Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 21

Inconstant‘s Albatross approached from the south, flying low over the gray sea. It was ten in the morning, but didn’t look it. Whitecaps below and thick clouds above told part of the story. The morning scout flights’ report of monsoon weather brewing over the China Sea told the rest.

Cannon, at the controls, pulled the Albatross into a bank to the right. He, Joe, and Inconstant‘s flying master, Churchill, put their heads together, and agreed that they had enough time to get in and get out before the storm hit, as long as Inconstant stayed some distance out of the way. She was an hour’s flight south, off the coast of Mindoro, and that was all the closer she would come.

With him, Cannon had Emma Foster and Choufeng Chuang, who occupied the other seats in the cockpit, and a dozen other pirates in the jump seats in the cargo fuselage.

Choufeng had the copilot’s seat. His leathery skin and white hair told of a long life. Cannon knew very little of it; among the Long Nines, he was legendarily tight-lipped. Serenely, he watched the engine gauges through reading glasses perched low on his nose.

Emma, tall, willowy, and blonde, sat in the radio operator’s chair, facing the starboard bulkhead behind Choufeng. She rolled a pencil between her fingers. Looking over his shoulder, Cannon caught her glance up at the bank of radios as some transmission came in. It couldn’t have been anything important. She heaved a deep sigh and went back to her fidgeting, clearly bored out of her mind.

Cannon hid a smile. Compared to the average member of the Long Nines, he was an old man. He could hardly forget; they reminded him at every opportunity. Emma especially. At moments like this, though, he could enjoy the benefits of wisdom and experience; she was antsy, he was calm.

Granted, he had flying to keep himself busy. Out the left side of the glazed nose, past the cargo fuselage to his left, he could see Kindley Field amidst the jungle on the Rock. He put the plane into a gentle left-hand turn, lowered the flaps, and put down the landing gear.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 20

Corregidor, known to the lowlifes, scoundrels, and pirates of the South Seas as the Rock, sat at the mouth of Manila Bay. It was part of the Philippines, technically United States territory, won at no great cost during a brief war with Spain in 1898, when Cannon was a young boy. He still remembered the marching song sung by the soldiers returning home to Akron: “Underneath the starry flag, civilize ’em with a Krag.”

It hadn’t gone well. For all the noise in the United States about manifest destiny after the Civil War, its settlers only got as far as the Montana Territory. The nation of Columbia got antsy, understandably so, about its larger neighbor. There was another brief war, if it could be called that; it was a border skirmish in slow motion. The United States hadn’t forced the issue, and thus it was that a nation with a large colony in the Far East had no port on the nearest seacoast. The Philippines got the dregs of American colonial power, the old ships too battered for service on the Liberian station, the governors too corrupt for the Bahamas.

The Rock sat in the mouth of Manila Bay, thirty miles west-southwest of Manila itself. The Spanish had fortified it, and the Americans had maintained a garrison there until money got too tight. Where the authorities retreated, pirates moved in.

It was a small island, tadpole-shaped, about four miles from head to tail, pointing west. The head, a mile or two across, rose some few hundred feet above the sea by means of tall, windblown slopes. The locals called it Topside. It sprouted gun barrels arranged in a dozen batteries amidst a sea of ramshackle buildings. At its center, the old stone garrison and officers’ quarters now flew the skull and crossbones: the seat of the South Seas Brotherhood.

Descending eastward from Topside, the island narrowed. Its tail was a mere five hundred yards from north to south, covered in dense jungle. A ribbon-like road sliced through it. A steep hill, filling the whole width of Bottom Side, forced the road to detour all the way to the north shore of the island, cut into the face of the hill. From there, it ran to the far eastern end of the island, ending at a grass airstrip cut into the woods: Kindley Field, named for a talented but hapless American aviator, wounded in crashes half a dozen times in his career.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 19

Lecocq stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray on Cannon’s desk. “We left then,” he said, lighting a new cigarette and waving it expansively. “There was a little chase, but we shook them. Then, we found the rest of the crew and left. It seemed wise.”

“You made the right move,” Cannon agreed. “Make a note, Joe. Double shares for Marcel here next payday.”

“You got it, boss.”

“Thank you, sir,” Lecocq replied. “What happens next?”

Cannon gestured toward the door. “I talk it over with Joe.”

Lecocq nodded, stood, and left. Cannon raised his eyebrows at Joe. “What do you think?”

Joe shrugged. “Don’t like it.”

