The Sea Wolves Page 15


Behind Jack, there were thuds as the pirates started leaping back onto their ship. He closed his eyes, thinking about what he had seen. And dwelling also on how he might turn knowledge of such brutal murder to his advantage.

CHAPTER SEVEN

FIRST MATE

Just as he was about to go below, Jack saw Sabine at the aft railing, watching the Weyden slide into the sea, a plume of smoke rising from the stricken steamship. Demetrius was at the wheel, but the keg-bellied pirate barely glanced at either of them as Jack approached. With the wind gusting and clouds gathering overhead, there was a stillness to the sea in the aftermath of the wolves’ violence, and for a moment Jack could imagine that he and Sabine were alone.

Watching Sabine, he could feel the weight of her guilt, even worse than his own. As the steamship’s bow slipped beneath the waves—sea boiling with bubbles and steam—there were people still dying on board. With each step he took, and each breath she took, innocents were drowning or burning, being crushed or suffocated. Jack wanted to scream, to storm across the deck and tear the Larsen down around him. They should all be dying now. They deserved nothing less.

Instead, he reached for Sabine, his fingers resting lightly on her arm. They could comfort each other, at least.

She turned to look at him, pain glistening in her eyes, but then her gaze shifted and Jack saw the ice forming inside her. And he knew the only thing that could freeze her heart.

“Where the hell is Johansen?” Ghost roared.

Jack spun and saw the captain gripping Demetrius by the throat, the fat man’s feet dangling beneath him, the captain strong enough to hold him aloft despite his weight. Other sailors had gathered round. Maurilio looked down from the crow’s nest. Vukovich and Tree had ceased their work with the lines. Finn hung in the rigging, paused halfway up to where the halyards had become tangled.

How could I have felt we were alone? Jack thought. We’re in the lair of killers.

“Damn your eyes, all of you!” Ghost raged, hurling Demetrius aside. “How could this happen? Is he back there now, dying with the cattle?”

Nobody spoke. No one dared.

“I have prowled every godforsaken corner of this ship, and Johansen is not on board!” Ghost continued, turning round and round, glaring at his crew. He looked up at the crow’s nest and shouted. “What of you, Maurilio? If you’re so blind, perhaps you don’t need your eyes, and I ought to have them fried with my bacon in the morning?”

But Maurilio said nothing. Jack thought he must have been a part of the assault on the Weyden, not even in the crow’s nest at the time of Johansen’s murder. But did any of them know what Finn had done? He thought not. And Finn was as silent as the others.

Ghost fumed, his chest spattered with blood he had spilled during the attack. He glanced around in frustration, nostrils flaring, trying to catch a scent—Johansen’s? A killer’s? A liar’s? But Jack knew it was useless. Johansen’s corpse had been dropped overboard, and they were all killers, all liars.

“Damn it!” the captain snapped. With a snarl he gestured to the crew to return to work. “Sail on, you dogs.”

Demetrius looked at Ghost warily and then retook the wheel. The captain glared at him, then at the others, and finally his gaze came to rest on Jack and Sabine.

“Mr. London!” Ghost snapped.

Jack frowned. Not “young Jack”?

Summoned, Jack gave a quiet nod to Sabine and crossed the deck to where the captain stood.

“Louis and Kelly are laid out below. Both have some lead in them. It won’t kill ’em, but they could use some help digging it out. I nominate you ship’s doctor, at least for the moment. Go and take care of it.”

His tone brooked no argument, but that was all right with Jack. With the ferocity of his rage, and the uncertainty of the violence that seemed to simmer beneath every moment on the ship now, he would be better off below. And yet…

“Glad to be of service,” Jack said, loud enough for others to hear. But then he narrowed his eyes and, quieter, said, “We need to talk about Johansen.”

Ghost seemed almost to grow larger, filling his lungs with a breath of rage, so that Jack thought he would erupt again. But that dark intelligence glittered in his eyes, and the captain nodded once, grabbed his arm, and gave him a shove that sent him stumbling forward.

“Get to it.”

