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That's Doctor Howell To You

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That's Doctor Howell To You

Black Flag

 

"Raise t'gallants!"

He knows a battle lost when he sees one. The one ahead is one of those. It doesn't need much strategical or nautical knowledge for that. Common sense is quite enough. The hunter giving them chase is a three master. Even with all sails raised, Richard Howell estimates it won't be more than three hours. Maybe less. He can wait. It's all he's ever done on a ship. Waiting for battles against the Spanish to start, for people, bloody and twisting in agony, wretched as they are, to be put in front of him, and for their eyes to follow him into his sleep that night.

Half of those men running around the deck, following the captain's orders, won't live long enough to see the sunset. He's worn blue for long enough to know that.

One of the riggers brushes past him. O'Kelly or something like that. Who reaches up to his shoulder and has the mouth of someone that doesn't seem to get the idea behind a flogging. O'Kelly pushes himself onto the railing. The fabric of his shirt reveals dark stains. Some of them are dried blood, but Howell watched the proceedings a few hours ago. Some of them are new, and he hasn't had time to clean them yet.

The captain is a tyrant. And he can say that, well, think that because he knows better than to say anything. He's sailed under more greedy captains, treacherous quartermasters, and frankly too many people with the belief that the Crown is always right than he cares to remember. He can say that Captain Sullivan is a tyrant. It doesn't take much brains to see that. But if anyone on this damned ship Howell is certain that he's the one with the most brains to be the judge of that.

"Howell!"

He suppresses the urge to turn around slowly, to meet Sullivan's eyes, and to say: "That's Doctor Howell." Instead he pretends not to have heard the bellowed sound over the noises of sails flapping in the wind, of the men scuttling across the deck, and of canons being prepared. It's chaotic. And they don't stand a chance. He would appreciate it if someone else would consider just for a minute what they're doing. Offering resistance to the Black? For cargo that, as far as he's concerned isn't worth anyone's life, not even Sullivan's.

"Howell, you son of a whore," Sullivan shouts. "Don't just stand there!"

Howell moves his head, and looks back over the shoulder. Sullivan's shirt is soaked in sweat and pearls od it have accumulated on his forehead. An icy chill runs through Howell's blood. Hysterical, scared men are more dangerous than those with a blade in their hands.

"I'm the cook," Howell says. Calm, face impassive.

"Then find something to do!"

He resists the want to wipe Sullivan's spit from his face. With a curt nod, he turns on his heels, and puts as much space between himself and Sullivan as he can. He walks to the bow where he casts a look over his shoulder. De Groot mans the helm with the same indifference his face showed when Sullivan used Larson for a keelhaul. His friend will be fine. The Dutch are more resistant to the English than O’Kelly’s Scottish accent. De Groot’s gaze doesn’t fine him, and Howell jumps down to the lowered gun deck, opens the hatch, and climbs down into the crew quarters.

Somewhere in the semi-dark, a bottle rolls over the creaking floor boards from board to starboard and back again. The hammocks swing. In his sea chest, he finds his satchel of instruments to perform surgery. They're less blunt than he remembers them to be. He shoves some bandages into the satchel and some laudanum. Just because Sullivan is an idiot doesn't mean that O'Kelly and the rest of the crew is too. They're all equally fucked which is, in a twisted way, more comforting than the sound of waves hitting the ship's hull. He's Doctor Richard bloody Howell. A decent cook, but his delicate fingers are not made to peel potatoes. They're made to put a thread through the hole of a needle, and to save lives. He fastens the dagger he got in his last gamble when he still wore blue to his belt. Pirates might have their code of honour, and their articles. But he hasn't signed them and Sullivan is seeking a fight. He knows that he'll rather stab himself than to walk the plank.

Chapter Text

Tools Of His Trade

The pirates have caught up within less than two hours. Square sails. Favourable position in the wind too. The Dawn has six canons. De Groot relays Sullivan’s orders. “FIRE!”
Canon shots shatter the Dawn’s hull. The masts creak. Wooden splitters cut through the air. A thick one embeds itself in one of the gunner’s throats. A fountain of blood spreads his insides on the deck as he pulls the object out of himself. All Howell can do is to dive for shelter. Hidden from bullets and out of Sullivan’s sight. Smoke engulfs the gap between the pirate ship and the Dawn. And then they leap across, board with animalistic howls, and screams so primeval Howell wishes to not have fallen from grace in the Navy. He closes his eyes and wishes to wake up from whatever kind of dream this is. He’ll quit the gambling, the cards, and the dices. All of it. He’ll do it.

But swords clash. Pistols fire. There are shouts, agonised cries, and pleas. Howell tightens his hand around the dagger. He’s a pacifist. He’s better at mending violence than at inflicting it upon others. Less than a metre away from him O’Kelly blocks a blow, and then he trips over his own feet. He hits the ground. A sabre swings down on him and-
The edges of the blade bore into Howell’s palms. He thrusts his knee into the pirate’s privates. Yanks the sword out of his hands. Buries his fists in the face until the pirate sinks down and joins O’Kelly on the floor of the deck. Smoke billows around his ankles, Howell turns. Fighting figures around him. Pants for breath, his own, sound in his ears. The sword nearly slips through his fingers. Slippery. Warm. A flash of metal so close he feels the breeze on his face. Flesh on flesh. He’s a doctor. Not a soldier.

He grunts. He dodges an elbow coming his way. Coming too close to his nose. And stumbles backwards. Against the door of the captain’s cabin. Closed. Locked from inside. A blade misses him. Mere inches away from him. He jumps out of the way. A rope trips him up. The sword slides out of his hands. He crawls. On all four. Hair in his eyes. Blood soaked.
The foot into his sides comes unexpected. Another kick. Followed by a sickening sound. White light explodes before his eyes.

Weeks, he thinks. Broken and bruised ribs take weeks to heal. Might cause pneumonia. Will kill. Require rest. A hard ground to sleep on.

He reaches for the sword. Hand trembling. Fingers not listening to his will, not stretching, drawn to a ball by pain. A boot comes down on his wrist. Gentle almost. Howell stills. There's the click sound of a pistol.

"Crew of the Dawn," a hard voice calls out. Navy, Howell thinks. Faintly. It hurts to breathe. "Surrender to us and no more harm will come to you."

His hands. The fingers aren't broken. He just can't move them. The palms aren't beyond saving. But he can't sew them back together.

