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9.

THE JIG IS UP
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COLE, encouraged to dip an oar into the conversation, for once in his life told the truth. “Buried treasure? Rot! We were after a cache of stones. We made up a yarn to get past a half-wit, so’s to hunt down a stash of gems.” He regretfully produced his stone. He’d be searched. Best to volunteer it. “This here’s from a whole fist-full, says, what’s the name? Gado? Him, work on him. He’s your thiever.”

. . . . . It was Gato’s turn to squirm. He wasn’t about to admit to jewels on board and lose out on them completely. That story had to be squashed. “It’s the other way entirely,” he insisted. “I ran a con, gemstones to be got, to have my chance at the codebook. Ask Moreno if I ain’t been dogging him for weeks, trying to get a squint into the business. I’m a wonderful tenacious snoop, ain’t I, sir?”

. . . . . “What about these diamonds? Where’d they come from?”

. . . . . “That junk? Glass! Always I got shams on me, for when I spot,” he winked at John Cole, “a gooney-bird.” Two sparklers were impounded; there’d be no getting them back. He’d try to protect the remainder. Anyone with a brain would realize, if he gave away two diamonds, there must be more. Did Cole get that?

. . . . . He clasped his hands and smiled serenely. “Always prepared, that’s me. Put on a good show, you’re golden. Here’s a tip: it don’t hurt to tote frauds in a trick heel. That stunt just reels them in. Time and time again I’ve prospered off that joke. It’s a winner, friends. A word to the wise, Your Eminency. Keep me close. Resourceful I be. I’m a precious commodity myself.” Gato was supremely confident. He figured he could talk his way out of just about anything. Hadn’t he talked his way out of a stretch in Marshalsea?1

. . . . . “This glass, that’s the diamonds you been promoting?”

. . . . . “There are no diamonds, not here. But there is a codebook, God’s truth. You accused me of a gyp of my crew-mates. If you’d got hold of the boy and gone your merry way, I’d be a dead man, a noose over the yardarm, or a knife in the back. I should have kept the cipher-story to myself, and pacified revenge-minded with visions of fat pickings once you’d grabbed your Duke and beat it. Then we’d whack Moreno. We nearly paid with our lives for his slickery. We tear the cabin apart. I bust the code. With a little luck, we’re all sitting pretty.”

. . . . . Captain Meredith was dubious. Del Gado had that effect on people. They were always dubious, but they always came around. Almost always.

. . . . . Maeve Wiggins had been the exception. It was she who’d suckered him. “I’ll remember you, sweetheart,” he’d promised as he was led away in chains. “No one gets the better of Hernando Del Gado.” She’d taken the stand against him, horrified by the unwitting part she’d played in a Viscount’s unfortunate demise. A dainty way about her, had Maeve Wiggins. And a face, the face of an angel. She suckered judges, even. Her scams put his swoggles to shame.

. . . . . You’re thinking, this do-do’s gonna get a pat down sooner or later. How come no one sees a bulk under his coat? Ha! A marvel with his quick hands, the former footpad jettisoned the harness as he and Cole scurried past wreckage. He tripped over fallen rigging, careened into a pile of rubble, and pushed it between layers of sailcloth awaiting repair.

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. . . . . “The keys, if you please, Mister Goodwin!” demanded Meredith. The confiscated keys were spread out on Moreno’s desk. “Which opens the chest?” he barked. “Don’t make me take a pike to it. I want it for myself. I’ll not have it destroyed.”

. . . . . Captain Moreno pulled a delicate key from the array. The lock was popped, the desk cleared, and the contents dumped out. There were currencies, and coins in abundance. There were letters of credit. There were contracts. There were official communications, from the partners, from the board of directors, and there was personal correspondence, from a wife, a brother, and, uh-oh, a cousin, sporting the distinctive green seal stamped with the rampant lion of the principality of ________.

. . . . . Del Gado stood alone behind the wing chair. The English were crowded around the desk. Moreno drifted next to him. “The letter,” he muttered. “The wafer of green. On the left. See it? Get your butt over there, you snake. It’s been a tough day for all of us. I’ll call for a round of refreshment. My extra special stuff, no one snubs that. Break it out. Set up a tray. Do the honors, serve it round. When you get to Meredith, fumble the liquor. Drench that letter! Destroy it! The grandfather will triple any profit you foresee from this disaster.”

. . . . . Sly, under the chair, caught the curt exchange. A letter must be rendered unintelligible. He didn’t need to hear more. He howled, and leapt. The seamen froze, too surprised to react. One man tried to dislodge him from atop the stack of documents. Claws drawn, he parried every blow. He chewed determinedly at a wad of wax until it was unrecognizable. Then he loosed a blast of urine over the pile. The ink on one letter in particular dissolved into a gray smear. Captain Meredith, infuriated, drew his knife. Sly came within thirty seconds of having his throat slit.

. . . . . The outer door burst open. “Captain, sir!” a voice cried. “We got him!”

. . . . . The cabin cleared. Sly rushed, with the rest, to the waist. Pedro was seated on the capstan. His head was bowed. His arms were tightly folded. His lips were clenched shut. Giles Goodwin balled a fist and jabbed it in the boy’s face. “Talk! See this? It’ll split your pig snout in a minute!”

. . . . . Sly pushed through the gaggle of onlookers, climbed into Pedro’s arms and screeched, in his high, thin voice, a peculiar but unmistakably native north country English, a dialect with a strong border-land lilt to it: “Manners, gentlemen!” he snarled. I’m no Spanish dandy, you nitwits! I’m English. Half, anyway. My Pa is out of the Pennines, Lower Lisle, to be precise. Do ye know it? Resilient, its people. Stubborn, not easy cowed. Lord! Ain’t I been tormented enough, shackled under sail all day, hardly able t’ breath? Fetch me a bite, and a nip to settle m’ stomach. Then I’ll talk. Christ! Here I’m praising holy high heaven since we first spied you coming on. English! My Pa’s folks! Ha-lee-loo! What do my friends do, first off, but promise t’ drub me cause I’m so upset I can’t get a word out. Get away. I can’t take no more!”

. . . . . During this shaky recitation, Sly, his back to the interrogators, nuzzled the boy’s cheek as a cat will do, if he likes you a whole bunch, concealing the fact that the child was not the source of the spirited reprove. Pedro caught on, matching his mouthings not so awfully well, but better all the time, to the spew of outrage. He was careful to keep his head down. His eyes shot daggers, but his lips, aside from an occasional sneer, were submerged in fur.

. . . . . Meredith stepped in. “Easy, son. You’re safe now. An English lad, is it? Down, you hellhounds! Don’t scare the cannikin to death! Spirits, please, Captain Moreno. Got something sweetish, that’ll slide easy down a laddie’s throat?”

. . . . . The cat breathed a sigh of relief. They just might pull the thing off. Ha-lee-loo!

 

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  1. Haute-Navarre is fictitious, although the country of Navarre did exist in this period.