"Sir, I must protest! You cannot do this!"
Governor Marbry winced at the rising volume of Captain Allison's voice, but managed to keep his demeanor calm despite his apprehension. He knew that Allison's own men were on the verge of mutiny-- the officers for want of going home, the impressments for want of going ashore. Allison himself was clearly and wholly miserable, and to Marbry that was no wonder, what with a seditious crew here and a family waiting to marry him off back home in England. If not for the promise of a gentle wife and home, he might well have been on the verge of desertion himself.
But Marbry knew better. Allison was a man of honor, a man who understood that his duty was to the law and the king of England. Allison may not have liked Marbry very much, but Marbry was the King's Man in Jamaica, and to the captain that was all that mattered. "I have done it. Come, captain, this is a simple matter. I have ordered that you and your men are to remain in the Caribbe' waters until such time as the piratess Bloody Beth is hanged or shot. It's that simple. I perceive that the problem has not been your competence, of which I have no doubt, but the resources at our disposal. It isn't possible for one vessel to patrol all of the waters around Jamaica, and yours is the only vessel permanently assigned here. According to the letters I have received, your replacement should arrive shortly."
"And you hope that with two ships we shall provide enough eyes to seek out this Piratess and her vessel that has eluded you for nearly twenty years?" Allison didn't need to lace his comment with sarcasm. The words said everything.
"You had better, Allison. It has been three weeks yet since the crew of the Jacob's Ladder abducted Jacob Harcourt and his wife. There has been no call for ransom, no word from the Ladder in all that time, although my spies have heard of them plying a smuggling trade between here and Southern Mexico, taking rum and sugar to the casillos down there. I do not know what wrong those pirates believe the Harcourt family is responsible for, but they have visited their wrath upon the whole of the family now, and I for one would like to hear of an end to it."
Allison nodded gravely. The troops who had escorted Lord Harcourt and his lady to their deaths had been punished with utmost severity; he had heard that Marbry had them imprisoned for months and their thumbs branded. "Still, Governor, with only two ships--"
"Three ships, Allison. Perhaps more."
Marbry reached into his desk and pulled out a thick sheaf of papers. He drew out a pen, dipped it, and signed the top sheet. "I have been instructed to give this to you. It is a letter of pardon to the Captain and Crew of the ship Bellamy's Error, captained by one William Morrow, a rather famous pirate who is known to hate Beth with a passion that rivals my own."
Allison looked at the paper and marshaled his emotions. Marbry's mention of hatred toward Bloody Beth surprised him; it was as if he were admitting to something other than a simple legal issue. "Sir, Morrow's men brawled and killed one of my men last year in a bar down on the waterfront. I do not want to associate with that kind."
"You don't have to like him, Allison. Just use him to get to Beth. There's little chance that he will remain pardoned; it is for all past acts, not future ones. The man who follows you will have a free hand to do as he sees fit with Morrow, just as you are free to do as you deem necessary to capture that witch!"
Allison swallowed hard. Marbry had a point. More importantly, he had the King's signature. He sighed. "Very well, sir. I shall tell my men that we will be staying, and they can make of that what they will. I am sure that none will like it, for their own reasons, but they will live with it. The lash remains a great motivator of men."
Marbry nodded. "I'm sure it does, Allison. I'm sure it does." He held up his glass. "To your success, Captain."
Allison nodded. "If that is all?"
"That is all." Marbry dismissed him with a wave. Allison stormed out.
Marbry watched him disappear down the hallway with a mixture of amusement and apprehension. Allison's men could well mutiny at any moment and everyone associated with the Captain knew it. His own officers were well beyond restless with their desire to get back to England. And if Marbry's suspicions were correct then there was more trouble to come. The Ladder had to be sunk, with all hands on board, or Jacob and Elaine Harcourt might yet come back from the dead. That was something he had no wish to see.
"You've become a regular visitor to our little corner of civilization," Lofn observed as Allison tossed his coat over a drying rack. "I do hope this isn't breaking you."
"My family can well afford it," he growled, sitting on one of the waiting couches. None of the girls who worked at Lofn's was about at this hour. Most were resting away the afternoon heat, waiting for the evening rush of customers.
"Oh, dear," Lofn said. "That does not sound like a happy man."
