Water lapped the side of the Black Princess like a thirsty, little beast. Captain Jax Parker scanned the city as it crowded the Thames. One last pointed look in case it was his last. Each visit the docks got busier, more stone and wooden warehouses lining the embankment, their beams hung out over the river and their large hooks and pulleys were hauling up and lowering cargo from barges below. In his line of business, transporting high value cargo, illicit cargo or lightening another ship of theirs, any day could be your last. An unsuccessful raid and you were on the bottom of the ocean, your body at the mercy of mermaids and old Moby Dick. And besides, England had long stopped feeling like home. There were half a dozen places around the world more familiar to him than here. Hong Kong, Shanghai, Kyoto, they were all more to him than England. He came to London to deliver goods, or like now, collect goods for transport back to the East, but if he could avoid it, he did. “The bounty’s arrived, Captain.” First Mate, Meaks reported; a seasoned sailor built as solid as a boxer, with a tanned face lined and folded on itself like a pug. “Let’s see what we’ve got then.” Jax said and turned. They walked to the gangplank as sea gulls squawked overhead, ever circling and swooping the docks for scraps as his crew worked on final preparations to set sail.
The feminine shape walking up the wooden incline towards them was diminutive, not so slight to be considered stunted nor mistaken for a child but not much taller. Meaks muttered a curse beside him. Her scarlet cape grazed the ground, and far too close to her followed a mountain of a man. “Captain Jax?” The man’s hand landed on the mystery woman’s shoulder stopping her progress. “I am.” Hands on hips, legs apart, he stood across the top of the gangplank and surveyed the odd couple, bounty, and bounty hunter. “Delivery for Mr. Moriata. Undamaged.” “You undamaged girl?” Jax asked the diminutive package.
Silence. Instead, she turned her head to the side. “Is she mute?” Jax asked, nothing about her looked right. The bounty hunter barked a laugh. “I’ve wished it.” Jax examined the woman, apart from size there was not much to see as her hood sat so far over her face, she appeared nothing more than a moody featureless shadow. She held herself as if in readiness. There was nothing defeated about her stance, it was alert. His gut tightened. Something wasn’t right.
In his business, when his gut twisted it always, always meant trouble. His mate, Moriata, was paying a lot to get this woman back. Jax’s instincts told him, right here and now, any payment for her wasn’t going to be large enough. “Are we standing here for a reason?” The bounty hunter asked glancing back down the gang plank to a carriage waiting for him on the dock, clearly eager to finish his business. Jax stepped aside and signaled they come aboard. The bounty hunter gave the waif a nudge up the gangplank. She made to step forward, then lurched to the right, clearly aiming to jump off the plank to an open cart lined up with the dock; a move that could kill her as easily as give her the chance at escape. Lightning fast, the bounty hunter’s hand shot out and caught her around the waist. He drew her back against his chest lifting her fully off the gangplank. Slender legs encased in leather pants thrashed out from beneath the cape marking her captor with a few solid kicks.
The hood slid fractionally back revealing a full fabric mask over her face and neck. Tiny shell buttons closed an opening over her mouth and ran up the side from her neck to the top of her head. Patches of mesh on top of her eyes ensured she could see. A quick glance and he noted her little hands were also gloved. This was not good. “Does she need to be quarantined?” Moriata would have mentioned if she were diseased or contagious but, then again, he might not have been aware of her state after she’d fled. “Nothing like that.” The mountain shook his head, “but I’d keep her as covered as you can.” The man scanned the crew gathered at the rails, always curious to see what was coming on board. Each one would get a slice of the payment to deliver her to Moriata, a payment that would be worth as much as a hull full of silks, so the job meant as much to them as it did to him.
A hard thud to Jax’s side threatened his balance. His hand whipped out catching a foot. The little minx had changed her attack strategy, she flung a few kicks at him with her other foot, the first landing. She got another one in before the bounty hunter curled her legs in. “I’ll need your seal,” the mountain said as she wiggled in his no-doubt-painful clasp. To her credit, apart from her heavy breathing she made no sound of discomfort. “Below deck.” Jax turned and crossed to the stairs leading down to the captain’s cabin. “Meaks, Gordon, keep an eye on the girl.” They gave a nod and stepped closer.
