I brought my boat in that morning to the eastern side of the island. Not much in the way of harbor there, but at this season the winds tended to howl from the west, so I made do with a shallow cove, splashed down, secured the vessel with three stout hawsers lashed to steel pegs driven deep into the sand. Unless we caught a fierce blow, that should do the trick. Once I dropped the ramp, Professor Vorchek and his girl Friday joined me, followed by his two graduate students, whom he seemed to treat as nothing more than pack animals. They carried the supplies and gear ashore. I sympathized, but didn’t lend a hand. That wasn’t in my contract. I’d been paid to haul them all to Ironfang Island, and God help me, I did that.
Vorchek explained it simply enough when we made the deal. “I have misplaced a colleague,” he said, in that slightly accented but perfect English of his, carefully enunciating every word. He dressed well, this Anton Vorchek, looked good, tall and distinguished, with silvery temples and a short, manicured beard, but he rubbed me the wrong way from the start. He’s one of those guys who smiles a little bit all the time, only it means nothing, and his eyes are dark ice. It wasn’t long before he gave me the creeps. “Doctor Vane,” he went on, “Wallis Vane, a sound researcher in folklore and local history. He consulted me on a project which took him to your coast, subsequently mounted an expedition into your waters. He never returned. I wish to learn what happened to him. That is why I want you to take me to Ironfang Island.”
Ironfang Island! That told me plenty. Oh boy. I’m not a superstitious man—not really—well, maybe I am, as much as any man of the sea, but I didn’t relish a nautical jaunt to that place. I knew the stories of what occurred out there in ye olde days, figured I knew more than any landlubber, especially the peculiar legends, maybe more so than a book man. I was inclined to decline. Vorchek named a price. I cursed myself, accepted on the spot.
Now I was here for the duration, several days I’d been told, with four companions: Vorchek; his girl assistant, or girl friend, Theresa Delaney; the students, Bob Howell and Nora Smith, there to seek the missing Dr. Vane. I wondered if we were looking for something more.
Vorchek quietly delivered his genial orders, instructing his dopey young pair to pitch camp while he and Theresa commenced their initial scout. He invited me along. Why not? I wished to gauge what he was really up to. I didn’t entirely believe his official story, thought I might pick up on his special knowledge, if he had any.
I made myself useful on that hike. Though I’d never set foot there before, I’d seen the island as I cruised past many a time, and it was so small that I’d mastered its basic geography long distance. Shaped like a long teardrop, with us moored at the fat end, it tapered to a mere bar to the north. Nearby rose a sizable mound of sand and sawgrass, the only elevation of note, separated from us by a line of seaward dunes. A grove of palmettos straggled along the western shore, reaching almost down to the old pirates’ harbor.
That, after all, was the story of Ironfang Island, a haunt of pirates in centuries past, the hideout of the vicious Captain Ironfang and his murderous crew, the vilest of human monsters ever to plague and disgrace these waters. So, too, was this locale his reputed treasure island, a tale which periodically drew greedy adventurers. When Vorchek briefed me I recalled the newspaper accounts of Dr. Vane’s team, remembered something about his disappearance and the troubles leading to that. One more oddball story set on Ironfang Island. Was it any wonder that superstition snapped at me? No, nor that I should question motives, ask of myself what actually brought us here. Old sailors on their second bottle raved about the fortune to be dug out of those lonely, blood-soaked sands.
We circumnavigated the island, Vorchek pleasantly chatting of its historic horrors. He knew those stories like he wrote them himself. “Captain Ironfang,” he muttered, “a unique case in the annals of piracy. Thief, murderer, tormentor of men and women, yet something more: a doer of evil, for the sake of evil. His contemporaries accused him, on the basis of copious evidence, of indulging in outright Satanic practices, worshipping the Dark One, forcing his men to do so, sacrificing hapless victims to Him. The recovered notes of my friend, Dr. Vane, reference his discovery of the olden shrine to Satan, in that palmetto grove, bearing encrustations still of dried blood, a finding confirmed by those who accompanied him.”
“It’s a pity they didn’t join us,” I observed. “They might tell us a thing or two.”