As Jack dug the bullet out of Kelly’s chest, the wounded pirate mocked him, calling him Ghost’s dog, the captain’s pet. Kelly grunted in pain several times, his fingers hooking into claws and fur sprouting from his hands and arms. Jack knew he ought to be offended by the insults and afraid of the transformation that threatened any moment, but he could not find either emotion within himself. He had gone cold inside. Numbness spread through him, the only way for him to combat the guilt of knowing that he still lived while so many had died.

The bullet clinked into the pan Jack had set aside.

He had believed himself in hell before, but that had been purely metaphor. Now he had been made to salt and cure human flesh, to be a servant of monsters, and to be a spectator of mass murder. And the beast in him raged for justice.

And yet…

If it had been only his own life, he would gladly have given it. But there was Sabine to think of. He would not put her at risk, particularly after the secret she had shared. He shuddered to think how many thousands more might die if Ghost had the witch’s gifts in his own hands, his own blood. And she had hinted at other, greater powers, abilities of which Ghost was as yet unaware.

Filled with hatred and righteous fury, he nevertheless had to keep his emotions in check long enough to find a way for both of them to escape the Larsen. And that meant navigating the tension on board carefully.

The bullet clinked into the pan Jack had set aside. He held a clean cloth against the wound and reached for bandages, but Kelly slapped his hand away.

“You’ve done your work, Cooky. My kind don’t need bandages.”

Jack glanced at the wound and saw that, with the bullet removed, it had already begun to heal over. Kelly stood stiffly, grimacing, but forcing a smile as he went into the short corridor and up the steps to the deck.

“You still alive in there?” Jack called into the galley, where Louis was laid out on the floor.

“I would not mind dying so much,” Louis replied, his voice a rasp coming as if from nowhere at all. “But, yes. I live.”

He’d attempted to excavate the bullets from his own torso and failed. Now he waited in pain and frustration, though he had insisted Jack work on Kelly first because he didn’t want to listen to the other pirate grumble about his one bullet wound to Louis’s four. Jack had been more than happy to get Kelly out of there.

Jack picked up the tools he’d been using on Kelly—tongs and a sharp, thin knife—and the pan with the bloody bullet rattling inside, and started out of the mess and into the galley to work on Louis. The steps leading up to the deck creaked, and he glanced up to see the massive shadow of the captain descending, silhouetted against the daylight. For a moment Jack expected him to emerge from his own shadow wearing the face of the beast, but as he reached the last step and no longer blocked out the sunlight, it became clear he had not changed. This wolf still wore the face of a man.

“Young Jack,” Ghost said. “If you know something, speak now.”

“I said as much, didn’t I?” Jack said defiantly. “You want to know where your first mate has gone? Over the side. He’s been murdered, stabbed to death with a silver blade during your assault on the Weyden, and dumped into the ocean.”

Ghost scowled. “You saw this with your own eyes?”

“I did.”

“Absurd. Why would anyone aboard the Weyden have such a blade? They’d have to have known we were coming, and what we were, even before they set sail.”

Jack blinked in surprise. “You really can’t imagine it, can you? It wasn’t one of them, Ghost. It was one of you.”

In the next room, Louis would be listening, but Jack did not glance toward the galley, unwilling to give away the presence of the wounded sailor. He wondered if Ghost would catch his scent but thought that in the midst of the food smells of the galley, Louis and his blood would be lost.

Ghost frowned deeply, working it over in his mind. Then a dark light glinted in his eyes.

“Finn,” he growled.

“You knew?” Jack asked.

Ghost shook his head. “No. But he’s at the bottom of the pack now, and a desperate fool.” He peered at Jack through doubtful, slitted eyes. “Why tell me? Maybe Finn means to murder me next. Wouldn’t that suit you?”

“Not if it means Finn becomes captain,” Jack said. “Whatever reason you have for keeping me alive, he doesn’t share it. With Finn at the head of the pack, it’d be me salted and stored away for the crew’s supper.”

The smile that lifted the corners of Ghost’s lips was the cruelest Jack had ever seen.

“On deck, Mr. London,” Ghost said. “With me.”

He went up the steps. Jack glanced toward the galley, knowing that Louis must still be listening but unwilling to give him away. If the pirate’s wounds had pained him so much that he could not wait a few minutes, he would have called out then. But Louis remained silent, either fearful of the captain … or dead.

