(This excerpt is from the opening of chapter one: Snatched
I could tell at once from the ugly look the bond broker gave
me that I’d overplayed my hand. He sat just opposite, his malevolent mien
mixing equal parts indignation and satisfaction: indignation at having been
plucked, and satisfaction at having at last detected it. We were playing draw
and I’d discarded two duds. When the dealer tossed me my replacements, I palmed
a knave and replaced it with the queen of diamonds I’d held from the last hand.
That gave me a sister pair with an ace high.
“Get up!” The wily jobber had come prepared. He produced a
little revolver from an inside pocket and pointed it in the direction of my now
palpitating heart. “He’s got a sixth card on him somewhere.”
By then it was stuffed deep between the seat cushions of the
chair I’d only just vacated. But they were a thorough bunch. After having me
undress, they tore apart a rather expensive suit. (On that point, at least, I
was in luck—unlike the Parisian tailor still awaiting payment.) Then, in a
matter of seconds, they dismantled what had seemed a quite solid piece of
furniture. When the Texas cattle baron located the jack hiding amongst the upholstery,
he announced the fact by calling for a rope.
Egotist that I am, I’d always harbored the expectation that
I’d someday achieve some level of notoriety. But being the first man lynched aboard
a steamship of the French Line wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind. Fortunately,
the wiser heads among the mob countered with a proposal to call the purser. Not
so fortunately, they were quickly overruled by heads of even more colorful
imagination than that of the Texan.
The debate turned now on a choice between two forms of
punishment deemed more in keeping with the sea-voyage theme: keelhauling, or
walking the plank. It was a lopsided vote. The fault lay with an English coal
magnate who took a good deal of relish in explaining what exactly keelhauling
“A rope is brought under the beam of the ship. The victim’s
tied to it and then drawn under the boat. There his body’s bashed against the hull
by the swells, and then nearly torn in half crossing the keel! If he survives,
he’s given another chance.”
“Gets let off?”
“No. Gets another chance to die!
He’s sent down the
opposite way, then back and forth until all that’s left tied to the rope is a
pair of bloody arms!”
Cheers all around. Well, nearly so. For once in my life, I
was struck dumb. By the time I’d prepared my rebuttal, my wrists had been bound
with a length of cord and a napkin stuffed in my mouth.
Once we were out on deck—me in my union suit and nothing
else—the logistical obstacles to their plan became readily apparent. The S.S. Paris
was a modern luxury liner and the distance between the boat deck and the keel
considerable. They’d already tied one end of a coil of rope to my ankle, but it
was hardly likely to be long enough. And then came the not insignificant problem
of how to get the rope under the keel in the first place. The coal magnate
admitted his ignorance on this point.
So the plank it was. Aided by the light of a full moon, they
located a gangway stowed among the air vents and dragged it out to between the davits
of two of the lifeboats. It ran about twenty feet and they gradually slid one
end out over the sea. When it began to tilt, three of the party’s heavier members
got on to act as counterweights.
It seemed to me the joke had been taken far enough, so I spat
out the gag. “I should have you know, protests will be made.”
“Not by you, they won’t.” Again, cheers all around.
“My wife, then.”
“Sounded to me like she’d be glad to be rid of you.”
That from the young scion of an oil fortune who’d sat with
us at dinner that evening. Sesbania had been feeling a little peevish, and
partly to annoy me, and partly for her own amusement, she’d flirted with the unctuous
little Lothario shamelessly. I tried another tack.
“I am an officer of the United States Navy, retired. A
graduate of Annapolis. If only someone here knew me, you’d learn what a serious
mistake you’re making….”
Once more I’d overplayed my hand. There was, unfortunately,
someone there who knew me. Another Annapolis man who’d served in the same
command during the war.
“I can tell you all you need to know about him: Van Slyke is
his name. E. Pluribus
When you’ve been saddled with a name like mine, you get used
to hearing it spoken through a sneer. But this would-be admiral’s mate took it
a little far. Dirk Gilbert had been a year behind me at school and now, from
the looks of it, was a genuine two-stripe lieutenant. He hadn’t even been near
the game table, so I couldn’t imagine what interest he had in the affair.
“He was an officer, all right. And a graduate of the Academy.
But a couple years back the Navy drummed him out for gross negligence while in
That’s the thanks I get for hardly tormenting him at all
during his plebe year. He must have had in mind that embarrassing episode with
the Academy mascot. You might not believe a goat capable of such things, but
there’s photographic evidence to the contrary.
“Not so,” I protested. “My discharge was an honorable one.”
And it was, at least ostensibly. It’s amazing what a little extortion can
“Who gives a damn about his war service?” the cattle baron
inquired. Apparently, no one beside myself. “He’s a card cheat, and that’s all
we need to know!”
They prodded me with oars taken from the boats, compelling
me ever further out onto the plank. If I could just delay things long enough,
one of the ship’s officers would be by on his rounds and put a stop to their
fun. I picked the feeblest-looking of the prodders—an old codger with a sunken
chest—and launched myself headfirst at his midsection. Like hitting a brick
wall. And now I’d really annoyed them. They took turns cleaning their boots on
me, until finally the cattle baron righted me by means of my hair. The prodding
now came not nearly so gentle as the first round.
It was mid-April, and a cool night out on the Atlantic. What’s
more, the ship was making over twenty knots into a steady breeze, and my
underwear had been torn to shreds by the evening’s trials. Goosebumps were
rising on my poorly clad extremities. If we’d made it as far west as the Gulf
Stream, the water might actually be warm enough to offer some relief from the
chill—fleeting though it would be. I’d always been an able swimmer, but staying
afloat in ocean swells with one’s wrists tied would prove a pretty tall order.
