Tale of the Thunderbolt Chapter Four

Jayport, Jamaica. February: Like Malta in the Mediterranean or Singapore on the Krai Peninsula, Jamaica is the key to the waterways around her. Dwarfed by larger neighbors-Cuba to the north and Haiti to the west-the mountainous little island of blinding white sand and lush green hills sits like a tollboth in the center of a network of water routes around her. North is the passage between Cuba and Haiti leading to the coast of Florida and the Bahamas, west is the Yucatan channel off the coast of Mexico, and to the south is the Latin America coast. Far to the east lay tiny island chains and cays that mark the boundary like a lattice curtain between the Caribbean and the Atlantic proper.

In the days of the great buccaneers Morgan, Blackbeard, and Captain Kidd, the legendary pirates of the Caribbean pillaged French and Spanish possessions in the New World, spending their loot in the sinful dens that the seventeenth-century Babylon, Port Royal, boasted. The latter-day freebooters of Jamaica are after no such glittering wealth. Their desired booty is limited to food, medical supplies, technology, and shipbuilding materials.

The latest ruler of Jamaica rests near the old center of Kingston around the great southern bay. But the Kurian's realm extends only to the foothills of the Blue Mountains. These peaks, named for their color as seen from the sea, give the island its serrated spine that resembles a sea serpent resting in the Caribbean. Outside the Kurian's land, isolated coastal communities live in the primitive conditions of the Arawaka Indians Columbus discovered, building huts of thick grasses and banana leaves, or of mud and thatch. A few are lucky or powerful enough to control one of the pre-2022 buildings still standing after the titanic wave that washed across the Caribbean, followed by foundation-shattering quakes and roof-ripping hurricanes.

In Montego Bay, a bloody-handed sea lord rules with a brutality that would curl Morgan's mustache, and among the central mountains, an unnamed band of killers, thought to be the remnants of some drug kingpin's gang, leave piles of severed heads along the jungle trails to warn trespassers away. But for the most part, the Jamaicans are a gentle people, taking the bounty nature sewed in the rich volcanic soil of the island and the surrounding sea and sharing what little they have with the generosity of people who have known hunger and misfortune between periods of plenty.

One bay to the north, however, is an exception to the rule in a number of ways. The pre-2022 buildings are in as good a repair as local materials can make them-though one wave-gutted, multistory hotel stands untouched in its beachfront location-and hundreds of white bungalows of wood and thatch show the best example of what can be created out of clay, leaves, and coconut coir. Two thick palisades of wood run for miles from the high hills to the west to a great oval bulge along the flatter ground south and east, bordered by fields of rice and corn with the jungle cut back from the walls.

Sailing ships now dot a broad concrete pier that at one time berthed cruise ships. At the end of the pier is a gray-and-rust ship, a relic of the Old World dominating the center of the bay like a castle's keep. She sits separated by thirty feet of water crossed by a floating bridge leading to a portal in her hull big enough to drive a truck into. She is a strange sort of ship, four decks of superstructure crowded over the bow, and perhaps a hundred yards of what used to be flight deck broken only by the housing for the ship's offset stack. At the top of her aerial stack, a white flag with a

red cross alternately ripples and droops in the shifting noontime air.

Farther out in the shallow waters of the bay, on a calm day it is easy to see the outlines of sunken shipping, now encrusted with coral, forming an underwater, unbuoyed wall guarding the seaward approaches to the dock. At the south end of the great concrete pier, a gate stands beneath a guard tower, allowing passage of landward trade, as well.

This is Jayport, refuge of the Commodore's Flotilla. Its history, a story too long to be recounted here, goes back to the last days of 2022, when two ships of the Royal Navy and a liner full of refugees came here and established the floating hospital. But this flotsam and jetsam of the world-that-was eventually formed an alliance with a band of island mariners. Now their combined children roam the Caribbean from the Texas coast to Grenada, raiding off the Kurian Order just as their English forebears plagued the Spanish Main and French Colonies.

Standing on the Thunderbolt's bridge, David Valentine watched as they approached the Jayport harbor. The ship threaded her way through the reefs, unmarked save for two points where the surf splashed up against the coral obstructions projecting just past the surface. A fishing trawler led the way, like a pilotfish swimming before the gray bulk of a shark, and behind came the graceful pyramid of wood and canvas, the three-masted clipper Rigel. She had shortened sail to keep position behind the plodding gunboat.

Valentine squinted his eyes against the glare of the sun. The light refracted off the armored glass of the bridge, glittering with spiderwebs of cracks from the bullets of last night's fight. Carrasca, the officer in charge of the prize crew, watched the Thunderbolt's progress from the wing projecting out of the bridge deck over the ship's side, her black hair now untied and fluttering in the landward breeze like a pennant. She watched the course of the Thunderbolt as carefully as if she did not have a guide through the reefs

protecting the port. The pirate at the wheel wore a sleeveless, cut-at-the-knees jumpsuit, his thick legs planted wide on the deck. The helmsman looked as if he spent time fighting tiller ropes, rather than the hydraulic rudder of the Thunderbolt.

"This reef is a bastard," the helmsman commented to Valentine. "The gap likes to silt up-many's the time I've heard a scrape going over it."

