Chapter Ten: Mad Dogs & Englishmen
Black Michael licked his lips nervously. The other two men with him - James Rawlins and Gerry-Boy - were equally apprehensive. They'd taken the Countess to the governor's mansion as had been agreed; now the Countess had gone to see Lord Jeffrey alone, leaving them behind in an elegantly appointed drawing room. The three rough men milled about, hesitating even to sit on the fragile-looking, gilded furniture.
James Rawlins, a scrawny individual with a round pot belly made his shirtfront bulge, was the first to discover that the elegant, half-round cabinet in one corner of the room held a dozen cut-crystal decanters of liquor. Those sparkling containers and the mellow brown and gold liquids they contained seemed a godsend.
After grabbing several of the decanters and draining them dry, Black Michael and his men began to relax, even going so far as to sprawl on the furniture and put their filthy, booted feet on the delicate, cream-colored silk upholstery, leaving smears of dirt and worse behind.
Gerry-Boy - so named because of the long, golden curls he affected even at the advanced age of twenty-three - asked in his high, whining voice, "So when's the bint comin' back wiv' our reward?"
Black Michael took several swallows of a single-malt whiskey imported at great expense from Scotland and replied after a belch, "Patience, me lad. It ain't money we're after, you knows that. Once Governor Golden Arse up there gives the order to arrest that bitch cap'n of ours, we'll go back to the Quartier and take her over. I knows there's others that'd join us. No man likes takin' orders from some damned woman! Then it'll be Cap'n Black Michael, thank you very much, and I'll keel-haul any man what says different!"
James Rawlins hiccuped and said, "Aye, cap'n." He giggled; Rawlins wasn't known for his ability to hold his liquor and was already drunker than an earl. Waving a crystal decanter, he half-chanted, "O, Golden Arse is the Devil's son, he likes his wimmen dry; he'll grab the Bitch and swing 'er low, and then he'll swing 'er high!"
Black Michael and Gerry-Boy spluttered with laughter, spewing whiskey all over the room and each other.
The Irishman dreamed of the accolades he would receive from the Quartier's crewmen... men just like himself, men who'd look up to him as a hero for freeing them from the vile enchantment of that dark haired, beautiful and utterly unobtainable witch who dared call herself captain.
The She-Wolf gone... and in her place, the glorious reign of Black Michael, King of the High Seas!
He drank another toast and swilled down more of the
governor's fine whiskey, grinning to himself as he relived his favorite fantasy
again and again in his mind.
Lord Jeffrey was seated outside on the back verandah, being fanned by several slaves with palm fronds. On the table beside him was a sweating silver cup of cooled wine and a platter contained the remains of his lunch - roasted chicken, a sallet of greens in a highly spiced dressing, and sliced fruits.
When the Countess approached, escorted by the lord's secretary, the governor rose and gave the battered woman his best Court bow, making his leg with infinite grace. Straightening up, he allowed his eyebrows to rise near the hairline of his wig and drawled, "My Lord, madame! What have the ruffians done to you?"
Margaret sank into a chair and did her best to project helplessness and horror. "Oh, my Lord Jeffrey! How I have suffered! The horrors I have endured! Help me, I beg of you!"
"I shall, madame," Lord Jeffrey said, reseating himself, "I shall." He reached over and patted her hand with cool sympathy. "I understand that three of the devils brought you here themselves?"
"Yes," Margaret said, fluttering her eyelashes and leaning forward a bit to give the governor a better view of her generous bosom. "They hoped to ransom me. I managed to convince the feeble-minded fools that only I could bargain for the ransom and thus did I escape from their clutches. Will you save me from these terrible men, sir?"
Lord Jeffrey picked through the remains of his lunch for a moment before replying, giving himself time to think. He'd received letters from several of his friends at Court, outlining the Countess of Moresby's scandalous conduct and her banishment to her family's estates here in Jamaica.
He had to stifle a chuckle at the thought of the wild Margaret Duncan forced to return to the monastic austerity of her parents home. He rarely saw Sir Henry Duncan and his wife; the two preferred to remain in isolation on their sugar plantation, which they ran according to the strictest Catholic principles, requiring even their slaves to receive mass and pray five times a day.
Their only daughter's marriage to the besotted Count Julian Moresby - who had visited the islands for the first and last time a few years ago - had come as a complete surprise to no one but themselves. Everyone of any consequence had known that Margaret was a wild one, hating seclusion and especially despising the simple, religious lifestyle of her parents. No wonder that she fled at the first opportunity. Their only aspirations for the beautiful and willful girl had been that she become a nun.
