The Sea Wolves Page 12

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“I’ll need the bucket and mop,” he said, glancing back at Vukovich. The man nodded, then grinned to expose teeth too large for his mouth. Kelly kept cleaning, left to right. At first Jack had thought perhaps he was traumatized by the pain of transformation or the horror of his actions, but from this angle he could see the man’s eyes. He seemed almost ecstatic.

Jack went through from the mess into the gangway leading to the galley and, beyond, the cabins. Is she in there now? he wondered, looking at Ghost’s closed door. But there was no way he could know, and no way to find out. The heavy air in the ship felt like a held breath, the calm following a storm that could so easily erupt again. The best place for him now was where everyone else was not.

He stepped into the galley, knowing what he would see on the wooden surface. After he’d finished salting and storing the meat, he would have to get to work with the scrubbing brush again.

Only meat, he thought as he worked, and all morning he repeated the refrain, mopping slick messes above and below deck, scooping up sodden clothing, throwing bucket after bucket overboard so that there was soon a slick of blood marring the ocean behind them, and sharks broke the surface as they sought the pitiful remnants left behind by the werewolves. Only meat … only meat…

He searched within himself until he found a cold, hollow place in which to hide his horror, and his conscience. Without that cold place, he would surely have broken down. But he could not afford to lose control, not if he wanted to live and to keep Sabine alive as well.

It took most of the morning for the pirates to dress themselves again. Tree lay against a railing on deck until almost midday, naked, his stomach swollen by his meal from the night before. The deck around him was scored with dozens of deep scratches, and his hands were bleeding. Perhaps he had been trying to get to something, or maybe it had been an instinctive action. Sharpening his claws, Jack thought. The next time he passed that place, Tree was gone.

Most of the clothes Jack collected from around the ship—scattered, torn, bloodied, and ruined—belonged to the pirates, but not all. There was an expensive jacket, the likes of which he could not imagine any of Ghost’s men wearing, a dreadful rip across its back stiff with dried blood. He also found some leather shoes and, tangled in the railing at the ship’s stern, two-thirds of a woman’s dress. It might once have been white. He entertained the brief, bright hope that she might have jumped overboard and drowned, a much less horrific death than that of her companions. But then he found what the arm of the dress still contained and, holding down his vomit, cast it overboard.

Jack stood at the stern for some time, watching the dress floating in the sea behind them until the swell hid it from view. It would sink into the depths and nobody would ever see it again. Lost to the world, just like its owner.

Louis was steering the ship. Jack passed him on the way belowdecks, then turned back to the pirate, not really sure what he was going to say.

“It’s not to be talked about, mon ami,” Louis said.

“You’re monsters.”

Louis looked past the bow toward whatever the future might hold.

“All of you,” Jack said, his disgust surfacing now, perhaps because he thought Louis might be as close to a friend as he could hope for in this crew, or maybe because he had simply seen too much that day. Even when he closed his eyes, he saw red. “Monsters, beasts. And yet you sail from day to day and—”

“It is not to be talked about,” Louis said again, harsher this time. He glared at Jack, and his eyes were as heartless as those of the other pirates.

Jack went below, all the time keeping at the back of his mind the knowledge that Sabine had imparted to him during their long night together. Day or night, at will. But they rarely change without reason. He cooked twice the usual amount of food that day. The last thing he wanted was any of the sailors going hungry.

CHAPTER SIX

THE TWO-FACED MAN

Working alone in the galley, cleaning again, Jack started counting the ways in which he could have been more prepared. With a whole night spent alone with Sabine, he should have been quizzing her more about Ghost and the crew, drawing mental maps of their movements, searching for weaknesses, and trying to plan a way to escape this hell ship. Instead, he’d been so overwhelmed by the night’s revelations that he had eaten the food and drunk the wine the wolves had left them—as if they were house pets—and fallen asleep, numb with shock.

“I slept,” he said, as if vocalizing the truth would make it more acceptable. But it was not. He had found rest while the blood of innocents trickled between deck planks and hardened beneath the moon, and unnatural monsters prowled the darkened ship.

