Carlos stepped inside the dimly lit pub and tried not to wrinkle his nose in distaste. Far too many bodies, the majority of them filthy and in various states of inebriation, were crammed into far too small a space, which appeared to have been rather squalid even before they'd entered. If he had been given a choice, Carlos would never even have set foot in the place. Unfortunately, according to the information Carlos's sources had given, the men they were looking for — a group of pirates with a habit of attacking Spanish trading vessels — frequented this establishment.
The laughter and loud din of talking voices silenced mere seconds after Carlos and his men had stepped over the threshold, a hush falling over the room. The sight of a Spanish naval uniform usually provoked that reaction, at least from men like these. They were in the less reputable part of the city, where a pirate or two occasionally thought they might pass unnoticed.
The grimy windows kept out more sunlight than they let in and the light of the burning candles was barely enough to see by. Fortunately, the descriptions Carlos and his men had been given of the pirates were distinct enough that it shouldn't be a problem. With a couple of curt, efficient words he directed his men to fan out and start searching, while Carlos and two others remained guarding the door.
His gaze swept over the room, his hand resting lightly on the hilt of his sword. Some of the patrons were already twisting in their seats, throwing nervous glances around them, as if looking for alternate escape routes. The owner of the place stood behind the counter, looking displeased by the disruption, but clearly knew better than to complain, lest he wanted to lose his establishment.
Had Carlos held any sympathy for the pub's patrons, he might have explained that they were only there to apprehend three of them and that the rest could relax. As it were, he had very little patience for the sort of men who lived at odds with the law — which seemed to be the majority of the people in this room — and therefore remained silent by the door, watching them squirm.
The downside of having so many men of questionable morals in one place was that it made it impossible to spot their pirates on their behaviour alone. Everyone was acting at least a little bit suspicious — even those who were probably only guilty of petty crimes.
Protests were beginning to rise as Carlos's men made their way from one table to another, manhandling where necessary to get a better look at those trying to hide their faces. It was probably only a matter of time before a too-nervous patron threw a punch, but Carlos had a vague hope that they would find the pirates they were looking for before that happened. Any act of aggression would not doubt jolt every single one of these men into action, and Carlos didn't want to lose his targets in the chaos that would follow.
A voice, louder than the others, caught Carlos's attention, his gaze snapping to the right. A man — tall, broad-shouldered, and possibly of British or French descent judging by his light hair — was swaying to his feet, glasses askew and slurring something in horrendously poor Spanish. He wasn't one of those Carlos was looking for and, unlike most of the other patrons, seemed too drunk to have realised what was going on. If he had, he probably wouldn't have offered a Spanish sailor a drink from his rum bottle.
Carlos was just about to dismiss him as insignificant when, a heartbeat later, that same man caused the tension in the room to snap — like a spark lighting up a powder keg.
When Hernández reached to push the swaying blond back down onto his chair, the man dodged in under the outstretched arm with a grace no one that drunk should possess. Carlos was shocked by the swiftness of the man's movements — how he slipped past Hernández and, with a well-aimed jab with his elbow across Hernández's back, sent him stumbling forward, crashing into the nearby table.
That was all it took for the rest of the patrons to burst into action.
Shouts erupted, followed by the scuffle of chairs and glass breaking, and the chaos Carlos had hoped to avoid descended upon the room. He lost sight of the tall blond as two men tried to rush for the door and, before long, an all-out brawl had erupted inside the pub.
Carlos was not looking forward to reporting back to his superiors about this particular incident.
It was too crowded, the space too narrow, for Carlos to pull his sword or gun, but a couple of well-aimed punches worked just as well. In their desperation, many of the men tried to reach the door, no doubt making the mistake of assuming that, since he was wearing an officer's uniform, Carlos was less accustomed to fighting than the average sailor.
That was a mistake they only made once.
The warning shout from Mendoza made Carlos look up, just in time to see the blond man appear from out of the mess of struggling bodies, clearly headed for the door Carlos was guarding. It was pure reflex, fuelled by a sudden flare of anger, that made Carlos move to meet him. If there was one thing Carlos hated more than being taken by surprise, it was failing a mission, and this man was now the cause of both. He might not be who Carlos initially came to arrest, but he would gladly chain him up with the rest, just because of his audacity.
