This is Your Destiny is a bonus short story that follows The Curse Defiers. You can read it here or download it from BookFunnel.
Two months before the curse broke
The waves slapped the side of the boat, but instead of the usual peace I experienced while alone on the water, irritation flooded through me. The damn engine was dead again even after the two grand I’d just dropped into it, and I suspected this time it was gone for good. Add on to that the fact that my haul of soft-shell crabs had been pitiful tonight—a far cry from the past four nights, which had netted me almost enough to pay off my latest loan from Marino. Now I was still in debt and about to fall even deeper into the hole. A new engine for the Lucky Star would cost me thousands of dollars I didn’t have.
Tossing the wrench across the deck, I sat back on my heels, cursing, as a sick feeling of dread washed over me.
It was like the universe was conspiring against me. I was good and truly fucked.
Kicking my legs out in front of me, I scooted back and rested my spine against the side of the boat, then reached into the cooler, pulled out a bottle of beer, and popped the top. I took a long drag and stared up at the cloudless, starry sky. At least I could salvage something from this sorry excursion.
I sucked down the first beer, then took longer to drink the second. When I was finished, I grabbed another even though I knew having three so quickly was a bad idea. But I’d take whatever comfort I could get. Sound carried over the water and I was close enough to the shore to hear the echos of civilization, but the night was disarmingly quiet. I found it ironic that Collin Dailey, son of the land, was most at peace while on the water.
On nights like this one, when I wished I could be anywhere but here and anyone but me, I sometimes wondered about the other Keeper. Did she have the same bad luck that seemed to follow me around like a homeless dog? Did being a Curse Keeper mean we ourselves were cursed?
My grandmother was the greatest and wisest Manteo Keeper who’d ever lived. She was a Croatan conjuror, a converser with the spirits. Every Manteo Keeper before her had been a priest, so it stood to reason that Grandma Opal should have been one too. A female Curse Keeper was a rarity. But one who was also a conjurer? There had been no recorded conjurors in our line—male or female—since the descendant who’d carved out our fate so long ago.
There had been whispers about my grandmother when she was a little girl. Friends and family had thought her strange, and it was said that shadows followed her. But when she was older, she revealed that the shadows actually spoke to her. At first her father insisted it was impossible since all the gods and spirits were locked behind the gate of Popogusso, but even as a girl, my grandmother had possessed an intimidating presence. Besides, she wasn’t conversing with gods, but with lost souls—those who had died and not yet crossed over to the spirit world. Soon her father was a believer, and he declared her a conjurer.
My family had waited for centuries for a Dare Keeper to find us and break the curse. It had been foretold, and so it was expected. My great-grandfather was sure my grandmother would be the one to see it happen.
Here’s how the story went:
Over four hundred years ago, my ancestor Manteo befriended the Englishmen who landed on the shore of what is now North Carolina. He sailed to England twice and returned on the third English excursion to the New World. While the previous two ventures had been composed of explorers and geologists looking for treasure, the third included settlers—men and women and children who would make the New World their home. But the Native Americans were embittered by the previous atrocities that had been carried out by the English, and they vowed to wipe out the colony, going so far as to threaten the Croatan tribe because of Manteo’s traitorous behavior.
Ahone, the creator god, sensed Manteo’s growing desperation for his people and used it against him, convincing him to create a curse that would bind the gods and spirits of the warring tribes, weakening them. But Ahone insisted that Manteo needed the help of his English friend, Ananias Dare, son-in-law of Virginia governor John White, to do the deed. Since Ananias’s wife had given birth to their first child on Roanoke Island, he bore a desperation of his own.
So Manteo led Ananias into the woods one cold winter night and followed the instructions Ahone had given him, performing a ceremony to open the gate to Popogusso—hell. Ananias followed along, unaware until the very end that there would be a price for his participation. All he knew was that he was stopping the hostile tribes.
Ananias raced back to check on his wife and infant daughter, horrified to find that nothing remained. Every building, object, man, woman, and child had disappeared from the Roanoke colony. While Manteo’s sacrifice had been the life of his own son, Ananias had unwittingly trapped the entire English village behind the gate to hell along with the Native American gods and spirits. But Manteo had been tricked as well. The gods and spirits of his own people had been ensnared along with the deities of the neighboring tribes. The only god to escape was Ahone.
Ahone had used Manteo and Ananias for his own selfish purposes, and he saddled them with an additional responsibility. Each man would be a keeper of the curse from that day forward; his entire future purpose would be to protect the curse’s existence. He would pass on the duty to his firstborn once the child turned eighteen; the child would in turn pass it on in the same manner, and so on.
But Okeus, Ahone’s twin, hadn’t gone quietly. Before he was locked behind Popogusso’s gate, he used what remaining power he had to engineer an escape clause. The curse would break if the Keepers pressed their right palms together, freeing the gods and spirits. The Lost Colony of Roanoke would return with one caveat: everyone would be dead—no living thing could go to Popogusso and survive the journey back to the earthly plane.
When Ananias realized he’d lost the two people he’d tried to protect—his sole purpose for cooperating with Manteo’s plan—he became inconsolable. In his despair, he tried to kill Manteo, but Ahone had created a failsafe of his own. Whenever the two Keepers were in close proximity, they found it difficult to breathe, as though they were two magnets that repelled each other. Ananias found it impossible to get close enough to Manteo to break the curse, but he vowed that one of his progeny would hunt the Manteo Keeper down, break the curse, and seek revenge.
And so we began our vigil.
For over four hundred years, we waited. Our destiny weighed so strongly on us that when Grandma Opal turned out to be a conjurer, her father was greatly relieved. Surely the Dare Keeper would finally come on her watch, and my grandmother would be the one to save us all.
When she turned eighteen, Grandma went through the marking ceremony and had Okeus’s symbol tattooed on her chest like all the Manteo Keepers before her. Grandma’s father refused to let her marry for fear that a husband and children would distract her from her mission. The years passed like water in a stream, but the other Keeper never came. My great-grandfather died without seeing his prophecy come to pass and, at the age of forty-one, my grandmother married a man she hadn’t loved, solely to carry out her duty—bearing the next Curse Keeper.
My own father—her only child—was a bitter disappointment.
He was irresponsible and insolent. He hated his responsibility and felt trapped by my grandmother’s iron fist, but he couldn’t deny that she was the wisest woman he’d ever known, a fact that chafed like sandpaper on an open wound. He knew he’d never live up to her expectations, so he soon created a mission of his own.
To break the curse himself.
When he became an adult, he rarely saw my grandmother, putting as much distance between them as possible, which was ironic considering my grandmother owned the house we lived in as well as her own smaller home less than two blocks away.
After my fifth birthday, my grandmother convinced my mother to bring me to her house for weekly lessons on the curse. My father wasn’t happy about the arrangement, yet he never considered denying her. As much as he hated his mother, he feared her more.
I feared her as well.
Her house smelled of the herbs and roots she used to help her speak with the spirits, and she had a no-nonsense air about her. When she turned her deep, dark eyes on me, I knew without a doubt she could see into the depths of my soul. But the more time I spent with her, the more my fear, although still present, gave way to respect.
One day, after a year of lessons, I finally felt bold enough to ask a question of Grandma Opal rather than just listening to what she had to tell me.
“Am I a Keeper yet, Gran?”
“No, my child. Not yet, but soon. You will be the Keeper.” Her voice was low and sad.
I studied her face even though I found it hard to hold her gaze. “What does that mean?”
“You will find out soon enough.” She sounded weary and old when she said it. Even though she looked older than anyone I knew, she usually didn’t sound like it.
“Do you think she learns about the curse too?” I asked.
“Who?” Her voice had a sharp edge to it.
“The other person who’s going to be a Keeper.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Why do you call her a she?”
I shrugged. “Something tells me the Dare Keeper is a girl.” I glanced up at her. “Is she? Do you know?”
She watched me, then nodded. “Yes, the voices have told me that she is female. Younger than you. But the fact that the Dare Keeper is a female is secret. Not even your father can know. Do you understand?”
I nodded. Even though I didn’t understand the urgency, by the age of six I’d already figured out that my father and my grandmother had very different ideas about what it meant to be a Curse Keeper.
“And yes, I’m sure she knows about her role.”
“But she’s our enemy?”
“You can’t believe everything your father tells you.”
“Which is why I visit you?” I asked.
“Yes.” She was quiet for a moment. “How did you know with such certainty the soon-to-be Dare Keeper was female? Do you hear voices, Collin?”
She watched me for several seconds. “No, I didn’t think so. Still, my voices assure me it will happen in this lifetime, even though you aren’t a conjuror.” Her voice trailed off.
“Does that make me a priest?” I asked, not sure I liked the sound of that. “Like Father Brian at the Catholic church?”
“Yes and no. You will be educated about the spiritual world like Father Brian, but you will know things no one else can ever know. Not even the other Keeper. The priest and the conjuror each have their roles and powers, but their knowledge shouldn’t cross. Just like the Keepers get their power from opposite forces—the land and the sea—your purposes for the curse are opposite as well.” She leaned close. “The fact that she is a female and a conjuror is a bad sign, Collin. That is why my father thought I was the one, because I was both—something that has never been seen in the history of the curse. But the fact that she is female, a conjuror, and a Dare Keeper is ominous. This girl is special. She is already stronger than I am and she has barely begun to learn her role. When she seeks you out, she will be prepared…and dangerous. I must make sure you are ready.”
“But Dad says he will be the one to break the curse.”
She sighed. “Life is full of many disappointments.”
After that, I went to her house more frequently—several days a week—and she told me everything she knew about the curse and my role in it. She taught me about the gods and the major spirits, and about the manitou, the life force of every creature. But as I grew older, she switched her to focus to the ceremony.
“She will resist the ceremony to reseal the gate, Collin. You must find a way to make her do so anyway. Tell her that there will be a great reward if she reseals the gate.”
“I thought you said she wasn’t my enemy,” I said, reminding my grandmother of what she’d told me before.
Her gaze narrowed. “I never said she wasn’t. I only said you can’t believe everything your father says.” She studied my confused face. “There’s a chance she could end up being a friend, but the truth is that if she purposefully breaks the curse, she’s most likely a foe. You must be prepared for either possibility. Especially since she may seek you out with the intent to harm you.”
I nodded. Hurt me? This was becoming all too real.
The ceremony was a thorny issue, since the Dare Keeper, as the conjurer, should be the one to conduct it. But my grandmother ensured that I would be able to take the lead role if the opportunity presented itself. She drilled me endlessly until every last detail of the ceremony was seared into my memory.
When I was ten, Gran told me about the weapons a Dare Keeper had made a hundred years after the creation of the curse, an act encouraged by the betrayer god, Ahone. The Keeper had hired a Croatan conjuror to give the weapons power to use against the gods and spirits when they eventually escaped from Popogusso. “The Dare Keeper may have had a weapon made to protect himself from the gods,” she said, “but he really did it to have the upper hand on the Manteo line when the time came. But the curse is based on duality, so every weapon must have a counterpart. He was forced to create one for the Manteo line as well, even though we’ve never laid eyes on it.”
“What are the two weapons?” I asked in awe.
“A spear and a ring.”
“I want the spear.”
She gave me a grim smile. “The spear is yours, but the ring holds more power.”
“How can that be?” I asked in disbelief. “What can a ring do that a sharp-pointed spear can’t?”
“Power is deceiving, Collin. Great things can be hidden in small packages.”
“What does the ring do?”
“The ring gives the Dare Keeper who possesses it power over the gate to Popogusso without the other Keeper.”
I scowled. “So what does the spear do?”
“It can maim gods and spirits.”
“It is powerful in its own right, Collin. When you are old enough, I encourage you to find both weapons and hide the ring from the future Dare Keeper forever. The less she knows about its power, the better. You do not want her to have a strength that you do not.”
