wake up each morning. As a result, Christmas gifts had been few and inexpensive, but all the more gratefully received as a result. Black Butch, the five star chef who was the ship’s cook, had outdone himself again in whipping up a holiday feast, and there was always plenty of rum.

And everyone except McCormack had oohed and aahed when the wrapping paper and ribbon had come off the mysterious bulk that “Santa” had left on the deck. The two new nine-pounders stood in all their bronze glory, surrounded by the remains of colored paper and bows the crew had eagerly torn off them, ready to be wrestled into the bow as “chasers” – guns that could hurl iron at ships as The Festering Boil pursued them instead of the ship having to slue to one side or the other to fire a broadside.

The two nine-pounders returned the Boil’s armaments to its full compliment of destruction. In its recent escapade, most of the ship’s guns had been spiked, leaving it with plenty of powder and shot but only four working guns. After escaping from the trap laid for it in Havana they’d had a lot of hard work to re-arm. Salty Jim, the ship’s carpenter and general handyman, had been able to re-tap eight of the spiked guns. The Brotherhood of the Coast had donated another ten in gratitude for the Boil’s crew having put a stop to both the evil plot and the potential alliance between England and Spain, either of which would have spelled the end of the golden age of piracy. Thus armed, the Boil had been able to capture a pair of merchantmen that had yielded little in booty but supplied another pair of four-pounders.

The crew stood in an admiring circle around the two gleaming guns, one or another venturing to run a hand tenderly across its bronze barrel and sigh.

“A wonderful present,” Ol’ Chumbucket acknowledged to Cap’n Slappy. “How in the world could you afford them?”

“I can’t,” Slappy said. “I had to use all my share of the booty from those two ships, sell my stake in that ‘home for wayward women’ on Tortuga, and borrow a little from Keeling.”

“You sold your share of Diana’s Doxie Domicile? I thought that was your retirement nest egg? I hope you at least got to keep your ‘owner’s’ privileges when you’re in port.”

“No, I’m afraid I’m out of the fallen women business, at least for now.”

“Damn! And I sold my cutlass to buy you a box of prophylactic devices for when you visit the place,” Chumbucket said.

“You’re kidding! And I used by last couple of shillings to get you this jar of Ol’ Doc Stevens’ Cutlass Polish, endorsed by Sir Nigel.”

The two old shipmates looked at each other, then burst out laughing.

“Wow. That’d almost make a story, the kind of tale you’d read to the family at the holidays,” Chumbucket said.

“Maybe, but it’ll have to be written by a better author than either of us,” Slappy agreed. “But wait, here comes my favorite part of the holiday. Cementhands is ready.”

On the deck, McCormack was organizing the crew into their choir positions.

“Basses on the left. Then tenors, altos and sopranos! Let’s go people! We want to get going before New Years!’

The crew finally found their positions and hummed and hawed until their voices were more or less warmed up.

“Alright then, everyone ready?” McCormack asked.

“What are we singing,” Sawbones asked.

“You’re not singing, you’re just croaking as usual. The rest of us are singing ‘The Twelve Pirate Days of Christmas.’ And a one and a two …”

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