A Devil’s Fire Short – The Golden Age

The following short takes place during the first Devil’s Fire novel, with a story thread that figures in the upcoming fourth novel, Scarlet Devil. Enjoy!

-Matt Tomerlin

THE GOLDEN AGE

A hideously scarred face passed through a drunken fog, observing Jack Rackham with a contemptuous glower. “Is this man ill?”

“Ish the rum,” Jack slurred as he aimed a fist at the terrible apparition, preparing to strike.

Captain Woodes Rogers slowly stood and moved away from the table. The six redcoats that accompanied him started forward with their muskets, but Rogers halted them. “Violence won’t be necessary. He can’t even stand.”

Rackham placed his palms on the table, heaved upward with all his might, and felt his ass slap the bench before he realized gravity held more sway than his feeble arms. He gave up the impossible task of standing and reached for the near-to-empty jug of rum instead. “A minute, if you please.”

“I can arrange for my physician to have a look at you.”

Even through his drunken stupor, Rackham knew Rogers’ concern was feigned. “You mock me,” he concluded. He was struggling to make sense of all this. His forehead felt as though it had been cleaved by a boarding axe, with a granado crammed in his skull for good measure. His last plunder had afforded his crew a long holiday in Nassau, and he had been drinking for six days straight. He’d heard rumors of the Crown’s imminent arrival, but that was nothing new, so he hadn’t taken them seriously. Now, as he looked over the town from the upper balcony of Sassy Sally’s tavern, he saw redcoats instead of pirates. They had filtered through like ants, lining the main street and setting up camp in the old fort. Many of the citizens had retreated to their shacks or tents. Half of the ships had fled the harbor when the two frigates arrived.

“I intend no offense,” Rogers flatly replied. His attire was as plain as his personality, the antithesis of the colorful and varied garb found among the pirate inhabitants of the island he had invaded. He wore a tan leather coat, a brown waistcoat, white breeches, and a black tricorn hat. The only thing truly notable about him was the scar that cratered his left cheek, where he had apparently been struck by musket shot. “I offer peace, not violence, which is more than you have granted your numerous victims, pirate.”

“Don’t riddle at me. Speak plain Engsh . . . Engelsh . . . lish.”

“You’ll have to forgive poor Jack,” said Anne Bonny as she sauntered across the balcony. She was full and lovely, with long chestnut hair, curvy hips, and an impressive bosom that bounced freely beneath a dirty white blouse as she walked. Not even frumpy black breeches could suppress the curves of her feminine figure. “He’s normally an upright gent, but you’ve caught him on holiday, and he can’t hold his liquor so well as some.” She indicated herself with a thumb to the center of her diverting chest.

Rogers seemed not to notice the stunning woman as she passed by. “Rum makes riddles of plain words. My offer is plain. Relinquish the title of pirate and work for me.”

“Work for you?” Anne laughed. “Work for the Crown, more like.”

Rogers blinked, mildly irritated by the woman’s voice. “The specifics are not important.”

“You want us to hunt down our friends?” balked Charles Vane from a dark corner beneath the overhang, which was thatched with palm fronds that were still perspiring due to the heavy downpour of the prior night. He stepped forward, wet auburn hair glistening like seaweed from the dripping water. He spat at Rogers’ boots, then marched over to Rackham, throwing back the tails of his green coat and perching himself atop the table. “I’d sooner die.”

“You have no friends, Vane,” Rogers remarked with a mirthless chuckle. “I’ve heard about your notion of ‘fair share.’”

“I see you’ve been talking to someone I should have killed. Give me his name, and I’ll remedy the error.”

“It was not just one man.”

Vane gave his hair a frivolous toss, and Rackham blinked as he was spattered with stray droplets. “I have the only friend who matters. Mayhap you’ve heard of him. He’ll decide who is governor of this island.”

Rogers scoffed. “I can only assume you’re referring to Edward Thatch. I hold no pardon for that monster.”

“Edward Teach,” Vane corrected. “But that’s not his real name either. Not anymore.”

“His name, whatever it really is, is of no consequence. His burning beard does not frighten me. I’ve seen that sort of theatric on stage.”

Vane lifted his leg to expel gas, but nothing came out. “Bollocks. I seem to have spent my farts on last night’s strumpet.” He nudged Rackham with an elbow and winked. “It’s amusing watching them try to pretend the stench doesn’t offend them.”

