First Watch (20:00 to 24:00)

(Second in a series of short stories tied in with the upcoming Gun Kingdoms III book. Picks up directly after the events in my previous story Dog Watch)

“Now this is going to hurt you more than it will hurt me.”

The young man sitting on the examination table visibly blanched, and a shudder rippled through his body from the end of his ponytail to the soles of his feet.

“Not to worry cadet. Just a bit of sick bay humor”, continued the doctor, mentally cursing his feeble attempt at bedside manner. Holding the torn fabric back with his mid-arms, the doctor stitched the wound while applying a balm with his upper set, all the while continuing with his commentary, “For as much as they smell, loopies leave fairly clean wounds. Keep the stitches sanitized and make good use of the healing potion I’ve given you and the rot won’t set in”.

The young cadet stood up, straightened his spectacles for the umpteenth time, and then left the sick bay, a subdued “Thanks” trailing behind him. The four-armed doctor then turned his attention to cleaning up the detritus left from treatment, putting implements and medicines away with his upper arms while mid-arms swabbed down the examination table and laid out new linens. “So young”, he thought. “The cadets we get now seem to be little more than children. Was I ever as green as young Mr. Gilgamesh?”

He continued to wipe down and restock the containers and bottles scattered around the compartment, pausing only when a low rumble from somewhere further aft in the boat shook the sick-bay slightly. Before treating the young cadet’s wound he’d been swamped with several senior petty officers suffering from what seemed to be food poisoning after dining with the Captain. It had been a special occasion, and judging from the brilliantly-colored but evil-smelling liquid splattered on the deck, the cook had apparently taken a chance with a rather exotic dish for the festivities. Fortunately only selected members of the crew had attended the banquet and sampled the exotic cuisine, and so far there had been no gastric complaints outside of that group.

With the compartment clean, the doctor sat back down, and his thoughts returned again to the young cadet.

“So young…”

Nana had always loudly maintained that his peculiar anatomy was a blessing from heaven, but Trevor Norridgewock considered his extra arms a curse. The valley was blessedly free from the bigotry and insults that plagued those with physical differences in other places and times, but there were constant subtle reminders that others viewed him less favorably. It had started early on when classmates complained that his extra appendages gave him an unfair advantage on the playing field, and clerks never shifted their gaze from him when he went shopping, some of them confessing later that they wondered if his mid-arms were pocketing goods while his upper arms were involved in a transaction. Most distressing was when his invitation to the cotillion was rejected with, “It’s hard enough watching where two hands are drifting during a dance, much less contend with four”, so his early departure to the academy came as a blessing rather than a sad development in his life.

At first, attitudes outside of the valley were different enough for him to wonder if he’d been overly sensitive when younger, but despite the lack of open prejudice he couldn’t help but notice the slight hesitations and diverted glances that came with every social interaction, so it was just easier to avoid the parties and concerts that came with academy life. As it was, the isolation was actually a blessing as it allowed him to concentrate on his studies, but upon graduation a career at sea seemed the best choice given the limited social interaction in a ship’s company.

His reverie was broken by the bustle of a burly master-at-arms supervising two crewman as they man-handled a crumpled and broken figure through the hatch and up onto the examination table. This definitely was not another case of food poisoning – Trevor recognized the man as Boothroyd, a crewman assigned to monitor a cargo compartment just down the passageway, and he was bruised, broken, and definitely quite dead in a manner that suggested attack by a small kraken or large bear. The doctor recognized the master-at-arms as Petty Officer Calderoni, and while one of his men placed Boothroyd’s effects on the table, Calderoni informed the doctor that they’d found him buried underneath a mountain of sacks of mealy-corn in the port cargo hold while making their rounds.