"I am sorry, miss. But I have just been informed that I am to stay in this rotted Hell-hole until I have either caught the Piratess or she has killed me. And I am anxious, truly, for neither. The second is unpalatable, and the first has proved impossible!"
"I see." Lofn sat down in a large, stuffed chair opposite the couch. "And you came here to burn off some rage?"
"I came here because it is a better alternative to a tavern," he said. "At least here, one does not leave with a hangover."
"That is true," Lofn replied with a grin. "Perhaps one of the girls can help you. Are you familiar with Amalynn?"
"The Spanish girl? Of course. She's lovely."
"Would you like her for the day?"
Allison thought for a moment. "That would be most gracious of the two of you."
"Then it will be done." She rose and disappeared down the hallway. Moments later she returned, the small, dark girl with the eyes that smoldered like twin torches smiling at him. He rose and bowed to her, ever the gracious gentleman. "My lady Amalynn."
She curtsied perfectly. "My Captain Allison," she replied. "It is good to see you again." She took his hand. "What brings such a hero to our establishment so early in the evening? The salon is not until well after dark."
Allison tried not to react at the label of 'hero.' He had done nothing heroic at all in his time here. He had seen several men, and now one ducal family, die while in the king's service on this island. "I think I would rather avoid the salon tonight, miss. I am not much in the mood for the company of my fellow man."
"No?" she said, her voice high and soft, her accent as exotic to these lands as an English rose. "Well, I am not your fellow man, Captain. I am a woman, and I know what a man like you needs." She led him into her boudoir and settled him down onto her four-poster bed, now drawn open against the late day heat. He sat passively as she opened his shirt and put it aside, stroking his chest. It should have registered, somewhere, deep within, but it didn't. He could feel her hands upon him and he wanted to respond. He was numb with shock and anger still, at William Marbry, at King George, at the madness of it all.
Amalynn looked into his face, and he looked away. "I may not be able to use the services I have purchased."
"Captain, we have many services here," she said. "Help me remove your clothing, then lie on the bed, on your stomach." He complied, tiredly, not wanting to argue the point. "It is my time you have bought, and my services within that time. Allow me to use some of them on you."
He felt her straddle his buttocks, and felt a twinge of alarm that she might be attempting something sodomitical upon him, but no, she was merely using that most fleshy part of him as a seat, as her hands touched the broad expanse of his shoulders and pressed down against them. He could feel the tangle of her pubic hair tickling at the base of his spine. He began to protest, but decided against it, and as she kneaded her fingers into his flesh he began to relax, finally, and to give in to her attentions. He allowed her to have her way with him, as her hands worked their way down his back, over his buttocks, and down his legs. Massage was one of those things Amalynn was treasured for among some clients; Allison had never thought to ask for her services in that fashion.
And yet it worked. Soon his mind was distracted from Marbry and his vicious predicament. Instead, he became acutely aware of the beautiful woman straddling his hips, and his overactive imagination provided her to him with her small breasts naked to his eyes, swaying back and forth. His erection was pushing painfully down into the bed. He moaned under her touch, his arousal making it hard for him to lie still.
She dismounted from his body and he turned over. "You are better now, yes?" she asked, and without waiting for a reply straddled him again, this time over his cock. Without a pause she sat upon it, taking it into her. He sighed deeply as her sex enveloped him, surrounded him. Her furred nether lips pressed down upon the root of his cock and he felt his own hair mingle with hers.
She did all the work, as she had during the massage, stroking and caressing his body with her own. He reached up and closed his hands upon her breasts, but gently. He had no wish to misuse her; just to have his pleasure, fair trade for fair coin. He watched between her legs; as she rose, daylight would reveal the lips of her sex sucking at the shaft of his cock; when they were together, darkness would obscure the disappearance of his manhood within her.
It felt wonderful, and he had no desire to either shorten it or force its prolonging. It did not take long anyway before that familiar tension built within him. Seconds later he climaxed with a gentle groan, an almost unmanly sound to his ears.
She touched his cheek and left him. "I will be back shortly, Captain. Rest. You appear to need it."
He did not reply. The heat of the day and the heaviness of his eyes took him away.
