The crew of the Aventura and their infamous captain, Ingrid Liston, are always on the lookout for a good bout of adventure. When they retrieve a treasure map from the depths of a mermaid den, it seems like they've found it. Things get a bit difficult, however, when a vengeful mob boss to whom Ingrid owes a debt agrees to part of the treasure as payment for the captain's long-overdue debt. Sea monsters, mythical caverns, and whacky exes are all part of the daily routine for a sailor like Ingrid,
(Author's note: It's essentially implied that the characters are all speaking Spanish unless otherwise indicated. I thought it would make sense seeing as how the story takes place in the Caribbean and almost all the characters are of Spanish-speaking descent. I'm a Spanish minor, so perhaps one day I will rewrite this story entirely in Spanish, but until then we'll have to settle with inserting random Spanish words into witty dialogue. When in doubt, Google Translate is your friend. Enjoy the story!)
The water is icy cold, the kind of heavy chill that sinks into your very bones, and so utterly black that one wonders if they should ever see daylight again. It takes all my will not to let go of the pale, slender hand grasped in my own coarse, russet one. My lungs are starting to ache and my brain feels increasingly light, but I force myself to stay conscious and keep plugging onward.
At last, I can see a narrow band of emerald light drifting through a hole in the stone, getting ever closer. I begin to kick despite the soreness in my legs, driven forward by a sudden burst of energy. I break the surface, sucking in enormous gulps of thick, clammy air. My limbs are weak with fierce relief. Selena treads water patiently at my side.
“What I wouldn't give to have those gills, love,” I say half-jokingly.
“If you do ever change your mind about that, you always know how to summon me,” she purrs, sliding closer.
I draw back uncomfortably and hoist myself out of the opening in the ground. The subterranean tunnel through which we'd just escaped opens into a broad seaside cavern. The air is heavy and stagnant; though I can hear the steady pounding of the ocean and see the pebbled beach stretching away from the cave mouth, inside all is still.
When I turn to say good-bye to the mergirl, she's already gone, leaving not even a ripple behind. I let out a relieved huff.
The scent of fresh, salty air is like holy balm. I exit the cave and find myself not thirty meters from the pristine aqua waters of the Gulf. I place a hand against my forehead to shield my eyes from the harsh daylight; even the gloomy gray light preceding an approaching storm is almost unbearably harsh after the constant darkness of the caverns. A crescent-shaped outcropping of flecked gray stone, home of the cave from which I’d just escaped and many others like it, forms the inland edge of an enormous bay. Farther away, spaced at uneven intervals atop the stone, are clumps of crumbling buildings.
A low rumble of thunder echoes across the bay. Thick, ashen clouds hover ominously above. I scan the crystalline waters, looking for a sign, something-
Aha. I can make out a black shape not half a kilometer out, heading ever closer. When the dinghy reaches the shore, Robin and Anamaria, the ship master and quartermaster of my crew respectively, climb out.
“Took you long enough,” I say once we've exchanged greetings and embraces.
“Quit whining. How are your legs? Did they take your braces?” Anamaria asks, glancing nervously at my calves. I kind of hate when she gets all overprotective like that. I mean, I've had FSHD since I was born. I'm nineteen; I can handle it myself.
“What do you think? 'Course they took my braces.”
“Didja get what you went in there for?” Robin asks, practically vibrating with excitement.
I reach into my shirt and withdraw a sopping wet bundle of aged, yellowing cloth. When I unravel it, she lets out a gasp, and Anamaria presses a hand to her mouth in awe. Stitched into the fabric is an intricate map of the Caribbean, every town and landmark carefully labeled in a language I don’t recognize.
“It's in English, right? Any idea what it says?” I ask Robin.
She shrugs. “Looks kinda like English, but no language I ever seen. Could be Welsh, or some other kinda Celtic language.”
I groan in disappointment. It's the answer I was expecting, but even so, I'm filled with dread at the thought of trying to find a translator. It's difficult enough to find people who know even Western English, let alone whatever unfathomable dialect this is.
“What d'you think might be over there?” Robin asks, voice slightly hushed with wonder.
I roll my eyes. “Treasure, what else? Isn't that what it always is with these eccentric epic-sea-voyage types?”
“Well, what kind o' treasure?”
“What does it matter what kind of treasure it is? Long as I get paid, I don't give a shit.” I roll up the map and tuck it back into my shirt, then clamber into the dinghy. “Now let's get out of this forsaken shithole and back to the ship. I need a drink.”
Night has descended by the time we reach Portmore. Anamaria, Robin, first mate Manuela, and I have come ashore and are heading down the pier toward the boardwalk.
Although the waning crescent moon hovers dimly in the night sky, the boardwalk is lined with coin games, shops, arcades, and restaurants, casting a ribbon of brilliant color along the shoreline. A throng of people, mostly tourists, crowds the walkway, everyone chatting and laughing and shouting at once. The nauseating scent of fried food hovers like a tangible grease in the air.
Portmore tourists are generally unused to pirate presence; the last thing any of us wants right now is excessive attention, and I'm sure our weathered appearances are garnering enough of that already. I shove through the crowd as swiftly as I can without causing a mess. The others struggle to keep the same pace as me.
