"Hello, Ann," he said, pausing, for he felt he owed her the opportunity to revile him a little.


"Well, well," said Ann, "if it ain't the cook! Crawled out o' the rum cask for once, eh?"


She looked both leaner and older - not surprisingly, for Governor Rogers had chosen to view the time-honored English common law custom of divorce-by-sale as the height of lewdness, and had promised to have her publicly stripped and flogged if she ever raised the subject again, and a couple of monstrously vulgar songs about that imagined punishment had sprung up and become very popular - but she still had the hot aura of sexuality in the way she stood and canted her head.


Shandy smiled cautiously. "That's right."


"And how long do you think it'll be before you crawl right back in?"


"I'm sure it'll be at least two weeks."


"I'm not. I give you ... half an hour. You're going to die here, Shandy, after a few years of being Governor Sawney's apprentice. Well I'm not going to - Jack and I are getting out of here, damned soon. I finally found a man who's not scared of women."


"I'm glad. I've got to admit they often scare me. I hope you and Rackam are happy."


Ann seemed disconcerted, and stepped back. "Huh. So where are you going?"


"Somewhere north of Jamaica. A ship's been seen there that I think is the old Vociferous Carmichael."


She grinned and seemed to relax, though at the same time she was shaking her head sadly. "My God, it's that girl, still, isn't it? Hurley?"


"Hurwood." He shrugged. "Yeah, it is."


"So will this trip be violating your pardon?"


"I don't know. Will Rackam's involve violating his?"


She smirked. "Just between you and me, Shandy - of course it will. But my Jack's got a girl that don't mind living with an outlaw. Do you?"


"I don't know that either."


She hesitated, then leaned forward and kissed him - very lightly.


"What was that for?" he asked, startled.


Her eyes were very bright. "For? For luck, man."


She turned and walked away, and he strode on toward the shore. Some children were playing with a couple of puppets he'd made once, and as they scrambled out of his way he noticed that they were using strings now to move the little jointed figures. Learn a trade, youngsters, he thought. I don't think your generation will have Mate Care-For to take care of them.


Someone was walking ponderously behind him. He stopped and turned, and then flinched a little to see Woefully Fat staring incuriously down at him. For once remembering that the man was deaf, Shandy just nodded.


"They'll get along without him," the giant bocor rumbled. "Every land go through the time when magic work. We heahabouts is nearin' the end o' dat time. Ah'm sailin' with you."


"Oh?" Shandy was surprised, for he'd tried, with no success, to get Davies' bocor to come along on the trip to Haiti. "Well great, sure, it certainly seems like a trip we could use a good bocor on, and I'm just wasting my time talking, aren't I?" He made do with nodding emphatically.


"You a-goin' to Jamaica."


"Well, no, actually - I mean, we might, we're going near there - "


"Ah was bo'n in Jamaica, though they ship me to Virginia when Ah was fahv. And now I'm goin' back - to die."


"Uhhh ... " Shandy was still trying to think of a response to this, and how to express it in gestures, when the bocor lumbered past him toward the shore, and Shandy had to sprint to catch up. There was a gang of arguing men clustered around the boat Shandy had been wrenching at, and when Shandy approached, two of them strode over to him, waving their arms and shouting. One was Skank, and the other was Venner, his face so red at the moment that his freckles were invisible. "One at a time," said Shandy.


With a furious chop of his hand Venner silenced Skank. "The Jenny isn't going anywhere until Vane gets here," he stated.


"She's sailing for Jamaica this afternoon," said Shandy. Though he kept a mild grin on his face, he was peripherally measuring yards and inches and wondering how quickly he could get to Skank's cutlass.


"You're not captain of her anymore," Venner went on raspingly, his face even darker.


"I'm still her captain," Shandy said.


The men standing around shifted and muttered, obviously not sure whose side they wanted to be on. Shandy caught part of a sentence: " ... damned drunk for a captain ... "


Then Woefully Fat stepped forward. "Jenny goin' t' Jamaica," he said in Old Testament prophet tones. "Leavin' now."