Valentine moved outside the enclosed wheelhouse and joined Carrasca on the starboard side. He looked down at the forward Grog deck, where the other surviving "loyal" hands of the Thunderbolt sat in an apathetic bunch under guard. They remained under the supervision of the chief petty officer, a frog-faced toady of the captain named Gilbert. The captain had never been found, dead or alive, and Worthing-ton had been killed with the crew trying to load the main gun just below the bridge.

Valentine could still see the wine stain of his former wardroom mate's blood on the wooden planking. Somewhere to the rear, Ahn-Kha and the men who joined Valentine's fruitless attempt to take the ship were already scrubbing the decks clean after laying out the corpses in a neat row. By tradition they should be sewn up in their bedding, but the cloth was too valuable to waste in such a fashion. The fourteen men who had died last night would leave the world as naked as they came into it.

"Nice breeze," Valentine commented, watching Car-rasca's wind-whipped hair. Had he reached out his arm, he could just have touched the longest strands.

"We call it the Doctor. It usually blows all day. Then there's the night wind off the island, it's called the Undertaker. It doesn't smell as good, but it'll keep you cool." Valentine enjoyed hearing her speak. There was something of the music of a Caribbean accent mixed with Hispanic pronunciation.

"Pretty view," Valentine said, applying it both to the woman and the island, though he kept his eyes on the bay.

He was used to the coastlines of North America: flat expanses of beach, wood, and marsh. On Jamaica, the hills rose right out of the ocean like a green wall.

"Yes. You'll want a hat. The sun is strong, even this time of year."

"What's that big ship in the center?"

"She's the hospital. Once was the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Argus. She's been here my whole life; I was born in her. So were a lot of the men you see around here."

"How many people do you have?"

"A census isn't one of our priorities. There are the townspeople and plantation families proper. I'd guess around seven hundred or so. Then there are the ships' crews. You could add in the folks inland and along the coast, fishermen, and a few free spirits who come in with a hold full of grain or pork when it suits them. Oh, and the rum distillery. You might say that they're allies of ours, even if their product goes out on Kurian ships, as well. Maybe six thousand people could call Jay home."

"Jay? Does that refer to Commodore Jensen?"

She looked away from the ship's bow for the first time. "You've heard of him?"

"He's not the most popular man up north. They're starting to take Jayport seriously in the KZ."


"Kurian Zone. My former employers."

"Ahh, I see. We call it Vampire Earth."

Valentine smiled, his first unforced smile in days. "Lurid."

"Saying the name is inaccurate?"

"I wish. Our maps show this island as Kurian controlled-Vampire Earth."

"Most of Jamaica is theirs-or his. We call him the Specter."

"Friendly terms?"

Her mouth writhed. "No. We're no lackeys of his. As

long as we don't bother him, he leaves us alone. Better for us."

"Better for the Specter, too."

She crossed her arms, and looked him up and down. "Just like ..." The sentiment trailed off. "Would you like to meet Commodore Jensen? I suppose he'll have to decide what to do with you and your men, in the end."

"I'd be grateful if you could arrange a meeting, if you think you can."

Her lips parted, revealing white teeth as she smiled. "I'm sure of it. I'm his granddaughter."

The ships docked and began to disembark wounded. Valentine said a quick good-bye to Post as attendants carried him and the other injured off and placed them on wheeled litters. The attendants then pushed the litters toward the hospital ship, which in proximity dwarfed even the bulky Thunderbolt.

Then the Jamaican soldiers, then prisoners, and finally sailors came down the gangway Valentine had last climbed a week ago in New Orleans.

Valentine, with nothing to do but wait, watched Jayport's inhabitants. They were for the most part black-skinned, long-limbed, and healthy looking. A messenger boy received a hollow wooden tube from an officer on the Rigel and sprinted off toward the shore like a runner in a relay race. He wondered which building held whatever passed for government headquarters among the low, whitewashed buildings clustered around the bay. Fishing shacks and a few hung nets dotted the beach.

Valentine felt the odd sensation of standing on a firm surface after days at sea. Some of the Grogs sat down hard, holding their heads in their hands at the motionless feel of terra firma. He enjoyed the brassy sunshine-the climatic changes still echoing from the cataclysm of 2022 that cut the amount of sunlight north of the tropics were not so noticeable in the central Caribbean. Farther down the dock, the

"loyal" hands of the Thunderbolt squatted on the bare concrete surface, slapping at flies hardy enough to venture out this far from shore. Some glared in his direction, some looked to him plaintively, but most just contemplated their surroundings with a fatalism bred by a lifetime in the KZ.

Dockside idlers examined the Thunderbolt from behind a rope line that divided the captured ship's part of the dock from the landward extension, where a few armed men in white T-shirts and khaki shorts that looked more like school uniforms than police kept locals and new arrivals apart. Men bearing platters of fruit followed by graceful women with tall wooden tumblers of water were allowed past the line, and they began distributing the island's bounty to Valentine's men and prisoners alike.

"Enjoy, mon, enjoy!" said one, handing out bananas and halves of coconuts.

"No worries, mon! Spring water for now, maybe some rum later," added a woman, her voice bringing out the ca-denced phrases more as if she were singing than speaking. She exchanged a few words and a smile with a dockhand, but Valentine could make no more out of it than he could Ahn-Kha's Grog patois.

