Ransom

Pirate Out of Time

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During dinner that evening, and for the hundredth time since the encounter with Tibbits at the beach, Helena wished she hadn’t worn the suit, even though Julia and Christa assured her it wouldn’t have made much difference. She had been thinking of Alex when she bought it, and of how surprised he’d be when he saw it on her. Well, she’d gotten more attention than she’d bargained for. As soon as they had returned to camp, she stripped the thing off, and stuffed the small bits of cloth into the deepest part of one suitcase. She didn’t plan to dig them out any time soon.

Eamon, who had been invited to join the group for dinner, looked over at Alex and asked, “What did you think of that little threat Mr. Security Man made before he went off?”

With a concerned expression, Bill turned toward Eamon. “What threat?”

“Something about not wanting any accidents to happen.” Eamon’s dark eyes stayed on Alex. “Sounds like a threat to me.”

Alex frowned. “It makes me wonder if he wasn’t the one behind the thefts last night. I certainly wouldn’t put it past him.”

“Then I guess the next question is, what are we going to do about him?” Bill leaned back in his chair. “Quite frankly, I give Alex points for not decking the guy after what happened today.”

“I’m glad he didn’t,” Helena said. “It would only have made matters worse.”

“Unfortunately, it’s pretty clear that just staying away from him isn’t going to work,” Julia said.

Christa dropped her half-eaten hamburger back to her plate. “You know, even with a bikini on and a towel around me, Tibbits made me feel like I was standing on the beach buck naked.”

Eamon grinned. “Now, that would be a fine sight. Like a mermaid, you’d be.”

Christa smiled.

“I felt the same way,” Helena remarked. “As if those damned sunglasses give him x-ray vision.”

“Maybe we should appoint chaperones for you girls from now on,” Don said. “We could take turns, so at least one of us would be with you all the time.”

Helena shook her head. “No. You didn’t pay your money to play nursemaid to us. Besides, we’re not always together in the same place. How are you going to keep track of us?”

Julia nodded. “She’s right. Even if we wanted bodyguards, which I, for one, don’t.”

“Well, I volunteer to guard this fine wench.” Eamon placed a hand on Christa’s arm.

Christa playfully brushed it away. “As if I can’t look out for meself.”

“All kidding aside, I think Helena is right. There’s no way we can guard the three ladies all the time.” Alex took a swallow of Guinness, then continued. “I also don’t think the threat applies just to the women. Tibbits is looking for a fight. I don’t know why, or what it is we’ve done to set him off, but I think we all need to be careful.”

“I don’t think we’ve done anything. I think it’s just the way he is.” Helena met Alex’s brooding look. “The only way to get rid of him is to contact Temp Security. Unfortunately, that would require recalling the ferry. Not to mention that Tibbits has the only satellite phone on the island.”

“Any way we could lock him in his cabin for the next six days?” Bill remarked.

“Don’t tempt me,” Alex answered.

“Come on.” Arthur rose from his chair. “Let’s head over to the Bilge Rat and see if anyone else had problems with old Tidbits today. If so, then there’s got to be something we can do to get the man off our backs.”

“Yeah, like tie a metal ice chest loaded with rocks to his ankles and throw him off the pier,” Christa snarled.

“I’ll help find the rocks,” Helena added, got up and, with Alex at her side, followed the rest of the group to the Bilge Rat.

The fiddler was already tuning up as they arrived. The bonfire snapped and crackled, throwing sparks into the darkening sky. Four children sat close, roasting marshmallows. A young man wearing nothing but baggy pantaloons and buckle shoes, and who’d obviously had a little too much grog, was dancing an impromptu jig to the accompaniment of a horn pipe. His lobster-colored shoulders and chest gave a glowing hint of the pain he would be in once the alcohol wore off.

As the Boca group joined the rest of the PFCers, Helena found herself looking toward the back of the cabana, wondering of Tibbits was lurking in the shadows. She thought she caught a spark of reflected firelight in those mirrored glasses, but couldn’t be sure.

The fiddle player and horn piper began a series of rousing reels. Many more people got to their feet and danced, hooting and shouting as they did so. Eamon dragged a laughing Christa up from her place on the sand and they joined the dancers.

When Alex met Helena's gaze with a quizzical look, she quickly replied, “Don’t even think about it. I don’t jig.”

He winked. “I’ll wait till they play something slower.”

At the end of the set, Mad Matilda came forward into the firelight. “As if ye didn’t already know it, which I’m sure ye do, tomorrow be the nineteenth, Talk Like a Pirate Day. There’ll be lots of games and contests ta keep ye occupied, which will be posted here at the pub. Just ta give ye all a hint of what’s commin’, I can tell ye there will be a best pirate costume—lad and lassie and powder monkeys. Also, a rum punch recipe contest,” she looked meaningfully at the sunburned young dancer, “so don’t drink all of yer rum before ye has a chance to enter.”

A smiling, middle-aged man wearing thick-lensed glasses asked, “Who’s to be the judge of that one?”

“Well, it certainly won’t be you, Blind Eye.”

“Nothin’ wrong with me taste buds,” he fired back.

“It’s not yer taste buds I be worried about, it’s yer bottomless thirst.”

The crowd clapped and hooted.

Matilda went on. “There also be a salmagundi contest, which was in yer flyer, so’s ye could scrounge up the ingredients before times. I believe Captain Blue is to be the judge of that one.”

Alex made a choking sound and clutched a hand to his throat.

“And,” she went on, “there is the always popular best pirate insult and comeback contest—no profanity, mind. Tomorrow night is the Boarding Party here at the Bilge Rat, where we’ll be serving up the punch and salmagundi entries and you can judge for yerselves whether they be fit for pirate consumption or not.” She gave a mock curtsy, and returned to her place on the sand.

Helena leaned toward Alex. “What’s salmagundi? It’s not another pudding is it?”

He shook his head. “No, it’s a ... well mishmash, made with just about whatever meat a pirate might have on hand—turtle, pork, fish—heavily spiced, and mixed with hard-boiled eggs, anchovies, cabbage ... well, like I said, a mishmash.”

She wrinkled her nose. “I think I’ll pass on that one.”

Alex put his arm around her. “Don’t worry, you won’t find any cut up rats, or dead dog in it. At least, not in these modern versions. Although ....”

Helena jabbed him with her elbow. “You’re the judge. You can tell me which one is safe.”

