Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
Gabriela Rose was standing in a small clearing that led to a rope-and-board footbridge. The narrow bridge spanned a gorge that was a hundred feet deep and almost as wide. Rapids roared over enormous boulders at the bottom of the gorge, but Gabriela couldn’t see the river because it was raining buckets and visibility was limited.
She was deep in the Ecuadorian rain forest. Her long dark brown hair was hidden under an Australian safari hat, its brim protecting her brown eyes from the rain. She was a martial arts expert. She ran five miles every morning. She was a crack shot and a gourmet cook. None of these skills were keeping her dry. She was wet clear through to her La Perla panties. Her camo cargo pants and Inov-8 Bare-Grip hiking shoes were caked with mud. She was carrying a Glock .38 in a Ziploc bag tucked into a hip pocket. Other pockets held her passport, a folding Buck knife, and moisturizing lip gloss. Her daypack held a useless waterproof poncho, protein bars, her Ziploc-bagged cell phone, and assorted other necessities for jungle trekking.
She was with two local guides, Jorge and Cuckoo. She guessed they were somewhere between forty and sixty years old, and she was pretty sure that they thought she was an idiot.
“Is this bridge safe?” Gabriela asked.
“Yes, sometimes safe,” Jorge said.
“And it’s the only way?”
She looked at Cuckoo.
“You first,” she said to Jorge.
Jorge did another shrug and murmured something in Spanish that Gabriela was pretty sure translated to “chickenshit woman.”
Let it slide, Gabriela thought. Sometimes it gave you an advantage to be underestimated. If things turned ugly, she was almost certain she could kick his ass. And if that didn’t work out, she could shoot him. Nothing fatal. Maybe take off a toe.
It had been raining when she landed in Quito two days earlier. It was still raining when she took the twenty-five-minute flight to Caco and boarded a Napo River ferry to Nuevo Rocafuerte. And it was raining when she met her guides at daybreak and settled into their motorized canoe for the six-hour trip down a narrow, winding river with no name. Just before noon, they’d pulled up at a crude campground hacked out of the jungle. They’d immediately left the river behind and followed a barely there trail through dense vegetation. And it was still raining.
“Insurance Fraud Investigator” was printed on Gabriela’s business card, and she had an international reputation for excellence in the field. As an independent contractor she had the luxury of accepting jobs not related to insurance fraud, whether because they paid well or because they were fun. Her current job had checks in both boxes.
She’d been hired to find Henry Dodge and retrieve an amulet he was carrying. She didn’t have a lot of information on the amulet or Dodge. Just that he couldn’t leave his jobsite, and he’d requested that someone come to get the amulet. Seemed reasonable since Dodge was an archeologist doing research on a lost civilization in a previously unexplored part of the Amazon Rain Forest. The payoff for Gabriela was a big bag of money, but that wasn’t what had convinced her to take the job.
She was possibly a descendant of the infamous pirate Blackbeard, and she was fascinated by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century pirates and the civilizations they touched. The opportunity to visit the site of a lost city was irresistible. It was also her thirtieth birthday. What better way to celebrate it than to have an adventure?
“How much further?” she asked Jorge.
“Not far,” he said. “Just on the other side of the bridge.”
Twenty minutes later, Gabriela set foot on the dig site. She’d been on other digs, and this wasn’t what she’d expected. There was some partially exposed rubble that might have been a wall at one time. A couple of tables with benches under a tarp. A kitchen area that was also under a tarp. A stack of wooden crates. A trampled area that suggested it might have recently been used as a site for several tents. Only one small tent was currently left standing.
There were no people to see except for one waterlogged and slightly bloated man lying on the ground by the rubble, and a weary-looking man sitting on a camp chair. The first was clearly dead. The second stared at them as they approached.
“This is not good,” Jorge said. “One of these men is very dead and something has eaten his leg.”
“Panther,” the man in the chair said. “You can hear them prowling past your tent at night. This site is a hellhole. Were you folks just out for a stroll in the rain?”
“I was sent to get an amulet from Henry Dodge,” Gabriela said. “I believe I was expected.”
The man nodded to the corpse. “That’s Henry. Had some bad luck.”
“He was checking on an excavation in the rain first thing this morning, fell off the wall, and smashed his head on the rocks. Then a panther came and ate his leg before we could scare it away. Everyone packed up and left after that. Too many bad things happening here.”
“But you stayed,” Gabriela said.
“They couldn’t carry everything out in one trip. I stayed with some of the remaining crates and the body. Cameron said he would be back with help before it got dark.”
“Do you know where Henry kept the amulet?” Gabriela asked.
“Usually on a chain around his neck,” the man said. “He felt it was the safest place. Right now, it looks to me like he’s got it in his hand. You can see the chain hanging out and part of the gold trim.”
