Tortuga – lawless, violent, debauched. No man would argue with that. But what few men knew – what few men cared to know – was that beyond the depraved streets of the town lay a whole island. A free island, and one of the last in the suffocating new world. An island that still traded its smoked meat to passing ships, that bootlegged exotic spices and silks, farmed a little, raised families, and lived in freedom – the kind of freedom unknown in the strangled colonies, and unimagined in the heaving, diseased cities of Europe.
No laws, on Tortuga. No Redcoats, no East India Company. No courts, nor hangman’s noose. Only liberty, pure and simple. Liberty to live as you chose, and to die free.
And if a man walked out from the bedlam of the town, past the scattered homesteads and up into the rugged hills, he might gaze out across a glittering strip of sea and cast his eye over the misty expanse of Hispaniola, and beyond that toward Jamaica.
Some might turn their eye often in the direction of that isle, their thoughts bent too frequently upon its forbidden ports and harbours. Toward one port in particular, that conjured memories too painful to keep, too precious to lose.
Such a man might keep an ear open for news of said port, for rumours and tales. For stories of storms or sickness, of hangings and pardons, for the names of those he once knew… And when he heard nothing, he might consider himself fortunate. Only bad news travelled fast, after all.
And when it happened that he strayed far enough south to weigh anchor in Tortuga, he might take it upon himself to leave his ship, scramble to the highest rock upon the island, and gaze out toward his past. He might hope that time could ease the gnawing emptiness that no rum could fill, but he would doubt this curse could be so easily lifted.
And then the sun would set, glorious over the ocean, and he might fumble his way back to his ship by cloud-doused moonlight. He might slam the door to his cabin, uncork the waiting bottle, and curse himself for a fool.
And then, perhaps, his life might take a little turn…
Gibbs swallowed a long swig from his flask, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and stared down at the raw-boned wench who stood on the dock before him. Her attire spoke of breeding, though there was little of that in her manner, which suggested the finery had been purloined. Yet she seemed ill at ease here, not a native of Tortgua, and kept glancing over her shoulder as though the devil himself stood behind her. “Please,” she insisted, “I must see Captain Sparrow.”
“The captain is not to be disturbed,” Gibbs said. “Strict instructions, and the cat for any who disobey.”
“He’ll want to see me,” she insisted. “I can guarantee it, sir.”
Gibbs sighed. “Listen, lassie. Captain Sparrow… Well, how shall I put it? He distributes himself lavishly amongst the ladies. There’s never one he would rather see than another.” Which was half a truth, and half a lie, as the whole crew knew. “Now, if he owes you money…?”
Her eyes flashed angrily. “I’m no whore, if that’s your implication! I’m respectable, I am. Only here on an errand for me mistress.” Her face clouded and she glanced again over her shoulder. “A vital errand, sir.”
“Is that so?” He took another, leisurely swig from his flask. “And who would she be, then? Your mistress. The Queen of Spain, perhaps?”
The woman scowled, her eyes surprisingly hard in her pinched face. “My message is for the captain alone.”
“And tonight, I’m the captain’s ears. So you had best tell me, or be on your way.”
With daggers in her eyes she drew herself up, scrawny as a chicken, and said, “All I can say is this; me message is from Mrs Elizabeth Turner.”
Gibbs choked on his rum, spat out a mouthful and spluttered, “Not sure as I heard that right, Miss… Sounded like Turner.”
“Elizabeth Turner,” the woman repeated, and somewhere in the distance Gibbs could have sworn he heard bells tolling… Doom, doom, doom.
He glanced quickly up the gangplank to the Pearl, half expecting the captain to be standing on deck, drawn by some supernatural prescience. But only Ragetti lolled against the rail, toying with his wretched wooden eye and nursing half a ration of rum. Gibbs looked back at the woman and lowered his voice. “I’ll pay you twice what she did to take your message and never come back. We want nothing of ‘Mrs Turner’ here.”
“Then that’s twice nothing, sir, ’cause Mrs Turner paid me naught.”
“Two sovereigns,” he said, and made a shoeing gesture.
Her chicken head lifted again, eyes beady. “I can scream loud as a fishwife, if I must. I doubt your captain would take kindly to knowing you tried to send me away.”
“Now, listen, we can come to some mutual—”
Gibbs slammed a hand over her squawking beak. “Very well, very well,” he groused, glancing up at the ship again. “Though no good will come of it, mark me.”
“What care I for good?” the woman asked, pushing past him to wobble up the gangplank. “All I wants is to deliver me message and be gone from this stinking hole.”
“Then stop your screeching and do as you’re told,” he growled, trailing her up the gangplank. “And tonight – of all nights – I cannot guarantee a warm welcome from the captain, so you had best keep your wits about you.”
