Jie the jaguar, perhaps a bit bored, perhaps curious about the others sharing her ship, rose from Mei’s side and began to wander and sniff about. As always, all eyes watched her every movement.
When the cat stopped next to Putin, sitting chained to the base of the mast, and sniffed at him, it was amusing. When the jaguar’s forepaws climbed up onto the man’s shoulders and the jaguar put her face right up to his, even the serial killer flushed and tried to back away; it got laughs and cheers.
When she pushed off him and turned her attention on the others, the amusement rapidly dwindled, replaced by nervousness, and several people anxiously begged Mei to call her companion back to her.
Mei, keeping a watchful eye, nonetheless affected an innocence. “What’s wrong?” she asked, nearly laughing as the great cat explored.
Juan nearly fell overboard in his haste to get away, and the Carib women and Winny went so far as to climb down onto a pontoon.
When the cries of alarm became too much, she relented and fetched a brick of hardtack out of the locker. Jie, an opportunistic eater, loped over and chomped onto the brick with her huge teeth. Laying down with it in between her big paws, she happily gnawed on it like a dog with a chew toy. Even her incredible jaw strength couldn’t dent that brick.
It was then that Putin took advantage of the fact that he was no longer gagged. He sneered at her and spoke mockingly. “Cute little kitten. You kitten too.” His eyes danced.
“Oh, shut up.” Mei didn’t even deign to look up at him, preferring to watch the jaguar.
“You know what kitten is? Soft. You soft.”
She rolled her eyes.
He seemed to have recovered confidence and courage following his capture. Perhaps frustrated at his physical helplessness, he was now trying to interact verbally. “Act tough,” he told her. “Go ahead. But I know. I watched you scream, remember? Remember fire? Remember pain?” He winked at her.
“You want the gag back on?” she asked in a flat voice. Listening to his voice made her skin crawl.
“You think about it, don’t you? Is bright memory. Trauma. Keep you awake at night? You think about it every time you see fire?”
Her head rolled his way and she mocked him back. “I think about carving you up with my sword. And shooting you with my pistol. Remember that?”
He dismissively shrugged, utterly unaffected by her. “No. Is forgotten. Small thing.”
One of her brows rose. “Ha! I bet. You want to try it again?”
A knowing look came to his eyes. “You want to practice? Practice killing?” He leered at her. “You need it, huh? You go to island, think you steal ship. Silly little murderous girl, you are.”
She sighed, pretending to be calmer than she felt. She really should have shut him up, but a defiant part of her didn’t want to give in because it would mean he’d won. She attempted to ignore him instead.
“You cannot,” he stated as fact, ignoring the fact that she was ignoring him. “Impossible. Too weak you. They catch you.” A greasy grin split his lips. “When they do, I tell them about fire. How much you like fire. Maybe they burn you, what you think?”
Her eyes flashed, temper winning out. “Like we did to you?”
Her response only excited the bastard further as she gave in to his games. “Yes! Yes. You think that’s bad? Maybe they do to you. But burn not just one time. Many times. Maybe your existence is just fire from now on. Every day, they burn you. Then burn you more. Then burn you alive, flames eating you again and again. How many days you think you can survive? Hmm? Two? Five? Ten? We see what kind of tough kitten you are. See how long it takes fire to break you forever.”
She turned away and swallowed, her fear rising like a cold tide up her back. “I won’t break. Because I’m not going to get caught.”
He laughed at her. “Ha! Of course you are. Everyone get caught. All you. You is stupid to think you can steal ship. Is hopeless.” He acted like he was speaking to a child.
She turned back to him and growled, though not as firmly as she’d have liked to. “We can and we will.”
He shook his head, mock sadly. “No. Too many guards. And you are not fighters. Except maybe charcoal snowman over there.” He nosed in Armand’s direction, referencing the other man’s black skin and white hair. “You just woman. Tall, maybe. Little muscle, ok. But still weak. Much weaker than any man. Even little boy can beat you up.”
Stress and fear flared her temper a little more. “Shut up. Before I shut you up.” Her nails were carving half-moons into her palm, and she itched to fetch her sword from the trunk and jab him with the sharp point a few hundred times.
Her failure to control her emotions only fed his ego and his desire to be malicious. “What’s wrong? Truth is scary? Truth hurts? Aw, you big baby. Baby kitty.”
“Back off!” she shouted, losing it. And immediately, she regretted it, knowing she’d lost to him.
He looked around at the others and spoke to them, seeking to broaden his attack. “You all stupid too, yes? Little men follow pretty girl to steal ship; everyone get themselves killed. Is ok. Maybe you all girly men. How you say…masochist? You like being whipped and chained?” He sneered in amused contempt.