Gabriela looked at the dead man’s hand. It was grotesquely swollen and clenched in a fist. The amulet was barely visible.
“Someone needs to get his hand open,” Gabriela said.
No one volunteered.
Gabriela flicked a centipede off her sleeve. She knew the rain, the mud, the bugs, the sweltering heat were all part of the Ecuadorian experience. The dead man with the swollen hand was not. The question now was, how bad did she want the amulet? The lost-cities site had turned out to be a bust, but there was still a payday attached to the amulet. So, the answer to the question was that she wanted the amulet pretty damn bad. Without the amulet, there would be no big bag of money. She was well respected in her profession, but big paydays didn’t come along every day.
“I’ve come this far,” she said. “I’m not going back without the amulet.” She looked at the man in the chair. “I need to pry Dodge’s hand open. I need gloves and a baggie. Archeological sites usually have them.”
The man shrugged as an apology. “They were all packed out. Truth is, we were shutting down before Henry happened. Henry was the holdout. He found the amulet, and he thought there was more here. The rest of us didn’t care.”
“We need to leave now,” Jorge said. “It will be bad to be in this jungle after sunset. Hard to find the way, and panthers will be hunting at night. We have maybe five hours of daylight left.”
“I’m not leaving without the amulet,” Gabriela said.
Cuckoo took his machete out of its sheath and whack! He chopped Henry Dodge’s hand off at the wrist.
“I suppose that’s one way to go,” Gabriela said. “I would have preferred to try my way first.”
“He’s dead,” Cuckoo said. “He doesn’t need the hand.”
He picked the hand up by the horribly swollen thumb, grabbed Gabriela’s daypack, and dropped the hand in.
“Problem is solved,” Jorge said.
“He’s right about the jungle at night,” the man in the chair said. “If you’re going back on the same path you came on, you don’t want to go alone. And you don’t want to stray from the path.”
“If everyone packed out this morning, why didn’t we see them?” Gabriela asked.
“They took the road behind the wall,” the man said. “Forty-five minutes to walk, and it cuts the river trip in half.”
Gabriela looked at Jorge and Cuckoo.
“Road has bad juju,” Jorge said. “Anaconda highway.”
The walk back to the motorized canoe took a little under four hours. Easier going without the rain.
Gabriela stopped at the river’s edge and dropped her daypack. “I can’t take the smell coming out of my pack. One way or another I’m going to get the amulet out of Dodge’s hand,” she said to Jorge and Cuckoo. “Hopefully the swelling has gone down and the rigor has relaxed.”
“Not good to stay here,” Jorge said. “The hand will draw predators.”
“No problem,” Gabriela said. “The predators can have the hand as soon as I get the amulet.”
Gabriela removed a folding Buck knife from her cargo pants pocket and opened the blade. “This shouldn’t take long.” She unzipped the daypack, held her breath against the smell of decomposing flesh, and looked in at the hand.
Jorge and Cuckoo inched away from Gabriela, moving closer to the canoe. Gabriela couldn’t blame them. This was going to get worse before it got better. She was about to do surgery on some necrotic fingers, and it wasn’t going to be pretty. She dumped the hand onto the ground and tossed the pack toward Jorge and Cuckoo.
She didn’t want to grab the hand without gloves, so she stepped on it to secure it and tried to pry the hand open with the knife. No luck. She took a moment to assess the situation.
“I hear something in the brush,” Jorge said. “We should right away go now.”
“We’ve been hearing things in the brush for four hours,” Gabriela said.
“Even worse,” Jorge said. “Could be the panther stalking the hand you are standing on.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Gabriela said. “He would have attacked by now. The brush is filled with small animals doing whatever it is they do.”
As she bent down to try the knife one more time, a panther crept out of the jungle. He was thirty feet away and he was in a crouch. His bright yellow eyes focused like lasers on Gabriela.
Jorge jumped into the canoe and started the engine. Cuckoo was at the bow, pushing off from the bank. Gabriela had her gun trained on the panther.
“Very bad to shoot panther,” Jorge said from the canoe. “They are on critically endangered list.”
“He ate Henry Dodge,” Gabriela said.
“Humans aren’t endangered,” Jorge said. “Okay for panthers to eat them.”
Gabriela took two steps back. The panther rushed forward, snatched the hand, and disappeared into the jungle with it.
“I would have shot him,” Cuckoo said.
“We can track him,” Gabriela said. “He won’t eat the amulet. He’ll leave it behind.”
Jorge and Cuckoo exchanged glances.
“You track him. We’ll wait here for you,” Jorge said.
They aren’t going to wait, Gabriela thought. They’re going to take off the instant I’m out of sight. I’ll be stuck here with no cell service and no canoe. And by the time I walk back to the dig site tomorrow it’ll be completely abandoned. And the truth is, the cat was terrifying. Magnificent, beautiful, and terrifying. It would be terrible to have to shoot him, and even worse to be his main course after he enjoyed the hand as an appetizer.