Rogers closed his eyes in disgust.

“Why are we listening to this shite?” wondered Anne. “You’ll hear more wisdom out of me own arse.”

A lanky lieutenant with an ill-fitting powdered wig gasped. “Even the women are vulgar devils!”

“Yes,” Rogers agreed distastefully. “Culture has fled this part of the world. Or perhaps it never existed.” He wrinkled his nose. “Even the air is foul.”

Anne laughed. “If culture earns you a powdered wig and a pig’s belly, I’ll stick by men who stink of the sea and have muscle enough to muster a bucket of water, thank you.” She took a seat at a table on the opposite side of the balcony, beside her friend, Mary, a painfully skinny girl with stringy black hair and a narrow face. Mary had too easily passed for a boy for months aboard Vane’s ship. Rackham had caught Anne kissing a young deckhand he didn’t recognize, and in a bout of blind jealousy, he drew his knife with intent to slice the lad’s throat. Anne was forced then to reveal Mary’s secret before Rackham could act. He couldn’t kill a girl, but his jealousy lingered. Anne had resisted most of his advances and kept to Mary’s side, with the exception of one glorious night when rum stole her senses and Rackham coaxed her into his bed. She hadn’t enjoyed that night nearly as much as him, and she hastily fled from his cabin before the sun came up, never mentioning it again. Whenever he brought it up, she deftly changed the subject.

“We are all governors here,” Anne went on. “Even those of us with tits.”

Rogers was either oblivious to the fact that a woman had spoken to him, or he was willfully dismissing her. Instead he fixed Vane with a grotesque smile that twisted his mutilated cheek. “You may call yourself King George, but that does not make you the man himself.”

Mary barked a boyish laugh. “The idiot, you mean? Who would want to be him? Way I’ve heard it, his arse is fatter than this island.”

“Treason!” cried the lieutenant. Rogers raised a hand, shutting him up.

“There are many kings in these waters,” said Vane.

Rackham decided he should eat something, to soak up some of the booze and hopefully have a better time keeping up with whatever was going on around him. He reached into the large bowl in the center of the table and retrieved one of the plump avocados. New Providence was infested with them this time of year. He drew his knife and sliced into it, splitting it in half. He dug the knife into the big seed, and tried to chuck it over the balcony, but accidentally flung his knife over the side along with it. He picked up a wooden shaker and peppered one half of the avocado heavily for far too long. He took a bite, wincing as he realized he’d overdone it. Still, the avocado was perfectly ripe, and he gobbled one half quickly. He tried to be more careful about seasoning the other half, but the tin lid fell off and dumped a mountain of pepper all over it. He suspected something very important was occurring, but nothing seemed more dreadful than spilling the pepper.

“Scurry back to Blackbeard, if you wish.” Rogers turned away from all of them, facing the beach and locking his hands behind his back. He was a tall man, silhouetted against wispy pink clouds that striped a blue horizon like silk ribbons. Somewhere beyond the old fort, the sun was about to set. “You may perish at his side. Makes little difference to me.”

“And you will,” proclaimed Ben Hornigold, who stood among several of the redcoats Rogers had brought with him. Hornigold had fallen in step with Rogers from the moment the infamous captain had come ashore, like a devoted dog that had waited too long for his master’s return. “We all will. The offer is amicable. We’d be fools not to take it. It’s the best we can hope for. An awful kindness, if you ask me.”

“Aye, but no one asked you,” said Anne.

Rackham struggled to pay attention to the conversation while idly scraping pepper off his avocado, though he was suddenly put off by Hornigold’s thin, pointy mustache and cocked black hat, looking very much the proper villain he now was.

“Listen to your comrade,” Rogers advised without favoring them with his terrible face. “He is the only man among you speaking sense.”

Vane cackled. “He’s the only man among us with a woman’s parts betwixt his legs.”

Anne’s laugh was musical, while Mary scowled, unsure if she should be offended.

“Where else will you go, Vane?” Rogers wondered. “Without Nassau, you will have nowhere to hide.”

Vane smiled shrewdly. “This is not my only sanctuary.”

“A noosh ish no cure for a hangover,” Rackham muttered absently as he wiped avocado from his lips. He figured he should add something to the conversation.

“A noose?” Rogers asked. He looked to his lieutenant. “Did he say noose?”

