A few moments later, the surface of the water appeared below him. He tugged to halt his descent and took his own plumb bob from his oilskin’s pocket. He lowered it, and grunted with satisfaction when he saw that only sixteen feet of water remained in the shaft. Because the pit was a good two feet narrower at this depth, he figured the pump would clear it down to three feet in ten minutes.
He could see the surface receding by watching anomalies on the rock wall, and he realized his estimate was off. The pump was draining faster than he—
Something to his left caught his eye. A niche was slowly emerging as the water level sank. It appeared to be about two feet deep, and the same width, and he could tell immediately that it wasn’t natural. He could see where hammers and chisels had bitten into the crumbly stone. His heart caught in his throat. Here was more definitive proof that someone had worked in the pit. This wasn’t yet proof that this was the repository for Pierre Devereaux’s treasure, but in the nineteen-year-old’s mind it was close enough.
Enough water had been pumped from the pit for Nick to see some of the junk that had found its way to the bottom. It was mostly driftwood that had been sucked into the shaft through the channels, as well as branches small enough to fit through the grate. However, there were also some lengths of logs that been blown in before the grate was placed over the shaft. He could imagine his father and uncles throwing some of it into the pit in frustration after they failed to unlock its secret.
The pump on the surface continued its work, more than capable of defeating the small trickles escaping his oakum plugs. Off to his side the carved niche continued to grow in height. On a hunch, he had his brothers lower him farther, and he shifted his weight to start to pendulum at the end of the rope. When he swung low enough and close enough, he kicked a leg into the niche, reaching down with his foot. His boot found purchase in just a few inches of water. He let himself swing back once more and threw himself at the opening, landing solidly on both feet. He signaled for his brothers to stop the rope, and he unclipped it from the harness.
Nick Ronish was standing no more than a couple of feet from the bottom of the Treasure Pit. He could sense the loot just inches away.
The final obstacle was all the wood littering the floor of the pit in an impenetrable tangle. They would need to clear some of it in order to feel along the bottom for gold coins. He knew the work would go faster with two of them down here, so after tying a bundle of branches together and attaching it to the rope he pulled on the line to signal to his brothers to first haul it up and then send one of them down to him. Kevin and the remaining twin could operate the hoist, and, if needed, he was sure Jimmy could throw his bit of strength into the effort.
He chuckled as the dripping clutch of wood disappeared over his head. They could probably tie the rope to Amelia’s collar and let the crazy dog haul them out.
He stayed with his back to the wall of the niche in case one of the branches slipped from the rope. From two hundred plus feet, even a glancing blow would be fatal.
Three minutes later an elated Don hallooed down from twenty feet over Nick’s head. “Find anything?”
“Sticks and stuff,” Nick called back. “We need to clear some of it. But look where I’m standing. This was carved into the rock.”
“Hot damn. We’re going to be rich.”
Knowing the tide would turn shortly, the two teens worked like madmen, pulling apart the snarl of interlocked branches. Nick took off his climbing harness and used it as a sling to bind at least two hundred pounds of waterlogged limbs together. He and Don waited in the niche for the rope to return. Ron and Kev were working like men possessed. They unclipped the harness, pushed off the wood, and sent the rope back down in four minutes.
Nick and Don repeated the process twice more. It didn’t matter whether they had cleared away enough of the trash. Time was running out. Leaving the rope draped over a spidery tree trunk sticking out of the water, they jumped down from the niche onto the pile. Wood shifted under their weight. Nick laid himself on a log as big around as he was and reached into the icy water. His hand brushed smooth stone. The very bottom of the pit.
Unlike his brothers, he had only half believed the stories about pirate treasure buried in the pit. That was until he saw the carved niche. Now he wasn’t sure what he believed. When he’d set out, getting to the bottom and proving himself against generations of ancestors who had tried and failed would have been success enough. But now?
He swept his arm in a wider arc, straining to feel anything lying in the silty muck. Nearby, Don was doing the same, his arm buried to the shoulder between some branches, his mouth a tight line of concentration. Nick felt something round and flat. He plucked it from the ooze, thumbing away the grime before it had cleared the surface.
The expected glimmer of gold didn’t materialize. It was nothing but an old rusted washer. He tried another area where he and his brother had cleared some debris. By feel, he identified twigs and soggy bunches of leaves, but when he encountered something he wasn’t sure of he pulled it from the water. He gave a startled grunt as he stared into the empty eye sockets of an animal skull—a fox, he thought.
High above them pressure was building behind one of the oakum plugs, forcing water through the dense fibers. What started as a trickle quickly turned into a gush when the plug shot from the hole with enough impetus to smack the far side of the shaft. Seawater came tumbling down the pit, twisting like an electrical cable carrying live current.
“One more second,” Don replied, nearly his entire upper body in the water as he continued to feel around.
Nick was struggling into his climbing harness, and looked over sharply when Don gasped oddly. “Don?”
Something had shifted. A second ago, Don had been lying on a tree trunk, and now suddenly he was pressed against the far wall of the pit with the length of wood pushed against his chest.
