“I stayed up all night,” I said, “trying to think of something witty to say to the Queen.”

“Really now?” The Queen’s eyes twinkled. “What did you come up with?”

“I just said it,” I laughed.

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“Sir, can I see that camera?” The Metromart employee held out his hand.

“It’s my camera,” I snapped. “I came in with it.”

“Sir, do you have a receipt?”

“Of course I don’t have a receipt!” I cried. “Here, look at this.” I turned the camera on and handed it to the Metromart greeter. “See this picture of me in the park? With my nephews? Do you think I just took those in the store?”

“Oh,” said the greeter. “I’m sorry. We’ve just had a lot of thefts lately.”

I took the camera back with a harrumph and left. As soon as I was out of view, I popped it open and removed its SD card. I’d taken the pictures with another camera over a year ago; by switching the cards, it was very easy to make the camera look like it was mine. By the time Metromart found the discarded packaging, it was too late.

Starting up the car, I headed over to Berkeley’s to pawn my new acquisition.

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For us, those years took on the aspect of a sort of twisted Chinese calendar. Anyone who was born in the Year of the Rat or the Year of the Pig already knows that calendar isn’t without its downsides, but we took it a step further.

For instance, who could forget the Year of the Skunk? An irascible musteloid moved in under the deck outside and defended his territory with the ferocity of a Frenchman at Verdun. In addition to the persistent odor, the dog took it upon himself to root out the intruder and found himself repeatedly sprayed with foul musk (before tracking said musk in through the doggy door).

And the Year of the Hornworm had its trials and tribulations as well. We decided to invest in some tomato plants to try and eat healthier on a budget, but all we managed to do was raise a crop of hornworms. The thumb-size green caterpillars devoured the whole crop no matter how many we plucked off and dunked into the alcohol-filled Jar of Death. We probably could have given the seeds directly to the caterpillars and cut out the middleman. Or eaten the caterpillars.

Our personal Chinese calender wouldn’t be complete, of course, without the Year of the Mole? Our yard looked like some kind of a crazy quilt mosaic with mole tunnels and molehills and mole superhighways. We tried poisoning them, flooding them, and of course the dog did his best to dig them out. The only casualty? Our lawn. The moles left of their own accord once they were sure every last blade of grass was dead.

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“I packed you your favorite lunch, sweetheart.” Mary-Beth held out a paper bag, delicately wrapped, and laid it at her daughter’s feet. “It’s just what you’ve been asking for. I’m just sorry I can’t make it more often, since you know what a bother it is.”

Her daughter made no move to accept the bag.

After a moment, Mary-Beth continued. “Don’t tell me you won’t take it! You’ve been begging for this for months, and it’s been so difficult not to indulge you at every turn…”

The greasy stains on the bag began to spread, and soon the paper was started to sog and soften under the weight. Viscous and red liquid began to dribble from it, staining the carpet and her daughter’s clean new shoes.

“It’s a little messy,” conceded Mary-Beth, “but what isn’t, when made with love?”

Her daughter said nothing; the breath had long since departed her body. Through the intercession of the spirits in Mary-Beth’s head, she had been begging for months for a sweet embrace about the throat and a meal of her father’s fresh heart. Her doting mother had granted both, and when she was found the next day, still whispered sweet nothings to her child while the body of her husband cooled on bloodsoaked sheets nearby.

Inspired by this image.

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“King Philip V is wracked by illness and madness, and his son and heir Louis is a simpleton who even his wife refuses to see,” Exposito cackled from behind the bars. “What a wonderful opportunity this presents to a man of vision and initiative! The Viceroy Balthazar prepares to sail to Spain to take up residence as majordomo of the palace on the strength of his campaigns against the pirates infesting our waters and the remarkable innovation of the so-called Spanish Plate and the Spanish Cannon.”

“Is that it, then?” said Hume. “He was building his power here to return to Spain in triumph?”

“Or so he thinks!” Exposito cried, hurling himself at the bars. “Little does he realize that it has all been my doing! I am a native son of this land, born here and raised here, the Corregidor of Veracruz. Everything that passes from the New World to the Old must also pass through my fingers. I built myself up from nothing, because the visions have told me that I must.”

“You’re mad,” Hume spat, “and your visions are just the ravings of a lunatic Balthazar keeps on a chain so that he might have a mad dog to unleash when it suits him.”