"Captain Allison. Captain Allison!" Someone was shaking his shoulder. He opened his eyes to see Amalynn looking at him querulously, "You said you didn't want to be here when the main of the salon opened this evening. It is almost that time."
He groaned softly as he rose from her bed. It was one of the privileges of visiting in the afternoon, a comfortable bed in which to take a nap. He regretted having to leave it so soon for the small, private bunk on board the Mary. "Thank you, Amalynn." He dressed himself slowly, watching her lithe form as she handed him his shirt and his boots. "I cannot wait to get home."
"To England, si?" Amalynn asked. Allison nodded. She sighed. "I would love to visit England and Spain. But I have not the money to bribe my way off the island and onto a ship going that way-- not that there are many. I would have to reach a neutral port in Florida or Mexico, and have enough money to get from there to my home." A far away look filled her eyes. "I wish I knew what family I had."
"And I hate waiting for mine," Allison agreed. He counted out the usual amount, added a small gift, and handed it to Amalynn. "I have gotten my money's worth."
"You're very welcome, Captain."
Allison left Lofn's establishment feeling slightly more tired, slightly less rich, and only slightly happier than he had when he had come in. He didn't begrudge himself or Amalynn the experience; he hadn't expected any relief from the pressures put upon him by his harsh governor and the rules of this hellish place.
He walked down Capitol Hill slowly, his boots thudding unhappily against the packed dirt that was all the road to be found in Kingston. He passed depressed-looking houses cut out of mud brick and plaster, all whitewashed to keep out the horrid summer heat, all kept spotlessly clean to catch the precious rainwater. He did not hate the people or the place so much as the circumstances. Looking down from the Hill, he could see small lights here and there, the lanterns and candles of taverns and homes coming to life against the fall of night. A smattering of torches lit the area around the few mansions nearby, home to the new landed gentry, titled and not, who made their fortunes with audacity and cruelty.
He looked up at the sky and its millions of stars just starting to fade in with the coming dark, and the moon that rose over the harbor. He did not notice the two figures walking up behind him until one stuck something into his ribs. "Easy, Captain."
He startled at the voice. A woman's voice! "What..."
"This," she said, jabbing him in the side a little harder, "is a rather ordinary pistol. Please don't make me use it on you."
"What do you want with me?" he said, his body going cold with fear. He could only imagine one woman who would dare assault him in this fashion. The line of reasoning that led from there did not make him feel any better. "Beth?"
"Aye," she agreed. "Come with me. We're going to talk." She led him into a tavern, past a group of quiet drunks that eyed him with contempt as he walked by, and into a back room. She shut the door behind herself. Her companion, a short, swarthy gentleman, watched him carefully as she pushed the head of her cloak down to reveal her face.
So this was Bloody Beth, he thought. She was a rather pretty woman all the same. Shapely, with a strong face and a nose of almost perfect geometry. Her eyes were powerfully green, and her eyebrows sharp and dark. It was the kind of face a painter would have adored in his artwork.
He decided to open with a gambit. "If I do not report to my ship shortly, they'll be looking for me. And if I were to disappear, you can imagine where their suspicions will first turn."
"I do not doubt that they will have their suspicions, Captain, but they are not expecting you tonight. I know that well enough. In any event, I have come here not to kill you but to have a talk with you. We have many things to discuss." She sat down in a chair opposite his own and crossed her legs. "We are waiting for another party to arrive. In the meantime, I would like to discuss with you what your intentions are now that the Governor has forced you to remain in Jamaica upon threat of your commission and discharge."
"You know about that?" he asked, outraged. Did she have spies, and were they everywhere in Jamaica?
"Of course. It has been the talk among your junior officers for some time now. Your men are on the verge of mutiny, you are on the verge of a breakdown." She tilted the gun in the direction of the door. He thought of rushing her, but her companion kept his pistol equally ready. "We will discuss how to alleviate such matters tonight."
"And how do you propose to do that? Are you turning yourself in?" he asked, sounding more sarcastic than he felt. In truth, he felt bone-weary, and was not at all in the mood to argue.
She was about to reply when the door opened. Two more cloaked figures walked into the room and closed the door behind them. "No," she replied. "I would like to talk about the matter of the Harcourt family."