One man leaned toward a guard's ear, pointed at Valentine, and spoke. A few others craned their necks, and Valentine wondered what sort of dockside rumors were already floating around about the fight on the Thunderbolt.

Valentine tasted his first fresh banana-he'd had banana bread and a pudding mix in New Orleans, and there was no comparison-and followed it with the meat and milk of a coconut. He strolled over to Ahn-Kha and the Grogs, who were learning to peel their fruit before eating it in imitation of the humans. A knot of the Chief's men crammed down the colorful fruit with Went and Torres.

"What do they have in mind for us, my David?" Ahn-Kha asked, scooping meat from his coconut shell with his strong, flexible lips.

"We're safe for now. It seems they give the royal treat-

ment to prisoners. They'll try to recruit the captain's men, I suppose. They don't know which category we're in. We're not under guard, but I don't think those men at the rope gate will let us just wander into town."

"They left you your weapons. They locked the rest back up in the small-arms room. They are either very trusting or very confident," Ahn-Kha mused.

"Either suits me, for now. We're lucky to be alive, old horse."

"Your race needs to learn to greet every day with those thoughts."

"There's something kind of old-fashionedly formal about the way they've handled us. It's like we've stepped back three hundred years or so. Like letting me keep my guns: a captured officer used to be allowed to retain his sidearms in the days when wars were fought by gentlemen against other gentlemen. I'm half expecting an invitation to dinner, rather than an interrogation."

The invitation to dinner arrived two hours later, waking him from a shaded nap. Like humans, Grogs laugh to indicate amusement, so when a barefoot sprout of a boy in ragged white ducks and a straw hat arrived with a note from the commodore requesting Valentine's presence at the Governor's House for dinner, Ahn-Kha laughed loudly enough to send the flies fleeing in alarm. Carrasca arrived shortly thereafter with an escort, announcing that they were to be moved to more comfortable quarters. They formed up behind her, and the procession of visitors walked the pier toward town.

The wide pier reminded Valentine of an etching of London Bridge he'd seen long ago in a book. Crowded with buildings at the landward end, so much so that it resembled a narrow street for the last hundred yards before it reached the shore, the walkway was where goods from land and sea traded owners. Two-story buildings, making up in floors what they lacked in width and depth, overhung both the

street to the inside and the water to the outside, creating a shaded corridor leading toward the town proper. Carrasca explained that the twentieth-century dock was one of the best-built foundations in the bay, an important consideration on an earthquake-prone island. Valentine's men and their baggage were placed in a series of rooms above a clothing-reclamation shop, next to an empty storage room that would accommodate Ahn-Kha's Grogs. The prisoners from the Thunderbolt were placed alongside the dock in a permanently moored ship, where Carrasca assured him they would be well looked after. Valentine asked to see the wounded who'd been taken to the hospital ship, and Carrasca wrote him a note that would get him on board. He and his men were free to move about the pier as they wished.

"But you might not want to be too visible," she warned. "A lot of characters come into port. We're sure we get spies sent by the Kurians now and then. Once a small fishing ship blew itself up at the pier-perhaps you noticed the big patched-up crack. We depend on trade too much to deny access to the pier to strangers. But even men such as you whom we assume to be friends are not allowed in town, and are searched before going on board the Argus."

Of all the choices Valentine had faced in the last twenty-four hours, the most unexpected was deciding what to wear to dinner at the Governor's House. With the message he had in mind to say to the commodore, he preferred looking like an ally rather than a castaway. Going in his full Coastal Marines uniform would be inappropriate-he no more represented the Kurian Order than the Zulu nation. Lacking anything else presentable, he wore his tailored uniform trousers and good boots, topping it with a simple white shirt. He washed and combed out his thick black hair and drew it back into a tight pigtail. Torres completed the ensemble with the loan of a short black jacket and a strange combination of sash and cummerbund, an item common to what passed for aristocracy in his native part of Texas. Valentine's long arms

dangled from the sleeves of the jacket, but he at least looked properly dressed.

One of the ubiquitous messenger boys-this one had shoes on his feet-arrived at the rooms to escort him off the dock as the sun went down. The breeze had reversed itself with the cooling of the land. What had Carrasca called it? The Undertaker. It smelled of the decay on the seashore rather than the clean ocean.

The boy led him past another watchman's post on the dock and into the first of Jayport's streets. An open carriage rocked back and forth on a heavily patched turnaround at the base of the pier; a single horse shifted impatiently in the traces before an elderly driver. The old man's white hair and whiskers framed a round black face; he gave Valentine a look more like that of a suspicious police officer rather than a taxi driver.

Carrasca waited for him in the carriage, wearing a neat blue uniform tunic with her hair in a tight bun at the back of her head. Oddly, the uniform made her even more feminine, thanks to her wide, dark eyes and portrait-perfect face. The thought crossed his mind that perhaps Carrasca-or the commodore-wanted to make as good an impression on him, mirroring his own efforts in securing proper attire.

Valentine assumed the attitude of one who took her presence there, in a cushioned and polished carriage, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

"Good evening, Lieutenant," he said with a perfunctory bow that seemed to suit the occasion. "Does this mean you are doing me the honor of being my escort to dinner tonight?"

"Thank you, Mr. Valentine. My duties on your former ship were such that I could be spared for an evening." She opened the tiny door to the carriage, and Valentine primly took the seat opposite her. The corner of her mouth flickered up, and he answered with a raised eyebrow that dissolved their playacting pretenses. She giggled and he snorted.

