BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
Everything hung upon his next carefully chosen words. Morgan Seagrave reflected on that fact, and swallowed stiffly. Even that slight movement encouraged the keen-bladed dirk to prick the damp flesh of his Adam's apple.
For just a moment, his surroundings seemed strangely clear to his senses, as if glimpsed through waters made suddenly placid in the eye of a storm. The dark teak panelling of the ship's cabin, the swaying lamp overhead, the rhythmic flicker of sunlight through the windows, all these things appeared to him as if seen newly, for the first time.
Aye, reflected Seagrave grimly. The first or the last.
"Do you have an answer, Seagrave?" repeated his bearded opponent through clenched teeth that flashed with a hint of gold. "You were never a man lost for words. What do you say to my new arrangement, eh?" With calculated cruelty, the pirate slowly rotated his tattooed wrist, turning the dirk and increasing the pressure just enough to bead the shining point with red. Seagrave's narrow gaze held steady. "What's to stop me cutting your throat here and now and keeping both halves of the map for myself? I think you'd do the same to me, if you thought you could get away with it."
The attack had been sudden -- though not altogether unexpected. Only moments before, "Jolly" Jack Travis, gold tooth glinting, had carefully set his own half of the map on the ale-stained table, then waited for Seagrave to do likewise. Theirs had been a pact made by necessity between two black and cunning pirates. At stake was nothing less than the lost treasure of Long Ben Avery, the bloodiest of the Pirate Roundsmen who, two decades before, had set a course for the Indian Ocean to loot Indian shipping on its way to the Red Sea. Avery's greatest and most brutal triumph had been the taking of the Mogul's own ship, Gunsway, her cargo a fabulous madman's dream of blazing gold, gleaming silver and dazzling gems. The Gunsway treasure was the largest swag taken during the brief frenzy of the Pirate Round, but, though most of Avery's men were eventually caught and hung, Avery himself never was.
Nor was his treasure ever found.
Not, that is, until a map turned up, purporting to point the way to the hidden riches. But here there was a catch. The map came in two pieces, torn down the middle. Seagrave had come upon his half in a brothel in Nassau. Travis had located his in New Founde Land. Neither trusted the other, but there had been little choice in the matter. Only by combining their two halves could they hope to get rich. So, meeting in the Windward Passage, Seagrave had boarded Travis's ship alone, there to be escorted to the great cabin. Under Travis's hungry gaze, Seagrave had spread his half of the map down against the other half, demonstrating that the torn edges matched perfectly. Of course, he wasn't a fool. He had known well enough that, if Travis planned to betray him, that moment would be the time; even in that cabin, he was outnumbered, three to one.
Sure enough, there had followed stealthy motion in the shadows behind the bearded pirate. Travis's two sullen henchmen moved furtively to either side, gaunt hands fingering the cutlasses in their scarlet sashes, making ready should Seagrave try to escape.
Suddenly, Travis heaved from his chair, shoving the table to one side as his dirk sprang to hand, throwing a sheen of white fire in Seagrave's eyes --
That had been seconds ago. Since then, no one had moved. Travis could already have stabbed Seagrave a dozen times. That he had not, told Seagrave the man was less confident than he appeared. After all, Seagrave's own ship was only a shout away. True, Travis's crew still outnumbered Seagrave's, but it would be a bloody contest just the same, and Travis knew their reputation as well as any man alive. They had carried the day against worse odds.
None of which meant a damn thing; not so long as that dirk pressed at his naked throat.
Slowly Seagrave smiled. Travis's dark eyes slitted suspiciously. "Do you think this is funny?" he snarled.
"Not funny," Seagrave replied with a casual assurance at odds with the thundering of his heart. "I'm just surprised. I thought you knew me better than that."
Travis scowled like a cloud passing across the sun, and his voice hissed through grating teeth. "What are you talking about, Seagrave? Out with it, before I spit ye."
"We had a deal, Travis. Aye, it was a deal we'd both just as soon have not made, but make it we did. Since each of us had half the map, we agreed to work together, splitting the treasure down the middle."
"Aye," growled Travis impatiently. Seagrave noticed the dirk was digging more and more insistently against his throat. "Out with it. What's your point?"
