SHARPS AND SAPS
Hard to tell apart, frankly.
“LISTEN,” says Gato. They’re back in the galley. “We ain’t done. We find the brat, convince him he’s got a new best friend. You! You’re gonna help him. Why? I promised a fat fee, why else? The grandfather will come through for you. My ring’s the down payment. He knows how I value my pearl, it were my father’s bequeath. That’s my line. Actually, I won it at dice.
“Turns out, it’s a clunker. I wear it to remind myself of a lesson learned: trust no one, least of all a swell. They’re worst of all. Look, I don’t push. I never push. I leave all fools free to bust their money as they like. Men will bet while they got breath in them. That’s nature. I give ‘em a fair bilk. If I’ve a better memory for cards, that’s still a fair go. And if I thrive on cheerful losses until I’m ready to be vicious, that’s still honest enterprise. And if I have jiggered-dice, giving me slightly better odds, well, that’s their fault, not to be up on tricks.
“Gentlemen, titles, even, are not honorable in return, at least not to a lowlife like me. They got appearances to keep up, paste taking the place of the blunt they’re forced to hock from time to time. When they’ve run through their poke, they’ll toss a fine-looking ring into the pot. A dumb country boy, dazzled by fancy duds, says to himself, these folks stink of money! That’s a honey of a pearl! How was I to guess it weren’t the real thing? That’s how I know my diamonds are no bamboozle. After that trip-up, I made it my business to know stones. Here’s your ring, put it on so’s he sees it on you.
“I say to him, look, you got valuables, hand ‘em over, or be relieved of them, no good of it. You need to bribe your way out of this. I got this cute heel. Keep your goodies safe here. He admits, there is something in the cabin, or here, or there. We hustle him to where-may-be, he discovers the junk for us. I stash it. We divvie up later, after you talk me onto your raft. I don’t care for the prospects on this one. I don’t have a good feeling about this situation a-tall.”
Jack Cole is all for this plan. If Cole has pulled a fast one, he can be searched later on the Turbulent. If he’s on the level, he doesn’t have hold of the merch, he soon will. The boy will undoubtedly allow the stones to be smuggled to safety, entrusted to the mule Del Gado. But if the crud has hope the Santa Clara will be allowed to proceed intact, he’ll find a way to be left behind.
Cole rolls his eyes. “A word to the wise, friend,” he croons. “Meredith’s a sleaze, fine family or not, you hit that nail on the head. You won’t live to report this ransack, no matter what he swears to. He ain’t about to have our name circulated–hell, a name ain’t the problem, we got documents declaring us the Fool-of-the-World out of Where-You-Will. It’s the description that’ll sink us. We churn these waters regular, legal as you please, but always ready to dip our bread into any gravy we can sop up on the side. The captain’s a snake. Don’t try to deal with him. You’ll be shark bait faster than you can say Plum Pandowdy. Me, I pluck out the tune, you step to it. Ya! Find ‘im! the man says. And ain’t we been foraging for the truffle all morning?”
“I got a fair idea where to look. He’ll be on the half-deck, where last I seen ‘im.”
“The devil! Us, hours on a wild goose chase?”
“To my jubilation, sir! I prayed to bag the marbles before the pup, brought to heel, owned to them in a brainless bid for mercy. You boys was all for commencing your sniggle on the weather deck. You’da found him, no time. That ain’t the way, I begged, never dreaming you’d heed. You coulda knocked me over with a teaspoon, I was that startled. The man makes sense, your big-shot declares. Imagine that! Maybe it’s my honest face. Hey, maybe it’s my swell English. I‘ve got an ear, I’m told. I speak French. Dutch too, a bit. I don’t admit to it. ‘cept the French, of course. I got a wedded wifey, so she believes, in La Rochelle. Everyone knows it.
“Not much gets by me in the way of lingo. I’m a handy man to have around. I picked up the English in prison. I’d be rotting there yet, but for I got friends in high places. I was bribed out, given a jim-dandy of a character, and flung aboard the Santa Clara, honestly employed four years now–oh, my mama would be proud!–with orders to keep my nose clean, my eye peeled, and my trap shut.
“I’m respectable in my old age. I likes it! I mean t’ go on being respectable, and this windfall as has dropped ker-plop in my lap is gonna to shie me into nice society. I‘ll clean up my French, gutter French it be. I guess I’ll remake myself head to toe, take on a brand new hussy, neither of my females apt to pass muster in a claret-sipping, mince-mouthing drawing room. In a rough-tumble saloon, any day of the week. In a prissy salon, all gilt and silk discomfort, forget it. I never did hanker after dainty flesh, but I’m come into money, seems. Maybe I’ll take down an heiress this go-round.”