And now she had returned in disgrace, asking for.. what? Lord Jeffrey didn't delude himself for a moment; he knew the Countess had plans. A scheming woman like that always had some plot or another bubbling and seething in her brain. Would Margaret's business include a healthy profit for himself? The governor permitted himself a slight smile as he chewed on a bit of chicken breast. He'd make sure they would.
His reddish-brown eyes traveled up and down the sitting Countess' form, taking in the torn dress that not only seemed accident prone, but also revealed quite a bit of the woman's fully fleshed attributes. Her golden fluff of hair was in a becoming mess that could only have been arranged with extreme care, and her amethyst eyes were as dry and hard as the jewels they resembled.
He didn't believe her overly melodramatic story for a moment but was willing to go along with it for the sake of learning what she wanted.
"As my secretary has explained your unfortunate story, madame," Lord Jeffrey said, alert to every nuance of the Countess' facial expressions, "You were captured by pirates, held prisoner, and your person violated in ways that no decent, civilized person would care to contemplate. Which pirate was it who dared to lay violent hands upon such a lovely and fragile flower of the English Court? I shall punish the recreants in a manner suitable to their crimes, I assure you."
Margaret relaxed in her chair. She was under no illusions; she knew that there would have to be some payment made to the venal governor for his assistance, both in the matter of her revenge and that of her future. Well, the first was easily taken care of, she'd already thought that through, and as to the second... the way his eyes glittered when he looked at her, the way he unconsciously licked his lips and - she risked a quick glance downward - the distinct bulge in his tight-fitting trousers all told her that an accommodation could be made that would be mutually beneficial.
She dropped her pretense of helplessness and said matter-of-factly, "It was that bitch O'Malley who kidnapped me. I want her and her men punished. Three of the bastards are downstairs in your drawing room. I don't care what you do to the others, but I want O'Malley to die as slowly and painfully as possible."
Lord Jeffrey nodded. He'd caught the glance she'd made at his burgeoning erection. "Unfortunately, that may prove difficult," he admitted. "Unless... Cecil!"
The secretary scuttled to the lord's side. "Yes, m'lord?"
"Be so kind as to remind me," Lord Jeffrey said airily. "Did the pardon we issued to the captain and crew of the Sans Quartier include sanctuary from prosecution for the kidnapping and molestation of a noblewoman?"
"No, m'lord," Cecil said.
"Very well. There are three gentleman in the downstairs drawing room; have my Guard arrest them and hang them immediately. The charge is the kidnapping and violent rape of the Countess of Moresby."
Cecil squeaked his understanding and scurried away.
Lord Jeffrey looked at Margaret. "The business of apprehending O'Malley herself or the rest of her crew is a different matter," he said. "As the situation stand now, I do not have the forces necessary to board their ship and apprehend them all without incurring expensive losses."
"That ship contains enough silk, spices and other cargo in the hold to make any expenses you incur well worth the trouble," Margaret replied a bit acidly.
"Ah, but you misunderstand me, madame! I do not speak solely of monetary expense; there is also the matter of the difficulty in obtaining suitable men for the Guard. Jamaica is not, strictly speaking, considered a plum assignment for gentlemen of military training. I can ill afford to lose the ones I have; serious losses would leave Port Royale helpless in the face of an invasion by hostile forces. I'm sure you understand."
Margaret stood up. "So you'll let her go free?!," she asked incredulously. "I won't accept it! There must be another way!"
"There is," answered a voice from behind. Margaret and Lord Jeffrey turned to behold the figure of Bloody Jack Splitfoot sauntering up the stairs.
"I come to buy the pardon," the pirate said, his puffy nightmare lips parting to show his teeth in what could barely be considered a grin. "And I couldn't help overhearin' about your problem."
The Countess was infuriated. "How on earth can this
scabby devil help us?," she exclaimed.
Lord Jeffrey waved her to silence. "Be still, madame," he drawled. "I have done business with Captain Splitfoot before; believe me when I say he is an ingenious gentleman when it comes to solving delicate problems."
Splitfoot's smile spread slightly wider, threatening to tear the scar tissue that turned his once handsome face into a horrifying mask. "Delicate? Aye, that's one way of putting it."
Without waiting for permission, he sat down in the chair Margaret had abandoned, stretching out his legs and making himself comfortable. Tearing off a cold chicken leg, he took several bites and said, "You want the She-Wolf for hangin'. I want her dead meself. Now, supposin' we was to work together..."