Cannon leaned back in his chair. “Neither do I. The Brotherhood nosing around in our business? Nothing good can come of that.”

“What are we gonna do about it?” Joe said.

“We aren’t going to take it lying down, that’s for sure,” Cannon replied, fire in his eyes. It faded as he caught himself. “Then again, maybe I shouldn’t fly off the handle here.”

“They did want to kidnap one of ours,” Joe reminded him.

Cannon fixed him with a look. “You’re the one who’s always telling me to slow down and think it over.”

“Just saying.”

Cannon nodded. “You know, I’d kill for an icebox out here.”

“Don’t change the subject,” Joe replied.

Sighing, Cannon said, “I’m thinking.” A moment passed. “You know, why don’t we pay them a visit?”

“Come again?” said Joe.

Cannon leaned forward, speaking quickly and excitedly. “Hear me out. Figure they know we know they’re looking for me.”

“With you so far.”

“What’s the very last thing they’ll expect us to do?”

“Show up,” Joe said, frowning. “That’s not what you mean, is it?”

“Exactly that.” Cannon stabbed his finger against his desk. “We show up. Me, Emma, and Choufeng, maybe, plus some backup. They give me the third degree. We find out what they want, and if they try to get cute, we shoot our way out.”

Joe blinked, quiet for a long moment. “That is a terrible plan.”

Cannon rolled his eyes. “Come on, Joe. We always ignore problems like this, then we blunder into them anyway, down the line. Why not get the blundering out of the way now?”

“Because ten Long Nines against everyone on the Rock is bad odds, boss.”

“Then let’s figure out how to even them up,” Cannon replied. “Plan with me. Scheme. I’ve made up my mind on this.”

Joe sighed a long-suffering sigh. “Fine.”

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 18

The Janissary man smiled, a predator showing his teeth, and pushed his stake toward the middle of the table. It dawned on Lecocq that the man truly thought he was going to win, which made the situation even worse.

“Four eights. Show ’em, Frenchy,” the Janissary man said, turning over his cards.

Lecocq laid his cards down and reached for the pot.

Chairs scraped on the floor as the Janissary men, as one, stood. “You’re a damned cheater!” one of them shouted. Two circled toward Lecocq. One jumped at him across the table.

He ducked. The man flew past, upending the next table over in a shower of coins, bills, and gold. Rough characters stood, punches flew, and in no time flat, the brawl enveloped the whole hall. The Janissary men, now at its center, had no time for Lecocq.

The bartender grabbed a telephone receiver from the wall and slid down behind the bar. Takahashi appeared at Lecocq’s side. “What did you do?”

“It was not my fault,” Lecocq protested. “I—

Takahashi drew his pistol, holding it on the woman and the breaker, who guiltily placed stacks of cash from the pot back on the table.

Lecocq glared. “Mademoiselle Jameson meant to deal Monsieur White a flush and dealt it to me instead,” he said, gathering the pot and stuffing it into his valise.

“You could have folded,” Takahashi pointed out.

Lecocq shook his head. “That is why you are not a gambler. Quick, before the gendarmes turn up.”

Takahashi holstered his pistol, and the two weaved their way through the fight toward a side exit. They had nearly reached it, ducking away from a stray haymaker or two along the way, when a gunshot rang out.

They dove behind the corner of the bar. The brawlers froze in place. A trio of rough-looking men stood in the door.

Standing, the bartender said, “Thank God. The—”

The lead man cut him off. “We’re looking for the Long Nines.”

Suddenly suspicious, the bartender replied, “Who’s asking?”

“Brotherhood business,” the tough replied. “The council needs one of Cannon’s crew.”

“What for?”

“Insurance.” The tough took a step closer. “Cannon owes the council an explanation for something. Now, I’m not asking again.”

Lecocq and Takahashi exchanged a look. They had heard enough.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 17

“I know,” said one of the men. It sounded like a threat.

The breaker pushed the dealer’s chit to his left, to the woman from Calypso. She shuffled the cards, let the breaker cut the deck, and dealt.

Lecocq picked up his hand. His face showed nothing, but the deal put him in a tough spot. He had the nine through queen of hearts, and the two of hearts besides. A flush. He scrutinized the faces around the table. The Janissary men would jump him if he won.

Something in the way the other two players examined their cards struck him as odd. The breaker glanced to his left toward the lone woman, something surprised in his face. Was he expecting something else? Lecocq’s hand?

