The Sea Wolves

Page 20

“Mr. London!” Ghost called from below. “Don’t cut the rope, if you please. It will only mean repairs later.”

Jack hesitated but then sheathed Johansen’s stiletto again. He had to move quickly. Finn had hauled himself up enough to give the rope slack, and holding himself aloft with one hand, he used the other to tug at the makeshift noose around his neck. Jack had no time to hesitate. He swung into the rigging and descended as fast as he could, hand over hand, until he dropped to the deck.

Finn freed himself and fell thirty feet, landing on all fours ten feet away. Jack could have run toward Ghost, but he had no faith the captain would protect him. Everything now was uncertain. His life would be decided in moments.

Jack spun and drew the stiletto again, and this time when Finn saw it, he paused. It made no sense. Werewolves were incredibly difficult to kill. A single stiletto should not have made Finn hesitate to attack, unless…

The blade glinted in the poor lamplight.

“Hold him,” Ghost said.

Jack stiffened, afraid that the captain referred to him. Huginn and Muninn grabbed Finn. The murderous sailor thrashed against them, but then Ogre and Tree moved in as well and he stopped fighting. Even if he freed himself from the twins, the rest of the crew would not let him escape the captain’s judgment. They might hate Ghost and disapprove of the decisions he’d been making of late, but Finn had murdered one of their own, and they had been awaiting his punishment. Their eyes shone with anger, hunger, and hope that the time had come to fulfill the laws of the pack.

“What the hell is wrong with you, Ghost?” Finn snarled. “You heard me. I know you did. Your ridiculous pet, your ‘first mate,’ was in the hold, breaking into the stores, trying to get to the loot.”

Ghost began to pace, walking in a circle around Jack and the crewmen who held Finn.

“Why would he do that, Finn? Where would he go?”

“He said himself he planned to escape.”

“Not tonight, surely. Mr. London may suffer from the weakness inherent in humanity. He may believe in honor and love and dignity and other foolishness. But he is not a fool.”

Ghost paused and glanced around at the rest of the crew.

“Kelly!” the captain barked. “You’d like to see our Mr. London dead, I’d wager.”

“Wouldn’t hurt my feelings, Captain,” Kelly said, nodding.

Ghost reached into his pocket and brought out the fistful of diamonds, letting them glitter in his open palm.

“Someone broke into the stores, went into our treasury below, and took these diamonds. They were scattered on the floor as if the thief had been surprised in the act. You heard Mr. London and Finn, here, arguing about it just now. Of the two, which is fool enough to try such a thing?”

Tree swore. Vukovich began muttering furiously. Maurilio had come out onto the deck at last—perhaps he’d been sleeping below—and sidled up beside the captain to look greedily upon the precious diamonds.

“Finn killed Johansen,” Kelly said. “He hates you, Captain. He’s at the bottom of the pack and knows he hasn’t got long to live. But I wouldn’t have thought even Finn fool enough to try to steal from you.”

“Not from me,” Ghost said, showing the diamonds around. “From all of us. And perhaps you’re right. Maybe Finn walked in on Mr. London in the midst of the crime, caught him red-handed.”

“Maybe,” Maurilio said.

“Not a chance,” Kelly sneered.

Jack kept his breathing steady, but his throat had tightened and his mouth gone dry. He looked back and forth from Ghost to Finn to Kelly, knowing he could not speak out of turn. It had to be played just right, and he had to choose his words carefully.

“Why not?” Ghost asked.

“You heard him,” Kelly said, nodding toward Jack. “Might be soft, but he’s smart. What good would it do him? He wanted to fix the lock down there so he could escape. If he took the diamonds then, I’d say sure, maybe it’s him. But where would he hide ’em now?”

“Damn you, Kelly!” Finn roared, trying to break free of his captors and failing. Huginn and Muninn held him tight. “I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you all!”

“Sounds like a guilty man to me,” Vukovich muttered.

Maurilio, Ogre, and Tree were nodding in agreement.

“You can’t let him live, Captain,” Kelly said, staring expectantly at Ghost. “First he killed Johansen, and now this. Whatever game you’re playing, we can’t afford to let it go on.”