I shook my head in annoyance. “But I don’t even know exactly what it does.”
“All the better,” she murmured.
“You said ‘find the weapons.’ Are they lost?”
“Yes, a foolish descendent of Dare sold the weapons to a family in South Carolina and they disappeared for more than a hundred years. But the voices tell me that they’re about to surface, and you must find them. The fate of the world depends on it.”
I nodded solemnly. I took my future Curse Keeper role seriously, unlike my father.
“The Curse will break when you take on the role. I foresee this more strongly than any other vision I’ve had, yet I can’t see the outcome.”
“I won’t let you down, Grandmother.”
She grabbed my hand and pulled me close to kiss the top of my head. “You will have a rocky start, but you will make me proud in the end.”
While my grandmother taught me what she thought I needed to know to fulfill my role as the Manteo Curse Keeper, my father had his own version of the truth. With an intact curse, my father had two responsibilities: provide a new Keeper and teach that Keeper about his heritage. Since he’d completed task one of his role, that left task two. He taught me about the curse, just not in the way his forebears had intended.
He’d kick back in his lawn chair in our ramshackle backyard, drinking beers like they were ice-cold lemonade. While my grandmother taught me about my duties, my father made sure I knew that Manteo had fucked us over twice. “Not only are we expected to get this damn tattoo”—he pulled down his T-shirt to show the intricately designed ink on his chest, the god Okeus’s mark in the center—“but we’re expected to sire a brat to get the same damn mark.”
I waited for him to finish his guzzle of beer while my six-year-old brother Conner sat several feet behind me, digging in the dirt with one of my mother’s spoons, one of our few “toys” that actually worked. All the other ones were broken thrift-store finds that should have been thrown in the garbage.
“But the best fucking part, my boy, is we are stuck in this cesspool forever.” He motioned around him as he said this, a slosh of beer flying from his can.
That was new information, and my expression must have given away my interest.
“Aha! You didn’t know that.” He pointed his index finger at me while still gripping his can. He finished the beer, then leaned to the side and shouted at my brother. “Conner, get me another one.”
Conner grumbled but got to his feet and went through the back door. My father waited for the bang of the door shutting before he leaned forward. “That’s right. We’re stuck here.”
“In this house?”
He snorted his disgust. “No.” He crumpled the can with his fist and tossed it over his shoulder. “The Outer Banks. Bet your grandmother didn’t teach you that, did she?”
Conner came back out with my father’s beer and handed it to him. My father popped the top and leaned back in his seat with a satisfied grin. “There’s two sides to every story, Collin. Don’t you forget it.”
After that he started to take me out on the Lucky Star late at night, when every other kid in my third-grade class was tucked safely into bed. We’d shoot across the water as quickly as the rattrap would take us until we were out on the ocean, the lights on the shore barely visible. Then he’d kill the engine and we’d sit in silence—sometimes for a couple of minutes, sometimes for nearly an hour—while he nursed the bottle of Jack Daniels he kept tucked in the captain’s room.
Sometimes I’d doze off before he began to talk, but eventually he always got around to discussing the reason for our father-son bonding sessions.
“What are you, boy?” he’d ask and I’d rouse, my shoulders stiffening in anticipation of the lesson to come.
“The next Manteo Curse Keeper.”
“Which one?” his gravelly voice would bark.
“That’s right. The twenty-fucking-ninth.” Then he’d spit his repulsion into the ocean before grilling me on how the curse began. Of course, everything he said had his own special twist on it. He talked about how Manteo threw everything away to protect bastards who never appreciated one fucking ounce of help. How twenty-nine generations had suffered because of the irresponsibility of one man. How it was our job to rectify the sorry situation.
“What does your grandmother say?” he’d ask at the end of his lesson, his words slurred.
“She says the signs say the curse will break in her lifetime.”
“It ain’t broke yet, has it?”
This continued to happen, off and on, for two years. My mother didn’t approve, but she lacked the backbone to defy him. I could only remember her speaking up to him once, and he backhanded her across the face in front of the whole family. My brother clung to her leg, crying with fear, then my father stumbled out of the house in a drunken stupor for the rest of the night. He never once addressed the fact that he’d given her a black eye.
When I was ten, my father started to disappear for days on end. He spent time with a new group of friends—people he claimed could change everything for us. He would pull a wad of small bills out of his pocket, flashing the cocky grin he’d probably used to win my mother, and say, “Times are a-changing, Collin, my boy. There’s a new family business and it sure ain’t fishin’ or curse keepin’.” Then he’d laugh until he broke into a fit of coughing.
My grandmother watched it all with her sharp, dark eyes. Eyes that took in everything the human eye could see and more. I knew she saw what I did: even though he hated the curse, my father had never once denied its existence. To do so would have forced him to accept responsibility for his own fate, a task he’d never be prepared to assume, no matter what his word vomit claimed.
But one cold winter night, he staggered into my room and sat on the edge of my bed, leaning over me and pushing a cloud of alcohol-laden breath into my face.
“Collin Fitzgerald Dailey,” he sneered, shaking my shoulder. He hated my name, only one of two concessions he’d ever made to my Irish-American mother—at least as far as I knew—the other being my brother Conner’s name. “It’s time to prepare.”
I had no idea what he meant, but I was smart enough not to ask. He tossed my heaviest coat at me, and it landed on my twin bed with a thump.
“Dress warm, boy. We’re goin’ out on the sea.”
I waited until he left the room to release my groan.
“He’s taking you again?” Conner whispered with a mixture of jealousy and fear.
“Yeah,” I grumbled as I reached for my jeans lying on the floor.
“You haven’t gone out for a long time.”
“I know.” It had been months. That had been one of the perks of my father spending so much time with his new friend Marino: no more nighttime sea excursions. That, along with the money my father seemed to have.
Besides the fact that he was indisputably drunker than usual, there was something ominous about tonight’s adventure. Still, there was no denying my father.
I dressed quickly and heard my parents in the living room. My mother was crying, but my father was having none of it. “I have a lead on the fucking weapons, Katie. I’m gonna put an end to this thing. I’m going to destroy them.”
I stood in the shadows of the hallway, listening.
“But she’s just a child,” she whispered.
My stomach clenched. Who was she talking about?
“Come on out here, boy,” my father bellowed. “I see you lurking in the shadows like a coward. Real men stand up to what they’re afraid of.”
Three steps brought me to the entrance of our tiny living room. My mother sat on the sofa, wringing a tissue, her eyes red and puffy. I stopped in the middle of the room, then added a few extra steps to show I wasn’t afraid. In truth, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been so scared.
“Collin,” my mother whispered, but my father grabbed her arm and leaned over into her face. She grimaced, squeezing her eyes shut.
I lifted my chin and steeled my back. “I’m going. Don’t try to stop me.” I couldn’t let him hurt her. She’d become so fragile it wouldn’t take much to break her for good.
My father dropped his hold and teetered toward the front door while my mother watched in wide-eyed horror.
I ran to her and gave her a hug. “I’ll be fine.”
She pulled back and grabbed the lapels of my too-big brown coat, a hand-me-down from my cousin. Her eyes searched mine, wild and desperate. “You know how to drive the boat, don’t you?”
“He’s more drunk than usual . . .” she whispered. “If he—”
“Come on!” my father bellowed.
I jerked away from her before she could finish, hustling to meet him at the door. He whacked me on the back of the head, sending pain shooting through my skull.
“Are you a baby or a man, Collin Dailey?” he slurred.
“Damn right. Men don’t answer to women. Women are good for screwing and cleaning house. Best you remember that, boy, otherwise you’ll end up being pussy whipped. Got it?”
“Yes, sir,” I said as we went into the darkness. I’d heard different versions of this speech about women for as long as I could remember. Sometimes I wondered what would happen if he said that to Grandma Opal. She’d probably kill him on the spot.
Sometimes I wished she would.
In his inebriated state, it took my father three attempts to open his car door, and two to get his keys into the steering column. The car straddled the centerline of the road, but thankfully there wasn’t much traffic this late at night. There were only a handful of cars at the parking lot abutting the dock when we arrived because the early-morning fishermen wouldn’t be out for another hour or two.
My father grabbed a small brown bag out of the back seat before he staggered to the dock and climbed over the edge of the boat, nearly falling on his ass from the drop in height. I untied the vessel from the dock and then followed him onboard.
Soon we were flying across the water, my father at the helm while I sat outside, huddled with my back to the wall of the cabin. My father would never let me ride in the captain’s helm with him, no matter how cold it was. Real men sailed in the cold, he would say. I knew better than to point out that we weren’t sailing or that he was always inside.
I was tired, but my fear kept me awake as he raced through Pamlico Sound, around the tip of Hatteras Island, and out onto the Atlantic. I wrapped my coat tight around my body, leaning my head back to stare at the stars.
He took us farther out than usual. I hadn’t seen any sign of the shore for quite some time when the engine finally slowed, then died. The door opened and he walked out, tripping over his feet and nearly falling. His face darkened with anger and he spun around to face me.
“Time for your lesson, little Curse Keeper.”
The look in his eyes was murderous. I had always been scared of him, but this was the first time I’d feared for my life. My back pressed against the wall, I slowly slid up until I was standing, and squared my shoulders.
Real men showed no fear…It was another lesson my father had taught me.
“Okay.” My voice sounded strong and clear in the darkness.
He began to pace across the short deck, weaving as he sipped on a nearly empty bottle of Jack. “It’s all about to end, Collin.”
I waited several seconds for him to continue and when he didn’t, icy fear seeped through my veins. It was obvious he wanted me to prompt him for an explanation, and while I was fairly sure I didn’t want to hear it, I didn’t want to make him any madder. “What is?” I forced out.
I’d heard this before, but something was different on that cold dark night. Something told me I should take him seriously.
“I know how to break it this time.”
My eyes grew so wide that the cold wind whipping across the water made them sting. “How?”
“You don’t need to worry about the how of it, only that this damn thing will finally be over and we’ll be rich.”
“How?” I repeated.
“The Ricardo Estate, boy.” He’d been talking about the elusive Ricardo Estate for weeks, but I’d figured it was just one my father’s many pipedreams and schemes. Until now. “I’ve found the ring…and I know where the spear is too.”
He pointed his finger at me, his eyes wild. “Don’t play stupid with me, boy! I know your grandmother told you all about the Dare weapons.”
My father hated that she tried to counteract his teachings, and I was the one caught in the middle of their conflict. “She says the curse will break in her lifetime. She says I need to be prepared,” I sputtered out.
“Because she doesn’t think I’ll be the one to do it,” he sneered, resting his ass on an upside-down bucket. “But I fooled her.” Then he broke out into laughter.
I always kept at least part of her lessons from him, even when he grilled me for hours. Up until the previous year, she’d tried to convince my father his designs were foolish, but it was a wasted effort. As wise as she was, I wondered how she failed to realize that a fool’s mind couldn’t be changed. Maybe she had a hard time giving up on him since he was her son. What I had trouble understanding was why he wanted to be the one who broke the curse. The responsibility sat heavily on my shoulders.
“So this is our final lesson.” He teetered close to the edge of the boat and it suddenly occurred to me how easy it would be for him to fall over the side and be lost at sea forever. No one would ask any questions if I went back without him.
But my luck was worse than my father’s and he stayed on the deck, bitterly complaining about all the hardships the descendants of Manteo had faced over four hundred years, going on and on about how he’d be the one to save us all. The reason my grandmother would never recognize his greatness, he said, was because she was jealous of him. It was a verbal manifesto, wasted on the ears of his sleepy ten-year-old son.
My father ranted for nearly an hour, an incoherent mess of a person who grew messier with each sip of Jack, especially after he opened the fresh bottle he’d brought on board. He sat on the deck across from me as he continued his binge. When he reached a lull and seemed more passive than before, I asked the question that I’d wanted to ask him for two years, ever since our first Curse Keeper boat outing. “Why the ocean?”
