Half past two.
They were just over twelve hours late, and their captain was nowhere to be found. During the day, the eastern docks of Far Coast were full of traders and miners, and all sorts of contractors and independent transporters, and even a few mercenaries. At that time of the night though, there were only bawdy drunks that the all too numerous inns and taverns vomited on the boardwalks, and who in turn vomited the mostly liquid content of their stomachs on said boardwalks. Like in most ports, these establishments’ own ill repute was barely better than that of their unsavory patrons. There was a sort stinking miasma floating about, a noxious cocktail of rotten fish, oil, gas, cheap liquor, mould, and the ever-present stench of slimy algae and hull-hugging barnacles.
If only he had not been looking for the drunkest among them…
“Elliot,” he heard his crewmate call from behind. “Elliot, God damn it, I’m tired and my feet hurt.”
He sighed and turned around to look at Limpin’ Larry hobbling toward him. He was a short, stocky man, with a clubfoot and a bamboo cane to help him get by. His entire mouth was hidden behind a formidable and well maintained mustache, of which he was most proud. His face was reddish from the exertion, and beads of sweat were clinging to his skin.
“It’s okay, Larry. I told you not to follow me. Go back to the sub and wait for me there.”
“Like Hell, I will. Without me you’d get lost walking from the engine room to your bunk. I ain’t leavin’ you alone in Far Coast at night.”
Elliot scuffed at the comment and started walking slower so that Larry could keep up.
He was a young man, not even twenty and still a bit frail, but raised to be hardy, sharp of mind and headstrong. And although it was true that one who had grown up in Brooklyn could look after himself, Limpin’ Larry was right in being worried for such a snippy little pup. Indeed, he would not get lost in Far Coast, but would surely find trouble wherever it was.
“Maybe he’s at Serapion’s and we just didn’t see him,” Elliot said. “It’s his favorite.”
“Like we could miss him in that dingy lil’ pub.” Larry grumbled. “We know the place, son, we’d’ve seen him if he’d been there. He’s found himself another drinkin’ hole for the night.”
Looking for a particular watering hole on this side of Far Coast was like looking for a singular herring in a school of mackerel. A group of exceptionally large and loud men speaking an unusual dialect bumped into them without so much as an apology, or even a glance, and Elliot heard Larry fall to the ground and swear profusely. He turned around and went to help the old sailor, but was brusquely shoved back.
“Ain’t never needed help from anybody to stand or walk, boy. I don’t need yours.”
“Alright, ol’ timer, alright,” Elliot said as he threw his hands up.
It took Limpin’ Larry a few tries and some worthy efforts to bring himself to his feet. “Danes… Bunch o’ goddamn oafs.”
Limpin’ Larry grumbled some more. “Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, Danes… All the goddamn same: they’re big, they’re tall, they speak funny, and they smell even funnier.”
Elliot peered around without really expecting to catch a glance of the stray captain. At this point, he and Larry could only hope that he was still on the eastern side of Far Coast, and that he had not been taken with the idea to visit one of the other districts.
“Say, Larry, maybe he’s at the Espadon…”
The old sailor raised an eyebrow. “Hell, maybe you’re right. Ain’t far, but it’s in Lil’ Martinique…” He took a deep breath and started walking again. Elliot saw that he was headed for the Espadon and followed suit It was ill-advised for fair-skinned folks to wander away from the docks: the grandsons and granddaughters of the slaves who had founded the Free City of Far Coast, their own republic in the middle of the Atlantic, were somewhat less than fond of those they regarded as little more than the descendants of their forefathers’ oppressors. The Negroes had freed themselves, but they had kept the masters’ whips.
Had Elliot not been on the Whiskyjack for more than two years, he would not have realized that Limpin’ Larry was nervous. Someone who did not know the old cripple as well as he did would have never noticed that his cane was shifting faster than usual, and he seemed to be holding it closer to his body, as if he was trying to take as little space as possible. Indeed, it was wise for any American or European to be nothing less than discreet in Far Coast’s inner districts. Elliot was painfully aware of the dark-skinned citizens of the Ocean-bound Republic shooting him and Larry threatening looks. The old age and the hobbling gait of old Larry, as well as his own youth, were probably helping them not to attract unwanted attention as they moved through the dimly lit streets of Far Coast. Installing a street lighting system was nigh impossible in such a city, and therefore the only sources of light were hundreds of lanterns and candles. Recently, the acting Directory had even benefits in place for households to buy lamps. It was not a long way from the docks to Little Martinique. Most people who lived in that district descended from the slaves of the French colonies, such as Haiti, the Seychelles, Guinea, Senegal, and of course, Martinique.