The men were startled, for not even Shank had realized that Davies' bocor was Shandy's ally in this; and though Shandy never took his eyes off Venner's face he could feel their confidence shift toward himself.


Venner and Shandy stared at each other for several seconds, then Skank drew his cutlass and tossed it to Shandy, who caught it by the grip without looking away from Venner. At last Venner looked down at the blade in Shandy's hand, and Shandy knew Venner had decided he wasn't quite drunk enough to take. Then Venner looked around at the other men, and his mouth became a straight, bitter line as, clearly, he realized that the emotional tide had turned against him when Woefully Fat had spoken.


"Well," growled Venner, "I wish you'd ... keep us better informed of these things, captain - I - " He paused, then started again, choking out the words as if it hurt his teeth to pass each one. "I certainly ... didn't mean to crowd you."


Shandy grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. "No problem!"


He turned and surveyed his crew - and carefully didn't let show in his face the disappointment and apprehension that he felt. This crew, he thought, is a testimonial to the effectiveness of Woodes Rogers' tactics - the only ones who'll sign onto a pirating voyage now are the ones who are too stupid, bloodthirsty or lazy to possibly get along in a law-abiding situation. And a pirating voyage it may well have to be, if we can't find the Carmichael - these thugs and clods will demand plunder.


Here goes my pardon, likelier than not, he thought. But maybe it's better to be an outlaw with purpose than a citizen without.


"Skank," he said, deciding that that young man was the most reliable of them, "you're quartermaster." He noted, but didn't acknowledge, Venner's quick frown. "Get 'em all aboard and let's be gone before these Navy lads figure out what we intend."


"Aye aye, cap'n."


And twenty minutes later the Jenny, with no fanfare, but with some uncertain glances from the officers aboard the H.M.S. Delicia, sailed out of the New Providence harbor for the last time.


Chapter Twenty-Four


Patterns of morning sunlight dappled the south-facing balcony of one of the grandest houses on the hill above Spanish Town, and when the breeze-shifted pepper tree branches overhead let the sun shine directly on the elegantly bearded man sitting at the breakfast table, he instinctively shaded his face, for it was important to him to keep himself as unlined and youthful-looking as possible. For one thing, investors seemed to feel that a younger man would know more about current markets and the most recent developments in prices and currency values; and for another, the whole point of attaining wealth was lost if one was obviously an old man when one got it.


Another groan from upstairs made his hand shake so that a splash of tea landed in the saucer instead of in the china cup. Damn, thought the man who called himself Joshua Hicks as he pettishly clanked the teapot down. Can't a man have a peaceful breakfast on his own balcony without all these ... lamentations? Six more days, he reminded himself, and then I'll have fulfilled my bargain with that damned pirate, and he'll do his tricks and take her away from here and leave me alone.


But even as the thought passed through his mind he recognized it as a vain wish. He'll never leave me alone, he realized, as long as I'm still even a remotely useful tool.


Maybe I should terminate my usefulness, as poor Stede Bonnett had the courage to do when he was in this sort of a situation, with Blackbeard - turn myself in, confess ... hell, I met Bonnett a couple of times when the vagaries of the sugar market brought him on business trips to Port-au-Prince, and he was no hero, no saint ...


No, he thought, looking past the polished balcony rail, and past the palm fronds waving in the cool mountain breeze, at the descending terraces of white houses that were the residential area of Spanish Town, and, distantly, just visible along the edge of the blue sea, at the red of the roof-tiles of the surviving, landward end of Port Royal. He reached to the side, lifted the stopper out of a crystal decanter and poured amber cognac, glowing gold in the morning sun, into his tea. No, whatever else he was, Bonnett was a braver man than I am. I could never do what he did - and Ulysse knows it, too, damn him. If I've got to live in a cage, I prefer a luxurious one, with bars which, though stronger than iron, can't be seen or touched.


He drained the fortified tea and got to his feet, making sure he had a calm smile on his face before he turned around to face the sitting room ... and face the stuffed dog head mounted on the wall like some paltry hunting trophy.