His head jerked up but the uncoordinated move almost made him fall over. “What about the ocean?”
“We’re the sons of the land. Why do you bring me out onto the ocean to talk about this?”
“We’re fisherman,” he sneered. “It’s part of our fucking history.”
“Yeah, I know.” I was sitting on the deck and scooted several feet closer to him, making sure to stay out of arm’s reach. “But that’s not why you bring me out here to teach me your lessons. Why the ocean?”
He closed his eyes and rested his head against a bucket. He hesitated for so long I wasn’t sure if he wasn’t going to answer or if he was even awake. Finally, he said, “So the gods and spirits won’t hear.”
It was my turn to hesitate. “The gods and spirits are locked up in Popogusso,” I said. “How can they hear us when we’re on land?”
“One god escaped. You know that from me and your grandmother. He’s watching me and plotting against me. I’m trying to hide my plans from him.”
My father was drunk and crazy.
I watched him for several minutes, waiting for him to say more. But he didn’t. Soon I realized he was asleep. When the sun began to rise and he still hadn’t come round, I went into the helm, started the engine, and headed back toward Hatteras Island, glancing back at my father to see if he’d roused. He was still out, and he stayed that way even after I docked the boat. I stared at him for several long moments, trying to decide whether to leave him there or wake him.
But I’d suffered his wrath before after waking him from drunken slumbers. I tied up the boat and started walking back home so I could go to school. I had a spelling test to take.
I never saw him again.
I leaned my head back and finished my third beer, trying to decide whether to drink another or call Conner to come get me. But Conner and I hadn’t been on the best terms over the past year, so I tossed the empty can in the cooler and grabbed another one.
I was going to have to kiss Marino’s ass again to get the money to fix the Lucky Star.
Conner thought I was an idiot to keep the boat, and part of me knew he was right. I claimed I kept it because it had been my grandfather’s, but even my grandmother wanted me to sell it. The truth was, even though I needed to work for Marino to finance the repairs, the boat was the only thing that gave me independence from him. Marino had his hooks set so deeply into my back there was no way I could avoid becoming his full-time lackey without a good excuse. And since I was good and stuck in the OBX—my father had been right about that; I tried leaving once and nearly suffocated to death—there was no escape. The boat was my salvation. Marino had known my father before his disappearance, so he knew I came from a long line of commercial fishermen. In fact, he’d come to me soon after my father’s disappearance, offering his financial help if I ever needed it. And like a lamb to the slaughter, I’d taken out my first loan from him during my junior year of high school. I had already quit school midyear to earn the money to pay for my mother’s medical bills and help raise my brother.
Mom had been in and out of the hospital with severe depression ever since my father’s disappearance, and Conner and I had been shuffled from one relative to the next when she wasn’t home. For some reason, my grandmother refused to watch us. But even when our mother was around, she didn’t do much to take care of us. I was the one who made sure Conner did his homework and stayed out of trouble. By the time I turned seventeen, I was sick and tired of her inability to be a mother to us. I insisted I could raise my brother on my own, whether she was home or hospitalized. My decision inadvertently influenced her to swallow half a bottle of sleeping pills. Her suicide note said she’d always planned to end her life. Her intention had been to wait until Conner’s high-school graduation, but my declaration of independence had accelerated her plans.
I borrowed money from Marino to pay for her funeral, sinking me deeper into his debt.
The guilt over her death had clung to me ever since.
I took a long sip of the beer, letting the cold liquid slide down my throat. Working for Marino full time was most likely inevitable. Why was I fighting it so hard? Maybe I should stop being so stubborn and give in.
Was this my destiny after all? Maybe my grandmother’s predictions were just as inaccurate as her father’s had been.
“Is that what you want?” I shouted out to the universe, my voice echoing across the even-tempered sound waves. “Do you want me to sell my soul to the devil?”
Of course there was no answer. How could I expect differently?
I tilted my head back again, focusing on the stars overhead. I’d learned the constellations to help navigate when I was out at sea. After all, given the general state of my boat, I didn’t want to put too much trust in its navigation system. My ancestors had used the stars for guidance, a fact that had fascinated me ever since my father had started our Curse Keeper lessons while out at sea. But tonight there was a star that didn’t belong. I wondered if there was a comet I wasn’t aware of, but quickly realized it didn’t have a tail. The three and a half beers must have been hitting me harder than usual because the star began to pulse, growing larger and larger.
I got to my feet, wondering if I was seeing things, but then the star exploded with a startling bright light and began to plummet to the earth. I watched in horror as I realized it was falling directly toward the Lucky Star. Staggering to the helm, I tried in vain to start the engine to get out of its path. When I realized I wasn’t going anywhere, I ducked for cover.
The sky filled with a blinding light, forcing me to close my eyes as I braced for some kind of impact. To my surprise, nothing happened; the light faded and the Lucky Star continued to gently float on the water. When I opened my eyes and stumbled onto the deck, a glowing yellow orb about two feet in diameter was waiting for me, hovering over the water several feet from the edge of the boat. I blinked, wondering what in the hell I’d been drinking, because beer had never made me hallucinate.
“Curse Keeper,” whispered a voice that could only be coming from the orb.
Terror shot down my spine as I walked to the edge of the boat. Only a handful of people knew of that title. Not that it mattered. A fucking ball of light was talking to me. Was this how it was for my grandmother when her lost souls spoke to her?
“Curse Keeper.” The light pulsed inside the orb and a warmth rolled from it, taking away the evening chill.
“What are you?”
“Someone who wishes to help you.”
I shook my head, narrowing my eyes with my skepticism. “Me?”
“You are the son of the land. It has always been your destiny to be one of the Keepers of the curse.”
I took several deep breaths, swallowing the metallic taste of fear on my tongue. If everything my grandmother had taught me was to be believed, this orb could only be one of two things. The first was one of her lost souls, what most people called ghosts. Although she never gave me too many specifics, I knew not all spirits took their human form, but I’d never once heard of one appearing as a pulsing ball of light that fell from the sky. That only left one other option—Ahone, creator of humanity and creator of the curse.
Given the consequences of his visit with Manteo, I wasn’t very happy he’d chosen to visit me now, especially after his comment about my destiny. I decided to take the offensive. “What do you want, Ahone?”
“For centuries your ancestors have suffered. I wish to help you put an end to this.”
“Aren’t you the one who caused their suffering?” I knew I was playing with fire. He was a god. He could kill me on the spot. But the alcohol pumping through my veins tempered my restraint.
The light expanded then shrank. “No, son of the earth. I created the curse to help your people. I wanted to protect you from your enemies, so I approached Manteo and told him how to harness the power of the earth and the sea to trap the evil forces that plagued this land.”
I scoffed, feeling braver. “That’s not what I was taught.”
“You were taught many things, most of them contradictory. Your grandmother believes I tricked the first son of the earth into doing my will, while your father believed your ancestor was selfish in his quest for peace. Both are wrong, biased accounts.”
“And I’m supposed to believe your version?”
“Curse Keeper, what purpose would it serve me to lie to you?”
“What purpose does it serve you to make this little visit to me tonight?” I shot back.
The orb grew brighter and I wondered if I’d gone too far, but this thing floating in front of me was the whole reason I was stuck in this hellhole, and God help me, I struggled to hold my anger along with my tongue.
“My purpose in being here is to help you.”
“Then set me loose from this goddamned curse so I can get the hell away from this place and never look back.”
“I can grant your request.”
An invisible band cinched around my chest. This had to be a trick. “You’re telling me I don’t have to be a Curse Keeper anymore? Because I’m sure as hell not going to have any kids to carry on this legacy, and I don’t plan on dying and passing it on to my brother. Based on what I’ve been told, there’s no Option C.”
“There is one possibility you haven’t considered.”
I laughed, holding my hands out from my sides. “I’m all ears.”
“Break the curse, then seal the gate permanently.”
I did a double take. “You want me to break the curse?”
I rubbed my eyes, trying to wrap my head around what was happening. “My father spent his whole life trying to figure out a way to break the curse. He failed.” Hell, he hadn’t even been right in thinking we’d be safe from Ahone on the ocean.
“Your father was a fool.”
There was no denying it, but part of me wondered if I should at least try to defend him. In the end, I didn’t have the stomach for it. “For my whole life, my grandmother has told me the Dare Keeper will seek me out to break the curse. The spirits have told her so. She’s made sure I know how to reseal the gate when the time comes.”
“Your grandmother is correct. The Dare Keeper is very strong. When the time comes, you must use all of the knowledge your grandmother has instilled in you to reseal the gate permanently.”
“What makes this time any different than the last? Why bother breaking the curse at all?”
“Last time Okeus tricked us all and created those marks on your palms.”
While there was nothing on my palm at the moment, my grandmother had taught me that a circle enclosed in a square would appear when the curse broke. The mark would give me power over the spirits and gods.
“It gave him and the other evil ones an out. This time there will be no escape. If you and the other Curse Keeper break the curse and use the original artifacts in the ceremony, you will have the chance to reseal the gate for good. Then you—and all of humanity—will be free forever.”
In my twenty-five years of life, I’d learned that when something sounded too good to be true, it almost always was. I couldn’t help wondering what Ahone had promised my twenty-seventh great-grandfather to get him to carry out his crime? Had Manteo also been swayed by an impossible-to-deny offer?
I cocked my head. “My grandmother says all the signs point to the curse breaking on my watch. She made me prepare. If this is going to happen anyway, why don’t I just wait until the Dare Keeper finds me?” Of course, my family predicting the breaking of the curse was a lot like Christians predicting the return of Jesus—every generation was sure they’d witness it.
“If you wait until the Dare Keeper finds you, it will be too late. She is too strong, and she grows stronger by the day. But if you find her soon, your power will be able to overcome hers. You can force her to participate in the resealing ceremony. You are the one who must save humanity.”
Fear sent icy shards through my blood. Just how powerful was she?
While I’d known since the beginning that the Dares had vowed to find us and not only break the curse but destroy the Manteo Keeper. When I looked at my own life, I had to wonder what there was left to destroy.
The fact that I thought of saving myself before humanity was probably a telling character flaw. Not that I gave a shit. “What’s in it for me?” I asked.
The ball pulsed for several seconds before responding. “Survival for you and your family. If you let the Dare Keeper find you first, she will destroy you all.”
I grimaced and shook my head. I didn’t trust the bastard. “I think I’ll leave well enough alone and take my chances.”
The orb burned brighter. “You have the opportunity to free yourself forever. I understand you’ve been trained to protect the curse, but you have the chance to save future generations of your family from its yoke. I will give you one month to think it over, but consider this: What will the curse do for you if you let it stand? You have far more to lose than to gain.” Then the light flashed blindingly bright and shrank to a pinpoint before disappearing.
I stared into the darkness where the light had been and asked myself if he could be right. What good did the curse do me if I let it stand? But breaking the curse was a crazy idea . . . wasn’t it?
I spent the rest of the night out on the sound, drinking the rest of my six-pack as I gave Ahone’s suggestion serious consideration.
I woke slumped against the cabin, my neck aching from being bent at an odd angle, the sun glaring in my eyes. I sat up straight, remembering the crazy encounter I’d had with Ahone. Had it really happened? I’d never had such a vivid dream before, but maybe I’d passed out after drinking a few too many beers. In over four hundred years, no Manteo Keeper had ever seen or talked to Ahone, so why would he visit me?
But what if it actually had happened? My grandmother firmly believed the Dare Keeper would seek me out to break the curse. And Ahone had confirmed her fear that the other Keeper would be powerful…and probably vindictive to boot. But what if I really could take the offensive, stopping her before her gifts blossomed?
