Captain Java Joe Coffee was a peaceful man, plying his trade as master of his own ship. It took a lot to rile him up, but as a seagoing gang of human scum found out, kidnapping the niece of his old friend would do the trick. And when Captain Coffee is riled, he'd scour the South Seas with a vengeance until he either brought her home - or go down along with his ship and crew in the trying!
1. Missing Girl
Captain Joe Coffee stood on his deck and watched the girl cavorting on the nearby yacht. She was a bright-eyed young lady of not more than nineteen, if that. Coffee had met her yesterday. She was the niece of a long-time friend, "Doc", a man who had saved Coffee's life more than once. She was a dancer and a swimmer, had won awards for both, and was visiting her uncle "Doc" here in the South Seas for the summer. She had proudly displayed her latest trophy, a silver statue of a diving mermaid, in her cabin.
Her movements were smooth and flowing, expertly timed. Had he been a decade or so younger, Coffee might have been interested in her as a girl, but for now he merely admired her beauty, her grace and innocence and her skill.
Astrid swirled about and noticed Coffee watching her.
"Hi, Captain!" She ceased moving and waved a slim arm. He returned the gesture with a grin in his blond beard.
"Hey!" she shouted suddenly. "I was just about to take a morning dive . . . mind if I swim over there?"
Coffee waved his pipe in a "come ahead" gesture. Astrid wore a white skirt over a purple leotard. She stripped off the skirt and dived from the rail of "Doc's" ship, hitting the water only after a spinning somersault. Her arms and legs propelled her through the white-capped waves in the direction of the Hurricane.
Dripping the jade-green water of the Java Sea from her auburn hair and tanned skin, she climbed on board. Her matching green eyes flashed between lank falls of wet hair above an aquiline nose and a wide grin. Her skin was olive-hued, betraying a Mediterranean heritage.
"Hey," she said. "I was just taking my morning exercise, and then I was going to make breakfast. Can I use your galley, and I'll fix some old-fashioned hotcakes and eggs and sausage for you?"
"As we presently have the worst cook in the South Seas," Coffee admitted. "A good breakfast would hearten everyone."
Astrid made good on her word, and after eating, Captain Coffee led her down the ramp to shore. She had borrowed a white shirt, which she wrapped on her waist, and set off for the town, determined to get in some shopping before noon.
"I like her," Ike admitted. The scrawny, wiry First Mate of the Hurricane leaned on the rail, watching her go. "If I had a daughter like that, I'd die proud."
It was well after noon when the grizzled figure of "Doc" hailed the ship from the gangplank. Coffee nodded him aboard, and "Doc" folded his arms in mock reprimand.
"You've been keeping my niece aboard all damn day," the older man complained. Captain Coffee's brows knit in puzzlement.
"She's not here," he said flatly. "She went into town. Said she was doing some shopping."
"Doc" stared back. "It's falling dusk. I told her this is a dangerous place in the dark."
Coffee glanced to the road leading to the small port city's bazaars and shops. His contemplative eyes narrowed like arrow-slits when he saw the pallor in the old man's usually ruddy face.
"We'll go and fetch her back. I'll send a couple of my crewmen to look too." The captain bellowed up to the deck. His mate, Ike, and Chang, the engineer, were arguing at the wheel. Coffee gave orders, ending with "Ike, take Micawber and go into town. Astrid hasn't returned. Look for her! Rendezvous here at eight bells. Chang, remain here in case she returns either here or to Doc's' boat." He took "Doc" by his drooped shoulders and led him toward the city. "We'll find her. She probably got caught up with shopping. She's a sensible girl, she'll get back before full dark."
But she did not. Nor did Coffee and her uncle find her. Dark night fell with no relief from the sweltering tropic heat. Street shops closed up and were taken down. An hour later, there was no sign of Astrid in the empty streets. They returned to the ship. Ike and Micawber drifted in a few minutes later, also empty-handed. Chang, the engineer, ran to "Doc's" ship and returned. "She never came back there either. This is bad, Cap'n!"
