- The Sea Wolves
Jack used the toe of his new boot to knock.
“Come!” Ghost called from within.
It was a tricky matter to balance the tray and unlatch the door as the ship swayed beneath him, but Jack managed it and shouldered the door open. Only once he was a step across the threshold did he realize that he had been mistaken—this was not the captain’s quarters after all, but some sort of chart room. On the walls were various ocean maps, but they were hung alongside what seemed to be charts of the heavens themselves, maps of the stars, perhaps to navigate by.
Three people sat around the table. Ghost was there, bent over an enormous, weathered map. Johansen sat to his left, which was to be expected. What startled Jack enough to freeze him in midstep was the person to the captain’s right, who peered even more intently at the maps and charts spread across the table. Delicate and lovely, with a tumble of dark hair veiling part of her face, the woman seemed to be stroking her fingers across the table as though sightless and in search of something she’d lost.
Then she blinked as though awakening and glanced up at him, her copper eyes alight with intelligence, her coffee skin gleaming in the sunlight streaming through the porthole. And she gave him a smile so sad that it cracked his heart in two.
“Good morning,” she said, her French accent adding exotic emphasis to the words. “You must be Jack.”
WRAPPED IN BEAUTY’S GAZE
He served breakfast to the crew, accepted their jibes and barbed comments, barely kept his feet when Tree tripped him, avoided catching their eyes, collected their plates, and mopped up their mess, and all the while he was thinking about that beautiful woman and what she might mean.
Sweating as he cleaned the galley after breakfast, Jack had entertained the idea that he might have imagined her. But he could never have dreamed up those eyes, and such underlying sadness. Then he had scoured his mind for any memory of her having been on the Umatilla but drew a blank. It was a waste of time; if she had been on the ship and he had seen her, he would have remembered her instantly. She had that sort of face. And just as with that mad forest spirit Lesya, if he never laid eyes on her again, he would still remember her forever.
Was she Ghost’s woman? Sailors—even pirates—usually considered a woman on shipboard to be bad luck, but if she was the captain’s wife or mistress, that would explain it.
“Cooky, that was almost edible,” Louis said.
Jack jumped—he hadn’t heard anyone approaching along the short corridor to the galley. Wrapped in beauty’s gaze, he thought, but then he realized that this might be an opportunity. Louis seemed to be a talker, and Jack was an experienced conversationalist.
“I just threw it together,” Jack said. “Give me the proper ingredients, and I’ll make something truly edible.”
“I believe that,” Louis said, a hint of laughter in his voice. His French accent held none of the beauty of that woman’s. It was a mocking, knowing lilt.
“The crew enjoyed it,” Jack said. He dropped the wire brush he was using to clean the scarred wooden surfaces and turned to face Louis. The thin man leaned against the galley bulkhead, eyes flicking this way and that, and as Jack turned, his face broke into a feral smile. His golden tooth seemed to glow with an echo of moonlight.
“Of course,” Louis said. “Finn feeds us dog waste, and you gave us something…” He shrugged, both hands out as if balancing his thoughts.
“Better?” Jack suggested.
“Something to tide us over.” The grin remained.
“Who’s the woman?” Jack asked. He tried to sound uninterested, turning back to scrubbing down the surfaces. Louis chuckled behind him.
“Ah, you’ve met Ghost’s guest. Well, Monsieur Cooky, once met, never forgotten. Did she cast her spell over you? Possess your eyes? Does she haunt your memory?”
“She’s just a woman,” Jack muttered, but all those things were true. He could not recall what Johansen had been doing in that chart room, could not even remember how Ghost had been sitting or the expression on his face. But the woman’s words repeated to him again and again, chanted into his ear by a songbird on his shoulder. Good morning. You must be Jack.
“That’s much like saying Ghost is just a man,” Louis whispered.
He isn’t? Jack almost said, but he bit his tongue. He had no wish to betray his doubts. So he turned to Louis again and tried a different tack.
“Is she his wife?”
Louis frowned. “Wouldn’t put it that way. But she’s precious to him, all right.”