I snorted, then immediately regretted it when pain shot through my head. This was why I rarely drank too much. I couldn’t hold my liquor. That would have been a bitter disappointment to my alcoholic father.
My cell phone rang, the sound making me jump and sending more pain through my head. I slid my phone out of my pocket and grimaced. It was the very last person I wanted to talk to, but I couldn’t avoid him forever. I answered it, already cringing before he spoke.
“Collin, you disappointment,” Marino’s raspy voice filled my ear. Apparently, there was plenty of disappointment to go around as far as I was concerned.
“Perhaps your expectations are too high for me, Marino.”
He chuckled. “Good thing I liked your old man or I wouldn’t let you get away with talking to me like that.”
I bit my tongue to keep from telling him the fact that he’d liked my father was reason enough to question his judgment. No need to push my luck.
“I know you must have gotten my message requesting your presence at my office, Collin. Why has it taken you so long to get back to me?”
I stood and looked around at the water, trying to find the shore. I must have drifted deeper into Pamlico Sound. How was I getting cell phone service out here? I opened the door to the captain’s room and turned on the navigational gear, waiting for it to warm up. “I’ve been detained. I’m out on the sound with a dead engine.”
The GPS turned on and I saw I was a good half mile off shore, closer to Ocracoke Island than Hatteras Island. Shit. I’d been drifting all night. “I’m glad you find it amusing,” I said when he finally settled down.
“Why do you insist on keeping that death trap?” he asked.
“I’ve already told you,” I grumbled, heading back outside and dropping to my knees next to the engine compartment. “Tradition.”
“Your father started a new tradition before his disappearance. You should follow in those family footsteps, which leads me to the reason I’ve requested a meeting with you. Since you seem so reluctant, here’s an added incentive: an invaluable estate collection that went missing around the same time as your old man recently found its way to the surface.”
I sucked in a breath, sitting back up. “My father said he was working on something called the Ricardo Estate.”
“That’s right. Now get your ass in here and I’ll tell you what I know.”
“Why do I give a shit about some estate collection that disappeared around the same time as my father?” I asked, trying to mask the level of my interest. “He was a mean drunk who beat the shit out of my mother. The day he disappeared was the best day of my young life.”
He laughed again. “You’re a good bullshitter, Collin Dailey, but I know you better than you think. You’re curious as hell to know what it’s all about. You may not give a shit about your father’s disappearance, but the estate is one giant mystery you want to solve. Come see me, Collin. This afternoon. Three o’clock.”
I cursed after he hung up. He did know me well. Too well. He’d met me as a child and had started to study me years before I realized what he was doing. Marino had grown in power since I’d first met him after my father’s disappearance, and his rise to bad-guy greatness could be attributed to his ability to read people. He knew his enemies as well as his associates. He knew what made people tick—what buttons to push, what triggers to pull to get them to do what he wanted. Marino had figured me out all right, but at least there was an upside: he’d also taught me to hide myself from everyone else. One of many reasons I was still under his thumb.
I examined the engine again and came up with a temporary fix that might get me back to the dock if I was lucky. When I was back on dry land, it would be time for some serious soul-searching about what to do with the money-sucker.
It was nearly noon when I tied up the Lucky Star to the dock. My beat-up red truck was in the parking lot, the windows rolled down, daring anyone to come steal it. I’d scrimped and saved to come up with the fifteen hundred dollars I’d needed to buy the thing when I was fifteen. My mother had been in and out of mental health hospitals since I was eleven, and we’d lost my father’s car. We’d only managed to hold on to our house because it belonged to Grandma Opal and we didn’t have any mortgage payments. My father’s meager social security checks, which continued to arrive long after he disappeared, helped pay the taxes and utilities. And my own wages from working for my uncle on his fishing boat helped with food and clothing for the whole family. So when I turned fifteen, I bought the truck with spare money I’d been saving for two years, and drove it without a license for the six months before my sixteenth birthday. I drove like a grandma to make sure I didn’t get pulled over. It was the one thing I truly owned.
As much as I hated to think about it, Marino now held the title on my boat.
I drove home to the tiny house where I’d grown up. Sometimes I was surprised I still lived here. My mother was gone and Conner had moved out years ago. Maybe I was a masochist, determined to coexist with the haunting memories of my father’s abuse. But most of his violence had been aimed at our mother, who’d done her best to protect us. Conner remembered things differently, blaming my mother for staying in the first place, subjecting us all to our father’s wrath. But Conner liked to toss judgment around, and he always made sure to heap plenty on me as well. Nevertheless, I stayed in the run-down house, telling myself it was because I could live there rent-free. It wasn’t like I spent much of my free time there anyway.
I pulled into the driveway and my stomach tightened when I saw that the front door was partially open behind the storm door. Someone was in my house. Only two people could be there—my brother, which seemed unlikely since it was a little past noon on a Tuesday afternoon and Conner had a respectable job at an insurance firm, or my grandmother.
When I walked in through the door, she was sitting in my father’s old, green, threadbare recliner in the corner.
I offered her a grim smile. I knew this wasn’t a social call. Her lost souls were more gossipy than the women at her bingo club. “Grandmother,” I said, walking into the kitchen to grab a bottle of water from the fridge. “Glad to see you still have your key.”
“Of course I have a key. I own the damn house.”
I screwed the cap off my bottle and lifted it in salute. “And you can have it back anytime you want.”
“We both know that’s not why I’m here.”
I sat on the sofa across from her, leaning back in a nonchalant pose, even though I was feeling anything but. She never came to my house, so this was a bad sign. Was this confirmation that my tête-à-tête with Ahone had actually happened?
“Where were you last night?”
“Out on the sound.”
“Something happened.” It was a statement, not a question.
I cocked an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Don’t get smart with me, Collin Fitzgerald. You need to tell me everything.”
I crossed my legs and stretched my arm across the back of the sofa. “Something happened, all right. That piece of shit engine on the boat finally crapped out for good. I was lucky to make it back to shore this morning.”
She scowled, looking like she was about to wallop me in the head. I wouldn’t put it past her, which was one of the reasons I was leaning back. “You know damn good and well what I’m talking about.”
“Actually, Gran. I don’t. Why don’t you enlighten me?” I wasn’t exactly sure why I was lying to her. It would serve me better to tell her the truth and get her opinion on the whole mess, but lying was such an ingrained habit, it felt more natural than telling her what had really happened, as sick and twisted as that was.
“The lost souls are like a flock of chattering birds. They say the entire spirit world has been shaken.”
“Really?” I asked in mock surprise, taking a drink. “What could that be about?”
“Don’t you lie to me, Collin.” She was up and out of the chair faster than I’d seen her move in years. All five-foot-two-inches of her towered over me. “Something happened on that boat of yours, and you’re going to tell me what it was.”
I heaved out a sigh. “I got a visit from a bright ball of light.”
She waited for me to continue.
“You realize anyone else would call me crazy.”
Her mouth twitched to the side. “I’m not anyone else. What was it?”
Fear caught my breath and “Ahone” came out in a whisper.
She sat back down in the chair, her face turning pale. “What did he want?”
“He wants me to break the curse.”
I nodded. “He says the other Keeper is strong and I need to find her before her power grows and she destroys us all.”
Her mouth pressed into a tight line. “Do you believe him?”
I shrugged, my bravado evaporating. “I don’t know. I know he tricked Manteo, but what if he’s right?”
She remained silent.
Running my hand through my hair, I leaned forward. “You taught me that I should wait for the Dare Keeper. But what if you got it wrong?”
Her eyes narrowed. If I hadn’t been a twenty-five-year-old man, I would have been worried she’d take me out back and switch me.
“What do your voices say?” I asked.
“They are strangely silent on specifics.”
“But they told you the Dare Keeper was female and strong, which matches what Ahone told me last night. That was years ago. What do they say now?”
She shook her head, looking worried. “They stopped talking about her after your father disappeared.”
My eyebrows rose. “You never told me that.”
“You never asked,” was her short reply.
“They haven’t spoken of her for fifteen years?”
“Still nothing. Even when I specifically ask.”
“What does that mean?”
Her mouth puckered. “Probably nothing good.”
This was getting worse and worse.
She stood. “What did you tell him?”
I stood next to her, dwarfing her tiny frame. I had seen her no more than a week ago, but she seemed older and more fragile. Even though she was in her late eighties, she’d never looked it. Until now. “I told him I’d wait for the other Keeper to find me.”
She grabbed my hands in her own and looked into my eyes. “Good boy.”
My mouth parted in surprise. Praise from my grandmother was as rare as a blue moon.
“Ahone used trickery and deceit with our ancestor, and he’ll use it again. I have no idea what he could be up to, but his purpose could only be evil. Stay away from that liar and carry on with your life.”
I nodded as I walked her to the door, though I couldn’t help but wonder if she was being naive. Was it possible to say no to a god and expect him to accept that answer? Had Manteo told Ahone no countless times before finally saying yes?
After showering, I made a sandwich and opened my secondhand laptop, hacking into my neighbor’s Internet to do another search for anything about the Ricardo Estate. It had been a couple of years since I’d attempted to track down any information on it, and this search proved to be just as unfruitful as my previous attempts. It was as if the damn thing didn’t exist. For all I knew, it didn’t.
I pulled up in front of the thrift store Marino used as a front for his business. His newest front-desk employee, a teenage boy, looked just as bored as all his predecessors. I’d been in the store a few times, and I’d never seen more than a handful of customers. I was certain the lack of business was the reason for the high turnover at the desk.
The employee perked up when I entered the musty store, but slumped over the counter again when he saw me heading for the curtain that divided the storefront from the back room where all the action happened. I found Marino in his office; a small space filled with disassembled electronic parts. He fancied himself a computer guru, but I’d never actually seen anything completed and in working order. At least it kept him occupied. An idle Marino was nothing but trouble for everyone.
When I entered the room, he spun around in his metal office chair that creaked from his excessive weight. As far as I knew, he’d never been a small man, but he had to have gained at least a hundred pounds since I’d first met him.
“Collin, my boy.” He clapped his hands once in mock joy. “You have no idea how happy I am to see you.”
I closed the door behind me and crossed my arms. “You offered the right incentive, but then you knew that, so let’s cut to the chase.”
Marino’s smile fell. “One of these days I won’t find your mouth so cute.”
I cocked my head and flashed him a grin. “Lucky for me that’s not today.”
Marino looked like he didn’t agree with that assessment, but he moved on anyway. “You haven’t come to see me lately, Collin. I was beginning to think you were avoiding me.”
I shifted my weight and recrossed my arms, putting my left arm on top this time. “I’m here now.”
“Where’s the money you owe me? I hope that’s not why you’ve stayed away.”
I forced my shoulders to stay relaxed. “I’ve got most of it.”
“Most isn’t good enough.”
“I would have had it all, but my engine died and I couldn’t get around to all my cages.”
“Collin, Collin.” He shook his head, pinching his lips together. “You know what they say about excuses? They’re just like assholes—everyone’s got one and they all stink.”
If he’d told me that joke once, he’d told it a hundred times. But it carried more bite today.
“Marino, you know I’ll get it. I always do.”
He laughed again. “Have a seat, Dailey. I think we can work something out.”
I sat in an uncomfortable office chair across from his desk and waited while Marino screwed around with the motherboard in front of him.
“Fifteen years ago, your father and I worked on a job,” he said after a moment. “It was an estate that became available for auction. We had only just begun to case it and your father…disappeared.” He rolled his chair across the concrete floor and stopped next to a small table covered in papers. He grabbed a file, then rolled back to me. “Three weeks ago, I heard rumors that the estate was available again, and I got preview photos from Emilio Ricardo’s attorney.”