The driver called out a low "move on," and the carriage lurched into motion as the horse started off at a brisk walk, iron-rimmed tires squealing on the mix of cobblestone and tar.

"Actually, Valentine, your presence is a bit of a coup for me. For a people whose ships travel a thousand miles in every direction, you'd be surprised how cut off we feel out here. We get shortwave contact sometimes, but it's usually passive-we've been burned a couple times by talking over the radio. The only people we really trust now are the Dutchmen to the south."

He could smell her now, a mixture of soap, a coconut-scented lotion, and a hint of perfume blending with the warmer female scent escaping out the collar of her uniform. The animal in him wanted to tear open the tunic, pull her head aside, and let his lips explore her neck, his hands those round, high breasts beneath....

Madness. He regained control of his thoughts, crated up his lust, nailed it down, and padlocked urges too long sublimated.

"Please call me David. We're both off duty, aren't we?"

Her pupils narrowed for a second, then widened again. "Maybe. You may call me Malia, if you like."

Valentine liked. "Gladly, Malia. So the commodore wants an interview?"

"He's always eager for news from the north. The people we pick up know less about the real story than we do."

"I might disappoint him," Valentine said. "I've been ... I suppose you'd call it 'undercover' for about a year. My only current information is what the Kur are up to on the Coast between Florida and Texas. I'm sure it will be useful to him, but if he needs current news about events farther in than that, I'll be a dry well. Since I'm part of your triumph tonight, maybe you can tell me more about how you managed your ambush so well."

She shrugged. "I had little to do with it. Your captain's mission wasn't a secret, though if you ask me, they sent out too small a force even if everything went right. This town

has grown in the last few years, grown a lot. It's funny how word of a haven gets around-we have mariners showing up from all points of the compass looking for shelter. We've even started another settlement farther along the coast at Port Maria to help accommodate the newcomers."

"Jamaica can provide for you all?" He looked at the few wanderers on the main street. The Jamaicans made up for the drab streets and whitewashed buildings by dressing in brightly dyed colors: deep reds, brilliant yellows, and heavy purples.

"Rich soil and richer waters." She waved to a young couple out for a stroll. "But back to your ship. Your captain did not keep his mission a secret. We have a spy or two in most of the major ports on the Vampire Earth. They tell us when something worthwhile is shipping for the most part, but we heard about your-or their, I mean-plans while you were still outfitting. Just because the Thunderbolt's gun could sink anything we have afloat didn't mean we couldn't do something about you at sea. One of our cutters kept watch at the mouth of the Mississippi, waiting for you to come out, and then it raised every sail when it saw you, and beat you here by two full days. A coastwatcher told us of your landfall by radio. We need to keep an eye on Montego Bay and the west end of the island all the time as it is.

"We knew you were moving up the coast, so we went out to meet you on it. I had a motorboat full of men, cut low, it would be hard to see. We were heading out for you from the time the moon went down. When we heard the shooting and saw the gun flashes, Captain Utari brought the Rigel out and put the extra men in the boats. Your captain was foolish to hug the coast like that."

"No one was expecting you to come after us. It turned out for the best. Or at least, I hope it will. I need the ship, Malia."

"I can't imagine what your Southern Command would do with a gunboat, other than sink it trying to get it back up the

Mississippi. I promise you we will make better use of it. You have enough problems, judging from the shortwave we get."

"What's that?"

"Battles, shortages. It seems that nothing but bad news ever comes from the north."

"We're still standing. That's something. So you made for the Thunderbolt when the firing started?"

"Yes. We expected it to be a lot worse. We had an inflatable boat full of explosive we were going to use as a last resort. All the confusion you caused made the difference; otherwise, I expect it would have been a lot bloodier."

"It was bloody enough," Valentine said. "If it weren't for you and Captain Utari, I doubt I'd even be alive now. I'm in your debt."

Her voice turned colder than any winter Jamaica had ever seen. "Then pay us back by leaving us alone. We do not need more trouble from Vampire Earth. We have problems enough."

The carriage moved up a slope, clusters of white buildings giving way to trees and lush ferns. Valentine smelled the rich aroma of green growing things all around and felt newly invigorated in the cooler night air. "Aren't you afraid some cruiser is going to show up and get your town under its guns?"

"We're pretty sure they do not bother with big warships. Our worry has always been a strong landing force. We've also heard rumors about some kind of Grog that takes to the water-that's one of the reasons you saw armed men on the docks. It's well for us the vampires don't organize themselves properly."

"It's their weakness," Valentine agreed. "They're about as cooperative as a cave full of rabid rats. They can't see past the next infusion of aura."


"Do you call it something else here? It's what the Kurian Lords live off. Kind of an energy created by sentient beings. No, strike that-it's generated by anything that lives, but

it's just hundreds of times richer when it's created by an intelligent being."

"I thought they drank blood," she said, puzzled.

"Their Reapers do, but the Reapers are just puppets, walking and talking tools for the dirty work of killing. There's some kind of mental link between the Kurian Master and his Reapers. The Reaper feeds itself off the blood, yes, but its Lord gets the energy we call 'vital aura.' Either way, your calling it vampirism is correct, even if it sounds kind of... poetic."

