There they stood. Six of them. The Scrooge of the High Seas. The terrors of the Caribbean! Six of them–bold men dressed in the outrageous colors so vivid, so bright, so brilliant they robbed the glories of the divine’s magnificent rainbows.
Each man burnt to a dark mahogany from years working the decks of a ship underneath the relentless Caribbean sun. Scared, tattooed, with missing limbs and eyes.
Armed they were, these hardened killers, thieves, cutthroats, and hooligans. Armed with knives, cutlasses, rapiers, dirks, assorted flintlock pistols–enough weaponry to arm a full regiment of the king’s grenadiers. Pirates they were! Hardy souls of the Brethren of the Coast!
Har, har, har!
They were nothing more than addlepated loons! Shatterpated charlatans. A gaggle of gutless geese. A pickled pack of petrified partridges! Pirates? This collection of oafs? They were shivering, sniveling children huddled together clutching each other in fear that perhaps howling spirits from the pits of Hell were soon to descend upon them.
They stood in the main room of their dreaded captain. A pirate bold and renowned for his daring and his ruthlessness. A vicious man–excellent with both sword and pistol–and an accomplished seaman. When in port he desired–nay, insisted would be more concise–in one of my establishments. My finest establishment. The Inn of Seven Sins. Here he took up residence in four large rooms on the second floor of the inn. Resided, knowing full well his mere presence in my inn was an abomination, a boil, a center of vexation to me. Yet in Spanish gold, he paid for this privilege. And his fine Spanish gold I gathered accordingly.
Shoving my way past his stunned crewmen I glared first at the source of their terror and, in doing so, heard one of the bolder of the herd of sheep behind me say,
“Arugh, Cap’n—is . . . is Cap’n Harding . . . dead?”
Pilgrim, know that I am a mild and meek man. A man of delicate sensibilities. A man of taste and refinement. But upon hearing this patter of hushed disbelief and incredulity I am afraid I lost my normal equanimity.
“God’s blood, Bill Sheppard. The man has a musket ball lodged in his brain! His blood covers the floor like a ruby carpet. You dolt. You oaf. You garrulous Cretan. Yes . . . yes, I would say your nefarious Captain Harding has somehow found a way to have himself murdered in my inn! My inn, mind you. Bah! A pox on all things French and Spanish I say. A pox, mind you.”
Captain Thomas Harding was quite dead. Obviously murdered. Of which his sudden, and I shall openly admit, unsurprising demise, of little interest to me. Except that the foolish dolt had the temerity to lose his life in my residence. Without question, there were going to be recriminations. Allegations. Accusations. And I would be at the center of this unwarranted furor. Honor would demand I defend myself. I would be forced to find the vile creature who somehow entered Harding’s set of rooms and had fired a musket ball into the back of the man’s head at such a close range the discharge actually singed the man’s long brown hair.
Let me quite clear, pilgrim. I am a humble man. Primarily a merchant and physician living in an admittedly city know far and wide as a haven for the misbegotten and the disenfranchised. A city, known as being as sinful as the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah of old. Port Royal is such a city. Aye, and I will go so far to admit that, on occasion, I have been known to go a’ pirating in these pristine blue waters of the Spanish Main. And there have been those instances where, most reluctantly, I have taken assignments where I had to track down and end the miserable lives of certain brothers of the high season secret orders from the English crown. Pirates so bloodthirsty, so vicious, so daring in their thievery on the high seas they threatened the thin thread of fragile peace momentarily restraining the English, French, Spanish, and Dutch from going at each other’s throats.
But deep in my soul, I am but a plain, ordinary creature. Of course, I am the most brilliant, the most loquacious, the most beautiful specimen of manhood your eyes will ever feast upon. Of these qualities, there are no doubts. But even though I am admired by both men and women for my beauty and wit I do have enemies and rivals. Unfortunately, the dead man sitting slumped over in his chair at the large table in the middle of the main room of his apartments were both. Enemy and rival. Thomas Harding and I were rivals. He relished at pulling my beard and taunting me in public. The montage of wit and insults we hurled at each other whenever his ship, the Devil’s Desire, was in port was a constant source of entertainment for the denizens of Port Royal.