He handed me the manila folder and I opened the cover to reveal a stack of photos. Pictures of swords and spears, both plain and intricate, along with images of pocket watches, candlesticks, and a wide variety of jewelry filled the folder. I tried to hide my interest. There was a strong likelihood that the Dare weapons were in that collection. I closed the folder and looked up at him. “So where do I come in?”
“We know it exists, but we don’t know where. Ricardo’s attorney is in Greenville, but I suspect the collection is being kept in Charlotte. I want you to track it down and case it out. Then I’ll send Tony and Vinnie with you to steal the loot.”
I narrowed my eyes. “What’s my take?”
“Ten percent, I’ll forgive your debt, and you’ll be promoted within the organization.”
His terms sucked and he knew it. It was a test to see how interested I was. He had showed me enough to pique my curiosity, but not enough to find the collection without his help. There was obviously information he was holding back until I committed myself. Damn him. “Thirty percent and no promotion.”
Marino burst out laughing. “You’re hilarious. Thirty percent?”
“I’d be doing all the legwork, Marino.”
“And I have all the pertinent information, Dailey. Twenty percent and you commit to full-time employment.”
“Twenty-five percent and no change to my employment status.”
He shook his head. “No deal. And if you don’t take part in this, you better pay off your loan—with interest—by Friday.”
I stood, ready to bluff. “Then I’m done.” I headed for the door, waiting for Marino to call me back, but I kept going when he didn’t. Any hesitation on my part would mean I’d never get my terms. I wasn’t surprised when I reached my truck without being stopped, and I wasn’t even surprised when I drove all the way home. But I was surprised when he didn’t call me back. He knew what he was doing. He knew I wanted in. Fucker.
But I was a stubborn son-of–a-bitch, and I needed to find those weapons. Part of me wondered if I should just cave to his terms. What if I found the weapons and hid them from the Dare Keeper, then tried Ahone’s crazy scheme?
If what Ahone said was true, I’d finally be free.
Marino might think I was his minion, but I could escape if I wasn’t bound to the Outer Banks anymore. I could go anywhere. The thought made me eager with excitement. For a man who spent most of his life lying, I couldn’t find it in me to agree to Marino’s terms, even if I didn’t have any plans on following through. Call it pride, but I’d spent years telling him no. I couldn’t agree to be his full-time goonie now.
A week passed without word from Marino. The boat engine was definitely dead, and the jobs I did for Marino—small time theft, usually involving breaking and entering—were my only source of income. It was only going to take a couple of days before I became desperate. But desperation apparently had varying levels, and I decided to climb the lower rung first.
I paid a visit to my brother.
I wasn’t entirely sure why I felt a strong need to see him. Perhaps because all the curse-related nonsense was dredging up bad memories. Or maybe I just needed to talk to someone other than our grandmother about what was going on in my life. But the need to spill to Conner was a gut feeling I couldn’t deny. And, to be honest, I was hoping he might help me out with some money.
I pulled my truck up to the curb in front of his cute house with its well-manicured yard. The thought of living in such a suburban stamp of a house made my skin crawl. A wife, two-point-five kids, a dog, and a spotless home with stainless steel appliances and granite counters. That had always been Conner’s dream…and my nightmare. Even walking up to the front door was hard. The only thing that made it easier was the six-pack of Corona tucked under my arm.
Conner had gotten his respectable job and made an attempt to distance himself from his disgraceful past, but for some reason he’d chosen to stay in Buxton. He wasn’t tied to the Outer Banks like I was. He was free to go to Timbuktu if he wanted. God knew I’d get the hell out of here if I had the choice. But the real reason he hadn’t left the island answered the door seconds after I knocked on it.
The gorgeous, dark-haired beauty gave me a slow, seductive smile. “Collin, long time no see.”
“I’ve been busy, Rosalina.”
“Too busy for your own brother?”
I knew what she was really asking, but I kept my thoughts to myself. She made no secret of the fact that she was interested in me. Conner had enough reasons to hate me without adding that one to the list. “It’s soft-shell crab season.”
“Hmm…” She gave me a sexy pout.
“Is Conner in a good mood?”
She grimaced. “He was.”
I sighed. There wasn’t going to be any ideal time to do this, so it didn’t really matter what kind of mood he was in.
“Have you eaten?”
I hesitated. “No.”
Her face lit up with a bright smile. “Then I insist you stay and eat with us. I’m making enchiladas.”
“Sounds tempting. We’ll see how it goes.”
She gave me a pretty pout and I instantly regretted my decision to possibly stay. Rosalina was one of the most beautiful women I had ever met, and Conner was definitely a lucky man in that regard. More than a few of his ex-girlfriends had tried to jump ship after meeting me, so he’d waited until two months into their relationship before introducing us. To her credit, she hid her interest in me when she was around Conner.
I knew women were drawn to me, so finding beautiful women had never been a problem. And if I’d met Rosalina before she and Conner started dating, I wouldn’t have thought twice. But Rosalina was just like all the other women I’d met since turning fifteen—biding her time, waiting for the next best thing to appear. Conner deserved better than that and I sure as hell wouldn’t be the one to screw his girlfriend. Still, I couldn’t help wondering how long it would be before someone else did.
I was still on the front porch while she stood in the open doorway. She must have realized this because she took two graceful steps back, allowing me room to enter, but she stayed close enough that her breasts brushed against my arm. I suppressed a groan. I hadn’t slept with a woman for weeks, and despite her character flaws, Rosalina was tempting.
But I’d sooner take the Lucky Star out to the Atlantic and jump off the deck before I would betray my brother. Turned out I had some scruples after all.
“Is he out back?”
I walked through the kitchen and out the back door to the covered deck. Conner sat in a folding camp chair, watching a small dog sniff around in the yard while he nursed a can of beer.
“I hear they actually make outdoor furniture that’s comfortable to sit in,” I said, stopping a few steps outside the doorway.
He glanced up, and a grin lifted his mouth before it fell, as though he remembered he was angry with me. “Old habits die hard.”
There was an empty camp chair next to him, presumably Rosalina’s, but she stood behind the screen door and motioned for me to sit there before she walked away. I sat down and pulled a bottle out, popped off the top, and handed it to him. He took it without hesitation and gulped down a long drag. Turned out the chairs weren’t the only habits to die hard.
I grabbed another bottle and took a sip after removing the cap.
Conner turned his gaze toward me. “What do you want, Collin?”
“Why would you ask that?”
“You show up out of nowhere with a six-pack of my favorite beer. It’s not my birthday, so you must want something.”
I could have denied it, but it would have been a waste of both our time. “Do you want the bad news or the really bad news?”
He grimaced, then took another long drink. “Just spit it out. The Daileys are cursed with nothing but bad luck.”
“Not you,” I said. “You have a great job. A loving girlfriend.” I gestured to the black-and-white puppy bouncing in the grass, chasing a flying bug. “And a cute dog. You’re well on your way to the great American dream. When did you get that?”
He shrugged. “Two weeks ago. Rosalina wanted it…”
I took another drink as memories washed over me, making me melancholy. “Remember how we always begged Mom for a dog?”
He cocked an eyebrow. “I think that was part of the reason I agreed to it. All those unfulfilled childhood wishes.”
I took another drink then spat out issue number one. “The engine on the Lucky Star is officially dead. We need to replace it.”
“It should have died five years ago. It only lasted this long because of your expert finagling.” It was a compliment, which was rare from him.
“We need to come up with thousands of dollars to get a new one.”
“We?” he asked, his gaze on the dog. “I’m not sinking another dime into that boat.”
“You’re half owner.”
“That’s bullshit and you know it. Last I heard, Marino holds the title.” He took another long sip. “And even if he didn’t, I don’t want the damn thing. He took another long drag, finishing his beer. He set the bottle on the deck, then held his hand out toward me, still not meeting my eyes.
I opened another bottle and handed it to him.
He took a drink and said, “You should sell it.”
I grimaced. “You know I can’t do that.”
“Why? Because it belonged to our loving father?” he sneered. “The shithole’s a money pit.” Then he grinned. “Besides, you suck at fishing.”
My eyes bulged. “I do not.”
He laughed, shaking his head. “You’re terrible. Even Uncle Gus says so.”
I was silent for several seconds. Maybe that was part of the curse too. “I can’t sell it.”
“Look, Collin,” he said, finally turning to study me. “There’s no denying you love the sea, which I always found ironic considering all that son of the earth nonsense. But then again, Dad always took you out at night, leaving me behind.”
He took another sip and I tried to hide my frown. Conner always drank more than me, but the way he was guzzling tonight made me worried. And we both knew I’d always dreaded those late-night trips to the ocean. It hadn’t occurred to me that he might have been jealous of them.
“Putting money in that boat is like pouring money down the drain. Sell it and buy something else.”
“First of all, that boat’s been in our family for four generations. I can’t just sell it. What about tradition?”
He shook his head in disgust. “Here we fucking go again. The next thing you know, you’ll start talking about the damned curse.”
I took another sip. “As a matter of fact…”
He groaned. “It’s made up, Collin. I don’t see how you of all people, can’t see that! You’ve got to be the most cynical, narcissistic person I’ve ever met—”
I forced a grin. “Why thank you.”
“—which is why I find it so ironic that you believe that load of shit, hook, line, and sinker.”
I didn’t answer. I found it hard to believe he didn’t. But then, I’d been the one to get the lessons, which had increased in frequency and intensity after my father’s disappearance. Sometimes I was certain Grandmother knew something about where he’d gone. She’d get a knowing look in her eyes the few times we discussed it. Maybe her lost souls had told her, although she’d never felt inclined to fill me in. Part of me wondered if she’d had something to do with it, but as cold-hearted as she seemed toward him, even she wouldn’t kill her own son, would she?
But a voice whispered in the back of my head that she could and would if it meant preserving the curse.
That kind of zealous dedication must have come from somewhere deep; a well of faith. Perhaps it was easier to follow so resolutely when voices whispered in your ear all day long. And perhaps it was easier for me to believe because not believing had never been presented as an option. And even if I hadn’t believed, I would have changed my opinion last week.
“That’s why I donated that damn bowl to the museum,” he said, but I heard a hint of regret. “According to all of Gran’s stories, you need the bowl to perform the ceremony. No bowl. No ceremony. That means you’re free, Collin.” He took a long drink. “Does she know it’s missing yet?”
“No,” I growled. “And don’t you dare tell her.” If the end really was on the horizon, I’d have to get the bowl back. “It wasn’t yours to give, Conner. I could protest the ownership at any time and take Gran down there to get it back.”
“You won’t,” he sneered. “You’ll resort to more devious methods.”
There was no use denying that either. I’d already cased the museum after I found out what he’d done.
I finished off my beer and grabbed another. “Something happened on the boat last week.”
He laughed, but it was a bitter sound. “I thought you didn’t take women out on the Lucky Star.”
“I don’t.” It was one of the only firm rules I had. I didn’t even like bringing them back to my house, since it made it harder to get up and make a quick, unentangled exit in the morning. But on the rare occasion when a woman lasted longer than a few nights, I never, under any circumstances, took her on the boat.
Conner shrugged. “Then I can’t begin to fathom anything interesting that could have happened on that piece of crap.”
His attitude was irritating, jabbing at my patience. “It’s the really bad news part. It’s curse related.”
“Ho! I can’t wait to hear this,” he laughed, finishing his second bottle and dropping it onto the deck. He reached his hand out to me, watching the dog as it lost interest in the bug it was chasing and ran up the steps to Conner’s feet. He leaned over and put the creature on his lap as he waited for me to hand him another beer.
“Rough day at the office, dear?” I asked as I placed the bottle in his open palm.
He grimaced as he took a drink.
“Listen, Conner, I need some advice.”
That got his attention. He turned toward me, surprise in his eyes.
“My whole life, I’ve been taught the Dare Keeper would find me and break the curse. Then we’d beg Okeus for mercy for locking him up for centuries.”
