Sunday, January 10, 2010

Ffolkes' Medicine

It's not hard-boiled noir, but I do write another kind of detective novel. A historical-detective featuring a pirate by the name of Geoffery Armitage Ffolkes. A loud-mouthed, opinonated rogue who has much too high opinion of himself and his intellectual accomplishments.

The book is coming out in January or February of this year (2010). Thought I'd post the first chapter for your reading pleasure.


Boston, Massachusetts
In the Year of Our Lord, 1690

In my youth I was such a pretty, pretty man.

Tall, flamboyant–with a flair for the outrageous and a love for the puerile. I wooed the wicked and flaunted with a rebel’s air the conventions of any and all authority. But no more. No more. Now I am old and wizened. I feel my old friend, Death, hovering near and I cannot deny him much longer. So I commit to posterity my life’s story. As meager and mundane as it may have been.

I, Geoffery Armitage Ffolkes, being of sound body but weak in the flesh, do hereby set to pen and paper my true confessions. I confess I have lived a wicked and dissolute life. I have lusted for beautiful women both far above and far below my station in life. I have posed as the imposter of royal lineage in several royal courts in Europe in the quest of acquiring titles and royal patronage. Patronage I truthfully was not entitled to have. I have swindled the rich, conned the clergy, and blatantly disregarded those who believed they were superior to me in any way. I stole the treasures of both kings and pontiffs with a casual disregard of one’s ownership. I wallowed in the sensual caresses of Gluttony and Sloth.

I have stalked the guilty in the dregs of the night when honest folk slept in warm beds and thought of only the next day’s labors. I have played the role of fool and court jester, pleasing those who wallowed in wealth and greed while I concocted elaborate plans to remove a sizeable portion of their ill-gotten wealth.
All of this I did freely and without any consideration of others.

I have been soldier, poet, diplomat, duelist, artist, and prosperous merchant in a city noted for its wicked predilections and larcenous soul. I have prostrated myself before the thrones of two dozen or so potentates from the northern fjords of Norway all the way to the slave pits of Calicut. I have sailed the seven seas and stood on five continents. I have navigated the Ganges and sailed down the Huang He in an ancient Chinese Junk in search for riches beyond imagination. I have cut through jungles thick with death and fever in long treks to find ancient Aztec or Mayan treasure. I have stood atop tall stone pyramids in cities overrun by the cruel jungle where no man had occupied for more than a hundred years. I have marveled at the wealth of the many rajas of India and admired the splendors of the royal courts of the Ming.

All this I enjoyed without the slightest suggestion of regret hampering my conscience.

Aye, I confess I was a pirate for lo all these many years in addition to the other identities I became. But not just the ordinary buccaneer who served on one ship or another and barely escaped with his life and a doubloon or two. Nay, not Geoffery Armitage Ffolkes! In every endeavor I chose to pursue I did so with a gusto, a panache, a lust for life few mortals could match! Meek and submissive I never lived nor endured. Life is but a short canvas given to an artist to paint on. Why live the life of the mundane? If one must endure the few years on this earth the good Lord has given him, why not be the bon vivant and expand one’s experiences? I did with a hearty gusto, with a throaty panache, and I regret none of it.

But the crowning glory of my illustrious career was that of being an assassin and agent provocateur for the English crown. I actively spied on both the Spanish and all the potential enemies of England even though, on many occasions, I disguised myself as a prosperous merchant and smuggler. In the Caribbean, even when the Spanish and English were at war, Spanish colonies depended on smugglers to bring them the goods they desired. Smuggling became an honest profession–one which became very profitable for me and my comrades.

The crown’s enemies abounded and there my credentials as a spy and provocateur became most valuable. With my mercantile operations I moved freely among the Dutch, the French, and the Spanish. But equally, I moved through the rank and file of the Brethren of the Coast–that loosely construed title which included most, if not all, of the pirates who roamed the green and blue waters of the Caribbean. Aye, piracy in my time was both a bane and a boon to the English. Our ships and crews kept the Spanish from seizing valuable colonies. English naval presence in this part of the world was abysmally lacking in those early days and if it were not for the brethren, Spain would have taken Jamaica and the other colonies with little effort.

But piracy posed an equal threat to the English. Some of my brethren were quite blood thirsty in their desire to acquire the wealth they desired. Ruthless in their tactics a number of these deranged buccaneers actually threatened to tip the balance between peace and war among nations. Something had to be done to remove such dangerous creatures from the high seas. Someone had to be found who had the talent, the bravado, the skill to hunt down these rogues and bring an end to their ravenous cruelties.

