Gouts of warm steam issued forth from brass and steel valves attached to large pipes – many larger than a foot across – running alongside the outside of the buildings of Port Signal. The steam rushed across the walkway, then bunched into thick knots of white fog that lingered along the avenue.
Each knot was unique, some being no more than a whisper of mist, while others were a veritable cloud bank come to loiter in the winding thoroughfares. All around, the faint churn of the station’s gargantuan steam engines that made up the heart of Port Signal pulsed rhythmically. The vibration hummed just faintly in the air to the most ardent observer.
Inhabitants and guests hurried along these clouded streets, moving briskly through the white fog in the cold mid-day air. The broad form of Captain Klaus Wilhelm emerged through one of the miniature cloud banks and spread his arms wide, cutting through the clustered steam.
“Ah, here we are, Kapitän!” The tall German ship captain announced, smiling broadly. “The World’s End,” he gestured towards a cracked wooden shingle, adorned with faded yellow letters. The words curved slightly above the image of a ship balanced precariously on the edge of a waterfall. Below the sign a stout wooden door, braced with iron bands to secure it, sat firmly closed. “We need to talk, and I know of no better place.”
Captain Hunter, along with the wiry elf that still had possession of Captain Wilhelm’s shotgun, walked out of the white fog. Hunter stopped next to Klaus, gazing up at the sign. “A public house? Are you certain?”
Klaus grinned and slapped Hunter on the back, “Ja! It’s quite fine. Come! Before the cold reaches our bones. Herr Pryce, keep a sharp eye, Ja?”
“Of course, Cap’n,” the thin sailor replied with a welsh accent and a grin.
A few paces behind Hunter, Krumer Whitehorse glanced up at the sign dubiously. Next to him, Moira elbowed the first mate lightly in the ribs. “Ya worry too much.”
The first mate’s face wrinkled into a sour expression. “Someone should. Are you not the least concerned over how exposed we’ll be in there?”
Ahead of them, Anthony, Mr. Pryce and Captain Wilhelm had walked toward the thick wooden door. Moira glanced towards the others, then shrugged at Krumer, “Oh sure, but we got it to do. Besides, that’s me Uncle. I trust him. An see it this way, O’Fallon said he’d be meetin’ us here, that’s one more hand if trouble spills.”
Krumer raised an eyebrow at her. “It’s not that I don’t trust your uncle – which I don’t quite yet – it’s everyone else here on Port Signal I don’t trust farther than a yard arm,” he replied. Then, with a resolved sigh, the broad-shouldered orc brushed stray dreadlocks from his face and followed the others into the pub.
“Worrywart,” Moira snorted, trailing behind him. “I never have any trouble in a pub.”
Inside, away from the cold chill, the warmth was like an invisible blanket, wrapping about the entire room. Warm wooden walls, adorned with an eclectic assortment of old pistols, wood carvings, ship’s bells and other memorabilia greeted the group as they entered.
Dark, stained tables were arranged around the main open area of the pub in a vague attempt at organization. Worn, with mottled spots, they were host to dozens of patrons scattered throughout the pub. Most of these customers, if not all, were sailors judging by their style of dress and personal weaponry.
“The more ‘genteel’ frauen und männern, they do not find their way here,” Captain Wilhelm explained. “This would be … how you say it … a ‘local’ place.” The big German scrutinized the area and pointed at an empty table across the crowded room. “In the back, Ja? A perfect place. Schnell! Before it is taken.”
Leading the way, Captain Wilhelm, followed by Pryce, Captain Hunter and the rest settled around the table. Overhead a lantern glowed a warm yellow through its dust-lined glass. At their feet, a soft hiss trickled out of narrow vents, through which warm, steam-rich air pumped slowly into the room.
Klaus gestured to the thin Welshman across the table. “Ah, where are mein manners? This with me is Herr Albert Pryce, mein first mate.” Hunter glanced at the thin Pryce with a faint, polite smile and nod. “Good to meet you, sirrah.”
