It all had to do with black magic.
Captain Burke O'Brien had been sequestered throughout the afternoon and evening, locked in his quarters located aft on the berthed side-wheeler
His officers were under orders not to allow any female, young or old, aboard the newly christened flagship of the O'Brien Steamship Company's fleet of paddle-wheel freighters.
Burke had good reason.
Calliope music blasted from a carnival raised on the bluff above Natchez's wharf, overpowering the babel and shove of freight being unloaded at dockside. Revelry reminded Burke there was little festivity in his life, yet his current lethargy didn't stem from noise or a sorry social agenda.
It also had little to do with last May's disaster, when his last flagship blew to smithereens.
Tonight of all nights he needed privacy.
Oh, aye, he needed it.
To thwart sorcery.
The steady flame from one of Horace Seymour's newly improved gas lanterns lighting this sanctuary, Burke parked his elbows on the rolltop desk and raked his shock of black hair. Scratchy green eyes sought the clock. Eleven-fifty, the hands read. Ten minutes more. Ten more minutes, and his birthday would pass. Then the curse would be broken.
He began to breathe easier.
“Hallelujah. I've beaten the hex.”
Fate, cursed fate, altered his assumption at nine before midnight. He heard a pair of speakers on the outer deck.
Hell and damnation! He clutched an empty water glass until it shook. Where were the guards?
The more aged of those voices could belong to no one but his red-haired spinsterly aunt. He hadn't spoken to Phoebe O'Brien in over four years. And wouldn't now. Which had everything to do with his reason for holing up in his quarters.
She carried the spirit of black magic.
There was no one on the face of this earth who hated magicâor anything connected to itâmore than Burke O'Brien.
Suspicious of the other womanâher voice sounded much younger than Aunt Red Hornet, and EnglishâBurke squeezed the glass until it splintered.
“I knew itâhe's in there,” Aunt Phoebe crowed as he yelped and snatched a shaving towel to staunch the flow of blood from his left palm. “Just like Mr. Storey said he is.”
Mr. Storey. Newt Storey, second mate of the maiden
Guard of the gangplank. Supposedly.
And where exactly was Throckmorton? That burly clod, a presumed friend as well as first mate, had been ordered to bar the very hatch Aunt Phoebe and the Englishwoman were wanting entrance to. Burke, needing someone to answer his plea, silently cursed the men's lineages before hurtling to the starboard bulkhead to yank, yank, yank the silent alarm that connected to the wheelhouse.
Fortunately he was right-handed. Unfortunately he was now even closer to the intruders.
Phoebe O'Brien pounded walnut. “Burke, let us in.”
Never. Being in her company, especially tonight, would bring forth too many bad memories of how one ought to be careful of what she wished on others.
“Burke, open up. My bunions are throbbing and I wanna sit down. And I've got someone to introduce you to.”
“Doggone it, nephew. You're acting as stubborn as your brothers. Didn't you get my letter?” she squawked. “I told you I'd join up here in Natchez.”
He'd received plenty of missives, all tossed away, unopened. Yet as surely as the Mississippi flowed into the Gulf of Mexico, Burke knew what brought her to the
on this July night in 1868: his thirtieth birthday.
As emissary for the even more nettlesome duo of her sister Tessa and a sunzabitchin' genie, the Hornet had come down from Memphis for the lone purpose of snooping. She would find out if the magic lamp had produced a prospective bride on the accursed anniversary of Burke's birth.
Not to take any chances, she'd collared a prospect.
“How come he won't let us in?” someone asked, this voice definitely not female. It also held the unmistakable peep of American youth. “Is the cap'n mean?”
“But, Momma, if he don't help us, what're we gonna do?”
Momma. Why had Aunt Phoebe brought a mother to him? Burke dreaded the thought of what she had up her sleeve. He assembled reason. The mysterious bride couldn't be married, might be a widow, and surely wouldn't be a wallflower. Probably “fragile blonde” described her, since his shrewd aunt knew he preferred ethereal in the fair sex.