None of the others answered. But they were all listening. The laughter and enjoyment of the day bled away, replaced by growing tension. Both Juan and Lance, in particular, had been brought forcefully back to reality. Putin was rekindling their worries and fears with only a few mocking words.
Mei saw the danger and tried to fight it. “We’re not stupid. We’re not weak. And we can steal that ship if we do it together,” she insisted. She spoke firmly but felt weak on the inside and thought for sure that the others could see it.
It was his turn to roll his eyes. “Together. Ha. Look. Them all cowards. No can fight soldiers. No can sail boat. How can you think this is possible? Arrogant. Foolish. Like little children with dreams that are too big.”
She rose for the first time, fists clenched. Time to shut the guy up.
He was ready for it. And eager. He leaned forward as much as the chains would allow as if willfully putting himself in range. “Ah. Angry now. What you do? Torture me?” He paused and stared her in the eyes, challenging her. “Easy for weak woman while man is chained up. Why not let me go? I give you fair fight. Just you and me. You can even have shiny sword of yours. I let you. You need handicap.”
She spoke defiantly. “I’m not scared of you.” It was half a lie. Maybe more than half. Part of her wanted the chance to trade blows. Yet she was not foolish enough or so out of control that she would give in. He weighed twice what she did and had far, far more experience fighting and killing.
“No?” He nodded in mock understanding. “Stupid people not always scared. But come. We fight. I show you how weak woman is against real man. How quickly you die. Is good. I do you favour. I kill you here. Then you don’t get others killed chasing boat dream.”
His words were having more and more of an effect on the others. Lance was glaring at her. Juan frowned and stared at the deck, just listening. Cheeto seemed disappointed in her. Disgusted maybe?
She drew herself up and calmed herself. “You keep saying it’s impossible. Sounds like you’re just a coward. The only thing you’re good at is killing people in their sleep.”
“Mm. I’m good,” he readily agreed, speaking conversationally. “Skilled. Very quiet. Sneak up, cut throat. I tell you trick. Must cut windpipe, not just artery. Then cannot scream. Quiet death.”
“You’re such a sick piece of trash. You’re definitely someone who belongs in prison.”
“Ha! You don’t? Why not? You an angel?” He pretended to be surprised.
“I haven’t committed any crimes.”
He laughed in her face. “You here. You is criminal. Is fact!”
“No. I was wrongly imprisoned. Don’t try to make me out to be someone like you. You’re trash. A living argument for why some people should be executed.”
His brows rose, and mock astonishment went to another level. “You think you’re better than me? Why? You’re a killer too. Yes.”
“I’m nothing like you.”
“You kill soldiers back on island. How many? And when you escape? How many people you kill? Someone say you blow up ship. Maybe you kill even more people than me!” He shook with silent laughter.
She saw herself losing the other prisoners even more as she made her case. “I only did that because, in this world, death isn’t permanent. I never would have done that in the real world. And every death was in self-defence. Everyone harmed was someone party to upholding a system that is abusive and immoral. They deserved what they got.” She believed her own words, yet in the face her Putin’s mockery and the way the others looked at her, she somehow felt like a hypocrite and hated that. She wasn’t!
“We all tell ourselves lies. Except me. I’m honest. I enjoy killing. Maybe you are dishonest, hmm? You kill so many people. Maybe because you like it too.”
She stepped closer and shouted, feeling alone on this ship and losing control. “I do not like killing! I don’t even like fighting. I don’t want to be here! I don’t want this to be my life! I want to be back home, with my family, my friends, not here with trash like you!” Losing her temper at last, she struck out at him, kicking him in the face. Her anger not satisfied, she kicked him again and again, until his nose and lip bled. Breathing hard, she stepped back. Taking the gag from where it had been tied around the boom of the mast, she secured it to him again, very roughly. Once done, she looked up and finally met the faces of the others full on.
As she’d seen out of the corner of her eye during the argument, they didn’t look impressed, not one bit. Even Armand seemed saddened. She regretted losing her temper even more. She never should have let Putin speak so much. The others had still been weighing their decision to either turn themselves in or fight for freedom. She’d thought that perhaps the good mood earlier might have shifted them slightly towards freedom. Unfortunately, his words had undoubtedly poisoned them back in the other direction. And she hadn’t helped her cause with her behaviour.
She cursed herself out of self-loathing. Why hadn’t she used the opportunity to intelligently out-argue him? Why hadn’t she used this chance to help her cause? Why had she gotten so emotional? How did he undermine her confidence and inner strength so effortlessly?
