"Bloody Ben" Coffin in
by Jeffrey Blair Latta
Chapter Nine - The Secret of the Ship Eater
Quickly the pirate squirmed his way over to the cutlass, turning on his side and taking the hanger between his bound hands. He worked his cords over the edge, back and forth, breathing low curses under his breath, his slitted eyes fixed on the rising water steadily creeping up the stairs. One by one the hemp fibres parted under the blade's caress and then, abruptly his hands were free.
Coffin sprang to his feet, catching up the cutlass and lantern, and raced for the stairs. Down the steps he bounded, into cold sea water already risen to his waist. There was no sign of Scroggs' light in the darkness ahead. He held his lantern high, just out of the water and started down the tunnel. It was hard going, the water serving to slow him down, dragging at this limbs, hampering him even as it continued its inexorable rise.
Soon it was up to his chest, then his shoulders, and there was barely room to keep the lantern clear of the rising flood. He knew he wasn't going to make it out before the water would be over his head. He would have to abandon the lantern and swim the final distance in darkness--
Coffin staggered to a halt, eyes flaring as his light played over the surface of the water just ahead. That surface was broken by Scroggs' plumed tricorn hat, like an island in the middle of a black sea. Already suspecting what he would find, Coffin took a breath and ducked his head under the water. Sure enough, Scroggs was down there, beneath his hat. The villain had drowned, and a glance revealed the solution to the mystery of the grille which they had passed before--that and the monster said to guard the treasure.
The grille must have been controlled by the same machinery that controlled the water. The grating had receded into a slot, opening a pit below. Scroggs must have come upon it suddenly, not noticing the drop until he'd put his buckled shoes right into it. The monster had done the rest.
Aye, it was a monster, just like legend said. A monster clam.
The thing was huge, with a fantastic maw that had clamped on Scroggs' legs holding him there, keeping him from escaping while the waters slowly rose around his head and drowned him. The two sacks of gold and gems sat beside the pit, still gripped by Scroggs' dead hand. Even in his final moment, he hadn't been prepared to left go of them.
Having seen enough, Coffin surfaced, gulping air. But the water had continued to rise and now there was no more room for his lantern. As the water reached the wick, the flame flickered and died. With a curse, Coffin dropped the lantern and pushed past Scroggs' grotesque corpse. With all his soul, Coffin hungered to grab up the loot, but he knew it would mean his life if he did. The extra weight would slow him down. He had no choice but to swim for it.
A moment before the water reached the top of the tunnel, Coffin filled his lungs and dived under. He began to stroke. He was already exhausted, and suffering from the blow to the head. There was no light to see his way by, no way to know if he was swimming the right direction. Onward he swam, onward through unending darkness, until his lungs ached and his pulse pounded like cannon fire in his ears. Then, just when he thought he had reached the end of his endurance, his fingers struck stone stairs.
He exploded from the well in the entranceway to the tunnel, the sky overhead a light blue with the first kiss of the rising sun. For a moment, he slumped on the stairs, half in the water, drinking great lungfuls of air like the sweetest draught of Canary wine. Then, when he had recovered, he looked around to make sure he had not been seen. No one had discovered the bodies of the guards they had killed. That was something, at least. He climbed from the well, still carrying his cutlass.
What should he do now? He knew he had no reason to stay on this island; that he should take the longboat and return to the sea. But he thought of the girl, Anne Spotiswood. She was still in Blackbeard's clutches, in deadly peril--peril partly the result of helping Coffin escape. True he was still sure she had lied to him, but he wasn't sure where the truth lay. If she was telling the truth about a King's squadron of ships coming to attack the island, those ships were sailing into a trap now that Blackbeard knew. It was early morning. The ships would be here soon.
Coffin owed nothing to the Royal Navy, but he couldn't see letting them fall victim to Blackbeard's "ship-eater", whatever that might be. No matter how Coffin looked at it, he had to rescue the girl and save the squadron.
To the pirate, the thought was as good as the deed. Having made up his mind, he slipped his cutlass into his sash, snatched up one of the muskets from a dead guard, and dashed away into the emerald mystery of the waking jungle.
"Stand clear!" Coffin warned them, and the hands jerked out of sight even as he placed the musket to the key hole and pulled the trigger. Sparks flashed in the pan, dazzling his sight, and the musket crashed, sending a ball tearing hotly through the metal of the lock. Through the billowing smoke, the door burst wide and the grateful seamen poured out, shouting and cheering, Lieutenant Glasspoole in the lead.
"Good show, sir!" the lieutenant enthused. "I shall see you receive a medal for this deed!"
Coffin thought more like he would receive a berth at Gallow's Point for his trouble, but he kept his mouth shut. Then, before another word could be spoken, a cry rang out: "The prisoners are escaping! To arms! To arms!"
Coffin wheeled to see five pirates just coming around the far corner in the corridor. All five paused in amazement. The man in the lead had sounded the alarm.