“If I haven’t died of terminal acid reflux by then. What will you be doing while I’m tempting death by food poisoning?”

“I’m not going to the beach, that’s for sure. Julia, Christa and I are going to enter the costume contest as a threesome—don’t get any ideas about that, either!” Helena laughed as Alex pretended disappointment. “Christa seems to think we have a good chance to win a prize in the group category by portraying hussies.”

“That sounds like Christa. Did you plan this ahead of time?”

“Christa thought of it, then convinced Julia and me to go along. That was about a month ago, after we all got the flyer for the event with the games and contests posted.”

“Who’s the judge?”

“I have no idea.”

“Maybe I’ll volunteer.”

“You can’t. If we won, there’d be a mutiny.”

He hugged her closer and whispered in her ear, “Be worth it for a threesome.”

She laughed. “I don’t think Eamon would agree with you.”

Christa and Eamon had joined the crew of the Merry Death, and it was obvious Eamon was proudly showing off his new acquaintance.

Alex sighed theatrically. “Oh, all right, be a spoil sport, but—.”

“Shit,” Helena whispered.

Tibbits was working his way along the outside of the crowd. Even though it was dark, the sun glasses were still in place. Helena wondered if he slept with them on. When he got close to the Boca group, she noticed he had a beer bottle in one hand.

She nudged Alex. “Is he supposed to drink on the job?”

“Doubt it, but who’s going to stop him?”

“Alex, that man sober is bad enough. Drunk, he could be deadly.”

As if taking her comment as a prompt, Tibbits barked something at the young, bare-chested dancer. The boy turned and said something Helena couldn’t hear. Tibbits shoved the kid back. The boy staggered, then fell. His friends came quickly to help him. Tibbits laughed.

Alex started to get up, but Helena grabbed his hand. “Wait. If that’s all Tibbits is going to do, then leave it. No one is hurt.” She was sure the security man had done it just to get Alex’s attention.

“I can’t stand back and let him get away with that.” Alex shook off her restraining hand, stood, and headed toward Tibbits.

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Helena followed him, praying the young man wasn’t hurt, and that Tibbits wouldn’t do anything else to provoke Alex.

The young man was back on his feet, but his eyes glittered with anger. He started to lunge toward Tibbits, but before he could, Alex stepped between them, then two of the man’s friends grabbed him by the elbows.

“That’s enough, Saker. You go off with your mates, here.” Alex had the young man by the shoulders, his blue eyes dark and focused on the angry, bloodshot eyes in front of him.

“That fucker called me an drunken fag,” Saker struggled to get free. “I’ll show him who’s a fag.”

“Let him go, Captain Blue. Let’s see what the drunken ass can do.” Tibbits taunted.

Alex spun around. “I don’t think he’s the drunken ass.”

“You got a problem with me enforcing order around here?” Tibbits slid the billy club from its loop on his belt.

“Until someone gets out of order, I suggest you keep that club where it belongs.”

By now a crowd had circled around them, watching carefully to see what Alex would do. Helena, her heart pounding, pushed her way to Alex’s side. “Alex, don’t. He’s just waiting for you to give him a reason to hit you with that thing.”

“She’s right, captain. I’d love to smack you upside the head. Any of you.” His face swiveled around, the mirrored lenses reflecting faces and firelight.

Eamon shoved his way through the onlookers and stood on Alex’s other side. “Let it go, Blue. Don’t give him the satisfaction.”

“Please, Alex.” Helena took one of his hands.

Alex’s eyes never left Tibbits. “If you hurt anyone, I’ll make sure Temp Security hears about it. I’ll make it my personal business to see that you’re fired. Got that?”

Tibbits took a slug of beer, and grinned. “You got to get off this island in one piece before you can do that.”

Bill stepped forward and looked around at the stunned and silent faces. “You all heard him. This man made a direct threat to Alex.” The crowd nodded and there were mumblings. Bill faced Tibbits. “I’m a lawyer. I’d advise you to watch what you say. Any more threats of that nature, or if any harm comes to Alex, I’ll advise him to take you to court. Do I make myself clear?”

Tibbits didn’t say anything. With a lazy pull at his beer and a parting sneer, he turned, the menacing billy club still in his hand. The crowd parted to let him through, and he disappeared into the darkness.

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CHAPTER FIFTEEN

September 18

La Perla Islet

Gray Dog stood looking out over the isthmus connecting La Perla to San Cristobal. Like a bridge made of mother-of-pearl, the wet sand glowed in the soft moonlight. He jogged across, his shoes making sloshing noises, then climbed quickly to the spring and the low ridge. When he looked down at the camp all was dark, but for the ruby coals still pulsing in the fire pit. There was no guard posted, no rum-felled bodies lying about, no mongrel dogs sniffing. Nothing.

Stealthy as a wharf rat, he worked his way to the nearest tent—like no pirate tent he’d ever seen. Inside, someone snored, coughed, gurgled, then continued snoring. With a quick glance around, he spied another crate. Being stronger now he’d had two decent meals, he didn’t waste time dragging it, but hefted it up and returned to the darkness under the palms.

When a safe distance away from the camp, he lowered the crate to the ground, worked the catch, and opened it. He found more frozen bricks, and more slippery bags. He also found long-necked bottles with metal caps. Hoping it was more rum, he tried to pull one of the caps off, but it didn’t budge. Curious, he tied his shirt up and put three of the bottles inside, wincing as the cold hit his stomach. As before, he ripped the bags open with his teeth. The first was full of raw ground meat. He ate it anyway. The second held small round biscuits full of raisins and some creamy dark bits of sweet. He ate half of them, then stuffed the bag in his shirt with the bottles. In the next few moments, he found and ate greens, carrots, and a hunk of cheese.

Finally full, he crept back to the tent and checked to see if there was anything he could use. He spied a fishing pole, although it was like none he’d ever used. He took it, along with a checkered cloth left on a table. The cloth was light, but he figured to use it as a blanket. Unfortunately, he saw no rum bottles. With his new prizes clutched tight, and the bottles clinking coldly against his skin, he started back to La Perla.

He’d almost made it to the spring when he heard a noise ahead of him. Shite! They had posted a guard after all. He dodged off the path, out of the moonlight, and crouched in the darker shadows. Within seconds a figure rounded a bend in the path. He was stumbling and mumbling to himself. Gray Dog smiled. Not a guard then, but some rum-sodden dog out to take a piss.

