Episode One: Things That Go Boom
A line of dark-skinned Africans zig-zagged out of sight behind mountains of bituminous coal. Coaling a behemoth the size of the Royal Edward was a monumental and dirty task. Cosmo gathered a bird’s eye view of the process from his favorite spot on the afterdeck of the five-level passenger steamer.
Shielding his face with his hand, Cosmo peered upward at the sun through the slits between his fingers. The temperature and humidity created an oppressive heat as bad as anything he had grown up with in the jungles of Northeast India.
Watching the coal porters dump precious coal into the ship’s hopper a basketful at a time renewed Cosmo’s gratitude for his current job—bodyguard to the less-than noble Sir Rendel Wrightwick. Technically, Cosmo’s title was porter and baggage boy, a position more typical for a low caste, tribal boy. However, one of Wrightwick’s colleagues had jokingly referred to him as an esquire.
After sneaking a peek at his boss’s English/Hindi dictionary, Cosmo learned an esquire had once been the title for a knight in training. He liked it. Cosmo Zimik, Esquire.
“Cosmo? Is that you?”
Without acknowledging the voice, Cosmo attempted to identify it. By the accent Cosmo could tell the voice belonged to a white man, American. That could mean only one thing—a missionary. Cosmo faced him.
“I wouldn’t of believed it, but Laura insisted it was you.”
Cosmo recognized the man, but couldn’t recall the name. “Pastor…”
Cosmo nodded. The Baptist missionary and his wife had been working throughout the Naga Hills for several years. Cosmo had met them during his father’s ordination. What were the chances someone connected with his home village would end up on the Royal Edward? The last thing Cosmo needed was for his father to learn he had left the boarding school in Calcutta.
Pettigrew frowned. “What are you doing out here in the middle of the Arabian Sea?”
Cosmo turned the tables with a question of his own. “Are you and your wife heading home on sabbatical?”
“A bit of a fundraising junket, I’m afraid. We hope to travel back to India soon.” Pettigrew raised his brimmed hat long enough to run his fingers through his hair. “It’s only been a week, and I miss your Naga Hills already. But enough about me and Laura.”
Cosmo dodged the matter. “I miss home, too. You must be looking forward to seeing your home in the States.”
“Well yes, I suppose Virginia will always be home. But for heaven’s sake, you must tell me how you’ve ended up—”
“You there! Bag boy.”
Cosmo blinked slowly and faced Wrightwick’s personal assistant, Barnard. He was an overly scrupulous and annoying man stuffed in stuffy clothes. But at that moment, his appearance served as a welcome interruption.
“Stop your lolly-gagging, you goldbricker. The boss has a meeting in Aden in fifteen minutes. You’ve got fifteen seconds to meet him on the dock, or start swimming back to India.” Barnard glared through his circular spectacles at Pettigrew.
Apparently, Cosmo didn’t need to introduce the two men.
Pettigrew sputtered before finding his tongue. “You’re working for Sir Wrightwick?”
Cosmo had no idea how an American Baptist missionary knew a disreputable business man like Wrightwick, but the unfortunate coincidences were adding up. Instead of answering the question, Cosmo leapt on top of the railing.
Pettigrew gasped. “What would your father think?”
Nearly three feet over Cosmo’s head, a guy wire tethered the Royal Edward to a concrete anchor amidst the coal piles. Cosmo glanced down at Barnard. “Can I borrow a kerchief?”
Barnard scoffed. “A kerchief? Boy, you’d better be worried more about your hide than a runny nose.” Despite his grumbling, Barnard fetched the cloth from his pocket. Reaching up, he slapped it into Cosmo’s outstretched hand. “Now you’ve got ten seconds, so I suggest you get down and stop—”
Cosmo doubled the cloth in his hand, bent his knees and jumped. With an inch to spare, he clutched the cable, which turned out to be as big around as a rupee coin. The kerchief smoked in Cosmo’s hand as he zipped down the steep angle—perhaps too steep.
