Exit Strategy

by London Lampy

Chapter 43

"I still think Rufus should be getting keel hauled too." Topher grumbles, climbing into bed and wriggling until I'm spooning him. "He's almost as much of a cunt as Tobias."

"I know he is, but as far as everyone else is concerned he's the hero who saved us. He got stabbed three times, almost died and is still very ill, I don't exactly like the man but I think he's probably suffered enough." I wrap my tail around his legs, my arm around his middle and stroke his stomach with my fingertips, we've just returned from Quint's room and I ache a little and am very ready for sleep.

When we limped back into Nightport the mood on the ship was very much that Tobias should be executed for trying to sink The Firebrat. I don't know what happened between the Captain and the Admiral, he wouldn't tell us, but I get the feeling he didn't want to pass a death sentence on his own brother and the upshot is was that Tobias is being keel hauled tomorrow, and of course we all have to go and watch.

"Maybe we should tell the Captain that we think Jasper paid him to hurt us, he'd have to punish both of them then." He says.

"I still think it's best to just let that go, especially now." I yawn.

"You're normally the one who doesn't like lying." He points out.

"It's not lying, it's just not talking about something, it's a different thing all together."

"If you say so." He goes quiet and I begin to think.

"Topher." I start. "Mmm?" He replies sleepily. "Do you care if people lie to you?"

"What do you mean?" He mumbles.

"If someone didn't tell you the truth about themselves, and you found out something they had kept hidden, would you care?"

"I have no idea what the fuck you are talking about, are you about to tell me you actually prefer girls or something?"

"No, I'm not talking about me." I say quickly. "I just mean in general."

"Monkey, you think too much, go to sleep." He yawns and pats my tail. I stay awake for a while longer listening to him breathing, and when I do finally fall asleep it's to jumbled dreams of Quint, Vin, ships and being keel hauled for the lies I've told.

Quint looks tired, his skin is ashy and he has dark circles under his eyes, I suppose he must have slept even worse than I did last night. He hardly speaks over breakfast and the mood rubs off on us, even Topher is unusually quiet.

The keel hauling is set for mid morning, we need to sail The Firebrat out of the harbour and into open water to do it. The ship is going to be packed as not only will we have our own crew but Tobias' will be there as well, along with the Admiral and a few other interested parties. The only person who isn't going is Rufus who's still too ill to leave his bed, and I've decided that I'm going to go and visit him before I need to be on the ship. It's something I'm a little scared about doing but I need to know for sure if he was paid by Jasper to kidnap us, and I doubt he's in any fit state to do me any damage at the moment.

I'm not going to tell Quint where I'm going, he'll want to know why, and I'm not going to tell Topher either, I don't trust him not to try and exact some sort of revenge on Rufus while he's incapable of fighting back.

Once we've finished eating the Captain goes off to his study to do whatever it is he does in there, and I tell Topher that Tallis wants me on the ship to help get ready to set sail, which is true, but he doesn't need me there for another hour.

"Have fun, see you later." Topher says airily as he wanders through to the living room and sprawls on the couch with a book.

I know where Rufus lives because I saw him being stretchered there when we got back. It's a small single story house near the harbour and I was a little surprised to find he didn't live on the ship as first mate's have their own cabins, Zizi doesn't have a house, and I was even more surprised to find it neat and well kept.

I knock on the door, wondering if he's well enough to answer it, or what I should do if no one answers, but it's quickly opened, just not by the person I was expecting.

"Hello duckie." Magda says looking up at me. "Come to visit the patient?"

"Um...yes, what are you doing here?" I ask puzzled.

"A bit 'o nursing." She smooths down the blue linen apron she's wearing over her dress.

"But I thought you were a seamstress...and a hairdresser."

She laughs and turns to let me inside. "As I've told you before, these old fingers." She holds up two gnarled brown hands. "Are in many many pies."

She leads me through to the bedroom and I can't help staring around as we go, the house is very tidy and Rufus seems to have few possessions save for furniture and a some pictures on the walls, one is of a man and woman dressed up in what I guess to be their best clothes with three small boys in sailor suits, the youngest sat on the woman's lap. Is this Rufus' parents and brothers? It's a strange thought, and I find myself questioning how a little boy in a sailor suit ends up as a violent pirate.

