She had told him about the diamonds, and how precious they were.
Jack was surprised that such items were all kept together, but however brutal and animalistic the crew were, they had all signed agreements about division of gains, and there was a firm sense of loyalty among pirates. It was a loyalty that kept squabbling on board ship to a minimum and was designed to hold back jealousy and rage to direct at their targets.
It was a loyalty that Jack was about to challenge.
Increasingly aware of the time he had spent breaking in and finding this place, he rooted through the loot, touching treasures that would have set his family up for life a thousand times over. But everything here was stolen, and the glinting gold and shine of precious things all held a taint of red in his eyes. The blood of hundreds of victims smeared every surface of this room.
When he found the diamonds, they took his breath away.
He took a small handful, trying not to think about what they could buy, and then restored everything to its previous condition. The pouch of diamonds he closed, returning it to the leather satchel where he’d found it, and then the satchel to its trunk, among other treasures. He climbed up out of the crawl space and returned the trapdoor to its original position, half covering it with a box of canned vegetables. But he took care not to do too good a job, as that would work against his plan.
Jack stood inside the storage hold, listening for footfalls out in the gangway, trying to use his senses to feel if anyone approached. Holding his breath, he opened the door and stepped out, but the narrow corridor in the hold was empty. He leaned back into the room and scattered a couple of diamonds on the floor, then did the same in the gangway. Greed and suspicion were powerful tools.
He relocked the trapdoor, crept back into the gangway, closed the door, and clasped its lock tightly. But then he paused, troubled. It would not do to have the theft be too clever. The one he wanted to implicate as thief certainly was not. From his pocket he withdrew the stiletto he had found among Johansen’s things and dug into the wood around the lock and the latch, so that any fool would see it had been tampered with.
Bent there, intent upon the task, he heard the creak of weight upon the steps at the far end of the gangway, coming down from the forecastle.
Jack spun. Finn stood on the last step, staring at him in uncomprehending suspicion.
“What are you up to, meat?” Finn growled.
Panic thundered in Jack’s chest, the moment of discovery precisely what he had dreaded. Another half minute and he’d have been away, with none the wiser. Jack took two steps back, slowly, toward the stairs up to the main deck, and then it hit him.
This was perfect.
Jack smiled, turned, and bolted, boots pounding on timber. With a snarl, Finn gave chase, so much faster and stronger, his weight shaking the floor. Jack only prayed he wouldn’t see the diamonds or stop to pick them up.
Really, he couldn’t have planned it better.
As long as he didn’t die in the next few minutes.
DEATH ON THE WIND
For an instant Jack had second thoughts, but it was far too late for that. If he did nothing, he and Sabine would surely die soon enough. Better to die trying to save us both than simply wait for death to arrive, he thought, and he reached the steps up to the deck as Finn exploded from the hold, tearing that small door off its hinges.
“Traitorous little bastard!” Finn barked as he struck the wall, then twisted to pursue. “Sneak thief! What’ve you stolen?”
Jack didn’t slow. If he hesitated, he would be caught, and Finn would tear out his throat before he could even begin the deception. Heart beating like a caged animal inside him, rioting to be free, he hurtled up the steps as Finn lunged for him.
They’d been here before, he and Finn, though on the other end of the ship. Jack had survived that encounter. This time, he had to do more than survive.
The wind hit him as he reached the deck. The ship creaked beneath his feet, canted to one side with the sails full, but he kept his footing. Several lamps burned, affording a weak illumination. Clouds were heavy tonight, and little starlight found its way through. Demetrius was at the wheel, his girth pressed up against it, and he frowned as he saw the terror on Jack’s face. But he did nothing.
Finn reached the deck a moment later. “Cooky!” he snarled, giving chase.
Demetrius scowled in disgust and went back to steering the ship, no longer interested in Jack or Finn, or whatever the two might do to kill each other. The sea wolves didn’t like Jack and they no longer trusted Finn, but if they were not going to intervene, his plan might backfire quickly.
“You’re a lunatic!” Jack shouted at Finn. “What the hell d’you want?”
