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The dust of 100 dogs, p.18
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       The Dust of 100 Dogs, p.18

           A. S. King
 
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  Emer heard movement and a loud slap. “Not dead? You come with me. Come look at this … this … thing!” The door of the office swung open and the two men entered. The Frenchman pointed. “Look at this. This is not a woman! This is a ghost, Robert! You have given me a ghost for all my trouble! We had a deal—this was no part of that deal.”

  “I said I would make sure she was here when you returned. She is here, is she not?”

  The Frenchman pulled a loaded pistol from his waist and pointed it at the governor’s left leg. “I’ll have that map back now, and those rings.”

  “Don’t be ridiculous.”

  The Frenchman fired the pistol, and the governor fell onto his desk in agony. “The map,” the Frenchman said, holding his left hand out, palm up.

  The governor reached into his desk and grabbed a rolled map. He handed it to the Frenchman, and when he did, the Frenchman peeled the rings from his fingers. He picked Emer up and walked through the door, gently so she wouldn’t hit her head.

  When they were free of the stone building, the sun beat down on Emer’s dying body and her head went limp. The Frenchman hurried to the dock, up the gangplank of his own frigate, the Chester, and screamed for the ship’s doctor. His first mate, the man Emer had once thought was his servant, reached out to help steady his captain.

  “Hurry! The woman is dying!” the Frenchman cried. Emer lost consciousness again, puzzled at the irony that surrounded her—puzzled about how she should feel about her rescue—puzzled about what would become of her if she lived.

  Fred Livingstone inspected his chin in the rearview mirror.

  “That bitch,” he said, rubbing the red mark where he’d collided with the head of his beautiful bikini girl.

  You certainly made a mess of that, Fred.

  “Shut up.”

  You looked like a creep.

  “Just shut up.”

  You should watch where you’re going, Fred. You never know who you’ll bump into.

  “You think this is funny then, do you?”

  It is funny.

  “Just shut up,” Fred answered, and he turned on the radio.

  He drove home and parked the car in the garage, went quickly to the bar in his office, and inspected his chin again in the mirror. He fixed himself a large drink and sat down on the nearest barstool, resting his head in his hand.

  “I blew it.”

  No point in fretting, Fred. She’ll be gone in a week or two. You’ll find plenty more after that and forget she ever existed.

  “No. She has to pay. She has to pay for turning me down. No woman ever turns me down!” He gulped from the glass. “I’ll take her out and get her drunk. She’ll fall for me then. They always do.”

  Fall over, you mean, right? Because of the drugs you put in her drink?

  “Oh, shut up, will you? You’re always mocking me, and where are your good ideas? You never have anything good to say, do you?”

  I said something good this morning.

  “Oh, you did?”

  Yeah. You should see a shrink.

  Fred’s voices were interrupted by a knock at the front door. He tried to see from the corner of his glass wall who it was, but the bougainvillea had outgrown its original position and now blocked his view, so he walked down the stairs and looked out the peephole in the door. There was no one there, so he returned to the office.

  I was right, you know. You should see a shrink.

  Before he could answer, the knock sounded again. He went back downstairs and looked through the peephole again. Still, no one was there. He unbolted the door and opened it roughly, but saw nothing. He walked out to the patio and looked both ways. No one was there.

  Hearing things, Fred?

  “Oh, shut up. You heard it too.”

  He walked back to the office and sat in his leather chair, swigging a sip of his bourbon and melted ice and swirling the crystal glass around.

  “She can’t turn me down! Not after turning me down in the bank!”

  She can and she will, Fred. You’re wasting your time. She’s a little girl. You’re an old man.

  “I’m middle-aged.”

  You’re old. You’re old and you’re a queer.

  “I’m—” Before Fred could answer, the knock came again. He raced down the stairs, growling, and swung the door open only to find Rusty, out of breath and wagging his tail.