"Determination to me!" Lieutenant Glasspoole shouted and, grabbing down a torch off the wall, he charged down the corridor straight toward the astonished pirates. On his heels came the two hundred seamen of the Determination, a howling ravening mob thirsting for bloody revenge.
Even though the pirates were armed while the seamen were not, the ruffians turned pale as they saw that frightening crowd bearing down upon them and, wheeling, they sped off to seek reinforcements. The seamen chased after leaving Coffin alone in the corridor.
Well, he thought, that should serve to distract Blackbeard's henchmen at least. Now, where to find the devil himself...
Suddenly, a scream drifted down from somewhere in the fort above--a woman's scream!
Coffin whirled, raced down the corridor and up a flight of stairs, coming out in the courtyard above. In the early morning light, shadows were long, and it took a moment for Coffin to orient himself. This was where Anne Spotiswood had taken him earlier in the night. In the distance, he heard gunfire, as the escaped seamen armed themselves and fought with the pirates. Then he heard the scream again, this time recognizing the sound came from the battlement above.
He sprang to the stairs and raced up to the high ramparts, cutlass in hand, teeth clenched in a snarl.
He bounded onto the parapet, dropping into a fighting crouch. In a flash, his slitted eyes took in the scene. Blackbeard stood looking out over the sea, gazing out over the teeth-like crenellations of the battlement. He cut a magnificent figure, tall and burly against the silken blue of the morning sky. Beside him, bound to the ensign staff atop which float the Jolly Roger, was the girl, Anne Spotiswood. Her eyes were wide, dark pools of terror. Seeing Coffin, they widened, pleadingly.
Blackbeard turned at the sound of Coffin alighting on the parapet. For just a moment, he seemed surprised to find Coffin alive. But then, recovering quickly, he jerked one of the six flintlocks from his baldric across his chest and placed the silver barrel to the girl's temple.
"That would be far enough, fellow-me-lad," he hissed to Coffin. "One more step and I'll put a ball through her pretty little brain."
Coffin stopped. Looking past Blackbeard, he could see the billowing sails of six tall ships making a course for the island. The girl had told the truth about that, at least. The squadron was coming in answer to her signal.
Seeing the direction of his glance, Blackbeard chuckled and nodded. "That's right. The squadron is coming, and I have a little surprise for them. I'll give them a taste of me ship-eater!"
"This ship-eater," Coffin asked, stalling for time, "what is it?"
Blackbeard seemed surprised. "Ye mean ye haven't guess yet? I'd've thought it was obvious enough."
He reached behind and picked up a long wooden staff left leaning against the stone merlon. Brandishing the staff, he raised it in the air. "That's the advantage of being mistaken for an Egyptian god. They let ye into their holy temples where they keep all manner of interesting articles. And in one temple I came by this. The very staff that Moses hisself used to part the Red Sea!"
Coffin just stared. It wasn't possible, was it? The Staff of Moses?
Seeing his doubt, Blackbeard just laughed some more. "I see ye have yer doubts. Well, then, I guess a demonstration is in order."
All this had distracted Coffin. He didn't notice until it was too late as two henchmen came charging up the stairs behind him. He froze as he heard the cocking of their pistols. But Blackbeard waved a hand.
"Avast! Don't kill him yet. Just take that hanger off him. I want him to see this for himself."
Relieved of his cutlass, Coffin could only stand there in bitter helplessness, watching while Blackbeard turned back around to face the approaching ships. The legendary pirate raised the Staff again, and shouted to the sky: "Behold the parting of the waves!"
Then he rapped the parapet with the end of the Staff. The effect was as instantaneous as it was impossible. Far out at sea, in the path of the approaching ships, the water began to part. The rolling blue waves split open in a great yawning crevasse, the crack spreading, cutting through the swells in a line straight toward the unsuspecting vessels. The chasm seemed bottomless, a great black maw with white sea-spume rising from within like smoke from the mouth of a volcano.
Coffin would only stare, his jaw dropping. Impossible, but he was seeing it. He recalled what Anne Spotiswood had said to him before: she had called this power monstrous, and monstrous it surely was.
And she had been right about another thing. No ship could escape Blackbeard's "ship-eater"; the entire world could be held to ransom by such an infernal thing, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
"Blackbeard!" Coffin's bellow caused the pirate to half turn in surprise. Coffin was smiling. Blackbeard frowned, surprised by the reaction. "That's a fine bit of magic you've got there, no doubt about that. But you're not the only one can work magic. I have a little magic of my own."
With that, Coffin reached into his sash and drew out his Spanish doubloon. It gleamed in the glow of the rising sun. Blackbeard regarded the coin in puzzlement. "Here's what we're going to do, matey," Coffin said. "I'm going to flip this here doubloon. If it lands heads, well then, you go on about your business, use your Staff to sink those ships and whatever else you want to do. I won't stand in your way. But if it lands tails, well, then--then I take that Staff and you die like the dog you are. That's the way of it--heads you win, tails you lose."
In the distant ocean, the yawning crevasse was fast approaching the ships. There were only seconds left before they would plunge over its roaring brink. Blackbeard merely laughed.