He threw down the heavy wire brush and leaned back against the wall.

“All cleaned away?” Ghost said.

Jack started. It was the first time he’d seen the captain since morning, and it was now past noon. He stood in the doorway, silent as his namesake, yet his presence was as powerful and obvious as ever. Ghost exuded a gravity over all those around him, pulling them into his orbit. Sometimes Jack was drawn by it, but today he was repulsed.

“I’ve spent the day mopping up blood,” Jack said bitterly.

“Meat salted and stored away?”

“Meat.” Jack was shaking, anger and terror mingling within him.

Ghost blinked softly as he waited for Jack to continue. He sees my rage, Jack thought. He smells my fear. So Jack merely looked away and nodded.

“Good enough,” Ghost said.

“Where is Sabine?”

“We’re heading into a storm,” Ghost said, ignoring the question. “Might be a harsh one. But the men will still need feeding.”

The captain’s jealousy seethed behind a mask of calm, just as the wolf hid behind a human face. “She did nothing wrong,” Jack said. “We … did nothing….” A coolness settled about his heart. How could he really be asking for understanding from this monster?

Ghost frowned as he examined Jack, then waved a hand as if at a fly.

“So what did you discuss all night?” the captain asked.

“I’ve been told not to talk about last night.”

“By whom?”

“Louis.”

Later, Jack would think about that moment before the lunge, before the rage exploded, and whether there had been any signs that he had missed. But no. It was as if Ghost’s will was contained deep inside, driving and steering him, and it projected no outward appearance. Perhaps it was afraid of the light.

The captain leaped across the galley, moving from motionless to surging in the blink of an eye. It seemed effortless—he flowed, barely touching the floor, and his hand closed around Jack’s throat. Ghost hoisted him up and slammed him against the wall, knocking pans and ladles from their hooks and sending them crashing to the floorboards. Though thin, Jack was wiry and muscled, but the effort Ghost expended did not seem to reach his face. Instead, therein lay a simmering fury.

“This is my ship,” he snarled, his voice the guttural grunt of a beast. “Do you understand? I don’t give a damn what Louis said. He’s a mutt. He belongs to me. And you … you answer to me. No one else.”

Jack could not speak. Ghost’s hand closed tighter around his throat, and the pain was excruciating. Black dots speckled his vision, and he struggled to draw breath into his lungs. I’m going to die, he thought, but for some reason the idea seemed distant from him, remote. He considered plunging his thumbs into Ghost’s eyes, kicking him in the crotch, stabbing stiff fingers at his throat … but he knew that none of this would stop the monster. His strength was too great, his brutality too dehumanizing. It could be that he no longer even felt pain at all.

Helpless, Jack hung against the galley wall.

“Do you … understand?” Ghost said again, leaning in close. Jack managed a tiny gasp of air and instantly regretted it. Ghost’s breath smelled of rotten meat and tobacco, and Jack had to force back the urge to vomit. There was nowhere for the stink to go but into his lungs.

Jack nodded, chin pressing against the man’s huge hand. Blinked, to communicate understanding.

Ghost let him go, and Jack dropped to the floor, grabbing his throat and trying not to wheeze or gasp as he drew in a breath. He failed, dragging in ragged sips of air as Ghost withdrew to the doorway once again. But he knew, as he felt the captain’s glare upon him, that this was not weakness. His pain was exactly what Ghost required: an acknowledgment of his superiority. So Jack gasped beyond the receding pain, clutched his chest even after he could breathe again, and did not risk glancing up at Ghost.

“What did you talk about all night in there with my sea witch?”

“The Weyden,” Jack said. “Your plans to attack it.”

“Interesting,” Ghost said calmly, as if they were talking philosophy once again. “I thought she’d keep that from you. She’ll share responsibility for any blood spilled, after all.”

“Will she?” Jack said. “She is yours, like this ship and its crew. Like your pack.”

“Like you?”

Jack pulled himself upright, leaning against the counter opposite the doorway. Ghost was three steps away from him and filled his field of vision. He was smiling at Jack as though the attack had never occurred.