“I believe so, sir.”

“You needn’t face the gallows,” Rogers said, turning around at last. “I find executions repugnant affairs, to be truthful.”

“I enjoy a good execution,” Vane remarked as he stood up and approached Rogers, heedless of the redcoats that tightened their grips on their muskets. “But, if we’re being truthful, I much prefer torture.”

Rogers backed away, angling the scarred side of his face toward Vane. “Approach me again, sir, and you will mount the gallows minus hands.”

“Skittish,” Vane teased.

“A sharp reflex has kept me alive.”

Vane tapped the hilt of his cutlass. “I’ll wager my blade is sharper than your reflex.”

“Withdraw yourself, Charles,” Hornigold urged. His black mustache twitched, and he raised a hand to still it.

Vane swiveled on him. “And who will you hunt, Benji?”

Hornigold raised his chin and said, “I will bring Edward Teach to justice.”

Vane howled, clutching his stomach as he curled forward. His face turned red, and his laughter became short, pained wheezes. It took him a full minute to recover, while Hornigold tried his damnedest not to look as wounded as he clearly was. Vane wiped tears from his eyes and composed himself. “Apologies. Apologies. My apologies, everyone.” Just when it seemed he was done, he pointed at Hornigold and screamed laughter again, falling against the table where Jack Rackham was seated with enough force to slide it two feet. He collapsed onto the opposite bench and fought to catch his breath. “Oh . . . oh, fuck me. That’s good.”

It was gradually occurring to Jack Rackham that he had picked the absolute worst week to drink away his senses. As hard as it was for him to understand what was going on, he was dimly aware that none of it was good. He decided he needed to eat more, and looked down for the other half of the avocado, and found that nothing but clumps of pepper remained. He reached to the bowl for another, but the bowl was gone. Where the fuck? His heart plummeted to his gut as panic enveloped him.

“You knocked them off the table, luv,” Anne informed him with a raised eyebrow, pointing downward.

Rackham leaned sideways on his bench and found the upturned bowl and several avocados scattered about. He had no memory of doing that.

“Enough of this nonsense,” said Rogers. “Sign or don’t sign, but do not waste another minute of my valuable time.”

Rackham still had wits enough to take offense. “Oh, ish us who’sh wasting your time, ish it?”

Rogers took a rolled parchment bound in a red ribbon from one of his men and offered it to Vane. “A royal pardon, for your careful perusal.”

Vane snatched it away, stripped the ribbon, and unrolled it. His eyes shifted right and left as he read it once over, too quickly, descending the page and chuckling privately now and again. When he was done, he kneeled to set the parchment flat on the wooden deck of the balcony, stood before it, and proceeded to unlace his breeches. “Allow me to scrawl my autograph. I’ll need a notary to witness the signing.” He pointed at Hornigold. “You?”

Hornigold was mortified. “No, Charles.”

Rackham suspected he might be hallucinating.

“Hold a moment. My autograph needs a moment. Here it comes. Oh yes. Oh yes. Here comes my autograph. It’s about to flow. It’s—”

Hornigold reached out. “No! For your own sake, man! You mustn’t do this!”

“I must.”

“This can’t be happening.”

Vane smiled downward and unleashed a thick yellow stream, pattering the parchment. “There it is. My autograph is flowing.”

“Charles! This may still be salvaged.”

Rogers’ mouth formed the most disapproving scowl Rackham had ever seen, augmented by his terrible scar. “No, it cannot.”

“It appears my autograph is unwieldy.” Vane swung the stream in a wide arc, and two of Rogers’ redcoats backed away before they could be sprayed. “It is too large to be confined to a single parchment. I’ll need another.” He freed one hand to point at the lieutenant. “You. Yes, you. Fetch me another pardon. One pardon is not enough for Charles Vane. I need many pardons.”

“I will do no such thing,” protested the lieutenant.

Mary blushed and looked away. Anne was staring intently, lips curling into a naughty smile. Vane leered back at her. “Finally see something you like, Anne? As I recall, you denied my advances.”

She tilted her head. “Might be I was too hasty.”

His gaze descended to her cleavage as he shook the last drops from his cock and stuffed it back in his breeches. “You know where I’d like to put it?”

Anne cackled. “In a monkey’s arse, I heard.”

