The headquarters of The Chronicle newspaper was built to impress. A vast, towering, stately mass of pillars, gargoyles and carved patterns in the heart of London, it demands attention and awed me to silence the first time I realised I was going to be working there.
Of course, a combination of being beaten, shot at, chased, threatened and having to spend a significant amount of time hanging from the clock face on Big Ben meant that, on this afternoon as I limped up to the entry with a folder under my arm and my clothes in tatters, I was in no mood to be awed by anything, let alone the big stone behemoth that I always returned to in order to deliver my stories. I kept my head down as I weaved through the cubicles and up the winding stairs to the plush, expansive office of my employer, Lord Rasputin Huxley VIII. I entered his office to find his significant bulk, as usual almost busting out of his suit, bent over his desk perusing some papers.
‘Ah, Shepard,’ he said, straightening up. ‘How did you go covering that bake-off?’
In response I threw the folder down on his desk and turned to leave.
‘Hold on a moment Shepard.’
I stopped, closing my eyes. After what I had just been through I really was not in the mood. I turned and opened my eyes. Huxley was watching me and if I did not know better the expression on his broad face seemed almost like one of concern.
‘What is it?’
‘We have a bit of a situation on our hands,’ he said.
I raised an eyebrow. ‘A situation?’
He lowered himself into his chair and picked up some of the papers. ‘Yes, it’s rather a sticky one. You see, recently we have had reports of a ship of roving pirates off the coast of England.’
My second eyebrow joined the first. ‘Pirates?’
‘Yes, it’s very exciting and concerning, so naturally I figured I had to send the best person I had to investigate.’
‘I’m flattered but–’
‘Of course, Promethia Peters was more than happy to oblige, so off she went–’
‘Promethia Peters?’ I spluttered.
Huxley frowned. ‘I said that Boone. You have met her before; I’ve no idea why you look so confused. Anyway, Miss Peters went along to get to the bottom of this dastardly scourge–’
‘Does one ship count as a scourge?’
‘–and she has not come back.’
I watched Huxley, considering. On the one hand the idea that Promethia Peters was in any way, shape or form ‘the best person he had’ was laughable at best, dangerous at worst and almost reason enough to quit there and then, but on the other hand…
‘You think she might be in danger?’ I said.
‘I fear she must be.’
‘And you didn’t think to notify the authorities?’
Huxley snorted. ‘Do use your head Boone. The authorities have a terrible habit of blustering in and ruining perfectly good stories before we have a chance to get to the bottom of them. This will be a Chronicle exclusive.’
Putting aside all sorts of issues with what my esteemed employer was saying, I had to think fast. I was still feeling completely steamrolled after the world’s most eventful bake-off and part of me certainly thought that whatever trouble Promethia Peters had gotten herself into she could get herself out of as well, but then…
I sighed heavily. ‘Alright. Where am I going?’
The Chronicle, as a major newspaper, has a major amount of money behind it and when one of their employees has been enlisted to rescue another you would be forgiven for assuming said money would be put to good use. Except your assumption would be wrong.
Teeth chattering, I pulled the oars back again and again as I continued to row the tiny boat Huxley had provided me with further and further out into the still ocean night. The English coast was far in the distance now and all around me was water; thankfully water that was not miserable or stormy, but water nonetheless. I’ve never been a strong swimmer nor did I ever develop what I believe are called ‘sea-legs’, but that would not be an issue if I wasn’t stuck in a boat that felt ready to collapse in on itself at a moment’s notice.
It was enough to make me wonder again just why I was still doing this job. The reality was that I wasn’t really good at anything else, and I had a sneaking suspicion that the only thing that made me ‘good’ at investigative journalism was a greater than average tolerance for the absurd and life threatening situations that seemed to find me on a regular basis. Putting it that way would seem to leave precious little to complain about, or at least it would if I wasn’t stuck in a decrepit boat in freezing weather far out to sea in pursuit of a deeply unpleasant photographer who, if anything, was probably making life far more difficult for the pirates than they were for her.