It was a moot point. Lecocq could hardly play the hand he had been dealt, not if he hoped to leave with his fingers intact.

Betting came to him. None of the Janissary men raised beyond the ante. Neither did he, but he didn’t fold, either. If the woman and the breaker were cheating, it would be as good as declaring to them that he knew. Worse, it might look as though he were in cahoots with them. Also bad for his fingers’ prospects.

“How many?” the woman asked him. There was something unsteady in her voice.

He raised his eyebrows. “Two,” he said, placing the two of hearts and nine of hearts face-down on the table. He slid them to the woman, who gave him two cards in return.

Suddenly, his problems were worse. He had picked up the king and ace of hearts, to complete the royal flush. The smart thing to do was fold. But…

Lecocq was a gambler at heart. He had backup. He would simply make an enormous bet nobody would dare match, collect the meager profit represented by the antes, and skip out on the game before the Janissary men could get it into their heads to beat his money out of him.

“Raise,” he said, as the betting came to him. “Five hundred francs.”

“Fold,” said the breaker to his left. The woman echoed the sentiment.

It came to the first Janissary man. He looked at his cards, up at Lecocq, and down at the pot. “Call,” he said. His compatriots tossed in their cards.

Lecocq met the man’s eyes. “One thousand francs,” he said, pushing a stack of banknotes forward.

The Janissary man held his gaze. “Call.”

Fighting the urge to swallow, Lecocq said, “I am all in.” He had to drive the man out, or else reveal his hand, and that seemed ill-advised. He spared a glance toward the bar. Takahashi was watching closely, tense. Good.

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November News

Well, our spotty October has come to an end.

Hopefully, November won’t be so bad. I’ve finished my first editing pass on Nathaniel Cannon and the Secret of the Dutchman’s Cross, commissioned the cover. Now, I’m readying it for publication. It’ll be available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iTunes, and all your other favorite retailers soon.

Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic will pick back up shortly, likely at the start of next week. In the meantime, check out our BattleTech/MekHQ/Megamek Let’s Play over at the Soapbox.

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Spotty October schedule

Serial posts will run on an intermittent schedule through October; I’m trying to polish a 30,000-word manuscript for your perusal, and it’s a busy month at work besides. Oh, and my birthday’s in the middle of it.

Although updates will be spotty, you can follow me on Twitter (@manywordspress) this month for some hashtag game fun. I’m talking about the manuscript mentioned above. Every month, given that I try to keep the front page here uncluttered, Twitter is a prime destination for behind-the-scenes fun.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 16

Lecocq peered over his cards. Four others were at the table with him: a breaker on his day off, a trio of men from the airship Janissary, and a woman off of Calypso. Both zeps, moored out among the breakers’ fields, were pirates, and both had come off of successful cruises.

Not so successful as the Long Nines’ last jaunt, though, and Lecocq had started with money enough to bully the table. His pile of cash was the largest of the five.

Sunbeams slanted in through the window. Light and shadow alternated on the green felt of the table, one of a dozen or two in the wood-floored room. The breeze from the fan overhead rustled the banknotes among Lecocq’s take. He glanced surreptitiously to the side. Tetsutaro Takahashi watched from the bar.

Darwin’s gambling halls were out in the open, compared to Lecocq’s experience in Marseilles, Singapore, and Hanoi. Darwin was a younger city built more fully on a thriving underground economy. Nobody bothered denying it. It was much rarer for a man to be shot over a game of cards here, and much likelier that the police would catch the murderer, but that was cold comfort for the dead man.

Lecocq was a good card player, used to winning, and he preferred to have a trigger man of his own on hand if things got out of control. Takahashi was a bad card player but quick on the draw, and had agreed to play the role of bodyguard in exchange for part of Lecocq’s winnings.

“Monsieur Lecocq?” said the breaker, who held the dealer’s button.

“I apologize,” Lecocq replied, pushing a few banknotes into the pot.

The dealer nodded and play continued. They were playing classic five-card draw this time around the table; not Lecocq’s favored game, but one he could get by in. He had won a hand earlier in the round and was sitting on two pair after the draw, a passable hand at a table of this size. After the next hand, choice of game fell to him, and he was much more comfortable with his chances at his favored seven-card stud.

“Show ’em,” the breaker said.

Lecocq’s jacks over sevens took the pot. The men from Janissary frowned between themselves, a suspicious set to their brows. Lecocq smiled sheepishly. “The cards, they are never this kind, you know?”

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