9 min read

The Dandy Gorgon

You can’t outsail a curse. You can only hope it strikes the fool next to you.

Previously: The sisters deliver a newspaper to a hospital way up in the hills. They get a tour of the terminal patients. There is no dialogue. A moments respite from the constant chatter of this novel—youre welcome!

— 34 —

The sun’s setting. Fort Hook loosens its tie, slingshots its brassiere into the sky. Bat and Mina take their time going back to Hawthorne Grain HQ, strolling along the promenade. Couples meander from pier to pier, whispering, smoking. Stabs of laughter. Tuna boats return home with sad exhausted diesel drones. The foghorn blows. A wind picks up.

They drift back into Sal’s, he asks if anything interesting happened, Bat says they saw a vagina with a new baby in it. He nods solemnly, says well then it was a very special day indeed.

They go down to the underwater executive office where they find the archivists in matching pajamas (the same sumptuous ones Bat had on last night), sitting on a picnic blanket on the floor, scavenging a meat-and-cheese plate. Margaret is at her desk with a glass of scotch. Bat’s a little shocked to see her shoes are off.

“How was the first day back together?” she asks, not looking up from whatever she’s reading.

“Just like old times,” Mina says.

“Excellent, or I’m sorry,” Margaret says, glancing at them. “Word from Finch is he’s happy, so I’m happy. Now I’d like to talk to you about the big job.” 

She motions for them to sit but there’s only the one chair, so they join the teenagers on the floor.

“There is a ship,” Margaret says. “A man will be on that ship the day after tomorrow. The job is getting a message to the man on that ship. The ship is called the Dandy Gorgon.”

The Dandy Gorgon, christened El Tiburón del Oro, is a galleon. Big. A thousand tons, four masts, thirty cannons firing nine-pounders which I have personally seen turn a man into crimson smoke. It was built to run spices and porcelain and lacquerware and whatnot but it never worked out that way. The ship was cursed from day one. There was a mutiny on board El Tiburón in the first twenty minutes of its maiden voyage. Before it even got out of the harbor.

Some mutinies are carefully orchestrated, mapped out to the smallest detail. Most are the result of someone who’s had enough of the cruel treatment and cruel food, but that takes at least a couple days at sea. In this instance, it was the powder monkey, couldn’t have been more than twelve years old, who took issue with the captain strangling his mother to death in a bawdy house the night before.

As El Tiburón set sail for the first time, this captain was running through his announcements—“Do not address me by name, do not look into my eye with your eye, do not enter my chambers after sundown, or ever”—when the powder monkey vaulted down from the foremast, knocked him to the deck, and shoved a handful of lit smokecherries (bite-sized bombs made from sugar, gunpowder, and finely ground conium maculatum) down his throat. In the ship’s log, the captain’s last words were reported to be “an horrific gargle that shall stay with us to the grave and beyond.”

Once the smoke cleared, the crew gathered around the bloated, stinking body to chastise the boy.

“Why’d you do that, lad?”

“He kilt me mum dead!” the powder monkey cried.

“He’s kilt many ladies of the night, what of it? Some men have peculiar Needs!”

“I myself have to be struck with the Bible in order to know Pleasure!”

“Tis not your place to cast Judgment, boy, nor your wee balls of Death-smoke!”

“And now we have no Captain, and his love of the Sea was second only to his love of strangulating women!”

“We do have a Captain,” the powder monkey said, his voice shrill and unbroken. “Tis I!”

And yes, the Unwritten Law said that whomsoever kills the Captain becomes the Captain, but these things usually played out with a second party stepping in to kill the Captain-killer, and then maybe a few more stabbings or eye-gougings, and then you finally get to a point where all that’s left is some undisciplined lunatic and a collection of more even-keeled types who just want to do their job and get paid and take off their pantaloons and drink a drink.

This arrangement is actually pretty ideal for your average transport ship, but El Tiburón was not so lucky. In this case, the crew just shrugged and let the powder monkey run things, despite him not having even the most basic understanding of navigation, armament, tacking, jibing, furling, distress signals, team leadership, or really anything necessary to keep the boat afloat.

Thus, a few days later, they found themselves in el cenagal: a peaceful, shallow stretch of water where, years earlier, a ship had been cannonball’d into fragments and sunk. Then another ship came along and got snagged in its debris. And then a third and fourth and tenth and twentieth until the whole region was nothing but a rickety deathtrap of splintered masts and rotting sails. El cenagal had thus become a popular spot for buccaneers to sit and wait for booty to get caught in the web.

Sure enough, El Tiburón del Oro got snared and some nearby freebooters leisurely murdered the entire crew and looted its fresh supply of goods and bullion and weaponry, and then sailed off, feeling oddly unsatisfied.

Years passed. Then, one fine April, a wealthy landowner named Marikit Abayari launched an ambitious project to dredge up the boats caught in el cenegal and refurbish them to build his own private fleet. And then his scouting ship got caught in an eddy and capsized, killing all aboard.

Decades tumbled into centuries, and then a second, more successful, effort was made by Eleanor Jickett (of the East Hollow Jicketts, absolutely depraved by opium wealth) to resuscitate El Tiburón. Using state-of-the-art crane technology, she dredged up the galleon, badly battered but still basically brand new, and had it brought back to shore. It was then torn apart and sent, in hundreds of crates, to the frigid north where she intended to begin her exploration of the Arctic. There, El Tiburón was rebuilt into a luxury research facility, complete with sixteen cabins, a darkroom for the photographers, various costly gewgaws which would go unused (a sextant, an astrolabe, an orrery, an armillary sphere), a prow reinforced with iron, and a steam engine.