Lord Jeffrey and the Countess listened in silence as Splitfoot outlined his plan, punctuating his speech with gestures from the greasy chicken leg in his hand.
When the pirate finished, Lord Jeffrey looked at Margaret... she looked back at him. Both pairs of eyes turned to give Splitfoot a glance of pure admiration.
"Splendid!," Lord Jeffrey finally said, slapping Splitfoot on the back in an uncharacteristic burst of enthusiastic energy. "If all goes aright, then before the moon is high we'll have O'Malley clapped safely in gaol. Her capture will take the heart out of the rest of the crew; they'll be fighting amongst themselves for the captaincy and be easy pickings. I'll take possession of the Sans Quartier and her cargo in the name of the Crown... and you, my dear Countess, may enjoy the hospitality of my mansion for as long as you desire."
He turned back to Splitfoot. "Now, my dear sir... a toast, if you please." He lifted his goblet of wine in a graceful gesture. "To the death of the Bitch!," the lord said.
Margaret and Splitfoot, each having been supplied with drink by the governor's slaves, clashed their own goblets against the lord's. "To the Bitch's death!," they cried.
The three co-conspirators laughed and chatted all afternoon...
Ignoring the three bodies of Black Michael and his
men as they twisted in the sea breeze, the hempen noose tied so tightly about
their necks that their bulging tongues and fly-covered eyes glistened blackly
beneath the warming rays of the golden sun.
The proprietor of the Indianhead now was an enormously fat and freckled woman named Dame Hoppitt. When Graciela entered the smoky, grimy tavern, Dame Hoppitt hollered, "Well, well, well! Look what the tradewinds blew in! A wolf bitch without her pups!"
Everyone laughed, even Graciela. Dame Hoppitt was a respector of no one, least of all the pirates she served.
After being served a scarred leather jerkin of rum and lighting a clay pipe, Graciela relaxed at a table and scanned the men surrounding her. She sat with her back to the wall, chair tilted back and a booted toe hooked beneath the edge of the table. Being no fool, she also kept a hand on the hilt of her cutlass; there were men in this place who'd kill or rape her in a second, if they thought she was defenseless or if they were drunk enough to forget caution.
After an hour of nursing her rum and puffing away on the pipe, the man she was waiting for came inside. He was of middle height and weight; long, silver gray hair spilled in dirty tangles down the back of his patched and moth eaten velvet jacket. A black cloth was wound about the upper part of his face, concealing his eyes, and he carried a gnarled oak stick to feel his way about. Despite his blindness, he managed to maneuver around the room adroitly, avoiding friendly feet thrust out in his direction and the crude jests of the pirates who mocked his handicap.
As soon as he came close, Graciela whispered, "Here, friend."
The blind man sat down at her table cautiously. "Be ye the She-Wolf?," he asked in a rasping voice as harsh as the croaking of a raven. The open throat of his dingy shirt showed a ropy red scar that snaked around his neck.
"Aye," Graciela answered. She pinched the prominent bottom of passing serving wench and neatly snatched her hand away in time to avoid getting slapped by the flustered woman. "Another tot for me and one for my new mate here," she said with a leer, offering a silver piece between her fingers.
The wench sniffed, snatched the coin and walked away.
As soon as she returned with their drinks, slammed them down on the table and huffed away, Graciela asked the man, "Have you news for me, Blind Judas?"
He took a long swallow of rum before answering. "Harry Wagstaff's in port. Stayin' at the Swan's Ear, won't see anybody. He heard Bloody Jack's after his bit o' the map. Poor bastard don't know you're after it, too."
Graciela puffed her pipe, enjoying the acrid smoke as it burned down her windpipe. "I'm paying you well to keep it to yourself," she growled. "Anyone else gets wind of this and you'll lose more than your lights, old man."
Blind Judas chuckled. "Aye, for my thirty pieces of silver I'm a bought man," he said. "And I stays bought, unlike some others."
The pirate captain stood, tossing her pipe down on the table. The fragile clay stem broke off and bounced off onto the floor. She reached into a trouser pocket and brought out a leather pouch, palming it so no one else could see what she held. Leaning towards Blind Judas, she suddenly pushed him violently on the chest, at the same time dropping the pouch into his lap.
"Leave off, ye old lecher!," she barked loudly, tossing a lock of ebony hair out of her eyes. "I'm after stronger, younger meat than the limp twig you've got!"
The pirates in the tavern roared with laughter; mocking catcalls and lewd offers for Graciela to taste 'the strongest meat in Jamaica' came from all sides. She laughed as well and her pale eyes sparkled, not with humor, but with deadly purpose.