Vane raised a finger in mock offense and opened his mouth to protest, but remained frozen in that pose for several seconds before he relented. “Just the once.”

He departed abruptly, disappearing down the spiral staircase to the bottom floor. Rackham glimpsed him briefly walking down the main street, until he slipped between two buildings after a cautionary glance over his shoulder.

On the deck remained a soiled parchment, yellow and reeking of piss.

Rogers shook his head, as if clearing his mind of the unfortunate affair. “And what about you, Rackham?”

“Whut?” Rackham blinked to attention.

“Would you also care to relieve yourself on the King’s generous pardon?”

“Talk at me when . . . sober,” Rackham answered. He planned to be long gone by then. Hunting his own kind was not an option. He didn’t necessarily have any moral objections, but many of the pirates he would be hunting were far deadlier than he. And Rogers likely knew that in signing this pardon, many pirates were signing their own death warrants. Rackham was drunk beyond reason, but that didn’t prevent the cold reality of this bargain from eluding him.

“Very well,” said Rogers. “So long as you don’t leave New Providence, the pardon stands.” The man who called himself governor turned to acknowledge the women at last. “Tell me, where might I find Jonathan Griffith and Jack Cunningham?”

Mary looked to Anne. “Griffith?”

“We don’t know any Griffith,” said Anne. The lie sounded convincing enough.

Rackham hadn’t seen Griffith in months, maybe more. It was difficult to recall. Rogers glanced at him for a moment, and seemed to conclude that he wasn’t going to get anything else out of him right now. He returned his attention to Anne and Mary. “And Cunningham?”

Anne pointed up the street. “You’ll find him at the Strapped Bodice, pretending he fancies girls.” It was no secret she didn’t care for Cunningham, who had unintentionally insulted her on more than one occasion.

Rogers snapped his fingers at his men and took his leave. The redcoats filed down the stairs after him. In the rear was Hornigold, who spared a last look at Rackham. “When your wits return, you know where to find me.”

“Aye,” said Anne. “Licking the governor’s bollocks.”

Hornigold’s cheeks blistered, and he took a step toward her, which made her laugh. He composed himself and pointed at her. “When they come for you, they’ll string you women folk up with the rest. They won’t care you’ve got a wonderful pair of tits.”

“Why, thank you, Benjamin.”

“You’re all fools,” he said, and hurried after his new master.

“Better a fool than a cuuuuuuunt,” Anne called down the stairs in a cheery voice.

Rackham sat up and spread his arms. “‘Splain to me jush happened?”

“Makes no difference,” Anne concluded. “We’ll do what we’ve always done and run the lot of them out.”

“Shame to lose Nassau,” said Mary. “I liked it here.”

Anne threw an arm over the smaller woman’s shoulder and drew her close, kissing her cheek repeatedly. “We’ll get her back, Mary. We’ll get her back.”

Mary flushed under all those kisses, and pushed at Anne like a cat that has no wish to be held, but the taller woman wouldn’t relinquish her adoring grip. “And what if we can’t get her back?”

“She’s not the only isle in the Caribbean, is she?” Anne had an encouraging answer to every problem, except where her husband, James, was concerned.

Right now, Rackham didn’t share her optimism. He was having trouble enough keeping his head level. He made the mistake of closing his eyes for a moment, and before he knew he had fallen asleep, his forehead smacked the table. Everything went dark for an instant, and then he lifted his head and rubbed at the sore spot above his brow until his vision returned.

Anne stared at him with beautiful big brown eyes. “Are you not well, Jack?”

“Everything’sh fine.”

She frowned skeptically. “If you say so. You’ll find me and Mary at the tavern, if you desire fonder company than solemn thoughts. But you’d do well to sober up, and quick. Tomorrow we must steal away, unless you mean to sign that pardon.”

“Not signing anything,” he replied haughtily, practically yelling. The very notion offended him. Of course, she hadn’t meant anything by it, and he quickly regretted yelling at her.

“I never wagered otherwise,” she replied casually, unhurt by his outburst. She guided Mary away, and they both descended the stairs. Rackham watched until Anne’s chestnut hair dropped from sight, and then he was alone.

Though it felt like he lingered there an hour, it couldn’t have possibly been that long, because when he got to his feet, wandered down the stairs and out of the tavern and all the way around the fort, the sun had dipped only halfway beneath a golden horizon. A pair of redcoats on patrol made a joke as he passed, quietly enough for him not to hear the specifics, but they laughed loudly enough for him to know it was about him. “Careful who you mock,” he warned.