"We must agree on terms!" A voice calls back. It’s Bloom, Sullivan’s quartermaster. A bloodthirsty animal whose performance with the whip is extraordinary.

"Do it," the man says. It's a command so chilly Howell shivers. He dares to look up at the owner of the foot, the owner of the Navy voice. His hand twitches and the man on top of his wrist lowers his gaze. Considers him through narrowed eyes, and then takes his foot off Howell's wrist with an expression on his face that could almost be apologetic. Do pirates feel sorry?

Heavy steps move across the deck. Bloom. "You can have the cargo," he replies. There’s muttering somewhere in the fog. "And our weapons, if you want them. None of us will lift a hand against you... Just let us live."

The last sentence is more a plea than a term of a contract, Howell thinks, but he holds his breath. He can still feel his back burning when Bloom speaks.

"Any man," the pirate captain continues, "who is willing to join us is welcome to do so."

His hands are bleeding. There's no use for him on any ship. Anywhere. Howell tries not to think about it. He sits up slowly. Scrutiny follows his movements from above. He meets cold eyes and forces himself not to be the first to break eye contact. The pirate captain smirks. An almost imperceptible nod.

"Do you have someone who can navigate the Dawn to port?”

Bloom frowns. “I’m… not sure,” he admits. Howell wants to throw him overboard. His hands. Blood is seeping from them. He presses them hard against his knees, tried to keep them above his heart to cut them off the circulation of blood. The pirate captain shakes Bloom’s hand. Then he turns to the man who nearly washed his sword in Howell’s blood. “Mr Gates, search the hold.”

“Search the hold!” The order is repeated across the deck. With efficiency that borders on military, if they weren’t pirates that is, the private crew canvases the ship.

“Sir,” Howell says. His voice is hoarse. His call for attention no more than a croak. Bloom and the pirate captain look down to him. “The captain’s cabin. Someone’s in-“

“Shut your gob!” Bloom barks.

Howell winces. He can already feel the leather tearing gashes into his skin.

“Joji,” the pirate captain calls. A young Asian man looks at him. “Take Morley and check the captain’s cabin.”

All Joji does is nod. Together with a long-haired sailor he approaches the cabin. 

“We will examine your ship,” the pirate captain continues. His voice is that of someone back in London when they talk of the weather because they have nothing else to say. “If she proves to be sinking soon, we will take you to the next port. Regardless of whether you wish to join or not. We’re not monsters.”

“Captain,” Mr Gates addresses him, “there are three men who wish to join us.”

Want to join. As if there's really a choice. It's like the Navy. Either you bend to the will of others or you're out, penniless, starving.

"Four," Howell corrects the pirate. He doesn't trust his legs to carry his weight. Bloom, Mr Gates and his captain look at him.

"Four," Mr Gates  repeats. "One rigger apprentice, a carpenter's mate, the sailing master, and..?"

"Doctor."

His hands aren't the ones he used to pass his medical exam. They're not the same he used to throw cards on tables in shady taverns unfrequented by the Navy.

"Name's Howell." There's no reason to come up with a new name. The Navy didn't want him. Merchants don't need him. And he's too broke to open a practice in the colonies like he dreamt of. Dreams aren't meant to last.

The captain nods. "Mr Gates," he says without taking his eyes off Bloom, "take Doctor Howell to Jonny."

Mr Gates pulls him to his feet. And it's good that he doesn't loosen the grip on his upper arm just yet. The deck of the Dawn jolts to starboard.

"Easy," Mr Gates says. Mister and doctor. Such politeness. Jonny. Such familiarity. Howell allows himself to breathe and to hope that O’Kelly have chosen to join the pirates too. It would do his back plenty of good. He hears a single pistol shot. Joji and Morley haven’t even entered the cabin. The tyrant has felled himself. No more floggings. No one who knows of his debts.

Chapter Text



Hands bandaged and wearing someone’s- Goodhope’s? – shirt, Howell reads the note that is pinned to the wall of Captain Flint’s cabin:

 

ARTICLES OF AGREEMENT

AS DECIDED UPON BY CAPTAIN FLINT AND THE CREW OF THE WALRUS
AS DRAWN UP BY CPT FLINT AND MR GATES ON THE CREW’S BEHALF

 

  1. In Battle Captain’s Orders are to be adhered without questioning. Any Man to disobey shall suffer Punishment as the Captain and Quartermaster see fit.
  2. Every Crew Member is equal, regardless of his Position aboard.
  3. Members of the Crew are to vote on Matters concerning them, such as whom to give Office to. All Votes carry the same Weight.
  4. Theft of a Thing owned by a Man, a Game to the Value of a Piece of Eight, and Wagers will be punished by Marooning, or Other as seen fit by the Captain and Quartermaster.
  5. A Man who is to smoke Tobacco in the Hold without a Cap to the Pipe, to drink Rum after the Eighth Bell in the Crew Quarters, to snap Arms below Deck, or to carry a Candle or Thereof without a Lanthorn shall suffer the same Punishment as in the former Article.
  6. He who suffers the Loss of Joint, Limb, or other Invalidity in the Time of Engagement shall have the Sum of Eight Hundred Pieces of Eight, and remain aboard for as long as he sees fit.
  7. The Captain is to have two Shares, the Quartermaster one and a half, Sail Master, Boatswain, and Gunner one and a quarter. The Share is split equally among the Crew. Four Shares will go to the Account as Measures of Compensation. If the Crew is to part Company, the Account will be split in equal Shares.

 

On the whole, he can agree to all of these terms. Not that he would have much choice now that the Dawn has put leagues between herself and the Walrus. They must’ve made port in the colonies some days ago. Civilisation will know his name to be that of a pirate. His mother won’t believe rumours should she come to hear any, he knows that, and Admiral Norrington will demand to see proof for such accusations.

“You can read them, right?” Mr Gates says to his left.

Howell nods. “Have De Groot, O’Kelly, and Goodhope signed them?”

“The moment they came aboard.”

Fucking idiots. “Under threat of force?”

“Out of their own free will,” says Mr Gates. Through narrowed eyes he watches Howell’s face as he continues speaking. “Why are you asking?”

Mr Gates is onto him. He might as well be truthful now. “Should it come to a trial it would be more profitable to have signed under the threat of force,” he says.

“Your hands are cut. How much more force you need?”

