He went back to his chair on the balcony, but the morning's tranquility was shattered, and he flung the lukewarm tea out of his cup and refilled it with neat cognac. Damn Ulysse and his "help," he thought. I should never have left Haiti and changed my name.

He sipped his brandy and scowled, remembering how convincing Ulysse Segundo had been at first. The man had arrived in Port-au-Prince in the first week of August, and had immediately begun negotiating letters of credit from the most respected European banks. He had made a good impression, socially: he spoke French beautifully, he was cultured, well-dressed, the owner of a fine ship - which, though, he kept at a remote mooring, ostensibly because of a woman aboard who was recovering from a brain fever.

Hicks had been impressed with the man's evident wealth and independence when he was introduced to him, and, a few days later, when Segundo had dinner with him and quietly offered to let him participate in a couple of less than ethical but lucrative-sounding investments, was impressed too with his intimate knowledge of the international web that was New World economics. Evidently no deed or grant or purchase or fraud was too ancient or obscure for Segundo to know of it and make merciless use of it. Hicks had thought one would have to be able to read minds, or talk to the dead, to know some of these things.

And then, very late one mid-August evening, Segundo had come to Hicks' house with bad news. "I'm afraid," he had said as Hicks blinked sleepily at him and sent an awakened servant for some brandy, "that you're in danger, my friend."

The man who now called himself Hicks had only been awake for a minute or so, just since Segundo's midnight pounding on the door, and at first he thought Segundo meant that robbers or escaped slaves were approaching his house. "Danger?" he said, rubbing his eyes. "I have ten trustworthy servants and a dozen loaded guns - what - "

"I don't mean danger of injury tonight," Segundo had interrupted, smiling. "I mean danger of legal prosecution soon."

That had awakened him. He took a glass of brandy from his servant, sipped it, and then stared cautiously at Segundo. "On what charge?"

"Well," said Segundo with a laugh as he sat down in one of the dining room chairs, "that's difficult to say. You and I have a ... business associate in common, and I'm afraid he's been captured, and is trying to ingratiate himself with the authorities by implicating everybody he has ever had extra-legal dealings with ... smuggling and fencing, mostly, I believe, but he's been known to do other sorts of favors for certain Caribbean businessmen, the odd kidnapping or murder or arson. Thank you," he added as the servant brought him a glass.

Hicks sat down across the table from Segundo. "Who?"

Segundo glanced toward the yawning servant, then leaned forward. "Shall we call him ... Ed Thatch?"

Hicks drained his glass, started to ask for a refill, then told the servant to leave the decanter and get out. "What," he said when the man had gone, "extra-legal dealings has he told them about?" God knew Blackbeard had assisted him in a number of such, starting with the drowning of a too-knowledgeable maiden aunt when he had begun forging evidence to support his story that his brother was dead.

"Well now, there's the rub, you see. I don't know. As much as he can remember, we must assume." Hicks groaned and lowered his face into his hands, and Segundo reached across and refilled his glass. "Don't despair," he told him. "Come on, now, look at me - I'm implicated too, at least as direly as you are, and am I downcast? There's a way out of every disaster except your last one."

Hicks had looked up then. "What can we do?"

"That's easy. Leave Haiti. You can take passage on my ship."

"But," Hicks had protested unhappily, "how could I bring along enough money to live comfortably? And they'd be sure to come after me."

Ulysse Segundo had winked. "Not if you were still here. What if a body were found in your bedchamber, in your night-clothes ... a body of your height and build and color ... with its face destroyed by a load of shot from a blunderbuss ... and a suicide note beside it, in your handwriting?"

" ... But ... who ... "

"Don't you have some indentured white men working for you? Would one be missed?"

"Well ... I suppose ... "

"And as for money, I'll buy you out right now - your house, lands and everything. Foreseeing this eventuality, I have had my solicitor draw up a series of quitclaims, promissory notes and bills of sale, back-dated throughout these last two years, which will seem to indicate that you've lost everything, piece by piece, to a group of creditors - it would take an international army of accountants years to discover that each of the creditors, tracked back through all the silent partnerships and anonymous holdings companies, is me." He smiled brightly. "And that way there will be a motive for your suicide, you see? Financial ruin! For I suppose you do owe various people money, and when they try to collect from your estate, our manufactured story will come out."

