Hey, gang! As part of the weekly Crow’s Nest posts, I’ll be periodically releasing the backstory of Osprey Adrift, chapter by chapter. If you haven’t checked out the first chapter yet, be sure to do that before reading this one!
Enjoy! And keep it plucky,
The Custom of the Sea
Splinters rained down on Tiny as the door to Captain Nine-Fingers’ quarters gave way to his battering ram.
The rest of the crew swarmed around the threshold to the captain’s quarters. Over the past months that stretched on and on and on, their curiosity of what happened to the absent captain gave way to curiousity of what kind of food might be inside his quarters. Starvation had worked its way into the crew like a worm.
“Hold!” Maximilian shouted. He made his way through the rest of the crew, trying to claw their way into the breached room. But Tiny had the doorway blocked, his seven-foot frame still as solid as ever, even after months of eating dredged up seaweed and boiled leather. Tiny nodded to Maximilian, stepped aside, and let the smaller man pass.
“Don’t let anyone in here, Tiny. Not until I’ve finished my investigation.” Tiny held fast. He knew Maximilian would be thorough, but quick.
“All right, the lot of you!” Iron-Eye Cordelia shouted to the gawkers still trying to fight past Tiny. She was standing at the back of the crowd; and although she was eager to see inside the captain’s quarters, she knew Maximilian would report his findings to her. She also knew how important it was to keep order. A pirate is a pirate. And a hungry pirate will slit your throat for a piece of salted pork. She, Maximilian, and Tiny had been an effective team in leading the crew since the One Winged Osprey found itself adrift at sea, but Cordelia could feel their flimsy ‘code-amongst-pirates’ beginning to crumble in the past few days.
Maximilian walked into the captain’s quarters. Not two steps in, a stench hit him like a wall. He knew what it was. And a mere cursory scan of the room confirmed it. Beside the large oak desk, lying in a dried pool of blood, was the captain’s body.
Maximilian stepped over to the corpse, holding his scarf over his nose. He knelt down, not because he needed a closer look, but because he thought he might vomit what little food was in his stomach.
“Suicide?” Tiny asked? He was standing in the room. The rest of the crew was behind him, staring at the corpse of Captain Nine-Fingers. Maximilian didn’t care that the crew was seeing this. They needed to.
“I wouldn’t bet on it.” Maximilian pointed at the corpse, tracing shapes in the air with his fingers – but it was obvious. The captain’s arms and legs were missing.
It’d been a long time since Iron-Eye Cordelia had tied rigging, but her makeshift fishing net seemed to be holding up. Still, the waters around the One-Winged Osprey were yielding no fish. Time and time again, when Cordelia pulled up the net, it was empty, save for a few stray bits of floating seaweed. It was as if the ship was cursed, and that curse was spreading like a poison to everything around it.
“Captain’s dead,” Cordelia heard a voice say from behind her. Startled, she whirled around to see Sal, drunk and wobbling. Cordelia tossed the net into the water again, hoping for a fish.
“Did you see the body?” she asked.
“No. Rest of the crew’s in there now, but I don’t need to see a body to know he’s dead. It’s been months since he’s been locked in there. Months.”
Despite their differences, Cordelia and Sal had managed to forge a mutual respect during their months lost at sea together. Cordelia always gave her ration of rum to Sal, and Sal always shared a portion of his ration of fish or seaweed with her. He’d always been scrawny, but one benefit of being scrawny was that he didn’t need much sustenance to keep going.
“Brilliant!” Cordelia said. She pulled the net completely onto the ship’s deck, and tried to pluck a single flopping fish from the ropes. It wasn’t big, but a pirate is a pirate. And a starving pirate will slit your throat for the smallest of fishes.
“You need some help with that?” Sal asked.
Cordelia nodded and handed the net to Sal. He pulled out a knife from his pocket. It was tied to a ring of jangling keys that sounded like church bells to the two pirates as Sal cut the fish free.
“You take that one,” Cordelia said. “There’s bound to be more.”
Sal nodded and began cleaning the fish while Cordelia tossed the net back into the sea.
The rest of the crew had left the captain’s quarters for Maximilian and Tiny to investigate alone. Although Tiny wasn’t as studied as Maximilian, he had a penchant for noticing things that others did not.
Maximilian was drawing a diagram on the floor, using a piece of chalk from the captain’s table.
“The blood trails look peculiar,” Maximilian said to himself. He was rubbing his chin, staring at the blood splattered across the floor, encircled in chalk. “Peculiar… because it appears there was no struggle at any point.”
“What then?” Tiny asked. There was a loud thud with each step as he paced around the room, looking at the shelves of books and the furniture. It all appeared to be neatly arranged and in perfect order.
