Shark Island

St. Martin's edition

Wiki Coffin, Captain George Rochester, and the despicable Lieutenant Forsythe (along with his equally ghastly crony, Passed Midshipman Zachary Kingman) are sent to Shark Island to check out a report of pirates.

They arrive, not only to find that there are sealing vessels embayed there, but a shocking murder has been committed. Too, a scandalously exciting part of Wiki's past catches up with him.

For the first chapter of SHARK ISLAND, keep reading:
~~~~~~

Atlantic Ocean, October 1838

The hours were dragging. After watching the boat carry Forsythe from the brig Swallow to the expedition flagship Vincennes, Wiki Coffin had waited at the taffrail for a very long time. Now, however, patience had fled, and so he paced nervously up and down the quarterdeck of the Swallow, while foreboding coiled inside him.

It had been dawn when Forsythe had departed, and the misty air had been relatively cool. Steam had risen lazily from newly swabbed decks as the five boats from the different ships had converged on the Vincennes in response to Wilkes's urgent summons for a council of war. The distant sounds of marines stamping to attention and the boatswain's piping had echoed with uncanny clarity as the five junior captains had clambered up the side of the flagship and vanished through the doorway of the lofty house on the poop. Another flurry of activity had followed as the boats had returned to their respective ships, but since then there had been no movement on the water.

Now it was almost noon, and the hot sun was high in the sky. The ships lay quiet and still on top of their rippling reflections—the two big sloops Vincennes and Peacock, the gun-brig Porpoise, the schooners Flying Fish and Sea Gull, and the ex-privateer brig Swallow. The seventh member of the discovery fleet, the storeship Relief, had been sent ahead long since, as she had sailed so badly that she was retarding the progress of the rest all the time she was with them; with luck, they would meet up with her again in a few weeks' time. On the Swallow the caulking of the deck boards was shrinking in the heat, and the acrid smell of warm tar rose up so strongly it was almost visible as Wiki paced from one rail to another. Because Forsythe's second-in-command, Lawrence J. Smith, was still on board, he was wearing boots as part of his effort to keep peace with the self-important little man. Lieutenant Smith had no authority over him, Wiki being the expedition translator and therefore a civilian, but Wiki knew perfectly well that the pompous officer would have sniffed and carped if his feet were as bare as those of any common sailor. However, he still wished he could shuck the hot footwear.

At long last, just as pipes shrilled to the tune of "Nancy Dawson" and the usual stampede for the morning ration of grog began, there was movement in the distant doorway of the house on the Vincennes. The tall, distinctive figure of Charles Wilkes, the expedition commander, came out onto deck first, to be followed by the rest in a huddle. Signals jerked up the far-off lanyard, ordering the various ships to send boats for their captains. Behind Wiki, Lieutenant Smith raised his voice, but blocks were squealing already as the men anticipated his orders and the Swallow boat was lowered. Wiki leaned over and watched as it went down. The splash as it hit water was too much to resist—he gave way to impatience and vaulted over the rail, landing on his feet in the bottom of the boat.

When he looked up after settling in the stern thwarts, Lieutenant Smith's face was peering back down at him, flushed red with affront. "Wiremu," he barked, using his peculiarly irritating version of Wiki's name. "Mr. Coffin, sir! What do you think you are about? I do not believe I heard a request for your presence on the flagship."

Wiki simply lifted his hand in a silent salute. As the six men of the Swallow boat's crew took up their oars they wore broad approving grins, but he disregarded that, too, staring tensely forward as the boat surged rhythmically across the stretch of water that divided them from the Vincennes. He was desperate to know if his friend George Rochester, who had been unfairly demoted to the rank of midshipman on the Vincennes some weeks earlier, had been restored to the command of the Swallow. If not, Wiki—who had never wanted to be part of the exploring expedition in the first place, and had only consented to come because it was a chance to be on the same ship as his old comrade—was determined to jump ship at the next port the fleet touched.

