Steam issued through the ten feet of dark rusted pipe like a river of swirling mist. It rose along the curved walls, desperately reaching for the ceiling but never quite touching it. As it exhausted its reach, it sank back down, as if with an unheard sigh of resignation.
John Clark stepped in a small puddle of water as he walked through the thick steam and continued towards a tall, soot-smudged vent ten yards ahead. Behind him, Anthony Hunter followed, coat unbuttoned, his hand resting lightly on the end of his revolver.
“This is the way to the market?” Hunter asked. “The front entrance, I mean.”
John smirked, “not the main one. Just one I’ll take when I find the need for it. It comes out behind a row of booths. No one will be the wiser… not that anyone would ask.”
Hunter frowned slightly, uncomfortable by the implication, but refrained from comment.
Once they reached the steam vent, Clark searched the edge of the tall dark, shuttered opening with his fingers. The dim light from electric arc lanterns filtered in through the partially open slats of the vent. After a few minutes John smiled as he located a metal latch.
“Aha,” he said with a small grin, “I knew it was here. Just had to suss out where. Hard to see in this gloom.”
“Next time I’ll be certain to pack a lantern,” Hunter grumbled.
Ignoring the comment, Clark flipped the hidden catch and pushed open the slats. Warm steam rushed out of the vent opening, replaced with a wave of sounds and smells.
“Welcome to Market Square,” Captain John Clark said with another impish grin.
Through the rolling knots of steam, a great collection of narrow canvas tents appeared. Jammed together in one of the larger corridors that wound beneath the station, they filled the hallway with a claustrophobic set of colors and shapes. Overhead, brightly colored fabric was strung along the ceiling in an effort to mask the bare, soot-stained metal. Faded blues, greens and reds topped the eclectic scene.
Underneath the wash of colored canvas, knots of patrons milled about between various booths and shops of all kinds. Station crew, sailors of all persuasions, butchers, brewers, and all manner of merchants jostled along in an ever changing river of people. Hunter walked to the edge of the activity that drifted between the tightly packed booths like clumps of cattle in a market. He inhaled as the scent of cooking meat and baking bread mingled with the steam clouds that floated among the passers-by like spectral patrons.
“Brilliant,” Captain Hunter said in amazement as he took in the new surroundings. “Simply, a brilliant use of space. This is not exactly what I expected, in the least. One would never know from outside this is even here.”
Clark shut the steam vent behind them, then joined Anthony. “Amazin’ what a spot of ingenuity will do when a group puts their mind to settin’ up a shanty town. Hard to remember this is a few miles up and in the steel and wooden belly of a relay station.”
“Indeed,” the captain replied, his eyes still wandering the canvas tarp booths. “Given what I had been told, I expected back room dealings in boiler rooms. I was not expecting a full trading port.” Hunter glanced around again, “which begs the question, why is this so crowded?”
John glanced around and shrugged. “No tariffs on the goods, or at least low ones. The buggers you see here either live on the station, or pass through regular. Some here set up their shingle cause they can’t get space above to sell their wares. Others? It’s just plain warmer.”
“What about the dock master and his men?” the captain asked. “Her Majesty’s Coast Guardsmen?”
Clark waved a dismissive hand, “They don’t pay the ‘Square much mind, especially since they’ve limited authority here on Port Signal. There’s plenty going on, what with kidnappings and the odd passenger getting themselves lost above. There’s a mass on the Boardwalk above for those airships traveling through. But if you’ve an eye for cargo? Well, here’s where you’ll want to do business.”
Anthony shook his head, “a full trading port and marketplace,” he said with a faint smile crossing his face.
Black Jack clapped Hunter on the shoulder with a grin. “Aye, a full tradin’ port to hide what I been collectin’. One of me better ideas.”
“Here?” Anthony said in surprise.
“Oi! Not right here, but down further in,” John replied throwing his arms open with an exasperated gesture. “You think me that balmy to hide it in a boarding house, or even aboard the Revenge? They search me things aboard the Revenge. They’d have found it as quick as lightning.”
The other captain considered that, giving Black Jack a thoughtful look. “Fair enough, I see your point. If it’s hidden here among all this, just where is it?”
“This way,” Black Jack replied, pointing ahead of him towards the crowds.
Captain Hunter caught John by the arm as the man started to walk ahead. “Hold. What about the Fomorians?” Hunter asked, “we need to watch ourselves. If they realize we’re here, they’ll tear through this place like a storm, putting all and sundry in danger.”
Black Jack pulled his arm free, and gave a small shake of his head. “You got it all wrong. Those Fomorians may be as mad as a bag of ferrets, and far more balmy than me, but they’re not stupid. They know they need money to carry on about like they do. So, they won’t come tearin’ through here like a firestorm.”
Hunter looked out over the crowd. It was busy with people, but not filled to bursting. With the cloth draped overhead, it easily passed for any open air marketplace. It made a kind of sense to the captain. Despite whatever these Fomorians were about, they were pirates and thieves. They needed to sell their goods somewhere to pay for supplies and repairs.
