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"Hey, no one ever said the sun made people sane," Jack Payne, an old-time and expert diver, said, staring at Thor Thompson with an amused cant to his head.
Thor, in turn, was staring at the woman.
He'd first seen her earlier that day, when his boat, The Seeker, had met up with the group the state had hired. They were both involved in the same exploratory mission, and there had never been any reason, as far as Thor was concerned, not to co-exist with other companies and other divers. Especially on this project. The state of Florida, along with the environ-mentalists and the historians, was solidly against some of the methods treasure seekers had used in the past. Coral reefs were fragile. It was one thing to disturb a little nature when there was a verified find; it was quite another to rip the sea floor to shreds in the pursuit of a find. Though the historians were the ones who had set this project into motion, they were going on a theory, and there had to be proof of that theory before the state allowed in any of the big machinery that might tear up the beauty of the reefs—the state's real treasure, as far as tourism went.
Thor was working for the federal government, not himself, and since the Deep Down Salvage group was working for the state, it wasn't as if one of them was going to seize the treasure from the other. If it turned out to be true that the Marie Josephine was hidden beneath sand and coral and the continuous reef life, and they did discover a pirate cache, they would both make out well, but it wasn't as if the proceeds wouldn't be divided, or as if the state and U.S. governments—and maybe others—weren't going to be taking the majority of the haul. As a diver who'd spent his career working on old wrecks and salvage, he had done well, and it wasn't that he didn't appreciate his creature comforts. But he had never been in it for the riches that some salvage divers continually sought. He liked the work, the history and the thrill of discovery.
With the recent discovery of the wrecked La Niña just off Calliope Key, all sorts of people had once again become excited about the fact there were thousands of undiscovered wrecks off the Florida coast. It was more than plausible that at least some of those wrecks had been hiding pretty much in plain sight. Too often, people simply didn't know or wouldn't recognize what they were looking for. The sea could totally camouflage the remains of a ship after centuries, something researchers had learned much more about in the recent past when vessels of various kinds, having outlived their usefulness, had been purposely sunk to help create artificial reefs. Along with the passion, however, had come the cautionary voices of the historians and environmentalists. A number of the search areas where archives suggested the Marie Josephine might be found were marine sanctuaries. Solid proof of a find—more than a few pieces of eight, some ship's silver, or even cannons—would have to turn up to allow for any dredging, hauling or sifting equipment to come out.
Thor's group, known as the Seekers, along with their lead research boat, wasn't on call for just fantastic finds. There were times when the work was far more painful than exciting, when they went looking for survivors or the remains of a crash, times when they didn't dive into the extreme beauty of the Caribbean, the Florida Straits or the Gulf of Mexico. There were dives into swamps, as well, and those were excruciating. The work here, though, was something he enjoyed—at which he hoped he excelled. They were on the trail of pirates. The initial work, done by the state historians, had sent them straight into some of the most beautiful water he had dived anywhere in the world. He liked what he was doing right now. It was the intimate kind of work that was the most exciting. Because they were going on speculation, this was real underwater exploration. Sure, they had sonar and radar, but because storms and time could play such havoc with the remnants of the past, they were also going back to basics, using their own eyes, their own instincts.
Big money—despite the possibility of a big payoff—was hard to get in the speculation stage. Still, people were more important than equipment right now. That was why he was there, and that was also why she was there.
The woman he was watching was an expert diver, so he'd been told. But he and his crew had been about half a mile from the Deep Down Salvage boat when he'd seen her bob frantically to the surface. He would have rushed in for a rescue, but her own people had been quick to recover her. When they had come broadside just to make sure everything was okay, she'd sounded like a lunatic, going on and on about a body in the water. He'd gone down.
And found a lot of parrot fish and tangs.
Since they were all staying at the resort, she was there now, with her buddies, and from the look on her face, they were still ribbing her. The whole thing felt strange to him, because she looked like the last woman in the world who would ever lose her cool. Frankly, she had a look that instantly aroused whatever was sexual and carnal in the male psyche. She was very tall—five eleven, at least—and everything about her was elegant. Even now, she appeared both calm and confident. She had long auburn hair, striking green eyes, dark, well-formed brows, a heart-shaped face and features that exemplified the phrase "perfect symmetry." He'd seldom seen anyone look better in a bathing suit. She would have made a hell of a model, then again, she also would have made a hell of a stripper.