His hands. The bandages show dark spots of where the gashes keep bleeding whenever he bumps his hands against some kind of surface, tries to drink from a cup, put them under his face out of habit to sleep on. He asked for a thread and needle yesterday and sewed them shut himself. And then, as it happens when pain radiates, spreads from your hands up to your elbows, to your shoulders and finally your neck, blissful dark had engulfed him.

“How do I sign?”

Mr Gates smirks. It should make him uneasy, seeing that expression on the face of the same man who tried to kill him five days ago but Howell finds that it’s easier to breathe with Gates around than with Bloom, despite his bruised ribs.

“In the captain’s log, and then in front the crew.”

His name would be on a paper. But it would be secure in Captain Flint’s hands. He’s heard about the man, of course. His friend James Norrington had written him about Flint once or twice, and how the Navy was hellbent on hanging the nuisance from the Americas.

 

Together with Mr Gates Howell enters Flint’s cabin. It is… tidy. Books are neatly stacked in the shelf along the wall to his right. A hammock swings gently. The blanket on it is folded. Navy style. Captain Flint himself sits in the chair behind his desk, bend over a map with a pair of compasses in his hand.

“The doctor’s here to sign the Articles,” Mr Gates says.  

Flint hums in agreement. He frowns slightly, and then looks up. “I’ll get log. Sit, Doctor Howell.”

Behind his temples throbbing pain had announced its presence the moment he’d set foot onto the main deck. His legs shake. The thought not to appear weak in front of Captain Flint is one that crosses his mind for a brief moment, but it’s better to sit than to faint.

His fingers curl around the feather. His right palm stings. Above the space for his name it reads:

Taken of the DAWN, Amsterdam, Cpt. Sullivan

S. De Groot – Sailing Master
Jerome O’Kelly – Rigger’s Apprentice
Michal Goodhope – Carpenter’s Mate

Cold metal presses against the back of his head. It feels like the muzzle of a pistol. “Sign it,” Mr Gates says. Howell exhales. Everyone will understand that he only does this to protect himself.

R. Howell – Doctor

“Nice penmanship,” Flint comments.

It’s than that Howell becomes aware that Goodhope’s and O’Kelly’s handwritings are identical, and that De Groot’s looks like his when he was a boy. Most of the names are written in one handwriting. The first entry on the page in it says:

J. Flint

“Likewise.”

Flint smirks. It’s a chilling sight.

Chapter Text

The Untouchable Three

 

The gashes on his palms heal. Slow and painfully. He knows he has to keep his hands stretched. That the moment he'll succumb to the blissful idea of forming them into fists, to stop the wounds from reopening, from bleeding, he won't be able to be a surgeon again. His tendons will become too short, and then he'll be of even less use than he currently is to Captain Flint and his crew. The crew that he’s part of. He can't control his hands. They are cold. They hardly move. It's a good thing hygiene at sea isn't what your nose would wish for. The thought of changing his clothes on his own is stupid. He's intelligent enough to know that.

Goodhope, though he would bet his boots that it was De Groot’s scheme, must’ve dressed him while he was out for the first few days aboard the Walrus. He doesn’t know what happened to the shirt that he’s been wearing for the last years. The shirt that got him through the war against Spain, that protected him from cold nights in Whitechapel, from the relentless sun between Amsterdam and Port Royal. The very same piece of fabric that hid all evidence of his insubordination.

When his new crewmates look at him he can read a single word in their eyes: Fool. It's accompanied by the question: Why did the captain take him aboard? And the doubt of: A surgeon he says, more in need of one himself.

Not a single sound crosses Howell's lips as Jonny changes the bandages around his hands. Not as the fabric sticks to the skin and is torn off, and not as Jonny pours seawater over them. His hands. This is personal. His pain is only for him to know about.

"Where'd you learn the trade?" Jonny asks. He's missing an eye.

For a moment, Howell tries to come up with some story. Some lie. Pirates don't like the Navy. But he likes the Navy even less. "The war," he says. Not offering more of an explanation. It’s not exactly the truth, but it’s not too far from it either.

"Captain says you'll stay," Jonny continues. Howell doubts he gets to talk often. He's also unsure whether Flint would appreciate Jonny being a tattler. If Jonny isn’t blatantly inventing his words. "He says your hands must heal first. Then you'll go to sea with us."

A shrug is all the reply Howell can bring himself to offer. Since he signed the Articles of Agreement he hasn’t spoken to the captain. Even though he freely admits that Flint has more brains than most captains he’s ever had the misfortune to serve under, that man wouldn’t be able to force him to stay on the Walrus longer than he wants to. Right now, that’s until the ground below his feet will be calm and not move.  

This morning they decided on where to careen the ship’s hull after Flint proposed two beaches. The concept of voting is foreign. Freedom on a pirate ship. Tyranny on ships of those dressed in blue and red with their silly wigs. It makes no sense.

'We're not monsters,' is what Flint told him back on the Dawn. Where they're going Captain Flint is a feared, powerful man. His name alone, O'Kelly told him some nights ago, is enough to keep the English and Spanish navies away from New Providence Island. This statement was followed by: There's this woman on that island. She's a witch who sacrifices children to protect him from harm. So much for the truthfulness of it all.

"I want to talk to him," Howell says. Quietly. No one needs to know what he’s up to. It’s his business, and his only. He needs to know who this man is, this pirate that had struck De Groot with fear, the captain whose shelf contains books written in English and Spanish alike. Books that appear to be well-read but taken good care of.

"To the captain?"

"Yes."

Jonny closes the bandage on his left hand with a knot and Howell doesn't have the heart to tell him that this isn't how you're supposed to do it.

"I'll see what I can do." Without another word, Jonny bandages Howell's right hand. The skin around his knuckles is torn, bruised and weeps.

"What happens with the cargo you stole from u- from the Dawn?"

"We didn't steal it!" Jonny snaps. He tightens the bandage around Howell's hand.

Howell bites the inside of his cheek but doesn't tell Jonny that it hurts. He's survived the Navy. No pirate will have him admit to anything he doesn't want to admit. Not even that he's in pain.

"We liberated the Dawn of it and will continue to sell it."

Now that doesn't sound stupid, but unlikely nonetheless. Pirates don't sell their prizes. Pirates are hanged. That's how things are.

"To whom?"

"Stop asking so many fucking questions!" The 'or I'll tell the captain' hangs in the air.

It’s been a while since I’ve felt the whip, Howell thinks. Whatever is to come his way he’ll take it. And if Flint is as smart as he likes him to believe, then he won’t piss off a doctor as skilled as he is.