As the man passed him, one of the bottles within Gray Dog’s shirt, with a slight clink, shifted.

The man stopped. “Who’s there?”

Inwardly cursing, Gray Dog slowly put down the fishing pole and blanket—more clinking—then reached in his shirt and grabbed one of the bottles by its neck.

“S’anyone there, mate?” The man peered in Gray Dog’s direction.

Gray Dog stayed quiet.

The man stepped toward him, leaning over a bit, one hand out in front of him like a blind man feeling his way. “S’anyone hurt or sumthin’?”

Before that hand could reach him, Gray Dog leapt up and swung the bottle, hitting the man on the side of his head. He dropped like a stone.

“Stupid bastard,” Gray Dog muttered. He then proceeded to strip the man of his clothes and boots. When he got him down to his small clothes, he stared in shocked amazement at the fancy silk cloth covering the man’s privates. The cloth looked almost like the little bits barely covering the two demon women he’d seen earlier. He huffed. This man was no demon. More likely some kind of secret fancy-boy.

With a shake of his head, he wrapped the clothes and boots in the blanket, retrieved the fishing pole, and quickly darted up over the ridge, splashed through the spring, then down to the beach and back across the isthmus. Besides the food and clothes, he’d gained information. This was no pirate camp, despite the death’s head flags. He didn’t know who or what these colonists were, or where they came from, but they weren’t going to stop him from finding Renaldo’s treasure. If all of the men were as stupid as the one he’d encountered tonight, then he wasn’t in much danger. Scurvy idiot hadn’t even had a blade on him.

Back at his nest on La Perla, he untied the checkered cloth, dumped the clothes out, then lay it over the sand. He pulled the bottles and the little bag of biscuits—which had suffered in the encounter and were reduced to mostly broken bits—out of his shirt, and set them among the clothes.

He knelt on his knees in the sand, took one of the bottles and again tried to open it. No matter how hard he pulled, the little cap wouldn’t come off. He pried it with his teeth, but he had too few and they were too rotten to do the job. He banged the cap on the nearest palm, thinking to loosen it, and tried again to pull it off, but without success. In frustration, he banged it against the palm one last time. Nothing. Cursing, he tried twisting the cap. There was a cracking sound and the cap turned. With a little snort of pleasure, Gray Dog twisted the cap again, then again.

With a whoosh, the cap sprang off and a fountain of dark fluid sprayed into the air. Startled, Gray Dog dropped the bottle. His hand was covered with the sticky stuff. He sniffed, then licked. The liquid tasted sweet as syrup. He retrieved the bottle, held it up and gave it a little shake. There was still some syrup left inside. He wiped sand from the bottle’s mouth and drank. It fizzed like he had a mouthful of bees, swarming even up into his nose. He swallowed. It tasted good, thick and creamy. Couldn’t be some kind of medicine, then. He examined the bottle, which had strange writing and markings on it, but since he couldn’t read, they made no sense to him. He downed the dregs then tossed the empty bottle into the palms.

With a satisfied belch, and feeling he’d accomplished a fine night’s work, Gray Dog lay down on his newly acquired checkered blanket and went to sleep.

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CHAPTER SIXTEEN

September 19

Campground, San Cristobal Island

Helena stood next to Alex as Sandy examined Flash, a member of a crew called Forward Battery. Flash lay on a cot, his body covered by a flowered quilt. A large bandage smothered his left ear, and his left eye was almost swollen shut, but the eyes that stared up at them were hard and glittered with rage.

“So, you never saw who did it?” Alex asked.

Flash shook his head and winced. “No.”

“Why were you out so late?”

Flash’s good eye narrowed. “Who wants to know?”

“I do,” Alex snapped. “There’s been another theft—food, some fancy root beer, and a fishing pole. Why were you on the path so late?”

“That’s my fault, Captain Blue.” A woman stepped forward, her face creased with worry. “Flash drank a bit too much rum last night. I told him to walk it off before coming to bed. He’s not a thief.”

Helena went to her. “What time did he get back to camp?”

The woman was near to tears. “I ... I fell asleep. When I woke this morning and saw he wasn’t back I panicked, thinking he might have fallen.” She looked over at Flash. “He was pretty drunk. So I got a few of our crew and we went looking for him. Found him stumbling down the path from the spring. White as a sheet and looking half dead. And without his clothes. Someone stole his clothes. When we got him back to the tent, I sent for Sandy and Alex.”

Helena put her arm around the woman. “He’ll be alright. Sandy’s a real paramedic. He’ll fix Flash up.” Helena turned to medic. “He’s going to be okay, isn’t he?”

“If we were on the mainland, I’d recommend x-rays, but as we’re not, I advise rest. I want someone to keep an eye on him, and no drugs, not even an aspirin, for the next twenty-four hours.”

“Jeeze, Sandy, not even a Tylenol? My head is killing me.”

“Serves you right for getting so drunk. But until the danger from concussion is over, sorry, no pain medication. And no rum, or alcohol of any kind.” He looked at Flash’s wife. “If he shows any signs of disorientation, nausea, or passes out, you come and get me, quick as you can. I’ll use Tibbits’ satellite phone to call in a med chopper.”

“I don’t need any med chopper,” Flash grumbled.

“You just shut your gob, and do as Sandy tells you.” His wife shot him an intimidating glare.

“Speaking of Tibbits.” Helena looked at Sandy. “Does he know about this, or the thefts?” She felt like a lead weight lay in the pit of her stomach. This would be all the excuse Tibbits needed to call the ferry.

Sandy shook his head. “I haven’t told him.”

“Neither did any of our crew,” Flash said. “After what he did last night, we figured we’d better keep quiet about it.”

“I talked to the group whose food was stolen. They didn’t say anything to Tibbits either.” Alex said.

Helena had a sudden, sickening thought. She met Alex’s grim expression. “You don’t think Tibbits did this, do you? I mean, last night he admitted he wanted to slap someone with that billy club.”

Alex turned to Sandy. “Can you tell what he was hit with?”

“Just something blunt, is all.”

“Why would he steal my clothes. And my boots! The bastard took my new boots. Cost me over a hundred bucks for those.” Flash moaned, but Helena couldn’t tell if it was because of his headache or his loss.

“Be glad all you lost was your boots. If you’d been hit two inches over, in the temple, there’s a good chance you would have lost your life.” Sandy packed away the first aid kit, then turned to Alex. “Best let him rest.”

