Luisa Tavares had a list of sins the length of the Antilles, but she'd have to repent for them later. Time was running out for the true captain of the Coral. And with it his luck. It was up to her to get him back.
She spat out the tang in her throat then shimmied down the mainmast of the Coral, her tight leather breeches and sharp cutlass a mockery to all that was decent in a woman.
Duty brought her here. Duty and honor. And woe to the man who challenged her resolve. The crew had grown rich from plunder aplenty, despite having a woman at the helm. And they had kept all their limbs in the taking. A double bonus.
The snap of canvas announced the ship's relentless plow into the Caribbean. Sun-scorched men grunted and cursed as they locked rigging into place, all ears on the beat of the quartermaster's staff against the roughly sawn planks of the top deck.
"Work, ye dogs! Do ye think yer hanging laundry at a convent?" A swift twist of the quartermaster's wrist cracked a staff over the knuckles of a hapless crewman. "Ye call that a proper knot?"
The sailor bent his head in obeisance and tapped his reddened fingers against his right temple. "Sorry, sir."
"Sorry, my black ass. Yer whore mother wasted her teat on ye."
"Aye, sir," he said without looking up. It was a voice that said he saw no reason to lose the use of any more fingers.
Every sail grew stiff with the wind, driving the Coral due west, back to the islands they had left nearly a year ago.
They were returning for Inacio Tavares, whether the old man wanted them back or not. And if the rumors that he'd been killed were true, his murderers would know no mercy. Luisa owed that to the captain of the Coral. Her father.
She reached her cabin and bolted the door behind her. The sea was feral today, thick with the wrath of Neptune and the spit of his whores. It would take every man aboard to keep the Coral true to course.
Luisa shut her eyes tight, her back rigid against an oak beam. She curled her toes inside her boots, pressing them against the planked flooring. Her body rolled with the sway of the ship, so accustomed to the rocking that she could scarcely sleep on land any longer. This was home, albeit an unhappy one, at least until she could restore her father.
She threw off her wide brimmed hat, a thick felt one with a strap she tied under her chin during rough seas. Slowly, she peeled off each glove cut from the finest leather in Argentina. Pirate she was, in the best clothes money could buy. A reminder that she was raised a lady before she became a brigand.
It wasn't without its sacrifice. Men could toil shirtless all day long in the sun, while she sweltered in broadcloth and felt.
She had to be the most overdressed pirate on the seven seas, but Papa had insisted. He said no man would want her with calluses on her palms and crow's feet around her eyes. His wish was to see her married and fat with a babe in each arm.
She slid a hand under her belt to a secret pocket she had sewn in herself. But it wasn't for her silk kerchief. Instead, she pulled out a tightly bound sheaf of oilcloth. Trembling fingers curled around the tiny package, feeling every bump and hollow of the horror inside. She wet her lips, steeling herself for something she didn't want to see. Not again.
Cradled within the shroud were the desiccated remains of a bony index finger still attached to a ruby ring. Papa's ring.
Blast the French! She wiped her eyes, angry that she could still cry.
The Coral shook with the pounding of bare feet and cargo shifting in the hold. Someone banged on her door, interrupting the dark plots of retribution churning in her head. The time had come to confess her indiscretions. And her confessor was not a forgiving man.
Paqua, her co-captain on this return voyage, looked particularly cheerless when he darkened her door. Lean and hard, he stood no taller than she, yet the sound of his voice, deep and dour, sent shivers down the backs of every man and boy aboard.
Rival pirates steered clear of the Coral. They knew she was protected by this holy man, a priest who talked to little bones and restless spirits, plying an island magic that terrified mere mortals.
Luisa and Paqua were an odd pair to command the Coral, but they worked well together and kept the crew loyal and single-minded.
Plunder had been plentiful thanks to the English and French ships that sailed the African waters. And no pirate in his right mind would balk at booty, even if it was at the hands of a woman and a West Indies mystic who divined the future from the entrails of chickens.
Paqua entered her quarters unbidden, his left foot landing hard when the ship rolled to starboard. "Time, Luisa. We're now three days inside my home waters." The door slammed shut behind him. "Tell me why we sailed here despite your father's last orders."