"Someone of power and political influence I take it? On New Providence Island... Guthrie, isn't it? Richard Guthrie whose family has a say in Boston."

The knife against his throat is new. But it only reassures him that he's right.

"You're new," Jonny spits, "you don't know what you're talking about."

Howell smiles. I don't have a death wish, is what he'll tell Flint in less than ten minutes. "But why would he-"

"Shut up!"

A knife against his throat doesn't faze him. Not when it's in the hands of Jonny who doesn't know who sits in front of him. "Oh."

"Oh what?"

"Guthrie tells you which ships to board.”

Jonny’s free hand pulls him closer, pressing against the back of his neck, holding him close to the knife. The cold metal draws blood.

“That’s how Fl- the captain knew what the Dawn’s called.” His lips aren’t trembling. Mad men with a knife, Richard, he tells himself. Don’t piss off those. For fuck’s-

The door of the cabin slams into the wall. Light streams inside. A shadow stands in its middle. Jonny stills. His eyes move, he frowns, and Howell holds his breath.

"Jonny," Randall says as if he’s not about to witness a murder, "I don't care what he did or said. The captain wants him."

"He-" Jonny tries but Randall raises his hand and it's all that's needed for Jonny to fall silent.

Howell presses him lips hard together. He can ask Randall later how it comes that the men do everything in their power not to cross him, or the captain, or Mr Gates. The untouchable three.

Chapter Text

Of The Navy

 

“Better tread with care,” Randall tells him as he takes him to Flint’s cabin. “Jonny’s not all right in the head.”

“How come?”

One day your curiosity will get you killed, Admiral Norrington had told him. Back when he’d gone to Eton. Some ten years past, or more. The admiral wouldn’t recognise him any longer. Or if he was then he’d have a hard time to resist the urge to see him hanged too. Howell knows that he’s a dead man walking. The moment he set foot onto the Walrus’ deck, the trap door below his feet started creaking dangerously.

“He got keelhauled,” Randall says, but he doesn’t offer any more information and Howell’s stomach churns as Randall shoves him towards Mr Gates. “There he is,” is all Randall says before he wanders off, shouting orders at one of the men up in the rigging.

“Sir?”

“Doctor Howell,” Mr Gates greets him, “how’s the Walrus becoming you?”

Time to think before you speak, Howell thinks. He bites his tongue to prevent himself from blurting out whether it was Flint who keelhauled Jonny. The pirate captain who is subject to the talk among the admiralty must’ve done awful things to have such a reputation, and to still not have been caught, and he’s sailing under his command. Maybe Flint is the worst of all captains. Floggings are one thing. Keelhauling another. He’s never witnessed one, and he’d be damned if he would ever let someone do something like that to anyone while he’s there to stop it from happening.

“You look a bit pale,” remarks Mr Gates. Behind him is the door to Flint’s cabin. Perhaps Flint’s hearing is excellent. Maybe he’ll be able to hear the next words that are spoken. All Howell can do is shrug. He can’t even swim. He doesn’t want to be keelhauled.

“All’s good,” he manages to say.

“And your hands?”

His hands. He shrugs again. “They’re still attached to my arms,” he says. “They hurt,” he admits under Mr Gates’ scrutinizing gaze. He’s sure that all this is a farce. The friendliness the quartermaster shows him. The fact that he hasn’t seen anyone getting treated with the cat-o’-nine tails yet. Maybe they just avoid swinging it when he’s nearby.

“It won’t take long. The captain’s not much of a talker, unless you’re into books.”

Howell bites his tongue to stop himself from asking: “What kind of books?”

Mr Gates grins and Howell hopes the pirate can’t read his mind. Then again, there’s a man called Morley who talks about a witch that Flint is serving. Allegedly. There’s Jonny who would fare better in a cell in some asylum. There’s Randall whose eyes are the one of someone who can see right through you and past all your lies and excuses. And then, then there’s Captain Flint, and there’s nothing to say about that man that hasn’t been whispered by so many mouths it’s impossible to tell what is the truth and what isn’t. It’s far from reassuring the whole situation.

He ducks his head and enters the Captain’s cabin through a hallway that leads to another two doors. Chambers for the first and second lieutenant, if this was a Navy ship.

Mr Gates motions for him to stay where he is. Near the door. Far away from the desk behind which Flint is sitting, staring at a map, doing calculations of some sorts.

"Yes?" Flint asks, not lifting his gaze to fix his eyes upon the intruders.

Howell exhales. With his mind not spinning, and his hands not bleeding, he's not sure he won’t cower under the captain's glare. Then again, the only reason he boarded the ship to Amsterdam in the first place was to get away from London. Not from the dark looks of people he owed money to. He won’t be afraid of Flint’s eyes. They can hardly hold the same disappointment that admiral Norrington’s held the last time he met him. They won’t even come close to the disgust in his father’s gaze.

"Doctor Howell wishes to have word with you." No captain. No sir. It's rude. It's direct, and Howell is aware that unlike Mr Gates he wouldn't be able to get away with that. Not in the captain's face.

Flint jots down some words or numbers into the book to his side. “And?"

"You told me you wanted to talk to him yourself-"

"I said I want to know what he needs to conduct his practice aboard this ship," Flint interrupts.

Howell doesn't dare to breathe. He's sure Flint can sense everything around him. The mere shift of air would give away that he's here. Conveniently covered by Mr Gates' figure.

"You said you wanted to talk."

"I never said that I would."

Mr Gates sighs. "Whatever. Randall said Jonny tried to cut the doctor's throat."

Flint's smile is icy. "You're the quartermaster. Deal with him."

"Deal with him?"

"Keep him in line.”

Howell knows he's missing something important. Mr Gates doesn't say anything in reply. He turns and leaves Howell to his fate after a brief clap on his shoulder.

"Doctor Howell."

His feet and arms do it before he can relate to them that this is a pirate ship. Parade stand. He closes his eyes for a second. When he opens them again, Flint smirks.

"The Navy," Flint states. "I should've known by the way you fought on the Dawn."

"I haven't been in the service for some years," Howell says, slowly, uncertain. For all he knows it's a trap and Flint wants to kill him for having had anything to do with the navy at all. The deck of the Dawn is but a faint memory filled with smoke and cries and blood. Flint must’ve been busy fighting. But Flint’s name might’ve been enough. A shield against metal blades, a protection from wooden splinters.

