Canfield is a neat string of apartments situated just a couple blocks from the shore. It, like the rest of the city, bears the signs of urbanization. Though the original stone is evident in some places, the building is largely made of wooden siding painted a comfortable off-white. A metal staircase winds up the front to each of the three floors. The curtains are drawn on most of the windows, and the ones where they are not show only blackness beyond.
“It’s late. She’s asleep,” Manuela says, shuffling her feet. “Let’s just find a place to sleep for the night and try her in the morning.”
The prospect is terribly inviting. My limbs feel heavy with exhaustion, and being on solid land for so long is making me antsy. Even so, I know that I won’t be able to sleep until I find out where the hell this map leads us.
Ignoring Manuela, I march up the neatly paved concrete path and through the open doorway to the first floor lobby. It isn’t so much a room as a wide, dimly lit hallway connecting the front of the building to a manicured courtyard beyond. To our left is a call box with a list of residents’ names and apartment numbers. As soon as I begin to scan it for our target’s number, I realize something critical.
“Kalise never told us her last name,” I say aloud.
Each button is marked with an apartment number, then the last name and first initial of the resident. Even if we just called every person with the first initial A, how do we know that she’s the primary owner of the apartment? Or, just as likely if she’s connected with my vein of business, that it’s even the name she gave her landlord?
Manuela turns and sprints back down the hallway and up the stairs. I groan and follow behind. When we reach the second floor, she’s pressing her ear to someone’s door. She pauses while she listens and then starts knocking fervently. I grab her shoulder.
“What’d you do that for?” I hiss. “You think it’s okay to go around knocking on people’s doors in the middle of the goddamn night?”
“They’re awake. I can hear them,” she insists.
As if to prove her correct, the door opens a crack and a bedraggled face peers out. Upon seeing our attire and weapons, the stranger hesitates, but doesn’t make us leave.
“What do you want?” they ask in a voice hardened by years of cigarettes.
“Sorry to bother you so late,” Manuela chirps. “We’re looking for a friend. Angelique?”
The stranger narrows their eyes. “You know Angelique?”
“Yeah! We’re from out of town and she’s letting us crash at her apartment for a while,” she replies. I’m impressed by how easily the lie flows from her tongue.
The stranger opens the door a little more and I can see that they’re bobbing a wide-eyed infant on one hip. I stick out my tongue and make a silly face, and the baby delivers a gap-toothed smile.
“I don’t know which apartment she’s in, but I’m pretty sure she’s on the third floor,” the stranger offers. “She’s usually out around this hour, though. At least, I’ve never—”
They jolt suddenly and fall silent, eyes fixated on something behind us. We turn around to see what has startled our informant and are greeted by a dark, lanky figure leaning against the railing at the top of the stairs. Her appearance is not unusual; she’s dressed like any other casual streetgoer, in a hoodie and jeans, and a cloud of dense auburn curls frames her round umber face. Her fawn-colored eyes light up in greeting and her full lips are turned up in a smile.
“Good evening, Mrs. Blight,” she says in friendly English. “How are you?”
Without another word, Mrs. Blight slams the door shut abruptly. I can hear clicking noises as a series of locks are fastened.
“Funny, she always does that.” The newcomer reverts to Spanish as she turns her attention to us. “Hi, I’m Angelique. Heard you were looking for me?”
Angelique’s apartment is completely black, not even a sliver of moonlight coming through the windows, and horribly stuffy, smelling vaguely like ammonia. She turns on a couple of lamps, illuminating a bare hallway and a small living room beyond packed with worn leather furniture. She gestures for us to sit as she goes into the tiny kitchen and begins to fill a china kettle with water.
“Tea?” she offers. We decline. Once the stove’s lit, she puts her work aside and settles into the embrace of an ancient-looking Ottoman.
“Let’s have a look, then,” she says, gesturing toward me.
I withdraw the map and spread it out on the coffee table, brushing aside a stack of frayed magazines to make room. Unlike our previous contact, Angelique’s expression remains neutral when she sees the artifact, but she fervently brushes her fingers across the intricate stitching, lips tracing silent syllables. We wait in silence. The minutes slip by. Glancing at my crew members, I can see they’re becoming just as impatient as myself, but none of us say anything.
The silence is pierced by the high-pitched shriek of the kettle. We all jump, except Angelique, who is still immersed in the map. Anamaria gets up to turn off the stove. When she returns, she fishes around for a coaster and sets the mug of tea by Angelique’s hand. Still no movement.
Outside, an ambulance- or perhaps a fire engine, I can never tell the difference- speeds down the road with sirens wailing. Someone on a bicycle rings a bell as they ride past. Rowdy patrons, presumably from a bar down the street, burst into uproarious laughter. Angelique remains undisturbed, eyes trained on the piece of fabric spread across her coffee table.