Disgust covered his face. “Which is why you have that damn tattoo on your chest. For protection. But like I said, it’s all a fucking load of shit, Collin.”
I leaned forward, resting my hand on his knee. “Your disbelief is more than apparent, Conner. But for just ten minutes, can you indulge my supposed delusions and pretend like you believe?”
He grinned, but it was ugly, and for a split second he was the spitting image of our father. A tug of recognition stole my breath away. His drinking was like our father’s…Did he have a temper too? I only saw him a few times a year now. How well did I really know my brother?
I recovered and pressed on when he didn’t say anything. “Listen,” I glanced toward the screen door to the kitchen and lowered my voice. “Last week I was on the sound, checking the traps for soft-shell crabs, when the engine died again, and I couldn’t get it started. I thought about calling you to help me get the boat towed back to shore, but I sat out there for a while first. I was studying the stars when I saw one begin to pulse and then fall.”
“You saw a shooting star?” he asked, but the previous malice was missing.
“Not exactly.” I set my bottle on the floor and clenched my hands into fists. “It fell from the sky, but it stopped above the water, a few feet from the boat.”
“A ball of light fell from the sky then stopped and hovered over the water next to the Lucky Star?”
I released a slow breath. “Yeah.”
To his credit, he pushed on, setting the puppy on the ground. “And then what happened?”
“It talked to me.”
He took a drink of his beer then leveled his gaze on me. “The ball of light talked to you. What did it say?”
“It was Ahone. He told me that I need to find the other Keeper and break the curse.”
“Ahone?” He sat up straighter, his expression intense. “So a ball of light claiming to be Ahone falls from the sky and hovers over the water. Then he tells you to find the other Keeper and break the curse.” He waved his hand into the air at his side. “I’m confused…which part do you want advice about? What kind of astronomical object behaves like that, where you can find the other Keeper, or if the hallucinogens you took were too strong?”
I groaned. What had I expected from him? He’d always been this way about the curse. I started to get up, but he grabbed my arm and pulled me back down into my chair.
“Collin, come on, man. You have to admit this is bizarre. Even for you.”
“I told you that you had to suspend your disbelief.”
“A load of good that did Mom.”
There was the heart of it. “You think I’m crazy. Like Mom.”
“Collin,” he said in exasperation, resting his forearms on his thighs as he leaned toward me. “You have to understand where I’m coming from. You show up and talk about a ball of light telling you to break the curse. I’m worried about you.”
I bit back my retort that he needed to worry about himself since he appeared to be well on his way to alcoholism. While I may not have seen him often over the last year, mutual friends had kept me apprised of his heavy—and ever increasing—drinking. Still, I hoped to get him to put his animosity toward the curse aside for at least a few minutes and give me his opinion.
“Okay, but you agreed to indulge me for ten minutes and pretend the curse exists and you’ve only given me a couple of minutes at best.”
“Fine.” He sat up again, looking wary. “What do you want advice about?”
I shrugged. “Gran knew something was up. When I got home, she was sitting in Dad’s chair. She demanded that I tell her what happened out on the water.”
His eyebrows lifted. “How did she know?”
“Her lost souls told her something happened, but refused to tell her what.”
“So what did she say when you gave her the story?”
“She warned me that Ahone tricked Manteo years ago and he was trying to trick me now. The same thing occurred to me when I was out on the water, but Ahone claims it was Okeus who created the curse and set limitations on the Keepers.”
“Ahone told you this?”
“What else did he tell you?”
“He said the Dare Keeper was very strong and I needed to find her before she grew in power. He said the fate of humanity depended on it. As well as the survival of the Manteo Keepers.”
“What does that mean?”
“What do you think it means? He said she would destroy us—all of us—if I waited for her to find us first.”
He laughed. “You make her sound like a monster.”
Fear made the beer in my gut churn. “Maybe she is.”
“Okay,” he said, lowering his voice and glancing toward the screen door. “For the sake of argument, let’s say the ball of light is correct. Let’s pretend the Dare Keeper—a she?” he asked, cocking an eyebrow. “Isn’t that unusual?”
“According to Gran, there’s never been a female Dare Keeper before her. She’s known the Dare Keeper was female since I was a kid. And I knew it too.”
Conner frowned. “Okay, so Gran said the Dare Keeper would be a she. Ahone confirmed it?”
“Yes.” I paused. “Gran also says she’s a conjuror.”
He looked skeptical. “That’s impossible. Only a Croatan can be a conjuror, and Gran’s the only other female conjuror we know of.”
“I know; it’s extremely rare, but Gran thinks the Dare Keeper will be very powerful, and that the curse is destined to break on my watch. That’s why she’d spent so much time preparing me.”
“If I were to fall for this nonsense, I would take that to be a very bad thing.” Despite his protestations of disbelief, he looked genuinely worried.
“Now you see my dilemma,” I said. “I’ve been raised to wait and guard the curse from breaking. Gran is positive the Dare Keeper will seek me out and break it. Ahone is telling me to take the offensive and break it myself.”
“But to break the curse means the gods and spirits will be set loose. We’ve been told that would be detrimental to humanity.”
“Ahone told me to reseal the gate afterward. If I do that, he says I’ll be free of the curse for good. Do you know how tempting that is?”
My brother puckered his mouth in disapproval. “You’re free to leave anytime you want.”
So easy for him to say…He hadn’t been the one gasping for breath on a Florida beach eight years ago.
He looked me square in the eye. “What are you supposed to do? Find the Keeper, grab her hand to break the curse, then reseal the gate?”
“Yeah, but I can’t imagine it will be that easy.”
“First things first. You’ll be protected from Okeus, but what about her?”
“What about her?” I asked in disgust. “Why should I care if she’s protected? She’s hell-bent on destroying us.”
“You need her to close the gate, you imbecile.”
Shit. He was right.
“Didn’t Gran say the Dare Keepers don’t get a mark of protection like we do?”
“Yeah.” He’d absorbed more than I would have thought given his attitude about the curse.
“You’re going to have to protect her, Collin. Those spirits are going to be angry as shit.”
My mouth dropped open. Who was this guy sitting across from me? He actually sounded like he believed in the curse. “If she’s so powerful, she can surely protect herself.”
He shook his head. “You can’t count on that. Ahone is telling you to find her before she’s ready. What if she doesn’t know how to protect herself?”
“Damn.” What was I going to do? “I don’t want to permanently protect her. Just until the gate is resealed.”
His eyes widened as an idea came to him. “You can protect her with symbols.”
“What do you mean?” I couldn’t believe he was discussing this with me.
“I don’t know . . . Maybe lock her up somewhere until you need her. You can mark the doors with symbols to protect her.”
I shook my head. “I’m not sure locking her up is the best way to go about it. What if I can convince her to willingly stay behind the symbols?”
“I don’t know, Conner,” I said in frustration. “This is all supposition anyway. We don’t know that she can’t protect herself. If she’s really a conjurer, she should be able to.”
“I think you need to go into this expecting to spend six days babysitting her until the gate is resealed.”
“But if she’s really as strong as Gran and Ahone say, she’ll never agree to being locked up for six days. Besides, Gran’s always said the gods and spirits will be weak and lay low after the gate’s open. It will take them a while to regain their strength, and they’ll be locked behind that gate again before they have the chance.”
“I thought she said there was a way for them to regain their strength quicker.”
I didn’t want to consider that, but he was right. My grandmother said the spirits and gods would return weak and instead of waiting for their strength to be restored, they would consume the manitou of animals and possibly people to regain their power faster. “So I’ll need to stand guard over her until I reseal the gate.” I shook my head. “I don’t think so.”
“What if you give her the mark you and Gran have? The tattoo?”
I narrowed my eyes. “I told you I don’t want to give her anything permanent.”
His eyes grew wide with excitement. “What I’m thinking of isn’t permanent. What if you used henna? Like Rosalina uses on some of her clients.”
I studied him, still amazed he was helping me figure this out. “That could work.”
“But only use it as a last resort. While it’s not permanent, it will last for weeks.”
Rosalina stood in the doorway. “Dinner’s ready.”
“We’ll be right there,” Conner said, his eyes lingering on her ass when she turned around to leave.
“How long have you been with Rosalina now?” I asked, studying him.
“Six months.” His gaze turned back to me. “Why?”
“Are you two serious?”
His eyes narrowed, not trusting my change in topic. “Yeah. I’m thinking about proposing.”
“Are you sure, Conner? You deserve a woman who wants to be with you and only you.”
He stood, anger filling his eyes. “What the fuck does that mean?”
I got up too and looked down at him. He’d always hated that I was a good six inches taller than him, perhaps because it meant that he was the same height as our father. He already resembled him more in looks. “Conner. It doesn’t mean anything. You’re my kid brother. No one will ever be good enough for you in my eyes.”
His shoulders relaxed as he seemed to accept my lie of omission. “I always hated you,” he said without anger.
“I know.” Maybe breaking the damn curse would be the best thing all around. My relationship with Conner could only be improved by having some extra space between us.
“I know she wants you.”
“Who?” I asked before I could stop myself. Then I groaned and closed my eyes for half a second. “I’m not after your girlfriend, Conner.”
“Why, because she’s not good enough for you?”
Shaking my head, I turned toward the screen door, but he grabbed my shoulder and spun me around to face him.
“Answer me!” His face was red and the veins on his neck were bulging.
“No, I’m not good enough for her, you asshole.” I jerked out of his grip. “But that being said, I’m not sure she’s good enough for you either. You’ve put up with more shit than anyone deserves. I only want you to be happy.”
“Happy?” he shouted. “How in the hell can I be happy? No one wanted me. You were the golden child. Even our abusive, alcoholic father preferred you.”
“Are you talking about how he took me out on the boat?” I asked.
“You could have brought me! Just once!”
“Are you shitting me? I was terrified! We weren’t on joyrides, Conner. He was drilling his manifesto into my head. I didn’t want to go, but if I’d protested, Mom would have tried to interfere, and he would have beat the shit out of her. If he’d tried to take you, I would have done anything in my power to stop him.”
“To protect you! Are you even listening to yourself?”
“If we’re being honest, you might as well know that I didn’t give the bowl to the museum to protect you.” He licked his lower lip, watching for my reaction. “I gave it to them to hurt you.”
My mouth dropped open. “Why?”
“I told you. I always hated you. I wanted you to sweat it when the curse finally broke.”
His words sliced through my chest, dissecting what was left of my scarred heart. “Hate. Past tense or present?”
It wasn’t a surprise, but it still stole my breath. We had a love-hate relationship, but I had always thought our love for one another would win out. While it proved true for me, it wasn’t the same for Conner. On top of everything else I was dealing with, I wasn’t sure I could deal with the pain of his rejection. It was safer to change the topic. “I thought you didn’t believe in the curse.” I sneered. “I thought you were indulging me just now.”
“I heard the stories, even if it wasn’t at our grandmother’s knee, even if I was shoved off into the corner. I don’t want to believe them, but deep in my gut, I do.”
“And you’d risk destroying humanity over some childish grudge?”
His eyes narrowed and he looked murderous. “It’s not a childish grudge. It’s very grown-up.”
“The fact that you’d put humanity at risk proves how childish it actually is.”
He swallowed. “You’re going to break the curse, but I wish it was me.”
“You have no idea what you’re asking for.”
He took a step toward me. “I do.”
I held my hands out at my side. “You want it? Take the goddamned thing! I would have risked my life a thousand times to protect you from it, but if you’re so headstrong, come and take it!”
“You can’t give the role to me. I already asked Gran. You have to die for me to get it.”
I swallowed. “I know.” I kept my hands raised. “But if you want it so bad, come and take it.”
Conner grabbed a beer bottle off the deck and rushed toward me, aiming the bottle at my head.