"Neither have I."

Howell’s jaw drops before he can prevent it from happening. He shouldn't be as shocked as he is. After all, the way Flint’s orders command respect, their precision, and their efficiency should've told him. The way Flint had approached the Dawn with the bow first. Innocent, had it not been for the black writhing in the wind. The smooth way of bringing the Walrus about just in time. Giving the gunners of the Dawn, merchants who had received hasty instructions, little time, no time, to react.

"Lieutenant," Flint offers. It’s sharp like another canon blast. His accent isn’t that of nobility. It’s not the same accent Howell fought so hard to erase entirely. It’s not the same way Flint’s tongue hits his teeth as he forms the ‘f’ that his mother back in London would make.

There aren’t many officers of common birth. If there’s something Howell knows about his parents’ world it’s that the wealthy love money and influence more than the warmth of sunshine on their pale faces. Flint obviously is a pirate now.

“Surgeon,” Howell replies. His heart beats so fast he can feel it hit his ribcage. Flint can’t be older than thirty. Former Navy too. He must be McGraw. A man who had an affair and fled England’s merciless grip together with his lover. The witch Morley talks about. His mother told him about that man. Back when he’d not been afraid to face her. Back when he could still meet her eye without feeling guilt lying low in his stomach and without being soaked in shame with each syllable crossing his lips.

Flint nods. He rises to his feet and Howell realises he hasn't entered the room further and he’s only two steps away from the door.

"How long?" asks Flint. His eyes graze Howell's hands.

"A month," Howell says. Keep him in line. His stomach jolts. He forces himself to breathe through his nose. To inhale the scent of books, wood, salt, and rum. This man across from him is Captain Flint. He’s not one to cross.

“We’ll make port in a week from now,” Flint says. “In Nassau, I want you to buy all the supplies you deem necessary. I’ll give you access to the ship’s account.”

“I’ve never been to Nassau.” He almost adds: “I’m not a criminal.” He’s a law-abiding citizen. Or has been. Not now that his name is below a list of Articles of Agreement, he’s not an obedient subject of Queen Anne. He hasn’t been one for the last year in which he and De Groot have jumped ships more often than he can remember.

“Randall will accompany you,” Flint says before he considers him through narrowed eyes. “What is it you wished to talk about?”

“How come that you’re here?” Howell asks. How come you’re one of the most feared pirates?

Flint’s eyebrows edge closer to his hairline. He’s got ginger hair, greasy and coned with dried blood in some places. Ginger people have no soul his grandmother said. Maybe she’s right about that one in front of him.

“You were Navy,” Flint says and Howell’s heart seizes painfully. He doesn’t know anything. Whatever the Navy did wasn’t his fault. He must be wrong. Wrong about Flint being McGraw. How could a man that must’ve fought his entire life to climb the ranks give up his life’s work for love?

“Do you really need an explanation?”

The glint in the corner of Flint’s eyes tells Howell that he doesn’t. He’s got no intention of pissing off the man who gave him back his freedom and his dignity.

Chapter Text

A Good Captain

To say that Jonny, the Walrus’s quack, isn’t too fond of him would be an understatement. Similar can be said about the cook, Guillerm, although when it comes to him it’s nothing personal. It’s simply lack of skill which has brought half of the crew to nausea and the shits twice in the two weeks Howell has been with them so far. It’s a mystery how they’re all not dead already.

“Sepp,” Howell warns, “take your knife away from my plate or I’ll stab you.”

De Groot scoffs. “I’d like to see you try.”

“Tell me, why are we friends again?”

With a shrug, De Groot continues to cut Howell’s meager portion of meat into smaller pieces. The last time someone prepared his food for him he must’ve been a child and struck down by fever with his mother feeding him spoonful of steaming lentil soup. If any of Flint’s crew- no, their crewmates- find the image of their new sailing master fighting a salty, dry fish amusing their faces don’t give it away.

Under De Groot’s hawk eyes, Howell picks up the small pieces of fish. His own knife lies abandoned next to the plate. The fish is edible, much unlike the poor attempt of chicken stew the Walrus’ hull saw several times yesterday. It’s hard to say what Guillerm does wrong, and even more difficult to point out what he does right. At least he hasn’t set fire to the crew’s mess so far. So that’s quite an achievement. Howell is certain that Guillerm wasn’t anyone’s first choice as cook.

“Randall says there are no extra portions for anyone,” O’Kelly says as he joins them. The smell of seawater clings to him. Water drips off the tips of his hair. It runs down his chin and neck. Some drops fall onto his plate. “Not for the captain, or the quartermaster. Everyone’s equal, that’s quite something, init?”

Howell feels De Groot’s gaze rest on him. It tells him to swallow the fish along with the remark that extra portions aboard this ship would lead to food poisoning. It’s a blessing not something to grief that the portions are the size they are and not bigger. But it’s better to keep those thoughts to himself. A crew of pirates is one thing. A crew of agitated pirates a whole other, and until he can hold a sword again he won’t say anything to anyone about how he can’t imagine that there isn’t someone on this ship who can’t cook just a bit better than Guillerm. It can’t be that hard. Even he can cook better, and he grew up with servants doing the cooking. You’d think that a French can do better than Guillerm, better by far.

“You ever been to Nassau?” O’Kelly asks between two bites with his mouth full of half-chewed food.

“Once,” De Groot says. It’s all he offers.

“Never,” Howell answers after emptying the mug that holds some rum thinned until unrecognition with water. “Never been this far south actually. Sepp and I have been to Philadelphia once.”

“And Boston.”

“And Boston.”

Their stay in Boston had been the longer one. Long enough for De Groot to get into more than a handful of tavern brawls without being stabbed. Long enough for himself to lose his heart to woman called Hilde and to spend his little wage on courting her only to see her kiss another man. Long enough to get his hands on a dagger and to stab Hilde’s lover in drunken jealousy and heartache. In an act of self-defense. Of sorts.

“I’ve heard everything’s possible there,” O’Kelly continues. His knife clatters against the metal plate. “That people don’t give a damn about what you do.”

De Groot hums in agreement.

“Means I can do all I want, right?”

Howell resists the urge to hit his own head against the surface of the table that swings between himself and De Groot. Or maybe he should break O’Kelly’s nose with the edge of the table to make him look less like a kid and more like someone who’s been in a couple of fights.