Manuela is the first to speak. “D’you think we should—” We quickly hush her. She sinks back against the couch with a sullen expression.
Slowly, Angelique looks up and meets my eyes. “Where did you get this?” she asks in a voice barely above a whisper.
“Mermaids,” I say, suddenly uneasy under her scrutiny. Her gaze is almost as disconcerting as that of Kalise. “I nicked it from their den not far from here.”
She looks at the map, back to my face, then back again to the map. Her expression goes from intense to confused. “How in God’s name did you manage to steal from mermaids—and come back alive?” she says with muted awe.
I shrug modestly. “S’pose I’m just that good,” I reply.
Rolling her eyes bemusedly, Anamaria adds, “Ingrid is asexual.”
Angelique nods slowly. “Makes sense,” she says quietly, almost to herself.
“So, the map. Can you read it?” Robin asks, practically bouncing with eagerness. Anamaria shoots her a warning look, but she ignores it.
Angelique doesn’t seem to mind the sailor’s bluntness. “It’s English. Very, very old English,” she says.
Robin pumps a fist in the air. “I was right!” she gloats.
“It looks like the names of the towns are labeled, but not in explicit terms,” our translator continues. “For example, I’m pretty sure this land mass over here is supposed to be the Isle of Youth in Cuba, but instead of just saying ‘Isle of Youth’, it literally translates to ‘the country where children dwell.’ Real cryptic stuff. And it doesn’t seem to be all that geographically accurate.”
“Can you translate the entire thing?” I inquire brusquely.
“Certainly. It would take a little digging, but I’d enjoy the challenge.” She looks up from the map and directly at me again. “I don’t work for free, though.”
“Money’s not an issue for us,” I reply.
“Good to hear, ‘cause this job won’t be a cheap one. However,” she adds, “there’s something that’s really intriguing about this map in particular. You said you got it from a mermaid’s den?”
“Stole it right out of her cabinet.”
“If you know how to find the mermaids of Tierra Aislada, then you know about the legend of the explorer Abel,” she says.
I shake my head, as do the others in my entourage. Angelique looks at us with disdain. “What kind of pirates are you if you’ve never heard of the treasure of Don Abel?”
“Tired ones. Now, if it’s relevant to our map, let us hear it. If not…” I reach for it, but Angelique jerks it back almost involuntarily. My outstretched fingers curl into a fist.
“Alright, I’ll tell you,” she says quickly. “A hundred years ago, the explorer Abel Bonaventura traveled to Tierra Aislada from Spain to observe mollusks. He found a particular kind of snail that could produce a green fluid that worked smoother and lovelier than ink.
“The snails were abundant in the waters surrounding the village, yet the villagers made all their documents by chiseling letters into stone tablets. Abel decided he would swindle the villagers by bottling the fluid and selling it to them at a ridiculous price.
“The villagers knew immediately what Abel was trying to do. The snails had lived near their shores for as long as the village had existed, and they were well familiarized with the green liquid they secreted. They avoided using it, however, because they knew it was a poor substitute for ink. Days after one lay it on parchment, it would crack and crumble off, erasing your words forever. It was also highly toxic—when exposed to bare skin long enough, it settles beneath the epidermis and prevents new skin from forming, essentially killing your skin cells.
“However, they went along with Abel’s swindle. They gave him huge amounts of gold and instituted him as chief scribe of the village.
“There was another curious species near the island that Abel had come to observe—mermaids. Merfolk had dwelled in the surrounding waters for centuries, but the islanders knew of the great healing properties of their tails, and so hunted them down whenever they came near the surface to eat. Abel took pity on them and began to sneak them food when the villagers were asleep. Thus, he formed an unintentional alliance with the merpeople.
“Several months after Abel’s arrival at Tierra Aislada, the explorer was beginning to experience the effects of the poison ink. Even his mermaid allies couldn’t heal his injuries. Realizing that he’d been tricked, he gathered up all the treasures that the villagers had given to him and fled to a distant island to bury it. He drew up a cryptic map in a long forgotten language and entrusted it to the merfolk, vowing a curse upon the villagers and all their descendants.
“After his death, the merfolk were so enraged with the villagers that they unleashed a vicious slaughter upon them. The village fell to ruin, as the creatures made it near impossible for one to get in or out of port. And so the island has remained, its bloody secret guarded by Abel Bonaventura’s curse and his vile mermaid allies.”
A heavy silence follows the conclusion of Angelique’s story. After several moments, Robin lets out a low whistle. “I just thought it was a really weird old treasure map,” she says, impressed.
Angelique shakes her head grimly. “The merfolk have been terrorizing the island’s visitors for decades. I can’t believe you got within a hundred feet of the place without capsizing.”
“Just my irresistible charms at work, love,” I reply with a wink. Robin and Anamaria roll their eyes dramatically, and Manuela snorts. I cast them a dirty look.