Helena, Alex and Sandy left the tent. They walked in silence toward the first aid cabana. Frying bacon scented the early morning air. Questioning eyes followed them. Word of the assault had drifted throughout the camp like a foul mist. Sandy led Helena and Alex to his own tent, behind the cabana, where they could talk in private.

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They sat on folding chairs set under a huge palm, its fronds like a giant umbrella over their heads.

Helena sighed. “You know Tibbits is going to hear of this eventually.”

“Assuming he didn’t do it himself, in which case, he already knows.” Alex hadn’t taken a chair, but paced back and forth like a caged tiger.

“You really think he might have?” Sandy asked.

“I certainly wouldn’t be surprised.”

It broke Helena’s heart to see Alex like this, the event he’d planned for six long months caving in around him. It also frightened her to think that, instead of Flash, it could have been Alex lying in their own tent with a nasty bruise on his head. First thefts, now assault. What would be next? If Tibbits was doing it so he could get back to the mainland, how far would he go?

“What I don’t get is, why steal the food or a fishing pole?” Sandy shifted in his chair.

“Diversion? Or just plain nastiness. Who knows?” Alex finally sat.

Helena touched his arm and smiled, but there was nothing she could do to take the fury out of his eyes. She took her hand away and said, “It makes me wonder why he agreed to take this job. Couldn’t he have told Temp Security to give him something else?”

“I don’t know, but I sure wish he had.”

Sandy gave Alex an enigmatic look. “Anything else happens, Alex, and whether Tibbits admits to it or not, I’m going to have to call this thing off. I can’t risk someone getting seriously hurt.”

Alex stood abruptly. “You don’t think I haven’t already thought of that? Soon as I saw Flash and heard what happened. Shit, Sandy, we’ve got kids here. It makes me sick to think that something bad might happen to any of them. I’ve held a running debate in my head for the last hour—do I call the ferry, or don’t I?”

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Have you found an agent, yet?

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Okaaay, this story will pick back up in the middle of a chapter, as due to tech difficulties — I hit "paste" instead of "copy" and a whole section was replaced by what had gone before, and I screwed up and hit something that made "undo" null and void. I had to get to my safe deposit box to get my back up CD and replace what was lost, before I could continue.

So, apologies, and here we go again....

*****************************************

Helena hated to admit it, but she’d been thinking the same thing. Maybe it would be best if they canceled the event. It would be a nightmare to refund all the money, even if Mr. Ross agreed to reimburse them for use of the island, but it woul d be better than risking more injuries. She also wouldn’t be sorry to have Tibbits off her back, stalking her wherever she went. Yet, she hated the thought that Tibbits would win. That he could drive them off the island just because he was unhappy and didn’t understand why they were here.

Alex ran a hand through his hair, then looked at Sandy. “I’ll give it through today. It’s the one everybody’s been looking forward to the most. Nothing happens, we take it another day. But, I agree with you. Anything else happens, and we call this whole thing off.”

Helena and Sandy both nodded silent agreement.

“Okay, let’s get out there and see what damage control we need to do.” Alex gave them a halfhearted smile. “Hell, as far as we know, Tibbits may already have made the call and the ferry is at the pier waiting to take us back. All this pacing on my part done for nothing.”

Sandy rose from the chair. “Let’s hope the PFCers can be tightlipped when they need to be. With luck, Tibbits won’t find out what’s happened.”

Helena took one of Alex’s hands. “Come on. Lets round up the rest of our crew and see what’s going on. If I recall, you have a contest to judge.”

For the first time, Helena saw a hint of despair come into Alex’s eyes. “God, Helena, how can I judge a contest when stuff is getting stolen and Flash has a bruise on his head the size of a football?”

“Because, you’re Captain Blue, and it’s your job to make sure everyone has a good time. If the rest of the PFCer’s see that you’re worried, then they will be too. If that happens, then Tibbits wins.”

The despair left his eyes, replaced by a fierce, crackling anger. “Like hell he will.”

* * *

“Strike yer colors, ya deck-lickin’, louse-infested spawn!” A cheer went up as the first salvo in the Best Pirate Curse contest was fired.

“Come at me, ya toad-bellied, bilge-puking son of a sea worm!” A young lass no more than fifteen shouted back.

Helena laughed along with the rest of the crowd. This cursing contest was the best medicine for relieving the tension that had gripped the camp all morning. She hoped it would help relax Alex as well. With her at his side, he’d spent the morning talking to various group leaders, asking if they wanted to cancel the event and call the ferry. The consensus had been a resounding no. Some of the crews make a joke of the trouble, others had taken it as a challenge, but no one wanted the event called off. Helena was glad. She knew, had they wished to go back to the mainland, Alex would feel he’d failed the group, and taken all responsibility for the disaster.

“Rot in hell, ya scurvy, pox-infected cheese bag!” The leader of the Spotted Dick Tavern shouted out.

“Careful, mate. That be my daughter yer callin’ a cheese bag.” A dark-haired woman wagged a finger.

The leader quickly held up his hands, palm outward, then pointed to a potbellied man with a fake parrot on his shoulder. “Nay, marm, t’was that cheese bag I wer aimin’ at.”

The woman looked to where he pointed, nodded her head, then laughed and replied, “A fine hit, then mate, a fine hit.”

Bill strolled up to Helena. “Where’s Alex?”

Helena’s heart leapt into her throat. “What’s wrong?”

Bill smiled. “Nothing. Just wondered. Thought he’d be here putting in his two-pence worth. He’s got some curses that would curl your hair.”

Relief rushed through her. “Thank God. I was afraid something else had happened.”

“I don’t blame you for being jumpy. Everyone’s a bit on edge after this morning.”

“I know.” She looked into Bill’s worried brown eyes. “Do you think Tibbits hit Flash?”

“I don’t know, but after that threat last night, it makes me wonder. The only thing worse would be to discover one of the PFCers did it.”

Helena let her gaze wander over the jubilant crowd, then faced Bill again. “You know, if that turns out to be the case, Alex is going to be crushed. He has such faith in this group.”

“If not Tibbits, then who? The PFCers are the only ones on the island.”

Helena shivered. The feeling of dread coming back, strong as a tidal wave. “What if we’re not the only ones?”

“What do you mean?”

“This whole area, southern Florida, the Keys, the Caribbean, they’re all home to drug runners. Maybe they have a camp on the other side of the island. Could be they were here before we showed up and aren’t too happy about the company.”