“Don’t be stupid,” De Groot snaps before Howell can ask whether O’Kelly is kidding. “Those men won’t hesitate to kill you if offend them. They’ll break your neck with their bare hands, and then go on to fuck the next best whore not feeling an ounce of remorse.”

For the first time in the months that Howell has known O’Kelly, the laughter etched on the kid’s features falters. He almost feels sorry. But he’s got to become one of those men De Groot mentioned if he wants to make it in a town run by pirates and the other criminals his father despised so much.

“You heard the stories about Flint,” De Groot continues, his words hushed and barely audible against the aching wood, the crew’s chatter, and the clinking of cutlery. Howell has trouble recalling a time when he’s ever heard him talk that much as once. “If only half of them are true, then you better start praying.”

“You’re afraid of him,” O’Kelly says. It sounds like a challenge to Howell and De Groot’s eyes narrow. To him too then.

“Only a fool wouldn’t be.”

De Groot swings his legs over the bench, picks up his plate and walks down the length of the mess to dump his empty plate with Guillerm. Deep lines are carved into O’Kelly’s forehead, and Howell leaves him to ponder over De Groot’s words. His eyes fall on Jonny as he passes him, and his stomach churns. Keelhauled. Randall knows, so Randall might as well tell him the whole story. He approaches Morley who is engaged in a game of chess with some member of the crew whose face is so low over the board Howell doesn’t need to see the frown on his face to know he’s thinking extremely hard.

“Morley, where’s Randall?”

Morley lifts his gaze from the chessboard. His bright eyes remain on Howell’s face for so long he’s about to repeat his question as Morley says: “On deck. He’s got the second dog watch.”

“Move the rook to G3,” Howell says and nods in thanks. Morley’s gaze bores holes into Howell’s shirt from behind until he climbs the ladder.

 

The air on deck is chilly but less stuffy than in the mess by far. He pulls his shirt tighter around himself. Above his head the square sails flap. Randall’s voice is cut off by the wind. It’s syllables, broken words and no more that reach Howell. He could be a captain, Randall. With that harsh voice of his. The unacceptance of nonsense.

Howell jumps as several pair of feet drop back onto the deck from the rigging. He hasn’t heard them climbing down. Some nod at him in greeting, although it might be the mere acknowledgement of him standing in between them and their dinner.
Hands behind his back, Randall crosses the space between himself and Howell in quick, big strides. “Been waiting for you,” Randall says. Straight to the point. It doesn’t strike Howell as odd that Flint and Randall see eye-to-eye in all matters concerning the ship. Not once has he seen them disagree, unlike Mr Gates and the captain who, although always reaching an amiable solution, are both thick-headed and fierce.

Howell swallows. It’s not that Randall is straightforward that bothers him. He’s long abandoned the illusion that everyone keeps their cards as close to their chest as the noble folks back in London do. The poor don’t give a damn what and how they say it. Then again, they have the pleasure of ignorance and have no idea what it’s like to have Whitehall breathing down their scrawny necks.

He envies them. He envies them until he remembers that he’s one of them now. That his hands are calloused, that his ribs stand out against his skin, and that his nose has been broken twice or three times already since he was plucked off the cobble stoned streets in Amsterdam by De Groot with the words: “If you don’t want your stupid head smashed in, follow me.”

What bothers him is that Randall has been expecting him. As if Randall knows exactly what thought it is that keeps spinning to the forefront of his mind: Flint is a monster. “Then you know what I want to know?” he asks, voice low and it trembles.

Randall hums. “It wasn’t him.”

Relief floods Howell’s veins instead of blood, but there are no words. Just because it wasn’t Flint doesn’t mean the captain would be above keelhauling someone.

“He’s a good captain,” Randall says. “Treats us right.”

There’s a huge difference between treating one’s crew right and being a good captain. A good captain he trusts Flint to be. Fools don’t tend to become lieutenants in the Navy, even less so when they’re born into poverty. How the man treats his crew remains to be seen. He has yet to witness him lead an assault on some man’s ship, how Flint acts when tensions between his men are so sharp they could pierce through skin, and how he acts when faced with decisions of how to distribute water and food rations.

“Equal wages and fair treatment,” Howell says, not believing it. Paper and ink lie.

“Equal shares,” Randall corrects him. “You read the Articles. No ill-treatment. No floggings.”

But marooning, and if Flint and Mr Gates are in the mood worse perhaps, Howell thinks. He snorts. What Randall is telling him is impossible. It’s not possible for a ship such as this to function without corporal punishment. Even the Navy doesn’t manage that.
“You met him,” says Randall, “would you want to fuck with him?”

For the split of a moment Howell considers telling Randall straight into the face that he’s into women, thank you very much. But Randall, unlike his older brother, might not appreciate this kind of humor. In fact, he recalls hearing about a pirate captain whose crew bound him to the mast for the mere accusation of sodomy.

“No.”

In the fading light, Howell can make out Randall’s grin. “No one does.”

A strong hand grabs his shoulder. Nails bury themselves into his flesh. “He’s a good captain,” Randall repeats, and Howell can’t help but to believe it. The waves slamming into the Walrus’ hull agree. Captain Flint is a good captain.

Chapter Text

A Bit Of Rain

He’s on watch as the first raindrops hit the deck of the Walrus. Small drops at first. Sparingly across the wooden boards that he helped scrub clean this morning. Oil and dried blood and old vomit. They all had to disappear. Captain’s order. Randall had picked him among others who weren’t on watch, who weren’t needed up in the rigging, and had relayed the order. Without once making use of the cat-o’-nine, Randall had supervised the goings-on on deck.

It’s remarkable how smooth this ship is run. How easily De Groot has slipped into the position of sailing master beneath a pirate captain almost as if he’s done it before. He spouts more knowledge on the small islands they pass than he should be able too. But he doesn’t tell and Howell won’t press him for more information on how, why, when he acquired all that knowledge. Life is much more comfortable when De Groot is in a good mood. Although good moods don’t include smiles or compliments when it comes to him. A good mood in De Groot’s books means that the usual gruffness in his voice is ever-present but his annoyance less, and his mouth distorted into a smirk from time to time, however seldom.

Now the deck is cleaned, the sails have been painted in more oil, and the cannons are all tied up. Rain claims the deck as the drops become uncountable and soon the dry spots are no different than the wet ones. Within seconds the boards beneath Howell’s bare feet turn into a slippery trap. The masts ache.

