That made him spit. “Oi, skulk,” he said. The saliva gleamed on his lips as he leaned forward and huffed the sour smell of week-old booze over me. “I’ve seen your face before, haven’t I? You’s mates with those pirates down in Nassau, ain’t yer?”
I froze and my eyes darted to where Bonnet stood with his back to me, then around the rest of the inn. It didn’t look like anybody had heard. I ignored the drunk next to me.
He leaned forward, insinuating himself even further into my face. “It is you, isn’t it? It is . . .”
His voice had begun to rise. A couple of sailors at a table nearby glanced our way.
“It is you, isn’t it?” Almost shouting by then.
I stood, grabbed him writhing from his seat and slammed him against a wall.
“Shut your gob before I fill it with shot. You hear me?”
The sailor looked blearily at me. If he’d heard a word I said, he showed no sign.
Instead, he squinted, focused, and said, “Edward, isn’t it?”
The most effective way to silence a blabbermouth jack-tar in a Havana tavern is a knife across the throat. Other ways include a knee in the groin and the method I chose. I slammed my forehead into his face and his next words died on a bed of broken teeth as he slipped to the floor and lay still.
“You bastard,” I heard from behind me, and turned to find a second red-faced sailor. I spread out my hands. Hey, I don’t want trouble.
But it wasn’t enough to prevent the right-hander across my face and next I was trying to peer through a thick crimson curtain of pain shooting across the back of my eyes as two more crewmates arrived. I swung and made contact, giving me precious seconds to recover. That Edward Kenway side of me, buried so deep? I exhumed him then because wherever you go in the world, whether it’s Bristol or Havana, a pub brawl is a pub brawl. They say practice makes perfect, and while I’d never claim to be perfect, the fighting skills honed during my misspent youth prevailed and soon the three sailors lay in a groaning heap of arms and legs and broken furniture fit only for kindling.
I was still dusting myself off when the cry went up. “Soldiers!” In the next moment I found myself doing two things: first, running full pelt through the streets of Havana in order to escape the beetroot-faced men with muskets; second, trying not to get lost.
I managed both and later rejoined Bonnet at the tavern, only to discover that not only had the soldiers taken his sugar but the pouch I’d taken from Duncan Walpole as well. The pouch I was taking to Torres. Shit.
The loss of Bonnet’s sugar I could live with. But not the pouch.
Havana’s the kind of place where you can loiter without attracting much attention. And that’s on a normal day. On a day they’re hanging pirates, loitering’s not only expected in the square where the executions are due to take place, it’s bloody well encouraged. The alliance between England and Spain may well have been an uneasy one, but there were certain matters on which both countries agreed. One of them being, they both hated pirates. Another one, they both liked to see pirates hanged.
So on the scaffold in front us of stood three buccaneers with their hands tied, staring with wide, frightened eyes through the nooses in front of them.
Not far away was the Spaniard they called El Tiburón, a big man with a beard and dead eyes. A man who never spoke because he couldn’t: a mute. I looked from him to the condemned men, then found I couldn’t look at them, thinking, There but for the grace of God go I . . .
We weren’t here for them anyway. Bonnet and I stood with our backs to a weather-bleached stone wall, looking for all the world as though we were idly watching the world go by, awaiting the execution, and not at all interested in the conversation of the Spanish soldiers gossiping nearby. Oh no, not at all.
“Are you still keen to look over the cargo we confiscated last night? I hear there were some crates of English sugar.”
“Aye, taken from the Barbadian merchant.”
“Duncan,” said Bonnet from the side of his mouth, “they’re talking about my sugar.”
I looked down at him and nodded, grateful for the translation.
The soldiers went on to discuss last evening’s brawl at the tavern. Meanwhile from the stage a Spanish officer was announcing the execution of the three men, announcing their crimes and ending by intoning, “You are hereby sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead.”
At his signal El Tiburón pulled the lever, the trap-door opened, the bodies fell and the crowd went, “Ooh.”
I forced myself to look at the three swinging corpses, finding that I held my breath just in case what I’d been told about the loose bowels was true. Those bodies would be displayed in gibbets around the city. Bonnet and I had already seen them on our travels. They had little tolerance for pirates here and wanted the world to know it.
I was hot in my robes but at that moment I was glad of the disguise.
We left, our expedition to the scaffold having given us the information we needed. The cargo was in the Castillo. That, then, was where we needed to be.
The vast grey-stone wall rose above us. Did it really block out the sun or was it just an illusion? Either way we felt cold and lost in its shadow, like two abandoned children. I’ll say this for the Cubans, or the Spanish, or whoever you’d say was responsible for building the grand Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, they know how to build an intimidating fortress. Around 150 years old, it was built to last too and looked as though it would still be there in 150 years’ time. I looked from its walls out to sea and pictured it bombarded by the broadsides of a man-of-war. What impression would the steel balls of mounted guns make? I wondered. Not much.
Either way, I didn’t have a man-of-war. I had a sugar merchant. I needed a more covert way of gaining entry. The advantage I had was that nobody in his right mind actually wanted to be on the inside of those dark, brooding walls, for in there was where the Spanish soldiers tortured confessions from their prisoners and perhaps even performed summary executions. Only a fool would want to go in there, where the sun didn’t shine, where nobody could hear you scream. Even so, you couldn’t just walk right in. “Oi, mate, you couldn’t tell us where the loot room is, could you? I’ve lost a pouch full of important documents and a weird-looking crystal.”
Thank God, then, for prostitutes. Not because I was feeling randy but because I’d seen a way to get inside—inside the fortress, I mean. Those ladies of the night, who sat on a fortune, well, they had good reason to be on the other side of those walls, so who better to get us in?