Night Kiss Serial: Chapter Twenty-Six
As it is Written
Bright piercing sunlight bit through his sand encrusted eyelids. Painful warmth, heated from the afternoon sun, flooded his cheek smashed into the beach sands. Jack groaned and tried once more to open his eyes, the glare reflecting from the tidal flats blaring white-hot into his head. He tried to move from his face down, sprawled position but found it nearly impossible to do so. His limbs were heavy with fatigue. His numb brain refused to control any movement of his body.
At least for the time being.
It seemed he’d lain there for hours, his breathing labored, the lids of his eyes occasionally lifting. Once a sand crab sidled by close to his nose. He couldn’t muster up enough energy to even flick it away. He simply watched it through veiled eyes. His lips were parched and dry, the afternoon sun and the salt mist saw to that. He tried to rake his tongue over them, but it didn’t help. The inside of his mouth was as dry as his lips. They hurt. He hurt. And he couldn’t for the life of him remember why or how he’d gotten himself into this predicament.
The rum. Ah, ‘twas it, wasn’t it?
The rum. Then it would take only a few hours more to escape it. Thank the Lord, it would be over soon. Just a few hours more, after the sun went down and the cool breezes blew in off the ocean, then he could gather up enough strength to drag himself back to his cabin. Back to his lonely, empty cabin. So he could forget the nightmare induced by his drunken stupor.
The bloody nightmare that tore his heart out.
He opened his eyes again, more easily this time, and the cool darkness bit back at him. Must have slept. Arching one eyebrow and raising one lid as far as he could, he stared out at the distant dusk settling over the buoyant sea.
Black. Black as the back of his eyelids. No stars. No moon.
I’ve got to get home.
Pushing his knees under him, he attempted to rise from the cold sand. Once. Twice. Three times. Finally, he pushed far enough to roll his entire body over onto his back. Moaning a low guttural curse, Jack realized that the switch in positions really wasn’t much help, just a change of scenery, and a relief to his tender stomach. Now he wasn’t staring at the horizon, he was staring full-scale at the heavens, too weak and dehydrated, he suspected, to try to move anymore.
At his back, he felt the smooth hard planes of something firm and solid, unlike the soft shifting sands. Odd, he thought as a twinkling of remembrance nagged at him from somewhere deep in his skull.
Grimacing, he rolled up on one elbow and shifted his weight to lay a hand in front of him. Puzzled, he then stroked his fingertips along the cool surface of a flat, gray stone.
For three days Claire stared at the little house with the picket fence in the village, living out of her car, praying every time she had to go to the bathroom that Rick wouldn’t leave. She’d changed her disguise so many times she felt she’d lost her own identity. The first day she’d parked down the street, watching his comings and goings. The second day she’d parked a street over and used her papa’s twenty-year-old binoculars to spy on him. She’d seen him come and go at least once a day. Chuck DeHart joined him the day after he’d arrived and then the goons who had tried to help Rick kidnap her the first time. She wasn’t positive but also thought she recognized the scruffy man from the Blackbeard’s Treasure shop she’d visited months earlier.
Something smelly was definitely in the air.
And it wasn’t fish.
The third day she dressed in the brunette wig again, donned the sunglasses, her Nikes and a long, flowing jumper under which she’d stuffed a small pillow, and walked up and down the street two or three times, trying to steal a glimpse of Rick in the house.
Lingering a little too long at one pass, Claire jumped when the door flew open and Chuck burst out. “Yeah,” he called back over his shoulder. “Ten o’clock. I’ll be here.” A broad grin stretched across his face as he tripped down the steps and landed square in front of Claire.
It had been quite a few years, but she would have been able to pick him out of a crowd easily enough. The Texas Troubadour. Would he recognize her, even under her disguise?
“Excuse me,” Claire brushed past.
“Hey!” he shouted after her, his hand brushing her elbow. “You been walking up and down the street all afternoon, lady. What are you doing?”
