Thursday, May 14, 2009


The Curacao Caper - Chapter 23

Every afternoon Gov. Roelof Van Wubbeldinker stood atop the scaffold, scanning the horizon.

“Is that them?" he asked.

Bernard Jeffries, the governor's valet and personal assistant, sighed. They'd gone through this every day for two weeks.

"Begging your lordship’s pardon,” Jeffries replied with a voice that was wearying of the routine, "to which ship are you referring now?"

"That one over there, to the left, just coming in."

Jeffries turned his glass and found the ship in question. He paused.

Finally: "You know my lord, that very well might be."

"Oh goodie!" the governor chortled.

The ship in question was flying the Swedish flag, and was certainly large enough to have made the crossing.
As it crossed in front of the fort it fired a single gun, the traditional salute from ship to shore. A single gun answered it from the parapet.

Inside half an hour the answer was clear. Jeffries could now see the name of the ship as it dropped anchor in the roads just off Willemstad.

"Kejsardömen av Sverige," Jeffries read aloud.

"And that's the ship carrying my bride?" the governor asked.

"Yes, milord. That is the ship bearing your lovely bride, Countess Sonja av Sarasgalen. Perhaps we should retire to your office to make preparations for her arrival."

"But I want to be here when she comes ashore!" Wubbeldinker pouted, stamping his foot petulantly.

"And so you shall, you mad incurable romantic you," Jeffries said, taking his master firmly by the elbow and steering him back in the direction of Government House. "For none from that ship will set foot on land until we signal them permission, which we won't do until all is ready."

They were now hurrying up the hill toward the government office building with Jeffries reminding the governor of the sequence of events that had to be set in motion now that the ship was in harbor, what had been planned for the coming fortnight of festivities culminating in the wedding, followed by the mass hanging.

"Oh, I love a party!" the governor panted. "Tell me again what comes next."

Jeffries sighed – he'd done that quite a lot since coming to work for the governor – and repeated his initial instructions.

"First we must alert the honor guard and mass them in the square. We should also send a team down to the quay to make sure the bunting is fresh and the decorations looking their loveliest."

"Or heads will roll," Wubbeldinker said.

"Absolutely. Or heads will roll. Your carriage will bring you down to the waterfront, with suitable escort, 15 minutes before their longboat pulls up to the quay. As soon as her highness's foot touches the ground the band will strike up a suitable Swedish tune – I believe they've picked out a lively number called 'Mama Mia.'"

"But that's Italian isn't it?"

"You would think so, but no, it's quite Swedish. Abba - I mean – About that time, a volley will be fired from the fort. You will say a few words of welcome and your bride-to-be will be whisked away to the quarters reserved and lovingly prepared for her."

"Will there be opportunity for a little pre-wedding carnality in the carriage?"

"No sir, sadly protocol demands that the countess have her own carriage."

The governor looked put out, but he didn't say anything.

"Then begins the glorious round of activities – tonight's banquet, tomorrow's arts fair in the park, the concert, the 5K run, the mimes, the public floggings of the mimes. It will be quite the social whirl."

They had reached Government House by now, and Jeffries set about putting his plans into action.

On board The Festering Boil, the crew had been discussing Cementhands' success that morning in securing the painting contract, and everyone was preparing for the upcoming work detail.

"Cementhands," Slappy said. "You, Keeling, Spencer and Chumbucket get down to the jail to 'take measurements' and get the lay of the land. See what's going to be the best way to spirit Hamnquist out of his cell. If it turns out not to be practical, at least see if there'll be an opportunity to talk to him and convince him to get the information we need."

"Why do I have to go?" Cementhands whined. "You said I'd be the foreman of this little adventure, and so far I seem to be doing all the work."

"Fluent in Dutch, remember," Keeling whispered to him, a little snootily, McCormack thought.

While the planning was going on all crew members were aware of the ship that had just arrived, and everyone stopped what they were doing to watch it drop anchor.

"Yeah, those are our Swedish friends," George observed. "Hope the paint job is good enough to keep them from recognizing us."

As it happened, the paint job was having a curious effect on all the shipping in the harbor and people ashore. The ghastly mottled eggplant shade, fading like a bruise toward the stern, stood out so much that every eye was immediately drawn to it, but so horrifying for a ship that every mind immediately blanked it out as the unholy abomination that it was. The Boil, in that sense, had become almost invisible, with every subconscious mind working overtime to deny what the eye couldn't help but see. Already two fishing boats had nearly come to grief, colliding with the ship that their masters hadn't been able to make themselves see. Only cries from the alert lookouts on The Boil had prevented catastrophes.

In fact, the lookouts and officers on Kejsardömen av Sverige had glimpsed it only long enough to think to themselves, "Ohmigod! What happened to that ship," before they too had blanked it out of their conscious field of view and never identified it as the pirate ship that had sacked them only two days before.

The only lookouts who had noted and registered the ship were too far away to receive the full effect. La Petite Mort Deux was holding station just within sight of the harbor, far enough out that it couldn't be spotted or identified from shore, and just barely close enough that its lookouts in the masts could keep track of comings and goings.

A call from the lookout to the deck had brought Fifi scurrying up the ratlines to see for himself. He was 30 years older than the boy who had first gone to sea with nothing more than an empty sea chest and a desire for a wide vista to practice the sadistic streak he was already nurturing, but he still prided himself on his skills as a seaman and was able to eschew the lubber hole and fly up the rigging.

The lookout handed over his spyglass and pointed out the odd looking ship, which was – in this odd case – far enough away to be visible.

"Sacre bleu!" Fifi muttered.

"No," the lookout said, 'Sacre aubergine,' I think."

