Tuesday, April 21, 2009


The Curaçao Caper - Chapter 17

The knife sped through the air so fast that its end-over-end trajectory was a blur, hitting the wood point first and burying itself an inch deep with a satisfying "THUNK! Whirrrr!" as the handle oscillated, expending the remaining energy from its flight not more than a couple of inches from Cementhands' right ear.

"Jumping Jesus Christ!!!" he shouted, leaping to his feet. "What are you doing, Chumbucket! And why does everyone want to stick pointy things into me lately!"

Ol' Chumbucket did not seem overly bothered by remorse. He was still angry.

"Calm down. You know if I meant to hit you, by now we'd be calling you Squint or Scarface or something," he scowled. "How could you just leave here there?"

"Apology accepted," Cementhands offered. "And if by 'her' you mean Mad Sally," he paused so that Chumbucket could acknowledge his correctness, which he did with a curt nod of the head, "I'm not sure how I was supposed to have brought her here since A) she made it clear with her sword that she didn't want me to, B) she said she had some personal business to take care of on Curacao, Q) the Boil was leaving and I had to swim for it which L) I don't think I could have done with her under my arm and W) did I mention she kept poking me with a sword?"

Neither Chumbucket nor the rest of the crew of The Festering Boil bothered to correct McCormack on his alphabetization, if any of them had been capable of it. Instead they all gazed with differing levels of discontent back to the northwest. The crew was all gathered on the deck and, having presented Slappy with the ring which now glittered in its massive ringishness on his right hand, and were now discussing the day's activities and planning their next step. It was only after George had given a report on the booty taken from the hold of the Swedish ship that McCormack, who was either obviously eager to share some news or desperately had to go to the bathroom, was able to report on his encounter with Mad Sally.

"Wait, Mad Sally, you've mentioned her before," Saucy Jenny whispered to Red Molly.

"Before you joined the crew," Molly whispered back. "She and Ol' Chumbucket were an item."

Jenny's eyes showed no light of understanding.

"They had a thing."

Still nothing.

"They were doing it all over the ship, and when she left, Chumbucket was pretty broken up."

"Oooooh," Jenny said.

Ol' Chumbucket, meanwhile, reached past McCormack and wrenched his throwing knife from the wood of the railing, then in frustration plunged it back into the wood, wrenched it out again and plunged it in again.

"Chumbucket ol' pal," Cap'n Slappy said, his tone carefully neutral, "would you mind not carving up the ship like that? I suspect we're going to need her for a while longer."

"What? Oh, right, sorry. But what the hell? Mad Sally here? Disguised as some kind of noblewoman after two years of silence? And she didn't want me to know?"

"Well, if it makes any difference to you, I don't think she wanted me to know either, what with the way she kept poking that sword at me," Cementhands said.

"What the hell can she be up to?"

"Something personal, that's all she said."

"And," Slappy said, trying to steer the conversation away from Ol' Chumbucket's love life and back towards more practical channels. "what does this mean to our own plans?"

"Why does it make any difference at all to our plans," Dogwatch asked.

"Well, she said the ship she's on was bound for Curaçao. While I don't think she'd blow on us, the captain of that ship might notice that the pirates who plundered him were tied up nice and neat in Willemstad. Don't you think he'd mention that to somebody, like the governor maybe?" 'I say, your excellence, jolly lovely little island you've got here, and this tropical drink is smashing. By the way, I couldn't help notice a shipload of pirates in port. What say we go down to their ship with a squad of soldiers and hang them all? What's that you say? They've already tried to break into the gaol? Perfect! That'll make the hanging all the easier. By the way, do have any lutefisk around?' No, I think that would put a serious crimp in our plans."

"Well, we've got a head start on them," George offered.

"A day, maybe two, depending on how long they take to repair their rudder" Slappy agreed. "Since we don't know exactly how long we're going to need, I'm not comfortable chancing it. And remember, Fifi's not that far behind us, and there's that other ship as well."

"That other ship," as Slappy phrased it, was causing even more concern to the Swedish captain than it was to the pirates aboard The Festering Boil." No sooner had the pirates sailed away from Kejsardömen av Sverige than it and another ship sailed into view, their intentions unclear.

