Captain Cord McKinsey, a pirate cursed in 1716 for doing a good deed, now operates his schooner, the Sarah Jane, as a cruise ship. Doomed to remain effectively ship-bound and within the Caribbean waters, Cord, 34, has often reinvented himself and his ship over these near 300 years.
Though long despaired of ever breaking his curse, he becomes entwined in solving similar problems for passengers, problems that require extraordinary solutions. When his new Jamaican first mate, Ayanna, confesses she has been cursed by a Bokor, Cord agrees to help her locate a powerful shaman.
But the Bokor’s plan is more heinous and far-reaching than anyone suspects. The lovely Ayanna fails to mention that her mind and body are changing, taking form as a ravenous reptile. Even with the help of a psychic passenger, Cord may lose the people he cares for as well as his ship, the only square footage on land or sea where pain is not his constant companion.
Chris Rogers, best known for her novels of pure suspense, has previously confined any supernatural excursions to short stories featured in her Death Edge anthologies. In PARADISE CURSED, Rogers gives imagination full rein to explore life’s darker mysteries.
READ AN EXCERPT FROM PARADISE CURSED
The Caribbean Sea
“Cord! Cord McKinsey!” I heard Mum calling my name just before her arms gathered me into her skirts. Then she screamed for my da. “Jonathon!” Clutching my hand, she ran for him, stumbling over quoiles of rigging, dodging the robbers and sailors fighting around us.
My mum was one of those women who never seem to age, as pretty at thirty-two, my da said, as she was at sweet sixteen. “A grhá mo chroi,” Da called her, “love o’ my heart.” On the deck of the H.M.S. Transport, Mum’s beauty bore the sailors a dangerous distraction, which perhaps was why I, before anyone, saw the grappling iron tumble aboard.
The first mate was hailing the Dutch ship, other mates taking up push poles. Exactly nine years old—first day of November being my birthday—I didn’t actually know the name of the four-pronged hook, but I knew sure enough about ships and swords and flags. I knew the schooner flying the Dutch colors was passing rudely near to our starboard prow when the hook came flying onto the Transport’s foredeck, plunking down a hair’s breadth from my left foot.
I also knew about pirates. When gangplanks slid across connecting our two ships, men skittering over like huge scrabbling rats against the dusky orange sky as the Jolly Roger flew up the pole, I knew to be frightened.
The sight of my Da always brought comfort… his warm strong hand, the crackle of his crisp white shirt, odors of tobacco, coffee, and sometimes, but only at night when he tucked me into bed, the sweet fragrance of rum. I spied him on the port side, the sun’s remnants turning his carroty hair crimson.
He was waving a cutlass about.
Da didn’t own a cutlass, did he? But there it was, and there also in the blood-red glow of the lowering sun stood a man taller and broader than any I ever had seen. A scraggly beard hung to his chest. His skin was pocked, his nose red-veined and bulbous, but it was the glitter in his eyes that nailed my feet to the deck.
Captain Richard Stryker—I recalled seeing the pirate’s picture tacked up in the London shipping office when we boarded for the trip to Jamaica. Stryker’s glittering black eyes fell on my mum, and a hungry look spread the pirate’s rubbery lips, revealing yellow-black teeth crowded in all directions.
“Leave off there!” He sprang in front of us.
Mum halted, pulling me close. Peering frantically about, I spied Da’s cutlass arcing high as he rushed up behind the pirate.
As quick as he was ugly, Stryker whirled and thrust out with his rapier.
Mum screamed. I stumbled backward, stiff with the sight of my da’s face wrenched in surprise a second before it went dull and lifeless. My eyes smarted. My stomach felt suddenly as liquid and turbulent as the sea that roiled around us.
Stryker raised a booted foot and kicked Da’s body off the end of his sword.
Then he returned his frightful gaze to my mum. A snaky tongue flicked out to lick his rubbery lips.
Still screaming with heartache and fear, Mum backed away, pushing me behind her. Too terrified not to learn what was happening, I craned around her skirts to see.
Stryker sheathed his sword, closing the distance in two strides as his long filthy arm reached for her. When his hand locked on her throat, all the anger in me took over and I charged at him, yelling, shoving and kicking.
Scarcely glancing down, Stryker clubbed me. His meaty fist knocked me across the deck as easy as swatting a beetle.
My ears drained of sound. A gray curtain clouded my spinning brain, and my stomach heaved up everything inside, but I staggered to my feet.
Stryker had twisted a hand through mum’s yellow curls and was drawing her to him, pulling her face toward his ugly maw, mum struggling in his grip like a robin flapping at a dragon. Suddenly, she stopped fighting and smiled. Her clawed hand raked down his face.
The pirate roared. He thrust her away, touching a hand to his wounded cheek. When it came back bloody, his entire body swelled with fury.
A cheer for Mum’s bravery rose in my chest—and froze—as the waning sunlight flashed on Stryker’s rapier.
“No!” I lunged at him. Slamming my entire body into Stryker, I felt no give, as if the pirate’s boots had bonded with the ship’s deck. “No! Bloody no!”
His free hand smacked hard against my ear, knocking me down again. Head ringing, I scrambled to my feet, yet even as I slammed against his bulk, Stryker’s thin blade sliced through Mum’s stomach and ripped upward with an eruption of blood.
His laugh exploded in my ears. Looming in the darkening sunset like a specter, his laughter full of dark slimy crawling things, the pirate turned his glistening black eyes on me.
Yelling every blasphemy I’d ever heard, I kept slamming into him until Stryker’s big hand grasped me by the collar, choking me as he lifted me to eye level.