As the doctor wrote his report, Calderoni rifled through the dead man’s effects and held up a sheathed knife. “He was one for always talking about his knife and what a fine edge there was on the blade,” he said softly. He sheathed the blade and continued, “Cleaning and oiling it every time he used it. Going on about how his blade put your scalpels to shame”. Trevor smiled slightly sideways as he went about examining the body. How could such a powerful man be so soft spoken and easy going? Scuttlebutt had it that Calderoni could lift a tusker in each hand for exercise, common wisdom second only to the “Can animals talk?” rumor, but for now the doctor was just glad Calderoni was easy-going and considered the doctor to be a friend.

A conference with Captain Trinidad via speaking tube followed the examination, and after a brief discussion, Trevor was designated as the investigating officer in the matter of Boothroyd’s death. Within minutes he was standing in the port cargo compartment’s hatchway silently taking in the scene: the space was not much larger than his sickbay, and other than a lamp mounted on the bulkhead next to the hatch, unlit. The only bare spot on the deck was where the unfortunate crewman had lain, the deck being otherwise covered with the toppled sacks along with scattered mealy-corn kernels from a single torn bag.

The doctor felt a slight pressure against the side of his leg as he studied the room, and looked down to see Nick the dog standing next to him, equally engrossed in the scene. When a quick glance confirmed they were alone, Trevor reached down to the terrier with a mid-hand and scratched the dog’s head while asking, “Do you know anything about this?”

After a brief spasm of reflexive leg-kicking Nick replied in his fractured canine patois, “’s hard to say. Boof-roy and Toe-leo fought sometime. Both liked the same bitsss.”

Trevor sniffed then replied, “First off: we’ve already discussed this Nick. Two-legs don’t use that word for females – at least polite two-legs. Second: I’d heard about disagreements between the two but nothing serious enough for murder”. He paused to pick up the empty mealy bag with an upper hand while continuing to scratch Nick between the ears with a mid. He sniffed again then continued, “Where is Toadleo’s duty station?”

The terrier pointed his nose at the back bulkhead and simply replied “De udder one”, indicating the cargo compartment on the other side of the back bulkhead. After scooping up Nick in his mid-arms and the torn sack in an upper hand, Trevor walked back to the sick bay to drop Nick off before walking around to the starboard main corridor and the storage space that mirrored the compartment where the death occurred. Inside the space he found Calderoni with his two assistants flanking a visibly distraught Toadleo.

As the doctor entered through the hatch Calderoni nodded, and then with a slight smile said, “The captain told me you were the investigating officer but I think this will be an easy one. Boothroyd and Toadleo both fancied the same bargirl back in port. I think Boothroyd was making headway and it looks like Toadleo wanted no rivals for the lass.” He pointed up to a small open hatch at the top of the bulkhead separating the two cargo spaces. “Judging from appearances and the loud sound we all heard earlier it appears that Toadleo climbed up the stacks in here, reached through the emergency hatch to the other hold, and pushed the mealy-corn bags down on Boothroyd.”

Toadleo’s swarthy and dark-haired appearance betrayed his South Coast Arcansi origins but now his face was deathly pale and he was breathing in short gasps. “I never done it. Never. Boothroyd and I had our differences but we’s still shipmates. I traded fists wif him but murder? Never! ‘Sides, Mitzi made ‘er choice and there was no more trouble ‘tween us.”

Trevor and Calderoni turned away for a brief conference, then Toadleo was led off to the brig while the doctor returned to the sickbay where a long line of green-faced crewmen waited in the passageway outside. Whatever had contaminated the captain’s banquet had now made its way into the general ship’s mess and inflicted a good part of the crew, but before he saw the first man in line, the deck started to tilt and the speaking tube whistled. With so many sick the captain had taken the Hammerhead up to cruise on the surface until enough hands recovered to safely submerge again. At the same time, in an effort to forestall losing any more crewman to the mysterious illness, the cook was issuing sausage and cheese in lieu of a hot meal.