“Watch your mouth, pirate,” one of them replied.

He took their advice, and cursed himself for a coward. Anne wouldn’t have put up with such insults. The redcoats would have incurred an earful of scathing chatter, and likely would have backed down rather than deal with her. She had a way of making a man feel small if she so desired.

He wandered into the labyrinthine encampment of canvas tents on the sloping beach on the opposite side of the fort. Loose hemp fluttered in a cool wind that swept in with the tide, glancing off the cool surf below. This was where most of the pirates spent their nights in Nassau. The majority of the tents were vacant now, abandoned after the new governor’s arrival, but here and there he glimpsed a sleeping man who likely hadn’t yet heard the news.

A very young black-haired strumpet with olive skin underneath a thin white dress bumped into him as she exited one of the tents. Through the flap Rackham saw no one else, and he concluded she had been left high and dry. She too swiftly traded a frustrated scowl for an apologetic smile and touched his waist. “Pardon my clumsiness,” she said. Her accent was vaguely French. Freckles dirtied her cheeks and nose. Rackham didn’t like freckles. Anne didn’t have any freckles. Anne’s face was smooth, unblemished. And this girl was far too skinny. Anne was full and curvy. Other than her broad, swimmer’s shoulders, this girl was too narrow. “How can I make it up to you?” she asked.

“Pleasure’sh all mine, I’m sure,” he returned, but was uncertain if his words were slurred beyond comprehension, or if his reply made any sense at all.

She called something to him as he moved on, but he was too determined to get to the beach. And then she said something distinctly harsh in French, but he couldn’t possibly know what it meant.

He stumbled down toward to the beach, falling in a particularly soft mound of sand on his way there. He considered sleeping there, but the desire to feel the water between his toes urged him to stand and push on. He slid down an embankment and trudged forward, until his boots met stiff, damp sand, and walking became a little easier. Soon the water rushed up to greet him, running over the tops of his boots. The temperature was perfect; not too hot and not too cold, and he dropped to his knees, letting it wash over his legs. White suds formed around him. Strips of seaweed clung to his wet, black and white striped breeches as the tide receded, and little crabs scurried away in a panic, digging tiny holes and disappearing into the darkened sand. He quickly scooped out a clump where one of the crabs had vanished, but he was unable to locate the elusive creature. The water left little bubbles all about, their swirling film accented purple, red, and yellow by sunset, until they popped one after another. And then the tide returned, splashing all around him, filling the bowl he had carved. He felt as though the island was sliding away from the sea as the water retreated. The land seemed to be carrying him with it. The effect made him so dizzy that he nearly retched, but he closed his eyes and managed to quiet the nausea. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d been this drunk. Then again, he couldn’t recall much of anything right now, except a random musing Hornigold had shared with him long ago, near this very spot. “The water never changes. It’s the land that moves.” Hornigold hadn’t always been a fool.

The sun fell beyond the horizon. Rackham ignored the two men of war moored in the distance, despite his peripheral vision’s attempts to alert him. Best not think on that now. Instead he lay back with his hands behind his head and watched the sky darken, until the brightest stars made their presence known. And then the others emerged, and the clear sky was a canvas of twinkling light strewn arbitrarily across the black, and for some reason he thought of the pepper he had spilled on the table at Sassy Sally’s. And then he thought of Anne mocking the redcoats and their supposed governor, tossing a smile his way every once in a while, and he recalled that one beautiful night they had shared, and he wondered if they would ever share another, and he yearned to have her by his side now, snuggled close at his side, stargazing in the wet sand as the waves rolled up to caress them both. Instead she was in a tavern with Mary, drinking and laughing, and probably flirting with another man. He knew she would never be his. She would never belong to anyone, not even her husband. He loved that about her, and he hated it.

He shook his head to clear his mind of her, even though he didn’t want to. The stars streaked from left to right, and he stilled his head before he could be sick. He closed his eyes, and ghostly pinpoints remained for a few moments.