Above his head the edges of the main sails flap dangerously. The winds are shifting, that’s what it means.

“Howell!” Mulligan, the one in charge of the watch, calls from the bow. Face scrunched in distaste of the weather, he motions for him to cross the space, and Howell does as told.

Mulligan’s right hand comes to rest on his shoulder. “Wake the captain and the crew.”

Wake the captain. Maybe his fear showed in his eyes or maybe Mulligan is aware of what he’s asking of him, because he adds: “Don’t think he’s sleeping.” His words are less than confidence inspiring. They haven’t yet left Mulligan’s lips fully as the ship shifts starboard.

Howell grabs one of the ropes that run from bow to stern between the elevated decks where Flint and Gates sleep. His feet lose contact with the ship for some seconds. Some awful seconds in which he can’t breathe. Mulligan’s voice is muffled in his ears. Get the captain. Wake the crew. He can do it. He has to.

Storm season is upon us, De Groot told him earlier today in confidence. De Groot jinxed them. Maybe all his roughness comes from not being able to return to the sea to continue his life as mermaid. Maybe that’s why he knows the winds better than anyone, and why he roams the high seas without any kind of fear.

Wake the crew first or get Flint?

Water sprays into Howell’s face. His clothes are soaked and strands of hair hang into his eyes. Flint is just one man, no matter what the stories say about him. Flint has only one head, two arms, and two legs. He’s smaller than the whispers say, more human too. But he won’t be able to haul up the sails all by himself. Flint’s name cannot transform into a lifelike deity of some sorts. The shadow that accompanies the five letters, the horror that chills people’s blood, and the death that he is supposed to bring, none of those things can tame the sea. The sea doesn’t buckle under the whip. She is ever-present and she claims gold and treasures for herself if she pleases.

The crew then. Howell climbs down the ladder into the quarters of the crew, slips on the last step, and tumbles into the room. To his right Randall stirs in his sleep. Howell’s pulse goes faster than it should. Like Flint Randall is human and won’t be able to rip off his head with his bare hands, although he’s never seen either in battle, and- concentrate!
His hand trembles as he reaches for Randall’s shoulder. Before the tips of his fingers can possibly graze the fabric of Randall’s shirt, eyes stare back at him and he almost screams. He does drop the lantern. Laughter rings in his ears, and Randall asks, voice rough from sleep and hoarse from the orders he shouted yesterday, “What’s going on?”

“Mulligan says we’re heading into a storm.”

Randall swings himself onto his feet and rings the bell at the entrance of the quarters. “ALL HANDS ON DECK! WAKE UP YOU FOUL RATS!”

In-between grunted ‘fuck-yous’, men sitting up in their hammocks, and the roar of waves slamming into the Walrus’ hull, Howell scrambles back on deck. He raps his knuckles against Flint’s door, praying to all the gods he no longer believes in that Flint is already awake and that he won’t throw him overboard because despite what he thinks to be a skill every pirate should have he can’t swim.

Chapter Text

In The Bahamas

Nassau never sleeps, so he’s told. She's sin and pleasure. She consists of narrow alleys and a town square where people got hung some forgotten decades ago when the very act of piracy, from which the island flourishes and thrives now, was not only a crime but also punished as such. Rising tides and moving sands have changed the island. The sun has burnt down mercilessly on Nassau's inhabitants and it hasn't become them all to well. It is only fair to claim that there's not a single person among them who wouldn't be at least considered by people like Howell's parents to be a soon-to-be-resident of Bethlam Royal Hospital.

A fort that has seen better days overlooks the bay. It stands tall and no flag flies above it. Nassau's allegiance is only to herself. No taxes are paid to those idiots sitting on their fat, comfortable arses back in London.

The only authority here, Howell happened to have overheard below deck some nights past, is Mr Richard Guthrie. Richard. It's a name posh enough to dislike it. It would be enough to dislike the man wearing it too, if it wasn't the name his own parents chos as his Christian name some twenty-three years ago. His former life clings onto him with a ferocity that makes him want to drown himself. He's not his mother's son, not her little Richard whose best friend was young James Norrington. He's no one here. He's, if he he's anyone at all, just Howell. Howell with the useless hands.

Less than twenty metres away from where the waves hit the shores of the bay, a camp stretches from the foot of the fort to the very edge of the town itself. The town is where the civilized folks live. The merchants. It’s where the people from the interior, people for whom slaves work in the fields with no hope of freedom, sell their goods.  

“The crews live here,” Mr Gates tells him and nods towards the camp. It's less a camp and more a small town of its own right. Wooden huts lean against another for support against the breeze that allows sand to enter through even the smallest gap. The roofs are badly thatched. Some of them are covered by cotton drenched in oil to keep out the rain.

Howell wants to ask whose decision it was to have the crews live here, for them not to be allowed to live a life somehow resembling normalcy by mingling with the townfolks, by living among them. But Gates has turned to Guillerm and orders him to find someone, anyone who can actually cook. Randall is send to watch the men load the Dawn’s cargo onto wagons, and to come and get him once it’s done.

With cold eyes, Randall turns around. His voice hands out the tasks to some unfortunate blokes standing about and gaffing at thin air. “Move!” Randall shouts. “The sooner we’re done, the earlier you can drink. Until Guthrie has to drag your sorry arses out of his tavern. Until you feel in the mood to fuck all of Marpleton’s girls at once!”

“Always feel like that,” one of the men says. Laughter erupts around him. Randall smirks.

Howell’s head throbs from being slammed against the Walrus’ mainmast. The stench of sweat, sex, alcohol, and blood mixed with the humid air makes him long for the university laboratories where he was trained in. Last night he hasn’t slept. He doubts anyone has.

‘We’ll be lucky if we make port,’ De Groot told him, and when it comes to the sea and her moods Howell knows to trust De Groot above everyone else. His hands burn from ropes slipping through the too fast. Ropes roughed by salt water. The bandages wrapped around his palms are hardened by dried blood and salt. His fingers ache as he moves a strand of brown, greasy hair out of his eyes to see what Mr Gates is pointing at. It’s a black flag. The same one that scared the living daylights out of De Groot the second it was raised by the pursuing Walrus. Of course, were he to tell anyone De Groot would have no trouble making sure it’s the last thing he’s ever done. Friendship can endure only so much.

A similar flag, he can hear Admiral Norrington’s correction somewhere in the corner of his mind. If it were the same flag there wouldn’t be a black twisting in the wind at the stern of the Walrus right now. A skeleton holding a cutlass in one hand and an hourglass in the other grin back at them.

