This was the last place on earth Jacqueline Murphy wanted to be. She brushed back wisps of caramel-colored hair that had pulled loose from her no-nonsense ponytail. Eyes so intense and crystal blue they didn't seem real swept over the scenery surrounding her. She homed in on a perfect shot, snapped it from every angle with her camera, then let the familiar weight of her battered Leica swing down and hang from its strap around her neck.
Waves crashed, white-capped, against the shore, clusters of children squealing in delight as they darted through showers of silvery spray, their parents joining their frolics in the bright summer sun. Raw bundles of hormones disguised as teenage boys bodysurfed to show off for blanketsful of bikini-clad girls. Old women and men strolled along the beach hand in hand, age unable to diminish the softness a lifetime of love had left in their eyes.
Beautiful, most people would call the scene. No trained eye needed to appreciate the jeweled colors, the gleam of salt spray, the glorious sight of the edge of the world, washed clean by waves and sunshine. But the beauty didn't fool Jack for an instant. She saw the warning in the distance -- the solitary white spire of the lighthouse pointing skyward from its narrow isthmus of land, a single, shadowy eye staring out across the shipwreck marooned on the shoals beyond. Jack could almost hear it whisper "they once thought this place beautiful, too."
She shivered in spite of the warmth of the sun, and stared at the retired lighthouse/bed-and-breakfast that had been her home this past week. What had the crusty former keeper and owner of the place said when she'd ushered Jack through the green painted door of the stone house attached to that soaring round tower?
"Two hundred fifty years this old girl has watched the sea play cat's paw with the ships that sailed here. One minute, skies so bright blue it seemed storms would never come again. Next minute a gale so fierce it could blow the beard right off a man's face. Two hundred ships ran aground on those shoals, wrecked in spite of Mermaid Lost's warning. Almost every old family on this stretch of coast lost someone they loved. We had the ship's names carved on the face of that boulder near the telescope on the cliff's edge. Just so we never forget."
But Jack doubted anyone really needed a reminder etched in stone far out on some deserted cliff. She'd found that loss carved itself where you couldn't hide from it. In your memory. In your heart.
"Something for everyone on this stretch of coast," proprietor China Pepperell had boasted, her windburned face more lined than a map of New York City above her yellow nor'easter.
"Not for me," Jack had hedged. "I'm just here to do a favor for an old friend. I plan to be on my way as soon as possible."
But the older woman had just chuckled. "That's what my great-great-grandfather Captain Rake Ramsey said when he sailed in. No pirate born would want a home port like this. But God laughs when people make bold claims like that. The notorious pirate fell in love, and, well -- I'm here, so you can guess the rest. His ship was the first one to wreck on those shoals. My great-great-grandmother was birthing their second baby, and she'd nearly died the first time around. The midwife claimed the only thing that held her tight to life was the clasp of her husband's hand.
"The authorities hereabouts were hungry to bring Rake to justice, and the whole coast knew of his love of his wife. Though Emily begged her captain to stay away, and promised she'd find him in Jamaica soon as she had the baby she was carrying and it was strong enough to travel, the captain wouldn't listen. The instant the midwife was called to the lighthouse, the soldiers laid their trap.
"Terrified that they would capture her husband and hang him, Emily did the only thing she could to warn him. In spite of the birth pains tearing at her, she climbed up the stairs to the top of the tower. Doused the light. Prayed he'd stay away. She could have been hanged herself for giving him warning. But her sacrifice was all in vain.
"She should have guessed that nothing would keep him from her side. Onward he sailed, blinded by the dark. He ran his ship into the reef, every soul aboard lost.
"When Emily heard the terrible sounds of the ship breaking apart, she let go of life. Some people claim they can still hear her voice at night, calling her captain's name."
"She should have drowned the idiot herself," Jack muttered. "She risked her life to save him and he had to fling himself into the fire anyway. What use is nobility and honor and that wild, passionate love stuff if you still end up dead?"
The image of a face flashed into her mind -- chocolate-dark eyes blazing with heat, rugged features taut with desire, passion so hot she still felt the imprint of his hands on her skin. She'd been so eager to grow up, show the world what a bold adventurer she was, she'd flung herself headlong into that summer romance with all the passion in her twenty-year-old heart. She'd shown the world all right -- that she was just one more gullible kid.
She'd gotten burned. So badly she'd never been tempted to put her hand back in that particular brand of fire again. She'd deep-sixed the painful memory the way she had so many others. So why hadn't it stayed buried?