Finn bounded after him. In seconds he would catch up. Jack darted beneath the shrouds and around the mizzenmast. Lines hung around them, and Jack set them swinging in the darkness, trying to buy himself precious moments. He carried the stiletto in his hand but knew it would do him no good. So he sheathed it, running for the starboard railing amidships. A pair of gaffs hung there for ready use. He began to lose control of his momentum, almost hurling himself down the canted deck. A shout rose up and he recognized Louis’s voice, but then he slammed into the railing and a post cracked. Pain shot through his knee from the impact.
He clasped a gaffing pole and jerked it loose, turning just as Finn bore down upon him. Salt spray stung his eyes, and he squinted in the faint light as the snarling Finn lunged, fingers clawed, eyes reflecting nothing.
Jack braced himself against the railing and thrust the gaff into Finn’s chest.
The pirate’s eyes went wide with pain and shock as the hook sank deep. The cant of the ship put gravity on Jack’s side, and after a moment he twisted out of the way, staving Finn off with the pole. The hook acted as a claw; it snagged on the pirate’s rib cage, and he roared in pain and fury as he tried to tear the thing out of his chest.
“Run, Jack!” someone shouted.
He looked up and made out a shadow in the crow’s nest that must have been Louis. Jack didn’t need urging again—a hook in the chest wouldn’t kill a werewolf, no matter how hard he wished it.
A snarl came from behind him, and then a splintering of wood, and Jack knew he’d bought himself mere seconds. He climbed the deck at an angle, rushing for the foremast. As he reached the rigging, Tree and Ogre emerged from the forecastle, befuddled, rubbing sleep from their faces as they took in the latest madness unfolding on deck. Vukovich and Kelly were close behind them, but they already looked alert and even excited. They watched with keen interest.
“Come on, you bastards!” Jack shouted at them. “He’ll kill me!”
“And eat you!” Vukovich cried merrily.
“And save your heart for me, if he knows what’s good for ’im!” Kelly added.
It was dark, the swell heavy, but Jack did the only thing he could—he leaped into the rigging and began to climb. The ocean wind scoured his face and blew his hair across his eyes, but he climbed as if the devil nipped at his heels.
A heavy weight tugged at the rigging below, and he glanced down to see Finn climbing … but the beast beneath him was not really Finn anymore, and it was close enough for Jack to see. Fur had sprouted from its flesh and the snout belonged to something no longer human, but not entirely wolf—this was a monstrous combination of the two. The weight of the thing shook the lines as Jack climbed, but he kept on. Louis shouted encouragement. Jack felt the wind on his skin just as he did the rise and fall of his chest with every breath, and the thrum of his heart with every beat, more keenly than he had ever felt anything in his life. A copper tang filled his mouth, and he thought he must have bitten his tongue before realizing what he tasted was not blood, but the flavor of death on the wind. It filled the air around him and overwhelmed his senses.
Jack reached the fore-topsail yard and started edging outward. Such a move would have been folly during the day, but at night…? Suicide. He could fall to the deck and split like an overfull sack of fruit, and even if he kept his balance, he had nowhere to run save a leap to the sheets, which would end badly. But a moment later, he grabbed hold of a line to steady himself and knew he had made the right decision. The monster could not follow him. It could not balance well enough, and the yard might not hold its weight.
But Finn or not, the werewolf possessed a bestial cunning, and it caught enough starlight for Jack to see the cruel glint of its eyes. It could shake him loose, but he didn’t think Finn would want that death for him. The pirate hated him, and Jack had risked a great deal on a split-second presumption: that Finn would want Jack to die at his hands.
The monster growled in pain as bones shifted and fur receded, and in moments, Finn stood there once again, clinging to the rigging. Shouts rose from below, and as Jack glanced down, he saw that Ghost had appeared at last. He stood, watching impassively, his expression grimly curious. Huginn and Muninn stood behind him, but they were not watching Jack and Finn. The twins studied the rest of the crew, alert for any threat to the captain.
What he tasted was not blood, but the flavor of death on the wind.
“You’ve given me a great gift, Cooky,” Finn growled. “I caught you in the midst of yer thievin’. Might be enough to save my life.”