Imagining the flesh of his hand smoking next, Cosmo scanned for a safe place to land. Heat seared his palm. Swinging toward a less trafficked stretch of boardwalk, Cosmo released his grip and plummeted the last several yards to the dock. Despite tucking his feet on contact, his knees struck his chest harder than he would have liked.
After tumbling into a shocked laborer, Cosmo stood with a stupid grin on his face. “Nine seconds to spare.” He spoke to no one in particular.
Pettigrew called a parting shot after him. “It would kill your father to find out how you’re using your skills!”
Cosmo ground his teeth and pushed through the snaking line of coal porters. Hundreds of miles from India, and his father’s watchful eye still pursued him. Cosmo would simply have to travel further. He didn’t expect his father or any of his people to understand why he’d taken a job protecting a representative of Colonial Britain.
Then again, as an American and a missionary, of course Pettigrew had been referring to Cosmo’s neglect of his spiritual gifting. Of all the stupid things his father could have handed down to his youngest son… Cosmo shook it off. Somehow, he would have to avoid Pettigrew for the remainder of their time aboard the Royal Edward.
Covered in coal dust and several seconds late, Cosmo located his boss. Lateness and untidiness were two things Wrightwick typically did not tolerate in his associates or employees. For some reason, Cosmo’s contempt for his boss exempted him from severe punishment.
Currently, Sir Wrightwick looked undecided between rage and amusement. He tucked his gold pocket watch into his waistcoat. “The landing could have been better.” He sucked the toothpick in his teeth before flicking it off the dock and into the water below.
Cosmo slapped coal dust off of his baggy dhoti pants. “I’ll work on it. No problem.”
The settlement of Aden existed for one purpose, the coaling of ships. Decades earlier, a Sultanate of Yemen had surrendered the volcanic spit to the British East India Company and a battalion of Royal Marines. Built inside an extinct volcano, the town was perfectly sheltered against storms and pirates alike. Unfortunately, the walls of dark, igneous rock protected the town from any and all breeze as well.
On full alert, Cosmo rode shotgun next to the coach’s driver. After a series of switchbacks, the horse-drawn carriage arrived at the locals’ version of a house of spirits. Cosmo had no use for alcohol or any adult who imbibed it. His people, the Naga, didn’t touch the stuff.
While Wrightwick didn’t drink excessively, his business appointments convened in such places. Cosmo jumped down and opened the door of the carriage for his boss.
Wrightwick flushed from the carriage like a flock of birds from the jungle canopy. Always in a hurry without looking hurried, that was Wrightwick’s manner. As a result, the man came across as angry and intimidating. He knew what he wanted, and he expected others to keep up.
Usually Cosmo’s young age forced him to work twice as hard to overcome initial impressions. But Wrightwick had seemed pleased by Cosmo’s youth. He had recognized Cosmo’s abilities immediately and hired him after a fifteen minute interview during which Cosmo revealed no personal information.
Handing Cosmo his satchel, Wrightwick flung open the saloon doors. He paused only long enough for his eyes to adjust to the dim lighting.
Cosmo flowed past Wrightwick without brushing the man’s elbow. He sized up every individual inside the drinking house in a matter of seconds. By the time Wrightwick proceeded to a table in the far corner, Cosmo had eliminated all but two of the patrons as potential threats.
Cosmo followed his boss while keeping one eye glued on the backs of the two burly fellows seated at the bar. Cosmo didn’t like the fact their turbans and flowing robes could conceal swords or even rifles.
“Sir Wrightwick, I presume.” A portly gentlemen rose from the corner table.
Wrightwick sat without shaking the man’s hand. “I’ve no time for such unscheduled diversions. You have information for me, Mr. Crampton?”
Crampton attempted to brush his hair from his face. Excessive sweating had pasted it to his forehead. The man was nervous, slovenly and alone—a stark contrast to the clean and collected Wrightwick. Obviously, Crampton lacked the confidence to pose any serious threat.
Cosmo turned his back to the meeting. Tensing, he realized the two men at the bar had gone. He swept the establishment with his eyes. How could such men disappear so quickly and so quietly? At the very least, Cosmo should have heard them upsetting a chair or a table.