“Conner!” Rosalina shouted, swinging the door open and running outside.
I ducked out of Conner’s way, which wasn’t too difficult since he seemed to have trouble keeping his balance.
“I’m going to kill you, Collin!” he screamed. Rosalina grabbed his arm and struggled to get the bottle out of his hand. “I hate you!” It was the third time he’d said the words this evening.
“I know.” My voice broke. Like I told him, I’d always known. I just hadn’t known how much.
I turned and headed for the door, but he shouted after me.
“Marino has the map!”
I paused with my hand on the door. What the fuck more could he do to hurt me? “You gave it to him to screw me over like you did with the bowl?”
“No, he won it from me in a poker game.”
“So he stole it. He set you up to get to me.”
“You think I don’t know how to play poker?” he shouted as I rushed through the house, heading for the front door.
Rosalina called to me as I was climbing into my truck. “Collin, stop!”
I stood in the open door, my hand on the steering wheel. I wasn’t sure how much more I could take. “What?”
“Was he really going to kill you?”
I heaved out a breath, my eyes burning. “Yes.”
“He’s really drunk. He’d been drinking for at least an hour before you got here. He didn’t mean any of it.”
“He did.” I turned to her. “Conner and I have always had a…complicated relationship. We grew up in abuse and neglect. I got more of what little attention was given to us, which made him jealous of me. It didn’t matter that it was negative. He loves me, but he hates me more. When he sobers up, he’s going to hate himself for what he tried to do.” I swallowed the lump in my throat. “I think it’s best if I don’t see him anymore.”
“For how long?” she asked in panic.
“Forever.” I got into my truck and shut the door, looking at her through the open window. “Tell him that I forgive him.” I took a breath. “Tell him I’m going to end this once and for all.”
Then I drove away.
I needed money, and fast. I wanted to finish paying off Marino in the hopes that it would butter him up enough to relax his conditions for my involvement in the Ricardo Estate. Now, more than ever, I needed to get my hands on the Dare weapons.
After driving up to Wanchese and stealing enough parts to patch my engine together, I borrowed extra fishing gear from a friend’s boat and headed up Pamlico Sound toward Manteo. The best way to make a buttload of money fast was to take tourists charter fishing. My boat looked like a wreck, but tourists often didn’t realize that charter trips needed to be booked weeks in advance. I had a good chance of catching a few wannabe fishermen by hanging out at the Manteo docks. Some would be more than willing to look past the rust spots in exchange for instant gratification. The only problem with my plan was that I didn’t have a charter-fishing permit, but as long as I was in and out in a short period of time, I ran a pretty low risk of getting caught. Especially since I didn’t plan to make it a regular gig.
When I was in Manteo, especially by the docks, the palm of my right hand felt heavy and slightly itchy. I wondered what it meant, but I was afraid to ask my grandmother, perhaps because I knew what she’d say.
Within a week, I raised over two thousand dollars. But while I was able to settle my current debt, Marino was still making noise about putting me on his payroll permanently. I knew I should just suck it up and accept his offer. I could take the twenty percent from the Ricardo Estate and use it to start my new life somewhere else, far from his reach—maybe in some tropical paradise in the Pacific Ocean. As far from Buxton, North Carolina, as I could get.
All the more reason to break the curse so I could put my plan in motion.
Ahone had told me he’d return in a month, and before I knew it, a month had passed. I started to keep a vigil for him every night—bringing the Lucky Star out on the sound to wait for him.
All the time alone on the water had left me with too much opportunity to think. About Conner. About how my grandmother would react when she found out what I intended to do. About Rosalina.
Not Rosalina herself, but the way my brother felt about her—how he was already so willing to tie himself down. I considered the possibility of having a woman in my life for longer than a week. Bottom line was that I didn’t trust women. My grandmother had been overbearing. My own mother had been so beaten down by my father that she’d forgotten how to live without him. Women either tried to dominate men or were like an albatross around his neck. I knew I was better off without them, but sometimes, like tonight, I wondered.
Every marriage I’d ever witnessed had been a disaster. My parents. My grandparents. My friends’ parents. My aunt and uncle were the only happy couple I knew, but I suspected they were a fluke. There was no way I’d ever make the mistake of falling in love, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to love someone so much I was consumed by her. Most of the time, I thought it sounded like a disaster. Giving my heart to someone was handing her power over me, something I doubted I could ever do and I definitely couldn’t afford. Bottom line, I was too selfish to really love someone. She’d expect me to give something I wasn’t even capable of giving: myself.
But I was lonely. Mom was gone. My grandmother was close to ninety and wouldn’t be around much longer. I had vowed to stay away from Conner, which meant I had no one. I was totally alone. It had never bothered me before, but now it stirred a restlessness inside me. And I didn’t like it. At all. The sooner I got this nonsense behind me so I could leave it all and start out somewhere new, the better.
The wind began to pick up and my palm started to itch. I climbed to my feet, looking into the sky for any sign of Ahone. Sure enough, a light appeared over the water, several feet from the boat. The yellowish glow pulsed as the orb hovered over the water. It was silent for several minutes before it spoke.
“Curse Keeper. Have you made your decision?”
“I have questions.”
“You may ask.”
He didn’t say he’d answer them. Had I expected anything else from a god? “Is the Dare Keeper dangerous?”
“She has the power to destroy you and she will grow stronger still.”
Sounded like incentive enough. “If I break the curse and I reseal the gate, will I be free?”
“If the gate is closed with the gods and spirits permanently locked behind it, you will be free.”
“But they’ll all come out when we open the gate?”
“Manteo trapped them before. You can do it again. But be wary of Okeus’s tricks.”
I released a heavy breath. This was a very bad idea, but I was beginning to think I would do it anyway.
“You need to locate the Dare weapons. She will use the ring to gain power over you.”
The ball released a blinding light. “You must keep her safe until the gate is locked again.”
He’d completely ignored my question. I considered pressing him further, but I was struck by the fact that Conner had been right. I’d have to protect the person I was determined to keep from destroying me, my family, and humanity. I could barely stomach the thought of being in close proximity to her, and now Ahone wanted me to protect her. “Anything else?” I sneered.
“Your children and grandchildren will speak of your name for centuries.”
That didn’t seem likely given the fact I had no plans to have kids.
“How do I find the Dare Keeper?”
“Your palm will guide you.”
“You’re serious? That’s it?” But I remembered how my palm had felt heavy and itchy before Ahone showed up and at the docks in Manteo. “How will I know who she is?”
“Your palm will guide you.”
“Again with the palm.” His explanation sounded pretty evasive and shady. “And if I don’t do this…?”
“It is as I said. She will grow stronger and will develop the power to destroy you.”
Again with this destroying business. Nevertheless, I was having second thoughts.
“With great sacrifice comes a great reward,” the god said.
“That’s just it.” I gave him a sarcastic grin. “I’m not much into sacrifice.”
“You need money for your boat.”
“As a sign of good faith, you will get the money to replace your engine. But if you accept, you must seek out the Dare Keeper.
“And if I take the money and don’t break the curse?”
“Your misery will have only just begun.”
Shit. So I faced being destroyed by the Dare Keeper’s power or Ahone’s punishment if I didn’t do his bidding. Some choice.
“I will need your answer before I leave.”
“This is a big decision. I don’t want to be hasty.”
“You’ve had a month.”
Was a month long enough to make such a life-altering choice?
“Humanity rests in the balance.”
Ahone didn’t know me very well if he was using that argument to sway me. I knew it was my duty, but that wasn’t necessarily the incentive I needed. Humanity had treated me like shit most of my life. What did I owe it?
“But your brother’s life depends on it.”
So he did know my biggest motivator.
The light pulsed but gave no answer.
I struggled not to show my terror to the god. I suspected the threat came from the other Keeper, but I wouldn’t put it past Ahone to use my brother as a bargaining chip to get what he wanted. Conner might hate me, but I was still his older brother. I’d spent my entire life looking out for him, trying to keep him safe. I didn’t plan to stop now. But my grandmother was right. Ahone might be tricking me. But could I really risk ignoring him if there was a chance he was right?
I’d spent a month debating this decision, but in the end, it was an easy choice. If there was any chance of freeing myself of this curse and saving my brother in the process, it was worth the risk.
“Okay. I’ll do it.”
The light pulsed. “You have made the right decision. Find her and be ready. I will give you a sign within a month, and then you will have forty-eight hours to break the curse.”
“What’s the sign?”
“You will know when you see it.”
The light shrunk to a pinpoint and disappeared. I sat out on the water for another hour, wondering if I’d just made the best decision of my life or the absolute worst. But at least I was taking action. It sure beat sitting on my ass, waiting for something to happen.
I steered the boat back to shore, the engine cutting out several times on the way back. When I checked my mailbox the next day, I was surprised to see an envelope from my insurance company. I’d made a claim for the damage the boat suffered in the last hurricane, but the company had denied it. The envelope contained a letter saying they’d reversed their decision, along with a check. Which, incidentally, equaled the amount it would cost to replace the engine.
If I cashed this check, I was committed. But who was I kidding? I was already committed.
If I was really going to break the curse, I needed to get my hands on the Dare weapons before the other Keeper had the chance. But tracking down the collection on my own was tricky. I snuck into Marino’s office late the next night, finding the file with the photographs but little additional information other than the name and address of Emilio Ricardo’s attorney. I suppose a treasure map with a giant X was too much to hope for. A trip to Greenville and three days getting friendly with the attorney’s receptionist was little help. The week I trolled around Charlotte trying to locate the collection’s actual location was also a bust. But I’d spent nearly two weeks on the Dare weapons when what I really needed was to find the Dare Keeper. I abandoned my search and headed back to the OBX.
Instead of going home to Buxton, I stopped on Roanoke Island and drove straight to Manteo, figuring I needed to begin looking for the woman determined to destroy my life. Since my hand had itched when I was docked next to the small downtown area for my charter-fishing venture, it seemed like the logical place to start.
My palm was already tingling when I parked by the lighthouse on the south side of downtown. I couldn’t believe my luck. Could finding her really be this easy? Using my hand like a metal detector, I tracked her to a restaurant downtown—the New Moon. I considered going in but didn’t want to risk it. What if she figured out who I was? If I was going to take the offensive, I wanted the element of surprise, and I wasn’t prepared to make a move yet.
Instead, I went into the sandwich shop across the street and ordered lunch, taking my meal outside to sit on a park bench across the street from the New Moon. I watched the restaurant for an hour, spending part of my time pretending to read tourist pamphlets before walking around the block and moving to another bench down the street while keeping the restaurant still in view.
Piecing together the information from Ahone and my grandmother, I knew the Dare Keeper was female and younger than me. Since I’d been watching the restaurant for over two hours, I knew that the customers who’d been there when I arrived had already left. And my hand was still tingling, so I figured she worked there.
After paying close attention to the employees, I could see through the restaurant’s windows and in its patio area. I narrowed it down to two women, both waitresses. One was a redhead with girl-next-door looks. She smiled and chatted with the customers on the patio, her laugh floating across the street. While she caught my interest, she looked too friendly and happy to fit the profile of a woman intent on destroying me. And, oh yeah, humanity. The woman who kept opening the front door for patrons seemed the more likely choice. Her long black hair was a sharp contrast to her pale skin and her dark eyes. When she met customers at the door, her greetings sounded forced. She was a woman doing her job until something better came along. She had to be the Dare Keeper.
Nevertheless, I wasn’t going to make a spur-of-the-moment judgment. I wanted definitive proof. I went back four times over the course of the next week and a half, ruling out the possibility of the cooks since both were men. The other women who worked in the restaurant appeared older than me. But both of the younger waitresses I’d noticed were working during all of my visits.
I had two weeks left, and I still wasn’t sure who the Keeper was.