The stern of the boat clicked against the hull of the Vincennes, and the man at bow oar reached out and snatched a dangling rope. The boat swung round with the momentum, coming side-on, and then stilled. The instant it was steady Wiki stood up, grabbed the leading edges of planks, and began to climb. Halfway up the side, it crossed his mind that while he didn't care a jot about Lawrence J. Smith's opinion, Captain Wilkes was a much more daunting proposition. Not only was he suddenly glad he was wearing boots, but he rather wished he had lashed up his long black hair, particularly when he arrived on deck and the squad of marines on duty stamped loudly to attention.

These soldiers were bravely sporting crimson coats—yet another sign of the general disaffection within the fleet, which was something that had been obvious long before the ships had sailed from Norfolk, Virginia, in August. Over the past ten years, ever since Congress had first voted to dispatch a body of explorers to the Pacific, the enterprise had stumbled along so badly that it had become known as "the deplorable expedition," and the men assigned to that expedition had felt the general scorn very deeply. Years had dragged by while the administration and the navy battled and the sailors and marines had waited around in growing frustration. Many of them had been unwelcome guests in the Norfolk Navy Yard, on board "that great ship of the line, the venerable Constitution"—as the newspaper reporters grandly phrased it—and had become the butt of coarse humor.
Naturally, they had taken every chance to express their disgust and disenchantment, and one of the most flamboyant mutinies had been staged by the marines. When ordered to get newfangled uniforms—uniforms that Congress expected them to pay for themselves!—they had simply pointed out that it hadn't even yet been decided what the uniform of the U.S. Marine Corps should actually be, official opinion swinging through shades of gray to hues of blue (though some of the nabobs in Washington favored a peculiarly seasick shade of olive green), and had staunchly refused to exchange their old-fashioned red jackets for anything more recent. Informed that only musicians were legally entitled to wear scarlet coats, they had all instantly taken up the drum and the fife, with the result that the Vincennes was the most discordant ship on the seven seas. Right now, the boatswain refused to pipe Mr. Coffin on board, Wiki Coffin being a mere civilian and a Kanaka native of some Pacific island, at that, so one of the most daring of the red-coated rebels jauntily whistled a couple of notes on his fife.

Swinging round at the sound, Captain Wilkes exclaimed, "Wiki Coffin! What brings you here?"
Wiki didn't answer. He had just clapped eyes on George Rochester, who was standing at the back of the group of captains, his face stretched wide with an enormous grin. Forsythe was also there, but looking moody and sardonic, and so Wiki deduced with a surge of joy that the command of the Swallow had been restored to George. Accordingly, he wasn't paying proper attention.

"How did you guess I wanted to see you?" Captain Wilkes demanded. "However, I'm glad you came," he went on without waiting for a reply. "A small conference, if you please!"

Wiki ducked his head, doing his best to hide his astonishment. The day before, when he'd done his best to explain a series of horrid murders that had sullied the first few weeks of voyage, Wilkes had been in a state of hysterical panic. Indeed, the sensational revelations had brought the expedition commander so close to a nervous collapse that Wiki wondered why he wanted to risk a repetition. Silently, however, he followed him into the big after house that had been built on the poop of the flagship.

A white-painted, lofty corridor divided the first part of the house into two halves. On the larboard side there was a series of varnished doors, which Wiki knew led to cabins for Wilkes himself, plus the four scientifics who lived on board the Vincennes, while on the starboard side a spindled partition partly hid a large dining saloon, which smelled of coffee and ham. Castors of crystal glasses hung high in the skylight above the big oblong mess table that took up much of the space, casting iridescent glitters with the slight sway of the ship. The revolving chairs screwed to the floor were turned every-which-way, just as the diners had left them, while a steward was gathering up dirty dishes and mugs, so Wiki deduced that this had been where Captain Wilkes had held his council of war. However, the commander kept on going, heading for the big room at the end of the passage, which was full of bookshelves and drafting tables, and lit with another skylight. It was here in this wonderfully well-lit, high-ceilinged place that the scientifics worked, and the shelves were packed with jars and boxes of specimens as well as books. Right now, however, the room was vacant.

Captain Wilkes strode over to a desk, and sat down at it, facing Wiki, who remained standing, not having been offered a seat. For long minutes Wilkes didn't speak, picking up a pencil and watching it as he rolled it between his fingers instead. The sonorous tick of a chronometer punctuated the heavy silence, and when Wiki shifted uneasily his right boot let out a loud, embarrassing squeak.