Stars were showing up. The small but tough-skinned mate ground his fist into his palm. "I'll go bust some heads till somebody tells us somethin'," he growled. He strode off down the road, a stalking bundle of dynamite with a short fuse. Micawber went with him.
"Capitan!" a low womanly voice echoed in the night. Coffee's navigator and Second Mate Sasha was stepping off the gangplank. She strode to Coffee and told him, "The spirits, they are upzet. The girl, Astrid," she nodded to "Doc", "is in trouble."
"That," Coffee replied dryly, "we know. Can the spirits tell us where, and in what trouble, she is?"
"I shall retreat to my cabin," Sasha said seriously, "and whisper with zem. We shall zee."
"You are very worried," Coffee addressed the girl's distraught uncle." You should get some rest." He gripped the man's shoulder firmly, as if trying to drive some of his own strength into him. He pointed toward the ladder leading below decks. "Try my guest cabin it's the first one on the left."
"I . . . very well; you're right. I need to have my wits about me if we're going to get her back. Promise me: you'll wake me when the ransom note arrives."
"That I will."
The old man turned, so he did not see the frown that creased Coffee's face. The mate, who had returned empty handed, walked to where Coffee stood. He read the look in his captain's gaze with grim understanding.
"You're not expectin' a ransom note," Ike accused. Starlight shone on his black skin and in his deep eyes.
"No, Ike," Coffee replied. "This isn't about ransom. Doc has a tidy fortune packed away, but it's a small one compared to the price an American girl will fetch on the slave market."
"That's no fate fer a girl like Astrid! Joe, we gotta do somethin'!"
Java Joe scratched his beard. "Go down to the port master," he ordered. "Get me a list of all ships that have departed today! I'll make the Zephyr ready for a pursuit. Chang!" he roared to his engineer.
The Chinese man came to him. He clenched both fists, which looked odd; Chang was missing two fingers on his left hand. He claimed it the result of a two against one knife fight he had been in, and won. Coffee knew it to be from a boiler accident.
"Go back into the town," he ordered. "Check your usual haunts and cronies. Take Sasha with you. Listen for anything rumor, idle talk see if you can turn up anything on the girl."
Chang gave a short, brusque nod and departed without a word.
Coffee went about preparing the ship for launch, bellowing orders at the crewmen, inspecting the engines himself in Chang's absence. All the while the girl Astrid's face burned in his thoughts. He had had run-ins with slave traders before, and he considered them the scum of the sea. Astrid, with her young beauty, was no more than a fabulous prize to them. She would fetch a price higher than any of the dark-haired, brown-skinned native girls.
The slave masters were cruel enough to the more submissive native girls. For Astrid it would be worse. Her will and her spirit would have to be broken.
Sasha came on deck. She held a tiny brazier, from which thin streams of black and grey smoke unwound. Its light illumined her face like the sun on the sea.
"Zee spirits," she breathed, "whisper to me. The slavers take the girl to Macao!"
Coffee conceded that the spirits were well informed. Macao was the hub of the slave trade these days, and the market most likely to bring high prices. He did not tell the seeress that her spirit-talk was no more than a good guess. Sasha's knowledge of the seas and the islands, their weather and and the customs and beliefs of the South Seas peoples, had proved of great value to him. He didn't hold with spirits and superstitions, but he saw no reason to alienate such a valuable crew member.
"Zey also say that a storm is brewing, a great, dark and powerful storm," Sasha added, staring into her brazier until its smoke obscured her lit features.
"Metaphorical or literal?"
"Very well. I shall keep that in mind. Thank you, Sasha".
The shaman turned away, but threw a few words back over her bared shoulder.
"You do not believe me. You will see."
She went to her cabin half-strutting and half skulking, reappeared without the brazier and left with Chang.
Coffee grabbed a passing sailor.
"Tell the helm," he ordered, "Set a course for Macao."
