I heard him crashing through the jungle ahead of me and so, heedless of the branches whipping my face and dancing over roots underfoot, I gave chase. I reached to prevent myself being slapped in the face by a thick green leaf the size of a banjo and saw a bloody handprint on it. Good. I was on the right track. From further ahead came the sound of disturbed birds crashing through the canopy of trees above. I hardly needed to worry about losing him: the whole jungle shook to the sound of his clumsy progress. His grace, it seemed, was no more, lost in the blundering fight for survival.
“Follow me, and I’ll kill you,” I heard from ahead of me.
I doubted that. As far as I could see, his killing days were over.
So it proved. I reached a clearing where he stood, half bent over with the pain of his stomach wound. He’d been trying to decide which route to take but at the sound of me crashing out of the undergrowth, turned to face me. A slow, painful turn, like an old man crippled with belly-ache.
Something of his old pride returned, and a little fight crept into his eyes as there was a sliding noise, and from his right sleeve sprouted the blade, which gleamed in the dusk of the clearing.
It struck me that the blade must have inspired fear in his enemies, and that to inspire fear in your enemy was half the battle won. Make someone frightened of you, that was the key. Unfortunately, just as his killing days were over, so too was his ability to inspire dread in his foes. His robes, hood and even the blade. With him exhausted and hunched over with pain, they looked like the trinkets they were. I took no pleasure in killing him, and possibly he didn’t even deserve to die. Our captain had been a cruel, ruthless man, fond of a flogging. So fond, in fact, that he was apt to administer them himself. He’d enjoyed doing what he called “making a man a governor of his own island,” which, in other words, was marooning him. Nobody but his own mother was going to mourn our captain’s passing. To all intents and purposes, the man with the robes had done us a favour.
But the man with the robes had been about to kill me as well. The first lesson was that if you set out to kill someone, you’d better finish the job.
He knew that, I’m sure, as he died.
Afterwards I rifled through his things, and yes, the body was still warm. And no, I’m not proud of it, but please don’t forget, I was—I am—a pirate. So I rifled through his things. From inside his robes I retrieved a satchel.
Hmm, I thought. Hidden treasure.
But when I upended it onto the ground so the sun could dry the contents, what I saw was . . . well, not treasure. There was an odd cube made of crystal, with an opening on one side, an ornament, perhaps? (Later I’d find out what it was, of course, when I’d laugh at myself for ever thinking it a mere ornament.) Some maps I laid to one side, as well as a letter with a broken seal that, as I began reading, I realized held the key to everything I wanted from this mysterious killer . . .
Señor Duncan Walpole,
I accept your most generous offer and await your arrival with eagerness.
If you truly possess the information we desire, we have the means to reward you handsomely.
Though I do not know your face by sight, I believe I can recognize the costume made infamous by your secret Order.
Therefore, come to Havana in haste and trust that you shall be welcomed as a Brother. It will be a great honour to meet you at last, Señor; to put a face to your name and shake your hand as I call you friend. Your support for our secret and most noble cause is warming.
Your most humble servant,
Governor Laureano Torres y Ayala
I read the letter twice. Then a third time for good measure.
Governor Torres, of Havana, eh? I thought.
“Reward you handsomely,” eh?
A plan had begun to form.
I buried Señor Duncan Walpole. I owed him that much at least. He went out of this world the way he’d arrived—naked—because I needed his clothes in order to begin my deception and, though I do say so myself, I looked good in his robes. They were a perfect fit and I looked the part.
Acting the part, though, would be another matter entirely. The man I was impersonating? Well, I’ve already told you of the aura that seemed to surround him. When I secured his hidden blade to my own forearm and tried to eject it as he had, well—it just wasn’t happening. I cast my mind back to seeing him do it and tried to impersonate him. A flick of the wrist. Something special, obviously, to stop the blade’s engaging by accident. I flicked my wrist. I twisted my arm. I wriggled my fingers. All to no avail. The blade sat stubbornly in its housing. It looked both beautiful and fearsome but if it wouldn’t engage, it was no good to man or beast.
What was I to do? Carry it around and keep trying? Hope I’d eventually chance upon its secret? Somehow I thought not. I had the feeling there was arcane knowledge attached to this blade. Found upon me, it could betray me.
With a heavy heart I cast it away, then addressed the grave-side I had prepared for my victim.
“Mr. Walpole . . .” I said, “let’s collect your reward.”
I came upon them at Cape Buena Vista beach the next morning: a schooner anchored in the harbour, boats brought ashore and crates off-loaded and dragged onto the beach where they’d been stacked, either by the dejected-looking men who sat on the sand with their hands bound, or perhaps by the bored English soldiers who stood guard over them. As I arrived, a third boat was docking, more soldiers disembarking and casting their eyes over the prisoners.
Why the men were tied up, I wasn’t sure. They certainly didn’t appear to be pirates. Merchants by the looks of them. Either way, as another rowing-boat approached I was about to find out.
“The commodore’s gone ahead to Kingston,” called one of the soldiers. In common with the others he wore a tricorn and waistcoat and carried a musket. “We are to commandeer this lubber’s ship and follow.”
So that was it. The English wanted their ship. They were as bad as pirates themselves.
Merchants like to eat almost as much as they like to drink. Thus they tend towards the stout side. One of the captives, however, was even more florid-faced and plump than his companions. This was the “lubber” the English were talking about, the man I came to know as Stede Bonnet, and at the sound of the word “Kingston,” he’d seemed to perk up, and he raised his head, which before had been contemplating the sand with the look of a man wondering how he’d got into this position and how he was going to get out.
“No, no,” he was saying, “our destination is Havana. I’m just a merchant . . .”