Up ahead the vast expanse of flat sea had been interrupted by something tall and shadowy sitting still on the water. It was a towering ship, sails hanging limp in the windless night from masts that reached up for the stars, masts that were topped off with very distinctive flags. This was the pirate ship, without a doubt. Now I had to find Promethia.
Getting aboard the ship was not going to be easy. Luckily, I had come prepared, or at least as prepared as a skinny journalist in a practically sinking rowboat trying to board a pirate ship could be. Preparation here referred to the grappling hook I had in my satchel; never the most reliable means of subtle infiltration, but at least it was something.
Nearing the ship, I removed a small spyglass from my pocket, put it to my eye and quickly scanned the deck, mast and rigging. No sign of movement or life. Even pirates had to sleep. Quietly, I took up the oars again and kept rowing, slowly but surely, until I was completely in the shadow of the huge ship’s hull. I stared up the sheer, sloping wood, listening as I did for any sounds of life. Nothing. Now might be my only chance.
I withdrew the grappling hook and the messy tangle of rope from my bag. After a few frustrating minutes, I had the whole thing straightened out and ready to go. Then, twirling the hook in a continuous circle, I threw. It flew up into the night, the rope trailing from behind it. I watched as it arced up over the edge of the ship then, with a quiet thud that still made me wince, it landed.
I tugged the rope until it caught on something. Secure. I took a deep breath and began to climb. Hand over hand, muscles straining, grunting with the effort, I pulled myself up the rope, inching up the side of the ship, a side that suddenly seemed a lot bigger than at first I’d realised. Forcing myself not to look down, I kept going until my hands found the wooden railing of the ship and, grateful and worn out, I pulled myself over.
The deck looked pretty much how you would imagine the deck of a pirate ship to look. Thick masts stretched up above me, sails hanging like eerie white ghosts in the night. Ropes and nets lay haphazardly across the various hatches that lay in the deck and at the far end the shape of a cabin where the captain slept.
Now the tricky part. Finding Promethia.
With an explosion of sound, every hatch burst open along with the door of the cabin and pirates of every shape and size cascaded towards me. There were beards and bared teeth and missing teeth and big triangular hats. There were parrots and swords and peg legs and hook hands and eyes that screamed murder. Within seconds they had me surrounded. With a weak smile, I raised my hands and tried to keep an eye on every sword pointed at me at once. It was neither easy nor comforting.
None of the pirates said a word. All eyes were on me. I cleared my throat.
‘Um, hello folks,’ I said. ‘Sorry to bother you. Just looking for a friend of mine.’
‘You’ve got no friends here Shepard!’ a voice cried from the rear of the gathered pirates.
A very familiar voice.
The mass of weapon wielding seafarers parted as the very person I was hoping to find emerged looking exactly like I’d hoped not to find her. Dressed in baggy breeches, a garish coat, a huge lopsided hat and an eyepatch, Promethia Peters looked almost piratical. Her long blonde hair was in dreadlocks and she was holding a flintlock pistol over her shoulder. Her one exposed eye fixed on me and she gave a grin that looked entirely too practiced.
‘Well, well lads,’ Promethia said. ‘It appears we have a treacherous landlubber here to interfere with our terrorising of the seven seas.’
‘Your terrorising…’ I gaped at Promethia. ‘Peters, the only thing I’m here to interfere with is your kidnapping, the circumstances of which were evidently greatly exaggerated.’
‘I’ll thank you to refer to me as Captain on my ship, Shepard,’ she said.
‘Captain,’ I muttered. ‘Great. Any chance of you explaining how that happened?’
‘It’s a great and entertaining story,’ Promethia said. ‘That you don’t deserve to be greatly entertained by.’
‘You know what, fine,’ I said. ‘Whatever Peters. Rescuing you was the last thing I wanted to do with my Monday night. Just let me go and–’
‘Aye.’ Promethia gave her chin a thoughtful stroke.
‘Don’t say aye.’
‘AYE,’ Promethia yelled, making a few pirates jump. ‘Removing you from my ship is the desired outcome. But after waking up my crew I can’t have you gallivanting into the night unpunished. You can walk the plank is what you can do. What do you say, crew?’
