Eli had no way of knowing how long they’d been in the air. The sun had gone down long ago and showed no signs of rising anytime soon, as far as he could tell.
The two pirates had brought a lantern and set it up on the crate between them. It cast just enough light to see the cards by. Moths swarmed around the weather beaten thing, trying without success to get to the tiny gas flame inside.
The pirate with the pipe reached out and plucked one of the moths out of the air. He crushed it in his palm and looked at the powdery white carcass.
“Ay, Gola,” the pirate said in an accent that indicated he was from somewhere in the southern provinces of Crowndon. “Ya think I’kin smoke this buggy?”
Gola gave the pipe smoker an exasperated look and said, “Don’t know. Don’t care. If you’re so curious, why don’t you put it in your pipe and try it.”
The pipe smoker regarded the carcass a bit longer, removed his pipe from his mouth, and tilted the moth’s remains into the bowl. He took a pinch of leaf from a pocket on his shirt and packed it in good and tight. Gola watched all of this with a vague amusement as he shuffled and dealt the cards.
The pipe smoker struck a match and lit the pipe. One, two, three puffs of smoke. He sat there, as though deciding what he thought. After a few seconds, he began hacking violently.
Gola laughed at his comrade. When the pipe smoker vomited, Gola laughed even harder. The pipe smoker regained himself and tapped his pipe out on the floor. He kicked the remains toward the open cargo door.
“Nawp. T’aint smokable.”
Gola shook his head and continued dealing. A gust of wind blew in through the door. This had happened several times through out the night, and every time the cards scattered about the car. This was the first time, however, that the wind blew one of the cards up to the top of the crate wall, a few feet down from where Eli lay.
Shit, he thought to himself. The two pirates went about picking up the cards. They checked the cards as they did. Gola paused.
“There’s one missing,” he said. “The Whore of Rains.”
“Ah, that’s no good,” the pipe smoker said. “I quite favor the picture on that one.” The pipe smoker did another quick scan along the floor, while Gola started back to the crate.
“Come on back, Pabyo,” Gola said. “The cards gone.”
Pabyo, who had moved to the side of the car opposite of where Eli lay watching, turned and started back toward the crate. He was about to sit down when another moth flew past his face.
“Ay!” he said, swatting at the insect. His eyes followed the moth, darting up and down. And then, they stopped, fixed on a point at the top of the crate wall. Eli felt like Pabyo was looking straight at him.
“There she is!” Pabyo said, pointing.
“Huh?” Gola said, and looked up. “I don’t see nothing.”
“Right there!” Pabyo said, hurrying toward the wall with his bony elbows bowed outward, working tirelessly as he moved. He stopped at the base of the crate wall, where one of the boxes had fallen earlier. He stepped up on it, and Eli saw his head pop up over the edge.
Long, gnarled fingers reached up and grabbed the card. Eli tried to fold in on himself, as if such a thing was possible. Pabyo was so fixated on the card, however, that he didn’t notice Eli. He just stood, grinning at the card, teeth gleaming with a yellow-brown sheen in the faint gas light.
“Yup!” he said, “That’s her–”
He stopped. Now he really was looking at Eli. The dumb look on his face twisted into a horrifying mask of fierce wrinkles, his dull eyes flashed with violent intent. Pabyo the stupid pirate had become Pabyo the blood thirsty monster.
“Who’s you?” he demanded. Eli didn’t reply, struck dumb by the shock of being spotted and the sudden change in Pabyo’s demeanor. Pabyo’s thin arm shot over the edge of the crate wall and grabbed Eli’s collar. His grip was like a rusty bear trap. He pulled Eli out and Eli fell, hard, to the ground. His broken ankle banged against the floor and the pain brought bright spots in his vision.
“Pick him up and toss him!” Gola snarled. Pabyo picked Eli up and dragged him over to the door, but he did not toss him.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Throw him and be done with it!”