“Nick,” he cried out, his voice strangled.
Nick rushed across the pit to his brother’s side. His frantic motion must have shifted the whole pile further because Don suddenly screamed. The wood pushing into his chest slipped even more, and in the light of his miner’s lamp Nick could see a dark stain forming on his brother’s coat.
Water continued to hammer them from above, a torrent as bad as any summer rainstorm.
“Hold on, little brother,” Nick said, grasping the tree branch. He felt an odd vibration coming from the wood, an almost mechanical sensation, as though the end hidden underwater was attached to some device.
No matter how he tried to pull it out, the branch was firmly lodged against something hidden below the water. It remorselessly continued to drive into Don’s chest in a slow, steady thrust.
Don screamed at the pain. Nick screamed, too, out of fear and frustration. He didn’t know what to do, and he looked around for some way to lever the bough out of his brother’s body.
“Just hold on, Don,” Nick said, tears mingling with the salt water sluicing off his face.
Don called his name again, weakly, for there was three inches of wood impaled into his flesh. Nick took his hand, which Don gripped, but quickly the strength afforded him by fear and pain began to ebb. His fingers slackened.
“Donny!” Nick cried.
Don opened his mouth. Nick would never know what his brother’s final words were meant to be. A clot of blood erupted from Don Ronish’s pale lips. The first eruption turned into a steady stream that turned pink in the spray as it ran down his neck and across his chest.
Nick threw his head back and roared, a primeval call that echoed off the pit walls, and he would have remained at his brother’s side forever had the second of his oakum plugs not burst, doubling the flow of water pouring into the pit.
He fumbled with the rope in the deluge, clipping his harness into the loop. He hated what he was about to do, but
he had no choice. He tugged on the plumb line. His other brothers had to know something was wrong because they started hauling him from the pit instantly. Nick kept his light trained on Don until the lifeless body was just a pale outline in the stygian realm. And then it was gone.
DON RONISH’S MEMORIAL SERVICE was held the following Wednesday. The world had changed dramatically during the hours the five brothers were playing at being explorers. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States was now at war. Only the Navy had the kind of dive equipment necessary to recover Don’s body, and their parents’ request had fallen on deaf ears. His casket remained empty.
Their mother hadn’t spoken since hearing the news and had to sit through the service leaning against their father to keep from fainting. When it was done, he told the three eldest to stay where they were, and he lead their mother and Jimmy to their car, a secondhand Hudson. He returned to the graveside, a decade older than he’d been Sunday morning. He said nothing, looking from one son to the next, his eyes red-rimmed. He then reached into the jacket pocket of the only suit he owned, the one he’d been married in and the one he’d worn to his own parents’ funerals. He had three slips of paper. He handed one to each, pausing with the one he gave to Kevin. He kissed it before thrusting it into his son’s hand.
They were birth certificates. The one he’d given Kevin had been Don’s, who had been eighteen years old and thus eligible for military service.
“It’s ’cause of your Ma. She never understood. Do our family proud and maybe you’ll be forgiven.”
He turned on his heel and walked away, his rangy shoulders hanging as though they supported a weight far heavier than his body could ever carry.
And so the three boys went to the nearest recruiters, all thoughts of boyhood adventure banished forever by the memory of their brother’s unoccupied coffin, and then by the hellfires of war.
NEAR THE PARAGUAY-ARGENTINE BORDER
Juan Cabrillo had never thought he would meet a challenge he would rather walk away from than face. He felt like running from this one.
Not that it showed.
He had an unreadable game face—his blue eyes remained calm and his expression neutral—but he was glad his best friend and second-in-command, Max Hanley, wasn’t with him. Max would have picked up on Cabrillo’s concern in a second.
Forty miles down the tea-black river from where he stood was one of the most tightly controlled borders in the world—second only to the DMZ separating the two Koreas. It was just rotten luck that the object that had brought him and his handpicked team to the remote jungle had landed on the other side. Had it come down in Paraguay, a phone call between diplomats and a little hush money in the form of economic aid would have ended the affair then and there.
But that was not the case. What they sought had landed in Argentina. And had the incident occurred eighteen months earlier it could have been handled effortlessly. Yet a year and a half ago, following the second collapse of the Argentine peso, a junta of Generals, led by Generalissimo Ernesto Corazón, had seized power in a violent coup that intelligence analysts believed had been in the works for some time. The monetary crisis was simply an excuse for them to wrest control from the legitimate government.
The heads of the civilian leadership were tried in kangaroo courts for crimes against the state involving economic mismanagement. The fortunate were executed; the rest, more than three thousand by some estimates, were sent to forced-labor camps in the Andes Mountains or deep into the Amazon. Any attempt to learn more of their fate was met with arrests. The press was nationalized, and journalists not toeing the party line were jailed. Unions were banned and street protests were met with gunfire.
Those who got out in the early chaotic days of the coup, mostly some wealthy families willing to leave everything behind, said what was happening in their country made the horrors of 1960s and ’70s military dictatorships seem tame.