An almighty roar of approval went up. I rolled my eyes.
‘You see Shepard,’ Promethia stepped towards me. ‘What a yellow-bellied journalist like you wouldn’t understand is that the crew of this ship are the roughest, meanest–’
‘Most dastardly, blood-thirsty–’
‘Fiercest damn lot of scoundrels you ever saw!’
‘Is that so?’ I said.
‘Aye.’ Promethia grinned broadly.
‘And you’ll swear by that?’ I said.
‘I bloody will.’
‘The most villainous of the villainous.’
‘The very same.’
‘How interesting.’ I nodded. ‘Almost as interesting as the fact that he is wearing his best sensible loafers,’ I pointed to one pirate, then another. ‘Or that her parrot is a toy. Or the man next to her has a stick for a sword.’ I smiled at a now very confused looking Promethia. ‘All of these subtle clues do suggest a rather shocking conclusion, but I’ll save you the trouble of trying and failing to piece it all together.’ I strode over to an especially tall pirate and pulled open his vest, revealing a shirt with a garish logo on it. ‘This might explain everything.’
‘The Green Harbour Piracy Re-Enactment Society,’ Promethia read aloud. She seemed to deflate a little. ‘Oh.’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Besides, it’s 1965 Peters; there are no pirates. So, now that we’ve sorted that–’
‘Ship ahoy!’ one of the pirates yelled.
Everyone turned as one. Ahead of the prow, emerging from the darkness was another ship. A ship that, even from this distance, was clearly at least twice as big as this one. A ship flying a skull and crossbones flag.
‘Oh no,’ I said.
Around us, a fearful muttering had started from the assembled fake pirates.
‘Crew, to stations!’ Promethia bellowed. ‘Load up the cannons and let’s fight them off!’
‘Promethia, we are being chased by real pirates!’
‘I am a real pirate!’
‘You’ve got two eyes and are wearing an eyepatch.’
‘That is entirely not relevant Shepard. Can’t you see we’re being chased by real pirates?’
‘Fine then Peters. What do you suggest we do?’
Promethia bit her lip as she watched the approaching shape of the bigger ship. ‘We parlay.’
‘We do what?’
‘That’s what pirates do when they don’t want to fight. Seriously, read a dictionary.’
‘I know what parlay means Peters. I also know that it means you usually come to a deal and to come to a deal we need to have something to offer. All we have are a bunch of fake pirates, a journalist who wishes he wasn’t here and a photographer wearing an eyepatch.’
‘Don’t be negative Shepard. We have a ship.’
‘Without which we’d be in the ocean.’
‘Well then we have to fight.’
‘We’re not fighting.’
‘Then we have to parlay.’
I opened my mouth to tell her she was acting like a child, then stopped. Not because it wasn’t true (it was) but because as much as trying to parlay when we had nothing to parlay with was a bad idea, it also might buy us some time, which was something we lacked.
‘I’ve thought about it,’ I said. ‘And I’ve decided we should parlay.’
‘Oh good, I was so worried about your opinion,’ Promethia replied. ‘Buccaneers! White flag!’
I watched as the ‘pirates’ swiftly got to work. Within moments a white flag had been raised and a wooden bridge of some sort retrieved from the hull of the boat. The larger ship was very close now, right up alongside us. The bridge was raised at a steep angle to reach the railing and it took me a moment to realise that everyone was watching me expectantly.
‘Oh right,’ I said. ‘Parlaying.’
‘When we’re done you are so walking the plank,’ Promethia said, mounting the bridge ahead of me and striding up.
‘You’re probably not wrong,’ I said, privately adding that at least the rest of the crew would be joining me once these pirates figured out who we really were.
Trying not to look down as we walked up the not especially steady attempt at a bridge, I quickly ran through some options of what I could say. Pretend we were actual pirates and very dangerous? No, the size of our ship scuppered that option. Ask them nicely to leave us alone? Well if that was on the cards they never would have approached us. Offer them a huge amount of money and hope Huxley was willing to pay to get us back alive? I actually laughed out loud at that.