He suddenly found himself being rattled into consciousness. He had no memory of falling asleep, and no sense of how much time had passed. He only knew that an old man with maniacal bloodshot eyes and a scraggly white beard was hovering over him, grasping his arms and shaking him awake. “Wake up, lad! Wake up!” the old man was saying, blasting Rackham with breath that reeked of rotten teeth and rum and salt-cured pork. Two deep scars criss-crossed his right cheek, as though someone had carved their mark with a dagger, for the lines did not strike Rackham as haphazard.

Rackham stammered to form a sentence. “What are you . . . what do you . . . unhand me.”

The old man dug long, gnarled fingernails painfully into Rackham’s arms, gouging him through his shirt. “You are not listening to me!” He swung his decrepit head left, then right, glancing all around with a frantic paranoia that scared Rackham. He had a long, crooked nose. His cheeks were spotted black and red. His beard was yellow on the ends. He was bald on top, with long white hair running around the rim of his pate. He wore a long, crisp coat. The material was surprisingly fresh, and the polished silver buttons gleamed even by starlight. Rackham couldn’t be sure of the fabric’s color in the night. Maybe blue, maybe brown, maybe red. Beneath the coat, the old man’s clothes were ragged and stained.

“They are coming for me. I can hear them. Can you hear them? I can hear them.” His thick accent was unmistakably Spanish. His eyes were wild, bulging from the sockets and rolling every which way. His face was twisted in fear, the deep wedges of his crossed scars burning red.

“Pardon?” Rackham remembered something about a pardon. Something that had happened earlier, before he’d wandered down to this beach and passed out. What was it? It was too gloomy now, too distant. He didn’t care anymore. This old man should have frightened him, but he was too tired. He just wanted to go back to sleep. “Go away, old man.”

The old man leaned in close, flashing his remaining teeth. “They can’t have it. They might get me, but they’re not getting this.” He slapped a hand to his chest. “They’re not getting this.”

He stood up and hastily removed his coat while Rackham gawked up at him, feeling quite stupid for not knowing what was going on, or how he got here. He was so groggy. He’d had a lot of rum; that much he knew. Nothing but rum could turn his skull to lead.

The old man folded the coat into a neat square. “Get up,” he instructed. When Rackham didn’t respond, the old man’s jaw opened so wide that it seemed to come unhinged. “UUUUUUUUUUUUUUUP!!”

Rackham jerked up on impulse, and the old man dropped to his knees, placing the coat behind him. “Now go back to sleep, or I’ll kill you.”

“Whut?”

The old man leaped on top of him and pressed his body into the sand. “Stay there! Go to sleep! Don’t tell them you saw me. Don’t let them see the coat. Stay there. Go to sleep. If I live, I will return for my coat, and if you don’t have it, I will kill you. Entiende?”

And then he ran. Rackham watched him go, shrinking as he scurried up the beach on bony legs, his rags hanging loose on a skeletal frame. And then he rounded a large batch of rocks, and he was gone.

“Queer,” muttered Rackham.

A few minutes later, his eyes closed of their own accord, and he dreamed about redcoats swarming the beach, the thumping heels of their shiny black boots trembling the sand. One of them kicked him in the ribs, and he suffered a severe jolt of pain even though it was only a dream, and his father had always told him you couldn’t feel any pain in dreams. His father had been wrong about a great many things.

And then he dreamed of Anne. Her back was to him, her hands upon the rail of a ship, chestnut hair glinting red in the sun. He tried calling to her, but she didn’t so much as turn her head. She just kept peering off into the distance. He tried moving to her, but his ribs shot pain through his core with every step, and after a while he gave up, because it didn’t hurt when he stayed in one place. So he stood there and called to her, hoping she would hear him eventually.

When he woke, the stars were being swallowed by a violet sky, and the ocean breeze carried a slight chill. It took him five minutes to sit up. His rib ached where he’d been kicked in the dream. Maybe he had clutched his side in his sleep and injured himself. His forehead was far worse, throbbing intensely with every wave that swept in. The tide no longer reached him, stopping three paces short of his boots. He blinked through the grogginess of waking while rubbing his temples with his thumbs.

“I am done with rum,” he announced to the empty beach.

He was so weak that he nearly fell back, but he thrust out a hand behind him. Instead of touching sand, he felt cloth. He leveraged himself onto crossed legs and placed the folded garment in his lap. The fabric was a deep red, like a bottle of dark wine held against the sun. He brushed sand off of it and unfolded it, holding it up before him. Silver death’s head buttons grinned at him. “Where did you come from?” he wondered aloud. His memory of the night before was hazy. He might have dreamed about some crazed old man with a cross-scarred cheek accosting him, and redcoats subsequently trampling over him like spooked cattle, but he couldn’t be sure. Something told him the mystery of the coat was the least of his concerns, but he couldn’t remember why he should be worried.

