The cold air was still, motionless, waiting in anticipation. In that moment, the details of the common room for the officer cabins of the Revenge were cast in sharp, rigid lines: time-worn walls that were smooth from polishing, a small chair forgotten in the corner, and the dark shape of a figure looming just next to the doorframe. In the space of a heartbeat, Captain Anthony Hunter took much of it in, although his attention was riveted to the newcomer.
Acting quickly, Hunter spun to his right. In a single, swift motion, his right fist lashed out for the figure’s head. The captain’s mechanical left fist was already in a tight metal knot, ready to follow not far behind.
“Jings, Cap’n! Belay that!” Conrad O’Fallon hissed, raising his gloved hands to block the captain’s attack.
Realizing at once it was his quartermaster, Hunter stopped his other hand in mid swing. “O’Fallon! What are you doing here?” The captain whispered tensely. “This wasn’t part of the plan!”
“The plan be altered, Cap’n,” the Scotsman explained, standing up straight and adjusting his woolen coat. “Once ye and Cap’n Wilhelm were well aboard, two of the crew from the Revenge waited till ye be both out of sight, then bolted. Krumer and that Mr. Pryce be takin’ after ‘em. Moira saw a couple others set down their work afore they be done and hide away.”
Anthony thought on that a moment, “right after we were aboard, you say?”
“Aye, Cap’n,” Conrad replied. “Just after ye spoke with the man at the gangplank. He turned away, and then the rest started happenin’.”
Hunter glanced at the door to the deck, then noticed a man slumped in the chair on the far side of O’Fallon. The crewman, still wrapped in a dark blue peacoat, fingerless gloves and a woolen cap, at first looked to be asleep, but quickly the bruise on the man’s jaw became apparent. Anthony gave the quartermaster a quizzical look.
Conrad followed the captain’s gaze, “Och, him. Well, Ah caught him comin’ down carryin’ a belayin’ pin. But he be lookin’ a wee bit tired, so Ah helped him get his rest. O’Fallon grinned. “He’ll be feelin’ as fit as a flea, once he be through with his quick nap there.”
The captain shook his head slightly, “Quite, I’m certain of it,” he said wryly. “Let’s get Wilhelm and get off this ship, then … by way of that … just how did you get aboard?” Hunter asked walking towards the door to the main deck.
O’Fallon fell in step beside him. “Moira’s idea, Cap’n. Once they be off-loadin’ a set of really large crates, yet be puttin’ smaller ones aboard, we made our move. During the wee chaos of all that movin’ about, we scurried up like rats between it all. Then just claimed to be messengers lookin’ for Cap’n Wilhelm.”
Hunter chuckled, “bold, very bold, but I understand. I would’ve likely done something similar.”
Just then, O’Fallon put a hand on the captain’s shoulder, stopping him short. Anthony glanced at the Scotsman curiously. Conrad gestured at the two large shadows that filled the doorway right in front of them!
“Cap’n!” Was all O’Fallon managed as his hand dropped in a blur towards his pistol.
Before either man could grab anything, two sailors barreled through the door out of the cold air, crashing into Captain Hunter and O’Fallon!
Anthony doubled over from a fist to his stomach. Then his attacker, a tall man with wide shoulders dressed in a gray peacoat trousers and leather work boots, jerked the captain upright. The sailor drew back his calloused fist and swung at Hunter’s jaw.
This time, Hunter was ready. Blocking the punch with his clockwork left hand, Hunter replied with a hard jab of his own. Striking the sailor across the mouth, the captain’s fist split the man’s lip open, knocking his head to one side. The sailor staggered back, shaking his head slightly and rubbing his eyes. Then, like a mad bull, he charged in again, fists swinging, face twisted in rage.
Meanwhile, a few feet away, O’Fallon had taken a shoulder to his chest, which nearly stole the wind from him. He went sailing back to rebound off the wall with a bang. Staggering forward two steps he gasped for air as his opponent, a second sailor in a blue woolen coat, stepped in close.
The wiry sailor swung once, then twice, hitting nothing but air as O’Fallon sidestepped each blow.
“Merda!” The sailor swore with a thick Italian accent, before lashing out with a hard right fist at the Scotsman’s jaw.
Conrad swatted the Italian’s punch aside as hard as he could, “Och, enough of that!”
The quartermaster quickly stepped in and to the right, away from the punch, but a half-step closer to the man.
O’Fallon grinned, “Now it be me turn!”
Conrad hammered his right fist, hard and calloused with years of work, against the Italian sailor’s face, knocking the man’s head sideways. The sailor staggered backwards, blinking away tears and pain. Not giving the man time to recover, O’Fallon followed him, stepping over with fists at the ready.