Promethia, about to board the ship, turned and lifted her eyepatch to give me the full brunt of her withering look. ‘If you can’t take this seriously Shepard, you can leave.’
I made a zipping gesture across my mouth. Satisfied, Promethia nodded, replaced her eyepatch, then hopped from the top of the bridge down on to the deck. I quickly followed.
The deck of this real pirate ship looked more or less identical to the fake one we had left behind. The only real difference, apart from the size, were the pirates here; there were quite a few more of them and even the quickest glance revealed how much more dirty, dangerous and preferably avoidable they were. A towering figure with a wooden leg stepped forwards; obviously the captain, he was about the size of both Promethia and I combined and I found myself wondering how quickly I could run back to the other ship.
‘Are yeh here to parlay?’ he spat.
‘Are we Shepard? This was your idea.’
‘Go on Peters. You’re the captain. Make your best offer.’
‘Speak fast,’ the real captain said. ‘Else ye’ll be shark food before the night is out.’
‘Shark food.’ I gave Promethia a look that hopefully communicated that I blamed her for all of this. ‘How good does that sound?’
Promethia tried to smile. ‘Ahoy there matey,’ she said. ‘We be… we be deadly buccaneers looking for plunder and… and stuff, and we’d appreciate it if you, y’know, let us get on with it.’
The silence that followed was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard.
‘D’you seek to plunder our ship?’ The captain’s voice made the hissing of a snake sound soothing.
‘No!’ I said. ‘Of course not. We would never. We would never presume to interfere with your pirating and whatnot. We were just, maybe, a little bit, hoping that you could offer us the same courtesy?’
The captain’s eyes narrowed. ‘Is that what yeh wanted to parlay for?’
I exchanged a confused glance with Promethia. ‘Well you… you were sort of bearing down on us.’ I said.
‘Yeh were in our way,’ he said. ‘We expected yeh to move. Now ye’ve slowed us down.’
‘Good work Peters,’ I muttered.
‘Fer that, ye’ll be punished.’ He took another step forwards.
‘Really good work Peters.’
‘Shepard if you can’t say anything useful don’t say anything at all.’
‘Peters, practice what you preach. You’ll be a lot more bearable.’
‘I can’t wait to see you walk the plank.’
‘Feeling’s mutual. Looks like we’ll both get what we want.’
At that point a lot of things happened at once. Promethia opened her mouth to presumably say something annoying, the pirate captain raised his sword and then, from all directions came a cacophony of yelling as a vast assortment of fake pirates seemed to come flying out of the air behind us, weapons brandished, towards the suddenly very scared looking real pirates.
I turned to see what was happening as the last of Promethia’s crew swung from ropes attached to the masts of the smaller ship on to the deck of the bigger. I turned again and was stunned to see that the real pirate crew were all in various states of crying, begging, wailing or, in one strange case, offering what appeared to be a stuffed manatee as some kind of appeasement.
Promethia and I looked at each other with what were probably identical bewildered expressions. The fake pirates had now surrounded the real ones and were holding them at sword point.
‘Don’t hurt us!’ the captain squealed. ‘We didn’t mean to bother you! It’s just a re-enactment!’
‘We know what it is,’ one of Promethia’s suddenly much more threatening looking pirates snarled. ‘We’ve encountered you lot before. Where’d you think I got my shirt from? We’re sick of you lot giving us real pirates a bad name.’
And then it all fell into bizarre, nonsensical place. Apparently realisation struck Promethia at the same time; she jumped in front of me with a grin that made me want to take my chances with the pirates and yelled ‘See Shepard? I told you I was a real pirate!’
I stepped around her, towards the mingled mass of real and fake pirates.