When Captain Wilkes looked up at last his narrow face was pale and fraught, his large, dark, intelligent eyes unfocused. As always, his full mouth was tipped into a constant small, artificial smile, but today it looked more like a painful grimace. Looking somewhere above Wiki's head instead of meeting his inquiring gaze, he said abruptly, "I have a mission for you."

"Aye, sir?"

"I'm sending you to an island off the northeast coast of Brazil. I want it checked out, and you're the best man for the job. Go there, investigate, and then report back to me."

Wiki blinked. As the expedition's "linguister"—translator—he spoke Portuguese, but he hadn't expected to use the language until they dropped anchor in Rio de Janeiro, where they were headed after the job of charting reported shoals in this part of the Atlantic was finished.

He said cautiously, "Investigate what, sir?"

"Pirates—pirates! Captain Hudson strongly suspects that this island harbors a nest of buccaneers—which poses a danger because the island overlooks our route to Rio. I want his report checked out—and you're the best man to do it, being one of them, as it were."

Wiki said blankly, "I beg your pardon, sir?"

"I can think of no one more qualified to decide if they are likely to attack the expedition—by stealth, when we least expect them. Not only do you speak Portuguese, but 'Set a thief to catch a thief'—or so the saying goes—and don't your people make a custom of cutting out ships? I've heard of infamous cases where whole crews were barbarically slaughtered by pirates in New Zealand, the ships looted and then burned while the victors feasted on the bodies of the slain—and I am sure that even Brazilians have heard of this, too."

Wiki shook his head in utter bemusement. He had often been puzzled by the strange processes of Pakeha logic, but this was particularly baffling. He felt intrigued as well, though. The day before, the sloop Peacock had rejoined the fleet flying urgent signals, and since then her commander, William Hudson, had spent hours closeted in conference with Captain Wilkes. Rumors had flown about in abundance, but Wiki had heard nothing as dramatic as this. Pirates? He wondered why the devil Captain Hudson hadn't handled the problem himself—for, after all, the Peacock was a sloop of war, and while she didn't carry anything near her usual armament, she did have eight assorted cannon.

He ventured, "Is Captain Hudson absolutely certain they are pirates, sir?"

"It's difficult to decide what else they could be," Wilkes snapped. "According to the charts the island is uninhabited, but cannon were aimed at the Peacock from a fortification on a headland, and Captain Hudson's lookouts swore they spied vessels on the beach below."

Wiki thought about it. Ever since her humiliating defeat by the Argentineans in 1827, Brazil had been in a ferment of revolt and rebellion. The country had been ruled by a succession of unpopular regents, giving unruly elements of the population all kinds of reasons for raising hell. It was perfectly credible that a revolutionary group should have taken over an uninhabited island near the coast, so he said, "Insurgents, perhaps?"

"Warlike insurgents, then," Captain Wilkes retorted.

"Captain Hudson didn't send in a party to investigate, sir?"

"The island lies in uncharted shoals—and the Peacock's timbers are tender. It was only just last year that she was almost battered to death at the mouth of the Persian Gulf—and did the navy yard repair her properly? No, they bloody well did not!"
Captain Wilkes's voice had risen, and his face flushed red with rage, while Wiki watched him in alarm. It was common knowledge that the constant delays, hostility in the navy yard, and the petty parsimony of the administration had vexed the expedition's commander sorely, so everyone was used to his testiness on the issue. However, whispers about his nervous state were flying about the fleet; one of the other scientifics had confided that when he had accidentally dropped a jar in his stateroom while Captain Wilkes was trying to rest in his cabin, next door, the commander's incoherent rage had been frightening.

"It's just one more problem to add to my burden!" Wilkes exclaimed. "It's just two months since we left the shores of home, and yet I feel as if there is a year's worth of burden on my shoulders already!" Then his stare focused on Wiki's face again, and he demanded, "Did you read what the editor of the Norfolk newspaper had the sauce to publish on the eve of the expedition's departure?"

Wiki had read the newspaper every day that he was in Norfolk, and thought that he remembered the editorial quite well, but warily shook his head.