“Christ, Helena, I never thought of that. Although, so far, none of the people out looking for Mad Matilda’s treasure have reported seeing anyone.”

“Maybe we should send a group to scout around, just to be sure.”

“If we do, we need to stress caution. Drug-runners aren’t the most social characters.”

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Helena grimaced. “Maybe we should ask Rambo Tibbits to take a look. He’d probably jump at the chance.”

Bill shook his head. “I doubt it. It’s been my experience that men like Tibbits tend to melt away when faced with real danger. Besides, the less Tibbits knows about what’s going on the better. At least until we need to use his satellite phone.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, for Alex’s sake,” she said.

“Well, now we’re back to Blue, where is he?”

“He’s judging the salmagundi contest. Should be done pretty soon, he’s been at it for about half an hour.” She cocked her head and smiled. “How much salmagundi can you eat before your tongue goes numb?”

Bill chuckled. “That’s an easy question for me to answer, none, as I never touch the stuff. I’ll go hunt up Alex. Any idea where the rest of our crew are?”

“Christa is with Eamon, over there with the gang from the Merry Death. Don is one of the rum punch contest judges. I’m not sure about Julia, but I think Arthur is out looking for the treasure again.”

Bill gave a rueful shake of his head. “He is determined, isn’t he? What was the clue this morning?”

Helena thought for a moment, then recited, “Now ye be high in the north, tis a mighty fine view, but looks not ta the sea, if ye wants ta stay true.”

Bill shook his head. “That doesn’t help much. Just keeps everyone on land, and she said from the beginning the treasure was on San Cristobal.”

“I think she’s just playing with them. After all, she has to drag out the game for another five days.”

Bill’s expression sobered. “If the event lasts that long.”

“It will,” Helena replied fiercely. “It has to.”

Bill nodded, then went in search of Alex.

The potbellied man with the stuffed parrot on his shoulder stepped forward, faced the leader of the Spotted Dick Tavern and let fly, “Curse ye fur breathin’, ya rum-soaked, pock-faced, defiler of sheep.”

Julia approached and gave Helena a wink. “Why does that make me think of Tibbits?”

Helena burst out laughing. “I’d feel sorry for the sheep.”

“Me too. Cruelty to animals. I’d report him in a heartbeat.” Julia was already dressed for the costume contest, wearing royal purple skirt and bodice, over a blouse trimmed in silver lace. On her head was a wide-brimmed felt hat pinned up on one side with a flame-jeweled brooch. She gave Helena a look, then said, “You’d better get changed, or Christa will have a hissy. She’s dead certain we’re going to win the group category.”

“She’d have me ... what do they call that punishment where they drag you under the ship?”

“Keelhauled. Very nasty. Best avoid it.”

“Right. If Christa asks, tell her I’ll be ready in ten minutes. Meet you at the Bilge Rat.”

“Got it.” Julia nodded, then, as another creative curse was called out, she shouted, “Damn yer eyes, Rum Runner, is that the best ye can do? Yer mother would be cryin’ in her grog ta hear such a lily-livered curse comin’ from yer lips.”

Chuckling to herself, Helena headed back to the Boca camp to get changed. She met Alex and Bill on the way. Alex didn’t appear to bear any ill effects from tasting salmagundi for an hour. “So, who won?” she asked him.

Alex shook his head. “Sorry, that can’t be revealed until the Boarding Party this evening. That’s when all the contest winners will be announced and the prizes handed out.”

“You mean, Christa’s going to have to wait five hours before she finds out whether we won anything?”

“Afraid so.” He gave her a quick inspection. “You don’t look very hussy-ish in that get up.”

Helena wore her usual outfit of baggy pantaloons, loose shirt, bodice, and sandals. She also sported Arthur’s tricorn hat, which he’d let her borrow for the day while he was out scrounging for treasure. “I was just on my way to change.”

“Need any help?”

“With your help, I’d miss the contest and Christa would never forgive me.” Helena kissed her index finger, placed it on Alex’s lips. “Sorry, love.” Then danced away as he tried to grab her. “See you at the pub.”

Once in the dome tent, Helena shrugged out of her boyish clothes and struggled into Christa’s idea of what a New Providence prostitute might have looked like—much embellished and cleaned up. Bodice and skirt were emerald-green brocade festooned with gold braid and black ribbon. Helena added the many necklaces and bracelets Christa had provided, and untied her hair, as instructed. Then she placed Arthur’s tricorn back on her head, but not before attaching three sweeping green ostrich feathers. She had promised Arthur she would remove them before returning the hat.

With a final adjustment of the skirt, she prepared to step out of the tent, then hesitated. Tibbits, with his nasty habit of lying in wait for her, might be just outside, hoping for another opportunity to harass her. This time Alex and the others weren’t around to stop him. Cautiously she drew back the tent flap.

“Took you long enough. You should have let me help.” Alex sat on one of the folding chairs, his hands cradling a mug, legs stretched out and casually crossed at his booted ankles.

Helena let out a sigh of relief. “Come to escort me to the contest?”

Alex rose and walked toward her, his eyes blue as cobalt. “You should wear dark green more often. It looks good on you.”

She gave him a theatric curtsey. “Why, thank you, Captain.”

He cocked an elbow. “Come on, H. H., before I change me mind, and strip ye out of that dress and have me way with ye.”

“Save that thought for later.” She took his proffered arm, and together they strolled back toward the Bilge Rat Pub.

Although he’d said nothing of his reason for keeping guard outside the tent, Helena knew very well why Alex had been there. As she walked beside him, she prayed that nothing else would happen to spoil the event, or put anyone in danger, and that Tibbits would stay away from her. However, the crawling feeling that something wasn’t right still haunted her. She wondered if Bill had mentioned to Alex her theory about the drug-runners.

“Alex, Bill and I were talking earlier—”

“Yes, he told me about the possibility of drug dealers on the island.”

“What do you think?”

“I think I was stupid not to consider it before. Bill is rounding up a few of the men and will do a quick search of the island. Mostly from the ridge, using binoculars to check the eastern shore. No sense getting too close if we’ve got unwelcome company.”

“What will you do if they find we’re not alone here?”

“Call the ferry. But I don’t think we’re going to find anyone. At least not drug runners.”

“Why not?”