As to how I came to be in Caribbean is of no importance. Suffice to say that two years’ before my service to the King began, and on a bright summer’s Sunday morn of startling blue skies and with a fresh breeze filled with the aromas of Bougainvillea, I and an acquaintance of mine sailed into Port Royal harbor. For well over three weeks my friend and I sailed a small one-masted craft called a pinnace across the high seas before reaching safety of this English port. We had only the clothes on our backs, a canister of rain water and two sun-baked fish between us. We also had one very large treasure chest of freshly minted Spanish doubloons, recently and with some dispatch lifted from its rightful owners, setting on the ship’s single deck as well.

Aye, it is true the two of us astride the deck of the small craft brought many onto the city’s docks to stand and gawk at us. Our sails hung like limp rags from the single mast, shredded to nothing more than hanging slivers of cloth. Our tiny craft appeared battered and abused. But not from the wear and tear of the fierce tropical storms so prevalent in the summer months of the Caribbean. We looked like discarded flotsam from the effects of musket balls and round shot angrily hurled in our direction. Much of the ship’s round stern was bashed and abused. But suffice to say that we, that is my tiny Irish friend, a grizzled old one-eyed and pipe smoking seaman named Tobias O’Rourke, and I arrived in Port Royal with a large crowd giving us a standing ovation.

This pitting together our own special talents into an amicable and smooth running partnership did not end with our arrival into the city. We decided to become business partners in a number of different venues. We found ourselves soon the proprietors of one of the city’s largest inns. Say what you will about the many inns and dives an honest pirate or buccaneer might frequent in Port Royal. True, it was possible to find both the wicked and the faithful in such a wicked city. And it was equally true one could find an inn which might be nothing more than a din of inequity, where every vice and sin may be had for the price of a gold doubloon.

But it was also possible to find inns which were the finest in all of the Caribbean. Inns where one might find a bed with clean sheets, meals which were hearty and well prepared, and where genuine ale and fine wines might be had for a reasonable price. The inn Tobias and I owned, and where the little Irishman took a special interest in, was such an inn. We called it, The Inn of the Seven Sins, and it soon became the hostelry and drinking rendezvous for the famous and infamous of Port Royal.

We also branched out onto the high seas by purchasing a well built sloop of war and named it the Swift Flyer. From the colonial governor we purchased a Letter of Marque. This piece of parchment with its elegant calligraphy gave us official permission to prey upon the shipping of the many enemies of England. On the flush deck of our sloop of war we began hunting Spanish game. The Swift Flyer was a sturdy craft of 18 guns, swift and sure before the wind and against it. She could out sail almost any ship in the Caribbean, and certainly any ship of her class. On her deck I forged together a crew of hardy souls who had no love for neither the Spanish nor the French. And over a period of two years my crew and I took one prize after another.

Our small fleet increased with the acquisition of a two masted brigantine named the Santa Isabella, along with three Dutch flynts we renamed the Fourth of August, the Tenth of February and Sophia’s Dark Eyes. These we manned with good crews and began the very lucrative trade of being honest shippers and smugglers; supplying the needs for any client who wished to send forth goods from one Caribbean port to another with swift dispatch and little fanfare.

Aye lads, you would think that now, being the prosperous burger and shipping tycoon, my days a’pirating were but a fond memory. Memories to be told to children and grand children as they sat around my velvet cushioned rocking chair. But lo! The adventurous buccaneer’s life was but ready to begin. And more to the point, the surreptitious life of being the King’s assassin and spy suddenly, and unexpectedly, burst before my eyes with the noise and rattle of a hundred ship’s cannonade ripping the air with smoke and smoldering shot and shell!

In October of 1661 a forty-gunned man ‘o war slipped into the harbor just as the hot tropical sun was beginning to sip the western waters. She was accompanied by two sloops of war flanking her port and starboard gun ports. All three ships had snapping in the growing wind white flags with the blood red image of the Cross of St. George proudly from their mizzen masts. No one paid attention to their arrival. One must remember Port Royal was an English colony. Jamaica was an English colony only recently wrested away from the Spanish grip. Port
Royal was the richest colony in the New World. Richer, in fact, than the American colonies of Massachusetts and New York. The city sat on the south eastern tip of the island and just across the bay from a small hamlet called Kingston. As port she had the best harbor in all of the Caribbean waters. Deep water and protected from storms, ships from all over the world littered her harbor and created a floating forests of masts one could only marvel at.

Of course a very large number of ships riding at anchor were buccaneers and pirates. Ah, well, to be precise–His Majesty frowned upon the unprincipled rape and pillage of the regular pirate, therefore those ships riding the calm waters of the harbor were buccaneers and corsairs all sailing under the authority of an English Letter of Marque. With such a document in one’s hand it became legal to go a’pirating. Legal pirating. As long as you preyed upon the King’s enemies. A boon for those of us who craved adventure or burned with a desire to rise above their stations in life by acquiring a fortune in gold. Enough gold, mind you, to buy a title or to set up and become a prosperous merchant.

