They sat facing one another across a table in the upper room of a drinking den known as the Barbary Shark. Two men. One a Dutch sea captain, the other a Chinese gem dealer. Muffled sounds of foghorns from the nighttime harbor, mingling with the raucous seaport din outside, passed unheeded. A flagon of fine gin and a pitcher of water, close to hand, also stood ignored. In the dim, smoke-filtered atmosphere, both men's eyes were riveted upon a small, blue velvet packet, which the gem dealer had placed upon the table.
Slowly he unwrapped the cloth, allowing a large emerald to catch facets of the golden lantern light. It shimmered like the eye of some fabled dragon. Noting the reflected glint in the Dutchman's avaricious stare, the Chinaman placed his long-nailed hand over the jewel and spoke softly. "My agent waits in Valparaiso for the arrival of a certain man-somebody who can bring home to me a package. It contains the brothers and sisters of this green stone, many of them! Some larger, others smaller, but any one of them worth a fortune. Riches to fire a man beyond his wildest dreams. He who brings the green stones to me must be a strong man, commanding and powerful, able to keep my treasure from the hands of others. My friend, I have eyes and ears everywhere on the waterfront. I chose you because I know you to be such a man!"
The captain's eyes, bleak and grey as winter seas, held the merchant's gaze. "You have not told me what my reward for this task will be."
The gem dealer averted his eyes from the captain's fearsome stare. He lifted his hand, exposing the emerald's green fire. "This beautiful one, and two more like it upon delivery."
The Dutchman's hand closed over the stone as he uttered a single word. "Done!"
The boy ran, mouth wide open, gasping to draw in the fog-laden air. His broken shoes slapped wetly over the harbor cobblestones. Behind him the heavy, well-shod feet of his pursuers pounded, drawing closer all the time. He staggered, forcing himself to keep going, stumbling through pools of yellow tavern lights, on into the milky muffling darkness. Never would he go back, never again would the family of his stepfather treat him like an animal, a drudge, a slave! Cold sweat streamed down into his eyes as he forced his leaden legs onward. Life? No sane being could call that life: a mute, dumb from birth, with no real father to care for him. His mother, frail creature, did not live long after her marriage to Bjornsen, the herring merchant. After her death the boy was forced to live in a cellar. Bjornsen and his three hulking sons treated their captive no better than a dog. The boy ran with the resounding clatter of Bjornsen's sons close behind him. His one aim was to escape them and their miserable existence. Never would he go back. Never!
A scarfaced Burmese seaman crept swiftly downstairs, where he joined four others at a darkened corner of the Barbary Shark tavern. He nodded to his cohorts, whispering, "Kapitan come now!"
They were all sailors of varied nationalities, as villainous a bunch of wharf rats as ever to put foot on shipboard. Drawing further back into the shadows, they watched the staircase, which led from the upper room. The long blue scar on the face of the Burmese twitched as he winked at the others.
"I 'ear all, Kapitan goes for the green stones!"
A heavily bearded Englishman smiled thinly. "So, we ain't just takin' a cargo of ironware out to Valparaiso. Who does Vanderdecken think he's foolin', eh? He's only goin' out there to pick up a king's ransom of precious stones!"
A hawkfaced Arab drew a dagger from his belt. "Then we collect our wages, yes?"
The Englander, who was the ringleader, seized the Arab's wrist. "Aye, we'll live like lords for the rest of our lives, mate. But you stow that blade, an' wait 'til I gives the word."
They took another drink before leaving the Barbary Shark.
The boy stood facing his pursuers-he was trapped, with no place to run, his back to the sea. Bjornsen's three big sons closed in on the edge of the wharf, where their victim stood gasping for air and trembling in the fogbound night. Reaching out, the tallest of the trio grabbed the lad's shirtfront.
With a muted animal-like grunt, the boy sank his teeth into his captor's hand. Bjornsen's son roared in pain, releasing his quarry and instinctively lashing out with his good hand. He cuffed the boy a heavy blow to his jaw. Stunned, the youngster reeled backward, missed his footing, and fell from the top of the wharf pylons, splashing into the sea. He went straight down and under the surface.
Kneeling on the edge, the three brothers stared into the dim, greasy depths. A slim stream of bubbles broke the surface. Then nothing. Fear registered on the brutish face of the one who had done the deed, but he recovered his composure quickly, warning the other two.
"We could not find him, nobody will know. He had no relatives in the world. What's another dumb fool more or less. Come on!"
Checking about to see that they had not been noticed in the dark and fog, the trio scurried off home.
Standing at the gangplank, the Dutch captain watched the last of his crew emerge from the misty swaths which wreathed the harbor. He gestured them aboard.
"Drinking again, jah? Well, there be little enough to get drunk on 'tween here and the Pacific side of the Americas. Come, get aboard now, make ready to sail!"
The blue scar contracted as the Burmese smiled. "Aye, aye, Kapitan, we make sail!"
With floodtide swirling about her hull and the stern fenders scraping against the wharf timbers, the vessel came about facing seaward. Staring ahead into the fog, the captain brought the wheel about half a point and called, "Let go aft!"
A Finnish sailor standing astern flicked the rope expertly, jerking the noosed end off the bollard which held it. The rope splashed into the water. Shivering in the cold night air, he left it to trail along, not wanting to get his hands wet and frozen by hauling the backstay rope aboard. He ran quickly into the galley and held his hands out over the warm stove.
The boy was half in and half out of consciousness, numbed to his bones in the cold sea. He felt the rough manila rope brush against his cheek and seized it. Painfully, hand over hand, he hauled himself upward. When his feet touched ship's timber, the boy pulled his body clear of the icy sea and found a ledge. He huddled on it, looking up at the name painted on the vessel's stern in faded, gold-embellished red. Fleiger Hollander.
He had never learned to read, so the letters meant nothing to him. Fleiger Hollander in Dutch, or had the lad been able to understand English, Flying Dutchman. Reprinted Castaways of the Flying Dutchman by Brian Jacques by Permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, A Member Of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (C) 2000 Brian Jacques. All Rights Reserved. This Excerpt, Or Any Parts Thereof, May Not Be Reproduced in Any Form Without Permission.