Inside the bedroom the shutters are three quarters closed but there is more than enough light for me to see by. Rufus is lying propped up on pillows in the middle of a crisply made bed, he seems to have shrunk since I last saw him, I've always thought of him as a tall bulky man but now he looks more like a scarecrow, his cheeks are hollow, his beard is more stringy than bushy and his eyes are sunken and glassy.

"Got a visitor duck." Magda says to him picking up a bedpan and covering it with a cloth. I don't need to see it's contents, the smell tells me what it is.

"I'll be back later with some broth, and I want you to eat it all this time." She chides him as she leaves the room, and Rufus stares at me.

"Come to gloat, or maybe finish what Tobias started, got good sharp knife to stick in me?" His voice is weak but he doesn't sound scared, despite his words and helplessness.


"Then what do you want you little shit? I can't imagine this is a social visit."

"Did Jasper pay you to hurt Topher and me, and did Tobias know?" I ask, getting straight to the point. He's right, this isn't a social visit.

He laughs than starts a dreadful hacking cough that ends with him spitting blood into a handkerchief.

"Why the fuck should I tell you anything? What ever I say you'll just go running to Quint and repeat."

"No, I won't, you have my word on that, if you'll believe me. I just want to know how things ended up with your captain being keel hauled today."

"Because Quint is a pathetic faggot who doesn't have the balls to punish his pets properly for trying to kill a man, and Tobias is a crazy fucker who can't see past his own hatred of his brother, that's how. Yes, Jasper did pay me, he wanted the pair of you adequately punished for what you tried to do to him, he knew sooner or later that you'd do something I could legitimately have you beaten over. I didn't tell Tobias, when we saw the two of you groping each other on the beach all I needed to do was whisper the right words in his ear and he happily went along with things, causing pain and upsetting Quint are his two favourite pastimes."

I nod. "That's pretty much what I thought happened."

"Don't think I'm going to be this honest with any others though, and who'd believe a dumb little monkey whore over an injured hero anyway?"

"I gave you my word, I just wanted to know. I don't want you punished, this has gone far enough."

"So you suddenly found your fucking morals now? Where were they when you tried to kill my old friend?" He sneers.

I suppose however twisted he has a point, Topher did kind of try to badly hurt, or even kill the man, although his plan was so poorly thought out it would never have worked. There is something else that I've been wondering about for a while, and I decide to risk asking him before I leave.

"Has Tobias ever sent out any letters warning people that they are going to be attacked, or telling them how best to damage The Firebrat?"

He looks at me frowning. "How the fuck should I know? I don't read his correspondence, but I wouldn't put it past the insane bastard." He starts coughing again, and a small spray of blood stains his sheets. "Can you fuck off out of my house now?" He manages after he's got his breath back, and I'm happy to comply.

A rope has been passes under the ship from port to starboard ready for the keel hauling. Although The Firebrat isn't completely fixed and back to her former glory she's in good enough shape to be sailed out of the harbour for this.

The deck is packed, with just a couple of yards of clear space around where the rope is fed over. I'm at the back of the crowd although Topher is much nearer to the front, he wanted a close up view, given the choice I wouldn't be here at all. I'm slightly surprised to see Lottie and Summer are also here standing side by side in front of me in their short ragged dresses with their heads bowed, but unchained and not wearing collars. I can only assume someone took pity on the pair of them and removed the nasty things. I tap Summer on the shoulder and she jumps like a scolded cat but turns and looks at me. "Hello again." I say.

"Hello." She whispers. "Our master is being punished." She adds, unnecessarily.

"How are you?" I ask, and she blinks in confusion.

"I...I don't know." She replies eventually.

I'm about to say something else when a shout goes up from behind me, Zizi is calling for people to clear a path to the rail so Tobias can be led through. The Admiral comes first, all dressed in black and looking grim faced, this can't be an easy thing to have to do to your own son. Behind him walk Quint and Zizi supporting Tobias between them, Tobias himself looks like a walking corpse, his skin is grey, his face puffy and unshaven and his eyes crusted and bloodshot. The reason he's being held up quickly becomes clear, he's shaking from head to toe, so violently the two of them are finding it hard to keep hold of him and he barely seems aware of his surroundings.