"Not a pleasant subject for conversation on such a beautiful night, David. We're almost there."

There emerged out of the palms and night. The Governor's House turned out to be a substantial building constructed on a flat prominence jutting from the steep hill, or small mountain, just west of the town. Behind it, somewhere in the forest, the wooden wall wound down from a watch-tower at the top of the bill. The building itself was fashioned of cut and whitewashed stone with a red clay roof, reminding Valentine of an old Spanish mission he'd seen on the Texas coast. The driver waved to a pair of white-shirted police at the entrance to a flowered courtyard and wheeled the carriage around a fountain in the center of the circular drive. The horse seemed to know the routine better than the driver, and it stopped before the door at the tiniest murmur.

"Thank you, Jason," Carrasca said, patting the driver on the shoulder. "We will be several hours, so be sure to have your dinner."

"I'll see to the horse first, but thank you, miss."

Valentine stepped out of the carriage, and held the door open for his escort. "Miss?" he asked, as the driver moved off.

"Jason taught me to ride and drive. I grew up here. He's as much of a fixture of the place as the commodore. His father saved my grandfather's life way back when. He's a bit of everything: bodyguard, driver, interpreter. He knocked together my first boat, a little clinker-built toy I learned to

sail. He also made that," she said, pointing to a flag that fluttered from a corner bell tower on the building, built to cover the door as well as the road coming up the hillside from the sea. "It's dark so you can't see it. Our flag is half blue and half green, with a sun in the center, kind of like the old French sun-king design. Do flags mean anything anymore?"

"Flags? They're not much used up North. Maybe nobody in the Free Territory could figure out what color represents survival. I'll have to have a look when it's lighter."

Valentine's night vision could pick up the emblem, even if the colors were muted, but he said nothing. The physical gifts of the Lifeweavers aroused suspicion in some people, as if he were no longer human. To this woman at least, he wanted to be a man rather than some kind of curiosity.

He sometimes wondered what exactly the Lifeweavers did to their human creations. The nearest thing he could compare it to in human experience was puberty, a sudden shift into an entirely new body type, complete with changed abilities and desires. Would any of it be passed on? His own father had been one of the Lifeweaver's elite, but apart from a remarkably healthy childhood-despite several bad falls, he had never broken a bone, nor could he remember a serious illness-he had not been the most athletic of the young men growing up around him. Only his ability to sense the presence of a Reaper, as a cold shadow appearing on the fringes of his consciousness, distinguished him from the others in the Lifeweavers' service.

"Mr. Valentine?" Carrasca said, calling him back to the present from his contemplation of Jamaica's night sky.

"Sorry, my mind wandered," he said, turning to the door she held open for him.

"That's the only way it ever finds anything," she said, following him into the wood-paneled entry hall.

A boy took them down the hall to another plant-filled courtyard. Valentine paused at the tile surrounding the door at the other side. Each piece had been painted with delicate tropical blossoms.

"Beautiful," he said.

Carrasca turned. Her eyes arced up and across the span of tiles around the portal. She looked oddly wistful. "You like them? That's my work. I spent a few years obsessively painting. When I was a teen."

"I was an obsessive reader. I was-"

He had started to talk about his parents, his brother and sister, but stopped himself. He needed to watch his mood tonight.

She took a step closer, lowered her voice. "Orphaned? I know."

"Same with you?"

"The same."

Valentine read the hurt as if he were looking in a mirror. He extended the crook of his elbow, and she took his arm. "What can you do?"

She gave him a gentle squeeze with her forearm. "Go to sea. That's what finally worked for me. But let's change the subject. Tonight's a state dinner."

And they passed down a hall to a dining room. The furniture in the Governor's House, richly covered and well carved, did not match-the collection was perhaps pieced together from various recovered antiques on the island.

The man standing in the dining room did not match the elegant furniture either: a stumpy, tanned man bristling with energy and heavy white sideburns. The latter first traveled down his jaw, then turned up to join his mustache. He was broadly, powerfully built, and stood with the ready stance of a judo sensei. Perhaps because of the thickness of his chest, his arms seemed stunted by comparison, dangling afterthoughts on his barrel frame like the forelegs on a Tyran-nosaurus rex. He stood beside a sideboard, over which a hand-inked map of Jamaica hung in a gilded frame. Behind him, pairs of French doors opened out onto a balcony filled with fragrant white jasmines and red ixoras. According to Carrasca's account, her grandfather had served as an officer

in the Old World's Royal Navy, which had to put him close to his seventies.

"Sixty-eight, my son, sixty-eight," he said, turning to the young people. He slapped his broad belly, the gesture cracking like a pistol shot in the enclosed room. The expanse of stomach, which hung out from a gaily colored shirt over sus-pendered canvas trousers, did not ripple from the impact, demonstrating still-firm muscle beneath. "Everyone always wonders that when they see me, but are too polite to bring it up. Thought I'd save you the trouble. Am I right, Left-enant?" he asked, buttoning his shirt to preserve some formality at the meeting.

"And they always guess 'not a day over fifty,' sir," she said, suddenly transformed into a young girl amused at her grandfather's antics.