“I think I’ll keep yer, lubber mite.” Amusement rolled out of him on a breath of rotted fish. “If yer don’t make a decent cabin boy, yer’ll make a fine stew.”
25 Years Later
Thundering around us like cannon fire, the storm of the century split the churning night sky, releasing a torrent, slicking the deck of the Spanish brigantine, soaking my new wool coat and faltering my step as we battled a crew too bloody stubborn to give it up. Wind and sea threatened to turn the captured ship into flotsam.
Regaining my footing, I dipped my head against the watery onslaught and headed athwartship, where the Spanish captain was giving Stryker a go. Captain Stryker, still as large and mean as a raging bull, was backed against the bulkhead, having himself a rousing good time. But I wanted an end to it.
I shoved past a skirmish near the mizzen. Feeling the slice of a blade, I jerked erect, and a hard gust knocked off my hat.
Furious, I slashed my cutlass across a man’s neck, bashed another in the head with its hilt, felling them both. Raking a fresh glance at the captain, I decided he could hold his own and to the devil with ’m, if not.
“Titam gan éiri ort, Cap’n.” A thousand times since being forced to serve old Stryker, I’d muttered the Irish curse, may you fall without rising. I’d likely mutter it a thousand times more before the lout’s demise.
The vessel’s prize was rumored to be gold as well as provisions, and our stores aboard the Sarah Jane were running pitifully low. But I despised this type of engagement, every sailor and pirate hacking at every other. I much preferred scoping out a ship under false colors, sliding alongside the bow to render useless their side guns, then hoisting the Jolly Roger so the blokes would know who they were dealing with. Leery of being tortured, a smart captain would hand over the booty nice and easy like.
But Stryker loved to fight, the bloodier the better.
I scooped up my hat from the deck with the curve of my cutlass, slammed it back on my head, and sliced the gut of a lubber coming hard at my face with a marlinspike. Then peering about through the curtain of rain and seeing we had near finished off the crew, leaving only a few passengers to deal with, I sought out the cargo hatch and lowered myself to the hold.
A prize indeed. Gold and silver nuggets. Precious gems. The Spanish American mines must be producing nicely.
Next I checked out the ship’s stores. Vegetables looked none too fresh, but there was fresh water, coffee, tea, and I was glad especially for the latter items. Water aboard the Sarah Jane had become so rank that the crew was lacing it high with rum to the point of being sodded out of their heads. That was a sure way to the gallows. Just ask Anne Bonny and Calico Jack.
Chewing on a stick of sugarcane, I returned topside.
The storm had worsened. The sea galloped and lightning shattered the night sky in all directions. It was time to end Stryker’s bit of fun, snatch the spoils and take leave.
In a flash of lightning I spied his bulky form on the fo’c’s’l and fought my way forward. Between rounds of thunder came the sharp report of a pistol.
Not one of our guns. None aboard the Sarah Jane had seen a speck of powder in weeks. Another lightning burst revealed what was happening, yet I doubted my eyes.
Stryker was down.
A woman stood over him brandishing a cutlass straight and true at his face. She looked wild with fear, her wet hair swirling in the raging wind like banshee locks.
“Captain!” I hoped to distract her.
“Get over here,” Stryker yelled back. “Gut this wench!”
No, I took no pleasure from killing women. When I reached Stryker’s side, I spied the flintlock pistol at her feet, the one she’d used to blow a hole in the captain’s shoulder, knocking him down. Next she must’ve grabbed a cutlass from a dead sailor. But now fear froze her from finishing the job.
Stryker’s rapier lay useless near the grasp of his stricken hand.
Keeping a pace away from her, I resorted to my preferred method of settling a problem: reason. “Lady, you may cut out his eyeball, sure enough, but I will hack off your arm before you can run, so—”
“I said kill her!” Stryker growled.
Lightning crackled. In its glow I saw the woman’s terror had gone far beyond reason. Her eyes never leaving the captain’s face, she clutched the cutlass with both hands, working up courage for the killing blow.
Then she shifted her gaze briefly to mine. Looking in those eyes I knew I could gentle this woman if left alone with her.
“Captain, while I settle with this wench, you should take a look in the cargo hold.” I forced a light tone, hoping to diffuse the situation or at least to divide her attention. “Feast your eyes below on the booty we’ll be taking away.”
“McKinsey, you niddering mouse—!”
Thunder drowned the last of Stryker’s words, and in the lightning that instantly followed, I glimpsed a small boy hiding behind the woman’s skirts.
“Captain! There’s a lad.” Another roll of thunder.
The woman flinched backward, shifting her cutlass toward me.
Fast as a snake, Stryker reached across with his good hand, grabbed his rapier and lurched to a half crouch, ready to lunge.
“No!” I stepped between his out-thrust arm and the quivering mum.
Already into his thrust and crazed with fury, Stryker drove upward.
The rapier’s thin cutting tip vanished—I felt the sting of it. Then the sword’s fiery trail blazed through my belly.
Lightning struck the blade, turning it and the ship and the sky around me into a bright-hot, glowing, shattering ball of fluorescence.
In languid Jamaican waters, the Sarah Jane awakened from a long slumber. Sunlight warmed her deck, and warmed the blood of men soaked deep into her crevices. Drifting on a swell, she felt the tug of her ancient anchor, its line taut but straining with time. A food-seeking snook, followed by smaller, feistier fish, slid past her hull.
Within her bowels, upright sentient creatures stirred about, including her old friend, cursed these many years and perhaps a better man for it. But the captain’s presence alone would not have awakened her.
Two younger souls bearing the special energy approached and would soon walk her decks, one fresh and untested, the other bold, sinister, a more threatening presence than any of late. Yet masts remained staunchly upright, companionways open. The dark dance had not yet begun.