After working through the waiting line the doctor removed his coat and sat down to eat, but after treating the largish group of dyspeptic mariners, Trevor was unable to gag down either comestible. As emergency rations, they’d been in storage for quite a while, and after slicing into both of them he found the cheese to be moldy and the sausage rancid. Cleaning his utensils got him to wondering if the grease from the sausage would make a good lubricant or rust-preventative, a thought that caused him to pause and reach for the torn mealy-corn sack, but he stopped short when a half-heard whisper echoed in from the passageway.

“Betcha hexaminin’ Petty Officer Rose wit four hands is fun!” Trevor looked up to see the master-at-arms literally filling the hatchway, his face cocked in the ever-present half-smile. The doctor wondered if Calderoni was smiling at his underling’s attempt at humor before reasoning that a man who can straighten a horseshoe with his bare hands could smile any time he wanted to.

WWWWFFFFFFEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEETTTTT!

The speaking tube whistle preempted any conversation, and the doctor was surprised to hear the captain’s voice inform him that Toadleo had escaped. While being escorted to the brig he’d taken advantage of an unsecured hatch to stun his escort and exit to the main deck. On his way out he’d grabbed a boarding pistol clipped next to the hatch, and had taken cover in the captain’s gig secured in a recess on the main deck. Searchlights on the conning tower could keep the area illuminated but the vents, davits, and stanchions littering the deck cast long shadows that made the crouching Toadleo difficult to observe.

Trevor stood up and put his jacket back on, an otherwise simple task complicated by the need to get four arms into twisted sleeves instead of two. As he stepped out of the sick-bay he paused for a moment and addressed the whispering deck hand, “For your information, Petty Officer Rose is the captain’s best diver, and I’d no sooner take liberties with her as I would you”, before heading toward the hatch and leaving the crewman to wonder how additional arms enhanced one’s hearing.

The doctor followed Calderoni to the portside conning tower hatch where his assistants were keeping watch on Toadleo in a textbook example of a standoff. The boat was cruising in less-than-friendly-waters, but between the need to vent the cloying odor of projectile-vomit, and repairs needed on damaged hull plates, submerging the Hammerhead was not an option. Neither was rushing the escapee; while the large-caliber boarding pistol fired only single-shots, Toadleo could fire and reload three times before they could get to him, and as most of the crew were still immobilized with food poisoning, the task would have to be accomplished with just the small group gathered at the hatch.

Holding up a pink envelope Calderoni quipped, “I could always disguise myself as a letter-carrier and jump him when I deliver this!” A faint trace of perfume followed the packet as he handed it to the doctor. Somehow Nick had gotten ahold of the letter and brought it to the Master-at-arms, and as Trevor scratched the terrier’s ears with a mid-hand he held the envelope in an upper and read the writing on the cover. The doctor’s eyes widened imperceptibly at the address, then he briefly knelt down, whispered something to the dog, and abruptly stepped out of the hatch into full view of the escapee.

“Are you daft doc? He’s a desperate man! He’ll shoot you down just like he killed Boothroyd!”

“No he won’t – because he’s not a murderer!”

Trevor slowly walked toward the gig, stumbling slightly when the big boarding pistol roared and clipped a neat hole into the air intake he just passed. He paused to think, “If they ever develop a metal that can hold up as a repeater for a caliber that big my job will get much busier.” He then walked a few more steps before halting a dozen yards from the crouching escapee.

“Not one step closer Doc. I’ll put an ‘ole in you in a ‘eartbeat.”

“No you won’t Toadleo. You may be a brigand but you’re not a murderer.”

The seaman’s laugh was more like a bark. “Ha! Duhn’t matter. Theys think I am. Remember? I’m a South-Coaster. We carry knives! We steal sweets from toddlers and fart in airlocks, so ‘course I’da killed ‘im.”

Trevor’s reply was equally terse as he imperceptibly eased closer, “…and I’m a four-armed freak. A natural pickpocket that no proper lady should be seen with. We both know those stereotypes aren’t true, just as we both know that you didn’t kill Boothroyd. But if you try to fight your way out you’ll just reinforce every lie that’s been told about you, me, and every other person who looks a little bit different.”

