The Cannibal Priests of New England, part two: The Captain

Fat Gully slid into the city like an eel into a coral reef, steering his round body through the nooks and crannies of the crowd with an adroitness that Martin both hated and admired. It was just another reminder that he could not allow himself to be fooled by this squat little man, by his ungainly frame. He was a quick, murderous little villain.

The port was alive with its usual pitched debauchery. It was a ghastly place. Martin did not know its name and doubted something so wretched had ever troubled to acquire one. It was a confusion of noise and stinks: roaring and howling, gunpowder and piss. Taverns spilled with light. Women were passed about like drinking mugs from one lecherous grotesque to another — some seemed to enjoy it as much as the men, though perhaps that was only a side effect of hard drink; others wore the flat, affectless expressions he had seen on his first visit to a Farm, hidden away in the slums of St. Giles, back in London. Black faces abounded here; he’d heard that some were even free, though he found that hard to credit. A black man was as alien to Martin’s experience as a crocodile or a camel, and he found himself staring even as Gully hustled him along.

A dim glow marked the docks: fires and lanterns alight on shore, ship windows radiant as business was conducted within. The masts were like pikes struck into the earth — they gave an odd appearance of order beside the lurching little town.

Gully shouldered aside a man nearly double his size as he crossed the muddy street, and made his way for a two story wooden structure alongside the docks. It was clearly an inn, and a busy one at that, but there was little noise coming from inside. Martin looked for a name but, like the town itself, it seemed to have remained unchristened.

“Mind your manners, now,” Gully said. He pushed his way into the building, and Martin followed.

The room was close and hot. Several small round tables made up a kind of dining area; an arched doorway led into a kitchen where dim forms toiled. A fire grumbled to itself in the vast, grimy hearth. The flue was insufficient to its task, and black, oily smoke trickled up the wall and gathered like an ill portent on the ceiling.

Mr. Gully approached a table of three men, centrally located in the dining area. His demeanor was much reduced, and when he spoke, it was with none of his usual bluster.

“I brung him, Captain Beverly,” he said. “Like what I said.”

Martin knew the men immediately for what they were: pirates. They were not likely to be anything else, here in Tortuga, but the shabbiness of their bearing would have made it plain besides. The man on the right was older, his gray beard hacked short and his face a jigsaw puzzle of scars. One eye sat dully in its socket like a boiled quail’s egg, dull and yellowed. The man on the left was slender, almost boyish, his skin the soft brown of rain-darkened wood. Between them was Captain Beverly: incongruously handsome, though long unwashed, with shaggy blonde hair and a beard that had last seen a razor when King Charles himself had been a boy, or so Martin figured. All of them wore loose-fitting clothing and all of them were armed with steel. The younger man also held a blunderbuss between his knees, which his fingers tapped across with nervous energy.

“Oh my my, look at the pretty little thing,” the captain said, and the older man offered a chuckle.

Martin stood ramrod straight, determined to suffer whatever insults to his person were coming. He needed this passage. “Mr. Gully will have told you I have money,” he said.

“You’d better, Pretty. I wouldn’t want to think you’re wasting my time.”

When Martin just stood there, the captain spoke to Gully without troubling to look at him. “Ask the gentleman to produce the coin, Mr. Gully.”

Martin ignored Gully, whose face was a shadowy moon in the firelight, and withdrew his purse. He placed it onto the table, suddenly sure that one of them would cleave his fingers from his hand for the sport of it. When they did not, he removed his hand and let it rest steadily at his side.

The older man spilled the coins onto the table and counted them. The captain did not look at them at all. He kept his gaze fixed on Martin; he seemed happy, almost jovial. When his compatriot informed him that the money was sufficient, he waved a hand as though he was beyond such trifles.

“Mr. Gully tells me you’re bound for Nantucket,” he said.

“I am.”

“But I don’t want to go to Nantucket.”

“I don’t expect that you do. As far North as you are inclined to go should be quite sufficient, if you please.”

“Where do you come from, Pretty? From far away, I think.”

“I was born in Bristol. I sailed from London.”

“To what end, I wonder. Hm? A gentleman from the King’s good country, here in the savage clime, squandering his wealth.”

Martin wondered the same thing of the captain. He was an educated man; not at all what he’d been expecting.

“That is my own business, Captain. With respect.”

He sensed Gully stiffen beside him, but none of the seated men seemed to think anything of this minor rebuke.

“So it is, then, Pretty. See that your business does not interfere with mine, and perhaps we shall part as friends. Mr. Johns here will see you to your berth. My ship is The Lady Celeste and she is docked outside. Dishonor her and I’ll bury you at sea. Are we in agreement?”

Martin swallowed his pride. To be spoken to like that by a man of such low station — a thug who should be lapping water from the puddles in Newgate Prison — caused a pain that was nearly physical.

But Alice awaited him on the far side of this journey, and he could not afford the comforts of his station. Not now. But he would remember this wretch and he would see him suffer for this display, that he vowed.

“Yes, Captain. We are in agreement.”

Captain Beverly clasped his hand and gave it a vigorous shake. “Do let’s be friends, Pretty. Now follow Mr. Johns and perhaps I’ll join you later for a drink, and we shall tell wonderful stories of our youth, hm? Won’t that be lovely?”

The older, one-eyed man permitted himself another chuckle.

“Now forgive me, I’ve murder to do. I shall see you presently.”

He departed, the young dark-skinned man in tow. Mr. Johns, the old man with the dead eye, made no move to rise from his chair. “Sit yer arses down,” he said. “I mean to to be well drunk before I get back aboard that devil’s ship.”

Martin and Gully had no choice but to comply.

(illustrations by Jeremy Duncan)

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)

The relaunch of The (Illustrated) Cannibal Priests of New England

Some time ago I started a serial here called “The Cannibal Priests of New England.” The idea was to update regularly but without forethought. I was to write each segment cold, making it up entirely as I went along. Everything was first draft; no revisions allowed. I maintained it for five installments before it became moribund, for a number of reasons I won’t get into here.

About six months ago, though, I started working on it again. I didn’t make any updates because my plans for it had changed. I recruited my friend Jeremy Duncan (an illustrator and blogger in the burgeoning OSR roleplaying industry, and husband of the fantastic new writer Alexandra Duncan) as an illustrator. I had ambitious plans: I wanted to launch the serial on its own dedicated website, with a design based on old pulp adventure magazines. The layout of the pages would be in large magazine-style typeface, with Jeremy’s illustrations adding some life to the entries, in the same way Sidney Paget lit up Sherlock Holmes in The Strand. I had some ideas for additional content, too. It all looked pretty wonderful in my mind’s eye.

Then I contacted a web designer and learned what all my pretty dreams would cost, and I scrapped just about all of it. What I kept, though, was the best part: namely, Jeremy’s illustrations.

So here we go again. I’m reposting the first five entries on a biweekly schedule, and from then on we’ll maintain that schedule (God willing) until the story is finished. I’ve already written well ahead of that fifth installment, so I think the prognosis is good. Once the story is done, we’ll see what happens. I’d love to see it printed in a small, illustrated book.

To those of you who have asked me about this story during its hiatus, thank you for your continued interest, and for your patience. I hope you like the new look as much as I do. This time it’s full steam ahead.