THE COMPANY MAN
I ate my damned food and drank more of Várion’s damned rum. Not too much. Just enough to wash down the pork and potatoes.
I stared into the western sea. All the hints of dusk were gone. The Hearthstone was glowing as red as gore, whispering tales of centuries of bloodshed in the World Facing. People who should have learned from their deaths in the World of Things to be nicer to each other. But they didn’t learn.
Had I learned? Or, as I told Yellowbeard, had the World Facing changed me?
Yellowbeard’s words came back to me. Bob had suffered from meeting his murderer in the World Facing. But, don’t every one of us meet our murderers in the World Undifferentiated, where all souls melt into each other? There was no escape from facing the consequences of your life. Not ultimately.
I would meet the abbot there and Q Bone and Bob. And Juan de la Hoz. And Foster and Karím and Ahmad. I would become all of them, suffer what they suffered at my hands.
And, I realized, everyone in the World Facing who fell to a rifled gun. If I gave Yellowbeard that power.
The Blood Star winked at me. I took a final draw on the rum and laid back on the sand. I could not give Yellowbeard that power.
The tents and supplies were packed up, the men in a line with their backs to the cliffs, Danny and Várion at my sides. The sea was low and the beach broad, spangled by shells and stripes of seaweed. Yellowbeard stood at the top of the light waves, leaning on his crutch, the other hand resting on his hanger. The shadow of the cliffs fell just before his feet in the morning sun, so that his red shirt and black plants cut a sharp contrast against the pale blue sea and sky.
“The last courier I sent to New Nassau carried news that John Randolph was killed in the ambush.”
He cocked his chin and looked up and down the line. “That is the news you will carry as well.”
The men were looking back and forth, at each other but mostly at me.
Yellowbeard drew his cutlass and waved it casually in my direction. “That is the news you will carry as well, Jack.”
I almost said, “John.” But I stopped my mouth at J, which left me just showing my teeth like an idiot.
He shoved the cutlass into the sand, right at the edge of the shadow. “John Randolph, your name is now Randy Johnson.”
“What?” I blinked and coughed and blinked again. “No. What? That’s too obvious.”
Yellowbeard just stared at me as the men stared at me. He leaned forward and scooped up his cutlass. He wiped the sand off on his pants and shoved it back into his belt.
“So you’re on board. Pick a name.”
My face was slack. What just happened?
He shrugged. “Otherwise everyone in town will be out to press you into their service. Probably with a bit of violence. Or just put a ball in your gut to keep me from having you. Either way, this is safer for you.”
He was right. I was on board. It was clear why this man was a captain. Not just a captain but a pirate lord. And, how he had survived centuries. I tried to think of an appropriately piratey name.
My face scrunched. “Billy Black?”
“No,” he sighed. “There was already a Billy Black. On Redbeard’s crew. Died in a storm, what—”
“About five years ago,” Danny said.
“Alright then,” I said. “How about Ben Gunn?”
Danny shoved me. Yellowbeard looked at us curiously.
“That’s from Treasure Island,” Danny said.
“Goddamn it! Danny, you pick for him.”
Danny giggled a redneck giggle. “Usama Buffet.”
“What the fuck,” I said. I sighed and settled in. “Sam Buff, alright?”
“That’s square with me,” Yellowbeard said with a victorious grin. He waved his finger up and down the line of men. “Now, if I find out that any one of you gobs has a loose tongue, even under liquor, I’ll feed your dick to rats and then hang you as a liar. Are we all on the same tack?”
A round of ayes rang out.
“Now, I need about a fourth of you to break your guns.”
A round of grunts sounded at that. I felt their pain, but I also saw Yellowbeard’s gambit. I sighed again and stepped forward. I looked at the men to my left and right.
“That’s the only way he can justify keeping the gunsmith and crew in employ.”
Yellowbeard gave me an appreciative nod.
I decided to keep playing along, at least until I could engineer a way out of the captain’s grasp. “I can set it up so a lot of them look like jams or backfires, without anyone getting hurt. A few broken stocks, with cutlass strikes in just the right places, and it’ll just look like a really rough fight.”
Yellowbeard chuckled. “Jesus, Jack.”
He nodded. “I knew coming after you was the smart thing to do. No use letting your skills go to waste at Abarca’s place, fixing showers for slaves.”