Their gazes locked but, even then, the blond didn't break his stride. A grin flashed on his face, wide and impish, and, in the next second, he had scaled one of the tables, steps so light he might as well have been flying. Carlos's eyes widened when he realised what was about to happen next and it was pure self-preservation that made him duck.
Even hunched over, Carlos was not a short man, but this daredevil vaulted over him as if it was nothing — he didn't even knock the hat off of Carlos's head.
Carlos spun on his heel, too shocked to really do anything but watch as the man smoothly rolled to his feet as soon as he touched the ground. López made a fumbling attempt to grab him but, just like with Hernández, the blond easily slid out of reach, twisting under López's arm and out of harm's way.
A moment later, the man was shouldering open the door, letting a burst of blinding sunlight into the dark pub. Carlos couldn't help flinching from the sudden brightness, but, as the man threw one last glance over his shoulder, Carlos was still able to catch the elated smile on his face.
The next second, he had slipped out onto the street and disappeared.
It wasn't until long after, once Carlos and his men had broken up the pub brawl and managed to apprehend one — but not all three — of their pirates, that Carlos found himself reflecting back on that moment.
His first reaction was anger, partly because his mission had only been partially successful, but, more so than that, because he had been so easily outmanoeuvred by that grinning scoundrel.
His second was a reluctant dash of awe — he had never seen a man move like that before. Carlos knew grace, of course, and was known to be a skilled sword fighter himself, but that had been something else entirely. The man had moved with such litheness, steps light and barely touching the ground, almost as if he had been dancing.
The third was puzzlement because, during that brief second when the man had looked back, haloed by white sunlight, Carlos had found the time to register that the blond's eyes were blue — bright, brilliantly blue, like a cloud-free sky stretching out over the open ocean.
Why he had thought that worthy of note, Carlos couldn't say, and he decided not to linger on it any longer than he had to.
Carlos was headed for the docks, having delivered his weekly report to his superiors at La Fuerza. The air was stifling outside the marginally cooler fortress and it didn't take long before he could feel himself grow increasingly agitated. While Carlos was proud of his uniform, it was awfully hot to wear some days. There was very little mercy to be had under the Cuban sun, especially during days like these, when the heat made everything seem unnaturally bright and shimmery around the edges.
He was passing down a narrow side-street — blessedly shaded — when a cheerful call caught his attention.
The fact that it came from above made Carlos snap to attention — cursing himself for having let his mind wander in the first place. He looked up, then even higher up, until he spotted a man perched on top of the smooth, white-painted wall on his right. Carlos knew he should have kept walking, but the moment he recognised that wide, beaming grin, he stopped in his tracks. Why, he couldn't say.
The man had one leg tucked in under him, the other dangling carelessly over the edge of the wall, and what looked to be a half-eaten mango in one hand, a small knife in the other.
The man grinned cheekily. "¿Cómo estás?"
His Spanish was atrocious — far worse than Carlos's English. But at least the accent was clear enough that Carlos could determine the man to be British rather than French. Though both were equally bad, in his opinion.
Carlos glared up at the man and tried not to be jealous of his much more weather-appropriate attire. A loose white shirt, unlaced and open wide at the collar, tucked into dark grey trousers, and high boots looked a lot more comfortable than the uniform Carlos was currently wearing. The blond was squinting slightly in the bright afternoon sun and his hair, so pale it almost looked white when lit by sunlight, was sticking out at odd angles — as if he had carelessly swept it out of his face and hadn't quite cared where it ended up afterwards. Two stray locks had fallen back down, just long enough to brush against his cheekbone.
"I should have you arrested," Carlos replied flatly in English, his pettiness getting the better of him.
A second too late, Carlos realised his mistake. The man's entire countenance brightened, a wide smile splitting his face.
"Oh! You know English! Excellent!"
And, with that, he hopped down from the wall, landing light on his feet — like a cat — despite the frankly alarming distance between his perch and the cobblestones below.
He didn't even drop his fruit.