He was a man of few words, but they were usually enough to scare the wind out of anyone's jib. He crossed his arms, his black beady eyes trying to cow her like he did the rest of the crew.
Ply that scowl elsewhere, priest.
Luisa tugged on Paqua's right arm until he surrendered it, then turned his hand palm-side up. They stared at one another like two old men over a chess board, waiting for the other to make his move, a game Luisa never won with Paqua. She blinked first.
Tears seeped from the corners of her eyes as she made the sign of the cross twice. She kissed her blessing fingers, feeling strangely guilty that she still had them all. Her hand trembled as it placed the tiny bundle of desiccated remains into the priest's palm.
Paqua's eyes narrowed, a mixed look of recognition and horror as he opened the package. "Blessed Virgin." He examined the ring and severed finger with reverence. "Where did you get this?"
Her mouth opened, then shut. Three months she had kept this secret. Why was it so hard to release it now? "In Ndakarou."
His rheumy eyes told her he remembered that port well.
They had escaped a hunting armada by rigging the Coral with fishing nets and a Spanish flag. They sailed right past the murderous French, disguised as a fishing trawler. And oh, the tales their ruse had spun. Even now, the villagers retold the yarn to the tune of an old drinking song.
Paqua wagged the severed finger, castigating her. "But how did you get this?"
"We took shore leave after the hunting party sailed on. Remember? You and the others were quick to abandon me when you found that bevy of whores." She arched a brow at him in disapproval. "I wandered the bazaar for hours, not wanting to go back to the ship. I didn't realize I'd been followed."
Damn. She should've worded that better. The old man was going to give her brimfire for that little piece of confession. He didn't disappoint.
"Followed!" he thundered. "Followed!" He squeezed the mummified finger in his fist. "Espiritu santo. Did nothing I teach you penetrate that thick skull of yours? Who followed you? What happened?"
Spittle flew from the gap between his front teeth. His brown leathery hand clutched her by the wrist, not in anger, but fear. He assessed her quickly, calming down incrementally when he saw nothing out of place. Never mind that it had been months since the incident.
His blackbird eyes softened to a wilt. Nothing frightened the little shaman. But this did upset him and with good reason. A pirate lived and died by how well they remained untouchable. That someone had shadowed her was as dangerous for her as the crew. Ndakarou had always been a safe port. Not anymore.
Luisa shook out of his grip and waved away his admonition. "I'm fine, viejo. I wasn't in any danger."
He handed Papa's mutilated finger back to her. "You think this wasn't dangerous?"
She folded the bundle between her hands. Her father was in a lot more danger than she was. Surely Paqua understood that. "I got turned around and tried to retrace my steps when a pock-marked Frenchman approached me in an alley and handed me the finger. He warned me that if I wanted to see Papa again, I must return to these waters before the blood moon." Her throat tightened in the telling. She had taken a big risk, not just with her life but with the lives of all the crew.
"The French cannot be trusted."
"I need you to tell me this? But what choice do I have? I won't leave Papa to their savageries."
"It's a trap." The creases on his leathered jowls deepened.
"Aye, and we're caught in it. Do I turn my back on my father? Do you? You, who've been his friend since you were boys?" They had been closer than brothers.
Paqua made the sign of the cross and then licked his thumb and traced the sacred tattoo painted on his collarbone, turning it slick and shiny black. "You should have told me of this sooner." It was a rebuke masked in trepidation.
She shrugged, rewrapping the mummified finger in its oilskin sheath with all the reverence of a holy relic. It was possible this would be all she'd have left to bury of her father. "I didn't want to keep this from you, but I feared you wouldn't support me. That frog-eater swore Papa would die if I crossed him."
"This messenger, had you seen him before? Was he a sailor?"
Luisa tried to recollect the stranger's features. "He appeared well-dressed, a merchant maybe, and he spoke only in French. He had a tattoo below his right eye." She grazed her fingers down her cheek. "It looked like a claw mark scraping down his face."
"Minion of the werewolf," Paqua muttered.