  “Damn you! Fucking dog!” He brought the crystal glass down on the dog’s head, shattering it. “You fucking asshole!” he spat, kicking Rusty in the ribs. The dog jumped back up with a yelp and moved away. Fred pursued him and grabbed out for his neck. Rusty avoided each grope, one after the other, until Fred gave up and went back inside. He returned to his office, fixed another glass of bourbon, and sat down in his yellow chair. When he leaned back and closed his eyes, he pictured Saffron in her coral bikini, scolding him.

  You shouldn’t hit your dog like that.

  “Let me make it up to you,” he answered.

  Make it up to me?

  “Let me take you to dinner.”

  She said you shouldn’t hit the dog, Fred. She thinks you’re an asshole.

  “Shut up and let her answer! You’ll see!”

  I think you’re an asshole.

  “What?”

  She put a hand on her slender hip. I said I think you’re an asshole. You shouldn’t hit your dog.

  See? I told you! She thinks you’re an asshole!

  “No, you think I’m an asshole.”

  I do too, she agreed.

  “Well, fuck you both, then. I’ll show you just how big of an asshole I can be.”

  That’s right, Fred. You show us.

  “This is my turf! This is my beach! This is my fucking dog and I can do what I like to it! Call me an asshole, will you? Call me a queer? I’ll show you who’s queer!”

  That’s right, Fred. You show us who’s queer.

  “Just shut up, will you!” Fred screamed, and then drank back his bourbon in one mouthful, swishing it through his cheeks and his teeth like mouthwash before swallowing it. It was four o’clock, so he turned on McHale’s Navy, kicked off his slippers, leaned back into the chair, and promptly fell asleep.

  At six o’clock, Fred woke to another knock at the door. Before he got up to answer it, he opened his bottom desk drawer to retrieve a can of pepper spray. His bottom drawer was full of that sort of stuff—a large rubber strap, a leather whip twisted into a perfect circle, a dart pistol, a pair of night vision goggles, two sets of handcuffs, two palm-sized cans of mace, and a boxed set of surgical scalpels. He put the pepper spray in his pocket and walked down the stairs. He readied his hand to catch Rusty by the neck this time, and jerked the door open quickly without using the peephole.

  A young local woman with wide eyes jumped back. “Good evening, sir,” she said. “I’m collecting for the Saint Elizabeth Literacy program. We help—”

  “Illiterates?” Fred snapped before she could finish. He looked past her for the dog.

  “Yes, sir. We teach people who missed out on an education.”

  Fred stepped out past her and looked both ways for Rusty. The woman retreated, frightened. He reached into his pocket, past the pepper spray, and pulled out an American ten-dollar bill. “Here. Now go away.”

  “Thank you, sir. Thank you very much,” she repeated, and then hurried up the patio steps and back onto the road.

  “Fucking illiterates.” Fred walked out toward the pool and searched for the dog. As he walked back, he stepped on a piece of broken crystal still scattered on the doorstep and swore in pain.

  “Goddamn that fucking dog!” he yelled, hopping and inspecting his foot at the same time. “Goddamn that fucking woman!” The local woman heard him from the road and walked faster.

/>   When he returned to his desk, Fred opened the wound and picked the shard of glass out with a toothpick. He pulled an ice cube from his glass and placed it on the cut.

  “That bitch doesn’t know who she’s fucking with!”

  She didn’t break the glass, Fred. You did.

  “Now this will have to get ugly.”

  Sure, Fred, ugly.

  “Stop fucking mocking me! I’m serious!”

  You certainly are, Fred. You certainly are.

  Fredrick, stop with that swearing! I taught you better than that, his mother scolded.

  “Shut up, Mother.”

  Don’t you talk to me that way, young man!

  “I’ll talk whatever way I want, you fucking old whore. You’re dead. Why don’t you just piss off?”

  Piss off? he answered. Why are you telling me to piss off? I’m on your side!

  Fred took the handcuffs from the desk and twirled them around on his index finger. “Will you all just PISS OFF?”

