- The Sea Wolves
Footsteps thumped overhead, and a roar came from up on deck. Elsewhere in the ship—the forecastle, he thought, though direction may have been confused—someone cried out, a shriek of rage.
“Someone survived!” he said, half standing from his chair. He tilted his head, turned slightly left and right, trying to place where the scream had come from.
Several sets of footsteps thundered overhead. A howl rose, loud and chilling and vibrating the wood-paneled walls of their room. And then came another scream, this one of pain.
“No one survives unless the wolves allow it,” Sabine said. “We should eat, Jack. And have some wine. It’s going to be a long night.”
Jack went to the door and stood close, though not close enough to touch. He was afraid that contact would communicate his presence to the other side. Something could be waiting out there. Maybe they stand guard, he thought, Sabine’s mysterious presence a weight behind him.
After a few quiet moments, broken only by the creak of the ship and the crash of the sea upon the hull, the night filled with a baleful howling. Frowning, Jack turned to Sabine for an explanation.
“They’re still hungry,” she said quietly, voice breaking with the horror of the words. “They wanted more passengers from your ship, but Ghost hurried them. And then he wouldn’t let them have you.”
“I still don’t understand that,” Jack replied.
“I think he sees you as a test,” Sabine said. “They’re wolves, but they are also men, and Ghost sees men as weak. He wants to scour any trace of humanity from his soul.”
“So he’s kept me alive as, what, a reminder?”
“I suspect that’s a part of it.”
“I thought he meant to persuade me of his philosophy,” Jack said. “That he looked at me as some kind of challenge.”
“It may be that as well. But if he only wanted you to be like him, there are swifter and surer ways he could accomplish that,” Sabine said.
Jack felt a trickle of ice along his spine at the suggestion. He would rather die than live as a beast. And if he was going to survive long enough to find a way out of his predicament, he would need to learn all he could of the wolves, and of Ghost.
“You said they were still hungry. We’re after another target, aren’t we? A ship to ransack and rob.”
He turned away from the door, trying to catch her looking at him without her realizing. He wanted to know how she saw him, what she thought of him, and seeing her unguarded might reveal all this and more. But Sabine’s mystery remained, and she looked at Jack from beneath hooded eyes. Her sadness could not be feigned; her wretched situation was a terrible weight upon her.
“We have to get off this ship.”
“Do you believe I have never tried?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Jack … sweet Jack.” She shook her head. “Come and drink some wine with me.”
“What’s the target this time?”
“A ship heading to Japan from San Francisco. There are several rich Americans on board, and a Japanese businessman who has made a fortune in printing and newspapers. He’s returning home with his fortune and his most valuable belongings. He has…” She frowned. “I saw gold, and diamonds.”
“Do they care about such things? They’re not just looking for … victims?” he asked, thinking about stories of ships like the Mary Celeste, found adrift with no one aboard, or island colonies like Roanoke, whose population simply vanished.
“Make no mistake,” Sabine said. “They are a wolf pack. Hunting is of great importance to them. But they are also pirates. It is not some masquerade to hide the wolf beneath the human mask. They are both. Ghost has accumulated his crew—his pack—with care and purpose. From what I have been able to discover, all of them were thieves and hard men even before he marked them with his bite and made them wolves. They must hunt, and they lust for it, but gold is their true motive. Their true love.”
“To what end?” Jack asked. “What do such creatures need money for?”
Sabine’s expression darkened. “Shore leave. They hoard the spoils of their piracy and murder, and when they are in port, they spend it in bouts of utter debauchery, if the stories I’ve heard them tell are to be believed. Though the split isn’t even.”
Surprised, Jack glanced up at her. “It isn’t? Doesn’t that create resentment?”
“Of course. But as in any pack, there is a hierarchy.”