What in the world had made her think of the affair after years of barely remembering the man had ever existed? China Pepperell's mad, romantic tale of love and loss? Absurd. Love had nothing to do with those crazy two weeks she'd spent in that wide, quilt-covered bed. She'd just fallen victim to a bad case of hormones like so many other young kids did. Then she'd grown up.
Jack grimaced, shoving away the dark mood she could ill afford. Legends like the pirate captain's were highly overrated. She had little patience for grand, heroic gestures. They didn't inspire her or make her misty-eyed. They made her mad as hell. But then, she was definitely in the minority when it came to that. Take Ziggy, for instance.
Trust Ziggy Bartolli, photojournalistic ace and mentor extraordinaire to love this strip of Maine coast, she mused. Pirate ghosts wailing in the night to give him his daily jolt of adrenaline. Tales of love that lasted beyond the grave for his ridiculously romantic soul and a pub a mile away where he could dazzle people with his war stories. In the eight years since Ziggy had taken her under his wing, a heartbroken kid so desperate to earn her stripes she was going to charge into a hot spot without the backing of a press agency or the protection of a press pass, little about the man had changed. Ziggy had always adored Mermaid Lost's kind of ambience. Jack shunned it the way she had the sheik in Tambiza who had offered Ziggy a thousand camels if he could convince Jack to be his sixth wife.
Yes, Jack thought in resignation. If there was a heaven, Ziggy Bartolli was looking down at her right now with that smug satisfaction her partner had always showed on those rare times he'd gotten the better of her. She should have told him to go to hell instead of caving in and swearing to come here to Mermaid Lost. She would have told him to go to hell, except, as usual, Ziggy hadn't played fair.
But this time the wily photojournalist had outdone even his scheming, manipulative, brilliant self. Jack had always claimed he'd do anything to get his own way. But even she hadn't expected him to go this far. She'd never thought Ziggy would die.
She closed her eyes, the peaceful Maine coastline shifting into the suffocating heat of the Congo, the blaze of orange from two dozen gun barrels stark against the night. Heart pounding, breath-stealing adrenaline rushed through veins, sensations familiar as bedtime stories for Jack and Ziggy as they bolted away from the latest batch of revolutionaries, toward the helicopter that would fly them out of the bush. Precious rolls of film jammed the pockets of their khaki photographers' vests. Pictures the latest regime would go to any lengths to be certain the rest of the world would never see.
"Helluva story, princess," Ziggy gasped, ducking down to clear the rotary blades. "Did it again, didn't we?"
She'd always hated it when he'd started gloating before they were out of the woods. Figured he was tempting fate. This time, fate had bitten back. Hard. When a bullet slammed into Ziggy's chest.
"Want you to promise me something," Ziggy whispered, his voice weak, blood oozing from beneath Jack's hand. "Book...wanted to have it finished for...anniversary. Present for Shaara."
It was all Ziggy had talked about when they were in the jungle -- the publishing contract he'd gotten for a book full of photos depicting his favorite place in the world. The place where he and Shaara had honeymooned, vacationed, renewed the special relationship they'd forged when he'd stumbled across his future wife in the deserts of Egypt trying to save her young sister from being stoned to death for loving the wrong man. An honor killing, the men of the country called it. Jack had never been able to think of anything less honorable than murdering a seventeen-year-old girl for daring to fall in love.
"Go to...lighthouse," Ziggy had pleaded. "Summer pictures only ones I still need. Have to...finish the book. Spent so much time...away from her. Chasing wars with this damn camera. Need her to know...always thought there would be time for us to...spend there together. Wish I hadn't..."
Spent a lifetime racing around the world, struggling to capture other people's lives on film, other people's joys, other people's tragedies, other people's loves and losses instead of building a real life of his own?
"Shaara knew what kind of life you lived before she married you. She knows you love her."
"Knew I'd never quit work no matter how many times I promised. Always got this...wistful look in her eyes when I talked about...retiring. Going to live near Mermaid Lost. Jack, need you to catch the lighthouse on film, show her what I dreamed for...for both of us. Promise me."
"Been trying to get you to go there for years. Never expected it to happen this way. But...it'll do you good, Jack. You're always going...the ugliest places in the world. Never take...a break. When you do what we see in this business you have to...wash your eyes clean sometimes or you'll go mad."