Ghost ignored him, instead walking over to Jack and staring at him, eye to eye, searching for the truth. Jack felt only hate and loathing inside him and he let it radiate outward, hoping it would mask his fear of discovery. He had lowered the stiletto, letting the blade dangle at his side. Now Ghost took it from him, carefully, and held it up to the light.

“Where the hell did he get that?” Vukovich growled.

“In his cabin,” Ghost replied, glancing from the blade to Jack. “He found it among Johansen’s things and took it for himself, which is his right as the new first mate. Or it would be, except for one thing. This blade belongs to me.”

Jack stared at him, and for a moment the rest of the crew—the rest of the world—did not exist. “It’s yours?”

“You couldn’t have known,” Ghost said. He smiled grimly. “I never even noticed it missing. Johansen, the sneaky bastard.”

“Why would ’e do that?” Tree asked, obviously doubtful. “He’d know you’d kill ’im for it.”

Ghost’s smile was as haunting and unsettling as ever. “I think maybe he wanted to be captain.”

“So I did you a damn favor, killing him!” Finn snarled.

Ghost lashed out, clawing deep, bloody gashes across Finn’s cheek and jaw. Then he crouched in front of Finn as the sailor struggled against the hold the twins had on him.

“You tried to do yourself a favor, Finn. But it backfired, didn’t it? As all of your plans have, because you are a fool.”

Ghost held the silver stiletto out to Jack, careful not to touch the blade. The sea wolves stiffened, alert and anxious. They hadn’t realized the blade was silver when Jack had first brandished it, but now they stared at it and then at Ghost as though the captain had lost his mind.

“Take it, Jack,” Ghost said. “Finn has tried to kill you more than once. If you let him live, he will succeed. You have no choice but to kill him first.”

The pack went utterly silent. Jack glanced at Kelly and Vukovich, their faces blank with sheer disbelief, and he watched as their expressions turned to quiet, simmering fury. Ghost might be planning to turn Jack, as Louis had said, but he was not a werewolf yet. He might have been made first mate, but he was not a member of the pack, and the wolves bristled at the sight of their leader surrendering the life of one of their own into the hands of a human. They were already riled up by the fact that Ghost hadn’t killed Finn for the murder of Johansen, and Jack suspected they had been bitterly disappointed not to have the chance to eat Finn’s remains. They wanted him dead, but not at the hands of an ordinary man.

Jack stared at the stiletto. I didn’t bargain for this. All his plans began to unravel as the urge to take the blade grew within him. There could be no doubt that Ghost was correct—in fact, the captain did not know how correct. Jack had successfully framed Finn as a thief, and the lowest member of the pack would not rest until he had Jack’s throat in his jaws. Even now the hatred blazed in Finn’s eyes. But if Jack took the stiletto, he would have to choose to use it on Finn or try to kill Ghost.

The temptation hit him so powerfully that he began to reach for the blade.

All his plans began to unravel as the urge to take the blade grew within him.

Ghost’s eyes narrowed, a trace of smug satisfaction touched his lips, and Jack froze. If it would please Ghost, then it had to be a terrible idea. And there was more. Yes, it would make the pack hate Ghost, fomenting mutinous thoughts. But their hatred would be toward Jack as well.

And it would be cold-blooded slaughter. Finn might be a monster, and killing him might be saving Jack’s own life, but if he couldn’t fight back, it would still feel like murder. And Jack London was no murderer.

Ghost saw the change in his eyes.

“I will not offer you this blade again,” the captain said.

Jack took a long breath, then shook his head. “I’d kill to save myself, or someone I love. But I won’t murder a defenseless man. And I’m sure not going to kill for your amusement.”

With a scowl, Ghost backhanded Jack, knocking him sprawling at Ogre’s feet. He rose to his knees, mouth bleeding, heart pounding. Ghost snatched him up like a rag doll, fumbled with his belt, and tore it off him, removing the small leather scabbard in which he’d discovered the stiletto. Then the captain hurled Jack to the deck again, discarding him. He sheathed the stiletto in its scabbard and turned to go, but paused to look back at Jack and then at Huginn and Muninn, still holding Finn.

In one fluid motion, impossibly swift, Ghost drew the stiletto and drove it into Finn’s heart. Huginn and Muninn let go of him, and the pirate dropped to the deck. His skull thunked on the wood, and his dead eyes stared up at the full sails, unseeing.