“Haven’t been around here for more than a year,” said Larry. “The inn should be just around that corner, I think.”
“There,” Elliot said, pointing to a timbered building adorned with an impressively large painting of a swordfish.
It looked older than most other constructions, although it was not in as advanced a state of disrepair. Elliot got to the door before Larry and opened it wide for him, knowing full well that the old sailor would not snap at him while they were in a place such as this, but he still gave him one Hell of a look. The pub was a warm place, full of life and exuberance, dully lit as the streets, and filled with odors of Cuban rum, Jamaican ginger beer, spices, sea salt, sugar, sweat, and the sweetish stench of vomit. It was a place of melancholy and joyous exuberance, of mourning and celebration: there were people who drank to forget their troubles and others who drank so that they would not remember the night come morning.
Larry whistled. “Not as grimy as I thought it’d be.”
It was not as dingy as the establishments of the docks. The furniture was old, but of good making, the tables straight and sturdy, and the walls painted in vivid colours. The bar certainly was the most remarkable element of the entire large room, covered as it was with myriad tiles of dark African ebony, and all polished by years of wear. It was not long before they spotted the man they were looking for, gesticulating and shouting at no one in particular as he put a knee on his stool and leaned across the bar to point a finger at an enormous painting hanging on the wall behind the bar.
“Not as drunk as I thought he’d be,” Larry Groaned. “Let’s get‘im back to the ship, boy.”
“Sure,” Elliot said, trying to sound confident.
Their captain was more than six feet tall and nearly two hundred pounds, whereas he was a diminutive lad, small and nimble, but lacking in muscle and weight to throw around. A boy as lean and tough as a jackknife. Unfortunately, the captain was the rock to his blade. Elliot and Larry approached him, carefully zigzagging around the dark-skinned patrons of the tavern. The captain was trying to get the attention of the bartender, a small man with skin so black as to be blue, and the yellow eyes of his African ancestors, who was busy serving a trio of tall and lanky negroes.
“Hey! I want another one,” the drunken captain slurred. “My brother said this was a good place to have a drink, but I can’t seem to even get a drink… Hey! Are you listenin’ to me?”
The bartender shook his head and finished pouring three foamy pints of cinnamon-smelling beer before turning to the captain and letting out an exasperated sigh.
“What’ll it be, then?” He said in a thick accent: French laced with sounds of Africa and the Caribbean.
“Whisky,” the captain exclaimed. “Canadian. Not any American crap.”
The bartender quickly went under the counter and emerged with three bottles: two Scotch and one Irish whiskies. “No Canadian, mate. All out.”
“A’ight. Gimme the Scotch. Ain’t my fancy, but it’ll have to do, won’t it?”
With a look of disdain, the bartender poured him a few drops of spirit that no clear-seeing drinker would have deemed to qualify as a dram. As his captain brought the class to his lips, Elliot saw three black-skinned and black-bearded giants approach him.
“Won’t you thank the man for his booze, Aibu?”
“Your mama didn’t teach you to act polite like?”
There was a challenge in their voices, and as he heard it, Elliot leaped forward.
“Sure ain’t gonna thank ‘im for doin’ his job, you…”
“Cap’n!” the young mate shouted in a high-pitched voice at the top of his lungs. “The ship’s been… towed. You need to come with me and Larry…” He grabbed his shoulder and pulled him away from the bar and toward the exit. “Now.” He added through his teeth.
As Elliot and Larry were trying to push him and shove him out of the inn, their sluggish and hobbling captain was trying to face the trio of black men who were laughing at him.
“What were you gonna say, cracker,” one of them asked.
They were at the door when the captain managed to turn around and blurt: “Was ‘bout to call you a goddamn coon, ya trash eater!”