She would have preferred the oblivion of madness to the excruciating reality that filled the weeks after Ziggy's death. Reality from which there was no escape, no blessed distraction of work or physical danger to dull the pain. It was pure nightmare telling Shaara that she'd never see her husband alive again, seeing her at the funeral, her exotic face so full of quiet dignity. But then, Ziggy's wife was no stranger to the harsh edges of life.
During that hellish week Jack had spent helping settle Ziggy's affairs, a barrage of stories had been splashed across every television, every newspaper, courtesy of the pilot's point of view. Editorials about the grim cost Ziggy Bartolli had paid for working with a woman partner in countries where women were mere chattels to be crushed at will beneath men's feet. Maybe it wouldn't have hurt so much if Jack's own father hadn't written the most scathing editorial of all.
Jack closed her eyes, trying to blot out the picture of Frank Murphy's florid face at the funeral, his crumpled suit dusted with cigar ash, his bushy white brows lowered over eyes that burned like zealots she'd faced down in deserts half a world away.
"I told you this would happen, didn't I, Jacqueline?" the memory of her father's voice pounded in her head. "But you wouldn't listen! And now a good man is dead! Was it worth it just to take a few mediocre pictures?"
"Miss?" A strange voice jolted Jack back into the present. She shook herself, in an effort to clear her head, and found herself back on the coast of Maine staring into the features of a fresh-faced young woman and the blond man beside her, their faces both creased with concern. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Jack said sharply.
"We were just walking by and we saw you taking pictures. You looked like you knew what you were doing, and we thought...well, we're on our honeymoon, and we wondered if you might take our picture." The girl held out a disposable camera, hopeful.
Jack wanted to shove it back at her and get the blazes out of there, but she'd learned early to stand her ground in front of a charging elephant -- whether the elephant was a bull with sharp, gleaming tusks or memories that hammered her from the inside out.
She took the camera, pointed to a cluster of rocks. "Stand over there. That should make a good shot." They each slipped their arms around the other's waist and gazed into each other's eyes, the lighthouse in the distance a perfect backdrop except for the wreck that edged the frame. How many couples who honeymooned here had ended up like that old ship on the rocks? Jack wondered, as she squeezed off the shot.
When had she gotten so cynical? Shaara and Ziggy had stayed together. They would be together still if she hadn't...
Jack thrust the camera back at the couple, brushing aside their thanks. She turned, trudging through the crowd. Maybe that was why she felt so edgy in this place. In the world of Mermaid Lost everybody had somebody -- families with flocks of children, old couples, still dancing to the tune of their old romance. Even the lifeguards clustered in pairs, laughing.
Jack had no patience for the uncharacteristically wistful sensation tugging in her chest. And she would have died of embarrassment if anyone in this crowd of strangers suspected that something more vulnerable lay hidden beneath the hard-driven journalist she'd worked her whole lifetime to be. Jacqueline Murphy -- unflinching under the threat of bomb blasts and machine-gun fire, able to leap tall buildings and capture the most dangerous of stories in a single bound.
Jack grimaced. How many times in the past few years had Ziggy teased that she was becoming a legend on her own. So cool under fire it seemed impossible that she could be so detached and yet capture the pulsing heart of any situation she photographed. The ice queen who never let herself be swept up into the whirlwind of emotions that threatened to destroy the sanity of any combat vet -- whether they wielded an M16 or a camera. If only those determined to lionize her knew the truth, Jack thought. She'd just been burying her emotions, storing them up until Ziggy's death yanked them to the surface. From the night she'd first marched into the smoky press bar half a world away in Paris to the day she'd arrived here at Mermaid Lost, Ziggy could have attested to the fact that the force that had driven her was the same as many a man joining the French Foreign Legion. One badly bruised heart.
Good lord, was she insane? Thinking about a two-week affair after nine years had passed? Or was it inevitable after Ziggy's death, to remember the force that had brought them together? She didn't know. But two insignificant weeks still had the power to unnerve her. How strange. Unexpected. She winced, hating to admit even to herself that she'd found a crack in her emotional armor.
Time to go back to the lighthouse, she resolved, far away from crowds and laughter and sunshine. It felt so awkward to her, so strange out here among people safe and laughing. When had peace and leisure become her enemy, more dangerous than the strafing of machine-gun fire?
Somewhere, somehow, her world had turned upside down. Quiet was the enemy now. Because with the quiet came remembering.
Copyright © 2002 by by Kim Ostrom Bush