His history as a savior of needy women must have been the ember to ignite her decision to supply some helpless-appearing woman and child.
“Burke, open up!”
“Get away from that hatch.” Burke stomped to it, shouting through the barrier, “March back down the gangplank. Now! ”
She wheedled. “Surely you won't send me into the still of this night, on a path that crosses a
It's not church elders one finds at such dens of iniquity, I needn't remind you. Some rogue might take a shine to having his wicked way with me.”
Burke almost chuckled. No man had ever been overset at the sight of the harpy. What about Throckmorton? In bygone days Throck had wiggled bushy brows at her bony arse more than once. Then again, the first mate made eyes at anything wearing a skirt.
There were, however, plenty on the wharf as well as at the festivities who'd take a wicked shine to her pocketbook. She might end up with a blade in her gullet, since exhibitions and the like did, as she'd said, attract an unsavory element.
Always the softest touch of the O'Brien brothers, Burke grew concerned about his aunt's safety.
Don't play into her hands. She's counting on it, but don't.
“Find Throck. You know who he is. The big fellow from Bristol.” Burke tightened the bloody handkerchief. “Tell him I said to take you to a hotel. Or wherever.”
“Nephew, I know you're still angry about that lamp business. But I had nothing to do with it. Tessa bought it, not me.
made those wishes, not me.”
The lamp. An ancient oil lantern purchased on the Mediterranean, bought by Aunt Tessa O'Brien in the earlier part of this decade. True, Aunt Phoebe hadn't procured the damned thing, nor had she decided to bend the destinies of three O'Brien brothers. Moreover, she hadn't brought a genie back home to Memphis. But Phoebe O'Brien, by damn, could have put an end to the unholy hell unleashed by the magic lamp.
“Captain? This is Susan . . . Paget. I beg your indulgence, sir. I should imagine we've caught you abed, or perhaps in an indelicate . . . um, well, I apologize for the intrusion. But this is a matter of life or death. Would you grant us a few moments of your time?”
While Burke didn't yield to the siren call, he did like the sound of her voice. It carried a huskiness that made him have fancies about warm, womanly flesh amid an array of mussed silken sheets.
“Pippin, cover your ears,” Aunt Phoebe instructed. “He doesn't have a woman with him, Mrs. Paget. Mr. Storey says he's burrowed in by himself.”
What else had
told her? Had the hulking Newt Storey mentioned that a lady sleuth had debarked this afternoon, after giving information on an embezzler who might also have the blood of dead crewmen on his crippled fingers?
O'Brien, you're excessively wary.
No one save Throck knew he'd hired Velma Harken to delve into the mystery of why the
had blown apart in a lonely stretch of river north of New Orleans, or that Velma's next assignment was to get very close to the suspect.
Suddenly the clock struck midnight.
Relief again rained through Burke. His birthday was no more. No longer would he walk in the curse's shadow, so now, unfettered, he could face the challenges of owning a troubled steamboat company.
But what should he do about Aunt and company?
Ashore, on the narrow patch of ground between the river wharves and the town bluff, a gaunt and bespectacled man stood concealed near the most magnificent freighter on the Mississippi. He had a double purpose for being at the dock.
Gift delivery and vengeance.
Rufus West shoved eyeglasses up his hooked nose with a bungled hand. He spoke to himself. “What a boon, getting the blond piece to the
Earlier, he called at the Best Ever Traveling Show to collect a gambling debt from the one-clown circus's owner and star attraction. A family row outside the ring forestalled West's intentions. Pagan incantations on her lips, the acrobat's chesty blond wife held a bloody brass hook and stood over her stunned yet reviving man.
“You've hurt me and Pippin for the very last time” had been her warning before turning her black-eyed gaze to Rufus West. “Help me, sir.”
A strange influence gripped him, and he'd been powerless to deny her. It could have been lechery. West did like chesty, dangerous women. But Susanna the Snake Lady would better serve as a birthday present for Captain Burke O'Brien.
“She'll drive him insane.”