“You son of a bitch!” Kelly snarled, rushing toward Ghost.

It took both Vukovich and Maurilio to stop him, but they saved his life. Jack knew the look in Ghost’s eyes. He would have killed the entire crew in that moment if they’d dared to challenge him further.

Ghost loomed over him. “Stay on your knees, Mr. London. That’s where cowards belong.”

The captain strode aft and vanished below, and a moment later Huginn and Muninn took up positions on either side of the cabin steps, making certain no one dared follow.

Jack staggered to his feet. Maurilio sneered at him. Vukovich hawked up something from his throat and spit on Jack’s shirt, but otherwise they ignored him. They mumbled to one another about the captain, their hatred for him blazing like the inferno, overriding the loyalty that membership in the pack demanded. At first Jack did not understand, but then Ogre and Tree picked Finn up by his hands and feet, careful not to touch his spilled blood, and carried him to the railing. As they tossed the corpse overboard as unceremoniously as they might have the remains of their dinner, the truth dawned on him, and he realized the enormity of what the captain had done.

In the eyes of the pack, Finn had deserved to die, killed by Ghost and then savaged by the rest. He ought to have been torn apart and eaten, but instead of killing Finn in combat, Ghost had tainted him with silver. Poisoned him. They wouldn’t dare eat the corpse.

Ghost had given them what they wanted, but in a way that only added insult to earlier injury. He must know how they hated him, and that he had only made things worse. But he did not care. He might as well have spit in their faces. It was just another example of his disregard for their loyalty. The rules of the pack seemed to apply less and less to its leader, and the wolves were growing angry.

As Jack watched the crew disperse, the dread fluttering in his chest merged with sick excitement. Ghost had lost respect for him, but as long as the captain still had plans for him, it didn’t matter. In two days or less, Death Nilsson would come for his brother, and all hell would break loose.

But Jack wondered if the crew would last two more days. If Ghost continued to treat them with such disrespect, it was only a matter of time before they would be driven to mutiny.

In the aftermath of Finn’s death, a strange new dynamic developed on board the Larsen. Ghost kept mostly to himself, living behind the closed door of his cabin and emerging only every few hours to inspect the ship and its crew. Once that first night and several times the next day, he went into the chart room that doubled as Sabine’s quarters and consulted with her. Each time he visited her, Sabine would wait until the captain had departed and then come up to walk the deck in ghostlike silence. No one troubled her, and she spoke to no one. Jack’s only contact with her came while he was preparing meals—a task that was his once again, now that Finn was dead.

As first mate, he could have ordered any member of the crew to take over as cook, but in truth he did not like the idea of inviting any of the crew into the galley. Except when the diminished crew gathered to eat in the mess, Ghost, his silent guards, Sabine, and Jack were now the only people on board allowed in the stern cabins. It was safer that way.

The Larsen had become a stew of hatred and homicidal intent. Of the crew, only Louis and Tree did not look at Jack with murder in their eyes. Yet despite the animosity, he could feel that he was merely an afterthought for the sea wolves. They understood the usefulness of Sabine’s gifts, but they could not comprehend Ghost placing an ordinary man in a position of authority over members of the pack. Even if Ghost intended to make Jack one of them, the pirates did not want him; in their eyes he was a symptom of whatever madness had come over their captain. Ghost had formed this pack, turning them into monsters and using fear, intimidation, and brutality to teach them the laws by which the pack would operate. Now he had thrown those laws in their faces. His pride had turned him into a tyrant who made decisions in order to remind them that he stood above and apart from them, not with them. The Larsen had become a powder keg of resentment and anger, ready to explode at the slightest further provocation.

More and more, as Jack heard the crew’s angry rumblings and saw the way they watched their captain, he thought of the Roman senate drawing their long knives and turning on Julius Caesar. In the case of Ghost, at least one of the knives would have to be silver, and Jack wondered how many other such blades there were hidden on board. Ghost had thrown Finn’s silver knife into the sea and kept his own, but would other members of the crew risk the captain’s ire by secreting such a dangerous weapon among their own things? He suspected not. Only Finn had been that stupid. But there was no way to know for sure.

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