3. The Storm
The ship surged through the blue Pacific waters. Captain Coffee came up on deck from his cabin, where he and Ike had been plotting a course and laying plans for action once they met the slavers. It was two days out. He watched the red sun as it drowned itself in the twilight waters. A red ripple illumined the waves, then faded. There was no moon. Far in the distance he could make out huge, black knots of clouds. The more he stared, the more certain he became that there were thin slashes of lightning in their dark bulk. Sasha may have been right about her storm.
There had been only one ship departing for Macao. It had a good head start, having upped anchor soon after Astrid had left the Hurricane.
Coffee stayed on watch for an hour or more. The mass of clouds was definitely birthing lightning now. The streaks, eerie on the dark sea, were almost constant now. The storm was moving across their bow, but still far away. It loomed between them and Macao.
He considered this a good sign. He had hoped to overtake the slavers before they reached land; if the storm hit them, it would delay them perhaps enough.
"Big storm ahead!"
Coffee turned, saw Sasha standing in the increasing black wind, holding a yellow-glowing lantern aloft by a small chain.
Coffee smiled. "Spirits tell you that?" he asked, nodding toward the dark bulk ahead.
Sasha scowled. "They say it's a big one. Building too fast to get around."
"I'm counting on that," he mused. "If we can't avoid it, neither could the pirates. What do you think?" Coffee didn't believe in her spirits, but her ken of the winds and the weather were reliable.
"It hit them, aye and drove them eastways. Away from Macao or any other civilized ports. Nothing but a few reefs and some small cannibal islands that way."
"Ike!" Coffee bellowed to the helmsman. "New heading east!"
The First Mate wiped the black skin of his face and arms. "East, aye! It's startin' to spit a little, Captain."
The sea was green-black, a seething broth of foam-capped water made eerie by the lack of moonlight.
A wave the size of a small hill slapped the ship. The Hurricane rolled with it, tumbled and almost capsized. Ike bellowed over the incessant roar for a roll call of the men known to be on deck and strained his ears for replies.
"All hands counted for, Cap'n! But another dip like that an' we'll all go in the drink with the ship on top a' us!"
"Bring her about, Ike prow into the wind We can't take another blow like that broadside."
"Aye!" Ike agreed. He tugged the wheel heroically to point the Hurricane eastward. The bantam black mate looked so scrawny that crewmen scrambled to help him, but Coffee knew the iron strength in Ike's muscles.
The next wave hit them like a battering ram. Captain Coffee was almost pitched over the side but Ike had turned the ship. The impact hit their stern and only pushed them forward easterly. It was going to be hard to spy the slaver ship in the dark and the rain, but they were going in the right direction.
"Douse our lights!" he called to Chang, who had come up on deck. That would give them some advantage of surprise provided they could find their prey in the rampant sea.
"Cap'n!" Ike suddenly bellowed. "Something scraping our bottom!"
Coffee scowled. Once the mate had called it to his attention, he felt it too. He imagined a rough, tearing sound under the roar of wind and water like sandpaper on raw wood.
"Coral reef!" Micawber called. "It'll hole our bottom!"
Coffee leant over the rail, peering into the blackness. "Coral reefs don't just jut up out of the sea!" he yelled. "We're near land!" All crew on deck looked ahead. Finally Micawber shouted, "There! In that last lightnin' patch thought I saw the tops o' palm trees!"
Ike steered toward Micawber's glare. In this howling rage they'd be better off going aground even if it tore their hull apart - than sinking in the wrath of the waters. A hideous wrenching, cracking sound split the howling of the air.
"We're coming apart!" Chang roared. "All hands abandon ship!"
"Belay that," Coffee said with a strange calm. "We're ashore." The men of the crew stood motionless, let the howling wind batter them. "That's true!" Ike yelled out. "The ship's not moving. We've lost most of our lower hull, but I felt her sliding over sand. We've beached!"