“How do you know I didn’t kill Boothroyd? I’m a pirate remember? Uh…Arrgh…Rawor! I’m a mean one I am!”

“Nick is a more convincing brigand that you are.” The doctor held up the pink envelope. “This is why I know you didn’t kill Boothroyd.”

From their vantage point Calderoni and his party flinched as the doctor walked closer to the escapee, only to be amazed when Toadleo stood up from his cover and handed him the boarding pistol before walking with the doctor back to the open hatch. Trevor then made a most contradictory announcement that a) Toadleo would return to the brig without any more trouble and b) Toadleo would shortly be absolved of all charges. The announcement came with a most nerve-wracking silence – the doctor had never seen the massive petty officer so keyed up, and for a moment Trevor feared the tension built up during the stand-off would explode into violence, but after repeating the promise that Toadleo would be compliant the tension quickly dissipated. As his two assistants led the escapee aft to the brig, Calderoni followed the doctor to the sick-bay where two shots of medicinal brandy relaxed him enough to sit still for the doctor’s explanation.

“I had my suspicions when I checked the two cargo spaces. The only thing out-of-the-ordinary in the port space was the one torn mealie-corn sack, and the bags in the starboard space were stacked far too neatly – anyone climbing up to the emergency hatch would have made a shambles of the uniform stacking.”

“Toadleo coulda restacked ‘em!”

Trevor held up his hand, “There wasn’t enough time between the sacks falling and apprehending Toadleo”. He then stood up and reached for Boothroyd’s knife while holding the torn mealy-corn sack in his mid-hands. “Neatly stacked cargo isn’t the only factor to consider. This greasy cloth tells the rest of the story.”

“Like all the other crewmembers who avoided food poisoning Boothroyd was issued cheese and sausage from the emergency rations. Both items were issued in bulk form and had to be cut into manageable lengths. Again – like most crewmen, Boothroyd carried a knife. A rather handsome one to be honest, and one that he took great pride in maintaining. As I discovered during my own dinner, cutting the sausage would have left a lot of grease on that blade, and Boothroyd would have lost no time in cleaning his knife…”

Trevor held up the torn sack. “…using the only cloth available. It appears that in order to clean the knife he wiped the blade along the side of the sack, accidentally cutting into the fabric as he did so. Sitting under the not-inconsiderable weight of all the other sacks it was only a matter of time before the cut-bag burst and toppled the entire stack.”

“…and crushed poor Boothroyd in the process”, finished the Master-at-arms. “But there’s still the brawl in the tavern. Couldn’t he…”

Trevor raised both upper hands again. “If you still have doubts, take a look at the pink envelope. It’s from the young lady in question and it’s addressed to Toadleo. Judging by the copious amount of cologne it’s been bathed in I am forced to conclude he had already won that earlier battle for her affections.”

“Why fight a battle you could lose when you’ve already won the war?”

______________________________________________________

Midnight came fairly quickly and Trevor was still completing his log when the eight bells signaling the change in watch-keeping rang. Judging by the reduction in retching and frantic trips to the head it appeared that the food poisoning had run its course, so it seemed safe enough retire. He closed his journal, locked the supply cabinet, and started to head for the corridor and his own cramped quarters.

As he turned to the hatch he stopped short when he spied a small furry head leaning in over the threshold. Trevor knelt down and once again scratched the terrier between his ears, then asked, “Does everyone know you can talk? I thought I was the only one.”

“Dere’s a couple more.”

“When did you get that envelope? How did you get that envelope?”

“Not so many sick now.” Nick neatly sidestepped the question. He continued, “But Rudy wiw stiw bwame ‘is farts on me!”

and they’ll still call me a four-armed freak, but we can let the mid-watch handle it!”

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