“Ours,” Mr Gates says. It’s a lie. If anyone’s than this flag belongs to no one other than Flint.

Howell tries to pull his shirt tighter around himself. His right hand falls to his side. They won’t be like they were before, his hands.

“Make yourself comfortable somewhere here,” Mr Gates continues and points at one of the unoccupied hammocks. “Most of the lads will be in the brothel anyways until we set out again.”

“When is that?”

“In a fortnight, maybe less. Depends on how quickly we can sell the cargo and get a new…” It’s the first time in two weeks that Howell sees Mr Gates at loss for words. A shrug fills the gap, and Mr Gates continues as if nothing happened. “While you’re here, don’t pick any fights with the other crews. Vane’s men will have you for breakfast.”

 “What else?” Howell asks, fully in control of the anger that rises in his chest. His hands. How stupid does Gates think he is? This morning he could hardly hold a mug to drink out of. And Gates expects him to take up arms which were taken from him when the Dawn surrendered. Unlike the clouds above their heads, he is calm. A deep growl shakes New Providence Island.

“I’ll pay one of physicians here to have a look at your hands,” Gates says. “The haul of your- the Dawn- was big enough to cover your medical bills.”

Howell chuckles. He’s a damn doctor. He shouldn’t need to pay medical bills.

“I’m aware of the irony,” Mr Gates says and grants him a grin. “Come to the tavern for a drink?”

“De Groot wanted to meet me,” Howell says evasively. He and the Dawn’s former navigator have to talk. A lot. With O’Kelly, especially with the kid. “But I’m sure I’ll see you at the tavern rather sooner than later.”

He’s got no intentions of joining a bunch of pirates in their drunken escapades. Not yet. Admiral Norrington started to talk about the man that’s his new captain less than six months after Lord Hamilton went mad with grief. And despite the calculation and determination Howell has come to feel so far, he’s got no illusions that a man who can become a pirate captain in that short of a time with that kind of reputation is above using any kind of violence to achieve his ends. He also doesn’t believe that McGraw or Flint or whatever his face is as cold and heartless of a bastard that people say he is. The Hamiltons, the Lord and his wife, were passionate people. No one without a heart could’ve charmed them.

Mr Gates clasps his shoulder for a moment. Long enough for Howell to notice the low feeling in his stomach. You’re one of us, the touch states. We’ll look out for you, it says. They’ll hang you like us, it whispers in the back of his mind. The corners of his mouth rise. He’s never fit in his parents’ society. At university, his never-ending questioning of his teacher’s methods wasn’t appreciated. Even the red coat hadn’t felt like this moment in which he stands on a beach in the Bahamas and looks in the eyes of a battle-hardened pirate who almost bloody-well killed him on the Dawn. They found him in the middle of the ocean. And he doubts they’ll give him back voluntarily. He knows that he won’t let anyone, not the Navy, not the Crown, rip him out of their claws.

“Thank you.”

A frown forces its way across Mr Gates’ forehead. “For what?” he asks. Straight to the point, genuinely confused, but not unkind.

For boarding the Dawn. For saving me. For preventing me from murdering Sullivan. For saving O’Kelly. For giving me back my title, my purpose, and my dignity.

Howell bites his tongue. He won’t get emotional in front of a pirate, regardless of whether this man is his quartermaster or not. So, he looks to the ground, the sand beneath his feet, and when he lifts his eyes to meet Mr Gates’ again he only sees understanding.

“Get some rest, doc,” Mr Gates says, and he means it.

Chapter Text

A Tavern Like Any Other

Getting some rest in Nassau, Howell discovers, means to get so drunk he can already hear angels singing. At least that’s what becomes painfully obvious in Guthrie’s tavern. Men armed to the teeth, men that some days ago slit people’s throats, and men that would’ve never lasted a day in Whitechapel’s forsaken alleys, drink. They drink, roar, and mutter to others and to themselves as if that’s all there is.

“What do you make of it?” De Groot asks. He tilts his head at two doors that were once painted green. Now dry paint is falling of it in tiny flakes whenever someone moves it. It’s not the doors that have caught De Groot’s interest, although given that they’ve spent the last months at sea anything could potentially be interesting, especially two cups of watery rum into the day. It’s what behind those doors that carves lines into De Groot’s face, adding to the already uneven surface.

“Of Flint and Guthrie having some alone time?” Howell asks back. He shrugs. It’s not his business and he knows it’s a lie. Everything is his business. Everything that could potentially endanger his life in short- or long-term. And right now, that means everyone and everything concerns him. “Don’t know.”

He does know. But they’re surrounded by people he doesn’t trust to not kill him before the day is over. Flint’s naval career was visible in the strides he took to cross the tavern. It was in the curt knock on the double doors that ordered to be allowed to enter, although Flint of all people will be the last that needs permission. That Howell sees as the doors open again and the man he’s supposed to call ‘Captain’ steps back into the tavern. A young, blonde woman gives him a smile and Howell shivers as Flint returns it.
The room holds its breath. It watches. Anticipating what will happen in awe and fear. Howell wagers that Flint won’t say another word and leave the tavern. If he had some coins that he doesn’t plan to spend on drink and food, he’d risk all of them.

“Always a pleasure to do business with you, Captain Flint,” the woman says. Her voice is still the one of a child. A tall-grown man hovers behind her. Howell’s normal assumption would be that this man is a slave, but he stands there, shoulder squared and chin held high as if he owns the world, as if he’s part of the world that’s called Nassau and in his dark, hard eyes Howell can see pride despite the distance between himself and those three by the green door. It’s a different kind of pride than Admiral Norrington’s who was born into wealth and climbed through the ranks like others into their pants. It’s even different from Flint’s sneer at the word ‘Lieutenant’ when it must’ve taken Flint all his life, endless humiliation, and desperate ambition to see the Navy make him one.

The man behind that girl is more than a slave. He’s a free man and Howell envies him.

“Who is she?” De Groot asks Morley who joins them uninvited.

Morley follows De Groot’s look towards the girl. “Miss Eleanor Guthrie,” Morley says and tears off a chunk from the piece of bread in his hands. “Richard Guthrie’s daughter.” In a lower voice, he adds: “And only child.”
De Groot nods. Howell decides not to let it show that he’s been listening. He rubs his thumb over the side of the empty cup in front of him.