Crouched on the yardarm, ready to leap, Jack knew his life would be forfeit if he made the slightest misstep. But he smiled, just for a moment, then quickly hid his amusement so that Ghost would not see it.
“You’ve gone rabid, Finn! I’m no thief. Looked more like you were up to something, down in the hold. That why you want me dead?”
Ordinary men might not have heard him from down on the deck, but Ghost and the others weren’t human. They would hear, and Finn knew it. His eyes narrowed with understanding and hatred as he realized not only that Jack would attempt to turn the accusations back upon him, but that given his current standing in the pack, it might work.
“You little bastard,” Finn growled.
Jack glanced down and saw Ghost signal to Huginn, who dashed for a cargo grille in the middle of the deck, flung it back, and dropped down into the gangway that ran through the hold. Finn snarled and started to inch out along the yard. Jack wrapped his fist in the rope to which he clung for balance, heart hammering, wind gusts threatening to knock him from his perch. Coming up into the rigging had seemed, on the spur of the moment, a stroke of genius—the perfect stage upon which to perform his deception. But if Finn managed to kill him up here, all would be for naught. Already the wound in Finn’s chest had begun to heal.
What were you thinking? Jack asked himself.
“Kill me if you want!” he shouted suddenly, startling Finn. “Neither one of us is ever getting off this ship alive. But I won’t die with you painting me as a thief.”
He looked across toward the crow’s nest on the mainmast but caught only a glimpse of Louis between topgallant and mainsail. Desperate, he looked down at the rest of the crew gathering below. Ghost and Muninn stood together.
“I went into the hold,” Jack shouted, half a truth in his confession. “I wanted to sabotage the outer lock on the room you shut me and Sabine into so I could work it from inside. I thought we might have a chance to escape the next time. But I didn’t even get to it! I saw Finn coming out of the food stores, caught him at something, and now he wants me dead before I can tell you.”
“Lies!” Finn screamed, and lunged.
Jack put his weight on the rope and pushed off, swinging away from the yardarm and out over the deck. His arc took him around Finn, just out of arm’s length. Finn reached farther and lost his balance, windmilling his arms and slipping from the yard even as Jack swung back toward the mast and caught the rigging.
Finn twisted in the air and stretched out—his hands becoming claws—and dug them into the wood of the yard. He flailed, trying to climb back up, claws scoring the wood. Shouts rose from below, some mocking Finn and others urging Jack to knock him off. But Finn moved swiftly.
Arm hooked into the rigging, Jack brought up some slack and looped the rope in his hands.
“Captain’s pet or not”—Finn huffed—“I’ll feed your innards to the sharks … and save the tastiest bits for—”
Jack darted forward, nearly lost his balance, and slipped the loop over Finn’s head. Steadying himself on the tautness higher up the rope, he gave a small tug to cinch the makeshift noose tighter, then kicked Finn in the face. The sea wolf clutched at the yard but missed, and he fell backward toward the deck … until the slack Jack had gathered played out, and the rope snapped taut around his neck.
Finn bucked and kicked his legs, reaching up to free himself from the rope. Fur sprouted once more from his flesh, and he became that half-wolf monstrosity again, snarling and spitting, swinging back and forth. Jack watched from the rigging, amazed at what he had done. His heart still slammed against the inside of his chest as though it longed to escape, but it had calmed somewhat. The immediate danger was over, but that did not mean he would survive the next few minutes.
He scanned the deck below for Sabine, but she had not come up from her cabin to watch. Perhaps that was for the best. Her presence would distract Ghost, and his jealousy made him unpredictable. Better for his beautiful slave—for what else could she be to him but that?—to hide herself below until the night’s fates were decided.
Huginn emerged from the forecastle and ran to Ghost, whispering in close to the captain’s ear. Jack saw the Nordic pirate show Ghost the small handful of diamonds in his open palm before they disappeared quickly into the captain’s own pocket.
Now we’ll see, Jack thought.
He pulled out the stiletto. Designed as a stabbing weapon, it would make for a poor saw, but with Finn’s weight drawing the line taut, he thought he could cut the rope. He caught it in his hands, and then Finn reached up over his head and grabbed hold of the rope and started to climb. Jack stared, frozen for a moment with the stiletto in his hand.