"The next question, at least to any young man who sees the two of us together, is where did she get her height and her looks?" Jensen said, apparently reading Valentine's mind again. "Maria-my daughter-was even shorter than I was, may she rest in peace. It's her father's doing. Tall, handsome Cuban man he was, hair like yours-Mr., Mr.-"

"Valentine," Carrasca supplied.

"That's the problem with age, my son, and it's a real bugger. What happened thirty years ago is bright as the island's sun, but what you talked about just this morning disappears into a fog. But there was more to Eduardo than looks. As brave and as sharp as they come. Also dead, by the way. Should fair fortune be with you and you see long service, Valentine, you'll see too many of the best ones die."

Valentine's memory, always too ready to parade the faces of the women and men he had known and lost, rose to the occasion. Jensen gathered as much from the expression on his guest, and he changed the subject.

"Let's eat, the cold dishes are already served," the commodore said, moving to a chair. "Come down by me, you two, no sense shouting at each other over twelve feet of

table. That American President Eisenhower used to take dignitaries out on his back porch and talk to them, said he 'got a better measure of the man' or some such. I do the same thing over the dinner table. Cook tells me the chicken turned out well, and no one does a glazed ham like he does. Cook!" Jensen bellowed through the wall. "We're ready when you are."

By the time they were seated, one of the picture-framelike carved panels on the wall opened, and the sweating cook appeared with a tray. He began to arrange dishes before the three: chicken swimming in orange sauce, some kind of peppery-smelling stew, corn and potatoes surgically carved and neatly arranged. A second man followed, bearing a thick ham glazed with slices of pineapple and something that looked like black cherries.

The three began to help each other to servings from the varied dishes, as the cook poured wine into glass goblets, the only matching dinnerware on the table.

"Captain Utari doesn't know what he's missing. I invited him, but then he hates this sort of thing. There's no sailor like him, but he refuses to do anything with shoes on, or eat anything that can't be bitten off the tip of his knife. Or maybe he just has a superior sense for the ridiculous. But as I'm fond of saying, this Port wasn't just founded to preserve life, but to-"

"-preserve a way of life," Carrasca finished, reaching across the table to pat the commodore's hand.

Valentine sipped lightly from the wine.

"Don't like it? It's a bit harsh, I know, but I get tired of rum and brandy," Jensen apologized. "Jamaica's a second Eden as far as I'm concerned, except for the wine. Don't know enough about it to tell you why. Years ago we had some pretty fair stuff from the old hotels and resorts, but it's been used up over time."

"I wouldn't know. Haven't had many chances to drink it. What I've had has been from dandelions or blackberries. This is rather good-in comparison."

They spent a few minutes eating under the anxious eye of the cook. He hovered like a teacher watching his pupils take a make-or-break exam. Valentine, who usually disliked the feeling of having too much of anything: alcohol, food, or even leisure, ate heartily until he heard his innards groan in discomfort.

Valentine raised his glass. "May I offer a toast? To the bounty of Jamaica, my hosts, and especially to the author of the best dinner I've had in years," he said, dipping the goblet in the cook's direction.

"I second the motion," Carrasca said, eyes reflecting flickers of the candlelit room.

"Hear hear," added the commodore through a full mouth.

Fresh fruits and a sweet, milky pudding identified as flan finished the meal. The commodore enjoyed a private dessert, a toasted marrow bone. He went to work on the contents with a miniature fork, and Carrasca turned to him expectantly.

"Young man," Jensen began, sucking unabashedly at the bone, "my granddaughter tells me you tried to take the gunboat."

"Had matters taken a better turn, we would have gone straight to Haiti."

"Valentine, there's nothing on Hispaniola but death. Are you looking for allies in the islands? You wouldn't find any on Haiti who'll help you up north. They have miseries enough."

"Or here," Carrasca said, her eyes turning hard. "We had a group of you Freeholders arrive before, when I was sixteen. Marched them through town and everyone cheered. They gave us lots of talk about guerrilla cadres and hit-and-run raids. Uniting the different parts of the island to go after Kingston. All they managed to do was get some of our inland people killed and a lot of families on the other side of the Blue Mountains hanged. There wasn't any cheering when they left. If you think the people of Jayport-"

"Nothing like that," Valentine said, startled at her sudden turn in temper. "I'm looking for a weapon, not allies. I'm not asking you or anyone to fight Reapers."

"Malia," her grandfather said, "the reprisals weren't Mr. Valentine's fault any more than they were Major Hawthorne's.

"Forgive my granddaughter," Jensen added, turning to Valentine. "After the aborted uprising, they wiped out one of our settlements up in the mountains. That's where her mother died," he said, clamping his mouth firmly shut and looking at Carrasca. "My great mistake."

"Not yours, Granddad," she said. "You saw the uniforms, counted the guns, heard Hawthorne's promises. Believed in him. He knew the kind of words to use. Even on Mum. She was a widow, Mr. Valentine, and-"

"Let's not bore our guest with family business," Jensen said. He looked at his granddaughter for a moment, as if trying to summon her mother's features from Carrasca's shapely face, then turned back to Valentine. "You need that ship you were on, the gunboat, to get this weapon?"

"Get it and get it back to the mainland. We needed something big enough to carry it, a ship that could anchor off the coast long enough for me to find it and load it, then be able to go back unchallenged. The Thunderbolt is as large as they come in the Caribbean these days."