The captain watched a man hurrying by, carrying several bolts of a sky blue cloth. “So, what you’re saying is: it would be a knife in the back, then?”
The scarred captain pursed his lips a moment, hesitating before he answered, “aye, it might.” A worried frown crossed John’s face a moment as he motioned for Anthony to follow him. “We’ll just have to step lively then, and keep an eye peeled. I kept what all I’ve collected about the Fomorians down this way, past the pub.”
The pair slipped into the knots of people, walking along the curved hallway lined with booth upon tarp-covered booth. Products of all kinds passed through here from exotic spices, Persian carpets, and exotic animals to the more domestic Scottish Highland wool, rum or other types of liquor.
However, not all booths were devoted to selling illicit goods. Some were merely a counter in front of a stove, where the cook would baked various pies or meats for sale. Also, not all of the shops were contained along the hallway. At certain locations, the hidden market spread its tendrils into what looked to be wide, and long-forgotten storage rooms for the station. There the more profitable merchants, including a pub, had set up an establishment.
The result was a symphony of sound, sights and smells, all of which were muffled and disguised from the rest of the station by the hammering of steam pistons above and the steady humming of giant propellers nearby. A few yards into their walk, Hunter tapped John on the arm.
“Two men, who look to be station engineers, seem to have taken a keen interest in the way we’re going,” Hunter said just loud enough for his companion to hear.
“One a tall sprout, with a gray peacoat and blue knit cap, next to another with a blue canvas duster with a nasty burn scar along his left cheek?” John asked as he continued to walk forward.
“Quite,” Hunter replied curtly.
“Aye, saw ‘em a moment ago,” the scarred captain replied. “Can’t say as I know ‘em, though that means nothing.” Black Jack nodded towards the makeshift entrance to the pub ahead of them. “No matter. We’ll be stoppin’ on the other side of the pub doors. We’ll be in plain sight, so we’ll have plenty of warnin’ if they come in for a fight.”
The two men slowed, then walked to the far side of the pub doors. The pub, named the Mermaids’ Nose had its fair share of patrons. Most were sailors, but here and there Captain Hunter recognized the coveralls of a station crew member. Anthony leaned against the doorframe – which was, in truth, one of two ship’s figureheads shaped like mermaids – folded his arms and watched the crowd.
Something about this, beyond the fact they were hunted by the most bizarre pirates Captain Hunter had ever dreamed of, left the captain feeling unsettled. It was not the Fomorians, or their elixir, that rattled him – though the elixir and its effects did give him pause – it was the idea that there were apparently so many Fomorians. Especially, if one took census of how many might be among the inhabitants of Port Signal.
Hunter carefully watched the patrons moving about the marketplace. He had lost the two men a moment ago, but an uncomfortable feeling told him that they were nearby. Suddenly, he spied his targets. The two men, one in a gray peacoat and the other with the burnt face, had just walked into view. Anthony watched as they strolled along, seemingly a pair of sailors on leave from their ship.
The captain noticed that the man with the scarred face did quickly glance in their direction twice. The second time, he whispered something to his companion before they hurried past the pub for some unknown destination. Captain Hunter rested a free hand on the grip of his pistol as he watched them leave. He had experienced what Fomorians could do and was not eager to give them any chances in their favor if they sought another fight.
Captain Hunter heard a soft click to his right, followed by the muted sound of wood scraping across wood. He frowned and tensed. “What in the bloody hell are you doing?” The captain asked.
John Clark casually pulled a small satchel from a hidden compartment in the mermaid’s rear. He grinned at Hunter and patted the satchel before sliding the hidden compartment back into place. “Got it,” John whispered eagerly.
“Let’s hope no one notices that you’re leaving with a satchel you didn’t arrive with,” Hunter said sternly.
“… or heard the click of the latch when it opened, eh?” said a rough voice behind and to the left of Anthony.
Hunter eased up away from the wooden mermaid, turning around to come face-to-face with Peter Bauer! The former first mate of the Revenge was dressed in fresh clothes and a relatively clean brown wool coat. However, his face was a mask of bruises, and a welt on his cheekbone practically glowed where he had been burned by steam.
Hunter’s eyes narrowed as he saw two other men of rough complexion wearing wool coats and knit caps draw skinning knives before stepping up behind Clark. Black Jack started to turn, then stopped immediately when he saw the gleam of naked blades.
“Quite a busy day, ja? We were just here to sell some things when what do we see? The two of you,” Peter Bauer said in an ugly tone, his eyes shifting warily between the two captains, watching them like a snake observing two mice. A skinning knife hissed against its leather sheath while Bauer slowly pulled it free. He turned the blade over in his hands, giving Hunter a cold, superior look. “Now, mein Kapitän, I think we shall finish what we started aboard the Revenge, eh? I will have what is ours, and you will be dead.”