And so they had done it. Hicks had signed all the papers; then, after Segundo left, he went to the indentured servants' quarters, woke up a man of the right age and build, and curtly told him to come to the main house. Without explanation he led the man up to his bedchamber and gave him drugged wine, and when the man's mystified eyes had finally closed in unconsciousness, Hicks stripped him and threw his clothes into the fireplace, then dressed the slack body in his own nightshirt. He loaded a blunderbuss pistol with a good double-handful of rings and coins and gold chains, and packed all the rest of his gold and jewelry into three chests. Segundo returned with several ill-looking but powerful sailors before dawn, and the last thing Sebastian Chandagnac did, before abandoning his ancestral home and adopting the name Joshua Hicks, was to fire the gun into the face of the unconscious servant. The recoil sprained his wrist, and he was appalled by the noise and the instant destruction - the shot devastated one entire side of the room, and blew the servant's head, in a million pieces, right through the closed window and out into the garden.

Segundo, though, had been in good spirits, and as they'd ridden away in a four-horse wagon he had claimed to be able to smell the murdered servant's blood on the night breeze. "That's what I'm going after now, you know," he had remarked as he'd cracked the whip over the horses. "I've got just about all the wealth I need - what I've got to get now is sea water and blood - positively insane quantities of fresh, red blood." His hearty, almost boyish laughter rang away among the coconut palms and breadfruit trees on either side of the shoreward road.

Now, sitting on this balcony in Jamaica, Sebastian Chandagnac grinned unhappily into his brandy. Yes, he thought, I should have waited, and checked for myself. Segundo simply wanted an absolutely captive servant - a well-mannered puppet - to guard that girl upstairs; and, in case Segundo is not back here by Christmas, to ... how had Segundo put it? ... "perform the ritual that will make of her an empty vessel ready to be filled." I hope to God he is back before Christmas - not only because I can't bear the thought of performing that ritual he made me memorize, but also because of the dinner party I'm giving here Christmas night; after I've gone to all the itchy trouble of growing a beard just in case someone might otherwise have recognized me as Sebastian Chandagnac, it would be a shame if I had to attend my own introductory party all covered with blood and chicken feathers and smelling of grave dirt.

Chandagnac shook his head sadly, remembering the house and plantation he'd left behind in Port-au-Prince ... for nothing. He was paid a regular allowance by one of Segundo's banks, but no payment for all that he'd signed over to Segundo had ever been discussed; and only a week ago, in the course of a brief conversation with the postman, he learned that Blackbeard had been killed - not captured - in mid-November: fully three months after the midnight conversation in which Segundo had convinced Chandagnac that Blackbeard had been captured and was implicating everyone he could remember.

He heard the upstairs door close now, and the brass bolt rattle across into the locked position. He hopped to his feet, bolted what was left in his teacup, then grabbed the decanter and ran back into the house, hoping to lock himself into his bedchamber before the dreadful nurse could get downstairs.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Up in the rigging, straddling the headsail yard and leaning against the mast, Jack Shandy lowered his telescope at last, after having stared for nearly a quarter of an hour at the waves, the wispy clouds overhead, and, most intently, at the solid, dark, sharp-edged cloud swelling on the eastern horizon ahead. He reviewed all the weather lore he'd learned from Hodge and Davies and personal experience, and he had to admit, to himself at least, that Venner was right. It would be wisest to turn around and try to run the sixty-five miles back to Grand Cayman, jibe through the reef at the Rum Point Channel and then drag the Jenny ashore and break out the liquor. And damn soon, too, for the storm was moving faster than the Jenny could, and the wind seemed to be falling off.