It was a little after 9:00 p.m. when Gabriela climbed out of the motorized canoe and onto the dock at Nuevo Rocafuerte. She paid the guides and tossed her empty daypack into a trash barrel. Not one of her better outings but not the worst, either, she thought. She got to see a wild panther on her birthday. How often was that going to happen?
She powered up her cell phone and was about to check messages when her mom called.
“Hi, honey,” Maeberry Rose said. “Happy birthday. We’ve been trying to call you all day, but you haven’t been answering.”
“I’m in Ecuador,” Gabriela said. “I didn’t have cell service until just now.”
Gabriela could hear her grandmother Fanny in the background shouting happy birthday.
“It sounds like Grandma is still living with you,” Gabriela said to her mother.
“At least for a while,” Mae said. “We’re thinking of selling. We can’t afford to fix the damage. No one can.”
Six months ago, a cat 4 storm blew over Scoon, the little South Carolina coastal town where Gabriela grew up. Double-wides were moved off their foundations, boats were beached, cottages that had stood for generations had their roofs stripped off and windows blown out. It was said that the fishing wharf was swept all the way up to Ocracoke Island.
“What about insurance?” Gabriela asked.
“We weren’t insured. Just about no one in the town had insurance. It’s too expensive.”
“Where will you go?”
“We haven’t figured that out yet. Wherever your father can find work. Even if he could get the boat put back together, there’s no place to dock it. The boat docks are gone. Only the pilings are left.”
Gabriela’s father owned a charter fishing boat. When Gabriela was ten years old, she started working as mate on the boat. She put herself through college with the wages she earned every summer. When she left to live in New York, her cousin Andy took over the mate job.
“When I was home at Christmas you didn’t seem to be worried,” Gabriela said.
“We all thought the town would qualify for emergency funding, but the funding never came through,” Mae said. “And now there’s a real estate developer making offers on all the houses. They’re really low offers, but most of us have no other choice.”
“I’m not giving up my house,” her grandmother Fanny said into the phone. “It was my mother’s house and her mother’s house.”
“It doesn’t have a roof,” Gabriela’s mother said. “It’s got a blue vinyl tarp over it. There’s a tree in your living room.”
“It can be fixed,” Fanny said. “All the houses and boats and the dock can be fixed. We just need some money, and I have a way to get it if Gabriela will help us. I have a plan.”
“Your plan is crazy talk,” Gabriela’s mother said. “It’s not a plan.”
Gabriela checked the time. She needed to get into clean clothes, and she needed to make some phone calls.
“I’m leaving Ecuador tomorrow,” she said to her mother. “I’ll change out my ticket to New York for a ticket to Charleston and we can discuss this when I get home.”
The ticket change had required taking a red-eye out of Quito. It dropped Gabriela in Charleston at 1:30 in the afternoon. She’d rented a car and taken her time driving through her hometown of Scoon. Not that there was a lot to see. It was a hardworking little town located an hour out of Charleston. The storefronts were mostly brick. Some of the windows were still boarded up. The houses were clapboard. Nothing fancy. It wasn’t a picturesque tourist town, but the fishing was phenomenal. Backwater fishing to the west and perfect ocean currents to the east. A natural harbor.
Gabriela was thinking that this was sweatshirt weather if you were born in Scoon. Gray sky with cold drizzle. If you were in from Atlanta or Tampa, you might have wanted a winter jacket. There was a scattering of cars in the Publix parking lot. Lights were on in Eddie’s Coffee House. That was about it for activity. A year ago, things were different. A lot more cars at Publix and more foot traffic on Main Street. The parking lot for the wharf would have been packed.
Her parents lived on the town’s outer edge. Close enough to the shoreline to smell the briny mist on a day like today, far enough inland and on a slight rise to be protected from the surge tides. It was a small clapboard house on a quarter acre of land. A Ford F-150 pickup and an empty boat trailer sat in the driveway.
Gabriela knew exactly how the inside of the house would smell. It would smell like her childhood. Febreze air freshener, store-bought powdered-sugar donuts, and cat food.
She’d been away for enough years that the smell of her childhood was no longer the smell of home for her. Home was a condo in Soho. It had no smell.
She parked behind her dad’s truck and twenty minutes later she was at the small kitchen table with her mother and Grandma Fanny. Gabriela had her hands wrapped around a mug of hot peppermint tea, and she was forcing herself to focus on the table talk.
Her mind kept drifting back to the conversation she’d just had with the New York lawyer who’d hired her to collect the amulet in Ecuador. The conversation hadn’t gone well. Telling him that a panther ran off with the valuable amulet was the equivalent to telling her fourth-grade math teacher that the dog ate her homework.
