The Cannibal Priests of New England, part one: Tortuga, 1662

Palm trees heaved in the night wind. Between them he made out a heavy layer of stars, like a crust of salt on heaven’s hull.  A briny stink filled the air, reminding him of how very far from home he was. The sea was calm tonight and the waves made a steady hush against the shore.

Behind him the small port town gabbled excitedly to itself: fiddles and croaking voices lifted in song like a chorus of crows, voices raised in anger or friendship, the calling and the crying of girls and women. It sounded like life, he supposed. No wonder it made him ill.

A shape lurched toward him from town: a man, fat and stumbling, a rag-wrapped something in his left hand. He navigated the sand with difficulty. The smell of rum blew from him like a wind.

“Martin,” Fat Gully said. His voice was thick. “What’re you.”

“Are you attempting to speak?” said Martin. “I’m taking some air. Please go away.”

“Nonono,” Gully said, his words sliding together and colliding. “No you don’t. No you fucking don’t.”

Martin controlled his voice. “No I don’t what.”

Fat Gully crashed down onto his butt, his fall cushioned by the sand. The thing in his hand looked bloody. “No you don’t take on no high-born airs with me, you fancy bastard. I’ll peel you standing, fat purse or fucking not.”

Martin wore his rapier, but he had seen Gully and his wicked little knife in action and was not eager to test him, even in his diminished state. Instead he turned his gaze to the gory rag in Gully’s hand, which had begun to leak a thin black drizzle onto the sand. “What in God’s name do you have there?”

Gully smiled and climbed slowly to his feet. The lights of the town behind him cast him in shadow as he extended his arm and opened his hand; he looked like a thing crawled from hell.

Martin inclined his head forward to see, raising an eyebrow. It took him a moment to make sense of it.

“I know what you’re about,” Gully said, a dull smile moving across his face. “I want a seat at the table.”

“I don’t know what you mean by showing that to me, but I assure you I have no use for it. Get rid of it.”

“You’ll learn not to bark orders at me, Mister Dunwood,” Gully said, rewrapping his dreadful trophy and securing it in some mysterious inner sanctum of his jacket. He did not seem in the least disappointed by Martin’s dismissal. If anything it, he appeared cheered by it. “Oh yes you will. We’ll see what it means once we get there, won’t we?”

For the first time in a long week Martin felt something inside him lighten. “‘Once we get there.’ Have you found us passage then, Mr. Gully?”

“I have indeed,” said Gully, smiling again. He turned about and made his tentative way back to town. A pistol cracked in some ill-lit alley and a cry of pain rose above the cacophony of voices like a flushed bird. Gully lurched in its direction, his purpose steady. “Come and meet our new benefactors, Mr. Dunwood. We ship with the tide.”

(illustrations by Jeremy Duncan)


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