"You're wrong," Jensen said. "The Dutchmen down south have an old cruiser still working, God knows how. I think it used to be an American ship, too. It could blow the Thunderbolt in half, but the Dutchmen are on our side. In fact, I was planning on feeding your gunboat with their diesel fuel."

"Was?" Valentine said, sensing an opening.

"Mr. Valentine, I'm looking for a weapon, too. We are growing here. It's getting harder and harder to support the people we have. Always more coming in, not always the sort we need, but still mouths to feed. I've never been much good at turning needy people away. The best land, at least for planting, is on the south half of the island. It's not just my people I worry about; it's my ships, as well. This harbor

is worthless in a real storm. But if I could get old Kingston, take it somehow from the Specter-that's what we call that trumped-up devil running things there-a lot of our problems would be solved. A real harbor with a real shipyard, though it's run to ruin like everything else, would mean a lot to us. Just that every time I've tried"-he nodded in his granddaughter's direction-"it's gone wrong."

Jensen stood and went to the map of Jamaica above the sideboard. He extended one of his short, thick arms and pointed to the coastline.

"The Specter has it pretty good. He's about as secure in his position as he could be. Lives on a sort of estate, in a castle, no less." Jensen pointed at a black square just off a crescent-shaped bay on die southern coast, west of Kingston. "They say he sometimes appears on the walls, to watch the women work his fields or see a new wagonload of the condemned come up the road, bound for the killing hole."

Just right for a Kurian, Valentine thought.

"He's jealous of his lands, always worried about another of his kind moving in. He has his Black Guard-that's those Reapers you call 'em-and he keeps a good-sized regiment of Asians to keep the rest of the Jamaicans down. Those are the Horsed Police. Then the Chinese and Indians in turn run the Public Police-more thugs, mostly a rabble, that organize the farms and labor using the hard end of a club. Same old game: elevate an ethnic minority to a position of privilege that said minority knows will disappear if the ruler does, then give a lot of brutes a little power. He's got informants everywhere ... even within my palisade, I expect. Kind of reminds me of a web with a fat spider sitting in the center of it, sensitive to vibrations at the edges. We try to enter the web, we get stuck, there's just not enough of us to get to him, even with the guns we've been stealing and stockpiling. Years before Major Hawthorne arrived, my son-in-law once tried to recruit some of the gangs in the mountains, but they killed Eduardo for his trouble. We can do what we want in the water around Jamaica, but that doesn't

do much for us. He can get everything he needs from the land and the southern shoreline and the occasional armed trade ship. About all we've managed to do is keep his brothers and sisters from showing up to run other parts of the island, like maybe ours on the north coast or the Cockpit Country in the west."

"I suppose he never leaves that castle," Valentine said, looking at the scale of the map.

"We've never heard of it, if he has," Carrasca said.

"That's usual for a Kurian. Their Reapers act as eyes and ears. No need to risk venturing out," Valentine said. "They stay in their holes with just their servant or two ever seeing them. Immortality turns you into a recluse, evidently."

But this one likes to have a look around, now and then. Is he too secure for his own good?

Now that he knew more about the island's situation, he saw the chance of an answer. Maybe not even a chance, maybe more of a prayer. "Sir, I'll take your analogy about the web one step further." Valentine felt his skin flush, not from the wine, but from his quickening pulse.

"Don't let me stop you. I'm listening."

"His organization also has the weakness of a spider's web."

"What's that?"

"If you kill the spider, the web falls apart in a matter of days."

Even Cook paused and looked at Valentine.

"My son, I would say it is impossible," Jensen finally said. "The Specter lives in a bloody fortress, a real rock castle. It's about as old as the British flag on this island, and he's got it fixed up. Word is he stays in some cave beneath it. A dozen or so years ago, some of the Jamaicans on the other side got the same idea as you. Thirty of them swore a blood oath: they'd kill him or they'd die trying. They'd managed to get a key to a back door, thought they'd sneak in and do him in. They got together a few guns-the rest had fishing spears

and machetes. Two of those Black Guard Reapers caught them on the approaches, and they died, to a man. Of course, the Special Police tried to round up their families, but I'll say this for the Jamaicans: they know how to keep a secret better than anyone I've ever heard of. Offers, bribes, even using torture they got only a name or two, and still there was enough of a delay for their children to head for the bush. Captain Utari lost his older brother in the attempt, by the way. That's how we ended up with him in our orphanage."

"Then what did you mean, you would say it is impossible?"

Jensen looked at Cook, suddenly uncomfortable. "This is going to sound like utter bollocks, Valentine, but I want to tell you, nevertheless. There's a woman living inland the Jamaicans go to for advice. Sort of a witch, she is, at least to them. They call her Obay. Over six feet tall, and they say she has four breasts. According to the stories, she once suckled four infants at once, her top two breasts thrown over her shoulders to two tied to her back, and then two to the front, and they grew up to be the four great headmen of the free inlanders. They really exist, by the way, they're known as the four Kernels, though I suspect what they really mean are Colonels. She holds festivals at the solstices and equinoxes, when they go to her for predictions. An oracle she may be, I'm thinking now," he paused, perhaps for dramatic, effect, but more likely out of embarrassment. "At the last one in December, she said a man would come from the sea, a Crying Man. This man would rid the land of the Specter."

Valentine reached up to his face, and felt the old scar moving up from his chin to the level of his eye.