“Right you are.” Crampton worked up the nerve to speak. “Terribly sorry for the interruption.”
“Then get to it, man.” Wrightwick snapped.
Cosmo observed the remaining patrons for clues to the mystery mens’ disappearance. None of them stared toward the exit or acted as if anything strange had occurred. Cosmo knew he had turned his head for only a second.
“Right, right.” Crampton stammered. “A scurrilous lot filtered through here the better of two days ago asking after the Royal Edward in a roundabout manner, if you know what I mean.”
“Similar to your current manner?” Wrightwick asked through clenched teeth.
“I see. Indeed, you’re right.” Crampton gulped. “Straight to the point then. There’s no doubt in my mind they were pirates, sir. Mercenaries hired with the specific charge of finding your ship.”
Cosmo didn’t like the mention of pirates, especially after losing the two men at the bar. He reasoned the men could have been waiting for Wrightwick’s arrival before setting some devious plot into action.
“Mercenaries and pirates. Hmmm.” Wrightwick scratched his chin. “I apologize for my brash behavior, Mr. Crampton. You were right for initiating this aside. You’ve provided useful information indeed. It’s possible the Ottoman Empire has caught wind of our movements in the area.”
While maintaining vigilance, Cosmo focused on the conversation. He’d undertaken a crash course on Middle Eastern current events after learning of the Royal Edward’s destination. An English newspaper had revealed the Ottomans were currently engaged in a localized war with neighboring countries. Cosmo surmised on his own that Wrightwick’s interest in the area pivoted on the warfare.
“Think closely, Mr. Crampton.” Wrightwick leaned forward. “Did these dastards pronounce the name of the Royal Edward specifically?”
Crampton shook his head. “Nay, sir. But they inquired after large steamers en route to the Suez Canal. You know, asking whether one had been by. Only three boats this week fit that description.”
“Indeed, the coincidence is suspicious. I agree.”
Both men fell silent. A wooden chair scraped the floorboards as a patron rose to pay his bill. Cosmo wondered again of the mystery men, then dismissed them as paranoia. Coincidence. Probably nothing. The alien environment had set Cosmo on edge.
Crampton cleared his voice. “Should I inform her Majesty of any changes in the plan?”
“No no.” Wrightwick stood. This time he extended his hand.
Crampton shook it.
“Everything will proceed as planned. I’ll double the watch, that’s all. Nothing will prevent the Edward from landing intact with its cargo. Certainly no band of clumsy pirates.” Wrightwick glanced at his pocket watch and gestured for Cosmo to take the lead.
With his boss’s satchel still in hand, Cosmo moved swiftly toward the exit. If Wrightwick was deferring to Cosmo’s lead, it meant he was concerned enough for his safety to throw convention out the window. Not that anyone in the saloon would care that a British gentleman had deferred to his bag boy. But Cosmo knew Wrightwick cared.
That meant Cosmo should care. Throwing open the saloon doors, Cosmo leapt aside and held one open for his boss. He blinked rapidly in the harsh midday sun. Two blurs in the shapes of men flashed to his left.
Cosmo shielded the sun with his free hand. His bleary eyes focused on an empty street. No men, no nothing. He whistled for the carriage parked across the way. The driver started as if he’d been asleep beneath the brim of his hat. Straightening, he shook the reins and stirred the horses to life.
Cosmo opened the door of the carriage. After Wrightwick boarded, Cosmo resumed shotgun. He scanned both sides of the street for the mysterious men or anything suspicious. A couple of women shrouded in black burkas emerged from a bakery and immediately scurried from the presence of the strangers.
Cosmo rubbed his eyes—maybe he wasn’t getting enough sleep. Determined to execute his duty with honor, he’d get less sleep in the coming days due to Wrightwick’s heightened security needs.
Before abandoning boarding school, Cosmo had been exposed to Sun Tzu’s Art of War and the imperative to “know your enemy.” Thus, Cosmo’s motivations in protecting the corrupt and dishonorable Sir Wrightwick might have been less than pure. But there was no reason Cosmo couldn’t study his enemy while maintaining his honor and his contract.