  Emer awoke to the sound of sailing. In the dim candlelight, she could make out only the nearest things: a basin of water and a cloth, a pair of wrist cuffs, a small, brown, corked bottle, and a bottle of rum. She reached out for the stool next to the bunk, but her arm flopped down to the planks beneath her instead.

  She looked down at the shape of her body and tried to move her legs. Great pain rose from her right calf as she bent her knees and grabbed them, hugging them to her chest. She moved the blankets until her right foot appeared, swollen and discolored and wrapped with layers of white absorbent rags. Blood seeped through where her two toes used to be. She tried to wiggle the remaining ones, her big and middle, and her smallest, with no luck. They didn’t move at all, not even when she tried her hardest.

  Moving slowly, balancing as the Chester broke through fast waves, Emer reached for the rum and took a swig. She tried to remember where she was, what had happened, and whose care she was in. She drank two more swallows of rum before someone unlocked the door and opened it.

  A man appeared, a short man wearing a round spectacle. He smiled when he saw she was awake and asked, “How do you feel?”

  “What’s wrong with my foot?”

  “Your foot should be fine in a few weeks. Just a bit of gangrene is all.”

  Emer looked down. “It doesn’t look fine.”

  “Trust me. I’ve been a doctor for twenty years and I know my business.” He reached into the darkness beyond the candlelight. “Are you hungry?”

  He brought the tray and placed it on the stool. Emer gagged at first, but then picked up a biscuit and brought it to her mouth.

  “How long have we been at sea?”

  “Four or five days. Only a few more to go, in this wind.” He inspected her foot and applied some liquid from the brown medicine bottle.

  “Where are we going?”

  “You worry about resting and eating,” he said, turning toward the door. “I’ll tell Captain you’re awake. He’ll be quite pleased.”

  He locked the door behind him and Emer propped her head with a feather pillow. She looked around for anything sharp, but there were nothing but blunt things. The best weapon she could find was the rum bottle. She worked to empty it, thinking she could hide it in her bed and strike when the Frenchman wasn’t paying attention, then escape to the deck and kill everyone. She sat up and when her foot hit the floor, she cried out in agony, fell back into the bed, flushed, and passed out again.

  When she woke up, her candle had gone out and she was in total darkness. The ship swung violently from side to side, causing items to shift and crash onto the floor. She held on to the sides of the bunk as the ship tacked one way and then the other, repeatedly. This was the movement of battle, for sure. Minutes later, she heard someone yelling orders and the gunners running above her from cannon to cannon. She felt the forecastle cannon fire and her heart thumped.

  Emer wished she could stand up. She tried again, but could not get past the pain in her right foot. She lay down in the darkness and listened to the fight. Surely this must be the governor’s best ship, sent to kill the Frenchman who had double-crossed him. Ironically, she found herself rooting for the crew of the Chester.

  After an hour of gunfire, the boats met and there was fighting on deck. Emer smiled at the familiar language of battle the way she’d once smiled at the musical call of the returning swallows. She heard men fall to their deaths and men laughing aloud. She heard men skewering the dead, their blades sticking into the ceiling above her head. She heard men falling overboard, their bodies meeting the hull before they finally hit the sea. And then she heard two sets of footsteps approaching the dark cabin. Assuming her team had lost, she quickly lay flat and played dead.

  “It’s locked, sir,” someone said.

  “Kick it down.”

  There were several light kicks to the door.

  “Harder!”

  The door finally flew open, half of it snapping and landing on the floor next to the doorway.

  “Sir, are you here?” David asked.

  Emer sat up. “Over here.” She reached out toward his voice.

  “Come with us,” he said. “Hurry.”

  “I can’t hurry, David. I can’t bloody walk.”

  The two men walked to her bunk and picked her up. She snatched the medicine bottle and shoved it in David’s trouser pocket. When they got her upright, Emer faltered and felt dizzy. The men held her at the waist and the three of them moved through the doorway and up the steps to the sunlit deck. Emer closed her eyes and heard David gasp.