Jack couldn’t forestall the flash of jealousy that went through him. It was absurd—he couldn’t even claim the woman’s acquaintance—but the sight of her had made his breath catch in his throat the same way it had the first time he’d seen a snowbird in the wild during the winter he’d spent trapped in a Yukon River cabin on the verge of starvation.
“You know her,” he said.
“Me? Oui.” Louis’s smile faltered for a moment, and his gaze went far away.
“And does she know you?”
Louis laughed, then glanced over his shoulder, perhaps checking to see if anyone else could hear their conversation.
“Only so far.”
“Only so far?” Jack repeated. What the hell did that mean? You must be Jack, the woman had said, and the sadness in that voice was undisguised.
“I am the one who found her,” Louis said. “I knew of her, and I told Ghost. Of course I did. He’s my captain! Word of her was widespread in New Orleans, and for every ten people who did not believe, there was one like me.” He laughed. “And for every thousand of those who did believe … again, there was one like me. So perhaps, Monsieur Cooky, I was destined to cross paths with Sabine.”
“Sabine,” Jack said, and the name felt sensuous in his mouth.
Louis sat on the food preparation surface. He touched one of the stove’s still-hot coals, winced slightly, and examined his burned hand. He wants to tell me this, Jack thought, and though cautious of Louis’s motives, he saw no harm in listening.
When it came to Sabine, he wanted to know everything.
“Before I signed on with the Larsen, I spent some time in New Orleans. I move around. It isn’t in my nature to be still. I heard many stories there—demons and conjurers and magical forces imprinting themselves on the city like…” He drew back his sleeve and displayed a riot of tattoos, beautifully wrought and yet faded as if bleached by the sun. “Any city attracts such stories, New Orleans more than most. But the story of Sabine remained with me more than all those others because I saw her, once, in a high window, and I never forgot.”
Louis seemed transported, eyes seeing something far away, and Jack dared not breathe lest he break the moment. Then the sailor blinked, looked back at Jack, and grinned again. Yet it was so clearly a mask, hiding parts of his story that he did not wish to share.
“How did she come to be on the Larsen?” Jack asked.
“San Francisco,” Louis said. “I was there seeking Ghost and his ship. I knew of him by reputation, and I needed to get away from…” He waved something away, his gold-glinting grin splitting his face again. “And Sabine was there to visit someone very old, very important.”
“A relative?” Jack asked.
“Someone with knowledge,” Louis said. “The old woman died before Sabine reached her home. But I saw her there, and I knew what she would mean to Ghost and to the fortunes of this ship. With my natural charm, it was only a matter of time before I talked her into joining our crew.”
“She’s here willingly,” Jack said, though he doubted that. Her eyes suggested otherwise, and the sadness in her voice. She might be with Ghost, but she had a lonely air about her that had touched him.
But Louis laughed.
“Of course, Cooky. We’re all here willingly. Are we not?”
“No,” Jack said. It was a risk, a small voice of defiance. But Louis did not react, and Jack sensed that he was enjoying his tale. “How can she bring the ship good fortune?” he asked.
“She’s a seer,” Louis said. “A boon to the ship, and I found her. Me.” The pride was almost childlike, and Jack nodded in false admiration. “The ship you were on … the day it left port in Alaska, Sabine told us where it would be, and what it carried, and that there was”—he tapped his golden tooth with one long nail—“on board.”
“She knew that?” Jack asked, and he remembered Sabine’s elegant fingers playing over those charts and maps as if searching for home.
“She knows where things will be,” Louis said. “Ships, people, gold. She reads the sea. Ghost calls it finding order in chaos, or”—he waved a hand—“some other strangeness.”
“And she’s with Ghost?” Jack asked.
Louis blinked, and then smiled again. “Well, not exactly with—”
“Telling your tales again, Louis?” Ghost’s voice was unmistakable, and for a second Jack saw a flicker of abject fear crossing Louis’s face. But then he took a deep breath, masking himself again with that gold-glinting grin, and slipped from the galley counter.