Besides, if pirates were targeting the Royal Edward, everyone onboard would be in equal danger. Including Cosmo.
Cosmo inhaled the mixture of salt air and coal smoke from his favorite spot on the afterdeck. The clock in his head told him it was nearly midnight—almost halfway through his vigil. Seventy-two hours after striking out from Aden, the Royal Edward had reached the Mediterranean Sea intact and without event.
Wrightwick’s meeting in Aden with a fellow named Crampton had revealed a pirate plot to seize the Royal Edward before she could dock in Salonika, Greece. Crampton had brought up the possibility of informing her Majesty of changes to the plan. But Wrightwick had insisted nothing would prevent the Edward from landing intact with its cargo. Cosmo still had no idea what that cargo was.
During the three days’ journey, Cosmo had overheard Wrightwick talking softly in his quarters. At first, Cosmo assumed Wrightwick was talking to himself. Later, he heard Barnard referring to something called a ‘wireless.’ Cosmo deduced the technology to be some sort of telephone without wires. Never during the countless conversations did Wrightwick mention the nature of the Royal Edward’s cargo.
It bothered Cosmo. Out of curiosity, he stole a glance at the Royal Edward’s passenger roster: 435 civilian passengers, 58 crew. Yet the Edward’s full capacity was listed at 1,114 souls. Cosmo was good at mathematics. No manner of number twisting could take 435 plus 58 and come up with anything close to 1,114.
More than half the boat was officially empty. That meant wasted space and wasted fuel, which meant wasted money. Wrightwick didn’t waste money.
Cosmo rubbed his bare arms. Despite it being July, the Mediterranean breeze chilled him. Worse, the boundless night worried him. It didn’t take an expert in piracy to know the open ocean provided less cover during the day than at night. If a much smaller pirate crew on a much smaller boat intended to seize control of the Royal Edward, they would use the cover of night.
Cosmo intended to make sure no such thing happened.
He stretched his eyes across the vast darkness of the choppy sea. The fractured reflection of the moon spread out in every direction. To the south and east, Cosmo imagined the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt and Ottoman controlled Palestine—the lands of the Bible.
During his father’s youth, American missionaries had penetrated his homeland. Great numbers of Naga converted to Baptist Christianity. Cosmo’s parents believed. Cosmo wasn’t so sure.
The thought of his homeland filled him with loneliness until he shook off the distraction. He had a job to do. A strange job at that. Here he was in a body of water surrounded by Africa, the Middle East and Europe, on a boat supposedly half empty and yet precious enough to attract mercenary pirates.
Cosmo knew Wrightwick was hiding something below decks—something valuable enough to risk the lives of 493 people.
The resonance of the night air suddenly shifted. Cosmo closed his eyes and swiveled his neck. He listened to the sounds of the water as if he were a bat. For the last several hours, the slap of water against the Royal Edward’s hull had fled outward and dissipated.
Now the sound rebounded off of an invisible object to port. Something was out there. Cosmo opened his eyes and stood on tiptoe. The night acted like a black curtain. He couldn’t see the water at the base of the ship, except for the moon’s reflection.
The moon’s reflection, of course. He searched the surface of the water for evidence of something large enough to block the moon’s reflection. After several seconds of frantic searching, he found it—a dark spot large enough to be a ship.
It wasn’t much to go on, but he’d rather wake the crew for nothing than fight pirates by himself. Slipping off his sandals, he sprinted barefoot for the emergency box outside the back door of the cabin. Seconds later, he threw himself against the glass window and shattered it with his elbow.
Reaching inside, he removed the flare gun with one hand and snatched two flares with the other. He loaded the gun on the run, aimed it high over the bridge, and fired. The pilot would have to see it.
Back on the afterdeck, he cracked open the flare gun and ejected the shell of the spent flare. He loaded the second flare, burning himself in the process. Ignoring the pain, he scanned the surface of the water for the shadow he’d seen before. Nothing.