He crossed through the wide sitting room to the hall, but he maintained his smile, for there was a dog head mounted here too. He remembered, with a shudder that made his smile falter, the day in September, shortly after his arrival here, when he'd hung a cloth over every dog head in the house; it had given him a welcome sense of privacy, but within the hour the fearsome black nurse had come in, without knocking of course, and padded all over the house and taken all the cloths off. She hadn't even glanced at him, and of course she couldn't speak with her jaw bound up that way, but the visitation had so upset him that he'd never again tried to blind Ulysse's monitors.


Braced by the brandy, and by the knowledge that the nurse didn't usually arrive until midmorning, Hicks clumped up the stairs and listened outside the door of his guest's room. There was no more moaning, so he pulled back the brass bolt, turned the wooden doorknob and opened the door.


The young woman was asleep, but she woke with a cry when, tiptoeing into the dim room, he accidentally kicked the untouched dinner she'd left on the floor - the wooden bowl turned over in midair and thumped against the wall, scattering the greens all over the carpet. She sat up in bed and squinted at him. "My God ... John ... ?"


"No, damn it," said Hicks, "it's me. I heard you moaning, and just wanted to make sure all was well. Who's this John? You've mistaken me for him before."


"Oh." Beth Hurwood slumped back, the hope fading from her eyes. "Yes, all's well."


There were three dog heads in this room, so Hicks drew himself up to his full height and gestured sternly at the scattered leaves and herbs. "Trying to avoid your medicaments again?" he asked. "I won't have that, you know. Ulysse wants you to have them, and what he wants, I enforce!" He just stopped himself from nodding virtuously at the head that was nailed up over the bed.


"My father's a monster," she whispered. "Some day you'll enforce your own immolation."


Hicks forgot the heads and frowned uneasily. In the early days of her captivity he had laughed at Beth's claims that Ulysse Segundo was her father, for she always claimed too that her father had only one arm, while Ulysse very obviously had two; but on the pirate's next visit Hicks had glanced at the man's right hand - it was unarguably living flesh, but it was pink and smooth as a child's, and had no tiniest scar.


"Well," he said now, gruffly, "less than a week from today it will be Christmas. At least then I'll be rid of you."


The young woman flung the bedclothes aside, swung her legs out and tried to stand, but she couldn't lock her knees, and fell back across the bed, panting. "Damn you and my father," she gasped. "Why can't I have food?"


"What do you call this stuff you leave around for people to trip over?" Hicks demanded, stooping to pick up a leaf and then waving it furiously in her face.


"Let me see you eat it," she said.


Hicks stared dubiously at the bit of vegetation, then flung it away with a snort, as if to indicate that he didn't have time for childish dares.


"Let's see you lick your fingers," Beth pressed.


"I ... don't have to prove anything to you," he said.


"What is to happen Saturday? You said something once about some 'procedure.' "


Hicks was glad the curtains were drawn across the windows, for he could feel his face getting red. "You're supposed to be taking your damned medicaments!" he snapped. "You're supposed to be - " Sleepy, he finished mentally; somnambulistic. Not wide awake and asking awkward questions. "Besides, your fa - Captain Segundo, I mean, will almost certainly be here by then, so I won't have to do the - what I mean is, you can take it up with him!"


He nodded resolutely and turned on his heel to leave, but he spoiled his dignified exit by emitting a shrill squeak and skipping backward, for the black nurse had silently entered the room and was standing right behind him.


Beth Hurwood was laughing and the nurse was just staring in her usual blank, unnerving way, and Hicks fled - wondering, as he edged hastily around the nurse, why the woman's dress was always sewn shut rather than just buttoned, and why, if she was so crazy about sewing things, she didn't repair her ripped-out pockets, and why she always went barefoot.


Also, he thought as he relaxed on the stairs and fished a handkerchief out of his sleeve to mop his forehead with, I wonder why other blacks fear the woman so. Why, the black cook that used to work here took one look at her and jumped through a second-floor window! And so after I discovered that any black would rather be flogged all day than set foot in this house for one second, I had to hire servants, white people. And even a lot of them have quit.

P/S: Copyright -->www_Novel12_Com

***