“And you,” Albert replied.
“Now Kapitän,” Klaus said, putting his arms on the table and leaning forward. “We talk direct, Ja? You might say ‘supplies’, of which I would not blame you, but you and I know better. What brings all of you here?”
Anthony glanced over at Krumer, then Moira. The big orc was only half-paying attention to the conversation while his eyes slowly swept the room. Moira, however, nodded encouragingly to Captain Hunter. The captain looked back at Klaus.
“We’re not sneaking about when I tell you ‘supplies’, Captain. We’re in need of them.” Hunter admitted.
“The Market Square will have all you need, Kapitän, but that aside, I would like to speak as to why you are really here.” Wilhelm said cagily.
Hunter looked uncomfortable, “you mentioned that you’ve heard the Intrepid’s message. What more do you need to know?”
“The truth,” Klaus said with a mischievous grin. “I trust meine niece, Moira, and whom she chooses to sail with. Most especially the noble captain who helped catch a murderous butcher in Edinburgh. There is talk here now that you scuttled the Fair Winds, and made off with her goods … even her passengers.” The German captain shook his head, “Kapitän, others consider it, but I do not. Bitte … please … just why do you bring meine little niece here?”
Anthony stared at Captain Wilhelm for a long moment. “Many lives are resting on faith … particularly mine right now. We had something to do with the Fair Winds, Captain, but not her destruction. We tried to save her, but when we arrived, she was a floating hulk. No passengers, no cargo. Only the ghosts of her dead crew manned her.”
“So, there were passengers as some are whispering, ja?” Wilhelm asked with a concerned look.
“Ya bet yer boots, Uncle,” Moira said eagerly, leaning forward conspiratorially. “Whole shipload. We found some of their belongings, and where they were berthed, but no passengers.”
“How many are we speakin’ of?” Albert Pryce asked curiously.
Anthony looked over to the Welshman, “One hundred and fifty, all told. Men, women and children.”
“Foolish,” Wilhelm spat angrily. “Nothing to gain from that.” Klaus sat back in his chair, his face a dark thunderstorm of anger. “Bitte, go on. Did you scuttle her?”
“No,” Hunter replied. “We did not. Two of my crew found where the pirates rigged the Fair Winds to detonate the moment anyone was curious enough to look about. We barely made it off in time.”
“Leaving not a sign as to who did the deed,” Pryce added. “Devilish, just devilish.”
“Dead men’s tales,” Krumer said absently, still casually watching the pub around them, full of patrons, “often never get told.”
“Only this time they will,” Hunter added sternly. “We did recover some recordings from the ship’s opti and part of a servitor. Between the two, we’ve voices and conversation. From that, we’ve a name.”
“Who?” Klaus Wilhelm said, an ugly sound undercutting his voice.
“John Charles ‘Black Jack’ Clark,” the captain replied.
Captain Wilhelm and Albert exchanged a shocked look. Klaus sat back in his chair, stunned. “Kapitän, you are mistaken. Johann Clark is not your man. I can speak for him, as he sails for me. He captains one of my ships, in fact. He and his ship have been here for many days. If they had left, he would have told me.”
“Ships?” Krumer asked curiously.
“Ja, ships,” Captain Wilhelm replied, slightly agitated. “I am not so much the pirate these days. That is the work for a young man. Now I am a merchant, with three ships under mein flag. Johann is the captain of one. The Revenge. But he is not your man.”
Moira shook her head. “Uncle, I heard the pirate’s voice, too. I rebuilt the recording. I don’t know him, but the Cap’n does. If the cap’n says it’s him, then it’s him.”
“The man’s more’n a bit troubled, but pirate?” Albert shook his head, “no, not possible. Something else has to be happening here.”
“Uncle, maybe we could talk to him?” Moira asked.
Abruptly, the door to the pub opened, Conrad O’Fallon, wrapped in a thick woolen coat, rushed inside. Looking around, he walked quickly across the room.