The men around me mutter to one another over his appearance. I hear one say that he looks drunk, but someone else replies that he thinks the problem isn't drink but the lack of it. Once Tobias reaches the rail the admiral bangs his stick on the deck and the assembled crews fall silent.

"Captain Tobias has committed an act of grave treachery and he will be punished by keel hauling. I know many of you who sail on The Firebrat feel that this should be an execution, and if Captain Quint had wished it, it would be, he decided to leave it in the lap of the gods and give his brother a chance of survival."

He stops to let his words sink in and the men around me start voicing their opinions to one another.

"Silence!" The admiral shouts, banging his stick on the deck again.

"Let this be an education to you all, no one is above our laws, and traitors will always be severely punished." When he says this I feel my blood run cold, would the Captain do this to me if he ever found out the truth?

Whilst the Admiral was speaking Quint and Zizi have stripped Tobias to his underwear, tied the end of the rope around his waist and tightly bound his hands and feet.

"Captain Tobias." The Admiral addresses him. "You are to be punished by keel hauling. Should you survive your crime will have been atoned for, do you understand?"

Tobias stares at his father, his body still shaking violently. "You wouldn't do this to Quint." He eventually says, his voice hoarse and trembling..

"Yes Tobias, I would. The difference is he wouldn't give me reason to, so the occasion would never arise."

The Admiral then turns around and calls out across the ship. "Are the men on the other end of the rope ready?"

"Standing by Admiral." The cry comes back from behind me.

Tobias is helped up to sit on the rail by Quint and Zizi, and just before he's pushed in the Admiral leans over, whispers something into his ear then kisses him on both cheeks. He disappears from sight quickly and without a sound until we hear the splash of his body hitting the water.

Everyone around me suddenly turns to go to the other side of the ship, and as I am standing near the back of the crowd I now end up at the front near the rope, with Lottie and Summer standing next to me. I glance at them, Lottie's lips are moving in what looks like a prayer and I can only think she's praying for him not to come up alive, while Summer has her hands clutched to her face, her eyes very wide and full of fear.

The Admiral, Quint and Zizi are let through to the rail where the the two men pulling on the rope are. They are pulling at an even speed, hand over hand until they suddenly meet some kind of resistance.

"He'll have hit the keel." The Admiral says, his voice betraying no emotion. "Keep pulling."

The rope frees up again and the tension on the ship mounts, he is now past the halfway stage. Clyde is standing by with his box of medical supplies, Tallis told me that if a man survives the actual keel hauling he can still die from his injuries, the bottom of the ship is covered in razor sharp barnacles and Tobias is being dragged over them all but naked, his flesh will be sliced into and he could either bleed to death or die of an infection later.

"He's out!" One of the men on the ropes shouts and everyone seems to draw breath together at once. As he's being yanked back over the side it's impossible to tell if he's alive or not. His body is oozing blood from dozens of scrapes and cuts and his eyes are shut.

"Tobias!" The Admiral says loudly as he's dropped back to the deck. He doesn't stir, and the Admiral pokes him in the ribs with his stick, shouting his name again. Suddenly Tobias' eyes snap open, and he turns his head and vomits seawater noisily over his father's feet.

"No!" I hear a small voice from beside me say, and I turn to see Summer with an utterly distraught expression on her face.

Zizi removes a short knife from a sheaf at her belt and goes to cut the rope from around his middle, the knot now having been tightened by his weight and saturated with seawater would be impossible to untie. She's just started sawing into the line when a dark haired figure jumps on her, knocking her backwards and grabs the knife out of her hand at the same time. It's Lottie, she raises the knife as the Admiral bellows at her to stop, Quint throws himself forward to catch her but she moves faster than him and she brings down the knife and plunges it into Tobias' chest up to the hilt before he can touch her. Tobias lets out a loud roar that's more animal than human, his body jerking upwards as Quint drags Lottie off him, then he goes still and silent.

Clyde drops to his knees and feels around in Tobias' neck for a pulse, he takes his time but eventually looks up at the Admiral and gives him a small shake of the head. Beside me Summer makes a gasping noise then collapses into me, and I only just manage to catch her before she hits the deck in a dead faint.

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