"Just this." Seagrave's smile spread until it seemed more like the baring of white fangs. "I knew when I made that deal that my partner was a filthy, lying, cheating, double-crossing poltroon who'd sell his own mother if he thought anyone would want her..."
Travis snarled savagely, sinews leaping on his wrist as he angled to drive the dirk into his enemy's gleaming throat.
"...but I didn't know he was dumb to boot."
Travis checked his thrust, one eye squinting quizzically. Behind him, his two henchmen exchanged puzzled glances, their earrings glinting in the darkness. "You're bluffing," Travis growled. Just the same, there was doubt in his tone.
"Am I?" Seagrave nodded toward the map. "See for yourself. I knew you'd pull something like this."
Travis hesitated, thinking Seagrave was merely trying to distract him. "Watch him," Travis instructed his two henchmen sharply. "If he moves, run him through." Still pressing the dirk to his opponent's throat, Travis glanced down at the two halves of the map. After a moment, he looked up again. "The edges match. That's the real map. You're bluffing."
"Oh, that's the real map, all right. But I'm not bluffing. Look closer."
Travis studied the map again, his teeth grinding irritably in his cheeks. "I don't see..." His breath blew hard between his lips.
"That's right," said Seagrave. "That's the real map, all right -- with a few additions. You see, on the entire map only one place is named -- the starting point -- and that's on your half. On my half, the treasure is marked -- but, with no place names, it's useless to me. Between those two points is the course you have to follow to reach the treasure. But I knew you'd try to cheat me, so I added twenty other false treasures and twenty false courses. By trying them all, you'd find the treasure eventually -- but it might take you ten or twenty years to do it."
Seagrave fell silent, his hand played. His life balanced on an edge as keen as that pricking his throat. Travis studied the map for a time, obviously trying to fathom a flaw in Seagrave's cunning treachery. One hand tugged at the black tangle of his beard, pensively. Finally, he looked back at Seagrave. Gold glinted amongst the yellow of his teeth. A deep ferine chuckle spat from his lips, and he lowered the shining dirk, his shaggy head nodding with appreciation.
"You have me, Seagrave," he conceded, taking a step back and shoving the blade hard into the jade folds of his sash. "You're everything I heard you were. Aye, just as clever as they said."
Carefully, Seagrave touched his hand to his throat, eyeing the blood that came away on his fingers. "And you're everything I heard," he returned grimly. Then he inhaled, as if relieved the threat was past. Yet, still there remained a subtle tension in the set of his broad shoulders and the line of his jaw. Had Travis been a more observant man, he would have noted this and wondered why. As it was, Travis merely laughed boldly, and caught up a crystal goblet from the table, scarlet wine sloshing over the rim and across his hairy knuckles.
"Still, no hard feelings, eh?" he chuckled. "We're cutthroats's after all. You can't blame me for trying. A toast, then -- to our partnership and no hard feelings!"
He raised the goblet expectantly. The swaying lamp overhead cast its lambent light through the wine, momentarily painting both pirates a bloody scarlet. Seagrave hesitated, then took up the second goblet and touched it to the other's. The crystal chimed. "To our partnership," he said. He drained the wine in a single go. Smacking his lips gustily, he raised the empty goblet a second time, and his lips curled in a tight mirthless smile. "And no hard feelings."
With a sharp jerk, he shattered the goblet on the boards at his feet.
Instantly, there came a tremendous thump at the cabin door -- followed by a snarled curse.
Travis and his henchmen threw startled glances at the door, and the pirate's eyes dilated as he realized the trick that had been played on him; the broken glass had been a signal.
But then his surprise increased to hear the voice outside the door howl furiously: "Morgan, the bloody door is locked!"
Seagrave paused only a moment as Travis wheeled to face him, eyes ablaze. "Bastard!" snarled Travis. Together, they grabbed for the map on the table, clawing desperately, each succeeding only in catching up his own half.