“This developer is the devil,” Fanny said. “He wants to build one of those awful couples resorts here. He’s forcing the bank to foreclose on a whole passel of properties, and he’s trying to buy houses on the cheap. That includes your mother’s house and the houses of just about everyone you know.”
“At least we have someone willing to buy the houses,” Mae said. “The alternative is to just walk away and lose everything.”
“I’m telling you we need to fix the wharf. We need to get the fishing business up and running again,” Fanny said.
“How much would it cost to fix the wharf?” Gabriela asked.
“I figure around fifteen million,” Fanny said.
Gabriela leaned forward a little. “Excuse me?”
“That includes some other stuff that would go along with the wharf,” Fanny said. “I figure we’d want to rebuild Fred Grimlet’s fish-and-chips hut that was right at the parking lot. It got washed away. And we could help some of the people who want to stay. We could give them a loan until they get back on their feet.”
“How are you going to get fifteen million dollars?” Gabriela asked.
“That’s where you come in,” Fanny said. “I have a plan. Remember when you were a little girl, I used to tell you stories about a secret room in your Great Auntie Margareet’s house on St. Vincent? Well, I just learned it’s under the floorboards of Margareet’s bedroom. And in that secret room, there’s supposed to be all sorts of things that belonged to Blackbeard. Margareet used to talk about a chest that had maps and a diary. So, what I’m hoping is that you can go there and find the chest and maybe find a map that will lead to a treasure.”
“How did you just find out about the room?”
“Annie told me.”
“You aren’t serious,” Gabriela said. “Annie the ghost?”
“Yep. She dropped in the other night and told me about the room and that’s when I got the idea about you finding the chest. That’s what you do, right? You recover treasure.”
“Yes, but this is different. This is fairy-tale treasure.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s real,” Fanny said. “Margareet said it was real.”
Margareet was Gabriela’s great-grandmother’s sister. When most of Margareet’s family migrated from the Caribbean to South Carolina, Margareet stayed on St. Vincent in the little house that had been passed to her from her grandmother. Margareet never married and when she died, she left the house to Gabriela.
“And besides, it’s not just me. Annie wants you to find the treasure so you could save the town,” Fanny said.
For as long as Gabriela could remember, her grandmother had told her stories about the tragic love affair between Blackbeard and a beautiful woman from Barbados named Annie. Sadly, Annie died while giving birth to their daughter. And according to Fanny’s family legend, Gabriela was a descendant of Blackbeard and Annie.
Gabriela had never personally heard or seen Annie the ghost. Fanny often dragged Annie out during moments of minor crisis. Annie is very upset that you didn’t eat breakfast, Fanny would tell Gabriela. Annie is disappointed that you got a D in math. Annie is horrified that you smoked a cigarette.
Fanny set a box of powdered-sugar donuts on the table. “So now all you have to do is hop over to St. Vincent and get the treasure chest.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Gabriela said. “I no longer own Margareet’s house. Rafer got it in the divorce settlement. I haven’t seen him or the house in seven years.”
“I’m sure he’d let you get the treasure chest,” Fanny said.
“It wasn’t a friendly divorce,” Gabriela said. “I gave him the St. Vincent house because I didn’t want to see him every time I came back to Scoon.”
“You two always fought like cats and dogs,” Fanny said. “I never understood why you married him.”
Gabriela had no good answer. She got into a fight with Rafer Jones on the first day of kindergarten and from that day on they argued about everything and yet they were inexplicably inseparable. They were also the scourge of the town. If a cow got painted red or an unoccupied car ended up submerged in the marshland behind town, the sheriff knew who to call on. They dated all through high school and got married while still in college. They fought over breakfast cereal, laundry detergent, which movie to watch, the temperature of the bedroom, and just about every other aspect of their lives. They had phenomenal makeup sex and then argued about its merits when they were done. They got divorced a week before their second wedding anniversary. The inhabitants of Scoon acknowledged that this was the loudest, most contentious, most fantastic divorce in the history of the town.
“I loved him,” Gabriela said. “He was fun.”
Plus, he was adorable and sexy from kindergarten straight through to the end of the marriage. Best not to share that part with her family, she thought. He was also a slob, lacked ambition, drank too much, and insisted on calling her Gabs.
“There’s no way I can go to St. Vincent and search for a treasure chest stored under Rafer’s bedroom,” Gabriela said.
“Without the treasure it’s hopeless,” Fanny said. “I get that it sounds crazy, but I can’t come up with anything else.”
Gabriela looked at her mother.
Her mother gave up a sigh. “I’m afraid she’s right about being hopeless. We’re all scraping bottom on ideas and money.”
“I’ll think about it,” Gabriela said. “I need to get back to New York first. I have some pending business commitments.”