Somewhere nearby, carnival music begins to play. I shudder internally; I hate carnivals. A stream of abrupt ding ding ding!'s rings out as somebody wins a game. Once we pass, the overly cheerful carnival ditty is replaced by a steady hip hop bass. Far gentler on the senses.
A jarring buzzer from some other hapless game almost makes me jump in fright. This place and its assault on my senses already has my every nerve beyond tense; if I hear another goddamn alarm I swear I'm going to rip out the game controls and hurl them into the ocean.
At last, we reach the corner of J Street and turn down it. The clamor of the boardwalk is instantly muffled. The nearly empty street is much darker, lit only by the intermittent, flickering street lamps and the dim glow from inside the buildings. The joints in this part of the neighborhood are rather divey, ranging from small local watering hole types to seedy garbage pits, but at least I can breathe without the fumes of ten thousand corn dogs clogging my nostrils.
We stop at number twelve and I drum my fingers on the front door. A little rectangular panel slides back and a pair of watery dark eyes peers out at us.
“Who be yar?” a bristling voice hisses from inside.
“You know who I am, Salty,” I reply with a wink.
The eyes narrow, then disappear as the panel snaps shut. There's a series of clinking sounds as the locks are drawn back, then the door opens with a creak.
“I thought that stuff only happened in movies,” Manuela whispers with awe.
We shuffle inside quickly, allowing the guard to snap the door shut behind us. The space beyond the threshold is muddled and shadowy; it takes a minute for my eyes to adjust to the strange darkness. A narrow staircase yawns before us, lit by a dim green bulb at the very top. It's the only light in the narrow entryway.
“She be waitin' for ye in the drawin' room,” Salty says hoarsely, nodding up the stairs. “Second one on yer left.”
The drawing room is long and spacious, filled with ornate, puffy living sets upholstered in elegant floral patterned cloth. An enormous brick fireplace dominates the short wall adjacent to the door. Though there's a fire lit, a bone-penetrating chill permeates the air. The glow of the fire and the twisting flames of the oil lamps on the walls make the shadows seem lanky and grim.
A large oval portrait of an unfamiliar woman with dark skin and darker eyes takes up most of the space above the mantle. Manuela points to it and asks, “Who’s that?”
“Kalise’s grandmother,” I reply shortly, stepping farther into the room and peering around for my friend.
“We went to school together.”
A piercing chuckle comes from the shadows. “Ya hear dat, Eke? Ingrid say we was schoolmates. Didn’t say what school now, eh?”
Kalise rises from an armchair, looking spectral in her many skirts and bracelets in silhouette against the flames in the fireplace, and crosses the room to kiss my cheek in greeting. “Darlin',” she says warmly, taking both my hands in her own, “how yuh be?”
“Can't complain,” I say with a wink. “Yourself?”
“Same as always. Them bad boys- them Brits- be comin' in here to badda me girls. One of dem, he come in here beggin' wit' not a single bill, and me girl box 'im face in.” She imitates punching someone in the face, then tosses her head back and cackles again.
Kalise runs one of the more legit escort agencies on the island, and the British punk gangs in the area amuse themselves by harassing her for some cheap tail.
“That's rich, love,” I say. “But, the purpose of my visit…” I pull out the map and unfold it to show her.
Her mouth pops open and she takes the piece of cloth from me carefully. She runs practiced fingers over the tiny stitches, lips tracing syllables and dark stormy eyes jumping across the fabric. I wait with careful patience for her to finish examining it.
“Where didja get this?” she asks abruptly, gaze still trained fervently on the map.
“You'll never believe it.” That makes her look up and fix me with an intense stare tinged with melancholy. My joking tone ebbs enough for me to say, “Snatched it from a mermaids' den.”
Her expression doesn't change. Her eyes continue to bore into me until I'm fidgeting with discomfort. At last, she relaxes her expression and says, “Ah needn't tell yuh how valuable dis is. Keep it safe, hear?”
“Aye.” I nod solemnly, relieved to be out of the full force of her stare. I take the map when she hands it back to me, roll it up, and tuck it back in my shirt. “So can you translate it?”
“Not I. Cross da bay in Port Royal- yeh'll find a girl name Angelique. She live onna west side, in Canfield. Go ask a 'er—give 'er my name, she'll let yuh in.”
“Thanks.” I roll up the map and tuck it back in my shirt. “D’you think the metro is still run—”
A sudden explosion sends a jolt through the floor, startling us all. The lamps flicker dangerously. A second explosion makes a couple of books topple off of a nearby shelf. There's silence for several moments, then a chorus of cheers erupts from outside, followed by a harsh, high-pitched whirring and crackling.
Kalise cries out, “Them damn rude boys! Always hafta come badda me.” She gathers her skirts and marches quickly out into the hallway. Unsure what else to do, I follow close behind with my crew.
Outside, a group of five lanky, scruffy white boys no older than twenty or so are hanging around the sidewalk. They're dressed in typical punk fashion- greasy fauxhawks, leather jackets, ripped jeans, black combat boots. A couple of them clutch unlit cigarettes, as if in silent protest of the local no-smoking laws. One of them is rifling through a large wooden crate, no doubt full of fireworks of some kind.