"The editor of the Norfolk Beacon published his strong opinion that the organization of the expedition had been a disaster, and that only with strict discipline would good come out of evil, and honor out of shame. And the editor was right! The management of the exploring expedition has been a disgrace to the navy and those who direct its councils! The whole process has been deeply marked by both evil and dishonor—on the part of those in the corridors of power! I've done nothing wrong and will accomplish a great deal to the glory of my country, but all my efforts will go unrewarded—as unrecognized as ever!"

Sweat was beading on his upper lip, and he was going red and white by turns, while he rubbed his forehead as if in terrible pain. Wiki looked about desperately, hoping that someone—the steward, perhaps—would come to investigate, but there were no steps in the passage, and no one tapped on the door.

He said as calmly and reassuringly as he could, "I honestly believe that without your efforts the expedition would never have got to sea. You have accomplished a great deal, sir."

He was speaking nothing less than the truth. Captain Wilkes had never faltered in the challenge of choosing scientifics and officers and organizing the departure of the expedition; he had demonstrated a faith and optimism that the past two months of voyage had justified. A great deal of scientific data had been collected. Huge tracts of the Atlantic had been surveyed, and charts corrected. Currents had been tracked. There had been storms and squalls; twice the fleet had been scattered, and with difficulty had been assembled again, but throughout it all—and despite those ghastly murders—the job had been done. Wiki had often heard Rochester declare that Captain Wilkes was conceited, ambitious, and arrogant, but his own opinion was that there was dedication and intelligence there, too.

"Indeed, I have," the commander agreed, his face flushed with gratification. "And I will accomplish a great deal more, including an assault on the last great unknown continent—despite the difficulties they put in my way!"

Wiki concealed a wince, because he shouldn't have been hearing this. Officially, no one save Captain Wilkes himself knew where the expedition would steer, though every sailor who dipped his mug into the scuttlebutt of fresh water by the foremast—the place where seamen traditionally gossiped—was perfectly aware that one of the goals of the exploring expedition was the formal discovery of the Antarctic continent.

He said in a neutral voice, "That would be wonderful, sir."

"You're right! It should be an American discovery, by right of history! And yet the French could easily get there first."

"The French?" Wiki echoed blankly. It was the first he had heard of it.

"Aye, the goddamned French! Dumont D'Urville sailed as long ago as September last year—with a well-equipped expedition of two corvettes, assembled in less than six months while our own project was dying of inertia! And, by God, if they do get there before me, who will be blamed? Me! I'll be the laugh of Washington! But if by some miracle this expedition does beat the Frenchmen to the official discovery of the continent, the glory will go to the navy and the nabobs, not to the person who truly deserves it! Did you know that the men are constantly restless?" Wilkes demanded with an abrupt change of subject. "That there was a mutiny on the Peacock before we even dropped down the river? That the word of that got back to the administration—and we had to squash it by sending a letter ashore saying that it had been nothing more than a little improper language?"

Wiki shook his head, completely at a loss to know how to respond, and the expedition commander wildly exclaimed, "They expect us to keep tight discipline, and yet they refused to give Captain Hudson—the second-in-command of the expedition!—a rank befitting his station. He is still officially a lieutenant! And they have been equally neglectful of me, goddamn it! Yet I command an expedition of seven ships that will circumnavigate the globe—will discover unknown territory, will fly the Stars and Stripes in a multitude of foreign ports! It's unbearably insulting! How can they expect me to maintain order when they offer me so little respect themselves?"

Wiki said with complete sincerity, "It's a damned shame, sir."

"Indeed it is—indeed! Rank is of prime importance and the whole fleet knows it! They laugh at me—laugh!—and defy me at every turn. But, by God, I'll exert discipline—I know how to be a martinet, I assure you! I know how to punish the witless virgins!"

Wiki could hear Wilkes's heavy breathing, but to his huge relief the rant had come to an end. Silence fell, while Captain Wilkes's restless gaze flickered about the big room, settling on jars of dead fish and seaweed and then moving on. Finally, he said, "I have taken the command of the brig Swallow away from Lieutenant Forsythe, and restored it to Passed Midshipman Rochester."