But today, he thought desperately, is the twenty-third of December. On the day after tomorrow Hurwood is going to do the magic that will evict Beth's soul from her body. I've got to find Ulysse Segundo, as the old fool apparently likes to call himself now, today or tomorrow, or I might as well never have left the New Providence settlement. And if we run back northwest and tuck in to wait out the storm, we'll lose at least the rest of today. But can I take these men out into a storm that may very well kill them all?

Oh hell, he thought, tossing the telescope to one of the pirates below and beginning to climb down, that's the captain's right - my job isn't to avoid risky situations, but to get us through them. And I can't believe Woefully Fat will let himself be prevented from getting onto Jamaican soil ... even by a hurricane.

He dropped to the deck and grinned confidently at Skank.

"We could scoot under that with half of you dead drunk," Shandy said. "We'll continue southeast."

"Jesus Christ, Jack," Skank began hurriedly, but Venner interrupted him.

"Why?" Venner demanded. He pointed astern with one big, freckled arm. "Grand Cayman is only a few hours back that way! And even if this wind does die, which it's about to, the goddamn current'll take us there!"

Shandy turned, unhurriedly, to Venner. "I don't need to explain, but I will. We wouldn't get to Grand Cayman. This storm is going to catch us, and we'd better be bow on when it does." Venner's broad shoulders were hunching with tensed muscles, but Shandy made himself laugh. "And hell, man, the famous Segundo is somewhere ahead, remember? Those turtlers yesterday said they'd seen his ship only that morning! Not only does he have with him the booty from a dozen plundered ships, he's almost certainly in the old Carmichael, renamed. That's our ship - and it's a full-size, seaworthy vessel, and we'll need it, because little pond-scooters like the Jenny here are no good for the long reaches to Madagascar and the Indian Ocean, and that's what these days require. Look what happened to Thatch when he switched to a sloop."

"And this Ulysse fellow has got that woman," Venner almost spat, "and don't try to make us believe that ain't your whole reason for wanting to catch him! Well maybe she means more to you than your hide does, but she's nothing to me. And I ain't risking my hide to get her for you." He faced the rest of the men. "You lads think about that. Why do we have to catch up with this Ulysse or Hurwood today? What's wrong with next week?"

Shandy hadn't slept much during the last several days. "It's today because I say it is," he said, a little wildly. "What do you think of that?"

Woefully Fat stepped up beside Shandy, his huge shadow eclipsing Venner. "We goin' to Jamaica," he said.

For several long seconds, while the cloud ahead grew and Grand Cayman became still more distant, Venner stood motionless,, his eyes darting back and forth from Shandy and Woefully Fat to the rest of the crew, obviously wondering if he could provoke a mutiny.

Shandy, though he hoped he looked confident, was wondering the same thing. He had been an able enough captain during the month after Hurwood took the Carmichael, and he was still looked on with some awe because of the exaggerated part he'd played in the escape from that Navy man-of-war, and it helped to have the support of Davies' old bocor, even though his impending death seemed to be all the man could talk about these days; but Shandy could only guess, as Venner was obviously doing too, at how much the men's confidence in him had been eroded by his three months of drunken apathy in the New Providence settlement.

"Shandy knows what he's doin'," grumbled one toothless old wretch.

Skank nodded with a fair show of conviction. "Sure," he said. "We couldn't get back to Grand Cayman before the storm overtook us."

Shandy was very grateful, for he knew Skank wasn't being sincere.

Venner's shoulders slumped, and his grin, which was beginning to look less like lines of cheer than wrinkles in a long-unchanged shirt, was hoisted back onto his face. "Well sure he does," he said hoarsely. "I just ... wanted to make sure we were all in ... agreement." He turned and, shoving a couple of men out of his way, lurched away toward the stern as Shandy ordered the removal of the jib and the reefing of the mainsail.

When the sloop was moving forward under minimum working canvas and Shandy paused to squint up at the cloud that now shadowed them, Skank tapped him on the shoulder and, with a jerk of his head, drew him aside.

"What's up?" Shandy asked, tension putting a tightness in his voice.

"Venner ain't near pleased," Skank said quietly. "Watch him. It'll be today, and probably from behind."

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