“Just complimenting Cooky here,” Louis said.
Ghost stood in the door, an imposing presence. “Time to get back to work.”
Louis nodded, but Ghost remained blocking the doorway. He was staring at Jack, his gaze so strange that Jack had to glance away. It was like being examined by a shark. Totally inhuman, and yet with an intelligence that could not be escaped.
Not even by turning away.
“Nobody has any conscience about adding to the improbabilities of a marvelous tale.”
Jack held his breath, then began scrubbing again.
“You’ve read Hawthorne, young Jack?”
“Some,” Jack said. He was trying to gauge Ghost’s purpose with him, because he knew it went beyond cooking. And while he was striving to figure out what Ghost sought from this interaction, he was hesitant to commit completely to any reply, even to the most innocuous question. He might deny any knowledge of Hawthorne, and perhaps that would be wrong. Or he could admit to Ghost that he had read some of Hawthorne’s novels and many of his short stories, respected his complexity, questioned the moral purity of his vision … but perhaps that would also be a mistake. He had no idea what might set off the captain’s explosive temper.
“Good,” Ghost said. “I should like to discuss him with you someday.”
Jack heard the captain move aside and Louis scamper away, and then Ghost’s gentle, confident footfalls also led away from the galley toward his stateroom at the stern. Jack let out his held breath and took in another lungful, surprised at the tension within him. Someday, Ghost had said, promising a future that Jack feared.
And yet his most pressing concern for the future was not Ghost’s savage volatility but the question of how soon he might see Sabine again, and if there would ever be an opportunity for them to converse. If she was Ghost’s woman, simply gazing too long at her might get Jack killed. But he knew he had to look upon her again. And if she was not Ghost’s woman, that only prompted more questions. Where did she sleep on board this ship of rough men? How did she endure their constant presence?
He wondered, also, about the claims Louis had made about her strange gifts. Jack would have doubted him, or presumed the tale augmented with fantasies, but he had seen the way Sabine gazed upon those maps, Ghost and Johansen watching her with anticipation. In addition to whatever covetous affection Ghost might have for her—whether she reciprocated or not—she provided a service to them. That alone might be enough to explain why she had been untouched by the captain’s brutality.
And what of me? Jack thought. What service do I provide? Discussing Hawthorne?
No, Ghost had to have some other purpose in mind for him. The rest of the passengers abducted from the Umatilla were prisoners somewhere aboard the Larsen, but Jack had been left free, assigned the duties of cook while Finn recovered. The captain had admired his fighting spirit, and perhaps his cleverness.
And the wildness in you, Jack thought.
Perhaps that as well.
But whatever the captain’s purpose, Jack knew that he had to make use of his limited freedom to locate the other hostages from the Umatilla, to do whatever he could to secure their safety and find his way off this ship. And if in the meantime he should discover more about the mysterious Sabine, all the better.
Jack spent the rest of that day either working in the galley or clearing away plates from the mess and Ghost’s stateroom. Ghost and Johansen ate together, but there was no sign of Sabine. Jack watched for her everywhere he went, and listened for quiet footfalls on the deck above that might belong to a woman. The one time he found a few minutes to spare and went on deck, he took deep breaths as he left the galley, passed through the mess, and mounted the steps rising up into the open, hoping all the while that he would find the perfumed scent of a woman. But there was only brine and sweat, and that underlying animal stink—wet fur, musk—that he had come to know so well.
It did not belong here on the ship. The last time he’d smelled that, he had seen a wolf and its pack preparing to battle the dreadful Wendigo.
Several times he considered breaking away from his duties and searching the Larsen, but each time he’d find one of the crew in the mess or, closer yet, in the corridor outside the galley. They rarely acknowledged him—he was beginning to think Tree could not speak, and the Scandinavians wore the constant glazed expression of people isolated behind a language barrier. But he knew that to step out of line might bring down another beating like the one he’d received from Finn. And with his jaw and nose aching, and his ribs bound tight with torn blankets, more such treatment might just be the end of him.