I began working the cord—this being the S.S. Paris
, it was silk, and
fairly slippery. But I needed time.
“I’ll have you know, I’m an acquaintance of the president.”
This too was true. Silent Cal and I once resided in the same burg, back when he
practiced peanut politics in the provinces.
“I wouldn’t believe a word of that,” Gilbert told them.
“I don’t give a damn if you’re acquainted
,” the bond broker informed me. “Tonight your appointment is with
Old Nick! Into the fiery pits of hell with you!”
While his scenario would certainly offer relief from the
chill, after careful analysis, I found it not to my liking. I continued working
the cord about my wrists.
“Watch it! He’s getting loose!”
The old codger gave me a couple energetic prods to the
kidneys and I involuntarily lurched forward, just inches from the end….
Then, quite suddenly, the moon went into eclipse. A distinctive
noise could be heard above that of the waves breaking on the ship’s hull—like
the chugga-chugga of a slowing locomotive. I looked up and was amazed to see
the black mass of a giant airship! Almost as large as the liner itself, and
matching its speed and course.
As all eyes fixed upon the alien vessel, three dozen ropes
unfurled from the unusually large gondola. Shortly after, three dozen boarders repelled
down to the boat deck. They were near enough to see in the marker lights. And believe
you me, they were a decidedly scruffy gang of characters. Every man came armed:
little daggers mostly, but a smattering of cutlasses as well.
The commotion drew other revelers out from the lounge and several
of the bandits began moving about the crowd, taking everything of value—wallets,
watches, jewelry, etc. Very few objected. And none for long. It’s remarkable
how compliant even the most imperious snob becomes when he feels cold steel against
My erstwhile tormentors were, needless to say, thoroughly distracted.
I had almost freed my wrists by then and began inching my way back toward the
deck. Unfortunately, one of the three men acting as counterweights chose that very
moment to drift off. The gangway dipped. That, in turn, alerted numbers two and
three to the precariousness of their situation. They leapt off in unison,
sending the gangway overboard and your terrified hero into a free fall.
As you may remember, they’d earlier tied my ankle to a long
coil of rope, and I don’t doubt it would have reached the brine below if it
hadn’t gotten entangled in something. I found myself hanging by said ankle just
off the promenade deck. There were several passengers not far away and I called
to them for help. But their attention was riveted by goings-on elsewhere.
A blanket atop a deck chair was moving in a manner one
couldn’t help but find suggestive. There were other telltale signs of occupancy
as well: three stockinged feet extending from beneath the blanket, and a female
voice emitting sounds reminiscent of those little red squirrels that inhabit
the New England forest. The lady seemed to be pleased with how things were
progressing, and either unaware of, or unconcerned with, the spectators held
enthralled by her performance.
Complicating matters further, in the opposite direction were
the open windows of the music room. A concert of operatic excerpts was being
performed. Gruesome stuff, as you can well imagine, and loud—too loud for my
shouts to overcome.
Sesbania was in there, as were most of the women traveling
in first-class berths. The music room served as a sort of seraglio on the liners:
one of the few places a woman could go and be sure of avoiding the company of
men—well, outside the occasional eunuch.
I’d given up shouting for the moment, waiting for a lull in either
the din from the music room or the squeals from the deck chair, when a couple
dozen of the boarding party appeared on the scene. They barged in on the
performance (operatic, not coital) and turned up the lights. While half of them
displayed armaments, the other half went about the room and picked out what
they seemed to consider worthy booty—jewelry, furs, etc. This prompted a good
deal of excitement among the assembly. There were shrieks aplenty, and more
than a few swoons. Especially once the et cetera came to include certain of the
They took only the choicest of the lot, with their taste
running toward mine. A point borne out most vividly when I saw Sesbania among
the captives. I was concerned, of course, but now did not seem the time to call
attention to myself. As quietly as possible, I finished working my wrists free.
Then, through herculean effort, I folded my body and grabbed onto the rope. An extraordinary
feat, no doubt about it. But I was a man driven. My woman, my helpmate, my boon
companion, etc., had been taken hostage! I feel no shame admitting I’d grown
rather fond of the old girl—not to mention the bundle of assorted currencies
hidden amongst her undergarments. I estimated its value at not less than fifteen
thousand dollars American. Hers, of course, was without measure—though admittedly,
neither was it so easily convertible.
It was slow going, inching my way up, but I managed to regain
the boat deck just as the press-gang emerged from below. I waded into the
crowd. When I’d sidled close enough to see Sesbania—held tight in the clutches
of her abductor—our eyes met. She gave me the most curious expression—a sort of
flat smile, with eyebrows raised. Then she made a little shrug, as if to say,
“What can I do about it?”
“They have my daughter! Lizzie!” the bond jobber bellowed.
He lunged forward, brandishing his pistol—then dropped the weapon when a dagger
struck his arm. A remarkable bit of knife work—unless it was his heart the marauder
By then a squad of crewmen with rifles appeared under the
command of the first mate. They knelt, preparing to fire. But when the pirates
held blades to their captives’ necks, the mate had no choice but to order his
men to stand down.
As if the scene weren’t strange enough, suddenly a steam
organ, like the calliope of a circus, took up a familiar tune. Stairway to
, I think it was. Now each of the boarders placed a foot in a loop
at the end of his respective rope and, one after another, they were winched back
up—their captives hanging on for dear life.
Next came a loud whoosh, and a huge cloud emerged from the
dirigible. When it had dissipated, the moon shone upon us once again.
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Virtue at Market Price
To be continued…
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