Even as each man reared back with his prize, Travis's dirk flashed in his fist, and two sheening cutlasses grew from the shadowed hulks of the henchmen behind. Seagrave wasted no breath cursing his ill luck, but moved with blinding quickness. Even as Travis thrust murderously for his belly, Seagrave grabbed at the overhead lamp and yanked it crashing to the floor. Orange flames roared up in a curling pillar between the men as the kerosene exploded. Travis bellowed in startled pain as the fire engulfed his knife-hand. He stumbled backward, the dirk tumbling from his scorched fingers, his face scarlet with rage.
"Skewer the bastard!" he screamed, clutching his hand. "He's taken my ship, but he won't leave this room alive! Pin him to the wall!"
Seagrave dived instinctively to one side, and was well he did. A blinding flash threw the entire scene into sharp relief as a flintlock crashed deafeningly in the hand of the left henchman, the red hot ball tearing a hole in the boards at Seagrave's heels. Rolling as he landed, Seagrave sprang to his feet, brandishing a cutlass in his right hand and a dirk in the left.
Already the fire had surged across the floor to the far wall, igniting a cabinet filled with charts and casting a hellish illumination over the desperate scene. With a furious snarl, Seagrave heaved up his cutlass, catching the blade of the nearest henchman a split second before it would have clove his skull down the middle. White sparks rained from the impact and he threw back his assailant even as the second henchman lashed at him from the side. Twisting at the last possible moment, he felt the blade slit the white fabric of his shirt, a shallow red line marking his ribs. He hacked down at the henchman, his cutlass gliding cleanly through the man's shoulder, filling the air with a grisly ruby mist.
The henchman groaned and pitched on his face.
Seagrave wheeled in time to deflect another stroke aimed at his skull by the first henchman. Through the furious roar of the flames, he heard the sound of repeated impacts on the cabin door and gruff voices cursing lustily.
"Fetch a hatchet, you dogs!" Seagrave shouted in disgust. "And be quick about it, there's a fire in here!"
Though he had evened the odds somewhat, and though he was easily the better swordsman on an open deck, this battle was fought in tight quarters with a frenzied randomness that could easily see a blade sheathed in his guts purely by chance. Then too, the smoke from the fire was rapidly suffusing the air with a choking haze, stinging his eyes and catching in his throat. He had to finish this, and quick.
With a snarl, he struck back at the henchman, his blade flashing like white flame in his fist. But Travis had chosen his men well, and though the henchman stumbled back at the onslaught, he managed to deflect several cuts which would have laid open many a man with ease.
In the midst of his attack, Seagrave dimly sensed movement at this back. But before he could react, the henchman, seeking to distract him, leapt forward, lashing out with reckless desperation. Forced to defend himself, Seagrave beat down the flickering blade, then cut viciously upward, burying his cutlass deep in the other's belly. But the sudden dying spasms of the man's muscles momentarily locked on the length of steel before Seagrave could draw it out. Only a second was lost, but, in that second, something flashed at his ear and Seagrave was struck across the temple by the flat of a poorly aimed cutlass.
Black globes danced in his sight as he tumbled to the floor. Though dazed, with blood spilling into his eyes, he spun to one side as he landed -- and was rewarded by the sound of a cutlass thudding home in the floorboards at his back. He heard Travis curse blackly, and realized the blade had stuck fast in the wood. Seagrave thrust blindly at the sound, and felt the keen edge of his cutlass rip glancingly through flesh. Travis bellowed in pain, and Seagrave grinned a savage snarl, clearing the blood from his eyes with a feral toss of his head.
At the same moment, the swirling smoke cleared just enough for him to see Travis stumbling back against the far wall. The bearded pirate clutched his throat with white, claw-like fingers. Black blood pumped in a grisly stream down his wrists, sizzling as it rained on the flames at his feet. He lurched drunkenly, his eyes wide and glaring with a burning, fathomless hate. His lips writhed as he spat out his last words.
"You've killed me, Seagrave. You've taken my ship. But I'm taking you to hell with me."
Travis groped at a wooden barrel set against the wall beside him. With a sudden sickly chill, Seagrave read the word stencilled on the barrel: POWDER.
Travis wrenched off the round lid and heaved against the barrel with what little strength remained in him. It tumbled over with a crash and a river of black gunpowder rustled out across the floor. By a miracle, the powder missed the flames, but by no more than inches.