Several times such banter and vilification hurled led to potential swordplay. But each time cooler heads would separate us. Yet all the city knew a time was coming when steel would ring against steel and blood would flow.
Unfortunately, someone beat me to it. Yet in delivering my rival’s just dues the assassin decided to commit his dastardly in such a way, and such a setting, which would bring the Crown’s suspicion and scrutiny straight to me. And the moment the thought entered my mind from below I heard the shouts of men, the shoving of bodies against furniture, and the sound of glass smashing on the floor.
“Make room! Make room for his His Majesty’s emissary! Make room for Sir William Rochefort!”
God’s blood! Glaring at my one-eyed, grinning Irish comrade, I sucked in a lung full of moist Caribbean air, forced my inner self to remain in control, then turned to greet the Crown’s devilishly demented Captain of the Governor-General’s household guards.
“My, my, my, Ffolkes. Resorting to murder, is it? A pedestrian’s crime coming from such an egotistical ape such as you. I find myself surprised. Surprised and . . . dare I say it? Even amused.”
“Up so early, Sir William? Not even dusk yet and here you are gracing us with your presence.”
“Tut, tut. When I heard Thomas Harding had been murdered and murdered in your inn, why not even the harsh sunlight from this godforsaken island could keep me from hurrying over to see for myself. I must say, Ffolkes, if you did this dastardly little deed, I will be most pleased seeing you dangle from the end of a rope. Most pleased, indeed.”
Sir William, his voice sarcastic and droll, spoke from behind a laced silk handkerchief he held to his face with a gloved hand. Dressed in a tailored red silk uniform of a captain in the King’s army I will reluctantly–and with much ill will–admit the younger man cut a dashing figure. Although, obviously, not nearly as dashing as my splendid self. Yet the little dandy with his expensive powdered wig and effeminately perfumed kerchief was a buffoon. A catamount. A charlatan. A sycophant of the royal court who knew nothing of the office he came to this island to complete.
“Fear not, good sir. For I am innocent in this affair and have the entire Inn as my witness. We all were downstairs when we heard the fatal shot being fired.”
“Indeed, sir. And how do you suppose this renowned scrooge of the sea was murdered? Ghosts, perhaps?”
“Nay, Sir William. The fiend who did this was composed of flesh and blood, bone and sinew. A person who stood not much more than five foot tall and was, by all appearance, left-handed.”
“What!” Sir William exploded, lowering his kerchief from his nose and looking at me in complete confusion. Even my one-eyed leprechaun of a friend eyed me with his single orb looked at me in consternation. “Unless you know the murderer and sent him up here yourself, how could you possibly . . . .?”
“Deduction, my dear Sir William. Deduction. Allow me to demonstrate how I came to such a conclusion.”
Walking around the dead man sitting in the chair, and stopping in a position directly behind the man, from my belt I withdrew a pistol and aimed it at the back of the dead man’s head. Everyone’s eyes followed me as I moved. The room was as still as a tomb. Not even the unrelenting heat of the tropics interfered in my demonstration.
“Notice the angle of my weapon, Sir William. Standing much taller than the sitting form, if I fired my weapon, the musket ball would strike the man’s skull sharply above from where the killing blow actually entered. This meant, if the killer was standing behind the Harding, he had to be considerably shorter.”
The courtly fop narrowed his eyes, threw the kerchief in his hand up to his nostrils, and stepped closer to the body for a quick inspection, grunted and nodded his head.
“Yes . . . possibly. But . . . ?”
“As to being left-handed, it is nothing but a trifle,” I continued, shoving the pistol in my hand back into the belt it came from and then pointing to the bullet hole. “Notice that the musket entered just behind the captain’s left ear. Now, if you will turn your gaze toward the table the dead man sits at.”