“Think about it. Drug dealers aren’t going to waste their time stealing food, root beer and fishing poles. Yeah, they might bash someone in the head for getting too close to a stash, but this is a privately owned island, usually crawling with campers. I don’t think drug runners would risk using San Cristobal as a drop zone or hiding place.”

She shrugged. “Maybe Mr. Ross is a drug dealer. Maybe that’s how or why he bought the island.”

“If that were the case, I doubt he’d rent the place out. But if there are others on the island, we’ll know by later this afternoon.”

“I hope there are.” She said it with a fierceness that surprised her.

Alex stopped. “Why?”

“Because that would mean it wasn’t a PFCer who stole that stuff and hurt Flash.” It would mean all of Alex’s hard work wouldn’t be spoiled by someone within his own group.

He gave her an enigmatic look. “You’re getting pretty protective of a bunch of pirates all of a sudden.”

She smiled. “Yeah, go figure.”

“I warned you.” He gave a lock of her hair a playful tug. “Give it a little more time, H. H., and before you know it, you’ll be drinking rum and entering the cursing contest.”

She laughed as they walked on. “I could take pointers from Julia. You should have heard her taunting Rum Runner.”

“Now there’s a lass who can let fly with the best of them. Makes a captain proud, she does.”

“Well I’d have to down a lot of rum before I could call someone a pox-infected cheese bag.”

Helena, happy to see a smile return to Alex’s face, found herself actually looking forward to the costume contest. She pushed worry and doubt to the back of her mind, gave Alex’s arm a little squeeze, and prepared to act as hussy-ish as she could—for Christa’s and the contest’s sake at first, but later, she’d give Alex a more personal performance.

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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

September 19

La Perla Islet

The man whose clothes Gray Dog had stolen was taller and heavier than he. A wide leather belt with a fancy buckle held up the new pantaloons, rolled at the ankles, and Gray Dog let the oversized shirt hang loose. He decided the boots were too fine for grubbing around San Cristobal, so he stowed them in the boat, which he’d covered with palm fronds to hide from view.

Avoiding the heat of the molten midday sun, Gray Dog stood under the shade of the palms looking toward San Cristobal and thinking about the strange colonists. Moments of confusion warred with his anger. He couldn’t explain the things he’d seen, like the demon boat, the odd materials the crates were made of, the cloud-writing, or the strange food bags. Even the clothes he wore were made of cloth that felt different than anything he’d ever stolen. No matter how many times he scratched his beard and thought until his brain hurt, he could find no answers to his many questions.

In all his years at sea, sailing the world, Gray Dog had never seen people like the colonists. The man he’d hit last night had been human enough, fat and well-fed as a lord, but different in a way he couldn’t quite grasp. It was little things, like the man’s short stockings—knit so fine, no human hand could have done it, and of thread that stretched and returned to its original shape with nary a sag.

The fishing pole had been another puzzlement. It wasn’t made of cane or wood, but of something shiny and flexible, the handle covered in a dull black material like tar, but not sticky. Attached to the handle was a type of crank that held strong, clear line. Gray Dog had tried to turn the crank to let the line out. It would only turn one way, which tightened the line until one of the lead weights attached wedged against a metal guide-loop on the pole. The line snapped and the bright metal fishhook snagged in his pants. No matter what he did, he couldn’t get the line to unwind. Cursing, he’d thrown the pole into the ocean.

With a quick snap, he unscrewed the top from the last bottle of syrup and drank down a third of it. The syrup was good but did nothing to quench his thirst. He needed a way to bring water back from the spring. Maybe he’d steal a bucket tonight, as well as food.

He also decided, as long as he was careful, he could explore San Cristobal without much danger to himself. The colonists might fly the death’s head flag, but in his gut he knew they weren’t pirates. Maybe they thought the skull and crossbones would keep other pirates away. Whatever their reason, it wouldn’t keep him from looking for Renaldo’s hoard.

He sucked down the rest of the syrup and tossed the bottle into the palms. The tide was low over the isthmus. With his knife tucked into his new belt, he splashed hurriedly over to the main island and ducked into the cool shade of the palms. He climbed to the spring, drank thirstily, then edged up the ridge to check the camp.

Below, he saw a bustle of activity centered around the largest shelter. Men and women took turns shouting at each other while onlookers cheered. “Lunatics,” he muttered, shaking his head, while wishing he had a spyglass so he could get a closer view of the camp. It would make his night raids easier if he knew ahead of time where things were.

He glanced toward the rocky summit of the island. Above the rim of palms and shrubs he saw paths, like slender gray threads, winding in every direction. Blast, he thought, there was only supposed to be the one path. How was he supposed to find the treasure if there were hundreds of them, snaking all over the island?

Once again rage and frustration threatened to overcome him. At every turn his way was blocked, the prize tantalizingly close yet still beyond his reach. He looked at the maze of paths again. It might take him weeks, even months, to figure out which was the right one. He wished he had the map so he could get his bearings again. But then what? Renaldo, damn his scurvy hide, hadn’t marked on the map if the treasure was buried, hidden in a cave, or suspended in a net from a tree. There had been notes scribbled on the map, but Gray Dog’s didn’t know what the notes might mean.

As another cheer went up from the crowd below, Gray Dog crawled back to the spring, drank again, then slipped his knife from his belt and headed for the high interior of the island.With the image of Renaldo’s map burned into his brain, he climbed toward the rocky summit.

He didn’t get far before discovering not all of the colonists were down at the camp. Voices, then laughter, came from the path ahead. He darted into a thick clump of shrubs and sawgrass, his knife held at the ready.

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“I told you, a hottie. A real hottie.” A lad around fifteen spoke to his two companions, of the same approximate age.

“Yeah, a babe. Kinda like Princess Amadala from Star Wars, only with blond hair,” a boy dressed all in black answered.

“You ask her out yet?” said the third boy, wearing a red-striped shirt, blue pantaloons and the strangest, lace-up shoes Gray Dog had ever seen. They were white, their soles thick and wavy, with colored inserts in strange patterns. They made the boys feet look huge and deformed.

“Naw, her Mom was there, so I never had the chance.”

“Bummer. This girl hot for you?”

“Shit, Derrick, I’m not gonna ask her that.”

“She like the PFC?”

“Haven’t told her about it yet. She likes Final Fantasy Seven though. We played over at Colin’s place a week ago.”

“Dude, Final Fantasy Seven? No one plays that any more. Get real. My Dad just bought the Super Smash Brothers. You should get it.”