Carlos took an instinctive step back, his hand reaching for his sword, though he didn't draw it — not yet, at least. The man was frustratingly undeterred, his grin not faltering, but at least he seemed to know better than to move closer. That still only left a couple of feet between them, but Carlos had too much pride to back up another step.
"I'm curious, though," the man said. "What would you charge me with?"
He looked infuriatingly calm as he sliced off a piece of mango, his eyes wide and innocent behind his round glasses.
"Attacking a Spanish marinero," Carlos replied evenly.
"He started it." The man shrugged. The movement caused his to shirt slip open just a little wider and, for some reason, Carlos caught himself looking down at the man's collarbones. Granted, they were in plain view, but Carlos wasn't sure what had prompted him to do that.
He felt a subtle burn of embarrassment and quickly looked back up again.
"Besides," the man continued, taking a bite out of his fruit, making his next couple of words a little muffled by his chewing, "I barely even touched him."
That was a lie, considering that Hernández'd had a bruise across his back for over a week afterwards. The man's obvious strength didn't come as a surprise to Carlos, however, since one of the first things he had noticed about him were his broad shoulders. Now that they stood opposite each other, Carlos reluctantly had to admit that he was just a little bit shorter than the man as well. All in all, the blond would have been a rather impressive man, if not for the glasses and that annoying, impish grin.
"Still enough to arrest you," Carlos bit out.
He was usually calmer than this, but something about this man got under his skin in ways few things did. He was unnerved by the casual, carefree smile, despite the threats of arrest. Truth be told, Carlos didn't even need a reason if he wanted to lock this man away. His men would trust his word if he told them he had apprehended a criminal. That would be unfair, of course, and a clear abuse of power Carlos had always avoided, but he was beginning to feel that exceptions could be made.
Carlos wished he had kept walking.
The man swallowed and wiped his thumb just below his bottom lip, his finger scratching against his beard.
"I bet you won't, though," he said, eyes alight with mischief and something else Carlos couldn't name.
The amount of smugness in the man's voice made Carlos's hackles rise.
If he hadn't been determined to arrest the blond before, he certainly was now, if only to prove the bastard wrong. Carlos was about to take a step forward and do just that when the man held up a finger, mango still in hand.
"No, wait, correction," he said, slipping his knife back into the sheath dangling from his wide leather belt. "You won't be able to."
Carlos was known for being patient— virtuously so, according to his men — but even he had limits. He wouldn't stand for being ridiculed by this man, who clearly had no manners or shame.
Carlos's hand tightened around the hilt of his sword, but, before he had time to unsheathe it, the man flashed him that same, infuriating grin he'd worn back at the pub. The one Carlos knew from experience meant he wasn't going to like what happened next.
"Catch," the man said.
Then, with a quick flick of his wrist, he sent the half-eaten mango flying straight at Carlos's face. There wasn't enough force behind it to cause any actual harm, but Carlos's reflex was still to recoil, abandoning his grip on his sword to bat the fruit aside.
It didn't take more than a couple of seconds, but that was still enough for the man to have backed up to the opposite side of the narrow street. Before Carlos had time to act, the man was running towards the wall he had previously been perched on and, to Carlos's astonishment, didn't stop. His boot hit the smooth surface, launching him upwards, high enough that he could hook his fingers over the edge. Then, with a heave that looked altogether too easy, the man had pulled himself back up onto the wall.
Carlos stared, not sure what to do with a man who had just climbed a flat wall with more grace than a bloody mountain goat. The fact that the man was now out of his reach — and had more or less proved his prediction that Carlos wouldn't be able to catch him — was somehow secondary.
What kind of man was this? How was he able to move like that?
The blond laughed, bright and happy, and, somehow, Carlos could tell it wasn't at his expense.
"You'll have to forgive me," the man said. He looked decidedly boyish with his hands braced against the wall on either side of him, leaning slightly forwards with his feet dangling. "I'm not fond of prisons."
Carlos pressed his lips together. "You're not supposed to be."
"Yes, I suppose that would defeat the purpose of imprisonment."
