Monday, January 28, 2008


The Curaçao Caper – Chapter 3

The cold steel poised above the exposed breast of Ol’ Chumbucket as if seeking exactly the right spot, then flashed forward, piercing his unresisting flesh. It withdrew, then raced forward again.

And again and again, slicing through the pirate’s skin over and over.

“This is really annoying,” Ol’ Chumbucket said to himself, then out loud, “C’mon Clay. How long is this gonna take?”

“Do you want art or do you want fast?” the tattoo artist asked, looking up from the diagram Chumbucket had sketched out to his work on the man’s chest. “You can’t have both.”

“Do your best work, but jeez this is annoying,” Chumbucket said. “That needle and all those little pricks.”

“All those little pricks,” Clay snorted. “That’s what my sister always complains about when she comes home from work at the sportin’ house. But don’t worry I always do my best work.”

“I know. That’s why I was so glad you came by. I wouldn’t have anyone else putting ink under my skin. Let’s just finish this up, okay? I’ve got work to do here.”

“And I’ve got a whole line of yer crewmen who want the best tattoos in the Caribbean.”

“In the world, my friend. In the world.”

It had been a happy meeting at sea. The Festering Boil, two days out of Port Royal, had spotted a sail and chased after it. But the vessel in question hadn’t tried to flee, instead making straight for the pirate ship. To everyone’s delight, it was Cap’n Clay and his floating parlor, Ye Olde Tattoo Shippe. Those crewmembers who still had any swag left and some undecorated skin were quick to line up. All except Cementhands, who scoffed as Sawbones Burgess showed off the tattoo of a bottle of leeches on his forearm.

“I don’t even need to advertise now,” Burgess, the ship’s doctor, had said proudly. “Everyone will be able to see exactly who I am.”

“And how handy it'll be. You'll be able to treat yerself when you start gushing puss and gangrene sets in.”

“Not from Clay!” Burgess protested. “He uses the cleanest tools I’ve ever seen. Why, his tattoo needle is cleaner than my surgical equipment.”

“With all due respect Sawbones, the officer’s privy on a Barbary slaver is cleaner than your surgical equipment.”

“Oh, you’re just afraid of getting stuck with a needle.”

“No, I just don’ see any reason to give the authorities anything to identify me with. You’ve heard the questions they ask – ‘Did he have any identifying marks? Any tattoos?’ This way anyone who thinks they need to send the police after me won’t have anything to go on. I’m anonymous, just a face in the crowd. I blend in completely.”

Sawbones just stared at the gigantic pirate in disbelief. Blend into the crowd? McCormack was at least six and a half feet tall and weighed more than 20 stone. With his wild eyes, unruly shock of hair and maniacal leer, “blend in” was the last thing McCormack would do, unless he was at a convention of fairy tale monsters.

“A face in a crowd? McCormack, you ARE a crowd,” Burgess said.

McCormack just shook his head.

“All I know is when the authorities start looking for me, they’ll have one less thing to identify me by.”

“That’s right,” Burgess retorted. “They’ll just have to look for the only sailor in the Caribbean without a tattoo!”

“Whaddaya think cap’n?” Dogwatch asked, showing off his new tattoo of a mermaid with implausibly large anatomical protrusions on her chest.

“Lovely,” Cap’n Slappy said with raised eyebrows. “I’m not sure she could swim with those, or even stay underwater very long, but she’s a beauty all right.”

“How about you, Slappy!” Clay called out as Chumbucket rose from the chair. “Should we do a little more work on yer magnum opus?”

“Not this time,” Slappy said with regret. “I’m afraid I’m a little short on cash just now. The holidays and all.”

Slappy had just the one tattoo, but it kept growing. It had started as a picture of the ship, The Festering Boil, under full sail, all the guns run out. Then a compass rose grew around it, with dolphins, mermaids and sea sprites dancing in and out of the waves. After that he asked for a ship’s wheel around all of that, rather like a frame. The wheel had been completed on his last visit with Cap’n Clay, and the tattoo artiste was eager to see what Slappy came up with next.