The table was littered with a pile of Spanish doubloons, two leather–and quite empty–money bags, a piece of paper, and an open bottle of India ink. On the paper were a series of entries recording the amount of gold.
“Captain Harding, as we all know, was right-handed. The paper and bottle of ink you see is situated on the right side of the table. Notice on the floor the feathered quill Harding held in his hand just before the fatal shot was fired. Ergo, Harding was deep in his concentration writing down his piratical gains. His head turned to the right as he scribbled away. Somehow our assassin stepped up behind Harding, and slightly to one side, and lifting their weapon in his left hand fired the fatal blow.”
“Damn!” hissed Sir William in amazement, eyes blinking as he stared first at the table, then at the quill floating in the pool of blood on the floor, and then at the wound itself. “By gad, sir. I think you may have something here. But who, Ffolkes? Who?”
“That, my good man, has yet to be resolved. Yet in such sullied intrigues, one must ask a pertinent question. Who would benefit the most from this man’s death?”
“Who is this damnable fellow?”
I smiled, moved around the dead and the table filled with his blood money, and surprised one and all by draping an army over the shoulders of Sir William. And, as I did, I casually looked back and at the large structure form of the dead captain’s bed.
“Come, Sir William. My melodious voice grows weak. Let us adjourn for a moment from our tedious affairs and step downstairs for a glass of wine or a mug of ale. From there we will mull over a list of suspects I have in mind. By dawn’s light tomorrow we should have this affair neatly packaged properly set aside.”
The white-wigged gentleman began to protest but did not as I firmly shoved him out of the dead man’s rooms. Informing him I would presently meet him below I waved him away, waited for the pompous fool to descend the stairs, then turned to gaze at Tobias and Todemori.
“Gentlemen, the game is afoot! We are matching wits with a rogue skilled and cunning. Attend to my words and do precisely as I say or we will lose this race become the laughing stock of the city.”
Quickly I outlined to the two good men and stout hearts my desire. Making sure they understood completely my instructions I nodded, turned, and hurried downstairs to continue my little discussion with Sir William.
Three hours before the rise of the sun in the east I heard the pounding of fists on my bedroom door. Insistent pounding from excited souls wishing me to rise and dress in the most expeditious manner. I was, in fact, pilgrim, both dressed and armed for just this loud intrusion on the usual quiet harmony of my slumbers. Reaching for the sheathed blade of Spanish steel propped against a bedside table I hurried to my apartment door and threw it open.
“Yer worshipfulness,” the Irish brogue of one-eyed Tobias thick and musical to my ears. “You were right! The devil himself appeared in the window of Harding’s room, lifted himself to the inn’s roof and in the moonlit night leaped a gap between buildings and ran across the roofs before disappearing again.”
“In what direction, Tobias. What direction?”
“Toward the wharfs, Cap’n. Just like you predicted.”
“Quick! To Harding’s and confirm with mine own eyes my suspicions.”
And indeed they were! The large framed wooden bed of Thomas Harding with its six drawers and two small cabinets underneath the mattress of the bed was in startling disarray the moment I and my entourage of men stepped into the room. Mattress and bedding were hurled to one side and a small trap door just under the mattress was lifted open and still in the upraised position for all to see.
“Tobias. Hold the candle over my head while I peer into this space,” I said after I moved across the room and bent over to stare down into the small cavity where our assassin had it himself.
Or in this case . . . herself.
Whenever the hard man who called himself Thomas Harding came to port he insisted on setting up residence in The Inn of the Seven Sins. Every time he did the staff of the inn had to clear out all the furniture, including the bed, from the rooms and leave it completely bare. Harding brought furniture with him whenever he graciously presented himself at our doorstep. Including his ornately carved, intricately constructed captain’s bunk with all its small drawer and cabinets built in.
Harding was a fool. A cruel monster who enjoyed inflicting pain on others. No one was left alone for him not to amuse himself with. Including his crew. And the one person he seemed to gain the most pleasure in bedeviling was his second in command of his Devil’s Desire, Andrew Pike. Pike was a sandy-haired, brown-eyed scoundrel who smiled often and easily. A good man when it came to the sea and handling men–pirates all–in combat and on the high seas. Men liked Andrew Pike. Trusted him. Followed him.