  “Bring the doctor,” she whispered to him. “The one with the spectacle.”

  David ordered his men to get the doctor. He carried Emer over the ropes and onto the Vera Cruz. The rest of the men continued to fight while they went below deck to her cabin. Everything was exactly as she’d left it almost a year before. Even her cape still hung on its hook.

  When the doctor arrived, David left him in the cabin with Emer and one marine and went back above deck to finish the battle. He ordered the gunners to their places and the marines to untangle the ships and get aboard. When they did, the Vera Cruz sailed past the Chester twice, pouring endless double shot into her hull. The Chester began to take on water and sink as they tacked west.

  When David returned to her cabin, Emer was lying in the bunk looking tired.

  “What happened to her?” he asked the doctor.

  “She is very lucky, you know. She could have lost her whole foot.”

  David said, “You’ll stay with us until she’s good as new, you will.”

  The doctor nodded. “We’ll need some things.”

  “What things?”

  “Medicine for her leg. Rum for her pain.”

  David looked at Emer. She smiled the best she could through her shame. “Now this,” she thought. “A menace to my crew.” He sat down beside her on the bunk, and took her weak head in his hands and kissed her.

  “I have a surprise for you, Captain. A very big surprise.”

  “I’ve had my fill of surprises, David. Tell me.”

  “Well, if I told you, then it would scarcely be a surprise, now would it?”

  “I order you!”

  “Presently, sir. You can’t order me. You can’t even walk! You’ll see soon enough what I have for you!”

  She handed the small brown bottle to the doctor and allowed him to examine her foot and apply the dark liquid to the place where her toes used to be. He made her eat two biscuits and then left her to sleep.

  Two weeks later, Emer was able to walk around her cabin with the aid of a crutch. Three weeks later, she could limp steadily without the crutch and began to turn the proper color. She walked circles in the cabin, and each day would make it through the entire ship’s undercarriage twice. She ate one
full meal a day, and had managed to keep down some dried meat. By the time the Vera Cruz reached its surprise destination, Emer was nearly healed. She would always limp, the doctor warned her, but it would become slight with time and practice.

  David arrived one morning with a plate of fruit. “Today you get to see your surprise,” he said, smiling.

  She dressed in a pair of black trousers and a clean blouse. She attempted her boots, but one was still too small to fit on her swollen foot, so she left them behind. She fixed her battle cape around her shoulders and fastened the collar, now completely crimson with the knots of dead Spanish sailors.

  As they neared the ladder to the deck, her men began to applaud and cheer. She looked up and saw that each had a small cup of rum in his hands.

  “Close your eyes,” David said. He led her to the starboard edge and then told her to open wide.

  When she opened her eyes, Emer didn’t know what she was looking at. At least fifteen ships surrounded them, mostly frigates like the Vera Cruz, but also several small brigs and a few enormous galleons as well. The crews on each of these ships cheered as noisily as her own, each holding up a cup of rum, toasting.

  “What’s this?” she asked.

  “Twenty ships in all, sir. Good crews, competent officers, and four hundred guns or so.”

  Emer looked at the ships, and then looked back at David. “You did this?”

  “We did.” He motioned toward the crew. “The Spanish are due tomorrow or the next day. A fleet of about twenty, heavy with trade. We have two sloops tailing them, aye.”

  She looked at her crew, and then back at the fleet.

  “You’d better say something, sir,” David said, reaching down and squeezing her wrist.

  She raised her cup and toasted her own crew first. “To the most loyal men alive! Verily! I owe you my life, I do.” Then she refilled her cup, raised it again, and turned to the new fleet. And though she knew the men on board the other ships couldn’t hear her, she said, “We’ll take the Spaniards to the sea floor, or my blood!! Arg!” She let the rum trickle from the sides of her mouth and held her fist up. The men drank as if she’d always been their captain, and they held their fists up, too.

 
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