Frustration was bubbling under Carlos's skin, but he tried to tell himself that reaching for his pistol would be rash. He was an excellent marksman — one of the best — and could easily make sure the wound wouldn't be fatal, but he liked to think he was better than that.
He had better control of his emotions than that.
"I'm Jacob Jensen, by the way."
"I don't care," Carlos snapped, glaring up at the man.
He could admit, though, that knowing the man's name would help him figure out who he was and track him down later. What exactly Carlos planned to do this Jensen when he did, well — he had ample time to decide.
"I look forward to changing your mind, Teniente," Jensen replied, bold as brass, the words accompanied by a playful wink. "I think this is the start of something beautiful. Wouldn't you agree?"
Carlos did not agree. His teeth were gritted so tightly they hurt and the temptation to draw his sword and smack it against Jensen's dangling legs was overwhelming. They should still be within his reach.
It was astounding that one man could be so infuriating.
"If I see you again, I will arrest you," Carlos threatened. The fact that he wasn't sure if it was an empty threat or not only made his agitation grow.
He didn't like being bested.
"Well, you'd have to catch me first," Jensen replied teasingly. "And you haven't had much luck with that so far."
At that point, Carlos's anger definitely got the better of him. It was partly the fact that he was being mocked but, even more so, because he had a sneaking suspicion that Jensen was right. Judging by their two encounters, Carlos was going to have to try much harder if he ever wanted to catch this man.
Unless he made it easy for himself, of course.
When Carlos reached for his pistol, those blue eyes widened in alarm. It might just have been the act itself, or perhaps Jensen saw something in Carlos's face that finally made him realise that Carlos wasn't interested in playing games.
By the time Carlos was taking aim, Jensen had swung his legs over onto the other side of the wall. He wasn't quite fast enough, however, and, with a jolt, Carlos realised he could put a bullet in Jensen's back, right then and there. He should — he had more than enough reason to — but found himself hesitating, finger resting on the trigger but not moving.
That split-second of doubt was all the time Jensen needed to drop down on the other side of the wall, disappearing out of view.
Carlos took a slow breath and lowered his pistol. Only then did he feel how tense his shoulders were — how he was practically thrumming with anger — but, underneath that, he felt a curl of shame. He had almost shot an unarmed man in the back.
That was not the kind of man he wanted to be.
Carlos grimaced and tucked his pistol back in its holster, still staring up at the top of the wall where Jensen had disappeared. He usually prided himself on being calm and rational, but his reaction to Jensen's taunts had been anything but that.
He was supposed to be better than this.
After a slow exhale, during which he forced his tense shoulders to relax, he vowed not to let Jensen get a rise out of him again. Carlos would chase him down if necessary, like promised, but he would keep his emotions out of it. They had no place in this situation and he hated to give Jensen the satisfaction of seeing him react.
With that decided, Carlos turned to leave, making sure to curb the childish urge to kick the sad-looking mango lying forgotten on the cobblestones.
That would have been beneath him, no matter how tempting.
It was only when Carlos got frustrated enough to ask his informants that he reached any kind of breakthrough.
They, too, said there was no one by that name in Havana — at least that they were aware of — but one bloke did know of a pirate who matched Jensen's description, though he had introduced himself as Jake rather than Jacob. There was a chance that this wasn't the same person, but it was slim at best. Mainly because there weren't a whole lot of people of Jensen's description walking around, and even fewer who also happened to have the same first name.
No matter how hard Carlos pressed, he was unable to get the name of the crew or ship Jensen might be sailing with, however, which made it more difficult to predict when he might show up again.
Still, he now knew Jensen was a pirate.
Which, considering Jensen's general attitude and lack of manners, wasn't much of a surprise. The vindication felt less satisfying than Carlos would have wanted, though, tainted somewhat by the knowledge that Jensen had gone from someone Carlos might have thrown into a cell for a week or two, to someone he was expected to arrest and watch get hanged.
Whatever hint of reluctance he felt was quickly pushed aside.
Pirates were to be captured and executed, and it certainly wasn't Carlos's place to start making exceptions. Jensen had made his choice and Carlos would do what was expected of him, even if it meant actually pulling the trigger next time.
Though Carlos would be lying if he said he looked forward to it.