The boy in black said, “My mom refused to buy me that one. Said I have enough games already. As if.”

Gray Dog felt his brain starting to ache again. The boys spoke English, but with meaningless words. Was it some kind of code? Where was the Star War? The only war he knew of was the one between England and Spain. Maybe this was a secret military camp. He shook his head. No, that didn’t make sense either. There were no guns, no soldiers, no ships.

The boy with deformed feet asked, “You guys going to look for the treasure?”

Gray Dog nearly jumped from his hiding place.

“Hell no. Nothing but a bunch of junk.”

“Not me,” Black Clothes answered, “but my sister is. So’s my mom, I think. She likes trying to figure out the clues.”

Clues? Gray Dog wanted to scream. Who had clues to the treasure? How did they get them? As far as he knew, Renaldo kept the map a secret from everyone except the Quartermaster. What were these colonist doing with clues to his treasure?

The three boys moved past him, still talking in the strange code. He couldn’t decide whether to let them go, or beat the information about the treasure out of them. If he jumped them, he’d have to kill all three. He didn’t have time to bury them, and if the bodies were discovered, he’d have every lunatic on the island out looking for him. No, better to let the lads be. At least for the time being.

Instead of returning to the path, Gray Dog threaded his way between the palms, heading for the crown of volcanic rock that was the summit of the island. He hunched low, ready to defend himself if anyone else should appear. When he reached the place where the palms became sparse and the pitted black rock began, he paused, listening. He heard no voices, but was reluctant to leave the shelter of the trees. Once out on the lava, where heat waves rippled like water, he would be as exposed as a fly on a wall. If he were spotted by any colonists, he would have nowhere to hide.

And that was the crux of his problem. The longer he stayed on the island, the more likely he was to be seen. He’d avoided detection so far. The drunk of the previous night hadn’t seen him, and even with the thefts of food, no alarm had been raised. But Gray Dog knew his luck had a nasty habit of running out just when he needed it most.

There was no help for it, he had to reach the summit, get his bearings, and see if he could figure out which path was the right one. He also realized there was no way the treasure could be buried or hung from a tree. It must be hidden within a fissure in the rocks, or under a cairn of stone. And there was something else he hadn’t thought of. Would Renaldo have set traps?

He stood under the palms a bit longer, still reluctant to step into the harsh glare of the sun and take the nearest path, when he caught a flash of color at the corner of his eye. He looked south and cursed. Along the crest of the ridge stood a group of about a dozen men. Some held strange objects to their eyes, but one had a spyglass, its long brass body glinting bright as gold. Heart pounding, Gray Dog ducked down, but continued to watch. The men stayed on the ridge for a long time, a few working their way toward him. He hunched lower, feeling as if the spyglass was pointed right at him. Eventually, the men moved back down the other side of the ridge, apparently returning to camp.

So, he thought, they know I’m here. “Well, that changes things, that does.” He waited a while longer, just to make sure the men were gone, then stepped onto the narrow path leading toward the top of the mountain. Gripped hard in his right hand was the knife, its blade still stained with Crow Legs' blood.

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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

September 19

Bilge Rat Pub

“Ye look more like an organ-grinder’s monkey than a pirate,” Mad Matilda shouted to Don, who strutted his outfit in front of the costume judges.

He doffed his grubby, green knit cap and gave her a mock bow, thrusting out a white hairy leg, bare below the knee. “ ‘Tis true, I be no fashionable nob, but I be goin’ fer authenticity. I be but a lowly sea dog, savvy?”

“Check him for lice,” Alex shouted.

Don frowned. “Now, that be cruel, Captain. Powerful cruel.”

Helena laughed as Don, whose outfit consisted of cutoff baggy pants, long over-sized tunic-shirt, and bare feet, all liberally rubbed with dirt, made way for the next contestant. So far, the unpleasantness of the morning seemed forgotten. Almost all the PFCers were crowded around the cabana, cheering on their favorites. She noticed some of the contestants went for strict authenticity, while others went for showmanship. She had to assume Christa was leaning toward the latter. The three women stood together like strange, hothouse flowers gone berserk. Helena had no idea what a New Providence prostitute might have looked like, but she suspected they weren’t quite so grand as Christa’s portrayal. Personally, Helena felt more like Miss Kitty, from Gunsmoke.

“Oh look, there’s Eamon.” Christa, dressed in flaming red trimmed in black and silver, pointed toward the judging area. “Doesn’t he look just like Johnny Depp?”

Helena watched the young artist swagger proudly before the judges. She thought he did have a vague resemblance to the famous movie star in his role as Captain Jack Sparrow, but that was probably due to his newly-beaded hair and stylish frock coat. Apparently Christa was not the only wench in the crowd to appreciate his good looks, as a chorus of shrieks and catcalls erupted from many a female throat. Eamon, exuding so much charm Helena thought he should bottle it, accepted the accolades with grace.

Suddenly, Alex charged into the open space flourishing his cutlass, its point hovering just in front of Eamon’s chest. “Hold fast, ya scurvy dog. I hear ye’ve been making loose with one of me crew. What be yer intentions?”

Eamon, a wide grin splitting his face, pulled a replica pistol from his belt. “Dishonorable ones, o’ course. What do ye take me for, a lily-livered landlubber?”

Christa squealed in delight.

“That’s what I feared,” Alex replied, then turned to the Boca group. “What shall I do with the cur, lassies?”

“Turn him over to us, Captain. We’ll teach him to show disrespect for a lady,” Julia shouted back.

Eamon’s grin got wider. “Ha! I be seein’ no ladies here, just fine wenches waitin’ fer a lusty pirate to carry them off.” With that, he charged past Alex, grabbed Christa by the waist, hoisted her over his shoulder, her red skirts fluttering around his head, and started to jog away.

Christa, shrieking and pummeling his back, finally got him to put her down. The crowd cheered. Laughing, the two rejoined the Boca group.

Alex approached them, replacing the cutlass in its scabbard. “Well, it seems the wench can take care of herself. If ye passed muster with her, I guess I’ll be lettin’ ye keep yer gizzard.”

Arthur shoved a mug into Eamon’s hand, another cheer went up from the crowd, and the contest continued.

Helena, shaking her head, took Alex’s arm. “A fine performance, Captain Blue. How come you didn’t enter the contest—any of them?”

“For one thing, I got elected judge of half of them, and for another, I’m too busy running everything else. When is it your turn?”