“I could do a little work on credit, you can pay me later,” Clay said, drawing started glances from nearby pirates who knew thatYe Olde Tattoo Shipperarely if ever extended credit – especially not too pirates who more than likely would be dead before they ever got around the paying. There was only one way he’d do the work on credit – if the pirate in question agreed that if he failed to pay in a specified time period, Clay could take the tattoo back, and all the flesh it was attached to.

“No, not this time thanks,” Slappy said. “I remember when that ol’ loper from The Bloody Billwasn’t able to pay you on time and you took his bicep back.”

“Yeah, but I left him the lower arm,” Clay said reasonably.

“Lot of good it did Lefty, since it wasn’t attached no more.”

“I’m sure it made a right nice souvenir,” Clay said, grinning.

“Tell you what,” Chumbucket said,. “I’ve got a couple of coins left. I’ll treat you.”


“Yeah, sure. Why not? Let’s see what you can add.”

Slappy closed his eyes and thought about it. Suddenly a grim smile played around the corners of his mouth and he told Clay what he wanted. The artist nodded and went to work.

An hour later Slappy rose from the chair with satisfaction as Chumbucket handed over the doubloons to pay for the work.

“Let’s see it,” he said.

The tattoo was much the same, except now two hands were holding the spokes of the ship’s wheel (in the safety approved “two and ten o’clock” positions, of course.) And on the ring finger of the right hand gleamed a gold ring.

“There,” Slappy said with satisfaction. “If no one’s going to get me that ring I’ve been askin’ for, at last I can see it on my hand here in the artwork.”

“That’s your hand then?” Chumbucket asked. “How can anyone tell?”

“That’ll be the next part of the picture. I’ll have him make that me holding the wheel in a gale. Or a battle. Or something.”

“We’re going to need a lot more booty to pay for that,” Chumbucket said with a shrug. “But really, don’t you think you’re obsessing on this ring thing a little much? I’m no psychiatrist …”

“Of course you’re not, they haven’ been invented yet,” Slappy said.

“Right, anyway, I’m not one o those things, but it sure seems to me like it’s preying on your mind. It’s just a ring …”

“No, it’s just NOT a ring, because I don’t have one,” Slappy said.

“Sure, but unless you think some kind of mystical, malevolent spirit has poured his power and evil into a ring to enslave all the creatures of earth, and that if you possess that ring you’ll be able to use that power …”

“No, but that’s not a bad idea for a story,” Slappy said.

“Well then, I just don’t see the point.”

Slappy sighed.

“Maybe I don’t either. I admit it shouldn’t seem like a big deal, but I’ve been hinting around for the longest time, and at first it seemed like maybe the rest of you were just kind of dense, but now I’m beginning to take it personally.”

“Well, anyway, I think you ought to relax about it. But nice ink work,” Chumbucket said.

“Anyone else?” Clay said as he began gathering his equipment. He looked reverently at McCormack, whose vast expanse of unsullied skin offered a canvas worthy of his skills. On more than one occasion he’d offered Cementhands free ink if he’d let him do something magnificent, but the pirate had, as always, turned him down.

There were no more takers, so Clay and his staff went back aboardYe Olde Tattoo Shippe,which had been tied up astern, and prepared to cast off.

“Alright then, just remember the fundamental rules of tattoo maintenance. Take plenty of rum internally as an anesthetic, don’t let any Spaniards or Royal Navy blighters cut my work, and for the next couple of days try not to get so much piss on the new tattoos.”

“Oops!” said Dogwatch, who had been trying to urinate off the windward side of the ship.

“Any word of any shipping that needs our attention?” asked Slappy as he two ships began to drift apart.

“I hear tell of a lot of traffic between the towns off Panama,” Clay shouted. “They must be getting up a fleet back to Spain because there’s a lot of coasters shuttling back and forth. A few of the brethren are already on their way west to take advantage of ‘em.”

“Oh they are, are they?” Slappy said. “George! Let’s make sail! I want to be off the Santa Catalina in 10 days, and I don’t want any other brotherhood ships beating us there! It’s our turn to pick up a little booty!”

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