Argentina had gone from a thriving democracy to a virtual police state inside of six weeks. The United Nations had rattled its vocal swords, threatening sanctions but ultimately sending out a watered-down resolution condemning human rights abuses that the ruling junta duly ignored.
Since then, the military government had tightened their control even further. Lately, they had started massing troops on the borders of Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Brazil, as well as along the mountain passes near Chile. A draft had been implemented, giving them an army as large as the combined forces of all other South American countries. Brazil, a traditional rival for regional power, had likewise fortified their border, and it wasn’t uncommon for the two sides to lob artillery shells at each other.
It was into this authoritarian nightmare that Cabrillo was to lead his people in order to recover what was essentially a NASA blunder.
THE CORPORATION was in the area monitoring the situation when the call came through. They had actually been unloading a shipment of stolen cars from Europe in Santos, Brazil, South America’s busiest seaport, as part of the cover they maintained. Their ship, the Oregon, had a reputation as a tramp freighter with no set route and a crew that asked few questions. It would just be coincidental that over the next several months Brazil’s police forces would receive tips concerning the cars’ locations. During transit, Cabrillo had his technical team hide GPS trackers on the gray-market automobiles. It wasn’t likely that the cars would be returned to their owners, but the smuggling ring would surely collapse.
Pretending to be larcenous was part of the Corporation’s job, actually abetting in a criminal enterprise was not.
The center fore derrick swung over the hold for the last time. In the glow of the few dock lights left working at the little-used section of the port, a string of exotic automobiles glimmered like rare jewels. Ferraris, Maseratis, and Audi R8s all waited to be loaded into the backs of three idling semitrailers. A customs foreman stood nearby, his coat pocket bulging slightly from the envelope of five-hundred-euro bills.
The crane’s motor took up the strain at a signal from crewmen in the hold, and a bright orange Lamborghini Gallardo emerged, looking as though it were already traveling at autobahn speeds. Cabrillo knew from his contact in Rotterdam, where the cars had been loaded, that this particular vehicle had been stolen from an Italian Count near Turin and that the Count had gotten it from a crooked dealer who later claimed it had been stolen from his showroom.
Max Hanley grunted softly as the Lambo gleamed in the weak light. “Good-looking car, but what’s with that god-awful color?”
“No accounting for taste, my friend,” Juan said, twirling a hand over his head to signal the crane operator to go ahead and lower the final car onto the dock. A harbor pilot was due to guide them out to sea shortly.
The sleek car was lowered to the crumbling concrete dock, and members of the smuggling gang unshackled the lifting sling, taking care that the steel cables didn’t scratch what Juan had to agree was a damned ugly paint choice.
The third man standing on the old freighter’s wing bridge had given his name as Angel. He was in his mid-twenties, and wore slacks of some shiny material that looked like mercury and an untucked white dress shirt. He was so thin that the outline of an automatic pistol tucked into the small of his back was obvious.
But maybe that was the point.
Then again, Juan wasn’t really concerned about a double cross. Smuggling was a business built on reputation, and one stupid move on Angel’s part would just about guarantee he’d never do another deal again.
“Okay, then, Capitão, that is it,” Angel said, and whistled down to his men.
One of them retrieved a bag from a tractor trailer’s cab and approached the gangplank while the rest started loading the hot cars into the rigs. A crew member met the smuggler at the rail and escorted him up the two flights of rusted stairs to the bridge. Juan entered with the others from outside. The only illumination came from the antique radar repeater that gave them all a si
ckly green pallor.
Cabrillo dialed up a little more light as the Brazilian set the bag onto the chart table. Angel’s hair cream shimmered as much as his slacks.
“The agreed-upon price was two hundred thousand dollars,” Angel said as he opened the battered duffel. That amount would almost cover the cost to buy one of the Ferraris new. “It would have been more if you had agreed to deliver three of them to Buenos Aires.”
“Forget it,” Juan said. “I’m not taking my ship anywhere near there. And good luck finding a captain who will. Hell, none would take a legit cargo into BA, let alone a bunch of stolen cars.”
When Cabrillo moved, his shin hit the edge of the table. The resulting sound was an unnatural crack. Angel eyed him warily, his hand moving slightly closer to the pistol under his shirt.
Juan made a “relax” gesture, and stooped to roll up his pant leg. About three inches below his knee, his leg had been replaced with a high-tech prosthetic that looked like something out of the Terminator movies. “Occupational hazard.”
The Brazilian shrugged.
The cash was in bundles of ten thousand. Juan divvied them up and handed half to Max, and for the next several minutes the only sound on the bridge was the soft whisper of bills being checked. They all appeared to be legitimate hundred-dollar bills.
Juan stuck out his hand, “Pleasure doing business with you, Angel.”
“The pleasure is mine, Capitão. I wish you a safe—” A loud squawk from the overhead speaker cut off the rest of his sentence. A barely understandable voice called the captain down to the mess hall.
“Please excuse me,” Cabrillo said, then turned to Max. “If I’m not back when the harbor pilot gets here, you have the conn.”