A Touch of Fever
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA
“Okay, I’m getting a seriously bad vibe here.” The Museum of Piracy was a cheesy waterfront tourist attraction designed to separate visitors from their hard-earned vacation dollars. It was well past closing time, however, and Pete Lattimer appeared to have the place to himself. A rugged, brown-haired ex-Marine in his midthirties, dressed casually in a dark sports jacket and slacks, he muttered to himself as he navigated quietly down a darkened corridor. The beam of his flashlight swept over the museum’s various displays and decorations. A wooden steering wheel, salvaged from an old shipwreck, was mounted on one wall, next to a tattered black flag bearing the Jolly Roger. Pieces of eight were locked away under glass. A diorama depicted swarms of miniature buccaneers boarding a scale-model replica of a Spanish galleon. Informational plaques accompanied each exhibit. The nautical clutter made the place seem like a cross between a seafood restaurant and, well, a certain overstuffed Warehouse many hundreds of miles from here… His gaze darted from display to display, his alert brown eyes searching. None of these artifacts was the one he was looking for. So why were the hairs on the back of his neck standing up? Pete kept his guard up. He had a sixth sense when it came to trouble, and painful experience had taught him never to ignore his instincts. Paying attention to his “vibes” had served him well as a Secret Service agent, protecting the president. It was even more important now. He hoped Myka was being careful too. What was keeping her anyway? In theory, his partner was checking out the upper levels of the museum while he explored the ground floor, but she should have caught up with him by now. They had split up to cover more ground quickly, but maybe that had been a mistake? He was used to Myka watching his back. He listened for any sounds or disturbances coming from upstairs, but heard only the low hum of the air-conditioning. For a second he considered checking on Myka by phone, but decided it was probably too soon to worry about her absence. Myka was a pro; she could take care of herself. Chances were, she was just being thorough. Her keen attention to detail was what had made her such a great Secret Service agent-before they were both reassigned to other duties. One of the “perks” of those duties? Having to prowl an empty museum in the middle of the night, in search of something that might or might not be here. And that could just get them killed. What the heck, he thought. It beats a desk job. An old woodcut illustration, enlarged and mounted on the wall, depicted a public execution. Pete winced at the sight of captured pirates dangling from the gallows before a jeering crowd. A caption informed him that the mass hanging had taken place right here in Charleston, back around 1718. Just looking at the illustration made Pete’s neck hurt. His free hand went instinctively to his throat. He gulped. Did they have to keep this place so dark after closing? The grisly atmosphere was giving him the creeps. He quickened his pace, anxious to find the elusive artifact. Enough with the sightseeing. All he wanted to do now was snag it, bag it, tag it, and get out of here.
“Yeah, we should be so lucky,” he muttered. A black velvet curtain closed off the entrance to an adjacent wing. Ornate gold-painted letters above the threshold guided visitors toward the Hall of Infamy, while a smaller sign, dangling from a chain across the doorway, apologized that the exhibit was currently closed for renovations. He approached the curtain anyway. That tingly feeling was getting stronger. Figures, he thought. The next stop on his tour of the museum would have to be something called the Hall of Infamy. How come Artie never sends us to All- You-Can-Eat Cookies instead? Still, duty called.
Pete took a deep breath, then unhooked the chain blocking the way.
Drawing back the curtain, he stepped cautiously into the hall, which turned out to be a wax museum honoring the most notorious pirates of fact and fiction. Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, Black Bart, Long John Silver, Captain Hook, Jean Lafitte, and about a dozen other legendary cutthroats and marauders were posed along both sides of a long, carpeted hallway, their molded features leering at Pete as he made his way down the carpet, past the still and silent buccaneers. Glass eyes and bloodstained cutlasses reflected the glow of the flashlight. Red fiber-optic fuses infested Blackbeard’s bushy whiskers. A stuffed parrot perched atop Silver’s shoulder. Treasure chests, cannonballs, anchors, and other props added to the maritime decor. Pete felt like he was running some sort of nautical gauntlet-or maybe walking the plank. Yo, ho, ho, he thought wryly. I’ll pass on the bottle of rum.