“Anyway,” Angelique continues, “like I said, the map intrigues me. I’ve always been deeply fascinated by the lore of these islands. If you want my translating services—”
Don’t say it, don’t say it…
“—you’ve gotta take me along.”
“No. No way,” I say immediately.
She shrugs and starts to roll up the map. “Alright. Then we’re all done here. Pleasure doing business with you, yadda yadda, see you later.”
I massage my temples with my fingers. This chick is wearing on me like a barnacle on ship’s hull. “Fine, you can come,” I say, snatching the map from her. “But if you’re gonna sail with my crew, you’re gonna act like a sailor. Put in as much work as you want out of it. I don’t run a cruise ship service.”
“Sounds good,” she says, grinning broadly. Her enthusiasm makes me want to punch her in the face. I hate when people give me an ultimatum.
A knock on the front door makes us all turn. Angelique rises, her smile disappearing. Her hand goes to her hip; she withdraws a switchblade from her back pocket and flicks it open as she heads out of sight down the hallway.
“Can I help you, officer?” I can hear her say in cheery English.
“We got a warrant to search your apartment,” comes the reply. The stranger has such a heavy Brooklyn accent that I can barely understand what he’s saying.
“Certainly. Come on in.” I hear the door close and a chorus of footsteps shuffle down the hallway. Angelique reenters, switchblade now out of sight, followed by two burly middle-aged men. Although they both clearly have shiny aluminum badges pinned to their breast pockets, their attire is unusual for a pair of street cops. They’re both wearing pleated navy blue pinstripe suits, pressed gray ties, and glistening leather shoes. One of them, strangely, is also wearing white spats. Their black fedoras cast their faces in deep shadow in the poor light from the skimpy lamps in the room.
“Have a look around, officers. Nothing suspicious here, I can assure you,” Angelique says invitingly. She goes into the kitchen and fills the kettle with water. “I was just getting ready to make some more tea. Care for a cup?”
“Two sugars,” says the shorter of the two.
“And you?” she asks the other.
“I’m all set.”
He goes to the bookshelf against the wall and picks up a metal figurine. As he turns his head to examine it, a shred of light falls on his face, and in an instant of striking clarity I recognize him.
That is no police officer.
I try to get Angelique’s attention, but she’s busy fussing over the tea. I turn to my crew and widen my eyes in alarm. Manuela’s expression grows panicked even though she can’t immediately identify the threat. Anamaria stares blankly ahead with cool neutrality, though with her proximity I can detect the increased pace of her heartbeat. Clearly, they’re not going to do anything right now. I meet Robin’s eyes and heave the full force of my agitation into my expression.
“So, officers,” she says bluntly, “what are you searching for?”
“That’s classified information, ma’am,” the taller one replies brusquely.
We exchange exasperated glances. Do something! I scream in my head. She clears her throat and persists. “Well, this is a private residence, y’know. Don’t she have a right to know why her home is being searched?” she says.
“It’s fine. I’ve got no secrets here,” Angelique says serenely.
Now all that’s going through my mind is a stream of question marks. Why is she acting so calm? A woman in her profession undoubtedly has a few items of dubious legality in her apartment. Even if she does believe that these two are real officers, why is she letting them walk around so freely?
My heart plummets into my toes. The map. It’s still clutched in my hand, right out where either of them could just glance over and see it. I need to hide it. Tuck it under my thigh? No, if we need to make a quick escape it’ll be too difficult to get to. I definitely can’t put it back in its normal hiding place; it would look way too weird for me to be fiddling around in my shirt.
The kettle whines, and Angelique turns off the stove. She reaches up into the cabinet and withdraws a mug, but it slips out of her hand and smashes to pieces on the tile floor. “Oh, shoot,” she cries. “Can you guys come help me pick these up? There’s a broom and dust pan in that closet over there—would you mind terribly?”
Manuela and Robin hurry to her assistance. “What can I do?” Anamaria asks a bit too loudly.
“Oh, can you wet a paper towel and pick up the smaller pieces?” Angelique lets out an embarrassed giggle. “I can be such an awful klutz, I’m so sorry. Here—” She gestures for me to come forward. As I stand, I manage to jam the map as deep into my pocket as I can, making sure she sees me do it. I glance over my shoulder, heart racing, but the two imposters have their eyes turned away, studying a cluster of framed photographs on top of the television.
I let out an internal sigh of relief and hurry to assist Angelique. She takes a new mug from the cabinet, places the tea bag inside, and carefully pours the boiling water inside. “There, just get it all in the paper towels—can you grab that wastebasket over there so they’re not dragging broken ceramic across the floor?” She measures out two spoonfuls of sugar into the mug and brings it over to the “officers”.
As Shorty reaches for the mug, she suddenly rears back and throws it in his face, dousing him in boiling tea, then whips the heavy mug at his partner’s leg. They both howl in pain.