Krumer sat upright the moment Conrad entered the room, “O’Fallon, what is it? You look like the spirits themselves are chasing you.”
“Och, more’n like ah tryin’ to outrun ’em,” the quartermaster replied out of breath, placing his hands flat on the table. He looked over at Hunter, “Cap’n, ya gotta a problem. Clark’s comin’ here. He’s not far behind me.”
As if on cue, the pub door swung wide, letting in a blast of cold air. The quartermaster spun around, grabbing the grip of his revolver even as others yelled to close the door.
From out of the cold five men spilled into the room. Once through the doorway, they spread out, three on one side, two on the other. Weathered, hard men, none looked any less forgiving than a rabid dog hungry for a piece of meat. Between them, a sixth man walked through, striding into the pub wearing an obvious, arrogant air like a badge of honor.
He would have been a strikingly handsome man, what some might call dashing with his strong jaw, thin build and long sandy-brown hair. His looks, however, were marred by a jagged scar that ran the length of his jaw from his left ear to his chin. Piercing gray eyes swept the room like a reptile watching for prey.
Abruptly, the scarred man’s hand dropped to his gun belt. In a blur, he jerked a Navy Colt from its holster. Snarling, he aimed at Anthony Hunter.
“You!” He shouted angrily. Patrons scrambled aside, chair slamming to the stained floor.
Hunter’s hand raced to his pistol. Across the room, the scarred man’s gun spat flame. The shot tore past Hunter, cutting a furrow into the wooden table next to him. Splinters erupted in a cloud, showering everyone at the table. Instinctively, Captain Hunter jerked to his left, ripping his gun free of its holster.
“Bollocks!” The newcomer snarled, then jumped as a bullet ripped past him with an angry whine.
He swung his pistol around, only to face O’Fallon’s drawn gun. Without hesitation or even a word, O’Fallon fired again, aiming for the thin man’s chest.
“Cap’n!” Shouted a gangly young man with tangled brown hair, standing near the door. He threw himself forward, shoving the thin man aside. The young man jerked as the bullet struck him, knocking him back into a nearby chair. He fell to the floor in a puddle of blood and broken wood, moaning in pain.
Immediately the room plunged briefly into chaos. Weapons ripped from their sheaths and holsters. Animosity painted with fear and surprise coated the pub as crews from various ships poised on the brink of a small, but very personal war. Then, as quickly as it started, the chaos died away, like a bright hot fire returning to a smoldering ember of raw tension.
No one spoke. No one dared move, save for the occasional furtive glance around the room. Only the faint hiss of warm steam was heard as it rhythmically hurried out the vents in the floor.
After four long heartbeats, the scarred man with the long, sandy blonde hair smiled. It was a dark, ugly little smile, more malicious than friendly. He cut his eyes sideways to look at Captain Hunter, tilting his head slightly like a snake watching its prey. He walked forward, pausing to kick the wounded sailor laying on the floor in the ribs.
“Oh, get up, ye arse,” the scarred captain snarled to the bleeding man, “an do somethin’ useful … like shoot someone.”
Slowly, deliberately, the speaker used the wounded man laying on the floor like a stepping stone in a brook. Stepping deliberately on the sailor’s chest – and by extension, the sailor’s bullet wound – the man crossed over, his cold gray eyes never leaving Hunter. On the floor, the sailor whimpered, then pulled himself away from the combatants.
“Well … ‘ello, ‘ello … now that was a bit of all right, wasn’t it?” the newcomer captain said, his malicious little smile growing ever wider, “Tis not every day, ya get to get the drop on Anthony Hunter.” The man adjusted his stance, gesturing with his pistol wildly, like a pointer.” Anthony, I gotta say … thinkin’ it over … I’m just chuffed to bits over seein’ you here … it must be me birthday! Someone shoulda’ told me!”
Hunter, his pistol aimed square for the thin captain’s chest, narrowed his eyes with barely repressed anger and disgust. “And hello to you, Black Jack. Fancy seeing you here.”