Authors: Justin Somper
Tags: #Parenting, #Pirates, #Action & Adventure, #Vampires, #Juvenile Fiction, #Mothers, #Seafaring life, #Fantasy & Magic, #Fiction, #Family & Relationships, #Horror & Ghost Stories, #Twins, #General, #Motherhood, #Horror, #Brothers and sisters
"You don't think the captain will mind, do you?"
Jessamy shook her head. "She always encourages us to improvise on a theme." Saying this, she took a playing card from the pocket of her skirt, brought it to her own lips, then crouched down and slipped it between Stukeley's fingers.
Camille giggled and helped Jessamy back onto her feet. "Come on," she said. "Let's get back to the Vagabond and report to the captain."
Johnny awoke first. He let out a yawn, then glanced around, taking a few moments to realize where he was. He raised himself into a sitting position. As he did so, something fluttered away from his chest. At first, he thought it was a moth, but glancing down he saw that it was a small card -- a playing card -- that now lay facedown on the sand. He reached out and turned it over, lifting it up to the moonlight. It was like no playing card he had ever seen. It was the jack of hearts, but the hearts were black. And so, too, was the lipstick mark that covered the design. Where had the card come from? What did it mean?
Stukeley was stirring beside him. Johnny could see another playing card in his hand. What had happened to them both? Why couldn't he remember? Lately, their bouts of blood-taking seemed to be inducing some kind of amnesia.
"Hola," he said as Stukeley sat up beside him.
"All right, mate," Stukeley said. "I just had the best sleep ever. Really deep and peaceful."
"Me, too," Johnny said.
"Why are you frowning, then?" Stukeley asked.
Johnny pointed. "What's that in your hand, hermano?"
"In my hand?" Stukeley glanced down curiously. "Some kind of playing card." He lifted it up close. "The king of hearts. But it's black. I was never much for cards, but hearts aren't supposed to be black, are they?"
Johnny shook his head slowly. "Hearts are not supposed to be black," he said.
"Where did we get these?" Stukeley asked him.
Johnny shrugged. "I don't know. The last thing I remember was you and me, setting off across this beach. How about you?"
"The same," Stukeley nodded.
Suddenly, the air was filled with a deafening noise.
"The ship's siren!" Stukeley exclaimed, jumping to his feet.
"It can't be shipping out already!" Johnny said. "Not without us."
"Come on," Stukeley said. "Something's wrong here. We need to get back onto the Blood Captain now!"
The Vagabond was a much smaller ship than the Blood Captain, which gave it certain advantages. One was speed. Another was the ability to hide itself in the shadows of an inlet. All the same, Lady Lockwood had conjured a veil of mist to ensure the ship was screened from prying eyes. Fortunately, this would not prevent her from looking out. She stood in her cabin, her telescope trained out to sea.
There was a knock on the door. "Enter!" called the captain, standing up and rearranging her full skirt.
Marianne and Angelika entered, followed by Jessamy and Camille. Between them, the four women were carrying four wine bottles and five glasses.
"We thought you might like to taste some of the latest harvest," Marianne said.
"Absolutely!" Lady Lockwood said. "Would you be an angel, my dear, and pour?" Marianne nodded. Assisted by Angelika, she poured a small measure of liquid from the first bottle into each of the glasses.
Jessamy and Camille stepped forward.
"Another successful night?" Lady Lockwood asked them.
Jessamy nodded. "It's almost too easy," she said.
Lady Lockwood smiled and nodded. "Don't worry, my dear. I have plans to up the stakes very soon." She reached out and accepted the glass offered by Marianne. "So tell me," she said, swirling the glass to unleash the scent. "Where is the Blood Captainheaded next?"
"Well," said Camille. "According to our sources ..."
The siren sounded a second and last time as Johnny and Stukeley jumped down onto the main deck. They both knew the implications of this. They were supposed to be the ones who sounded the ship's siren, calling the straggling Vampirates back to the ship, bringing the night's feasting to a close. They were not meant to be the last ones to return.
All around them were their crewmates. They seemed restless, almost feverish. This was not their usual state after feasting. Typically, at this point, the men were slumped around the deck or down in their cabins.
"Something's wrong," Stukeley said to Johnny again.
"Where's the captain?" Johnny asked.
Stukeley looked around. "I don't know -- but let's just hope he hasn't noticed we're late."
But he had. At that very moment, the captain was observing his two lieutenants from high up in the crow's nest. Now he decided to make his presence felt. He climbed out of the platform and somersaulted down onto the deck, landing right in front of them.
"Good of you to join us," Sidorio said, his voice full of darkness.
"Hello, Captain," said Stukeley nervously.
"And where have you two been?" Sidorio asked. "You're late. Again."
"We were on the beach," Stukeley said. "We went to feast, just like everyone else."
"I see," Sidorio said, staring deep into Stukeley's eyes. "So tell me, did you find anything to feast upon?"
His lieutenants were silent.
"Well?" Sidorio's voice boomed out across the deck.
"I think so," Johnny said.
Sidorio raised an eyebrow. "You think so, Stetson. What do you mean, you think so?"
Johnny trembled. "It's just that --"
Stukeley took over. "I'm really sorry, Captain, but the truth is we're having trouble remembering. Maybe we took too much blood or something ..."
Sidorio gazed from one lieutenant to the other, his eyes blazing. "I'm getting mighty tired of you two rolling in hours after everyone else, with a dazed look on your faces. You're supposed to be my deputies, remember?"
"Yes, Captain," said Stukeley. "I'm sorry."