Thus, West had brought her to the
then receded behind cargo, lest the curious spot him. He'd bidden best wishes in the nick of time, since Phoebe O'Brien had marched up to Mrs. Orson Paget. The aunt would drive O'Brien even more insane. “How I'd love to be a fly on the wall in the captain's quarters . . .”
“Nosy bugger,” said a burly mariner with bad breath.
“I see you've finally deigned to answer my summons.” West glowered at his fat and reluctant hireling. He loathed being dependent, but required the services of this riverboat officer. “You want your money, you greedy ass, you'll watch your tongue.”
A belligerent grunt served as reply.
Rufus West's primary purpose for being in Natchez, outside lining his purse with the lucre from stupid gamblers, propelled him into eyeing the busy dock. Crewmen gave over freight, longshoremen stacking it on the quay. Once a bookkeeper for the O'Brien Steamship Company, West knew the contents of those wooden crates stenciled U.S. ARMY. They contained ammunition.
“Explosives.” His mind worked harder than any longshoreman's muscles. “Fodder for another river disaster.”
Lifting his usable hand, West mashed his earlobe and estimated how many more crates might remain in the riverboat's freight hold. Plenty. Bound for New Orleans, same as usual, but this time on the finale of a riverboat's maiden voyage.
“Lloyds of London won't abide two sunken steamboats.” His quest for revenge thick in his marrow, he ordered, “Proceed with the plan. Send the maiden to the bottom.”
“I could kill 'im. 'Twould be easier.”
“I don't want him dead. If I'd wanted quick amends for these”âWest lifted the writing fingers mutilated last year, which would never function again except as a painful prop for a hand of cardsâ“I'd have told you so, fat idiot.”
West hated fat, but would use it. “Go back aboard. I'll meet you in Baton Rouge. I expect the
to be at the bottom by then. You do know how to set the detonator, I trust.”
A nod answered his queries before the hefty hireling began his return to the gangplank.
Centered on replenishing his purse, West settled a walking stick on his forearm and found the path leading up the bluff. He had money to collect from a circus man.
Paget be surprised to learn his wife rushed to Burke O'Brien?
Papa Legba, she chanted silently, bring the spirit of good luck. Susan Seymour, known by the aliases of Susan Paget and Susanna the Snake Lady, expected to be grabbed and hauled away at any moment. Her eyes scoured the deck, looking for the lunatic who pretended to be her husband. Good. No Orson. Not yet.
It was sheer madness to wait for a contrary riverboat captain to heed the call of desperation. Despite the July night, she shivered. Escape from Natchez was the only choice, Captain O'Brien the only means.
Plotting her getaway, she'd thought of the riverboat captain from Tennessee who moved the headquarters of his firm to New Orleans in late 1864. That she knew Burke O'Brien to be more than a wee bit wicked had been supplementary to the obvious. His steamboat was the only southbound vessel moored in Natchez.
Even the stranger who'd helped her to the wharf said the
would be the safest, quickest means to flee south. The Memphis lady had reconfirmed his advice.
Pippin tugged on Susan's wrist. “The cap'n ain't gonna help us, Momma. You said he would. You promised.”
Showing the familiar after an all-too-familiar evening of chaos, Susan smoothed the cowlick that defied taming at the crown of Pippin's head. “Don't say ain't, dumpling.”
“Mom-muh!” Troubled young eyes looked up at her, expecting a miracle. “What're we gonna do now?”
The red-haired lady from Memphis did the answering. “Don't give up, sprig.” She tugged on the jacket bottom of her expensively cut traveling suit. “You can count on my nephew. I always have.”
If Burke O'Brien were so dependable, why did he balk at seeing his aunt?
It was then that the tall and lean baron of the Mississippi, a blood-soaked towel wrapped around one hand, yanked open the hatch. A dashing pirate in appearance, he was even more handsome than Susan remembered, albeit her recollections were brief and never of the acquaintance sort.
No one will ever know I've seen him before.
To mention it would unleash a secret best kept locked away.