I caught Kidd, grabbed him by the waist and pulled him to the ground.
(And I swear to God—and I’m not just saying this because of what would happen later. But I thought to myself how light he was, how slender was the waist that I grabbed.)
“I can’t let you kill him, Kidd,” I gasped. “Not until I’ve found The Sage.”
“I’ve been stalking that pig for a week now, charting his moves,” said Kidd angrily. “And here I find not one, but two of my targets—and you rob me of both.”
Our faces were so close together I could feel the heat of his rage.
“Patience,” I said, “and you’ll have your kills.”
Furious, he pulled away. “All right, then,” he agreed. “But when we locate The Sage, you’re going to help me take Prins. Got that?”
We spat and shook. The volcano had erupted but seemed to settle, and we made our way to Prins’s plantation. So, we would have to break in after all. How’s about that for being made to eat your words?
On a short hill overlooking the sugar plantation, we found a platform and sat awhile. I watched the work below. The male slaves sang sadly as they hacked at cane, the constant rustle of which seemed to float on the breeze, and the women stumbled past, bent double beneath heavy baskets of sugar harvest.
Adewalé had told me about life on a plantation, how when the cane was cut and harvested it was run between two metal rollers, and how it was common for a man’s arm to be dragged into the rollers. When that happened, the only way “to separate the man from his plight” was to hack off the arm. He told of how after collecting the sugar juice it was time to boil away the waters from the sugar and how the boiling sugar would stick like bird-lime and burn on, leaving a terrible scar. “I had friends lose eyes,” he said, “and fingers, and arms. And being slaves, you can believe that we never heard a word of praise, nor an apology of any kind.”
I thought of something else he’d told me: “With this skin and with this voice, where can I go in the world and feel at ease?”
Men like Prins, I realized, were the architects of misery for his people, their ideology the opposite of everything I believed in and everything we stood for at Nassau. We believed in life and liberty. Not this . . . subjugation. This torture. This slow death.
My fists clenched.
Kidd took a pipe from his pocket and smoked a little as we observed the comings and goings below us.
“There are guards patrolling that property from end to end,” he said. “Looks to me like they use the bells to signal trouble. See? There.”
“We’ll want to disable those before pushing too far,” I said thoughtfully.
From the corner of my eye I saw something odd. Kidd licking his thumbs then pressing it into the bowl of his pipe to put it out. Well, that wasn’t odd, but what he did next was odd. He began dabbing his thumb in the bowl and rubbing ash on his eyelids.
“With so many men about we can’t rely on stealth alone,” he said, “so I’ll do what I can to distract and draw their attention, giving you a chance to cut them down.”
I watched, wondering what the hell he was playing at, as he cut his finger with a tiny pocket knife, and then squeezed out a drop of blood, which he put to his lips. Next he removed his tricorn. He removed the tie from his hair, pulled at it and ruffled it so that it fell across his face. He licked the back of one thumb, then like a cat used it to clean his face. Then he pushed his fingers into his gums, removed bits of wet wadding that had fattened his cheeks and dropped them to the ground.
Next he pulled up his shirt and began unlacing a corset that he pulled out from beneath his shirt and tossed to the ground, revealing, as he then opened the top buttons of his shirt and pulled the collar wider, what were, unmistakably, his tits.
My head span. His tits? No. Her tits. Because when I eventually tore my eyes off the tits and to his face—no, her face—I could see that this man was not a man at all.
“Your name is not James, is it?” I said, slightly unnecessarily.
She smiled. “Not most days. Come on.”
When she stood, her posture had changed so that where before she’d walked and moved like a man, now there was no doubt. It was as plain as the tits on her chest. She was a woman.
Already beginning to clamber down the hill towards the plantation fence, I skidded to catch up with her.
“Damn it, man. How is it you’re a woman?”
“Christ, Edward, is it something that needs explaining? Now, I’m here to do a job. I’ll let you be amused later.”
In the end, though, I wasn’t really amused. To tell the truth, it made perfect sense that she should resort to dressing like a man. Sailors hated having a woman aboard ship. They were superstitious about it. If the mystery woman wanted to live the life of a seaman, then that’s what she had to be—a seaman.
When I thought about it I goggled at the sheer bloody guts of it. The courage it must have taken for her to do what she did. And I tell you, my sweet, I’ve met a lot of extraordinary people. Some bad. Some good. Most a mix of good and bad, because that’s the way most people are. Of all of them the example I’d most like you to follow is hers. Her name was Mary Read. I know you won’t forget it. Bravest woman I ever met, bar none.
As I waited for Mary by the gates I overheard guards chatting. Torres had managed to slip away. Interesting. Prins was holed up in his plantation in fear of his life. Good. I hope the fear gripped icy hands at his stomach. I hope the terror kept him awake at nights. I’d look forward to seeing it in his eyes when I killed him.
First, though, to gain entry. And for that I needed . . .
There she was. You had to hand it to her, she was a superb actor. For God knows how long she’d convinced all of us that she was a man, and now here she was in a new role, not changing sex this time but convincing the guards she was ill. And yes, doing a bloody good job of it.
“Stand your ground!” ordered a soldier at the gate.
“Please, I’ve been shot,” she rasped. “I need aid.”
“Christ, Phillips, look at her. She’s hurt.”
The more sympathetic of the two soldiers stepped forward and the gate to the plantation opened in front of her.
“Sir,” she said weakly, “I’m poorly and faint.”
Sympathetic Soldier offered her his arm to help her inside.
“Bless you, lads,” she said and limped through the gate, which closed behind them. I didn’t see it from my vantage point, of course, but I heard it: the swish of a blade, the muffled punching sound it made as she drove it into them, the low moan as the last of life escaped them, then the thump of their bodies on the dirt.