Finally, after buying a round of rum for everyone, Graciela conspicuously swaggered upstairs with a pretty young blonde boy who couldn't believe his luck. As soon as they were behind closed doors, the pirate knocked the boy on the back of the head with the hilt of her dagger. His big brown eyes rolled up and he passed out cold with a sigh, falling backwards into her arms. She bundled him into the flea-ridden bed after ripping off his clothes; hopefully, the boy would wake up and 'remember' having a wonderful time with the beautiful pirate captain.
Then she let herself out of the window and clambered down a rickety wooden ladder that was supposed to be used if the pub caught fire. In such a hot, dry climate, fires were all too common and intensely feared; being trapped and burned alive was considered almost as bad as drowning.
The reason for the ruse was simple; Graciela was a well known figure in Port Royale. If anyone had noticed her talking to Blind Judas, they might be able to put two and two together and figure out that she was really after Harry Wagstaff and his piece of the treasure map. If word reached Jack Splitfoot, he'd double the guard on the Brimstone and she'd never have a chance to sneak aboard and steal his piece, too.
The map had originally been divided into four quarters. The first piece she'd stolen from Splitfoot when she'd jumped ship all those years ago. She'd known he had another piece but hadn't had the time to search for it. Graciela had obtained a second piece of the map when she'd killed the Portuguese raider, Conception LeNez, in a tavern brawl.
Originally, four men had carried the pieces, all sailors who'd participated in the looting of a Spanish silver galleon named La Sirena Verde, part of the vast fleet sent by King Phillip of Spain to subdue Elizabeth Regina's England. The hand of God had blown the Armada apart with a killing storm wind; several of the lost ships had been payroll vessels as well as galleons returning from the rich Indes with cargos of silver and gold.
The bold captain who'd discovered La Sirena had been Sir Edmund Darnley, captain of the Barracuda Cloud and a privateer for the British Crown. According to the story Graciela had heard, he'd decided to turn renegade and keep the treasure for himself, directing his ship to sail to an uncharted location that lay somewhere in the unexplored chain of tiny isles known as the Black Hag's Knit. Once there, he'd taken the treasure ashore and hidden it, bringing back a map and leaving behind the corpses of the men who'd helped him bury it.
Darnley was never able to reclaim his treasure. The Barracuda Cloud had been caught in a storm off the Barbados, blown into treacherous coral reefs that had ripped her belly apart and left the ship a stranded wreck. Most of the crew, including Edmund Darnley, died; four sailors survived, crawling up onto an island where they'd lived for six months until picked up by a passing Dutch merchantman. The only thing they'd salvaged out of the wreck had been Darnley's precious treasure map.
The men, barely trusting one another, had split the map into four pieces and vowed to one day return to the isle and claim the treasure. Rumor abounded, however, and one by one the men were murdered for their pieces by pirates and privateers. Those tattered bits of map had been circulating for years; every now and then someone claimed to have recovered all four of the clues to Darnley's Treasure but as always, they turned out to be forgeries.
The pieces Graciela, Splitfoot and Wagstaff had were genuine; they were cured human skin, the map designs on the grainy material engraved with tattooer's ink. Also, each of them bore a small mermaid in a corner, a further indication that the tattered bits of stained leather had something to do with the treasure of La Sirena.
Splitfoot still possessed a piece; so did Harry Wagstaff. Graciela wanted them all.
Graciela didn't want to kill Harry; she hoped he'd give up his quarter of the map without a fight. On the other hand, it looked like he was prepared to wait out a siege, holed up in the Swan's Ear and surrounded by his own crewmen.
Brute force wouldn't do it in this case; she'd have to rely on cunning.
Unfortunately, she was well known in Port Royale. If Wagstaff's men noticed her in the vicinity of the tavern, they'd shoot first and ask questions later.
She needed a plan.
After a moment of intense thought, Graciela suddenly grinned and continued walking, every step taking her closer to the Swan's Ear and Harry Wagstaff. An idea had come to her, a plan of such simple perfection that she knew it had to work. Before the Swan, she'd have to visit a bawdy house on the way...
The short fringe of her ebony hair fluttering with the speed of her passage, Graciela melted into the bustling crowd.
She was so intent on her goal that she didn't notice several sets of eyes following her as she plunged single-mindedly through the noisy tangle of streets.
A cowled, lame beggar watched her progress. When she entered Madame Lil's whorehouse, he smiled to himself and picked his way across the street.
The first part of the conspirator's bloody plan was put into action...
And Graciela was none the wiser.