I knew it! I knew there was more to the creep than he’s been willing to divulge. He’s been playing it mighty close to the chest. Hernando Del Gado, we’re all ears. Tell your tale. Well? Don’t you have anything to say for yourself? Huh! Apparently not. I guess one who hopes to get a leg up the social ladder isn’t about give out with embarrassing details of former nasty employments. I guess I don’t blame him either, me having a few skeletons in the closet myself.
Look at him! Broken nose, bitten off ear lobe, deep scar on the underside of the right jaw, under the beard. Examine the neck closely, you’ll see it. This guy is gonna impress an heiress, with that puss? Good luck with that, fella. That countenance has scoundrel written all over it. But, you never know. An outta-my-way attitude has an appeal of its own. Let’s not count him out quite yet.
Pedro has cried himself to sleep. Good thing he’s hog-tied or he’d have given himself up by now. Not from cowardice, no-no-no. He’s come to the realization that for his crewmates to survive, he must surrender. If he hesitates to do so, it’s because A. He still thinks the cat can save them and B. He’s gagged, he can’t call out.
What’s that cat up to? Are you familiar with the phrase, Great minds think alike? It just may be true. Sly, independently of Del Gado, likewise aware of a mysterious log, also invented a use for it. He knows where it resides, having watched it being withdrawn from a compartment as he relaxed in front of a bank of windows, enjoying a sunset. He’d sauntered over to the captain’s desk, yawning and stretching, as if his only objective was to find an alternate site for a snooze, and got a good look. Items of code–of this he had no doubt, having dabbled in scripts himself–comprised a good portion of the material.
He formulated a plan nearly identical to the aide’s whimsey. His version went a step further. He would tart up the pages with art–coins, a chest full of gold, skull and crossbones, the works. They’re off French coast. He’d draw a map of La Rochelle. He’d passed time there, years back. He can construct a plausible representation of landmarks and distances.
He rushes to Moreno’s cabin. Normally he would have tapped at the door. Pedro, his bed just beyond, would hear and let him in. Also, a small window is kept cracked for him. The door, as it happens, is open. Sauntering past the guard, he heads to an embellished footlocker. He inserts a claw into a spot along the base, causing a secret drawer to jut very slightly. He hooks the lip, pulls it open, extracted a thin leather sleeve, and slaps it shut.
Shipboard furnishings are either built in or bolted down to prevent migrations in high seas. You’ll see no open shelving, only doors with latches, everywhere. There are mighty few of the cubbyholes which cats, in particular, are partial to. But within a small Delft-tiled coal-burning stove, installed by a man who demands his comfort in cold climes, a grilled slot above the fire-chamber, designed to keep platters warm, or to heat gloves and mufflers prior to facing frigid temperatures topside in northerly latitudes, might be occupied in relative comfort by a small animal. Cats adore such spots, high, low, anywhere they can tuck themselves away. Isolation trumps ease. Sly enjoys the seclusion of the dinner-keep. He is especially pleased to be able to watch the aide from behind iron fancy-work, in no danger of being kicked or swatted.
Gato’s allergic to cats. He can’t enter those rooms, since Sly’s arrival, without sneezing his head off. He can’t tip-toe in while the captain sleeps. Captain Moreno, glad of the man’s infirmity, has a bowl of leftovers available to the animal at all times, to keep him close.
Sly adores the security of the cubby. No, there is no danger of a fire being lit under his butt, not off Aquataine in May, thanks much for your kind concern. The stove is centrally located, he sees everything that goes on in the cabin. It’s tight, he can’t stretch out, but the privacy is marvelous. No one, not Gato, nor even Pedro, suspects where he’s bestowed himself.
It’s this hide-away into which the cat squeezes, folio clenched between his teeth. The English filth–yes, they are his countrymen, but that doesn’t alter his assessment–must not catch him at work. He’d previously stocked the area with quill and ink pot, rather than resorting to his leads, of which he has a finite supply. His plan had been to dress up Moreno’s entries with scrawls of coins and gems and crosses, crosses as in X-marks-the-spot. Surely the thugs would choose to investigate a bonanza in jewels, and postpone an attempt to collect what had to be an inferior compensation. That had been his intention, but he didn’t follow through on it.
In that cramped keep, his nose an inch from papers he had previously regarded from a fair distance, Sly recognized a faint but telling scent of lemon. You or I, with our lesser sense of smell, would have noticed nothing, or thought nothing of it. To one with his acute olfactory, with a background in intelligence (he’d been a player in King Rupert’s spy agency), this meant one thing: invisible ink. It had to be investigated. He withdrew the sheaf of pages from the leather binder and rushed to deposit it in Pedro’s coat. He intended to doctor a certificate from King Rupert and to insert it back into the folio, but that material, stored in a sleeve along with the belt, was missing.
The cabin door swings open. Jack Daw is in. Perhaps he can find a treasure map himself. Sly trots behind him to watch..