"I forget the rest," Jensen said. "How did it go, Cook?"

The cook cleared his throat. 'The Crying Man would bring a storm in flesh, and a storm in metal. His eyes would see to the end of a long straight path, and at this path's end would come our salvation."

"What was your ship called, the Thunderbolt?" the commodore asked. "Thunderstorm? Thunder in metal?"

"Yes," Valentine said. "But the rest is a leap. I might be able to do it, but not because of an oracle. I have certain ... abilities ... that the Jamaicans who tried before lacked. To do the job, I'll need the ship back, on loan for a short cruise round the island. If I can get rid of the Specter, break his hold on the island, would you return the ship and crew to take me to Haiti and back to the coast? Afterwards you could keep her. I'm sure you'd find her useful."

"Valentine," Jensen said. "If you can do this, I'll give you the ship and a team of men who'd sail with you across hell's lava ocean in a powderhulk, no fear."

"That's what I'm counting on. No fear."

The party broke up after midnight. It turned out Jensen was a fan of mah-jongg, and he insisted on teaching Valentine. The driver from the carriage, now formally introduced as Jason Lisi, joined them to make the fourth. After the pieces were distributed, Jensen started telling Lisi Valentine's idea to oust the Specter. Valentine had to force his brain to do double duty as he explained his plan to Lisi while learning how to match up his tiles, when to call kung, and when a hand was over. Valentine asked about the depths in the waters off the southern coast of the island while keeping the ancient box-top from the mah-jongg set ready to remind himself what the bamboos and characters and flowers and so on were worth. He had a feeling that convincing the commodore to commit to his plan somehow rode on his ability to play the old Chinese game-easy enough to learn but difficult to play well.

He lost.

The experience left him drained. Jensen caught him rubbing his eyes and suggested that the party break up. "I'll think it over while I sleep," he promised Valentine. Valentine then accepted an invitation to stay in a guest bedroom.

The bedrooms all opened on the same balcony as the dining room. All had similar French doors open, inviting the soft night air. Valentine's room held the same cluttered

hodgepodge of antiques-only the ticking on the mattress looked new. He found an old laminated "guest services menu" inside a nightstand drawer and relaxed, imagining the luxuries of a bygone age. Jasmine perfumed the air. What sort of assignations had transpired in the days when the Residence was just another luxurious rental property on Jamaica's sunny coast? He hung up his cumberbund and short jacket and tried to relax in bed, but his mind wouldn't let him sleep. He went out onto the balcony, barefoot on the cool concrete, and looked down at the moored hospital ship, the smaller Thunderbolt, and the town of Jayport.

Light still fell out the doorway from the dining room, though less than when they'd been shuffling tiles under the chandelier. Perhaps the commodore was an insomniac. Valentine walked softly to the edge of the light.

It was Carrasca, with her thick hair released from its confinement. She still had the mah-jongg tiles out, arranged in a three-tiered pile that looked like a Japanese castle. She tapped two of the tiles together as she stared at the arrangement, her lower lip thrust out in thought, a half-filled glass of wine on the table. Her wide-lapeled jacket hung on the back of her chair, and she'd partially unbuttoned her shirt. Valentine saw now that the shirt was far too big for her. Perhaps it had belonged to her father.

Valentine cleared his throat.

Carrasca glanced out the open doors. Then she jumped in her chair with a shocked gasp. Mah-jongg pieces skittered across the dinner table.

"Sorry to sneak up on you," Valentine said. He took a step into the light.

"Mother of- You frightened me."

Valentine noticed her arms were goose pimpled. "I'm sorry. Wrong of me to creep around my hosts' house."

"No, not that. Your eyes." She rattled out the words sta-catto.

"My eyes?"

She shivered again. "They were-glowing."

Perfect. You're the wolfman to her now, Ghost. "Glowing?"

"Like an animal's at night, a cat's. Sort of orange yellow. I've never seen a man's eyes do that."

"Maybe they caught the light just right."

"Maybe. Maybe my imagination, too. Long day," she said, her words returning to their usual genteel pace.

"Sony about your stack. What were you doing?"

"You can play mah-jongg solitare, too. You take the chips out of the bag and stack them in a certain way. The trick is to not look at the ones on the lower levels as you put it together. Then you pull them off in matching pairs."

"Didn't get enough after dinner?"

"I couldn't sleep. It relaxes me. My mind had too much to work on. This is like counting sheep."

"I'm sorry your parents came up in the conversation."

Some of the warmth that had been in her eyes earlier in the evening returned. "No. Oh, no, it wasn't that. You see, my grandfather talked to Captain Utari earlier. The commodore decided to let me captain the Thunderbolt. My first real command."

She led him out onto the balcony, and they looked down into the bay. The Thunderbolt looked like a toy ship.

"You're lucky Utari didn't want her."

She smiled. "He hates anything without a sail. Says there's no seamanship in engines."

"But you don't feel that way."

"You don't know sailors, David. My first real ship. My first command. I loved her even as we limped into the harbor." The light trickling out of the dining room played across her dusky features. "I can't wait to put her to sea again. She's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."

Valentine could have said the same about the Thunderbolt's new commander. He would have, if there hadn't been a hint of anxiety in her eyes as she met his gaze, wary against the return of that inhuman glow.

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