Her mere presence in any room was enough to draw the eyes of any red-blooded male within range.
It was a pity she seemed to be certifiably crazy. "Conchs are the worst of the lot," Jack said, breaking into Thor's thoughts.
"What?" Thor looked back at the older man.
"I said," Jack told him, lighting his cigar, "that Conchs are known for being crazy. You know, Conchs. Like me. Native Key West folks."
"Well, I'm glad you added a subcategory there," Thor told him.
Jack shrugged. "That's right. You're a Jacksonville boy. North of the state—might as well be a different breed."
"The sane breed?" Thor said, offering a dry smile. Jack puffed on his cigar and watched the flame. He was somewhere between fifty and sixty years old, hair still long and iron-gray. He wore a huge skull-and-crossbones earring in one lobe and a chain with a Spanish doubloon around his neck. He was built like a man half his age who spent hours at the gym. In his own words, he'd been diving since the rest of them had been in knee britches. He was a man who knew what he was doing.
"Ever hear of Count Von Cosel?" Jack asked. Thor stared at him.
Jack smiled. "He was a German immigrant—not a real count—working down here in the hospital. He fell in love with a Cuban girl named Elena. He knew she had tuberculosis. He made up some weird kind of cure, but despite his efforts, the girl died. Family had her buried. A few years later, he decides she should be buried in a great mausoleum, so he builds it, and supposedly that's where the girl's body is interred. But as time goes by, folks start to notice odd things about his place. Like it looks as if he's dancing with this huge doll. Turns out the poor bastard dug up Elena and tried to put her back together again so that he could try some whacked-out thing to bring her back to life. Bastard slept with the corpse for years, repairing her constantly. Finally the family got wind of it, and the sister goes to see him. There was an uproar, but there's a statute of limitations on whatever crime they figured it to be, so he gets off. This is Key West, after all. He not only gets away without being charged, he winds up with people sending him money to survive."
"You're a lying sack of shit, Jack," Thor told him.
"I swear to you, it's a true story. Ask anyone. Look it up. Newspapers all over the country carried the story." He paused and took a puff of his cigar. "The point is, comparatively speaking, the young lady you're staring at is as sane as they come. And damned better looking than any other I've ever seen with these old eyes."
Thor shook his head and lifted his beer. "I saw her out there today, and when you're diving, the last thing you need is someone going off the deep end, no pun intended. Ask her out on a date, Jack, but don't bring her on my boat. There's too much at stake."
"I've gone diving with that girl many a time, Thor. She knows what she's doing. As far as hooking up with her, hell, I could be her father. And I've known her forever, since she was a kid."
Thor shook his head again and turned his focus to the water. Late summer. Hot days, gorgeous nights. There was always a breeze coming off the ocean. And the sun, when it set, was glorious. It was eight at night, and the sky was getting ready to change. Now it was light. Soon it would be pink, purple, gold, yellow, blue…streaks of color that would slowly deepen. Then, around eight-thirty, it would suddenly go dark.
He was staring at the water…and then he was staring at her again. It was hard not to stare at her, he thought, realizing what it was about her that drew him so powerfully. She emanated a natural, easy sensuality. It was evident in her every movement. Nothing forced, nothing overt. Something she herself wouldn't even know she possessed.
"Sun's going down now," Jack commented. "You could take off the shades."
Thor smiled again. Hell, no. He liked the ink-dark Ray-Bans. No one could tell when his eyes kept turning toward the other table.
"Can't take your eyes off her, huh?" Jack asked.
"What's not to appreciate about eye candy? I just don't think any rational man—especially a diver—should get too close to a loose cannon."
"Want to hear about the guy who thought his doll was alive and all the folks who think it's cursed?"
Thor groaned. "Jack, give it a rest."
"Hey, it's all real stuff. Know where the name Key West came from? When the Spaniards first arrived, it was one big boneyard. An Indian tribe that died out? Killed in a massacre? No one knows. But there were bones everywhere, so they called it Cayo Hueso, Island of Bones. The English didn't bother to translate the Spanish, just turned it into words they knew. I'm telling you, Thor, Key West is a unique place."
Thor smiled slowly. "Jack, if you're trying to convince me that she's totally right in the head, you're not getting anywhere. The woman claims she saw a body in the water. And that it talked to her."
"Hey…for every tale out there, you'll find a grain of truth."