Once on deck she stopped and glanced about her. “Which way now?”
“Below, but let me go first. This will take some delicate handling.”
Kitty Bullen wrinkled her nose at the stench of the ship – acrid tar, unwashed men, and something of the bordello too. Rum and raucousness. She’d travelled as a child from St. Catherine’s dock, and her only memory of the voyage was of violent storms and worse sickness; she’d had no desire to repeat the experience, and so it had taken…extreme circumstances to persuade her aboard the ship bound for Tortuga. But she had always been a canny woman, prided herself on that, and needs must when the Devil drives. And the Devil drove hard indeed.
With difficulty she climbed down the ladder, her skirts getting in the way. It was dark below, but at least at anchor there was not so much roll to the ship. Ahead of her the man who’d stood guard snatched a lantern from the wall and bade her follow him across the lower deck. All manner of ropes and indeterminate equipment hung from the ceiling, and she had to watch her head lest she walk right into something. There were men too, loitering in the shadows. She could feel eyes upon her, and imagined their lustful thoughts at the sight of a woman so finely dressed. Her skin flushed, and not entirely with outrage.
“Wait here Miss,” the sailor – pirate – told her, stopping outside an ornately carved door. “And hold your tongue.”
A retort was on her lips, but there was enough tension in the man’s shoulders to keep her quiet. His bluster had not all been for show then, and she felt a bite of unease at the prospect she faced. Captain Jack Sparrow was notorious – mad, some said, driven insane when marooned among savages and taken to eating human flesh. Others swore he’d risen from the dead like the Saviour Himself, only raised by Lucifer instead. She believed none of it, though she knew right enough he was a wicked man – they were all wicked men, and deserved their fate.
The pirate knocked carefully on the door. “Sorry to be disturbing you, Captain,” he said hesitantly, “but there’s a matter—”
Something heavy crashed and broke against the inside of the door, causing the man to flinch. “Curse you to hell, Gibbs,” came a slurred, rough voice. “I said to leave me be.”
The man – Gibbs, then – flung her a dark look. “Aye, sir, it’s just there’s a woman—”
Another crash rattled through the door – a chair, or perhaps a man, falling over. After a short silence the voice came again, “Go away.”
“Aye, sir, with great pleasure.” Gibbs turned his back on the door. “As you see, Miss, the captain is in no mood for company, so perhaps you should—”
“I have a message from Mrs Elizabeth Turner,” Kitty called loudly. Gibbs flinched, waving his hands wildly for her to stop. “A message for Captain Jack Sparrow, sir, if that be you.”
All sounds from behind the door ceased. The ship creaked, the muted noise of a card game drifted from below; she wondered if the fool had drunk himself into oblivion.
And then the door opened. A man stood framed in the doorway, swaying as though the ship were riding a storm, and like no man she had ever seen; his hair was long and ropy, bedecked with all manner of trinkets, and black as sin but for a slender golden braid that hung close to his face. Atop his head he wore a bandana that might once have been red, with some sort of – human? – bone tucked beneath it. His eyes were black rimmed, and his gaze darker still. He peered at her with an unsteady eye and said, “Who the bloody hell are you?”
Kitty pulled herself up as tall as may be. “My name’s Kitty Bullen, sir. I was in service to Mrs. Turner, if it please you.”
Captain Sparrow – if that’s who he was – attempted to lean closer, lost his balance and all but fell against the door frame. “A maid?” he asked, fluttering his fingers oddly. “Used to turn down the bed at inopportune moments, I suppose?”
Not sure what he meant, she just said, “Sir, are you Captain Sparrow?”
“Captain Jack Sparrow,” he agreed, swaying away from the doorframe until he was almost upright. “As I live and breathe, which is always better than the alternative – that being neither living, nor breathing, and in fact somewhat dead.”
Kitty cast a wary glance at Gibbs, but he just shrugged, turned to the captain, and said, “The message from Miss Elizabeth, Captain?”
Sparrow blinked, frowned, and turned his attention back to Kitty. “Ah yes. Come on then, out with it – snap, snap.”
Given the urgency in which the message had been entrusted to her, this drunken imbecile seemed an unlikely recipient. Kitty narrowed her eyes. “Are you sure you’re Captain Sparrow?”
He made an exaggerated play of looking himself over, collided once more with the door frame, and decided to cling to it for support. “I’m almost certain of it, love.”
She glanced again at Gibbs, who nodded his agreement with a resigned shrug. “Very well,” she said, reaching into the purse concealed within her skirts. “I was instructed, sir, to give you this.” From the purse she pulled a square black case and held it out to him.
His swaying stopped immediately, his drunken eyes suddenly razor sharp and urgent. A hand darted out and closed like a vice about her wrist. “Now where did you get that?”