Waves pounded all about them, and the wind and rain hammered them, but Chang leapt overboard and came up standing. "That we have!" he yelled. There was silence as he walked, hunched against the downpour, around the ship. He gripped a rope ladder that Ike ordered lowered and clambered up.
"The Hurricane's had it," he reported, a deep frown masking his face. "The storm will die off by morning, but we'll be chasing no pirates. We're safe and sound but marooned."
4. Pirates' Isle
True to the engineer's forecast, the storm slackened overnight, and by the time the sky began to glow from the east, the only signs of it were the rain dripping from the palms and mangroves, dark clouds breaking up and fleeing the scene, and the wreckage of the Hurricane.
Coffee, Ike and Chang were not worried about this. Chang had assured them that the radio, though it had been dashed to the deck, could be repaired. They could call for help. Even the Hurricane might be salvaged and repaired. What galled them was that the pirates had made off with their human loot including auburn-haired Astrid. When Coffee thought of her at the mercy of slavers, his fists clenched like hammers of muscle and bone.
Ike saw him, and he scowled too. Sasha had claimed yesterday that these were cannibal islands. The crew saw no signs of life, but that did not worry him. Chang was working feverishly on the radio all they could do now was send out a call for the slavers' ship to be stopped and seized, but the odds were low. The kidnappers had too much of a head start might even have reached port at Macao by now, or berthed at some hidden lair to wait till the port was clear. He had no clear idea of any way to save Astrid.
The mate glanced at the now-blue skies. Beyond the promontory that must have formed one arm of a bay to their south, seagulls wheeled. Then he saw a thin grey-white column trailing vertically into the air.
The wiry black man scampered to Coffee's side. "You see it too, Captain?"
Coffee nodded. The thin rising trail was smoke from a fire. There were other humans on the island.
"Cannibals?" Ike rasped.
"Sasha exaggerates," Coffee replied under a thin smile. "But they may be unfriendly. Tell the men no fires, and that includes gunfire. I want to scout them out before we advertise our presence. Form a three-man landing party and accompany me."
The scrawny-looking black mate reported back in minutes. With him were Micawber and Sasha. Coffee nodded. The witch-woman knew the islanders; she would be able to help them assess what they were dealing with.
They climbed the promontory instead of skirting it, where they might be seen. Ike was right. A wide, green-blue bay stretched between this and another, lower rocky outcrop on the far side. They had been wrong about the men who built the fire these were not natives. They were sitting or standing on the sand, clustered about the wreckage of a smashed ship. Coffee noticed that most of them kept a wary eye on the jungle that began a few paces back. He decided that there were indigenous tribesmen on the island cannibal or not, the shipwrecked men seemed fearful.
"Ike do you think ?"
"They look disreputable enough," Ike muttered. He pulled a pair of binoculars from around his neck. "Cap'n! The slavers' ship it was named the Fire, was it not?"
"It was," Coffee muttered, not daring to breathe. Was it possible - ?
"That's them!" the mate would have whooped if not for the need for silence. "We are not too late. I don't see any girls, but the bilge rats are probably keeping them locked in the ship."
Sasha's hand fell on Coffee's shoulder. "Ze spirits and gods of the sea are with us," she said matter-of-factly. "They led us here had ve sailed on, ve would have missed ze pirates entirely."
Coffee returned dryly, "I could wish that they'd found a way to help us that didn't involve wrecking the Hurricane. But you're right this is a stroke of incredible good luck, and we've got to make the most of it."
"Luck," Sasha spat. "Pah! You deny ze work of ze gods when you see it! Be careful if zey turn against us, perhaps you will believe."
"I will burn them an offering when we're done," Coffee stated. "But for now, we've got the slavers to deal with and "
"'And', Captain?" Ike picked up.
"They're afraid of something or someone in the jungle," Coffee told him. "If it's natives, they're likely to attack at dark. We have to overcome the pirates by then I don't want to be fighting a two-sided battle.