The captain had a crew feverishly working to jury rig a makeshift rudder so that he could turn the ship and defend it, while other sailors were making an estimate of what had been lost in the raid and a party had been sent to search the ship to assess any other damage or injury. That was the group that had found Ensign Ericcson unconscious in the passageway outside the countess's cabin, his arm obviously injured.

Past the smashed doorway to the cabin, the sailors found a Pieta-like tableau, only with the female figure, the countess, sprawled in the lap of the male - her manservant, who was fanning her face.

"She passed out when that brute of a pirate entered," said the red-headed man, who bore his own livid bruise on the side of his head. "I don't know if the coward took anything. Oh, she's coming around. Your highness!"

The countess's eyes blinked several times, rolled up in her head, then seemed to focus on the faces peering down with worry at her.

"Pirates!" she shrieked. "There were pirates down here! Seems as if the room was full of them!"

"Just one," said Erickson, who himself was slowly coming to, "but the room was certainly full of him."

"Can I go upstairs and get some fresh air?" the countess asked. "I don't think I could stay down here another minute. Pirates!"

"Upstairs? Oh, you mean topside, of course ma'am," the squad leader said. "I don't think the captain would mind you coming up and getting some air. But there are other ships in the area and it might not be completely safe yet."

The countess shot a look at her manservant, then the two of them, accompanied by Ericcson and the squad, went up on deck.

"Just stay here out of the way ma'am," the sailor said. "There's work to be done and there might be more trouble."

"Don't worry. I won't get in the way," she promised.

On the quarterdeck the captain and his first mate, Lieutenant Larsen, were watching the other ships. The ship that had approached from the west – Fifi's ship, although the Swedes had no way of knowing that – had sailed on without apparently even noticing the temporarily crippled merchant ship. The ship from the north, however, had sailed within a mile of Kejsardömen av Sverige before hauling in sails and now bobbed on the swell just out of reach, as if eyeing the situation and trying to decide what to do.

"Where's Ensign Ericcson," the captain bellowed.

"Here sir," he said, making his way to the captain with an effort that caused him to grimace with pain.

"Are you all right, lad?"

"Never better sir," he said. The salute he offered the captain caused him to gasp with pain, and his face went white.

"I don't think so," the captain said, not unkindly. "Before you go below to the surgeon, take a look at that ship over there." He passed the ensign his glass. "Is that the ship that's been following us? You're the only one who's seen it much at all."

Ericcson handled the glass clumsily with one hand, but eventually got it in his one good hand, wedged against the rail and a bulkhead, and stared long at the ship.

"It's hard to say, of course, but it could be, probably is," he said. "I can make out some lettering on the bow – The Poison Pearl, it seems to say."

"The Poison Pearl? That can't be a good omen," the captain said.

"There's movement aboard her, but I can't tell what they're doing, or what their intentions are."

"Oh damn!" a feminine voice exclaimed loudly.

"Who was that?" the captain asked. "The countess! Get her below decks immediately!"

But instead of following her escort below, she rushed to the railing, taking her shawl from around her shoulders and waving it in the air.

"Go away, you nasty pirates!" she shouted. "Go away!"

The sailors tried to restrain her, gently of course because she was a lady of high breeding, but she broke free and rushed back to the railing, waving her shawl with one hand and gesturing forcefully with the other.

"Go away, pirates! GO AWAY!!!"

"Please, countess, control yourself," the captain called, rushing down from the quarterdeck.

"I'm sorry for losing my poise," she told him, "but I think I've had quite enough of pirates for one day. For a lifetime."

She turned from the captain, then turned back to him and – to his huge astonishment – patted his cheek affectionately, chucked him under the chin, then turned back to the railing and once again gestured away, not just saying but clearly mouthing, Shooo! GO AWAY!"

Aboard The Poison Pearl, several glasses snapped shut.

"Well, she seems to be alright anyway. And she seems to want us to make ourselves invisible again," the first officer said.

"I told you she'd be fine," said another voice, this one in a rich alto in contrast to the higher voice of the first officer. "I know I'm just a guest aboard your ship, but Sally did give specific instructions not to interfere with the ship but just trail along."

"Just trail along and do what?" demanded the first officer petulantly.

"Oh, Maggie," said the second, older woman. "Always ready for action. Well, we've raced in to offer assistance, none seems to be needed, we have Sally's specific request for us to 'go away,' so perhaps we should follow her orders and do so. If I'm not very much mistaken, here comes a wind that will help us do just that. Yes - this should do nicely."