“They’re not,” I started but just waved it off.
“How long will it take you?”
“If we start right away?” I scanned the men to either side of me, running some quick numbers. “Until a little after noon.”
Yellowbeard grinned and crutched toward us, into the shadow. “Let’s get working then.”
“One more thing,” I said, a finger raised. He stopped. I took three steps toward him, and neither Danny nor Várion followed. “If I’m to look like just another pirate, or a hunter recruited from the plantations, I should have weapons like everyone else.”
The captain cracked his neck. He grunted. “So you should. But no balls and no powder.”
I wondered if I had him on board. “That’s understandable. But, if there’s no balls and no powder, does it really matter how many pistols I have?”
“You want Bob’s vest back.”
“I want my vest back.”
“You hadn’t earned it when you first took it,” he said. “Having only stuck him in the gut. But, after his fall from Casa Relajada, I suppose it’s yours fair and square.”
I took a deep breath.
“But, all of your guns will be among the broken.”
The afternoon sun was hot, and the sea teased us with slowly rising wavelets. We finally marched around a turn in the beachside cliffs where more than open water greeted us. There were ships in the offing, ships crowded at the docks. A lot of ships. More than I remembered being there when the Speedwell had first arrived.
As we rounded the cliffs, the port of New Nassau came into view. And into smell. Some bad, some good. Mostly good. Perfume. Incense. Roasting meat. Also raw sewage. And bad perfume and bad incense.
The nearest building was a tavern with a surprisingly faithful painting of Captain Morgan on the side, one foot up on a barrel in his classic rum-icon pose. Something about that made me smile. Someone had a damn good memory.
I was flanked by Danny and Várion, despite my protests at how conspicuous this would make me. Yellowbeard insisted that the growth of my hair and my new clothes made me a new man. The captain himself was limping in front and his men were in three lines behind us. Well, most of his men. Some had been sent forward to scout out the town.
As we kicked up sand past a few camped out renegades, a man I knew from the Speedwell‘s original port watch ran from the town. He stumbled to a stop, panting, just short of the captain.
Yellowbeard crutched to a stop and raised his right hand. The column came to a halt.
“Captain,” the man said. “We have a major problem.”
Yellowbeard settled his arm on the crutch. “Well?”
The man swallowed and glanced back at the crew. “There are three other pirate lords in town.”
The captain shrugged. “Word gets around. Who’s here? Not Whitebeard, I’m guessing.”
“No,” the man said. He stared at the sand. “I don’t think. I only heard of three. Greybeard, Redbeard.”
Yellowbeard’s shoulders dropped with impatience.
Yellowbeard’s head spun halfway toward me, but his shoulders tightened and he just stood there, breathing. I felt the corners of my mouth wanting to grin.
“That motherfucker,” the captain said. “And the others are just giving this turncoat the run of the town?”
The man shrugged, lifting his timid eyes. “There’ve been a few brawls. Nothing definitive.”
Yellowbeard breathed for a long moment. “Finish the report.”
The man nodded like he was trying to swallow a large chunk of food. “Greybeard’s men are at the Revolutionary. Redbeard’s are split up between the Pretty Smith and the Bandera Roja. Bluebeard’s in the Zebinella.”
Yellowbeard growled. “The fucking Sign of the Snail. Right in the middle.” His tongue played with the inside of his cheek. His eyes darted around. He was working a map in his head.
“Rooms at the Steel Frog?”
The man shook his head. “Never rooms at the Frog. Tourists.”
“Fuck,” Yellowbeard said. “What about the Down Payment?”
The man scowled. “Always rooms at that shit-hole.” He shot a contrite glance at Yellowbeard. “There’s also Choi’s place.”
“No, that’s against the cliff. Down Payment has a straight shot to the docks.”
“Make it look like we were forced to stay there.”
“We are forced to stay there.”
“Make it convincing.” He turned. “Danny, let’s get a late supper.” In the captain’s archaic cant, that meant a late lunch.
Danny looked around me at Várion then jogged past Yellowbeard. The scout joined him and they split up at Captain Morgan.
Danny did me a favor. He set me up, and a dozen or so of the crew, at the Cat Caller tavern. The guy from Indiana was there, slamming out chords on his guitar and singing Raspberry Beret, with white-guy dreadlocks bouncing. There was a common room full of pirates and steampunk rejects and elven warriors singing along.