He chided himself for assuming a pirate vessel wouldn’t change trajectory. He shifted his gaze to directly behind the boat. There, in the wake, a growing darkness.
He aimed the flare gun again. This time, he fired directly at the approaching shadow. Instantly, the flare revealed a low profile, iron-clad steamer in the Royal Edward’s wake. And it was catching them up.
A metal ping struck the hull of the Edward below Cosmo. A split second later, the pop of gunfire reached his ears. Dancing backward, Cosmo sounded the alarm. “Pirates! Directly aftward! Pirates!” He turned at the sound of approaching footsteps and collided with the ship’s Captain.
“What’s all this then?”
Before Cosmo could explain, another bullet ricocheted off the cabin wall.
“For the love of Saint Nicholas!” The captain held the rest of his men back. “Pirates! Sound the alarm! Dole out the munitions! If they aim to board the Royal Edward, we’ll make them pay with their own blood!”
Cosmo had already pushed past the others on his way toward Sir Wrightwick’s personal cabin. While he’d assist in defending the boat by any means necessary, Wrightwick was his personal responsibility.
The Royal Edward shuttered as Cosmo pounded on the door of Wrightwick’s cabin.
Wrightwick greeted Chancho with a snarl on his lips. “Report.”
“Pirates.” Cosmo exhaled the world between deep breaths.
“So they’ve found us have they?” Wrightwick disappeared inside his cabin. Seconds later he joined Cosmo in the passageway with his sword-cane in hand. “Do you require a weapon?”
Cosmo found it odd the question had never come up before. He shook his head. “I’ll use my surroundings.”
Wrightwick nodded approvingly. “The pirates will have been instructed to kill on sight.”
“And my instructions?” Cosmo asked.
With Wrightwick right behind him, Cosmo darted along the narrow passageway. He slid down the stairs railings without touching the steps and landed on the main deck. He knew the best way to keep his employer safe would be on deck. There, he could defend the ship and Wrightwick at the same time.
The lifeboats would be a last resort. Considering he couldn’t swim, Cosmo hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
The sounds of gunfire and men giving orders filled the deck. Cosmo peered up and down the length of the starboard gangway. All he saw were the ship’s crew darting in and out of doorways.
The moment Wrightwick hit the main deck, he pushed past Cosmo and barked orders to everyone within earshot. “Report. What’s our status?”
Barnard, a short-barrel shotgun in hand, slid up beside Wrightwick and Cosmo. “The afterdeck is on fire.”
“Jiminey F. Cripes.” Wrightwick slapped the cabin wall.
“Some sort of incendiary.” Barnard wiped soot from his brow. “The pirates are using the flames and smoke to mask their boarding.”
“What are we doing to stop them?” Wrightwick demanded.
“We’re positioning the retardant pump and firing blind.”
Wrightwick ground his teeth. “Release the cargo.”
“Sir?” Barnard hesitated.
“Do it now, man! The last thing we need is to lose everything in a fiery inferno! Most of the crates will float!”
“Yes sir.” Barnard leveled his shotgun and charged around the corner.
Wrightwick shouted after him. “For the love of God, don’t open them!”
Cosmo peered through the thick dark of night toward the stern of the ship. The blackness had grown thicker with smoke. Occasionally a flicker of fire pierced the veil. “Do I get to know now what exactly our cargo is?”
“Not what. Who.”
The captain’s voice boomed over a loudspeaker, preventing Wrightwick from explaining further. “This is your captain. All civilians, please stay in your cabins. We’ve encountered a small band of hostile forces. I repeat, remain in your cabins.”
The Royal Edward shuddered beneath their feet. Wrightwick braced himself against the railing.
Cosmo clutched his employer’s sleeve to prevent him from tumbling overboard.
“We need to launch a lifeboat.”
Cosmo frowned. “We’re not going to fight?”
Wrightwick scanned for the nearest boat. “No one is attempting to board this ship.” He shook his head. “They’re trying to sink it.”
“But don’t pirates usually want—”
“Shut up and find me a dingy!” Wrightwick snapped.