It was just the opposite with Thomas Harding. Men followed Harding because of gold. Harding had a nose in finding ships on the ocean blue loaded to the gunnels with gold and treasure. Spanish, French, Dutch . . . it did not matter. Harding’s knack in finding treasure was legendary. But the animosity between Harding and Pike was equally legendary. The two despised each other–yet needed each other in order to acquire the wealth both wanted.
But there was one other source of friction between the two I was aware of. And, lifting a piece of evidence up to the candle light to peer at more closely, it confirmed my suspicions entirely. A long filament of black hair. A very long filament of black hair.
“Send a runner to the governor’s mansion,” I barked, handing the long sliver to Tobias and turning toward the door at the same time. “Have Sir William meet us with a detachment of soldiers on the wharf used by the crew of Harding’s ship immediately!”
We left The Inn of Seven Sins in motley disarray. Ten of my men, including Tobias, the samurai Morikami Tademori, a few of his men, and Abdul the Numidian, all ran with me as I made all haste toward the wharves. We arrived just as a number of rough figures laden with burning torches, boxes, and crates in their calloused hands were making their way down to a number of longboats moored in the waters below. Including Andrew Pike and a small framed, tiny creature of Oriental complexion.
“Hurry! Depart! Take Shulien with you! Now!”
Pike thrust the young woman into the hands of several rough looking rogues, who in turn, lifted the assassin off her feet and carried her bodily, screaming in fierce protest, down to a longboat waiting below. Pike, the magnificent rogue he was, turned toward I and my men–alone, mind you–and unsheathed his rapier.
“I cannot give you Shulien, Ffolkes. I love her and cannot bear the thought of seeing her stepping up to the gallows. She did what she thought she had to do to save me. Harding was going to have me killed the moment we set out to sea again. Shulien took it upon herself to make sure his plans never materialized.”
In the moonlight low on the horizon, we saw six longboats and their crews rowing toward The Devil’s Desire as fast as they could. In the middle of the calm waters the black form of the large sloop of war was putting on sail and the sound of anchor chains rattling up from the depths came to our ears.
Behind us we hard the booted clatter of a detachment of the King’s grenadiers hurrying down the cobblestone streets with Sir William, sword in hand, leading the way. Pike, grinning mischievously, looked at the approaching soldiers, then at me and my men, and then glanced over his shoulder to see the longboats moving across the calm waters.
“Seize him!” shouted the high pitched voice of Sir William behind us. “Seize him for the murder of Thomas Harding!”
Pike grinned, looked at me, raised the blade of his rapier to his face and saluted me formally before hurling it at me with all his might. A grand gesture of defiance, pilgrim! The moment the weapon left his hands he turned and dove into the waters below. Pike’s hurled blade was caught in mid-air by the amazing fast hands of my samurai friend, Tademori. Other in my entourage pulled out pistols and started to step toward the wharf’s edge to shoot. But lifting a hand up I held them back.
“He’s escaping, Ffolkes!” Sir William hissed as he and his men arrived. “We must be after him. He’s a murderer!”
“A scoundrel, yes; a rogue of charming qualities to be sure,” I nodded, stepping to the edge of the wharf and watching the gallant man moving through the water swiftly and easily. “But we cannot apprehend the man, Sir William. For innocent of murder he is. And besides, I have a fondness for scoundrels since, upon occasion, I have been called one myself.”
Sir William glared at me, turned and glared into the darkness toward Andrew Pike and his love, turned back toward me angrily . . . and then smiled most peculiarly.
“Ffolkes, if I did not know better, I would say you were a damnable Romantic at heart.”
And with these words the dandified sycophant turned, nodded to his men, and the lot retreated back up the street and toward the governor’s house.
Balderdash! Me . . . Geoffery Armitage Ffolkes . . . a Romantic?
Har, har, har!