"Me, too," said Johnny, hanging his head.
"You said that last night," Sidorio said. "And the night before that. And on each occasion, neither one of you has had a clue where you've been or what you've been up to. Either that or you're lying to me." He shook his head. "And lying to me would be a very big mistake. Huge mistake!"
"We're not lying," Johnny said, shaking his head.
Stukeley frowned. "Something strange must be going on."
Sidorio scowled at both his lieutenants. He was still furious with them.
Stukeley's eyes scanned the deck. "Captain," he said, "what's up with the rest of the crew? They don't look like they've feasted tonight."
"Ten out of ten for observation," Sidorio snapped. "They haven't feasted. Someone else got to that town first."
"Someone else?" Stukeley said, confused. "What do you mean?"
Sidorio glared darkly at his two lieutenants. "You had better come with me," he said.
As they stepped inside the captain's cabin, Johnny walked straight over to the table. It was covered with playing cards. All hearts. All black.
"Look!" he said to Stukeley. "Just like ..."
Stukeley's eyes blazed a warning, which silenced Johnny instantly. "What are these?" Stukeley said, turning to the captain. "Where did they come from?"
"We found them in the town tonight," Sidorio said. "The streets were littered with dead bodies, and on each corpse was one of these cards."
Stukeley stepped closer. The cards were exactly the same design as the ones hidden in his and Johnny's pockets. The only difference was that the lieutenants' cards were marked with black lipstick and these were smeared with red blood.
Stukeley's brain finally kicked into gear. "There's another Vampirate ship! That's what you're saying, isn't it? Another Vampirate ship is getting to the towns ahead of us."
Sidorio nodded. "This is the third time it's happened. My crew is going hungry. And the hungrier they get, the more out of control they become. Except the two of you. You two seem to be getting blood from somewhere, only you don't seem able to remember it." He looked at them suspiciously.
Stukeley gazed at the blood-tinged cards, then lifted his eyes back to the captain. "It wasn't us, Captain! And it doesn't look like the work of the Nocturne. Not unless they have radically altered the way they do things."
Sidorio shook his head. "This has nothing to do with the Nocturne," he said. "A new Vampirate ship must have taken to the seas. Maybe they think they're having a little fun with us, second-guessing where we're headed next and then beating us to the pass."
Stukeley frowned. "Maybe they're not guessing," he said. "Maybe they've found a way of getting the information firsthand."
"What do you mean?" Sidorio asked.
It was a risky move, but Stukeley decided to play it. He reached into his pocket and removed the playing card, then nodded at Johnny to do the same. Both lieutenants placed their cards on the table.
"We found these on us," Stukeley said. "When we woke up on the beach. We don't know where they came from or who gave them to us, but it seems like a mighty big coincidence, don't you think?"
Johnny nodded. "It's as if someone is getting the information out of us, then drugging us so we don't remember a thing about it."
Sidorio raised his eyebrow. "It certainly looks that way."
Stukeley reached out his hand. "Captain, you have to know that neither Johnny nor I would do anything intentionally to disrupt the workings of this ship. We are absolutely committed to it, and to your command, aren't we, Johnny?"
Johnny nodded. They both waited on their captain's next word.
At last, Sidorio spoke. "It's okay, boys. I think I see what's been happening here. Someone's been playing us. Some new ship is making a bid to rule the waves. Well, they've had their fun, but it ends here, tonight!" He brought his fist down on the table. The pile of playing cards flew across the room. There was the sound of wood cracking.
"There's room for only one crew of renegade Vampirates," Sidorio said. "Mine! I'm going to find out who's in charge of this other ship. And then I'm going to take it over." He smiled, his twin incisors glinting ominously in the lamplight.
"Change the ship's course," he commanded. "This crew needs blood. And I intend to give it to them. Then we'll see what happens to those who play games with a killer shark."
At last, Sally awoke. She turned her head and smiled warmly to see her daughter at her bedside. "Hello, Grace," she said, sitting up. But seeing her daughter's expression, she paused. "Grace, you look awful! Whatever's wrong?"
Grace's voice was weak. "Sidorio!" she exclaimed. "You were Sidorio's donor!" She felt sick at the thought. Of all the Vampirates she might have chosen to have been her mother's partner, Sidorio was the last ... the very last.
Sally did not deny it. "How do you know?" she asked. "Did Mosh Zu tell you?"
Grace shook her head. "I had another vision," she said. "I saw it all for myself."
Sally's eyes were wide with fear. "What exactly did you see?" She pulled herself up to a sitting position, propping pillows behind her back.
"I saw you getting ready for your first Feast Night," Grace said. "You were with Darcy, in her cabin. She was putting up your hair." Sally's expression softened at the memory. "You looked very beautiful, Mother. You were wearing a pale yellow dress. Do you want to know a funny thing? It was the very same one I wore to my first Feast."
"You!" Sally said. "You went to a Feast? But you're not a donor, Grace, are you? You can't be!"
"No." Grace shook her head. "I'm not a donor. But I wore that same primrose yellow dress, loaned to me by Darcy, and I went to the Feast and Sidorio tried to take me as his donor."
"Sidorio did what?" Sally's eyes popped. Grace felt torn. The last thing she had wanted to do was to cause her mother distress, but neither did she want to hide things from her. If Sally kept asking these questions, she would just have to try to answer them as best she could.
"It's all right, Mother. It doesn't matter about that night. The captain intervened and it was all right." She decided, for now, to spare Sally the details of how Sidorio had trapped Grace in her cabin and how she'd had to fight him off alone until the captain had rescued her a second time.