I moved my boat up to the Wanchese docks, which were a short drive from Manteo. Twenty-five days after Ahone’s second visit, the hot, humid night added to my insomnia, so I took the boat out on the sound, hoping to catch a breeze off the water. I dropped the anchor and lay on my bedroll, staring up at the cloudless sky, second-guessing my quest. It was a crazy scheme, but it was too late to turn back now.
Had Manteo felt this way after making his decision centuries ago? Had he stared at the sky like I was doing now? I’d spent most of my life cursing him; I’d never once thought about what might have spurred him to make his decision. I’d been raised to believe he’d created the curse to protect his family and his people. I was breaking the curse to protect my family and myself. Ahone said future generations would speak of my name. It suddenly occurred to me what he hadn’t said: whether they’d praise it or curse it.
As I watched the night sky, a star appeared in the center of the summer triangle directly overhead—a star that didn’t belong there. It pulsed like the previous two stars for a few moments, but then expanded to at least ten times its size and exploded, sending pieces of light raining from the sky. They fell like fireflies, landing in the water around the boat.
I sat up in shock. This had to be my sign.
I officially had forty-eight hours to find the Dare Keeper and break the curse. The clock was ticking.
I steered the boat back to the dock as the sun rose, then drove to Buxton to my grandmother’s house. She was sitting on her front porch snapping a big bowl of green beans when I pulled into her driveway, like she was waiting for me. Then again, I supposed she was. I was certain her lost souls had told her what I was up to.
“Collin,” she said as I walked toward the house. “I wondered when you’d finally show up.”
I climbed the porch steps and she motioned to the chair next to her.
When I sat down, we were both silent for a minute, the crisp snaps from the beans filling the quiet before she said, “So you’re really gonna do it.” She said it as a fact, not a question.
“I have to do something, Gran.”
“You can do exactly what all the Keepers before you have done. You can obey the rules and perform the duties assigned to you.”
I sighed. “But what if it’s not enough?”
Her hands stopped their busy work and she was silent for several seconds. “We both know you’re going on a fool’s errand, so don’t insult me by pretending otherwise.”
My face burned.
“Have you gotten the bowl back yet?”
I sucked in air in surprise and began to cough. “Excuse me?”
She picked up a bean and tore off the end. “The bowl Manteo used in the ceremony. I know that Conner gave it to that museum. Have you gotten it back yet?”
I shook my head, wondering why I was so stunned that she knew. Of course she knew. “No, not yet.” I’d been too focused on finding the Dare weapons and then the Keeper.
“Wait until she’s with you to get it.”
“What?” I leaned forward and turned my head to face her. “Why would I wait for her?”
She dropped the bean in hand and narrowed her eyes. “You’re turning your back on everything, Collin. All I’m asking is for you to wait for her to be with you to retrieve it. The spirits have spoken.”
I scowled. “It would be smarter to get it now.”
“The matter of your intelligence is currently in question. He’s tricking you, Collin, and you’ve fallen right into his trap.”
“You don’t know that, Gran.”
“Unfortunately, I do.”
The blood rushed from my head. She was probably right. What had she actually learned from the spirits? I considered asking, but decided I’d rather not know, particularly if I couldn’t do anything about it. “It’s too late. I’m committed.”
“I know that too.”
“So what do I do? I have less than forty-four hours to break the curse.”
Gran set the bowl full of beans beneath her chair and turned to me. “Then you follow through with this crazy scheme and do your damnedest to close the gate.”
“That’s it? That’s all you have to say to me besides your advice that I wait for her to get the bowl?”
She wrung her hands, looking nervous. “She’s strong, Collin. She’s hidden herself well for fifteen years, but over the past two weeks, I’ve been getting faint glimpses of her power. She may very well destroy you anyway.”
“So what do I do?”
“When you were young, do you remember how I told you that you are the priest and she is the conjuror? You have your information and she has hers. Under no circumstances should you share information with her. What you tell her could be your end, Collin. It could be the end of us all.” She turned to me and placed her gnarled hand on mine, her eyes wide. Her voice shook with fear and my breath caught. Not once had I seen my grandmother scared.
“Okay. I promise. I won’t share information.”
She nodded, blinking back tears.
“I’m sorry, Gran.” Why hadn’t I sought out more advice from her before I’d made my bargain with the devil? But I knew the answer to that.
“The lost souls have foreseen this for years.” She sighed. “Breaking the curse is your destiny.”
The blood rushed from my head and I leaned back in my seat. “What?”
“I’ve known, Collin. Since your father disappeared. I always told you that you would be the one to see the curse break. I just didn’t tell you that you would be the one to make it happen.”
My mouth opened, but no words came out.
She nodded and gave me a grim smile. “Yes, my lost souls told me. Late one dark and stormy night fifteen years ago. Right around the time your father vanished.”
“And how did they know?”
She shrugged, looking away. “All I know is that they did.”
I stood, my anger rising. “So why didn’t you warn me?”
“You had to follow your own destiny. You had to reach this decision on your own. I pushed the limits by warning you that you would see the curse break…but I was desperate to make sure you were prepared.”
I ran my hand through my hair, fighting nausea. “So I just go find her and break the goddamned thing?”
I hated Ahone for putting me in this position. I hated my grandmother for not warning me what would happen. But most of all, I hated the Dare Keeper. Who the hell was she to plan on destroying people she didn’t even know? Who could be that hungry for power?
“I’ll do it today.” I stood and started to walk past her on the narrow porch, but she reached out and grabbed my arm.
“You must give her the full six days to grow in power so you can reclose the gate. She will not be able to help you perform the task if she doesn’t have access to all her power.”
I shook my head and groaned. “I’m stuck with a dangerous witch for six days? Why do I feel like I need to bring a Taser?”
Her eyes pierced mine with a frightening intensity. “You do whatever you have to do to keep the upper hand.”
I gave her an arrogant grin. “I always have the upper hand with women, Gran.”
She scowled. “You’re too damn cocky.”
My grin widened.
Her face darkened. “Use everything you have at your disposal to accomplish your task.”
My smile fell and I nodded.
On the drive back to Manteo, I wondered if I should take one more day to find the Dare weapons. But Marino had called to tell me that they’d disappeared again. The Estate was gone. He asked if I knew anything about it, and in an attempt to get more information, I insinuated that I’d seen the collection. No dice. Hopefully, the disappearance of the entire estate meant the Dare Keeper probably didn’t have the weapons either. At least I could try to keep her from finding them. My priority at the moment was to determine whether the black-haired waitress really was the Keeper and, if so, where to intercept her.
My hand tingled as I shifted my truck into park in the lot on the south side of town. It was nearly noon, which meant the restaurant would be busy with the lunch crowd. Both of the Dare Keeper candidates would probably be too preoccupied to notice me. Thankfully it was full-on tourist season so I would be just one of many customers who went in and out of the sandwich shop across the street. No one would remember me. But sitting outside on the bench again seemed to be pushing my luck. I decided to walk around the shops in the small downtown area while keeping an eye on the restaurant.
The black-haired waitress was working the small patio, but she didn’t look happy about it. I decided to take a chance and, when she had her back to the sidewalk, I brushed past her, rounding to the front of the building.
My grandmother had taught me that I would feel like I was suffocating when I was close to the Dare Keeper—just like I’d felt that time I tried to leave the Outer Banks—but I’d felt nothing other than the lingering tingle in my hand.
She wasn’t the one.
The front door of the restaurant swung open, catapulting me from my thoughts, and the redheaded woman stood in front of it, greeting a couple who were walking up the ramp toward the door.
“Welcome to the New Moon!” Her cheerful voice rang out over the small courtyard.
I felt my chest tighten. What the hell?
I took several steps closer to get a better look at her. Her dark red hair was pulled back into a ponytail and she had on a white polo and a khaki skirt that hit her mid-thigh. She looked nothing like the evil monster she’d been made out to be…and yet it was indisputably her. Especially since I felt like an elephant had sat on my chest just from being near her. I reminded myself that looks could be very deceiving. I’d been warned of her power and her goal by my grandmother. And a god. This woman was my enemy, and I couldn’t forget it.
I waited two more hours, until the lunch crowd thinned out and the black-haired waitress left. She got in her car and drove away, but the tingle in my hand persisted, confirming that the redhead was the perpetrator of my impending demise.
I knew there would be no perfect time to do this and backing out wasn’t an option. I decided to go inside to get a closer look.
When I opened the door to the restaurant, she was behind the counter. Her eyes landed on me as my gaze swept the room. There was only an elderly couple at a table, the redhead, and a tall waitress who looked like a linebacker as she moved toward me, eyeing me up and down as though she had just decided to stop being a vegetarian and I was a filet mignon.
“What can I get you, darlin’?” she asked, looking over her shoulder at the redhead.
Did this woman—whose nametag read Marlena—know about the curse? Was she screening me for the Dare Keeper? But the more I watched Marlena, the more I realized that what she actually wanted was to set me up with the redhead, who looked like she wanted no part in the plan.
The redhead also looked like she was struggling to breathe as she darted toward the back. I had to put a great deal of effort into keeping my breathing at a normal rate. The fact that she was affected by my presence was further confirmation.
I considered going after her. I couldn’t lose her now, but Marlena took my order—a draft beer. When Marlena came back with my mug, she told me she was getting ready to go on break but the other waitress would finish taking care of me.
Sure enough, the redhead returned with a slightly panicked look on her face. I cursed myself for doing this now. She obviously knew who I was and I’d lost the element of surprise. When Marlena left for her break, I’d make my move. Especially since the older couple appeared to be on the verge of leaving. Then we’d be alone.
The Dare Keeper came out with a pitcher of tea, looking nervous as the older couple got up and moved toward the door. “Thanks for coming in. Have a great day,” she called after them.
She took a step toward me and tripped, the tea in her pitcher sloshing over the side.
This woman was a threat to humanity?
I studied her as she slowly walked toward me, her chest heaving as she struggled to breathe.
There was no doubt. She was the one.
I gripped my beer mug, my face tingling from hyperventilation, wondering what I should do. When should I make my move? Should I confront her or just grab her hand? Instead, I did nothing as she tossed a bill folder on the table.
“You can pay whenever you’re ready.” Her words came out in a sexy rasp, but I detected a hint of fear. She took two steps back and placed her hand on her chest with a bewildered look, like she wasn’t entirely sure what was happening.
I was getting light-headed from the lack of oxygen. I either needed to make a move or leave. Immediately.
I pulled out my wallet and threw some cash on the table, then stood as I returned my billfold to my jeans pocket. I took a step toward her and she backed up into a table.
“I didn’t catch your name,” I said, but I had to force out the words, and they sounded like a growl. While unintended, maybe it would help me get the upper hand.
She watched me with terrified eyes. “I didn’t give it.” Her words were slightly slurred.
I glanced down at her chest and read her nametag. Ellie.
“Thank you, Ellie.” I was close to passing out, which would be beyond a bad idea. I needed to get the hell out of there. “Until next time.”
I turned to walk away but realized again that it was now or never. She’d be ready for me if I came back later. I still had a small element of surprise, and I needed to use it to my advantage. I spun around and took in her startled expression as I reached for her right hand, pressing my right palm into hers.
An electrical current shot from my palm, up my arm, and into my chest, jerking my body with the jolt of it.
Then the world faded away and I was one with everything nearby—the plant life, the animals, the people.
My mouth dropped open in shock. I was one with the manitou of every living thing.
But just as quickly, the wonder was replaced by a ripping sound and my head was filled with screams and shrieks from the angry creatures that had been locked away for centuries.
I jerked my hand from hers, glancing down at my burning palm that was now marked with the black lines of a square encompassing a circle. As I rushed out the door, the screams still echoed in my head and I wondered what hell I had just let loose. Not that it mattered.
There was no turning back.Return to Bonus Reads