Maybe because she couldn’t be around him and not remember that night with the fire. She could not look at his face without seeing it above her, grinning as she burned to death in extreme pain. She was physically shaking from the emotions churning within her chest.
They should never have taken the gag off of him. Should have tried to find a way to leave him behind with the volcano and hoped the lava would take him.
Lance, of course, was the first to break the silence, returning to his steadfast position. “He’s right. We have no hope of stealing the ship. It would be futile and only make things harder on ourselves. We will turn ourselves in.”
“Don’t let him get to you,” she nearly begged. “He’s trying to undermine us on purpose. He’s evil. And he’s wrong. We can do this. Freedom can be ours.”
Juan was a mixture of forlorn and upset, and he didn’t look very friendly. “We can’t fight them. There are too few of us. A couple of guns doesn’t change anything.” He referred to the looted weapons in the trunk.
Lance nodded once with conviction. “We’re not going up against trained soldiers. Besides, do you know where the ship is going to be? In Bridgetown. Probably tied up at the pier that is directly outside the naval headquarters. You know, next to the barracks where all the marines in town sleep? And where the officers have offices? What the hell are you going to do when Captain Fowler strolls out of his office and wants to stop us?”
She tried vainly to make an argument that would get things back under control. She willed herself to speak calmly and to reason. “First off, it shouldn’t come to a fight. We do it smart. We sneak in. We cause distractions and draw attention away from us. We only fight if we really need to.”
But Lance was determined. “He’ll see through whatever sneaky plan you think you have. He’s too smart for you. We can’t steal the ship. It won’t work!”
At his angry tone, she snapped again. “You don’t know that! You’re just scared!”
Now there was a measure of contempt in his eyes. “Do you have any idea who Captain Fowler is?”
She grew defiant. “I know what it feels like to shove a sword in his guts and watch him die.”
He looked her in the eyes. “I’ve been on Barbados for a year and, before that, an American colony for two. Woman, you got lucky. Stupidly lucky. He’s a legend. Recognized as the best naval captain in England and one of the best in this world. He’s a crack shot with a pistol and unbeatable with a sword. He’s killed more people in duals than anyone can remember. And killed more people in the field than anyone can count.”
“Yeah? Well, I can count the number of times I’ve killed him. It’s more than the number of times he’s killed me.”
The American just rolled over her. “It’s not just his fighting prowess. He was the youngest captain to get his own ship. And the last time England went to war? He was their admiral—because he just took over from the guy who already had the job. But how did he get away with supplanting his commanding officer during wartime—and having the man locked up for the duration of the conflict so that he wouldn’t interfere? Because he beat a navy twice the size of England’s and only lost a single ship. You want to know why France never challenges England to a fight? Spain has ten times as much power as England does. They should be able to bully England with impunity. Want to know why they don’t? Him. Because he bloodied them so badly, and they’re scared of him.”
She spread her hands wide and smiled, not in a friendly way. “And yet…”
He looked down a moment and shook his head, and when he raised it again, he was well and truly angry. “Mei, congratulations for what you did. Really. But he must have been tired. Or he slipped and fell. Or he was sick as a dog and concussed. Because you never should have beaten him. If you ever go up against him again, you’ll lose. Period.”
“You don’t think I know that?” she shouted at him. “Of course I got lucky! That’s why I have no plans on going up against him again. I don’t want to fight anyone. I want to sneak into Barbados and take the ship and sail off without crossing swords or firing a shot.” She was angry too. How could he be so stubborn and frustratingly unwilling to even think about fighting back? Why was it so damn hard for so many people to defy the world around them? Why did they give up so damned easily?
“And if we do take the ship? He might not be able to give chase right away, but when they do get a new ship, he might come after us. And he’s literally the last person anyone wants hunting them.”
“He might. But he’s still supposed to be guarding Barbados, right? And he’d still have to find us,” she pointed out.
His hand balled into a fist and stepped closer, visibly holding himself back from doing more. “Bah! I can’t believe how blind you are,” he spat. “You want to take on famous captains? Entire navies? The system itself. You can’t fight that!”
She stepped closer too. “Yes, we can! The question is—why aren’t you?” She pointed at him.
He growled. “What is wrong with you? Are you crazy or just stupid? Don’t you know it can’t be done?”
“It can’t? So there are no pirates out there? If we went to Tortuga or Port Royal, we wouldn’t find any? Nobody lives free here? Everyone who’s ever tried to fight back has failed?”
His face reddened. “That’s not what—“
She cut him off. “No, come on. There’s no chance for us at all, that’s what you’re saying? No one else has ever done it? The guards are all-powerful, and it’s hopeless. Right?”
