TWENTY-THREE

All of this I thought as I sank, eyes open, aware of everything happening around me, the bodies, the wreckage . . . Aware of it, yet uncaring. As though it was happening to somebody else. Looking back, I know it for what it was, that brief moment—and it was brief—as I sank in the water. I had, in those moments, lost the will to live.

After all, this expedition—Thatch had warned against it. He’d told me not to go. “That Captain Bramah’s bad news,” he said. “You mark my words.”

He was right. And I was going to pay for my greed and stupidity with my life.

Then I found it again. The will to go on. I grasped it. I shook it. I held it close to my bosom from that moment to this and I’ll never let it go again. My legs kicked, my arms arrowed, and I streaked towards the surface, breaking the water and gasping—for air, and in shock at the carnage around me, watching as the last of the English frigate slipped below the water, still ablaze. All across the ocean were small blazes soon to be doused by the water, floating debris everywhere and men, of course: survivors.

Just as I had feared, the sharks began to attack, and the screams began—screams of terror at first; and then, as the sharks first circled then began to investigate more insistently, screams of agony that only intensified as more predators gathered and began to feed. The screams I’d heard during the battle, agonized as they were, were nothing compared to the shrieks that tore that soot-filled afternoon apart.

I was one of the lucky ones, whose wounds were not enough to attract their attention, and I swam for shore. At one point I was knocked by a shark gliding past, thankfully too concerned with joining the feeding frenzy to stop. My foot seemed to snag what felt like a fin in the water and I prayed that whatever blood I was leaking was not enough to tempt the shark away from the more plentiful chum elsewhere. It was a cruel irony that those more heavily wounded were the ones who were attacked first.

I say “attacked.” You know what I mean. They were eaten. Devoured. How many survivors there were from the battle, I have no way of knowing. All I can say is that I saw most survivors end up as food for the sharks. Me, I swam to the safety of the beach at Cape Buena Vista, where I collapsed with sheer relief and exhaustion, and if the dry land wasn’t made up entirely of sand, I probably would have kissed it.

My hat was gone. My beloved three-pointer that had sat upon my head as man and boy. What I didn’t know at the time, of course, was that it was the first step in my shedding the past, saying good-bye to my old life. What’s more, I still had my cutlass, and given the choice between losing my hat and cutlass . . .

So, after some time thanking my lucky stars and hearing faint screams in the distance, I rolled onto my back, then heard something from my left.

It was a groan. Looking over I saw that its owner was the robed assassin. He’d come to rest just a short distance away from me and he was lucky, very lucky not to be eaten by the sharks, because when he rolled over to his back he left behind a patch of crimson-stained sand. As he lay on his back with his chest rising and falling, his breath coming in short, jagged gasps, his hands went to his stomach. His obviously wounded stomach.

“Was it good for you as well?” I asked, laughing. Something about the situation struck me as funny. Even after these few years at sea, there was still something of the Bristol brawler about me, who couldn’t help but make light of the situation, no matter how dark it seemed. He ignored me. Or ignored the quip at least.

“Havana,” he groaned. “I must get to Havana.”

That produced another smile from me. “Well, I’ll just build us another ship, will I?”

“I can pay you,” he said through gritted teeth. “Isn’t that the sound you pirates like best? A thousand reales.”

That had aroused my interest. “Keep talking.”

“Will you, or won’t you?” he demanded to know.

One of us was badly wounded, and it wasn’t me. I stood to look him over, seeing the robes, in which, presumably, was hidden his blade. I liked the look of that hidden blade. I had the feeling that the man in possession of that particular blade might go far, especially in my chosen trade. Let’s not forget that before my ship’s magazine had exploded, this very man was about to use that very blade on me. You may think me callous. You may think me cruel and ruthless. But please understand, in such situations a man must do what is necessary to survive, and a good lesson to learn if you’re standing on the deck of a burning ship about to move in for the kill: finish the job.

Lesson two: if you don’t manage to finish the job, it’s probably best not to expect help from your intended target.

And lesson three: if you ask your intended target for help anyway, it’s probably best not to start getting angry with him.

For all those reasons I ask you not to judge me. I ask you to understand why I gazed down at him so dispassionately.

“You don’t have that gold on you now, do you?”

He looked back at me, and his eyes blazed briefly. Then, in a second, more quickly than I could possibly have anticipated—imagined, even—he’d drawn a pocket pistol and shoved the barrel into my stomach. The shock more than the impact of the gun-barrel sent me staggering back, only to fall on my behind some feet away. With one hand clutching at his wound, the other with the pistol trained on me, he pulled himself to his feet.

“Bloody pirates,” he snarled through clenched teeth.

I saw his finger whiten on the trigger. I heard the hammer on the pistol snap forward and closed my eyes expecting the shot to come.

But it never did. Of course it didn’t. There was indeed something unearthly about this man—his grace, his speed, his garb, his choice of weaponry—but he was still just a man, and no man can command the sea. Even this man couldn’t prevent his powder getting wet.

Lesson four: if you’re going to ignore lessons one, two and three, it’s probably best not to pull out a gun filled with wet powder.

His advantage lost, the killer turned and headed straight for the tree line, one arm still clutching his wounded stomach and the other warding off undergrowth as he crashed into it and out of sight. For a second I simply sat there, unable to believe my luck: if I were a cat, then I’d have used up at least three of my nine lives, just on that day.

Without a second thought—well, maybe perhaps a single second thought, because, after all, I’d seen him in action and, wound or no wound, he was dangerous—I took off in pursuit. He had something I wanted. That hidden blade.

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