“You want to kill me,” the captain said. “You hate me. You want to tear me apart for what I do. What I am. The killing. The consuming.” He watched Jack carefully. “Keeping her prisoner.”

“No,” Jack said. “You fascinate me.”

Ghost raised one eyebrow, then shrugged. “No matter. The wild heart of you is set deep, but I can draw it out.”

“I’m not an animal. I’m not like you.” Jack relished the risk of stating as much.

“Yes, Jack. You are. The beast is there, down inside, just waiting to be set free.”

Jack scowled. “You think I’m a wolf-man? The moon was full last night, but I remained who I am. Just Jack London.”

Ghost’s eyes glinted with merriment and dark purpose. “Bitten by one of us, any man will become the wolf. But most would be nothing but curs, whining in a corner, killed by the pack at the first moon. Some are different. Some are already beasts, and wild parts of them howl for freedom.”

Ghost left, and for a moment Jack wanted to pursue him, to argue his humanity. But the ship jarred sideways and Jack staggered against the galley counter, almost falling across the hot plate of scorching coals. Pots and cutlery skittered across the floor.

Sailors called out and laughed, and from somewhere more distant he heard a cheerful whistle. So here comes the storm, he thought. The Larsen’s crew sounded almost excited, and for the life of him Jack didn’t know what the hell to expect next.

Jack London had believed himself something of a sailor. He’d prowled the oyster beds beyond San Francisco Bay, steamed up the western coastlin e of the USA on the Umatilla, and built his first boat deep in the wilds of the Yukon. But his first experience of a deep ocean storm blew away all his preconceptions.

For the rest of that day and the following night, the Larsen was tossed upon the sea like a cork. It was rocked from side to side, tipped forward and back, and the deck creaked and groaned as it was put under immense pressure. The sea seemed to penetrate the hull and seep between boards, and the air inside the cabin was heavy with damp and stinging with salt. In the early hours of the storm Jack heard the pirates on deck, gathering the sails and preparing the vessel for the punishment it was about to endure. But as the storm progressed, and Jack remained huddled away in his tiny sleeping space at the rear of the galley, the Larsen began to feel more and more deserted. Whereas before it had been a ship under control—though the control of monsters, not men—the storm stole that away. Nature’s fury denied any pretense of control, and Jack realized that the crew was hiding away as well. It pleased him to know that there was at least one thing the wolves feared.

His stomach rolled in sympathy with the ship. He felt his insides massaged by the storm’s fury, pulled this way and that as if grasped in invisible hands. But he retained his composure, did not vomit, and even managed to drift into fitful sleep.

He quickly lost track of time. The storm had been raging for hours—perhaps as much as half a day—when Louis appeared in the galley’s doorway. He was soaked to the skin and bleeding from a ragged cut across his forehead.

“Sleeping on the job, Cooky?” Louis asked.

“You’re bleeding,” Jack said.

“That’s because I’ve been working.” A wave struck the ship and tipped it onto its side, forcing it over until the decks felt almost vertical. Louis’s fingers clasped the doorframe to prevent himself from falling across the galley, and Jack heard the crinkle of splintering wood, and saw the holes pressed into the frame by the man’s nails.

As the ship righted itself with a thunderous boom, Louis nodded at the cold coals.

“Fire it up.”

“What? Are you mad? I can’t cook anything in this—the coals will scatter and—”

“Well, me and the boys have been working hard, and we’re hungry,” Louis said. He leaned into the galley, squatting so that he could look directly into Jack’s eyes. “Hungry for something warm.”

So in the height of the worst storm he had ever experienced on land or sea, Jack lit the coals and cooked a dry meal of meat and fried potatoes, liberally spiced, and softened with gravy moments before he plated it. Several times he had to pick up spilled coals, fingers protected by a cloth soaked in the brine swilling back and forth along the gangway floor beyond the galley. By the time he’d finished cooking, he was hungry enough to eat something himself. Even though he knew it to be only pork, he stayed away from the meat. After the work he’d done following the slaughter, he wondered if he would ever be able to eat meat again.

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