English men of war arrived and departed on a regular basis from Port Royal. King and country were habitually at war with the Spanish, and in the year 1661 His Majesty’s fleet was spread thin across the world confronting the Spanish hegemony. And here, in the Caribbean, His Majesty’s presence was very thin indeed. Dangerously thin. Giving arise, interestingly enough, a reason why His Majesty so tolerated large congregations of cut throats and pirates in Port Royal.

In truth there were enough pirate ships in the city’s wide bay to constitute a rather impressive fleet of warships. Enough to thwart any sustained effort by the Spanish to reclaim the island it originally had settled some forty years earlier. In lacking an English naval presence we Brethren of the Coast provided the protection our fair city needed. Aye, occasionally there would be the threat of Spanish warships raiding the coastline. There was always the threat of a Spanish raid into the city itself. But in all the years I hailed from Port Royal no serious threat ever presented itself to its inhabitants.

Ah, but what can I say to describe Port Royal! The Jewel of the English Caribbean! A city who’s foul reputation for being the most sinful place on Earth richly earned! Yet a city filled with sturdy English merchants and even more sturdy and determined English plantations owners bent on making a fortune in the incessant demand for sugar and spices. An English city in both ambiance and architecture.

Everywhere one looked one saw stout Tudor architecture of wood, stone, and plaster. Cobble stone streets were commonplace. His Majesty’s royal tax collectors could be found in numbers whenever a ship, be it merchant or buccaneer, dropped anchor in the harbor. Red clad soldiers milled in the streets with the corsair and land lubber. From the battlements of the large forts which protected the city the Cross of St. George flew proudly.

But as a city it was a Jezebel standing in the midst of the righteous. A harlot residing in the congregation. A city filled with its own aroma of danger and intrigue. Whatever sin one wished to partake in could be found. More than eighty drinking establishments littered the narrow streets near the wharves. Whores and assassins could be hired for the price of a mere farthing. Every night some poor soul lay dead in the streets. Or was found floating face down in the bay. The end product of some petty dispute.

Both the honest yeoman and the most unrepentant sinner could be found in Port Royal. Yet a city equally awash with the sense of unrestricted freedom. Those who came to Port Royal came for many reasons. But many came because they yearned deep within their souls to break the chains and manacles of the Old World and the aristocracy of Europe. They sought their fortunes and fate in the boundless promise of the New World. It is the reason I came to Port Royal. It was the reason my sagacious old one-eyed Irish leprechaun of a partner tagged along with me.

But I stray from my original thought.

In the said October of 1661 three English ships of war slid into the harbor and dropped anchor. No sooner had their anchors chains rattled into the bay than a skiff was hurriedly deposited into the water and manned by stout seamen. With haste the slipped away from the large man of war and began pulling across the calm waters toward the nearest wharf. There was a sense of urgency in the way the long boat almost flew across the water with its eight oars rising and falling in precision.

In the middle of the long boat sat two figures. Odd creatures one would not have thought would be found on an English ship of war. One figure, dressed in fine cotton dyed as red as freshly spilt blood and cut in the traditional naval fashion, sat sitting bolt up right and rigid as any good naval officer ought to do. A large blue tri-cornered hat, made of fine silk and dyed a deep blue, sat upon a freshly white-powdered wig. The wig framed a rather young, rather angular face of a handsome young man. Haughty, confident, even perhaps somewhat arrogant, the young English naval officer sat quietly and confidently in the longboat, hands resting on the bass knob of a dark ebony cane.

Beside him sat a strangely hooded creature smaller in stature when compared to the officer setting beside her. A light cloak of emerald green satin hid her from the gaze of any curious onlooker. But there was no doubt the hooded figure was a woman and a woman of refinement and breeding. Equally evident was the obvious attention the young man showered on the creature beside him. Neither said a word as the longboat raced across the waters. None had to. It was evident the officer, and the common seamen manning the oars, all were keenly aware of the woman’s desire for great haste.

Ah! What strange machinations a man will do! For a brief smile, a whimsical nod, or a flash of dark alluring eyes, a man will throw away all caution and common sense and challenge the very gods themselves! Risk all, dare Fate itself, even defy Old Man Death for nothing more than to again enter the gentle embrace of a woman’s good will.

How terribly simple we men are.

1 comment:

  1. Catching up on my blog reading, and I'm so glad I began with this post. All this does though, is make me want to read more. Such vivid pictures are created in the reader's mind, both of the surroundings as well as the characters. This is a superior beginning to the story.