Just within reach, the Italian ripped a skinning knife out of a sheath at his belt. “You have a big mouth, eh, Signore? I’ll fix that!”
“Oh, look at ye! Bringin’ a cute wee butter knife to a fist fight,” O’Fallon said mockingly.
The Italian snarled, lashing out with his knife in wild, rage-driven swings. Conrad dodged the first, then the second, tripping the man on the third and shoving him aside. While the Italian stumbled forward trying to regain his footing, O’Fallon glanced around, then smiled.
“As fer me,” O’Fallon said casually, “Ah be bringin’ somethin’ else!”
Reaching back, the Scotsman grabbed the nearest object at hand, one of the rickety wooden chairs near the sole table in the common room. With a grunt of exertion, Conrad flung the chair with all the strength he could muster across the room. Against the far wall from the Scotsman, the Italian had just recovered his footing. He spun around with a murderous gleam in his eye, knife at the ready.
Abruptly the chair slammed into the sailor, wooden pieces exploding around him as the furniture gave way under the stress of being used as a makeshift weapon. Splinters and a cloud of sawdust and chair parts covered the Italian in a hailstorm of wood.
The sailor crashed into the wall behind him, his head bouncing off the seasoned oak with a sharp bang. Oozing downward, the sailor sagged to the floor, his skinning knife clattering to the deck.
“Good lad, ye have a rest and think this lesson over,” O’Fallon said with a smirk before looking around for his captain.
Simultaneously, Captain Hunter was thrown back against the wall like a sack of barley, narrowly missing O’Fallon by inches. Anthony grunted in pain, crashing to the deck. Rubbing his hand across his eyes, he tried to clear the haze from his vision and mind. He blinked, looking up at a large shape approaching. Thoughts clicked quickly into place as the big man drew a razor sharp Bowie knife and stepped forward.
Anthony pushed against the wall, scrambling to his feet. However, just before the enraged sailor took another step, a chair crashed into the man’s legs! Tripping over the broken frame, splintered wood and his own lost balance, the sailor collapsed to the floor. Immediately, Hunter raced forward and stomped down on the wrist of the man’s knife hand. The sailor yowled in pain as the boot slammed down mercilessly.
“Thank you for that,” Anthony said over his squirming prisoner as the quartermaster walked over.
“Och, think nothin’ about it Cap’n,” Conrad replied. “At least we be havin’ one to talk to,” he gestured over his shoulder to the unconscious sailor, collapsed in a heap among the remains of another chair. “Mine be a wee too bent to be talkin’ now. Ah’ll be takin’ that,” Conrad said, snatching up the Bowie knife from the captive’s hand.
The captain chuckled, then glanced down at his new captive. The sailor on the floor looked up with a mixture of anger and frustration, topped with a thin icing of fear.
“Now, Sirrah, that we’ve dispensed with the pleasantries, lets cut to the chase,” Hunter said in a hard voice. “Who are you? Why did you and your mate attack us?”
“Bugger off, ya wanker!” The man snarled back. “I ain’t sayin’ nuthin!”
Hunter shifted his weight, pushing down with his boot and putting just a little more pressure on the man’s wrist. Pain and the awkward angle forced the sailor’s hand to slowly open.
Hunter’s gaze remained fixed on their captive. “Oh? Perhaps you need a little time to reflect on your situation.”
“Ya were snoopin’ about!” The captive said through clenched teeth.
“Quite,” Hunter agreed. “To which I can see being escorted off, perhaps remanded to the dockmaster for questioning. That is the law. However, that isn’t what was about to happen here, was it?”
The sailor’s eyes darted to O’Fallon, then back to Hunter. Slowly, his fear overcame his resolve. “No,” he said in a small voice.
“Looks like he be havin’ some good sense in his head after all,” the quartermaster commented.
Captain Hunter smiled thinly, “excellent. Now lets try a run at this again, shall we? Who are you? Why were you trying to kill us?”
“Me name’s Brian … Brian Tanner,” Brian said reluctantly.
“Good to meet you, Brian,” the captain replied with a mock politeness. “Now, as to the second question you’re so deftly avoiding, why are you so doggedly out to end our lives?”
Brian’s eyes danced nervously between Hunter, O’Fallon and the Bowie knife in O’Fallon’s hands. Mr. Tanner shifted his weight slightly, as if he was preparing to rise.
“Ah’d answer the Cap’n’s question,” Conrad said, with a malicious grin, tapping the flat of the Bowie knife against the open palm of his hand.
Finally, the man closed his eyes with a heavy sigh. “All right, the first mate said ya had to go. He said it was time to clean up. I was supposed to take Antonio with me, and deal with ya,” Brian replied solemnly. “Didn’t count on him,” he finished, jabbing a finger from his free hand in the air at Conrad.