“I told you,” she hissed through gritted teeth. “Mrs. Turner bade me find you and give it you.”
“Why, sir,” Gibbs said in a low voice, “’tis your compass.”
Sparrow was breathing fast, staring at the compass as though she clutched a viper in her hand, and Kitty was overtaken by a sudden terror; violence coiled in his eyes, barely restrained. “Inside,” he growled, yanking her so hard into his cabin that she lost her footing and fell to her knees. She stifled a cry of pain, wincing at the awkward twist of her shoulder, but his grip on her wrist did not loosen. To Gibbs he simply said, “Keep a sharp eye,” then promptly shut the door in the man’s face.
After staring at the door a moment, he turned around. A lethal smile, a slow glint of gold, sliced the darkness of his face. “Now, love, let’s you and me have a little conversation.” He emphasised his words with another twist of her shoulder. “Savvy?”
The worn out bag of bones cowering at his feet might have been in service to the Turners, might have been a snivelling thief, or might have been one in the same. Either way, one thing was certain… Jack drew his knife, flipped it in his hand as warning, and said, “That’s a fine dress for a lowly maid, but I think its former owner suited it better.”
The wench – Kitty, was it? – bridled at the apparent insult. “Its former owner has no further use for—”
His knife was suddenly at her throat, heart stopped in his chest, and the breath stilled in his lungs. “You should know, love, that there is no honour among thieves. And if I find you have harmed Miss Swa—” Bugger it. “Mrs Turner in any way…”
“I’ve not robbed her, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Kitty retorted, less nervous of the blade than he’d hoped. “She gave me the dress, I swear it. Well, bade me take anything I needed to get here, sir. With this.”
His eyes darted down to the compass in her hand and he tried not to remember the last time he’d seen it; tried not to remember her calling his name into the darkness, or how long he had tarried beneath the balcony after she’d closed the window, hoping against hope... He closed his eyes briefly, dismissing the memory back to the place where he kept all such bleakness. He needed no remembered pain because, if this woman was indeed Elizabeth’s maid, then she was returning his gift. And that was pain enough. Slowly, keeping his face and voice neutral, he said, “And why does Mrs Turner want me to have this? No desire to navigate her way free of Port Royal, I suppose.” He hesitated, then added, “A child to anchor her there, perhaps?”
Kitty’s eyes grew suddenly shrewd. “No, sir. Worse than that.”
“Worse?” Fear laced the pain now, a tight knot in his chest.
But the wench said no more, only lowered her beady eyes to the tip of his blade hovering close to her throat. Bloody woman had seen more than he’d wanted to reveal and he was in her hands now; he might hold the weapon, but she held the truth and knew he was in need of it.
Lowering the knife, Jack tucked into his belt. He hesitated a moment, then snatched the compass from her hand. The familiar feel of it, smooth leather and cool silver, brought back a cacophony of feelings: hope and despair, victory and defeat, freedom and betrayal. All had come from the cursed thing. Slowly he turned it over in his fingers. “Tell me.”
“She wants you to find her, sir.”
Unease raised the hairs across his scalp, but he kept his response blasé. “Has she become lost, then?”
“Taken, sir,” the woman said in a hushed voice. “In the dead of night.”
He looked up, sharply, a stabbing pain in his chest. “When? By who?”
“Men came to the house, two days ago, sir. Looking for her…”
“What men? Soldiers? Company men?”
“I couldn’t rightly say, sir. But when Mrs Turner knew she couldn’t escape, she dragged me to her bedchamber, pressed this into me hand, and told me to run. To find you, sir.”
And why me? he wanted to ask, but not so direct. Saying nothing he considered it as he circled behind her and dropped into the chair behind his chart-strewn table. “What of Will?” he said at last. “The retrieving of a lost wife seems a husband’s task.”
The woman turned to face him. “Mr Turner’s in London, sir.”
“Is he now?”
“And not due back ’till next week.”
Jack cocked his head, his fear for Elizabeth suddenly joined by a sinful notion – a larcenous scheme, as it were. A desperate hope. “So Will knows nothing of this little misadventure?”
“Interesting…” He reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a sovereign and sent it spinning through the air toward the wench. She caught it with practiced ease and squirreled it away in her skirts. “I thank you for your services, love. Now I suggest you get off my ship unless you wish to sail with us.” He paused, casting a speculative eye over her scrawny frame. “Unless you can cook? We could use a new—”
She was running for the ladder before he could finish. Jack smiled, his blood pumping faster than it had in years, and leaped to follow her. “All hands up, you idle dogs!” he yelled as he came on deck, startling Gibbs from his rum. “Lay the capstan bars for shipping, rig the davit out, take it up the first quarter flood…”
It was time for the Black Pearl to sail.
Continued in Chapter Two