Allison became truly angry and sputtered as he spoke. "The Harcourt family!" he demanded. "You want to discuss that fine house that you and your predecessors cut down? For that alone, my dear Piratess, you should be tied to the most barnacled dockpost in all of Jamaica and left to bleed for the sharks!"
"But our family is not cut down," said one of the two newcomers as he pushed back the hood of his cloak. "In fact, for the first time in ages it is of a piece." He stepped into the light of the lone lantern.
Captain Allison sputtered. "Lord Harcourt! You are alive!"
"Obviously," Jacob replied. "And quite well, your heroics notwithstanding, Captain Allison. You recall my wife, Elaine?" He gestured to the other figure in the shadows, who now stepped forward. Both of them were dressed in the garb of natives, and were indistinguishable from their pirate company. If Beth were pretty, Elaine was one of the most beautiful women Allison had ever met. She was a creature that made men swoon with a glance. He had seen her first in her country gown, which obscured many of her charms. Her outfit now did as much to accentuate them. She was ravishing.
"Now then, Captain," Jacob continued, "obviously you have met the Piratess, Bloody Beth, and you know her by reputation. I'm sure that you have heard many nasty things said about her. What you perhaps did not know is that this woman here is, in fact, the lady Elizabeth Rowena Harcourt, my sister, and daughter of the late Duke Harcourt, our father."
"Is this some kind of joke?" Allison said, his eyes flickering back and forth between Harcourt's and Bloody Beth's. He could see the familial resemblance. It was stronger than he wanted to admit. There was also something to the cut of her jaw and the line of her nose that reminded him of another recent acquaintance.
"No," Beth replied. "It isn't. And if I hadn't saved my brother and his wife from the assassins who killed my father nine years ago, we wouldn't be here having this conversation. You see, Captain Allison, you are an unwitting pawn in a conspiracy. Two forces are at work here-- ancient hatreds and very modern greed. The Duke of Coke would like to see the house of Harcourt dead, and Governor Marbry would like to be very, very rich." She laid out the entire story, beginning with the raid on her household nine years ago, and her flight and life aboard the Jacob's Ladder. She left out her discovery that she was an invert, at least partially.
Allison sat quietly through her story. "I don't believe it," he said at the end. "The Governor involved in stealing from the King?"
Beth replied, "All the King knows is that the Harcourt plan, with all the details, was lost when pirates raided his home and killed all those within. What he could not know was that a few of us lived, and have lived, on the Ladder for these past many years."
"As you can see," Jacob continued, "we are unharmed. My sister has had to survive with her wits and her skills because Marbry left her no choice. She is a wanted woman wherever she goes in the British Isles. Think about it, Allison: why is the price on her head so much higher than anyone else's, and why does the bounty specify that it wants her more dead than alive?"
Allison looked up. "Even if that is true, what do you want me to do about it? I can't just give up my commission now. Marbry won't let me go until I bring you in."
"We need to bring Marbry down. And that means that I need you to cease chasing me like a hound, Allison. Only for a little while. A few weeks at most."
"That will not be as easy as you make it sound, Captain Beth. Marbry has another vessel coming, and he has hired William Morrow with the promise of a pardon."
"Morrow!" she gasped. "That old bastard!"
"Is this a problem?" Jacob asked.
"It can be," Beth admitted. "Morrow is a pirate, like myself. He hates me with a passion, but never has had much reason to go after me himself. Now he does, with a raise in bounty and the pardon. He doesn't know my ways, but he knows pirates better than any man in the King's navy." She turned back to Allison. "You see, I know how to bring Marbry down. My blood, my brother's word, is good enough for that. It is the Duke of Coke that I need to get to. And I have no idea how to find the indictment against him."
"I cannot help you there, my lady," Allison said. He looked up at Jacob. "But I will take the Duke at his word for now, that he is well and a man of his word. I will tell no one of our meeting."
Beth sighed. "Thank you, Captain. Someday, if all goes well, we may meet at a ball in London."
"I should like to trade sea stories with you then. If only to the shock of those who might hear."
She stood up and gave her pistol to her companion. "I shall look forward to it." She held out her hand.
He clasped it momentarily, nodded, smiled, and turned for the door. The duke opened it for him, and he was gone.
"One," Beth said.