“This way.” Cosmo had studied the entire layout of the ship in detail. He reached the lifeboat in seconds and tore off the canvas tarp covering it. “Climb in while I pull the release.”
“We’ll need rope.”
“There’s a fifty foot coil inside.”
“Good.” Wrightwick leapt into the boat.
Cosmo unlocked the pulley system holding the boat in place. A woman’s scream pierced the raucous. “Should we wait for others? There won’t be enough boats—”
“We’re not giving up the Edward, we’re protecting the bloody thing. Now cast off.”
Obediently, Cosmo jumped onboard the boat. Protecting his hands with his shirt, he let the coarse hemp rope slide through his grip until the boat slapped against the water.
The surface of the Mediterranean was even choppier than Cosmo had imagined. Waves broke over the side of the wooden dingy and pounded it against the hull of the Royal Edward. The water chilled him to the bone.
“Hold on until we reach the pirate vessel!” Wrightwick yelled over the churning water and the chugging of the Edward’s steam engines. “I’ll rope the bloody thing. Then I’m afraid the rest will be up to you!”
Cosmo finally deduced that Wrightwick planned to board the pirate vessel. At the speed the Edward was gliding past them, their window of opportunity would come and go in a few seconds. If they missed, they’d be stranded at sea.
“Did you get a count of their crew?” Wrightwick created a loose knot in the end of the rope and coiled the rest in the bottom of the dingy.
“At least six.” Cosmo replayed the image of the iron clad he’d seen in the red light of the flare. “But there could be more.”
Wrightwick tossed Cosmo an oar as the Edward slid past on their right. “Paddle! We need to get close if this is going to work!”
The noise increased as they neared the iron-clad. Cosmo plunged the wooden oar into the water and steered the dingy toward the pirate vessel. But it was gliding past them too quickly.
“Ram the bloody thing!” Wrightwick stood with the lasso in his hand. “Bloody maritime rodeo.” Widening his stance, he struggled to maintain balance against the tossing sea.
Cosmo gritted his teeth and lifted the oar out of the water for another stroke. The pirate vessel rose less than a dozen feet above the water. It wouldn’t be hard to climb, if only they could catch her up. Still twenty feet away, the stern of the pirate ship had drawn even with the dingy.
“Now or never.” Wrightwick heaved the rope toward the shadow of a hooded vent pipe protruding from the afterdeck. “Grab the other end!”
Cosmo stashed the oar and clutched the end of the rope as it jerked taut.
“Bedbugs and Ballyhoo!” Wrightwick wrapped his arms around Cosmo’s waist before the momentum of the iron-clad could yank him overboard. In a series of violent readjustments, the lifeboat jerked in line with the ironclads’ wake.
Cosmo reeled them closer, hand over hand.
Meanwhile, Wrightwick tied off the rope. “We don’t have much time. If the fire on the Edward spreads to the coal hopper—”
He didn’t have to finish. Cosmo knew exactly what would happen if the coal hopper went up in flames. “I’ll help you up the rope in front of me!”
“Forget it, boy. It’ll take too much time. I can take care of myself.” Wrightwick put a hand on Cosmo’s shoulder. “Just tell me honestly, do you think you can do this?”
“I will.” Cosmo believed it one hundred percent. Reaching forward for another foot of rope, he pulled them as close as he could without capsizing the dingy.
“Good. I’ll follow if I can. Remember, you’re not killing pirates. You’re saving everyone onboard the Edward.”
Cosmo looped off the slack in the rope and peered at Wrightwick’s face, barely visible in the darkness. “I’ll do both and be back to get you in less than five minutes.” Without waiting for a response, he scurried up the rope as quick as a monkey and threw his legs over the railing.
Cosmo found the low-slung afterdeck of the ironclad unguarded. He scrambled up a slimy metal slope to the main deck using a careful mixture of speed and stealth.
On the foredeck, pirates were silhouetted against the flames of the Royal Edward. To avoid the many invisible guy wires running from the main coal stack to the forward and aft masts, Cosmo stuck to the starboard gangway. The surface of the floating hunk of metal felt greasy beneath his bare feet. Its steady vibration made his eyes dance.