She cleared her throat and glanced away. “I—I, uh.” Then she clutched her stomach and pitched her voice higher, trying to disguise it. “I’m…I’m having labor pains. My doctor told me to walk. Make the baby come quicker.”
Chuck stared at her. Her eyes widened behind the sunglasses.
Then she clutched her abdomen again and moaned, loudly. “I think it’s working. I better go.” She backed up several steps.
He simply nodded at her, his eyes narrowed to tiny slits. “Yeah. You better go. Maybe you better get to the hospital.”
She raised a hand for a small wave and smiled. “Yes.” Then she turned her back to him and lumbered off. He was a jerk in college, and apparently, he was still a jerk today. She breathed a long sigh of relief that he hadn’t recognized her.
She listened as he started his jeep and revved up the engine. She walked on, stifling the urge to look back, but his jeep rushed past as he slanted a lingering glance her way.
She rounded the corner to the next street and sat in her car. Ten o’clock. Chuck said he’d be back at ten o’clock. She thought for a minute, chewing on her lip. She’d be back at ten o’clock also, and she’d be there with bells on.
At nine-thirty, Claire parked her car two streets over and walked slowly toward the alley behind the small house. The one-lane alley split the properties on either side, so she cut through a side yard full of trees two houses down, slipped up the alley to a garage behind the house, and settled in until the time drew a little closer to ten. At five of ten, all the lights in the house went off.
She edged closer through a grove of pines. A car pulled up in front. Three men walked toward the porch. Claire stole a little closer and stood perfectly still behind a tree. One man was dressed like any other young man in the area, the other two looked surprisingly like they just stepped off Blackbeard’s ship—baggy pants, scarves across their foreheads, earrings, dirty, scruffy. Rick’s buddies. Claire shivered.
They approached the front door. One of the pirates rapped fiercely on it. Claire stifled a gasp when the door opened and Rick stepped through the threshold, dressed exactly as she’d seen him on Blackbeard’s ship.
One of the men mumbled something to Rick, and he let him pass. She couldn’t quite make out the words and crept forward just a little. The second man mumbled, and Claire dropped lower to sneak closer to the porch and hid behind some shrubbery. The third, now within earshot, spoke a little louder. He uttered the words. She heard them clearly.
The rumble of an engine sprang forth in the night. Panning the street, she watched Chuck’s jeep pull in behind the other car. She sank deeper into a bush and listened as the heels of Chuck’s boots dug into the wooden porch. She chuckled as he uttered the password and entered the house.
The door slapped shut behind him.
Claire let the night’s silence envelop her for a few minutes. Then she rose.
Stepping away from the porch, she sleuthed around the house to the left, brushing twigs away from her coat, and then crept along its side and stepped onto the sidewalk. Her cowboy boots clunked along the concrete, breaking the night’s hush. As she continued, she jerked her cowboy hat low over her eyes, re-tucked her hair up under the short gray wig, checked the contents of the duster’s pockets, dabbed at the fake mustache under her nose. Thank God Vicki and Jeremiah had come through and packed all these disguises.
Stopping at the edge of the porch, she took a deep, cleansing breath and exhaled.
Bowing her legs out, she stomped up the steps and directly across the porch to the door. She pounded on it with a force only a man could muster. She hoped.
Cautiously, the door swung open.
Claire peered into the dark room. Rick stepped into the doorframe.
He stood there, not saying a word. She assumed the rest was up to her.
“Death to Spotswood,” she muttered low and deep and then waited. Rick stared at her for a moment, the skin around his eyes crinkling as he narrowed them at her. Her gaze connected with his and held for a hell of a long time, and then she panicked.
His eyes, she would know them anywhere.
Would he know hers the same?
All her disguises could fly to the wind if he recognized her eyes. She squinted.
Sucking in a quick breath, she tried to stop her knees from knocking together. She’d heard of shaking in her boots before, but this was ridiculous. Then just as she was about to turn and run, he stepped back, giving her access to the room.