‘Alright, everyone!’ I yelled, raising my hands as they all turned to me. ‘Let’s just calm down. Pirates from Promethia’s crew, I understand that these re-enactment enthusiasts bother you, and fair enough except not really, but on this night and this night alone can we avoid bloodshed or more pertinently, wet clothes? You have a chance, right now, a chance to prove the world wrong about you, to show that pirates can be the bigger people, figuratively speaking, and show mercy. Look at these impersonators as people who are inspired by you, who want to be like you. What bigger compliment could there possibly be? Take the flattery and let them go on their way. Or if you have to punish them, take their ship and let them have yours; theirs is bigger anyway. Then everybody wins, or if not wins, learns a valuable lesson about annoying people with swords without actually dying.’
I finished and waited. The pirates watched me with a variety of thoughtful or confused expressions. Some of the real ones seemed to be reconsidering the fake ones.
Then the fake captain who had seemed so threatening just moments ago yelled out ‘what a load of hot air! Pirates don’t show mercy! You cross a pirate, you walk the plank! We know the rules!’
I went to point out that I was trying to save him from that fate, but a cheer had gone up, a cheer coming from real and fake pirates alike.
‘You know what?’ the member of Promethia’s crew with the nice loafers said. ‘These impersonators are alright. They’ve learned the ways of real seafaring. But this yellow bellied, dirt kissing, sea-legs-lacking landlubber, he’s an affront to our ways and he will walk the plank!’
Another cheer went up. I turned to ask for Promethia’s help but all I saw was a flash of blond hair vanishing over the bannister and back down to the other ship. I went to follow but suddenly I was surrounded. Pirates bellowed and laughed as they roughly grabbed me by the arms and dragged me to the other side of the ship, the side where an actual plank extended out over the ocean.
Within seconds I was standing on the end of the plank, peering down at the dark water. I turned to face the mass of pirates and tried to think, but it was very cold and the plank was bouncing slightly under my weight. Resourceful problem solving felt a very long way away at that point.
‘Okay, let’s think about this,’ I said. ‘I’m a journalist. What kind of story am I going to report? One where the pirates are heroic, swashbuckling legends of the seas or one where–’
One of the pirates stomped on the end of the plank, the whole thing bounced under me and I was falling. Very, very, very cold water surrounded me, stinging my eyes and filling my mouth.
I emerged from the freezing ocean gasping for breath; I was too cold to even shiver. I looked up at the distant shape of the plank above me and yelled something that included the words ‘bloody’ and ‘pirates’ but there was ice in my bones and I couldn’t think straight and what came out of my mouth probably wasn’t much more than a garbled mess.
Then, despite the fact that all I could think about was how cold I was, I recognised a buzzing noise. I moved around in the water to see a yellow and black gyrocopter rounding the smaller ship, coming closer until it hovered just feet away from me. Sitting in the driver’s seat and now mercifully free of her stupid eyepatch, was Promethia Peters.
‘Best thing about my captain’s quarters was having room to keep this!’ she yelled over the sound of the engine. ‘Could make a quick getaway in the event of an idiot journalist blundering in and ruining everything.’
I told her that it was her fault but no sound came out. I think she got the point.
‘You need a hand?’ she said.
I nodded furiously.
‘Easily done.’ She smiled. ‘I’ll fly you out of here. All you need to do is admit that I’m a real pirate.’
I shook my head.
‘Shame.’ Promethia sighed heavily. ‘That water seems pretty cold.’
The water was pretty cold. And Promethia was awful and in no way shape of form a real pirate but the water was really very cold.
‘You’re a real pirate!’ I managed.
Promethia’s smile grew. ‘Good to know how you really feel Shepard.’
‘Get me out of here!’
She watched me for a moment, considering, then pointed in the direction she’d come. ‘It’s a bit cramped in here, but I saw your little rowboat over there. The trip back ought to warm you up!’
And with that she spun the wheel and the chopper soared off into the night. I stared after it, lost for words even if I was willing to expend energy speaking them. I forced my limbs into action, kicking back towards the tiny rowboat and in my head cursing my job, cursing photographers, cursing pirates and smug smiles and gyrocopters and stupid rescue missions and above all cursing the one person who encapsulated all of the above in one dreadful package; Promethia bloody Peters.