“Perhaps the Captain was poisoned. Perhaps he was already dead when he was dismembered. I don’t know. But what I do know is that we’re likely dealing with a cannibal,” Maximilian said.
“But we haven’t–”
“No. We have not invoked the Custom of the Sea,” Maximilian intoned. “Have you found the limbs anywhere, Tiny?”
“Nowhere. Everything looks exactly as it did before… Before the captain locked himself in here.” Tiny walked over to Maximilian. The two men stared down at the corpse. Captain Nine-Fingers’ lips were curled back in a sickening sort of smile, as if mocking them. “Where do you think the limbs are?” Tiny asked.
Maximilian rubbed his chin, then put one hand on Tiny’s massive shoulder. “Somewhere else.”
Tiny knelt down. He pulled at a thin rope tied around the captain’s neck. He spun it around until several keys revealed themselves. Tiny held them in his palm.
“Foot locker. Chest. Cabinet. Map case. Door,” Tiny said, thumbing each key in turn. He dropped the keys onto Captain Nine Fingers’ body. They jangled before settling on the bloated corpse’s chest. “Weren’t there two keys to the door to his quarters?”
“There were, Tiny. At one point.”
“Well, where’s the other one?”
Morning came as it always did for the One-Winged Osprey. The sun rose up from the horizon – a distant disc that taunted them like a gold coin forever out of reach.
Maximilian awoke as he always did. His head pounded in pain, his stomach churned, and he rose from his bunk like a corpse returning from the land of the dead – a place he wondered if they already inhabited.
The rest of the crew was still asleep in their bunks, save one of them. Maximilian wasn’t surprised. Tiny often used the early morning hours to pace around the deck where he’d get lost in his thoughts before the bustle of the day took over. Today, however, Tiny wasn’t above deck. He was waiting beside Maximilian’s bed.
“Shhh,” Tiny said. Maximilian’s face looked puzzled. Tiny pointed to one of the bunks – Cordelia’s. “Come here for a moment,” Tiny said, helping Maximilian out of bed. The two of them stood over Cordelia’s bunk where her heavy blanket covered her. Tiny peeled the blanket back, and Maximilian inhaled in shock, stifling his words out of fear he’d wake the rest of the crew.
Cordelia was dead. And her limbs were missing.
“That’s enough,” Maximilian whispered. Tiny covered Cordelia’s body again with the blanket.
“What do we do?”
“Wake the crew up, and have them assemble on deck. I’ll deal with this,” Maximilian said. He took his pistol out of his foot locker, made sure it was loaded, and walked upstairs to the ship’s deck.
“You’re probably wondering why I’ve brought you all up here,” Maximilian said. His voice boomed with authority over the wind whipping around the crew. They stood around him in a crescent. “I want you to take a careful look at those around you.”
The crew looked at one another, sharing a few weak murmurs of confusion.
“What’s this about?” Tin-Toothed Hines shouted.
“Can you tell me who’s missing?” Maximilian said, now inches from Hines’ face. Maximilian raised his eyebrows. He took a step back and began pacing along the line of pirates, his hand poised over the pistol of his hip.
“Cordelia,” Sister Aldina said.
“That’s right,” Maximilian said. “It was brought to my attention this morning by our friend, Tiny, that the first mate had suffered the same fate as our late captain.”
“Murdered and dismembered.” Maximilian stopped pacing, just in front of Drunken Sal.
“I don’t know what you’re getting at,” Sal slurred. He took a swig of rum from his flask.
“I think you know,” Maximilian said.
In an instant, Maximilian drew his pistol and shot Sal in his forehead. The shot rang out, cold and piercing.
Alarmed, the crew drew arms. Maximilian offered them no explanation and instead held up a single hand in reassurance. With several of the crew still pointing their own firearms at Maximiliain, Maximilian knelt down, rifled through Sal’s pockets, and pulled out the dead man’s knife.
Tied to his knife, jangling like church bells, were a set of keys. Among them – one to the captain’s quarters.
The crewmen lowered their guns.
“That solves that,” Tiny said, conclusively.
“Indeed. Now that it’s all over,” Maximilian said, “the rest of you can rest easy. Let’s get back to our regular hell and put this one behind us. Let’s go. Get to work. Sister, Father,” Maximilian said to Aldina and Alonso, “prepare the bodies. Say your peace, and pray that God hasn’t forgotten us.”
But, rooted in Maximilian’s mind like nightshade, was the poisonous thought that they’d soon find themselves in an even deeper circle of hell. Maximilian knew there was no way that Sal could have been working alone.