"Eggplant?" shouted Fifi. "Who the hell paints their ship eggplant? It's a monstrosity! Now, keep an eye peeled for Slappy and The Boil."

"Say," thought the lookout, "Slappy and the Boil would be a good name for a band!"

And thus even Fifi was deceived by the paint job.

Two hours later a longboat put off from The Boil with the shore party designated by Cap'n Slappy a few paragraphs ago. They were on their way to get the lay of the land and, just perhaps, check out a couple of the taverns that Cementhands had mentioned.

They found the jail easily enough and though it had all been a ruse to gain entrance, they quickly agreed it was the grayest, most demoralizing building they had ever seen, even for a jail. Just looking at it depressed them. Knowing that on the morrow they'd be going inside to take measurements made it even more depressing.

"You know, as long as we're here, maybe we should throw a coat of mauve over it," Spencer said with a sigh.

"Don't even talk to me," Cementhands said. "I'm too depressed."

Keeling didn't say anything; he just groaned.

"Remember being in the jail in Havana?" Chumbucket asked no one in particular.

"Yeah," one of them, but no one in particular, answered.

"Or being lost in the jungles of South America and almost certain to die?"


"Or waiting in Sao Paolo for the Portuguese to come and capture us all?"

"Oh yeah."

"I miss those times, don't you?"

"I know what you mean."

They all sighed.

They stared at the pile of gray stones, various melancholy thoughts and random nightmarish images floating around their heads. That's how depressing the outside of the jail was.

"And if it looks this bad on the outside," Spencer said.

"Yeah, imagine how bad it is on the inside," Chumbucket finished for him.

Keeling groaned again. McCormack muttered something that might have been "Yaagen Hoogen" but probably wasn't.

The moment was broken at last by a shriek of pain and terror emanating from the building in front of them. It was horrifying, but at last it was a human sound, and the four of them shook themselves off and felt a little better.

"Well at least there seems to be a window, that's something," Keeling said.

"C'mon lads," Chumbucket said, "let's go find those taverns Cementhands here was talking about."

"Oh, aye! Down to the waterfront," Cementhands said with a grin. "I'll lead ya, and remember that the first one there gets free drinks all night."

They argued about just how much free drinking McCormack would – or could – do, while ambling back to the water. As they approached they noticed the crowds getting thicker, and they could hear the sound of a brass band tuning up. By the time they got to the square by the pier, the crowd was shoulder to shoulder and the band was playing a peppy little dance tune.

"What's going on?" Chumbucket asked Cementhands, the only one of the four tall enough to see over the crowd.

"Looks like some kind of reviewing stand, something's happening. Yeah, there's a pudgy guy with a silly smile in his face, and it looks like a boat's pulling in. The pudgy guy is dancing? No, he's just sort of hopping from foot to foot like he can't wait for something. Probably has to take a leak."

"Okay," McCormack continued as the four disguised pirates worked their way deeper into the crowd, "not the longboat's tied up and some people are getting out, and …"

Cementhands paused and cast a nervous look at his companions.

"What?" Spencer said, "What's going on?"

"Ummm, some people got out of the boat and it looks like they're getting a big welcome. Probably the tourism commission trying to make everyone feel really special so they'll get repeat business. You know how these feather merchants are. Nothing to see here. C'mon, the tavern's over this way."

McCormack forced his way to the edge of the crowd, which was roaring approval at something the more normal-sized pirates couldn't see. Through the cheering they caught occasional words floating from the speaker's platform, "welcome" and "festivities" and "beautiful" several times. But nothing that made sense.

They had worked their way almost out of the plaza, with just another knot of people and a carriage to get past before they could retreat to the tavern McCormack was heading for, when there was one more loud round cheering from the crowd and some serious jostling from the center, rippling out in their direction.

"Make way you lot, make way," a harsh voice shouted. "Make a hole there, clear the way."

A detachment of soldiers forced their way through the throng, elbowing people out of the way to form a corridor and apparently heading straight for the pirates. McCormack pushed his way forward to get out of their way, followed quickly by Spencer and Keeling.

Ol' Chumbucket was right behind them but just as he stepped towards the safety of Cementhands' lee, the crowd reeled backwards at the soldiers' insistent push, knocking into the pirate and knocking him to his knees. He started to rise when a cudgel struck him across his back, knocking him flat on his stomach.

"Out of the way, you riffraff," a voice snarled, a hand grabbing for his shoulder.

Rising to one knee Ol' Chumbucket pushed back and grabbed the hand, twisting, then pushing so the man released his grasp and fell backwards. Then Ol' Chumbucket looked up.

And directly into the eyes of Mad Sally.

Oh, she was dressed with more class for a pirate wench, silk gown, pearl earrings peeking out from the cloud of red hair, diamonds dripping into her ample décolletage, a fashionable hat perched on her head. But it was her.

She stared back. Neither said a word.

The soldier Chumbucket had shaken off grabbed him again, angrily twisting him to the ground. Chumbucket let himself be taken down, then used the impetus and a twist of his body to send the soldier sailing over his head.

Chumbucket rose to his feet, then doffed his painter's cap and swept into a low bow.

"My pardons, Countess. Your carriage awaits."

Sally looked as if she wanted to say something, but caught herself. Taking the arm of the young, redheaded man at her side, she stepped up into the carriage.

The soldier regained his feet and turned on Chumbucket with a snarl, but the "Dutch painter" maintained his deep bow, and at a sharp command from the sergeant the guard turned and took his position behind the coach, which started off.

The last thing Chumbucket saw as it rattled across the cobbled square was Mad Sally's face staring out the back window at him.

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