Out of nowhere a wind began blowing from the southeast, and before the sailors could complete raising the sails, The Poison Pearl began veering away from the scene. Back on the Swedish ship, the captain stared in bafflement, scratching his head.

"If they're an innocent ship, why didn't they come to our assistance," he puzzled. "If they are pirates, why didn't they attack while we're still helpless?"

"It's obvious," the countess said. "I told them to leave. Who wouldn't obey a lady when she orders them out of the room? That would be bad manners. Come," she gestured to her servant. "Take me back downstairs to my room. I need to see if those brigands stole any of my jewelry."

"Very good madam," the captain said with a bow. "It looks like we have a steerage again, so we'll be rather busy here."

The countess was assisted down the ladder into the passageway by her servant, and when they were alone she hissed at him, "Go see if our shipment in the cable tier is still there. If it's not, I'm not sure what we'll do."

Back on The Festering Boil, the crew was trying to figure out how to proceed. Keeling was summing up.

"We know we have to get to Willemstad, we know we have to break Hamnquist out of gaol …"

"Not necessarily," Slappy said.

"I thought that was the idea, to get him to lead us to the treasure."

"Look, if he's really there, then I've been living a lie for 20 years or so," Slappy said. "I just want to know where the treasure is. If we can get that without breaking him out, the Dutch can hang him for all I care."

"But we can't let 'The Man' hang a pirate, can we?" Wellington Peddicord asked, shocked.

"He may be a pirate, he may be a damn good one, but like I said, if he's in that gaol …" Slappy let his voice trail off.

"Anyway, we have to at least get into the gaol, whether we get Hamnquist out or not," Keeling continued.

"If it even IS Hamnquist, which may or may not be true," Sawbones Burgess added.

"Yes, well, anyway, I don't see anyway of finding out unless we go in and talk to the blighters. Any thoughts on how we'll do that?"

"Before that we have to decide how we're getting into port," George said. "As Slappy pointed out, as soon as those Swedes get there we'll be marked men."

"And women," said Saucy Jenny and Red Molly simultaneously.

"Right, marked men and women. So, any plans."

A muffled sound from the edge of the crowd get their attention. They all looked over to where Ol' Chumbucket was moping.

"What did you say, Chumbucket," Keeling asked.

"I said, 'Fishermen.' We pull out the nets – We still have 'em, don't we? – and do the Dutch fishermen dodge."

"Yeah, well, maybe not Dutch fishermen. Curaçao is a Dutch colony, after all," Keeling pointed out.

"Right you are Keeling," Slappy said. "That would probably be a mistake. Any ideas?"

"Irish fishermen," McCormack said. "Oooh! Top o' the mornin' to ye, lads and lassies! Faith and begorrah but these cod are magically delicious!"

Everyone just stared at the big man.

"Maybe you could be a mute fishermen," Burgess scowled.

"Well, maybe," Slappy said doubtfully. "Good thinking Chumbucket. Why don't you run below and check that we've still got the nets?"

"Aye, aye," Chumbucket said, rising with a sigh and dropping down a hatchway into the depths of the ship.

"Do you think he noticed?" Slappy asked after he was sure Chumbucket was gone.

"Noticed what?" Dogwatch asked.

"Cementhands, what was the name Sally said she was using?"

"Countess Sonja something or other."

Slappy reached into an inner pocket and brought out a worn bit of newsprint which he unfolded.

"Remember the item about the governor's upcoming marriage?"

"How could I forget," Cementhands said. "A 24-noose hanging? Wow. That'll be a record!"

"No, check out the name of the bride again."

They looked at the story in Slappy's hand.

"Countess Sonja av Sarasgalen."

"Shit," McCormack said.

They all sat silently for five minutes. Suddenly Slappy sat up straighter.

"George, what was on that list of booty?"

George got out the list and started reading.

"500 yards of silk from London?"

"No, farther down."

"30 barrels of French wine?"

"29 barrels," Cementhands said, belching and daubing at the purple stain on his shirt.

"No, keep reading."

"Four crates from Warsaw of amusing greeting cards suitable for all occasions?"

"No, that wasn't it either."

"200 gallons of paint from Antwerp?"

"Yeah. That might just do it," Slappy said, the germ of an idea growing in his head.

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