Elliot heard a great ruckus of clattering chairs behind him, and all of a sudden Larry was nowhere to be seen, and the captain was pulling on his shirt and shouting
“Move, Ellie, goddamnit!”
And then they were running through the wooden streets of Far Coast, and at their backs were people screaming and cursing vehemently.They went right, then left, then right, then right again, and passed through half a dozen cluttered alleys and dark streets, and even after Elliot could not hear anything but the rush of the air and their own noisy footsteps, they did not stop. They ran, and ran, and ran until their breaths were coarse and raspy, and their legs felts like they were full of concrete, and they slowed to a walking pace only when they felt the wind on their faces and saw the stars on the horizon. By chance, they had reached the docks, but they were at least a mile away from their ship, and those angry men would probably be searching for them. For hours, it seemed, they razed the walls so slowly, walking from one shadow to another, snuffing the lights if they could, stopping and holding their breaths at any noise louder than the slushing of the waves under their feet. Elliot could not help but think about Larry and what could have happened to him. He tried not to: worrying about his own skin was more than enough at the moment. At some point, they heard a few people talking amongst themselves in French, and they pressed themselves against the wall as if they could have sunk into it.
“They’re looking for us,” the captain whispered breathlessly.
And they shivered and grew afraid when the sky seemed to be getting paler, and the first timid rays of the sun appeared on the cold horizon. As the boardwalk was deserted and they were just a few hundred yards from their ship, they abandoned secrecy and elected to break into one final sprint. A sigh escaped both their chests when at last they saw the hull of the Whiskyjack. Twice Elliot nearly fell as he was climbing aboard, and twice the captain grabbed him by the belt to keep him steady. When he got inside the sub, he tumbled down the third or fourth bar of the ladder, his legs gave way under him and he lay dumbfounded on the metal floor. His arms and legs were full of lead, weak as a babe’s, and he could only see as if through a buttered lens. He heard Larry’s muffled voice, and then the captain’s, but could not understand what was being said. There were black spots swimming before his eyes, and he felt pale. For a second, he thought he might vomit, but all that came out was a loud belch. After lying on the cold floor for what he was not quite certain had been a few minutes, his hearing came back as he was sprawled uncomfortably on a pipe. He could now hear Larry clearly:
“Goddamn it all to Hell, boy! You were Augustine Talbot. That name used to mean somethin’. You were a good cap’n… a good man even.”
His sight was coming back, and he saw that the entry corridor of the ship was unusually dark, and barely lit. The captain was on the ground too, with his back against the wall and his glazy eyes raised at Limpin’ Larry. “Ain’t the man I was, anymore.”
Larry’s cane struck the ground with a clang. “Your brother was a blasted fool!”
“What?” The captain said, staggered.
“He was a drunk and a moron,” Larry said, his voice like the crack of a whip, “and he died like a moron.”
“He was your big brother. Ya loved him. I get that. But he wadn’t half the man you were, and he sure wadn’t worth you turnin’ into him.” He paused, eyeing his captain. His raspy voice was like a dog’s growl. “There’re people in their goddamn bunks, on this ship, your ship, who’re countin’ on you, cause they need to feed their families, and you’re the one who offered’em a job. Now you’re gonna sober the Hell up, and you’re gonna live up to the reputation that you made for yourself.” He sighed, and for but a few seconds, Elliot could see the weight of the years on his shoulders. “I’m an old fart, and I don’t have much to my name, but when I’m gone, I at least want people to say that I served on a good ship with decent men, and ya ain’t takin’ that away from me. Now get up and go clean yourself, boy: Ya stink o’ self-pity.”
The old man turned around and gave Elliot a little whack with his cane. “Come on, you lil’ brat. You’re goin’ to bed.”
Elliot hobbled to his feet as Larry put his arm around his shoulders. Together, they clambered forward, and after a few steps, they heard their captain’s voice behind them.
“Larry,” he said in a gray tone.
“We’re gonna need you on the bridge in half an hour.”
Elliot saw a faint smile on the old man’s lips. “Aye, cap’n!”
 Nigerian word for White people.
(c) Jean-Philippe Savoie