In toppling the barrel, Travis had fallen to his knees. Seeing that the powder had missed the flames, he grabbed up a burning chart, mindless of the roaring flames that scorched his white knuckles. Seagrave saw what the pirate intended and saw too that there was no way he could cross the cabin in time to prevent it. Travis knew this, and he laughed with a dying, vengeful madness as he thrust the fiery chart at the gunpowder. Seagrave's right hand gestured suddenly, as if to salute his foe -- and something flashed like a spark in the air between the men.
Travis shriek shrilly, the flaming chart tumbling from his hand. He grabbed blindly at the dirk hilt grotesquely protruding from his chest -- then slumped down against the wall, the fire glistening in his sightless stare.
At the same moment, Seagrave heard the cabin door crash open behind him, and the startled shouts of the men as they encountered the raging inferno within.
"Morgan!" shouted First Mate Hengist. "Morgan, where are you?"
Seagrave staggered to his feet, one glance telling him the fire had cut off escape through the doorway. "Get the men off the ship," he ordered, crossing to Travis. "There's powder in here."
"I can't get to you. I'll go out through the back window. Hurry!"
"But, Morgan --"
"Run, blast you!" With a savage wrench, he tore the dirk from Travis's chest, returning it to the sheath under his arm. Tearing open the deadman's shirt, he snatched up the other half of the map, grimly amused to note that his dirk had cut right through its centre.
He sprang to the back window, which looked out over the sea behind. His cutlass whistled and the glass exploded outward in a silver rain. A desperate backwards glance showed him the sea of flames lapping at the powder's edge. He threw himself through the window, even as the powder ignited at his back. A thunderous concussion blasted his ears and rocked his senses, and hungry flames surged eagerly through the window, grasping at his tattered shirt and following him as he fell down, down to the black, rolling sea beneath...
Seagrave's crew cheered brutally as the prow of Travis's ship slid smoking and hissing beneath the heaving waves. On the quarterdeck, Seagrave leaned heavily against the carved gunwale and watched her go, his emotions a mixture of satisfaction and regret. Satisfaction that he had gotten what he had come for: the other half of the map. Regret that he had not been able to keep Travis's ship in the bargain. And she had been such a fine vessel, too. Though not half so fine as Seagrave's own ship, the Sea Dog.
"What should we do with the prisoners?" asked Hengist, standing at his side.
"What have you done so far?" Seagrave asked. He still felt dazed from the blow to his head, and he clutched the wooden rail with white hands.
"They're locked in the hold. We had to kill about half of them to take the ship, but the rest gave up without a fight. Still, I think they'll be trouble. We should throw them to the sharks."
Seagrave considered the suggestion for a moment, his mind operating sluggishly. Hengist was eyeing him with a doubtful squint. Seagrave shook his head.
"We'll let them decide," he said. "If they agree to join us, they can. Otherwise, we'll set them adrift in a boat, with food and water."
Hengist's brows bent over his eyes. "Morgan, I don't think we should take that chance. Men like these are loyal to their captain -- even after he's dead. They could cause trouble later."
"Are you questioning my orders?" Seagrave's tone was rigid with menace. Hengist paused before speaking again. His voice was conciliatory.
"You should have that cut on your head looked to, Captain," he said. "You don't look well."
The implication was obvious and Seagrave wheeled on his first mate with a low snarl. "There's nothing wrong with my head, First Mate. My decision stands. If anyone lays a hand on those men -- anyone -- I'll put the lash to his back 'til the salt wind blows on his white ribs. Am I understood?"
For a moment, Hengist regarded his captain, a dark shadow playing behind his slitted eyes. Stiffly, he replied: "Aye, Captain. No one touches the prisoners."
Seagrave turned abruptly and descended the companionway to the waist, then slipped into his cabin beneath the quarterdeck, aware of the many eyes that followed him as he went. He barely made it in and closed the door before the room spun around him and he tumbled senseless into his bunk.
When he awoke some time later, silver moonlight played illusively through the window to his cabin. The room was hung with thick shadows. The Sea Dog groaned in the grip of the rolling swells, and the waves slapped flatly against her hull. Other than this, there was only a restless silence.