"Pirates and cannibals? I should say not!" Ike rasped. Coffee thought he saw the bantam mate shrug off a shiver.
"Sasha - ?" he turned to the witch-woman.
Sasha slid sinuously forward to stare Ike in the face. Her deep black eyes glittered. "Cannibals? Maybe not such. Those are mostly folk tales to scare little children and superstitious sailors."
Ike nodded. "That's a relief!"
"Maybe only headhunters."
Sasha stifled a laugh at the mate's hang-jaw reaction.
"Headhunters, cannibals or just hostiles," Coffee hid his own grin and cut in. "Can be just as deadly. We want the pirates defeated, the girls rescued and guarded, and our position fortified, well before dusk."
Micawber's nerves showed as he caressed his rifle. "Can we let the natives finish the pirates, then swoop down on the winner?"
"That'd leave Astrid and the girls unprotected," Coffee whispered. He surveyed their surroundings. The far side of the promontory was overgrown with sun-paled scrub grass. "We can't charge down the side. They'd pick us off with their rifles before one of us reached bottom. We'll have to attack by sea."
"Aye," Ike muttered. "The Hurricane's life craft are still seaworthy. The human rats are still leering at the jungle. But if one of them spies us, they will rally."
"A few of us will have to swim, underwater, to their hull, make sure the girls are safe, secure some of the slavers' guns and take down as many of the enemy as we can before they see us. Then a full assault with the lifeboats!"
A sudden yell from the pirates; beach split the salt air. One of the men watching the forest whirled around, did a little dance and fell, lay unmoving. Coffee and his men turned their eyes to the trees but saw nothing. An arrow had flown from the green, shadowy depths and struck the slaver. Two men, ducking low, dragged the body to the shore.
"The natives," Micawber grunted. He wiped a suddenly moist upper lip. "Not lookin' for'ard to this fight, Cap'n."
Two men stood up in the lifeboats. Coffee and Ike pulled off their shirts, kicked off shoes. A cool land breeze washed over them and brought smells of living vegetation from the island. The pair slipped silently over the gunwales into the waters. Captain Coffee raised one fist in a thumbs-up gesture, and they dove.
They went deep. The moonglow couldn't penetrate far enough that the myriad colorful sealife that Coffee knew swarmed here was visible. He expected submerged coral walls, capable of slashing and cutting flesh, so they had to navigate carefully.
When a dark bulk loomed ahead, Coffee looked for Ike. He thought the Mate must have gotten lost until he saw the man clinging to the side of the ship and pulling on something. Coffee swam over to him and saw that it was the Fire's anchor chain.
The two men swarmed up the chain till their heads broke water. Breathing in great gusts of sea-air after their long submersion, they eyed the ship above them cautiously. There was no one peering overboard who might have seen them.
"The girls must be locked in the cargo hold," Coffee opined. "Ship's too small to put them anywhere else. Look for a porthole."
They had swum halfway around the ship before they found one. Ike brushed away the sea-spray that obscured the glass, pressed his face against it, but turned to look at Coffee with a scowl.
"It looks empty," he reported. "It's too dark to see where they are in there. Should we knock on the glass?"
"No! If there's a guard in there, he'll raise the alarm."
They swam back to where starlight glinted on the great chain. Ike gripped it and hauled himself dripping out of the water. When the Mate had climbed high enough to be clear, Coffee followed.
Ike lifted his head enough that his eyes could see over the gunwale. The ship was in shadow, but he made out a lone form pacing the far end of the deck. The Mate waited until the pirate's gaze shifted toward the shore. In that brief moment of distraction, Ike sprang to the gunwale and over it, hid himself in the shadows aboard.
Ike's favorite weapon, a belaying pin, appeared in his fist. As the man drew near to Ike's hidey-hole, Captain Coffee pulled himself up over the gunwale, crouching there like some vengeful sea-spirit, dripping water and seaweed.