Though that was what Wiki had guessed already, he was still very glad to hear it. However, he checked, "May I ask which ship is carrying me to the island, sir?"

"The Swallow." Captain Wilkes added, "Lieutenant Forsythe will be going with you."

This came as such a shock that Wiki involuntarily exclaimed, "Surely not as Captain Rochester's second-in-command!"

It was a terrible prospect. Not only was there bad blood between Forsythe and Rochester, but it would lead to a most peculiar social situation: George Rochester would outrank Forsythe only when both were on board the brig. Away from the Swallow, George would be a mere passed midshipman, and Lieutenant Forsythe would be the senior officer.

"Certainly not," said Captain Wilkes tartly. "Lieutenant Forsythe will have a command of his own."

Wiki blinked in surprise. "A second craft is going with us, sir?"

"Aye. I'm giving him the Peacock's big cutter."
Wiki thought of the boats he had seen stacked on chocks on the waist deck of the Peacock, nesting one inside the other. There had been three, he remembered—the launch at the bottom, and then the two cutters, one bigger than the other.

He asked, "How big is she?"

"The big cutter?" Captain Wilkes's tone became practical and seamanlike—at long last he seemed in control of himself. "Just a touch under thirty feet, and very fast even when beating upwind. Cutter rigged, of course—two masts, dipping lug foresail, standing lug mainsail. I have ordered her to be decked over forward as far as the foremast, with two berths underneath, and fitted with a tarpaulin to haul over the main boom when she is at anchor. The carpenters are working on her now. She'll carry two swivel guns, and have a crew of six, with two officers." Then he added, "Captain Rochester will be in control of the mission while the brig is at sea, but once you are at the island Lieutenant Forsythe will be in charge, and you will follow his instructions. His orders are to get you on shore and support you with force, if necessary."

It was a dreadful plan, Wiki thought with a wince; it would take all Rochester's diplomatic skills to avoid a power struggle even before they got to the island. With foreboding, he asked, "Who will be Lieutenant Forsythe's second-in-command, sir?"

"Passed Midshipman Kingman."

This was no easier to digest. Zachary Kingman was Lieutenant Forsythe's special drinking crony; they were almost always seen together on sprees in port. Thin to the point of emaciation, and with a constant loosely stupid death's head grin, Kingman was older than most passed midshipmen because he had wasted so much time at the gaming tables, and he was a troublemaker still. However, both he and Forsythe were handy with their weapons, Wiki silently admitted; they were men who never hesitated to charge into danger, and might be exactly what the situation demanded.

But who, then, was going to be George's second-in-command on the brig? Over the past three weeks Lawrence J. Smith had been the first officer of the Swallow—and loathed cordially by all, Forsythe included. Carefully, because the pompous, much detested Lieutenant Smith was a particular crony of Captain Wilkes's, Wiki said, "Will Lieutenant Smith be Captain Rochester's second-in-command, sir?"

Captain Wilkes said stiffly, "I have other plans for the good lieutenant, and have assigned Midshipman Keith to the position of Captain Rochester's first officer."

Wiki was stunned. Midshipman Keith might be wonderfully enthusiastic about ships, the sea, and the exploring expedition, but he was only seventeen years old, for God's sake! Then a thought occurred to him—Constant Keith, like Forsythe and Rochester and Wiki himself, had been deeply involved in the recent murders; he, with all of them, had witnessed Captain Wilkes's hysterical outburst when the identity of the killer had been revealed. Had Wilkes seized on Hudson's pirate story as a chance to send them out of his sight while he got over the memory of his public embarrassment?

It was impossible to ask, so Wiki said neutrally, "Is the island on the charts, sir?"

"Of course." Wilkes rose and walked to a table where a chart was already spread out. The island was a flyspeck a hundred miles from the Brazilian coast, in waters that were wickedly shoal. These were the seas where Captain David Porter of the Essex had hunted British shipping back in 1813, Wiki remembered. It had been good hunting ground—because it was indeed overlooking the route for Rio. Suddenly, checking out the island for pirates didn't seem quite so bizarre.

Small as it was, the island had a name. Captain Wilkes said helpfully, "It says Shark Island." On the chart, though, the name was printed in Portuguese—Ilha Tubarão.