His feet were heavy as leaden blocks, but he wouldn’t stop. He was near his cabin, almost home. And when he was there, he would sink against the feather pillows Hannah had brought with her from the mainland and forget. Forget the drunken nights, the nightmares, the voices, the pain that streaked through his head. Forget the images that floated behind his eyelids, just out of his reach, unable to grasp them and pull them full into view. He simply wanted to forget.
But he needed to remember. Remember what? A dull pain ached at the base of his skull. It was happening, he knew. Again, it was happening. He treaded on. The glaze over his eyes grew thick, blurring his vision, faltering his step.
Get to the cabin, Jack. Get to the cabin where you can bury your face in Hannah’s clothing, still fresh with her scent. Get back and sleep on the linens she slept on. Get back and erase the pain. Try to forget. Try to remember.
Lit with only the faint yellow glow of a candle, placed in the center of a large oak table, the darkened room forebode ominousness. Claire stepped over the threshold and listened carefully to the whispers of the men, hushing their words as she stepped closer. Silence hung heavy. Each of the men sat around the table, their gazes pinned on her. All present except for Rick.
She stepped up to the table without a word. One of the pirate wannabes stepped up to her and thrust a Bible before her.
“Place your hands on the Bible,” his voice boomed.
She did so without lifting her gaze to the man’s face.
“Under the penalty of death do you solemnly swear that you will not reveal a solitary thing that happens this night for at least forty-five years to come?”
Claire nodded, her cowboy hat slipping, and said in a deep voice, “I swear.” Her hand quickly went to her hat.
He motioned for her to sit.
Within an instant, she heard a howl eerie enough to raise prickles on the back of her neck. Rick entered the room with a flourish—dressed in his Blackbeard garb—long flowing beard, straw hat, bandolier crossed over his chest, and smoke curling around his head.
And then she saw it.
The thing she was after.
The thing that would break the curse.
In the palm of his hands, Rick held a shallow silver cup that reflected the yellow light from the candle. Two dips, Blackbeard’s eye sockets, cut into one side at the top. She closed her own eyes and tipped the hat further down on her forehead. A shiver traveled up her spine.
The cup seemed to float on Rick’s palms as he lifted it above the table. He held it there, above his head, for what seemed an eternity until he shouted, “Death to Spotswood!”
The others repeated the chant.
Then Rick lowered the cup to his lips, drank from it, and passed it on to the next man. From hand to hand, the cup moved around the table. Each time the chant repeated, “Death to Spotswood! Death to Spotswood!”
With each pass, someone took a long draught of the scarlet-tinted liquid, and then handed the grail off to another, until at last it fell into Claire’s hands.
Almost reverently, she took the cup. Hungry eyes gazed at the flicker of the candle reflected in the chalice’s silver-plating. Licking her parched lips, she rose. As if savoring each sensation of the feel and every second of the possession of the cup in her hands, she lifted it high into the air, mimicking Rick.
As if holding the final revenge for Hannah’s death in her hands, she quivered.
“Death to Spotswood!” she shouted with a resonance unlike the others. “Death to Spotswood and to hell with the likes you!”
With that, she threw the contents of the cup into the candle flame. Immediately exploding on contact with the alcohol, the flames licked high into the room’s darkness, illuminating each surprised face, and then quickly jumping from the table to the clothing of two men behind it and the drapes behind. Shouts and screams confused the darkened room. In the midst of the disorder, with the men taken so off guard, she slipped the cup in one of the deep pockets of her duster as she hurried for the door.
Ignoring the screams of the two, the other three men lunged for her. Claire quickly flipped the top off the large can of pepper-gas spray in her pocket, lifted it, and emptied its contents into the faces of the men charging after her, Rick’s included. She didn’t wait around to witness the consequences of her actions.
As she ran down the sidewalk, the only thing she heard was the hiss of the fire and an agonized scream.
One word wrenched from Rick’s throat soared after her in the night…