III. The Cargo
The sailors called him William the Bloody, because it made them laugh. William Thickett was a small, slender man: stooped, balding, and constantly ill. He had a penchant for nosebleeds — they came without warning, and always with a gruesome vigor — and so he received his name. He was born thirty-seven years ago in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts but fled to the islands after escaping one of the Farms in Boston. He kept a gun beneath his bed, and he slept poorly.
He had come into possession of a small, ramshackle warehouse, situated far from the docks, in a game of cards three years ago. He stored unmarked cargo for indefinite periods without asking any questions, and he provided sails and timber to the quartermasters who came to him when it was time to refit their vessels. As long as he did these things he was assured a livelihood here.
Even so, he knew that the time to leave was almost upon him.
Rumors and whispers grew like mold in this dank little town, and he was beginning to hear words that scared him. Words like cattle hunters. Prospectors. Carrion angels. Cannibal priests.
He was alone in the warehouse. It was densely packed with mildewed crates, rolled canvas, bags of grain. A single lantern, balanced precariously on a wooden barrel full of God only knew what, cast a shallow little nimbus of orange light, and threw strange, wide-shouldered shadows against the wall. A cool wind blew in from the bay, carrying the sharp tang of ozone, the promise of rain and thunder.
He wished it would start soon. In the quiet he could hear the hoarse whispers, a dozen or more voices attempting speech in the strange tongue of the dead. The voices crawled over the walls like cockroaches.
He heard a pair of boots trod over the wooden floor outside his office and he sat quietly as the door was pulled open. Captain Beverly shouldered into the small room, his first mate close behind him. The captain’s eyes danced quickly around the contents of the room before settling on him at last.
“William the Bloody,” he said. “Bless my bones.”
William nodded at him. “It’s been some time, Captain. It’s a fine thing to see you again.”
“You’ve met my first mate, Mr. Thierry?”
“I have, sir. Yes. I have the cargo right here, sir.”
Captain Beverly and Mr. Thierry exchanged a glance. “Right to business then, is it? All right, William, all right. Show it to me then.”
William the Bloody guided the two men out to the main floor of his warehouse. There was a large door here which would swing open to admit carriages drawn by mules or oxen, but it was secured fast, shutting out the din of the town. He carried the lantern in one hand to light their path. The whispering voices were louder in here; he felt steeped in ghosts.
The voices came from the crate, about waist high, which sat in the middle of the room like a diminished little temple.
“I have a carriage secured. It’ll be waiting outside,” said William. “On my expense, of course.”
“Of course, William. Always reliable.” Captain Beverly nodded at the crate. “Open it.”
” … Captain?”
“I want to be sure.”
William fetched a crowbar from a shelf and set to, his body sheened in an icy sweat. Nails squealed against wood and the top of the crate popped off. William the Bloody stared inside despite himself. He felt the pirates come up on either side of him.
The crate was filled with severed heads. Their mouths moved thickly and slowly, pushing sound through their mouths in thin, reedy little wisps. Eyes rolled in their sockets. Tongues moved like grubs in earth. The heads were blackened with decay but they appeared to be European. The language they attempted was like nothing any of them had ever heard.
Captain Beverly clapped him on the shoulder. “Seal it, William.” His demeanor was much reduced.
William gratefully complied, quickly nailing the lid back over it. The voices were barely muffled.
“There’s talk, William,” the captain said to him as he worked. “The Farmers are looking for you.”
He paused in his work. He held one long nail between his fingers. He stared at the dirt caked around the fingernails, the grain of the wood beneath his hand. He said nothing. A dark coin of blood dropped from his nose onto the crate’s lid.
“Consider this a favor, old friend,” said the captain. He felt more than saw Mr. Thierry move behind him.
“No,” said William the Bloody, and then the world opened into a terrible shard of light. It seemed, for a moment, that he heard a girl singing, and he smelled burning hair. He almost rememb–
Captain Beverly wiped William the Bloody’s brain from the crate with a handkerchief, then folded it gingerly and placed it back into his pocket. Mr. Thierry held the smoking blunderbuss at his side.
“See that this gets on board,” said the Captain. “And smartly. I want to be gone before the jackals arrive.”
Outside, it had finally started to rain.