Doing his best to ignore the sinister figures, he finally stumbled onto his destination: a life-size replica of Charleston’s most scandalous daughter: Anne Bonny. The celebrated female pirate occupied a place of honor at the end of the hall. A tricorn hat topped a mane of wild red hair. A man’s blue frock coat, a striped shirt, and canvas trousers failed to conceal her shapely figure. A red silk cravat, knotted around her neck, added a touch of color to her ensemble. A flintlock pistol was tucked into her belt. Striking green eyes gleamed with bloodlust and avarice. Her crimson lips were curled in a sneer.
“Hello, Annie,” Pete whispered. He recognized her from Artie’s briefing back at the Warehouse. The real Anne Bonny had been a bored young wife who had run off to sea to pursue a life of piracy nearly three hundred years ago. Along with her lover, “Calico” Jack Rackham, she had terrorized the Caribbean before being captured by the British navy way back in 1720. Legend had it that she had fought like a hellcat to the very end. Looking at her fierce expression, Pete could believe it. He lifted his gaze. Anne’s right arm was raised high, the better to deliver a fatal blow to the unlucky seaman cowering at her feet. There was just one problem: her wax fingers were empty. The bloody cutlass was missing. Crap, Pete thought. That isn’t good. All of a sudden, his goose bumps had goose bumps. “Where is the trader of London town? His gold’s on the capstan, his blood’s on his gown.” A singsong voice, carrying an old sea chantey, issued from the shadows surrounding Pete. “And it’s up and away for St. Mary’s Bay, where the liquor is good and the laddies are gay…” What the heck? He spun around, searching for the source of the lilting voice, which echoed eerily off the walls of the spooky wax museum. His flashlight probed the darkness but could not immediately locate the unseen singer amidst the looming wax pirates. The chantey seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. “Farewell to Port Royal, the stink and the crowds. There’s blood in the scuppers and wind in the shrouds…” “Hello? Is someone there?” He reached instinctively for his Tesla gun, only to remember that it was Myka’s turn to carry the high-tech sidearm. All he had was an ordinary semiautomatic. Damn.
“Myka? I could use a little help here?” His vibe detector was on high alert. He could practically feel hostile eyes scoping him out. Chills ran up and down his spine like an express elevator. His gut twisted itself into knots. Adrenaline primed him for action. And none too soon. A rustling sound behind him alerted him to danger, and he dived for safety even as a dimly glimpsed figure charged from between a wax pirate and his booty. A gleaming cutlass sliced through the empty space Pete’s head had occupied only seconds before. He rolled across the carpet and sprang to his feet just in time to see the polished steel blade connect with a waxworks version of Calico Jack instead.
Whoosh! In a blur of motion, the cutlass appeared to deliver fifty blows with a single swing. The air sounded like it was being churned up by a blender. One minute, Jack Rackham was striking a dashing pose in his brightly colored calico vest, the very picture of a rakish pirate captain; a second later the unlucky statue had been reduced to nothing more than a pile of shredded fabric and wax shavings.
Paper-thin flakes wafted down onto the carpet. A glass eye rolled across the floor. “Whoa!” Pete exclaimed. He scrambled backward, bumping into a rusty iron cannon. The beam of his flashlight swung upward, exposing his attacker: a blond woman clutching Anne Bonny’s missing cutlass. He recognized her as Lainie Evers, a tour guide who worked at the museum. He and Myka had met her briefly when they were casing the place earlier today. The formerly helpful guide was still dressed for work, looking like a theme-park version of a stylish female pirate. A plastic name badge was pinned to a ruffled white blouse. A laced red corset cinched her waist, above a black skirt and knee-high boots. A skull-and-crossbones motif was printed on the skirt. More like a Halloween costume than authentic pirate garb, in other words. The cutlass, on the other hand, was the real deal.
Snarling, Lainie wheeled around to confront Pete, who put the cannon between himself and the sword- wielding guide. Crazed eyes and contorted features mimicked Anne Bonny’s savage expression. She spit venomously