“Leave her on deck,” he said to the bounty hunter. Something about those mallet hands on her irritating him. Meaks and Gordon took the now passive and still fully cloaked bounty and sat her on one of the water barrels waiting to be stowed in the cargo bay below. “Wouldn’t recommend that,” the bounty hunter said, nodding to his relinquished bounty. Jax ignored him disappearing below deck. The captain’s cabin was down the corridor at the front of the ship. Jax opened the door to a sizable room gleaming with well-polished wood containing both work and sleep areas. It had round portholes to either side of the bow, a bed built into the side large enough for one and a small fit for two, a chest of drawers, map cabinet and leather chairs. He walked over to collect his seal and red wax out of the small safe to the side of the large blackwood desk. The bounty hunter followed him in and looked around.
“Don’t see many ships like this anymore, all steel and steam these days.” “What is she, a three sailed screwed clipper? Looks like some modifications….” The bounty hunter rolled out his paperwork. Jax gave him a second look, many people missed the modifications. Adding the steam turbines to the clipper had cost a pretty penny. Stealth was the foundation of piracy, yet steam got you through the Suez Canal as well as a speedy departure once you’d lightened another’s vessel of its cargo. “That’s right. Nothing like keeping a bit of tradition alive.” Jax signed that he had taken delivery, then melting the wax, pressed his seal into it. C.
J. P for Captain Jackson Parker. No one in Great Britain called a man and his crew pirates any more, they were entrepreneurs, merchants, and businessmen. But as soon as you reached either the African, North Russian, South American and any of the Asian coastlines, the veils lifted and what had been going on for hundreds of years was still going strong today: stand and deliver piracy. The armory of guns and canons he had below deck meant that deliver was most often the choice of the ships they targeted. Stealth, speed, and muscle, the three things a pirate needed to not only survive but to flourish. And he had them all. “How many men does she carry? Fifty?” Jax made most of his money on Asian trade and whatever jobs paid well on the side, like this little pick-up and delivery for his mate, Moriata. ‘I’ll pay you her weight in gold if you pick her up in London and bring her back to me no questions asked.’ They’d sworn on it, drunk on it, and by the time the night was through, they’d whored on it.
Bound in oath as only men like them could truly be, an oath that stemmed down to their very manhood. Weight in gold, she was half the weight he was expecting and Moriata knew it. “Depends on the cargo. Where’d you find her?” Jack handed back the paperwork. The bounty hunter checked the signature, seal, and signed copies. “Lake District. Near a pretty little cottage. She watched it for days before thinking I was not about. Caught her within spitting distance of it. But no one gets past Bounty Hunter Pete.
” “I bet.” Jax took his copy of the documents. “If you ever lose her, that’d be the place I’d go.” “I won’t lose her.” “Don’t imagine she’d use the French smugglers again to cross back over the channel, they very nearly sold her on. The Dutch would be my bet.” “Like I said, I won’t lose her.” The man had the gall to smirk. “Here, keep this in that safe of yours.” The bounty hunter placed a small cloth drawstring purse in what looked to be Japanese silk on the desk.
Jax looked inside. Cosmetics. “She gets hold of that she can travel fast, without it she has to travel in the shadows, slows her down.” The bounty hunter relayed. Jax nodded and placed the purse back down. “We done?” He put the seal, wax, and his copy of the documents in the safe as the bounty hunter put away his copies in a small satchel. “That’s it?” He repeated. “Seems so,” the bounty hunter said and moved toward the door. Shouts came from the deck above. The bounty hunter shook his head.
“She’s all yours now, best you keep her close.” Jax strode out of the cabin, down the hall and took the stairs back up to the deck two at a time. Trouble, trouble, trouble. His gut was churning up like he’d swallowed the ship’s bloody turbines. On top, the deck was a hive of activity, his men jumping and lunging, trying to grab hold of a diminutive form swinging on loose mast ropes. Her intention was clear in an instant. In moments, the rope swung her close to the ship’s rail and she let go, sailing smoothly over his men’s heads, over the side and landing with a splash in the Thames. Jax was already moving. Hat, jacket, and pistols dropping as he reached the rail and launched himself over. In the split seconds before he hit the putrid, freezing Thames, all he could see was red wool floating on black water with something desperately wriggling beneath.