He let the coat drop into his lap, and then it came to him. In the distance, lingering in the entrance to the eastern channel between New Providence and Hog Island, he again saw the two men of war. The meeting with Woodes Rogers at Sassy Sally’s returned to him all at once.

And then, through vision dulled by the dim light of dawn and the remnants of alcohol, he saw a figure hurrying up the beach. As the man drew near, he could make out the auburn hair and green coat of Charles Vane. Vane increased his pace as he trudged through the sand, constantly looking over his shoulder. “There you are!” he announced, and fell to Rackham’s side, placing a hand on his shoulder. He was out of breath. “I’ve been looking everywhere. Bonny was worried.”

“Was she?” That brightened his spirits just a little.

“No, her twat of a husband. James. He came looking for her at the tavern, all piss and wind. He was certain she was having congress with you somewhere. Even I didn’t have the heart to tell him she snuck off with that rat-faced bitch we all took for a boy. What’s her name?”

“Mary,” said Rackham, looking down at the sand. “Well if Bonny comes at me, I’ll put a knife in his belly.” He didn’t feel the conviction such a promise required.

“Considered doing the deed myself,” said Vane. “Someone needs to put that poor sod out of his misery. But we’ve run off course, Jack. I have a brilliant plan to get us out of here. I need you at your best, not dreaming about Anne’s tits, stirring though they be. Those wonders will get you killed.”

Rackham groaned. “I fear I’m at my worst.”

“That will do fine too,” said Vane with glee, grinning like a much younger man. “Rogers returned to his ship last night. That one there. We’re going to create a diversion by setting fire to one of our prizes in the harbor, after we load it up with double-round and partridge. That’ll tear up any ships fool enough to get close. And as we escape, we’ll hurl a few cannonballs at Rogers. He’ll positively shit himself with fury. What say you?”

Rackham merely nodded. It took him a long time to get to his feet, while Vane stared at him uncertainly rather than help him up. Rackham had to bend down again when he remembered the folded coat he’d awoken on top of. “You found a fancy new coat,” Vane noted.

Through the awful throbbing that tried its damnedest to smother all rational thought, Jack Rackham knew his world had changed for the worse. In that brief moment of clarity, before his headache faded and he was able to convince himself everything would be fine, he saw his death on the horizon, as clear as the warships that guarded Nassau’s harbor.

He unfolded his new coat and slipped it on. He adjusted the cuffs and collar, and found it to be a little snug across the shoulder blades. Still, he liked the color.

Vane appraised him with a depraved smirk that made Jack uncomfortable. “Look at you. Striped breeches and a bloody red coat. Few pirates could manage that inadvisable mishmash, but you wear it well. Calico Jack.”

Jack screwed up his face, glancing down at his colors. “That doesn’t make sense.”

“It doesn’t have to. It catches.”

“Well, I suppose if I must die, I will die in style.”

That wasn’t true, of course. Several months later he would give the coat to a beautiful red-haired woman who was not Anne, but would remind him very much of her, and in a little over two years he would be hanged in soiled rags after a very short trial at Port Royal. The rope would fail to snap his spine after a short drop, and he would die in violent throes of agony as the noose constricted about his neck and coarse bristle bit into his flesh. It would take him only forty-eight seconds to die, but the pain would blot out all the joyful years of his life, even as he struggled to recall just one pleasant moment. His final thought would be of Anne, cursing him for a coward because he had been too drunk to fight alongside her before their capture. His corpse would be displayed in a rusty gibbet for all to see, as a warning to anyone with thoughts toward piracy. The birds would pluck away the particulars of his face long before rot could muddle his identity.

Presently, Charles Vane laughed and clapped Jack Rackham on the back. “How many times must I tell you, Jack? We’re going to live forever.”

 

Copyright © 2015 by Matt Tomerlin. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, reposting, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without express written permission of the author. 

  • Melissa Hall

    I am so looking forward to The Scarlet Devil. Thank you for doing this short story.I really enjoyed it, Calico Jack was one of my favorite characters.