Before the syllable is out of her mouth, I’m sprinting toward the front of the apartment, hurling the wastebasket over my shoulder with the hope that it slows them down some. I ricochet off the far wall in my haste, bruising my shoulder, but I don’t even notice the pain as I race toward the front door. Angelique has already disappeared into the humid black night, leaving the door yawning open.
A hand wraps around my ankle, causing me to topple over abruptly. A sharp pain rockets through my skull and turns everything black.
I have never been in this much pain. It’s like having ten thousand hangovers at once while an elephant steps on my head and a tiny mountain climber with a bad temper is scaling my skull. Everything is black, but I’m afraid that if I open my eyes all my brains will pour out. It must be nothing more than mush after this awful thrashing.
Slowly, though, I open them a sliver. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The stark fluorescent lighting is like a machine gun on my eyeballs. All I want is to shut them and go to sleep and stop feeling this horrible awful pain, but I force myself to open them the rest of the way so that I can view my surroundings.
I can make out little beyond the circle of light in which I’m currently sitting. A quick glance shows me that I’m tied to a plastic chair on a concrete floor, though my limbs are so numb I can’t even feel the rope biting into my skin. I suppose that’s a blessing in its own way; my legs would probably be ready to fall off if I had any sensation in them. God, I wish I’d listened to Anamaria and worn my braces tonight.
Shuffling footsteps approach from somewhere behind me and alarm shoots through my body like a lightning bolt. A figure I know very well strides into my field of vision. The alarm changes to shriveling fear.
It’s physically painful to look into the glassy, dead eyes set deep in his skeletal face, but I force myself to return his gaze with as much pride as I can muster under the circumstances. He grins in a self-satisfied way that, on anyone else, would make me want to smack it right off their jaw; on him, however, it just sends tendrils of cold fear into my gut.
“And so the Cat has captured the serpent,” he says smugly.
I don’t give him the dignity of a response. Not that I would have been able to speak through the abject pain constricting my skull.
He begins to circle me, tapping his slender wooden cane on the concrete floor. “We’ve been very bad, haven’t we?” He tsk-tsks. “Those who don’t pay their loans back on time don’t get very nice treatment, do they? Ah, well. I suppose that’s what I get for dealin’ with pirates.”
That strikes a nerve. Part of me wants to drive my shoe straight up his filthy chute so that he tastes leather for three months. The rest of me just wants to go to sleep. Even though I probably have a concussion and will likely go into a coma if I do. That’s how it works, right? Might not be so bad, actually, now that I’m really considering it.
“I shoulda known you’d try to con me outta payin’ your due, Liston. Shoulda known the moment you came into my office, meek as a dog—”
Wait. If I go into a coma now, I probably won’t get the chance to sock him in the jaw so hard he shits his teeth, and right now that’s what I really, really want to do.
“You’ll get your damn money,” I choke out hoarsely. I want to say something stronger, but the pain shooting through my skull makes it difficult to slog through my limited English. I consider hurling a few curses at him in Spanish, but figure that probably wouldn’t go over too well.
“You’re past your due, Captain,” he says disdainfully, stopping in front of me and spinning on one heel to face me directly. “I don’t deliver late notices.”
“I paid you on time!” I say. Mostly, I add in my head.
He shakes his head and makes another tsk noise. “Honey, this is one sticky spot you’re not gonna be able to mooch your way out of.”
He nods at someone outside of my field of vision. A stark clicking sound from behind makes my blood turn to icy slush in my veins. A henchman clutching a glistening black pistol strides into the light and takes aim. My heart feels paralyzed in my chest.
“Wait!” I cry. “I can make you a deal!”
My words sound pathetically desperate even to my own ears, but it’s enough to make the Cat hold up a hand to stay his cronie.
“Go on,” he says with chilling calm.
What are you doing, what the hell are you doing? “I’m going to find the lost treasure of Abel Bonaventura,” I blurt out. “You let me go, I’ll give you a share of the treasure. My debt threefold, plus interest- and then some.”
He appears to be weighing the decision carefully. “And how do we know you’ll find this supposed lost treasure? Or that it’ll even be enough to repay your debt?”
“If we fail, I’ll give you something else. Anything,” I say quickly. “My ship, my crew—”
“You’d give up your ship and your crew just to stay alive?” He raises an eyebrow and smiles without mirth. “What a pirate.”
He’s silent for several moments more. “And the girl,” he adds, “the one who burned my henchman—I want her.”
I snort. “What do I care whether you take her or not? She’s no part of my crew.”
He nods thoughtfully. “Enough gold to repay your debt three times over, plus a little extra side dish. And if you can’t deliver—your crew, your ship, and everything on it.”
“Deal,” I say, weak with stark relief.
His smile widens.
God, I want to rip it off his ugly fucking face.