The startled slaver whirled to face the apparition, hand dropping to his pistol belt. In that moment Ike stepped out behind him and swatted him with his heavy pin. The man fell nerveless to the deck. Silence still reigned.
Coffee and Ike crept up the deck. There were two men stationed there, but their entire attention seemed centered on the island. One of them fell to Ike's bludgeon, while Coffee grappled with the other. When they broke apart for a moment, Coffee followed up with an uppercut to the jaw. The pirate reeled backwards, hit the rail and fell overboard.
Ike glanced down, saw the man lying unconscious half-in and half-out of the water, gave Coffee a thumbs-up.
But Captain Coffee was distracted. Off there on the island, ghost-lights flickered among the ranks of banyan trees. Ike spun around and saw it too, but an instant later a series of thwacks and thuds came against the hull. An instant later a full hail of arrows flew out from the forest, forcing the two men to duck below the gunwales.
"We have to get the girls out of here!" Coffee rapped. "We can't wait for our men in boats!"
Ike jerked his head in agreement. They raced to the hatch and poured below decks. The pirates were not stirring. Coffee tore open the door to the hold and they met utter darkness.
"Astrid! It's Coffee!" he yelled. They needed to rouse the captives and get them overboard before the pirates piled out to fight the natives. But no answer came from the unlit shadows. Coffee stood still, perplexed. A sinking feeling twisted his guts. Slavers had been known to jettison human cargo into the sea when trouble like the storm that wrecked them threatened.
A glance at Ike's scowl told him that the Mate felt the same way. A sudden uproar from the decks startled them out of their musings. Judging by the shrill whoops and shouted curses, the rattle of arrows and the blasts of guns, the natives were overrunning the ship.
"Damn it, Captain - !" Ike desperately wanted vengeance against the girls' murderers, but he knew better than to plunge into the pitched battle that raged above.
Coffee steadied him. "I know but those wild men will wreak a worse vengeance on them than two of us could. We have to escape."
He pushed the Mate toward the open hatch door, but they both froze. A pirate brandishing an automatic stood in the hatch-
-and then didn't. He screamed and fell like a ragdoll. A bloodied axe protruded from his back.
The brown forms of two natives charged into the room with long knives. One plowed into Ike, falling with him to the deck, seeking his heart with her knife.
Coffee wasn't fast enough. A brown, sinewy form grabbed at him, twisted, and he found himself pinned with the edge of a kris digging at his throat. Both warriors were women.
"No! Halt! Wait!"
A girl, caked with mud that almost hid her green eyes and auburn hair, and wearing a skirt made of leaves, stood in the hatchway.
"Let them go, girls," Astrid smiled. "These men are not slavers. They why, I think they came to rescue us!" She ran lightly to the two men, and gave each of them a heartfelt hug.
The whoops from above had grown louder, shriller, and there were no more gunshots.
"I think the pirates are the ones who need rescuing now," she added. She held a long, wickedly curved blade in her hand. "Let's go, girls!"
Ike's dark face was split with a savage grin. He hefted his belaying pin in the dark. "We'll help," he rasped.
When the fight was done, there were three slavers, cut, beaten and sullen, for prisoners. None of the others had survived their former captives' revenge.
"Ike, go get our men to get the Fire ready to sail. We should be able to cannibalize excuse the expression the Hurricane enough to get their ship seaworthy," Coffee ordered, but he stayed to hear Astrid's tale.
"We thought you were natives," Coffee told the girl.
"No, the island's not inhabited. I wasn't about to be sold as a slave," the girl explained. "So I organized the girls into a fighting force. We took advantage of the storm to break out, and when the ship wrecked, we escaped into the jungle. We'd taken a few weapons from the pirates, and hiding in the forest we built makeshift weapons like bows and arrows. After a few losses, the pirates were afraid to come into the jungle to find us."
"Said it before, Captain, and I will say it again. If I had a daughter like her, I'd die proud."
The bantam First Mate ran back to the hills that hid the Hurricane from view.