After Let’s Go Crazy and an audience request for Manic Monday—yes, also written by Prince—Danny and I took our plates of chicken skewers and corn-on-the-cob, and our mugs of ale, to the balcony. The banister all around was topped flat like a bar, so you could eat and drink and look out over the harbor.
Picking at my food, staring out at the sea and sand and palm trees, salt air brushing my hair back, I suddenly felt like I could be at any beach-side restaurant in the World of Things. Only the wooden sailboats in the harbor scuttled the illusion. And the vest-full of busted pistols against my chest.
I took a drink. “Yellowbeard is resolved to kill me if I don’t rifle his guns, huh?”
“Eh,” Danny said. “You’re dead either way.”
I turned. He was grinning.
“We all are, eventually.” He laughed and lifted his mug to clank mine. “Except maybe Várion, who’s gonna outlive the worlds.”
“Fair enough.” I took another drink and glanced at the couple to our right. A rough-looking black dude who looked like a proper resident of the World Facing, dagger and pistol at his waist, and a redhead in a leafy swimsuit that looked like she probably had a mermaid tail somewhere in her wardrobe.
As I listened to the crowd singing in the tavern behind us, I suddenly settled on a point of purchase. Something I could lever against.
“Let me ask you something, Danny.”
He pulled a hunk of bell pepper from a skewer with his teeth and shrugged.
“These are really fucking good,” he said around the pepper.
“I mean, I brought you here for the music but this food is fucking crazy. Like, sesame oil or some shit on ’em?”
“I think so.” I pulled a baby potato from a skewer with my fingers. “Have you been here long enough to tell the boats apart?”
He shrugged again. “Some. Not the little ones, but there are a thousand different kinds o’ them. Don’t matter. We don’t hunt those.”
“Oh,” I said with feigned indifference. “But, the big ones? The merchant ships and warships?”
I pointed at a conspicuous ship with brailed up blue sails. “That one?”
“That’s a snow. Two masts and that … well, snow-sail on the main mast.”
“What about the one next to it? With the woman on the bow. The, uh—”
“The angel figurehead? I know that one, it’s the Happy Camper. It’s a bark. Three masts and the last is only fore-and-aft. Barks are two or more with the last one like that.”
I laughed and lifted my mug. He met it and we clinked again. “Dude, you know your shit.”
He laughed that redneck laugh. “Been here a while.”
“Yeah? How long?”
“Since Reagan was president. You people really fucked things up since then. Some hillbilly gets his dick sucked in the Oval Office, then some dumb-ass cowboy gets us in a bunch o’ wars, and some slick-talker slides by on the race card. I mean, what the fuck?”
He seemed to have a lot of contempt for all sides. “Oh, it gets worse.”
He shook his head and grabbed the corn-on-the-cob. “Don’t even tell me.”
“So, okay. Are any of those ships a corvette?”
He sniffed and looked at me, like maybe he had figured out that this was my heading all along.
“You mean like the song?” He grinned and took a bite from the corn.
“Yeah,” I said with what I hoped looked like a casual shrug. “Why not? We’re listening to Prince.” I nodded back at the tavern, where the Hoosier was inconveniently playing INXS. I felt my face scrunch up.
Danny was scanning the harbor. He pointed at a ship anchored at the end of the nearest stone dock. “That one. I think that’s the Frontiersman. One of Redbeard’s ships. It’s small, some might call it a sloop.”
“A little corvette.” I laughed, as if it were just a joke and not a promise I had made to Amy, Keiki, and Mei. And Karím and Ahmad. The ship I would trade rifling for in Calvary, for our freedom. The Arab brothers found their freedom another way, but I still wondered about the girls up at Casa Relajada. And Sirhan and Kinsey, wherever the hell they were.
Danny nodded his head back and forth. “I guess you could paint it red. Once you—”
His head drooped. A hand slid the plate of skewers and corn out of the way just before his face settled into it. Danny’s face rested on the wood. His shoulders went limp.
I followed the voice. The man was dressed better than rags but less fancy than Señor Abarca-Abaroa. He put a hand casually on Danny’s shoulder. The first time he had touched him.
I felt my hands go limp.
“You’re one of the company men.”
He smiled with a calm that made my blood cold.