Cosmo froze when a metal hatch burst open a few feet away. A single man leapt out and rushed toward the bow, leaving the hatch open.
Cosmo’s next move became obvious. In a single movement, he plunged below deck. Gripping the sides of a metal ladder with his feet and hands, he slid into the stifling hot belly of the ironclad. As Cosmo shuffled along a narrow corridor illuminated by red bulbs, two voices echoed in the distance. Increasing his pace, Cosmo reached an open doorway as a pirate emerged.
Cosmo jammed the palm of his hand into the man’s jaw and shoved him back into the cabin with his shoulder. Before the second man could respond, Cosmo struck him upside the head with a backward roundhouse. The force of the kick bounced the pirate off an iron bulkhead.
Swearing through broken teeth, the first man threw a sloppy punch.
Cosmo countered with a knife punch to the man’s throat and monkey knuckles to his solar plexus.
Both pirates dropped without another sound.
Cosmo assessed his surroundings. Everything around him was outmoded except two pieces of modern equipment. One had a handset resting in a cradle covered with dials. Cosmo knew it instantly to be what Barnard had called a ‘wireless.’
The second piece of modern equipment revealed its purpose by spitting out a constant stream of narrow paper printed with a language Cosmo couldn’t read. Combined, the machines told Cosmo the pirates were not working alone. Not only had someone given them orders, but that someone required direct communication.
Cosmo checked the corridor. He hesitated. If this was a coordinated attack, with whom were the pirates working? And how closely?
An explosion thundered in the distance. The Edward. Cosmo checked the rest of the cabins below deck in a matter of seconds without finding anyone or anything of interest.
Above deck, Cosmo encountered a pirate immediately. During the man’s momentary hesitation, Cosmo climbed his massive frame like a tree. From behind, Cosmo wrapped both arms around the man’s neck and forced his chin against his chest until he blacked out. As the pirate crumpled, Cosmo flipped his limp body over the railing and into the sea.
“We’ve been boarded!”
Cosmo’s shoulders sagged as yet another pirate ruined his element of surprise. Stealth now worthless, speed was all that mattered. If Cosmo could catch the man or reach the foredeck first…
Cosmo burst into an adrenaline-fueled sprint. Swinging around a guy wire, he planted both feet and leapt over the main deck railing. He struck the forty-five degree slope of the armor with his backside and slid to the lower foredeck on the heels of the fleeing pirate.
As Cosmo bounded after him, a plume of blinding flame filled the night sky. Another explosion, larger than those before it, rocked the Royal Edward. The shockwave threw Cosmo to his hands and knees. “No.”
He couldn’t accept the possibility of failure. Yet, the dying faces of the Edward’s passengers crowded his mind’s eye. His grim imagination focused on the face of Pettigrew, the missionary.
Cosmo opened his eyes. His head swam. His ears rang. Beside him, the pirate he’d been pursuing was shaking off his own stupor. Cosmo knew he had to recover quickly. If he could seize control of the ironclad, he could rescue the survivors of the Edward. It wasn’t too late.
“You’re too late, boy.” Strong hands gripped Cosmo’s ankles and yanked his knees out from under him. Before he could counter, two more men grabbed his arms and bound them behind his back. The leader punched Cosmo in the back of the head, causing his chin to bounce off the surface of the ironclad. “You managed to mess up two of my crew, but I’m putting an end to that now. Whoever you are.”
Cosmo couldn’t see straight, but he could talk. “Three men.”
“What was that?” The leader gripped Cosmo’s short hair and wrenched his head back.
Cosmo struggled to swallow. “I threw one of them overboard.”
“Did you?” The man drove a fist into Cosmo’s kidney. “There’s something I want you to see before I slit your throat.”
“I want you to see the sinking of the ship you died to protect.”
The two men holding Cosmo yanked him to his feet.
Cosmo focused his eyes on the Royal Edward. It was still afloat.
“As you can see, she hasn’t sunk yet.” They proceeded to the foremost railing. The leader slipped to the side of Cosmo and pointed port side of the burning Edward. “But she soon will.”