“Of course you would say that; you foul pirates lack vision and purpose. It is simple, pure, and revealed to me with a blinding light when I came into myself.” Exposito leered at Hume, his eyes wide and mad behind the iron. “For I am the beast spoken of in Revelations, destined to lay the world low in chaos and despair that it might be redeemed through suffering. Don’t you see? Only with the emergence of the Beast, with chaos and hardship, may the way be paved for redemption and the Redeemer. Those I kill are sent to their own just rewards, and those that suffer will be assumed unto their own once the trumpets sound.”

“Madness,” said Hume. “Utter lunacy.”

“To the contrary, it all makes so much sense! Of course it would be an Expositio, abandoned by family to a wasting death in the wilderness, a product of both worlds, who would bring this about. Of course the New World would have the means to accomplish the Revelation and the end times. And to that end I will have the viceroyalty, I will control that fool Balthazar and that greater fool Louis on the throne, and I will redeem this world through the agony and ecstasy of divine will.”

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“What did the Spaniards want with Natty Cove?” Hume asked. His Spanish was quite good, if heavily accented; anyone who hoped to make a living off the Spanish Main did well to learn the tongue needed to demand a surrender.

“I don’t know,” the nun said stubbornly. “I was their prisoner, and they–like you–do not regularly bring prisoners into their confidence.”

“Why were you their prisoner?” Hume asked. “You took up the space in their hold usually reserved for gold and treasure; I’ve got a crew of angry corsairs wondering how they’re going to take a 1/100 share of a nun, and every answer you give me will help dissuade them from the more immoral thoughts they entertain.”

“Is that a threat?” said the nun. “Or a poor attempt at parley? Either way, I’ve nothing to offer you. I am a simple Sister of Our Lady of Veracruz, taken against my will from my convent and my service to the Lord on the orders of I know not who.”

“Somehow, I doubt that all the Sisters of Our Lady of Veracruz know how to boot a man in the bollocks to try and swim for it.” Hume said drily.

“On the contrary, sir, Veracruz is full of buccaneers and pirates of every stripe, many with commissions from the King, and we in the Sisters are first taught how to defend our honor as brides of Christ. And my mother was a fine swimmer who taught me much. I would wager that I could outswim any man jack of your crew if you’d let me get to brine.”

Hume cradled his head in his hands. “Look, Sister. Four ships were sunk in getting you spring of those irons, and nearly five hundred men gave their lives in front of your galleon’s bewitched Spanish Cannon. What am I to tell the men to which I’m beholden?”

“Tell them that they have my thanks,” replied the nun, “and that the abbess of my convent will reward in gold any crew willing to ensure my safe return.”

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“After you, Mister Cooke.”

Cooke stepped forward with “Old Irontooth,” his favored blunderbuss, packed with a double powder charge and a handful of grapeshot. “Old Irontooth” made a very eloquent argument, worthy of Demosthenes, to the Spanish lock. Seeing the error of its ways, the lock yielded to persuasion.

“Remember, boys,” Hume said. “Much as we mourn our fellows, the fact is that through their sacrifice we’ve all got more of a share of the golden treasure in the hold.”

Cooke made a gruff noise and kicked in the door. The lanterns revealed…piles of shot and shell, a Spaniard dead from a wooden splinter to the eye, and a powder charge smoldering mere inches from a heap of gunpowder. That, and a prisoner clapped in irons: a young woman in the habit of a missionary nun.

“This treasure leaves something to be desired, skipper,” Cooke deadpanned.

“Abandon ship!” Hume barked. There was no dousing that powder charge, not in time to be sure that the sparks thrown up wouldn’t ignite the entire magazine. Cooke gave his skipper a look as the men took a powder to flee the burning powder.

“Yes, yes, of course,” Hume grumbled. He pulled a brace of pistols from his quartermaster’s rig and blasted through the chains restraining the nun. She could be useful as a hostage, or something. She was clearly in shock, and allowed the boarding buccaneers to carry her limply topside.

Hume continued to bark orders to his men, only cutting the grapples when he was satisfied that all of them were clear. They worked the Fancy Rat free with gaffs, but it had only made a quarter-league’s distance when the Nuestra Señora erupted. It wasn’t enough to sink the Rat, any more than the explosion of the Surprise had been to put the Nuestra Señora herself under, but the sails were torn, ropes were parted, and wood was splintered even as the deck was sprayed with red-hot debris.

And, at that moment, the nun opened her eyes and delivered a sharp kick to Cooke’s stones. Her ruse of shock falling away, she wriggled free of his grasp and made a dash for the gunwales and freedom.

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