"What the hell are ya doin'?" Kalise snaps, placing her hands on her hips and glaring at them with earth-shaking fury.
One of them gives a cocky salute. "Ello, lovies!" he calls out. I bristle in disgust.
"Like what you see?" another asks, holding up a colorful bundle of explosives. "I've got a firework o' me own righ' here. Nice an' long, too." He makes a show of grabbing his crotch, drawing racuous laughter from his friends.
Kalise storms toward them, growing more agitated with each step, shouting curses at them in a mix of English and heavy Creole. She marches directly up to the most leader-like of the group and they exchange words. Though I can't make out their conversation, I have no doubt that it's nothing gentle.
“Think she's got 'em controlled?” Robin asks quietly.
At that moment, Kalise rears back and slaps the youth so hard he falls on his backside. His friends snatch up their box of fireworks and sprint down the sidewalk into the shadows. The fallen leader stumbles to his feet and scurries after them. If he had a tail, I swear it would be between his legs. Kalise watches them go with a self-satisfied air.
“Yeah, we're all set,” I say, quickly ushering my group away down the street.
“That was the scariest thing that's ever happened to me,” Manuela says hollowly. The fluorescent lights of the metro cast a sickly, eerie pallor over her skin. Huddled nervously on the little plastic seat, eyes staring blankly ahead at nothing, she looks incredibly small. I feel a rare twinge of sympathy somewhere very deep inside.
Robin grins devilishly. “You think a couple o' punks with some convenience store fireworks are scary? Wait'll you see a privateer vessel full of 'em.”
The color drains from Manuela's face, and in that I remember how truly young she is. At fifteen, she’s easily the youngest crew member; the first time she set foot on water was the day we took her on as a mate when she was thirteen. In the roughly year and a half since then, she's never faced anything more threatening than a band of rogues. Until, of course, tonight.
While the shipmate side of me wants to console her, the captain side knows that it's best not to coddle. It would be better for her to realize the severity of the times we live in now. Even so, she looks so frightened and small that I find myself torn between authority and comfort.
Anamaria steps in for me, landing the happy medium between the two as usual. “You handled yourself pretty well, considering you’ve never had to face a gang like that before,” she says encouragingly. “Now, I'm an old woman-”
“Not that old,” I interject.
She smiles at me. “Bless you, girl. I've seen a lot in my lifetime, even so, and first time those bandits showed up around here- goodness, I could have outrun an automobile, I was so scared.” She laughs at the memory. “And Ingrid- why, first time she saw one of 'em-”
“Don't say it,” I snap, giving her a poisonous glare.
Robin elbows me, and Anamaria continues. “The first time we came across a group of punks- she must have been, oh, nine years old then- we were walking down the boardwalk- where was it? Portsmouth?”
“Isles of Shoals,” I say grudgingly.
“Right. Anyway. There was this big one, his body all covered in muscles and tattoos, with his hair dyed green all up in spikes sticking at least a foot over his head. So she breaks away from me, goes up to him, just goes up to him and says, ''Scuse me mister, why do you have boogers sticking off your head?'”
Robin and Manuela burst into giggles. I scowl and glower at them.
“What happened next?” Robin asks.
“Well, of course he was furious,” Anamaria continues. “But even punks know not to hurt a child in the middle of the day, surrounded by witnesses. So he said something real menacing, like 'Back off kid, you don't wanna mess with me.' Of course, Ingrid hated people referring to her as a child- you know what she did?”
“What?” Manuela asks, captivated.
“She pulled out her little wooden sword- this wee play thing- and started waving it around, saying 'It's me you don't wanna mess with, buster!' or something like that.” She can barely get the words out now, she's laughing so hard. “And then- I don't know why, maybe he got nervous, I don't really know- he just turned and ran. Sprinted down the alleyway like a cat who burned its tail.”
The others start to laugh even harder. “Aww, our vicious little warrior captain!” Robin says, slugging my shoulder.
I raise an eyebrow sarcastically. “Could have had to do with the crew of heavily armed pirates backing me up,” I point out.
She wraps an arm around me and squeezes me tight against her side. “It's better the way I told it,” she says. I make a show of shoving her off and roll my eyes.
“Seriously, though,” I say to Manuela, “we were fucking lucky. On their own, perhaps, they're alright—just a bunch of spoiled skinny white kids. But they’re normally pack creatures. Bunch of ‘em catch you alone—” I draw my finger across my throat and make a slicing noise.
“I could probably take 'em. They're just a bunch of bullies,” she says confidently.
Robin snatches her up in a choke hold and noogies the top of her head. “That's right, big scary Manny's gonna chase them punks right outta the Antilles,” she jokes.
Manuela shoves her off and elbows her playfully before flopping back into her seat. “That's right. Manuela la Fuerte! One sight of her face and the big baddies go running.”
“All hail la reina,” Robin cries with a mock-bow.
“La abeja reina, you mean,” I say with a snort. Manuela delivers a sharp kick to my leg, but she’s smiling.