Cosmo couldn’t see what the pirate was pointing at, but he heard bloodlust in the man’s voice. Something terrible was about to happen. He struggled against his captors. They pinned his legs against the railing and nearly wrenched his arms from their sockets.
“Can’t see it? The foam rising? The swirls of diesel floating on the water’s surface, sparkling just so in the light of the flames?” The pirate captain lowered his voice, as if he were in a temple dedicated to the worship of violence. “Just watch. You’ll see what happens next.”
Before the words had left the Captain’s mouth, Cosmo saw a sleek metal rod protrude from the surface of the frothing sea—only thirty yards away. Then a larger and flatter surface parted the water in a surge of foam. A submarine.
Cosmo’s mind raced. He didn’t understand.
As if answering his thoughts, the pirate captain continued. “We only had to make it look like a pirate attack. You know, incase of survivors. We’re the only ones who’ll know the truth.”
Cosmo lunged at the captain with his head, but the pirate pulled away. He laughed. “I like you, kid. Whoever you are.” He returned his gaze to the water. “Now pay attention, here comes the best part. Probably no more than a few hundred men have witnessed what you’re about to, and survived to tell the tale.”
Cosmo didn’t want to watch, but his curiosity was too great, the situation too terrible. In a rush of bubbles, a torpedo burst from the nose of the submarine and sped toward the Edward. Only feet below the surface of the choppy water, the rise and wake of the self-propelled bomb was clearly visible in the firelight.
As the torpedo struck the hull of the Royal Edward, a series of events unfolded too quickly for Cosmo to react. The men securing Cosmo dropped flat against the deck of the ironclad, temporarily forgetting their captive. A spray of water struck Cosmo. A blast of heat evaporated the moisture and threw Cosmo backward.
The roar of the explosion caught up with Cosmo as he slammed into the main coal stack. He groped the side of his body, checking for broken or protruding bones. The iron clad bucked and rose on the waves caused by the exploding torpedo.
Convinced he would survive his injuries, Cosmo staggered to his feet using handholds welded into the coal stack. The first thing he saw was the pirate captain buckled at the waist. Cosmo steeled his will and pushed his pain down deep. This could be his last chance.
“That was even better than I had hoped!” The captain straightened, his fists clenched at his side. “Have you ever experienced such a thing?”
Cosmo froze. The captain had gotten as close as possible to the explosion on purpose. He was mad, and his madness made him unpredictable. Plus, with the submarine to worry about, Cosmo couldn’t simply seize control of the ironclad.
He could no longer hope to save the Edward or its passengers. Drowning in doubt, Cosmo wondered if he could save himself. Where would he go?
He scanned the main deck of the ironclad and located an emergency box, like the one onboard the Edward. This one was metal, rather than glass. He couldn’t be sure of its contents. But if it contained a flare gun and flares…
He sized-up the nearest exhaust pipe leading to and from the engine room below deck. It’s head-high opening was large enough for Cosmo to force a flare gun into it. He stopped himself short of action. This was the stupidest plan he’d ever concocted. Worse than the time he’d tried to sell vipers as pets.
Maybe he should jump overboard and hope for the best. A dozen large wooden crates, the mysterious cargo from the Edward, were floating nearby. He stepped closer to the starboard gangway and its railing.
“Hold on there, kid.” The pirate captain held his hands up palms outward. “No need to bellyflop into the big blue. I was only kidding earlier about that whole slit-your-throat thing.”
Cosmo shifted his eyes from the railing to the emergency box to the captain.
The captain’s back was to the burning and sinking wreckage of the Royal Edward, his face enshrouded in darkness. “Hey, I tell you what.” The captain held his ground a dozen yards away. “Seeing how you’ve played a part in me being short staffed, the least you can do is fill a vacancy here on the Rochambeau. I already seen you can fight.”
A third possibility blossomed. If the captain could be trusted, joining the pirates might be Cosmo’s best chance of setting foot on solid ground. Whatever the decision, Cosmo had to decide quickly.
END of Episode 1