Jack thought of the sled dogs he had seen fighting in the Yukon, and he understood what she meant. Every pack had a leader, to whom the rest would offer their throats in subservience, and there was a rank, or order, among them. When they were fed, the least of them would get only scraps. He had a feeling that, after today, Finn had fallen to the bottom of the pack on board the Larsen. Apparently, having fallen to the last rung on the ladder, he would also get the smallest share of their current hoard, which was sure to rankle him.
Ghost had made them all, tainted them with the curse of the werewolf. He was captain and the leader of the pack, and Jack had seen with his own eyes how much the men feared him. But he had sensed the fierce loyalty in them as well, to the pack as a whole. All of them seemed dedicated to the hierarchy of the pack, except perhaps for Finn. All the punishment he’d received had not seemed to extinguish his fury and resentment. Jack would have to be wary of him at all times.
“And what about this new ship?” he asked. “How many will they kill?”
Pained, and perhaps ashamed, Sabine glanced away. “Please, Jack.”
“Men, women, and children? The terror of those children. Being killed by one of them.”
“Jack!” She was desperate now, her voice pleading. “You have no idea what it’s like for me, having to do this. But I can’t refuse him.”
“You love him.”
“No!” Sabine cried. “I see the way he looks at me, but no.”
“Then why? There’s something you’re not telling me. Surely death would be preferable to this life, guiding them to slaughter after slaughter.”
“You don’t understand,” she said, her voice trembling with emotion.
“So tell me!”
Sabine stood and moved to the food and wine. She poured a glass for Jack, and when he smelled the fruity aroma, he could only take it from her and drink. It was one of the finest wines he had ever tasted. He wondered where Ghost had stolen it.
They sat together again and ate and drank. I’ve got to know what she’s hiding, he thought. The only way off this ship for him was with Sabine; the idea of leaving her to Ghost’s brutalities was too awful to bear. She was conflicted and suffocating with guilt, as much a victim of the wolves as he was, if not more. And there was something about her….
He’d felt it the first time he’d set eyes on her, though he had yet to give it a name.
“You’ll tell me one day,” he said.
“If I do, it may be the death of you.”
“I’ve died before,” Jack said. He felt Sabine staring at him but kept his attention on the heavy door, their only protection against the horrors beyond.
The ship’s movements were soporific. But footsteps padded the decks and gangways, and werewolves howled at the bloody moon.
When the door handle creaked down, Jack opened his eyes.
A moment of confusion struck him, so intense that his heart stopped in his chest. That familiar instant of constructing his life upon waking—I’m on a ship; Ghost taunts me; they’re killers, monsters, werewolves; I am Jack London—was overshadowed by other, less obvious facts.
Someone’s hair tickled his face. His arm lay around something that moved, something warm. Oil-lamp light flickered and danced as the door behind him drifted open, and an agitated sea breeze forced its way in.
“Sabine,” he whispered, rolling away from her across the cot and falling to the floor. He bumped his head, saw stars. His vision cleared in a second or two, by which time Sabine was sitting on the edge of the cot staring past him across the room.
What will I see? he thought, and though there was dread in his heart, he had faced monsters before. Nothing was hopeless, and he would fight to the last drop of—
“Clumsy fool.” Ghost’s voice grumbled in. He laughed low, wet, as if something was stuck in his throat.
Jack sat up and leaned against the cot, looking at the open door. Daylight shone in, weakened by its journey down through the deck grilles. But even filtered like that, Jack could always discern dawn’s light.
He had slept all night. A bottle rolled on the floor, set dancing by the ship’s gentle movement. There was a speckled stain of wine on the planks, but he remembered that he and Sabine had drunk most of it, and eaten the cheese and fruit, before tiredness had taken them to the cot. He did not remember hugging her to him, but that might have happened during the night. He wondered if she remembered being held.
Ghost stood just inside the doorway. His glance flickered from Jack to Sabine and back again, and Jack had never seen such a smile on the bastard’s face. Usually his humor was at other people’s expense, and such humor was honest. This smile was as fake as any Jack had ever seen, tight and sharp, meant to mask his displeasure at finding them in what must have seemed a moment of intimacy. For all of Ghost’s philosophizing, and despite the savagery of his monstrous species, it was clear he was not as emotionless as he had portrayed himself.
