“Black Betty,” [Lone Star Stories; Issue 23, October 1, 2007] by Ben Peek is a compelling and macabre adventure story set against the Caribbean pirate era. Although no date is specified within the piece, somewhere around 1665 would be my educated guess. The story involves a British warship and its crew commissioned from St. Lucia, a Caribbean island that changed hands between the British and the French myriad times, with the former controlling the island from 1663 to 1667, a time frame coincident with the height of the Caribbean piracy era.
The story is largely framed in the form of testimonial evidence in regard to an investigation being conducted by Lord Richard Lewis who is apparently the governor of the colony or some other high official. His inquiry is in regard to an affair concerning the mighty warship Meredith which he had outfitted for the benefit of Captain Andrew Lewis, his now déclassé son. The son had been disgraced due to an affair he had had with a black woman who apparently had been a practitioner of herbal and folk medicine. Lord Lewis had been scandalized by his son’s association and had hung Zaierra, the object of Andrew’s affections.
Upon learning of a connection between Zaierra and a legendary, now virtually mythical, pirate queen referred to as “Black Betty,” Lord Lewis ordered his son, by way of redemption, to hunt down both the pirate and her swift raiding ship—boasting distinctive black sails—of the same name. Black Betty is believed to have been a onetime runaway slave who had turned pirate as revenge; a revenge which has wreaked havoc upon the Caribbean for years. Myths abound about her including that she had made deals with the sea to gain immortality.
Throughout the story—thus far related as an inquiry before the ill-fated captain’s father—the reader is puzzled at certain inconsistencies within the testimonies given by the three witnesses and even more so by unanswered questions. How long had Lewis and his party remained on the island? Was it really the three days that Avery had maintained it had been?
If so, why hadn’t Blue and Belzar stated or implied such, nor Lewis within his letter? What would have been the purpose for such an extended visit when they had discovered Black Betty, the stated reason for their having been there, the first day? Had Captain Lewis actually so easily relinquished his father’s prize captive or her life as the pirate Belzar related?
Likewise, to this point the reader is uncertain if he or she is reading a straightforward and dark adventure story, or one of the supernatural. Nowhere is the word “voodoo,” for example, mentioned; yet the author skillfully weaves that thought within the reader’s perception with subtle allusions that are by no means conclusive. Mr. Peek paints a tense, ominous portrait on the steamy tropical canvas of his vivid imagination. The trepidation the author engenders within the reader’s psyche is palpable; the sheer ruthlessness of his drawn subjects, breathtaking.
Mr. Peek’s resolution of the story is one that is as masterful as it is startling and unforgettable. It is delivered by way of a testimony beyond the scope and authority of Lord Lewis’s investigation. It is an ending just vaguely reminiscent of that of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, though totally original and just as compelling. Mr. Peek adroitly leaves just enough to the reader’s imagination to render the piece thought-provoking, while sufficiently resolving riddles to avoid his story becoming a cipher in the reader’s mind.
If “Black Betty” is indicative of Mr. Peek’s work as a whole, then it is a point of wonder that his is not already a household name; or at least such within houses where residents actually read. Five stars out of five. Bravo!
This review has, I think, the weird honour of being--to the best of my knowledge--the most words dedicated to anything I have ever written. Usually, I'm not so up on pieces that tell me what was in the story, but I was strangely captivated by this one. For some reason, I kept wondering if I'd really written that, and why someone in Hollywood wasn't rushing to take an option on the piece, and give me millions of dollars. Not the usual experience I get while reading reviews, got to say.