Jack followed Ghost up onto the deck.

Maurilio remained in the crow’s nest and Louis in the galley, but the rest of the crew gathered on deck at the captain’s summons. Ghost had no weapon other than his massive hands and the beast inside him, though Huginn and Muninn stood nearby, apart from the others but watching them warily, fiercely protective of their captain. They were thinner than Ghost, lacking his raw power, but Jack felt sure they were equally deadly.

Not that Ghost needed them. This was his pack. His ship. His crew.

“Finn,” the captain said, the word full of grim threat.

They all looked at Finn, edging away from him. The pirate tried to hide his alarm with a nervous smile. He had been keelhauled already, driven to the bottom of the pack, where he would have to bare his throat in supplication not only to Ghost but to even the lowliest among them. Jack knew that they all expected Finn to be gutted, there on the deck. Their excitement was palpable.

Jack hung back, partially hidden by the mainsail’s boom, and watched as Ghost strode up to Finn and stood eye to eye. Hatred and terror warred in Finn’s eyes, but Ghost fixed the sailor in his gaze without expression, impassive as a cobra waiting to strike.

“Go on,” Ghost said, barely a whisper but audible for all to hear. “Let’s see it.”

Finn raised his chin, attempting to stand firm under his master’s glare. “What’s that, Captain?”

“Your knife, Finn. The silver blade you’ve got on board my ship.”

Several of the others began to growl, a low rumble in their chests. Vukovich smiled, eyes bright in anticipation of the bloodshed to come. The pirates began to breathe more deeply and to cast hungry glances at Finn.

The fear in Finn’s eyes made any real denial impossible. But he tried.

“Don’t know what you mean, Captain.”

Ghost tapped Finn’s chest with a finger, hard enough to knock him back half a step. “The knife you used to kill Johansen. The knife you used to murder the first mate, because you’re too much of a coward to challenge him openly.”

“Bastard,” Demetrius grunted.

“Captain, I swear—,” Finn began.

“You were seen, you fool,” Ghost said, his tone full of grim certainty. Jack feared Ghost would glance over and give him away, but the captain kept his gaze locked on Finn.

The mystified expression vanished from Finn’s face. He glared back, falling silent.

Ghost glanced at Huginn and Muninn. “Search the forecastle.”

The rest of the crew waited. The ship creaked and the ropes swayed, the wind filled the sails, and they knifed through the water. On the southern horizon a fogbank churned as if beckoning them to lose themselves in its white folds. Within a handful of minutes the twins returned. The one Jack thought was Huginn—his eyes a paler, icier blue than his brother’s—handed the silver blade to Ghost.

The captain grinned, his canines sharp and glistening in the sun. The pack watched the blade, its silver evidently just as poisonous to their kind as the legends claimed. Jack wished he could get his hands on that blade and secrete it away for the moment he would need it most. But Ghost flung it overboard, and it vanished into the sea.

The crew seemed to exhale, but only for an instant. Then they began to move closer to Finn.

“Go on, then,” Finn said.

Ghost shook his head. “Oh, no. I won’t make it that easy for you, boy.” He leaned toward Finn and bared his throat. “Come for me.”

Finn blinked. “What?”

Ghost sneered at him. “You want to climb the ranks of this pack, you’ll do it properly. Challenge me. Why slink in shadows or kill in secret? You want to kill me, then kill me. If you’ve got the guts for it, Finn, then try me.”

“Captain,” Tree said, his voice so deep, Jack could feel it in the deck planks. So he could speak, after all. “This isn’t how it’s done.”

Ghost ignored him, staring at Finn, who dropped his gaze in shame. He did not have the courage to attack the captain directly. Ghost had called him a coward, and the truth crushed him where he stood.

“Kill him,” Vukovich muttered.

“Take his throat, Captain,” Kelly said, bloodthirsty as ever.

Even Ogre had begun to look at the captain strangely. Jack saw it happening, the wave of discontent among them. This was not how the pack worked. It was clear they expected immediate punishment. Already down a man thanks to Johansen’s murder, nevertheless they wanted Finn dead.

“Captain—,” Finn began.

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