The captain wore only torn trousers. His chest and shoulders were wide and muscled, hairy, and there was blood spattered across his chest as well as his chin and neck. Jack closed his eyes and turned away.
“The crew’ll be wanting breakfast, young Jack.”
“Haven’t you eaten enough?”
The captain’s smile relaxed, becoming more honest. Talk of savagery was more comfortable territory for him than the sting of feelings he pretended—perhaps even to himself—that he did not have.
“Never quite enough,” he said. “You and the lady Sabine were comfortable, I take it?”
“Very,” Jack said. He heard Sabine’s sharp intake of breath, perhaps as she remembered sharing the cot.
The moment the word left his lips, Jack realized it had been a mistake, unintentionally emphasizing the intimacy implied by the position in which Ghost had found them. He would have to be more careful. Whatever feelings Sabine might or might not have for the captain of the Larsen—and Jack was still not entirely certain how she felt—it was clear that Ghost coveted her attentions.
Ghost glanced around the room, taking in the empty, rolling bottle and the crumb-strewn plate, and there was something about the way he stood that Jack hated—the casual grace of his stance, the way he did little to hide what had happened to him, what he had become. There was an arrogance to Ghost that contradicted the intelligence he tried to project, an egotistical certainty that he was right.
Sabine stood and walked between them.
“I need to track the Weyden,” she said. “I had dreams in the night … sensations that it might have changed course.”
“Jack—there’s some meat in the galley that needs salting and curing.”
“Then you’d best confirm our route,” Ghost said.
“I’ll need access to your charts, of course.” She stood before Ghost, staring at him. The captain glared over her shoulder at Jack.
Jack pulled himself up onto the cot, trying not to wince at the stiffness in his limbs. Nothing happened between us, he thought, and he almost spoke his conviction. But it occurred to him that the displeasure he’d seen in the captain’s eyes was a vulnerability he might be able to use to his advantage.
Ghost was jealous.
“Very well,” Ghost said. “We’ll spend the morning in my cabin. As for you, young Jack … breakfast and coffee for the men, then clean up any mess you might find around the ship.” He grinned, turned to go, then feigned remembering one final point. “Oh, and Jack—there’s some meat in the galley that needs salting and curing. A special store I’ve put aside.”
Ghost backed from the room, bidding Sabine follow him with a grand wave of his hand. Jack could smell the man as he moved: a waft of sweat, and something altogether more animalistic. The dried blood on his chin flaked. And there was something caught between his teeth.
After the woman had passed him by, Ghost’s smile remained but was surrounded by more lines, more creases. Forced.
“Tread lightly today, young Jack,” Ghost said. “There are no cages at sea.”
Kelly and Vukovich were sitting naked in the mess, carefully wiping their faces and bodies with damp, dirty cloths. They were streaked with blood. Vukovich looked up at Jack and away again, disregarding him without a change in expression. Kelly did not even lift his head. He simply wiped at the drying blood on his neck, left to right, again and again. He seemed almost to be in a trance.
The scent of wet fur was stronger than it had ever been, and Jack almost gagged. Behind him stood the steep staircase that led up to the deck. But the galley was through the mess, and that was where Ghost had told him to go. He thought perhaps he’d pushed his luck enough this morning.
It was a month until the next full moon, and suddenly those four weeks felt so precious. He was certain that in a month’s time, he would be on the wrong side of that locked door. It was a countdown toward freedom or defeat, and defeat at the hands of these creatures could mean only one thing.
“Needs cleaning,” Vukovich said, the first time Jack had heard him speak. He had a clear, sharp accent, eastern European or Russian, and he was pointing below the mess table.
Jack nodded and approached, and from the stink he already knew what he was about to face. Meat, that’s all, he thought. Just remnants. Kneeling to look beneath the table, he prayed that there would be nothing recognizable.