“Who’s the first mate?” Hunter demanded.
“Peter Bauer,” Brian said after a moment’s hesitation. “Mr. Bauer said once we done away with ya, we’d go to the next order a’ business.”
“Mr. Bauer is the first mate then?” Hunter repeated, “interesting. I thought he was merely a sailor that Wilhelm knew fairly well.”
“Which be what on ye wee busy schedule for the day?” Conrad asked angrily.
“Cap’n Wilhelm,” Tanner replied with a brittle voice. “He’s been getting’ curious about what we’ve been about.”
“Like the shipment to Inverness?” Hunter asked pointedly.
“Inverness?” O’Fallon echoed, his voice brittle with concern. “Me Uncle be there.”
Brian noticeably paled, eyes darting towards the door. “I don’t know nothin’ about that.”
Anthony leaned in a bit more. Brian squirmed in pain. “All right! Let me alone! I don’t know what it was, just … somethin’ was wrong about it. Let off me wrist, ya bloody arse, and I’ll tell ya.”
Captain Hunter glanced over to Conrad, who nodded in reply. “No worry, Cap’n. Ah’ll be havin’ me eye on this bloody numpty fool.”
Anthony stepped back, taking his boot off Brian’s wrist. The sailor sat up quickly, scooting back away from Hunter and O’Fallon. “I don’t know what was in it. All I knows is that Mr. Bauer was right touchy on those crates. Picked the bloody things up in Munich, from some Prussian. Scuttlebutt said the Prussian blighter had some factory or another. I say that’s rubbish. Them crates, they didn’t come from no factory! And that Prussian, he looked too stiff-backed to be anythin’ else but a bloody military bugger up to somethin’ dodgy!”
Brian looked over to O’Fallon, “Those crates … they gave me the willies all the way to Inverness. Black wood, locked with three padlocks, they were. Even the cap’n looked nervous about ‘em. He and Mr. Bauer had words over ‘em, I was told.”
“However, you were never curious?” Hunter demanded sternly. “Not even enough to pop down for a quick peek?”
Brian paled a shade lighter, then swallowed. “Once … I was takin’ the dog’s watch. No one was about, and it was a quiet night. So,” the man half-shrugged, “I went snoopin’. I saw ‘em. Black as evil they were!” Brian swallowed. “I heard … voices,” his voice dropped to a haunted whisper. “I heard somethin’ was hauntin’ ‘em. Somethin’ bloody awful. Makin’ people vanish.”
“Sailor’s talk, Cap’n,” Conrad scoffed. “Haunted crates?”
“Like zombies infesting a relay station over Belgium?” Hunter said with a smirk. Conrad started to reply, but decided against it.
“Laugh if ya want, don’t change that they’re haunted!” Brian snapped angrily, voice rattled with fear. He looked back at Captain Hunter. “I heard voices … lots of ‘em. Cryin’, beggin’ for someone, anyone to hear ‘em. I couldn’t take the sound of it, and I ran back up deck.”
“Could be the people from the Fair Winds,” Conrad said to Hunter.
Anthony shook his head, “not likely. According to what I read in the log book, that Inverness delivery was before the attack on the Fair Winds.” Hunter turned his attention back to Brian. “What about the Fair Winds?”
Brian hesitated a moment, but resigned himself to his fate, “I’m gonna be killed for not doin’ me job anyway … they were taken off ship. Right ‘afore we set charges. Cap’n Clark was all out of sorts over the whole thing. Supposed to find somethin’ but it was missin’. I heard him arguin’ with Mr. Bauer, sayin’ that Mr. Bauer can tell his Prussian masters to just sit tight, that Cap’n Clark’ll do his part of the bargain, they just gotta keep theirs. Mr. Bauer didn’t like hearin’ that. Told Clark he’ll get his part of the bargain soon enough.”
“I don’t like where this is going,” Anthony said, “we need to find Black Jack immediately.”
“Aye,” O’Fallon replied with a dark look. “First, we need to be gettin’ off the ship.”
Abruptly, a sharp staccato crack of gunfire split the air outside. Hunter and O’Fallon dove away from the doorway immediately. Brian, taking advantage of the moment, leaped to his feet and lunged at O’Fallon. The sailor took one step, then jerked backwards as pair of bullets ricocheted off the doorframe and hammered into his chest. The man collapsed to the deck, his shirt and coat turning a deep crimson.
Brian had no sooner hit the deck than shouts, screams of pain, and cursing came from outside, followed by another hail of gunfire! Hunter looked at the doorway, then over to O’Fallon, “I know that string of eloquent cursing. It’s Moira!”