“Nah, not yet,” Pabyo said, and brandished a knife. “I wanna smoke his right eye.”
Eli saw the point of the blade move toward his eye and turned his head. He waited for what felt like an eternity for the knife to bite into the soft flesh of his eye, but it never did. Instead, he heard Gola shouting.
“Stop, Pabyo!” he said, rushing forward. “Look at his hip.”
Eli opened his eye and saw Pabyo’s gaze move down. The dumb look returned. What were they looking at?
“He must be the guy,” Gola said. “Pull him in, set him down.”
Pabyo pulled Eli in and pushed him toward the crate. Eli stumbled toward it and sat down. When he did, the revolver in his right holster scratched against the wooden surface of the crate.
“You a cartographer?” Pabyo asked.
“Y-yes,” Eli said, straightening himself up and trying to sound assertive.
“Kind of young for a Cartographer, ain’t you?” Gola said. “Or at least, young for a traitor. Usually only ones go bad are the ones been around long enough to know every thing they been told is a crock.”
Eli didn’t know how to respond, so he didn’t. He could only hope that his surprise about being right didn’t show.
Well, perhaps being “right” wasn’t the best descriptor. He’d just been speculating about rogue Cartographers based on rumors he’d heard.
However, if Hester was a rogue agent, wouldn’t they have been expecting a woman?
“How much do you know about me, and how I operate?”
Pabyo and Gola shared a look. Pabyo raised his shoulders.
“Captain Delamore didn’t say nothing to us, ‘cept that he has a Feral Cartographer in his pocket,” Gola said. Eli nodded, satisfied with this answer, but Gola went on.
“Come to think of it, he didn’t say nothing about you being here.” Gola’s eyes became suspicious. Pabyo’s hand worked around the grip of his knife.
“Wasn’t supposed to be,” Eli said. “I came back here to check the cargo when you all attacked, so I decided to wait. It took you idiots so long that I got bored and fell asleep.”
Pabyo and Gola’s heads snapped back as though they’d been slapped.
“B-but, we didn’t know you’d be here!” Pabyo said. “Knowing might’ve given us the proper motivation!”
Eli fixed him with his eyes and smirked. The speed with which he was constructing and falling into the character of a rogue agent didn’t surprise him. He’d always been a good liar.
“Motivation? Do you really need motivation to do the best work you possibly can? Don’t you take pride in your work, man?”
Gola snickered and said, “I’ve been telling him for years, ever since we was kids in Dux-”
Eli snapped to Gola, shutting him up.
“Since you were kids? And he still doesn’t listen?”
“And you still put up with it? What the hell does that say about you?”
Gola’ s mouth worked up and down, but no protest came out. He put his head down and walked away, muttering to himself.
“It ain’t his fault,” Pabyo said. “He’s like a big brother to me. I’m a bit slow in the head.”
Eli responded only by pulling the revolver and giving it a quick inspection. Pabyo got the hint and moved over to where Gola sat, his feelings hurt.
The surface of the revolver was flawless, with nothing to distort his reflection except for the shape of the gun. It had been Violet’s. He wondered if she’d somehow survived, and if she did, would he? This was a game he didn’t know how to play.
Pabyo cried out from where the two pirates had been sitting. Gola stood over him, yelling in Monteddorian, and reached down. He grabbed Pabyo by his hair and dragged him to his feet. Pabyo’s pipe fumbled out of his hand. Gola caught it and jammed it bowl first into Pabyo’s mouth. As Pabyo choked on it, Gola hauled him over to the open cargo door, grabbed him by the front of the shirt, and threw him out of the car. Eli watched in stunned silence as Pabyo disappeared into the night, trying to scream and unable to.
Gola turned and said, “Been waiting to do that for years. I guess I just needed the ‘proper motivation.'”
To Be Continued…
This is part nine of the The Shroom Job. The rest of the story can be read here. The Shroom Job updates on Saturdays.