But Coffin grimly flipped the coin into the air. It tumbled high, reaching its peak, then fell back, landing on his arm, covered by his hand. He lifted his hand and regarded the coin. There was a pause. A smile played on his lips.
Barely were the words out of this mouth than it happened. Twenty feet further along the rampart, the battlement exploded. In an instant, and with a deafening crash, coral stone and mortar was blasted into the air. It hurtled skyward in a vast shower of stone and dust, fire and smoke, the whole then falling down on the heads of the astonished company below. And then a second explosion ripped through the fort, and a third, and a fourth, each one blowing the battlement into a confusion of shattered airborne rubble.
Perfect timing, Coffin thought with considerable satisfaction. When he had visited the powder magazine the previous day, he had taken a lens from his telescope and positioned it in a window so the dawn sunlight would be focused on a sack of gunpowder. It always helped to think ahead. (see Chapter 6 ~ The Supreme Plasmate)
No sooner had the first explosion gone off than Coffin was moving. He threw his shoulder into one of his guards, sending that man reeling backwards over the edge of the rampart. The man plunged screaming into the sea. Whirling, Coffin found the second man already tumbling down the stairs, knocked unconscious by a piece of falling coral. He spun to face Blackbeard.
But the legendary pirate captain was having his own problems. The explosions were rocking and cracking the coral stones underfoot, great chunks falling away into the sea. Blackbeard could barely keep his balance. He stumbled backward against a merlon, arms pinwheeling, only to have it crumble away behind him. For just a moment, he perched on the brink, arms waving desperately, then--he tumbled out into the windy void and plunged down, down into the crashing white waves far below.
He had dropped the Staff of Moses as he fell. It landed on the edge of the parapet, teetering precariously. Out in the rolling sea, the great impossible chasm suddenly sealed like a closing wound, and was gone. The squadron sailed calmly over the waves where only seconds before death had waited for them all.
Coffin sprang forward and untied the ropes holding the girl to the ensign staff. She wilted into his arms with a sob. He held her a moment, relishing the supple warmth of her body, while the explosions finally played themselves out and a strange, numbing silence settled over the scene. The dust slowly blew away on the wind.
Gently Coffin pushed the girl away from the crumbled edge, then picked up the Staff of Moses and regarded it narrowly.
"I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it for myself," he said, shaking his head in wonder. "The Staff of Moses. But you were right. This is monstrous. It should be destr--"
He froze at the sound of a pistol cocking. Slowly he turned to find the girl brandishing a flintlock dropped by one of the guards.
"And just what's the meaning of this?" he asked tightly. "What game are you playing now?"
"I'm sorry," she said with sincerity. "I wish it didn't have to end like this, I really do. I lied to you. Those aren't Royal Navy ships out there. Those are Spanish ships. I made a deal with them. They are paying me to steal the Staff of Moses to give it to them. But I would have done it anyway. Blackbeard really did kill my father."
"But the money doesn't hurt, does it?" Coffin said bitterly.
"Whoever controls a power like that controls the world."
"Aye," nodded the pirate grimly, "that they would." For a moment, he regarded her narrowly, considering. Then he took a gamble. "Then you're going to have to shoot me, girl, 'cause I'm afraid I can't let the Dons have this ship-eater. It's too much power for any one nation to hold. Far too much."
"I'll kill you."
"No you won't."
And with that, he hurled the Staff far out over the crashing waves. It fell down, down, down, finally vanishing amidst the roaring spume and thundering spray. For a moment the girl stood there, the pistol aimed at his heart. Then with a shrug, she lowered the weapon.
"They'll kill me for failing them," she said simply, only the slightest shiver of fear in her voice.
Coffin considered, then laughed explosively. In the distance, more gunshots rang out. There was shouting and the sound of clashing swords. "You should have thought of that before you made your deal with the devil. As for me, with Blackbeard dead, I think I can round up enough of these dogs to make me a crew. The way things are going, they'll follow me wherever I lead, sure enough."
"And where will you get a ship?" she asked sceptically.
"The Queen Anne's Revenge is still at anchor in the lagoon. Her canvas is set and ready to sail. We can slip her cable and stand to sea before you can say Jack Flash."
"I'm coming with you." Her voice was firm with conviction. Coffin just laughed at her gall.
"And what makes you think I'd have ye?"
She reached into her shirt and drew out a scroll of parchment--a very familiar scroll.
"I have the map to the ransom treasure."
Coffin frowned doubtfully. "But you said the map was a fake. You said they refused to pay the ransom."
For a space, the pirate studied the girl as if sighting an enemy sail just coming over the horizon. A smile of admiration played over his lips. He nodded slowly, as if relishing a prize jest. "Aye, girl, you're the devil's daughter herself. And, between the two of us, me thinks the Caribbees will never be the same again!" And, with that, he took her arm and ushered her to the stairs as if leading her into a waltz at court in Buckingham Palace.
Previous episode: Beneath the Pyramid
The Ship Eaters is copyright 2001, Jeffrey Blair Latta.