As he suspected, her cloak trapped her, and with her clothing would be slowly dragging her under with their collective weight. She simply didn’t have the size to counter the heavy damp wool and the river’s currents. She managed to push the cloak above her aside and surface, gasping for air while still untangling arms. She went under again but resurfaced in moments. “Reach for me!” He shouted as he came alongside her, nerves stretched. The red cloak was slowly sinking, she’d be dragged down faster once it sank and got caught in the deeper currents. Tension coiled his gut tighter. She turned her head and her free arm stroked away from him then she went under again. What was she thinking? This was an act of desperation much like the foiled attempt on the gang plank. Moments ticked by and his heart pounded as she almost didn’t come back up, the cloak now catching in the currents below.
Breath tight in his chest and determined, he brought himself closer, close enough to grab her if she didn’t come up the next time. “Reach for me girl!” She kicked at him with a leg under the water and tried again to swim with her one free hand. Stubborn wench. She went under. Ten seconds. Thirty. A minute. Maybe more. His palms itched to grab hold of her, such a small, determined bundle triggered protective instincts he really couldn’t afford. Yet the hard fact was, this was an important lesson the bounty would learn the hard way—he would establish control, because this was the one and only time he would be jumping over the side of his own ship.
Her head resurfaced, the strange fabric face mask plastered wet over the contours of her face showing a mouth gaping open, the concave shape of the fabric echoing her frantic gasps for breath. An unwanted spike of pity cut through him, a gut-deep need to end it and save her, but pirates were not compassionate. Jax grabbed her shoulder and hauled her above the waterline. Still, she refused to grasp him. Damn her. “Choose now, the bottom of the river or me!” His voice was harsh and loud. “Choose!” Then he let her go. Waited for her to grab hold of him like any rational person would. Instead, she went under again. “Fuck.
” His heart pounded, the tension churned, and every instinct pushed for him to simply grab her and haul her back to safety. The Thames was a killer, it had dangerous and changeable currents and undertows like any body of water, but illness was the stealthier killer. London’s factory runoff, its sewerage, its garbage all ran into the river in addition to it being the graveyard of the criminal and poor. The longer both of them stayed in the water the more of it she’d swallow, and the danger wouldn’t stop once he got her safe. She could come down with some disease and had no body weight to see it through. The financial loss to him and his crew, would be substantial, let alone the fallout from Moriata after his oath to return her. And yet he had to push her now, he felt it like a tangible force, her will against his. Seconds passed like minutes. Every part of him focused on where she was in the water, watching shadows, swirls of fabric, making damn sure he could get her, could ensure the current wouldn’t suddenly tug her under and away. He and his crew, men who lived on the water, could hold their breath longer than most people.
You learned to dive deep, you chased sinking plunder, you chased sinking mates, you dived with the half-naked pearl divers as they swam like sea sirens for eons under the water. But not this little pocket of life, she would only know how to hold her breath in the bath. Yet still she didn’t reach for him. Fuck but he admired that as much as he cursed her for it. The exact moment he started to doubt his course of action, thought he was cutting it too fine, a small hand clasped onto his shirt and pulled. He trod water and let her pull herself out and climb against his chest like a soaked kitten clawing its way up onto his shoulders. She coughed as he made quick work of untying the death trap of a cape, winding it up over his arm out of the deeper currents. Her small fabric-covered face hung over his shoulder coughing and gasping while little claw like fingers dug into his shoulders for dear life. A strange flipping sensation rolled in his belly. Trouble.
Trouble. Trouble. He hoped to hell she was nothing special under those face wrappings. Shouts and cheers came from the ship, payday saved. “Bastard,” came the muffled sound of her voice as she coughed against his ear. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “At your service,” he replied as he finally curled an arm around her and swam to the side of the ship. Jax handed her to Mannie on the rope ladder where she managed a rebellious little kick at him as she was dragged from the water. Damn it but she was a gutsy little thing regardless of what was under those fabric coverings.