Seagrave felt oddly relaxed and dreamily detached as he studied the drifting motes that swirled and sparkled in the moonbeams. He could feel the dried blood on his forehead, where Travis's cutlass had caught him, but there was no pain. He knew Hengist had been right; he should have had the wound tended to. But that would have to wait until the morning. For now, he wanted only to lie here and rest.
For a time he lay in silent half-sleep. Then, slowly, through the clinging veils of lethargy, he grew aware of a strange scent hanging in the cool salty air. Strange. It was the subtle fragrance of lilacs; yet that was impossible. The Sea Dog hadn't made land in a month. Could they be passing some uncharted island? But, no; the scent was strong, as if originating in his own cabin.
He frowned, inhaling deeply, filling his lungs and finding the aroma strangely intoxicating. For a moment, he closed his eyes. Then he opened them --
Without warning, a figure materialized suddenly from the shadows, as if conjured out of the darkness itself. The figure fell across him where he lay, tumbling into his arms -- and, with mounting astonishment, he saw it was a girl, perhaps no more than eighteen. His amazement grew as his hands felt the supple smoothness of her, his eyes saw the moonlight glossing her breasts, and he realized she was naked but for a scanty thong garment about her loins. A dream! he thought in dazed wonder. I must have been hit harder than I thought!
The dream-girl struggled frantically a moment in his embrace, pushing rigidly against his chest with small balled fists. She looked down into his face, panting from the effort, her enormous eyes showing she was just as astonished as he.
As the moonlight limned her face, Seagrave's breath stopped in his lungs. She was surely the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. Her emerald eyes shone with flecks of captured moonbeams, and her parted lips were ripe and trembling. The smell of lilacs was on her flesh and seemed woven with the warm breath gusting quickly between her white teeth. He still held her pinioned in his arms, and for a moment, she stopped squirming, allowing him a better look.
Aye, a dream-girl she had to be.
Her skin was a pale, almost luminous orange. He could see quite clearly that the strange tinting wasn't confined to her face or arms, but covered her entire body. Then, too, there was something odd about her hair. It was cut very close to her head, and seemed almost like fur. It was black and a slim ridge extended down the centre of her forehead almost to the tip of her nose. There was a magnificent shimmering ruby set between the curves of her breasts, but he couldn't see what held it in place. There was no necklace, no straps.
His eyes had grown wider than her own as they slowly took in these strange details. But now they grew wider still as he noted two shimmering blades, like cutlasses, reflecting the moonlight behind her head. The blades had an illusive ghostly aspect. They seemed translucent, invisible except where the moonlight flashed iridescently over their slim surfaces. And they moved; slowly, like praying hands, they came together and moved apart, together and apart --
The girl's renewed struggles drew Seagrave's attention back to the lithe young body in his arms. Instinctively, he grimly tightened his clasp, bearishly squeezing her until her twisting stopped and she gasped for breath. She might be just the product of a knock to the head, but this was one hallucination he intended to hold onto --
Then his dream became a nightmare.
Two pale faces emerged slowly from out of the darkness behind the dream-girl. They were monstrous visages, impossibly long and inhuman, with grotesquely curved chins and huge hooked noses, and bulging, pupil- less eyes like glistening white eggs. Their mouths were the mouths of toothless old men, with wrinkled inward-curling lips, and the moonlight gleamed moistly on their bald blue-grey scalps. But as hideous as were their faces, Seagrave's mind fairly reeled as he saw that their two sinewy necks connected on the bony shoulders of a single repulsive body.
Not two creatures, but one with two heads!
The girl noticed the look on his face and shot a fearful glance over her smooth shoulder. Immediately she turned back, a light of hunted desperation in her flashing eyes, rigid horror in the sudden trembling of her tangerine flesh. Her expression was frantic with desperate pleading. Her lips parted and she whimpered: "T'an lac!"
Instantly, she was torn from his grasp with a brutal, monstrous strength, as if snatched by a gust of wind. Seagrave bounded totteringly to his feet, still shaking off the chains of sleep. But his cabin door stood open and both the girl and the creature had disappeared...
Next episode..."The Sharks will Finish the Job!"