“Give up, Mei! We can’t win. I’m not a fighter; I’m a businessman. You’re just a woman,” he waved at her as dismissively as Putin had, then gestured to the others in turn. “He’s an old man. He’s just a kid. The only decently fit person here is Juan, and he looks like he’s terrified of violence.” He rounded on her. “We can’t hope to steal a ship by ourselves against the might of one of the strongest colonies in the entirety of the Caribbean! They have an army stationed there!”
Her mouth got the better of her before she could stop herself. “Is that really the problem, or are you just a coward?”
His own control broke, and he stepped forward, slugging her in the side of the face.
Mei stumbled back a step, blinking watery eyes in shock. Her fury rose and took over. She jumped forward and hit him back, right across the jaw.
But he wasn’t nearly as hard struck by her weaker blow. He slugged her again, then again, sending her to the deck with her head reeling. “Look!” he screamed down at her from above. “Even I can smack you around without even trying. I’m just some office-working guy in finance and business. What are you going to do against hardened marines and people trained to kill?”
She felt a split in her lip and her nose bled badly, staining the back of her hand when she wiped at it. Thinking was a bit difficult, but she glared up at him. “There’s more to a fight than just brute strength,” she countered. With an effort, she stood up, having to control wobbly legs.
He snorted with contempt. “Not much! You want to learn the lesson the gangster was willing to teach you earlier? I can teach you too.” He raised his fist to hit her again.
She bared her bloody teeth and raised her arms to block, ready to strike back.
Lance stepped in but lurched as Juan pulled him back.
The Spaniard dragged Lance out of her reach and then half-snarled at her. “Enough.”
But Mei’s mouth was running away with her again. She was pissed off at them for being so weak. “I’m a woman, yes. Physically weaker, true. And yet I’m willing to stand up for myself, to fight back. What’s your excuse? Are you a coward too?” she asked Juan. “Is that why you won’t fight?” She looked at all of them. “Is that why you all want to give up and turn yourselves in? Cowardice?”
Juan grabbed her by the collar, lifted her up and pushed her to the edge of the deck, looking fierce. His face a handspan from hers, he shouted at her. “Shut up and give it up! We’re not going to fight them for you!”
“Go ahead, Juan. Drop me. But I won’t give up. I won’t be a prisoner when I don’t deserve it. And I won’t suffer a world that abuses me day in and day out. Why do you?”
He dangled her over the side.
For most of the argument, Jie had only laid on the deck and watched and listened to the heated anger of the humans. But with the violence of Lance’s punches against Mei, she’d stood. Now, seeing Juan threaten Mei, the jaguar emitted a low and very dangerous growl.
Juan looked over and saw the baleful glare in those yellow eyes. He stepped back, bringing Mei with him and then threw her to the deck in front of the animal. Then he backed away a couple of steps to seem less threatening. He was still furious but wary too.
Mei rolled up to a sitting position. Not wanting anyone to get seriously hurt, she tried cooing to the cat to calm her. When Jie’s eyes flickered her way once, and the ears lifted slightly, Mei dared to reach up and just lay a hand gingerly on the cat’s thick neck, feeling the tense muscles there. She quietly whispered, calming the feline.
Jie sat on her haunches, but her eyes remained fixed on the men.
Mei, feeling much of her anger reduced to hot coals rather than flames, spoke more calmly. “I’m not asking you to fight for me. I’m asking you to fight with me, each for ourselves and for each other. You can try to give up on yourselves if you want to. But I won’t do the same. Not ever. And I won’t give up on you either.”
Cheeto spoke for the first time. His face was disdainful but also conflicted. “Why would you care about our freedom?”
She took a deep breath and looked at him. She spoke as calmly as she had in a while. “Because it doesn’t take a genius to see a difference between you four and him,” she jutted her chin at Putin. “I came into this place thinking all I was going to find was criminal scum and unrepentant jerks.”
Lance, assuming that was exactly how she really saw them, huffed and flicked a wave her way. Juan’s expression was stormy, and Cheeto looked half-ready to knife her. Only Armand was quiet and reserved, conflict in his eyes so that she couldn’t tell exactly how he felt one way or the other.
She continued. “I didn’t think I would ever be able to find anyone in here worth being friends with, no one I could count on. I thought I would be completely alone in here. Yet I wanted to escape, and to do that, I’d need help. But in a prison world, how could I possibly find anyone I’d be able to trust enough to risk my life with? I didn’t think there would be any worthwhile people here at all. But I might have been wrong. I found four guys who might actually be decent people. If only they had the guts to stand up for themselves too.”