The Dark Crystal
The dread pirate Blackheart stood at the bow of his ship, smiling into the rush of salty air, as the first hint of America rose upon the horizon.
Despite the chill of winter, the skies were clear and blue, with both the wind and the sun to his back. ’Twas more than a good omen. ’Twas a perfect day for any number of Captain Blackheart’s favorite activities. Sailing. Wenching. Drinking. Horse-racing. Sword-fighting. Boarding enemy vessels. Commandeering an ill-fortuned frigate upon the high seas.
Nothing was better than the freedom of the seas.
“Land ho!” came the familiar cry from the crow’s nest.
Blackheart’s good humor faded. He relinquished navigational oversight to the Quartermaster without a word.
There was no need to bark orders. Most of the crew had been part of his family long enough to recognize the storm clouds brewing in Blackheart’s eyes, and every hand on board already had their standing orders.
No unnecessary fighting. No drinking to excess. Wenching was always permissible, but only if the crew made haste. The Dark Crystal would only be docked at the Port of Philadelphia long enough for Blackheart to accomplish his mission, and then they’d sail down the Delaware River and back out to sea just as swiftly as they’d sailed in.
Payment would only be delivered upon receipt of the booty. In this case…a sickly old woman named Mrs. Halton.
Despite being a pirate for hire, Blackheart was not in the habit of kidnapping innocents. Prior to the end of the war eight short months ago, he had been a privateer for the Royal Navy. A government pirate. A legal pirate. Now that he was an independent contractor, he tried to uphold the spirit (if not the precise letter) of the law.
’Twas the surest way to steer clear of the gallows.
The soles of Blackheart’s boots tread silently against polished wood as he strode aft toward the gunroom skylight. He descended the ladder to the Captain’s cabin and slipped inside to gather his supplies.
Item the first: a freshly starched cravat. This mission would require charm, not firepower. Item the second: a freshly cleaned pistol and extra ammunition. A pirate might not expect trouble, but he certainly intended to finish it. Item the third: a heavy coin purse. Gold was often more powerful than bullets.
By the time the schooner docked at the port, Blackheart was clean-shaven, dandified, and fresh as a daisy. Oh, certainly, his sun-bronzed skin was an unaristocratic brown—and was generously adorned with a truly ungentlemanly quantity of scars—but most of that was hidden away beneath his gleaming Hessians, soft buckskin breeches, muted chestnut waistcoat, blinding white cravat, and dark blue tailcoat with twin rows of gold buttons.
The hidden pistol in its fitted sling made barely a bulge beneath so many layers of foppery.
He forewent both sword and walking stick because he intended to make the rest of the journey on horseback, and debated leaving his hat behind as well. It was unlikely to stay on his head at a gallop, and would be crushed in the saddlebag…
With a sigh, Blackheart scooped up the beaver hat and shoved it on his head. He had no idea how easily manipulated Mrs. Halton might be, or whether she’d turn out to be one of those histrionic old matrons who refused to be seen in public alongside a gentleman with a bare head.
Plan B was to toss her over his shoulder and have done with the matter, but Blackheart had promised the Earl of Carlisle he’d at least try to coax the package into accompanying him voluntarily.
And although Blackheart would never admit it aloud, he had a rather high opinion of both his own charm and grandmotherly women. He would do everything within his power to make the journey to England a pleasant one for Mrs. Halton, and had already instructed his crew to treat her as if she were their own mother.
Carrying nothing more than a pair of gloves and a small satchel, he made his way down the gangplank in search of the fastest horse to rent—and nearly tripped over an underfed newspaper boy hawking today’s headlines for a penny.
Under normal circumstances, Blackheart would have flipped the boy a coin and let him keep the paper…but the black font stamped across the top stopped the captain in his tracks.
MOST DANGEROUS PIRATE:
THE CRIMSON CORSAIR
Blackheart snatched up the paper and tried to read over the grinding of his teeth. He wasn’t certain what he hated most about the Crimson Corsair: that the man was a dishonorable, coldblooded madman, or that he’d started to receive better press than Blackheart himself.
“You gonna pay for that, mister?” came a belligerent, high-pitched voice below his elbow.
He slapped the newspaper back onto the pile along with a shiny new coin, and stalked off the dock. Now was not the time to think about the Crimson Corsair. Once Mrs. Halton was safely delivered, Blackheart and his crew would be free to pursue any mission they wished—perhaps a quick seek-and-destroy of the corsair’s vessel—but for the moment, he needed to stay focused. Not only had he given Carlisle his word, this mission would be a doddle. Grab the woman, get the money. The easiest three hundred pounds of his life.
The Pennsylvania countryside flew past, the sky darkening as he rode. Blackheart kept to the mail roads in order to trade for fresh horses at posting-houses…and also to keep from losing his way. He was used to England and to the open sea, not these sparsely populated American trails winding endlessly between bigger cities. He never felt comfortable when he was out of sight from the water, and he was heading further from the ocean with every mile.
He had to spend the night at an inn only once before finally reaching the town where his target resided.
The shabby little cottage was right where his instructions said it would be, but the state of disrepair gave Blackheart pause. The garden was so overgrown as to be nearly wild. The exterior was dirty and covered in spiderwebs. No smoke rose from the chimney. No candlelight shone in the windows.
Had someone already abducted his quarry? Had she simply moved? Or, God forbid, died of old age during his journey from England?
Rather than blindly march into unknown territory, he turned his horse in search of the local postmaster, in order to determine whether his target was still in his sights—or whether the rules of the game had changed.
“Mrs. Halton?” repeated the pale-faced postmaster when Blackheart interrupted his nuncheon. “Mrs. Clara Halton?”
“Yes,” Blackheart replied calmly, as he towered over the dining table. “I’ve come to pay her a visit.”
“But you mustn’t, sir.” The postmaster forged on despite the captain’s raised brow. “You cannot. She’s ill—”
“I’m aware that Mrs. Halton has been sickly.”
“—with consumption,” the postmaster finished, his eyes wide with foreboding.
Although Blackheart’s smile didn’t falter, his blood ran cold. Consumption. The game had indeed changed.
“How long has she been afflicted?” he asked quietly.
“I don’t rightly know—”
“How long does the doctor think she has?”
“I don’t…He hasn’t seen her since the diagnosis.”
“Hasn’t seen her?” Blackheart frowned. “She won’t allow him in?”
“He hasn’t gone.” The postmaster’s cheeks flushed. “It’s the contagion, sir, can’t you understand? He’s the sole medical practitioner for miles, and if he catches the illness…”
The spiderwebs and overgrown garden now made perfect sense. Blackheart’s jaw tightened. “If the sole medical practitioner does not visit his patient, I presume neither do the dairy maids or local farmers.”
“No, sir. I can’t even deliver her letters anymore. Too dangerous. We could die if we caught—”
“Without food or medicine, how is Mrs. Halton expected to live?”
“She ain’t expected to live, sir. That’s the point you keep missing. Most folks with consumption don’t last longer than—”
“You said you possess post you’ve failed to deliver? Hand it over.”
“You can’t possibly intend to—”
The postmaster scrambled up from the table and hurried over to a cubicle, from which he drew two folded missives. “I wouldn’t normally hand post to a stranger—”
“—but since you’ve no intention to deliver it anyway…” Blackheart finished dryly as he shoved the letters into his coat pocket. He turned toward the door, but then paused to pin the postmaster in his stare one final time. “Keep in mind, not everyone dies of consumption—but we all die of starvation.”
He stalked back outside without waiting for a reply. There was nothing the postmaster could say that would be worth the time it took to listen.