Eleanor rechristened the ship the Dandy Gorgon after the name of a shrubbery that grew thick upon her home estate, the fruit of which her mother used to murder her father, the pit of the dandy gorgon being a convenient and affordable source of cyanide. Eleanor’s choice of names is probably psychologically significant but that is for a more insightful narrator to dissect.

A few days after the Gorgon left port, a rare parasite (a stowaway in the hardtack) got into the crew’s intestines and dispensed with its hosts in—to quote Jickett family biographer D. R. Bernhardt—“a literal explosion of such odious biological horror that I cannot bring myself to describe it here out of respect to my readers and Our Lord.”

The Gorgon floated adrift for months in the frigid northern sea, deck strewn with perfectly preserved innards, until it meandered close enough to fishing waters to be discovered by a posse of Kalaallit, whose prophecy said a ghost ship would one day come to carry them off to their version of Heaven, a land carved from frozen akvavit where conquering heroes were welcomed by bottomless flagons of honeyed wine and bottomless icemaidens of honeyed hair.

The Kalaallit cheered, packed their things, and let the winds take them. A week later, they were lost, their coastal fishing techniques useless, and they were forced to feed upon the refrigerated remains of Team Jickett. And of course they suffered the same explosive, parasite-fueled end.

Years passed, and when scavengers eventually stumbled upon the wreckage, the sight inspired one crew member to write a collection of mediocre poetry called There Must Certainly Be No God, featuring sonnets entitled “Chiaroscuro of Viscera,” “That Which Was Never Meant to Be Witness’d,” and “A Man’s Soul is Bloody and Foul-Smelling.”

The scavengers managed to refrain from eating the tainted meat, instead opting to haul the poisoned ship to the nearest port of call and cut their losses. The Gorgon was then purchased by “philanthropist” Diamond Dana who had it hosed down and rebuilt as a pleasure barge, decked out in gaslights and orchids and silk. For years she escorted high-paying customers out into international waters where they could enjoy the company of expert courtesans in a range of themed cabins: The Samurai Suite, The Igloo Room, The Operating Theatre, The Void of Space, etc.

Naturally the curse struck once again, this time in the form of a virulent strain of gonorrhea. The temporarily sterling reputation of the Gorgon was ruined and Diamond Dana found herself in debtor’s prison.

But! This meant that one of the employees—Mr. John Temple of The Atlantis Room, a.k.a. Johnny Two-Tits, who’d been socking away most of his earnings—was able to buy the ship for a song. He pawned off the paraphernalia (chemises, corsets, fine hosiery, things of frill, leg cuffs, cats o’ nine tails, feathered domino masks) to rehire the crew, and they sailed up and down the coast, selling bootleg rotgut.

The flagship product was a saltwater liqueur that tended to kill off its most fervent consumers, and the whole operation was about to go belly-up when then-purser Nia Muto, whilst in some kind of rage-fueled fugue, concocted a potent hooch she called Plumber’s Serpent: dark rum infused with ginger, peppercorn, grapefruit, and blood. This drink proved hugely popular among the sea toughs of Fort Hook and business took off, especially after Captain Two-Tits suffered a tragic accident whereby he—according to the report filed by replacement captain Nia Muto—tripped and fell upon her dagger a couple dozen times.

Today, the Dandy Gorgon has become the nerve center of an alarmingly lucrative distillery called The Snakehair Beverage Co., a wholly owned subsidiary of Muto Enterprises. It handcrafts and distributes all manner of premium liquors and soft tonics, as well as assorted tinctures and mixers and bitters and syrups and, if you have the means, highly experimental alchemical sodas.

But even though the company is now legit, with a ticker symbol and generous benefits package, it still has the soul of a murderous bootlegger. Meetings regularly erupt into fisticuffs or worse, alliances form and explode throughout the day, and new drink recipes are guarded more fiercely than one’s own life.

Thus, Captain Nia Muto, about whom not much else is known, is now one of the major players in the Fort Hook business world. And she seems to have, for now, kept the centuries-long curse of El Tiburón del Oro at bay.

“I’ve unfortunately had my fair share of Plumber’s Serpents,” Bat says, gnawing on a stick of dry salami. “But I ain’t heard of this boat.”

“Doesn’t matter what you’ve heard of,” Margaret says. “What matters is a great deal of money flows in and out of it.”

“Margaret is very interested in getting Snakehair as a client,” Anabel says.

“She’s hot to trot,” Carmen says.

“She is lusty,” Kimani says.

“Ladies, please. It has my interest, let’s leave it at that. But I haven’t been able to get a foothold. We did a little job for them not long ago but didn’t even get on board.”

“Do we have any intel?” Mina asks.

Anabel says, “We hear the ship’s filled stem to stern with psychopaths.”

Carmen says, “We hear Captain Muto’s the worst of them all.”

Kimani says, “We hear if you look at her the wrong way, she forces you to impregnate her, then she has the baby, then she kills the baby in front of you, then she adds the baby’s skin to her fancy scarf that is now fifty feet long.”

“Enough,” Margaret snaps. “You’re just spinning balls of yarn. Stick to what we know.”

The archivists look disappointed in themselves. “All we know is outsiders tend to find themselves full of holes and resting in peace.”

“So, to recap,” Bat says. “You want us to sneak our way onto a murder ship and father a scarf.”

“Oh, it’s trickier than that,” Margaret says, finishing her drink. “Our client is back in town tomorrow. She’ll give you all the details, which I assure you are quite gory.”


This has been Chapter 34 of Chokeville, a novel by Josh Fireland.

Next up: Rats + Ghosts