“Soon I hope, or Christa is going to let Eamon carry her off for real.” She nodded at the two in question, who were busy kissing each other.

“Belay that, mate,” Alex demanded, separating them. “She’s a contest to win.”

Christa adjusted her hat, and Eamon wiped very non-period lipstick from his mouth. He then gave Christa a swat on the rear, and said, “Give um yer best, lass.”

Alex glanced at Helena, gave her a wink, and added, “Same goes fer you.”

Julia glared at the two couples. “Well blast ye all to Davey Jones, where the hell do I fit in?”

Before Helena could answer, Bill shouted, “Avast, lassies, it be yer turn before the judges.”

Helena, feeling suddenly silly as a child playing dress-up, grabbed Julia’s hand, and together the three women, already slipping into their roles, sashayed into the open space in front of the cabana.

* * *

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* * *

The Boarding Party was in full swing. A soft, warm breeze kissed the flushed, rosy faces of the PFCers as they enjoyed bowls of salmagundi and drank with enthusiasm the rum-punch entries. Laughter and music, along with ruby and garnet sparks from the bonfire, spiraled into a sky black as any pirate flag, and littered with diamond-chip stars. Beyond the aureole of rippling light and shadows, the palms, their saw-toothed fronds resembling outspread hands, sighed and whispered. And beyond the palms, unseen in the darkness, but its presence still felt, lurked the volcanic summit of San Cristobal.

Helena sat cross-legged on a blanket next to Alex. In her lap was a half-eaten bowl of salmagundi, which she had decided she liked. She had even agreed to a mug of rum punch. Whoever concocted the recipe loved rum more than punch, and she’d nearly choked to death on the first swallow. With the mug currently half empty, she was mellow and relaxed.

The women hadn’t won their category in the costume contest. First prize had gone to two young boys and one girl, all dressed with ruthless authenticity by their mother. Helena hadn’t really minded coming in second, but Christa was still a bit put out. Eamon was helping her get over the disappointment.

Against her inclination, she was still wearing the green dress, per Alex’s request. With the skirts spread out around her, Helena had the sudden impression of being waist-deep in a pond. She giggled, and took another swallow of rum punch.

Alex, one eyebrow raised, remarked dryly, “Had enough rum?”

Although she couldn’t be sure, Helena thought Alex was getting a little fuzzy around the edges. She held up the mug. “No. I like it.”

“So I see. Better go slow though, you’re not used to that stuff.”

“I’m fine. Really.” She glared. “Hey, you’re the one who told me I was too uptight. Well, now I feel looser.”

He smiled, and poured rum from his own mug into hers. “I’ll bet you do.”

Bill, sitting on Alex’s other side, nudged him. “Be careful, Blue, or you’ll be up all night with her.”

“No he won’t. I’m fine. I’ll just finish my salit ... my sillyma ... this gundi stuff.”

Alex gave Bill a helpless shrug. “Everyone has to learn the rum lesson on their own. I’ll take care of her.”

Julia, having sensibly changed into something more comfortable, joined the group. When on eye-level with Helena, she shook her head. “Not nice, Blue, not nice. She’ll have cannons going off in her head in the morning.”

“I’m fine. I told you.” Yes, Helena decided, Alex, along with everything else, was definitely going fuzzy around the edges. But she felt wonderful. When the musicians started another reel, she put aside her bowl, grabbed Alex by one hand, and headed toward the open area set aside for dancing. She was only vaguely aware of Bill rolling his eyes.

Alex, his eyes glittering like dark sapphires, let her lead him, and together they joined a swirling line-dance. Laughing, she was spun from one strange arm to another as the dancers wove the pattern. Her skirts flared, more than once getting tangled—in someone’s legs, if not her own. Faster and faster the fiddle and drums beat out the rhythm. The dancers whooped and clapped. The world spun. The bonfire snapped and hissed. Overhead, the stars winked, cold as ice.

As she reached the end of the line, the boy whose elbow was crooked in hers tripped and lost his grip. She was flung away like an out of control top. Still laughing, she crashed into an unyielding body smelling of sweat and beer. Two heavy arms gripped her waist, then beefy hands fumbled up to her breasts. For a stunned second she froze, realizing in an instant who held her. Then with blind panic she screamed, and struggled like a trapped animal. She heard Tibbits grunt as she rammed her heel into his knee, but he didn’t let her go. She reached over her head, trying to scratch his face, but he held her too tight. His fat stomach pressed into the small of her back, his belt buckle digging into her backbone. One of his hands snaked down her bodice, and she went crazy, yelling for Alex.

Then she was free, stumbling to the ground, crying and gasping, Julia and Christa at her side. Tibbits, his face purple with rage, blood pouring from his nose, started to pull the billy club from his belt.

Alex, the knuckles of his right hand bloody, his voice cold as the stars overhead, said, “You pull that thing out, you better be prepared to fight all of us.”

Tibbits wiped at his bleeding, broken nose, one hand still gripping the club’s handle. “You’re done. Fucking asshole. I’ll report you attacked me.”

Bill stepped to Alex’s side. “And we’ve got forty witnesses to say he was provoked, and one woman who can charge you with assault.”

Tibbits shot Helena a contemptuous look. “She going to flaunt herself like some hooker, she should expect to be treated like one.”

Helena struggled to her feet, charged up to Tibbits, and before he realized what she had in mind, with all her strength, slapped his face. “You touch me again, I’ll kill you.”

“You won’t have to,” Alex said. “He’ll already be dead.”

Tibbits, his eyes bloodshot and feral, met Alex’s cold rage. “You think you can take me, faggot? Try it.”

Bill carefully touched Alex’s arm. “He’s drunk. Let it go.”

Around them, the crowd was deathly quiet, but six or seven PFCers, including Eamon, joined Alex and Bill. Then, as the face-off continued, several of the women joined their men. Tibbits' eyed them like a cornered bear and took his hand off the billy club.

With a sly grin, Alex said, “Bad cop, no donut.”

A few chuckles rippled through the crowd, then, like a burst dam, everyone was laughing. Tibbits scowled in impotent fury. “Wimps. You’re all a bunch of wimps. Fucking assholes.”

“Either sit down and shut up, or go back to your cabin.” Alex’s eyes never left the big man’s face.

Helena, still trembling with rage and fright, snapped, “Get away from us.”

Tibbits started to raise his fisted right hand. For a moment, Helena thought he would hit her. She suddenly felt sick.

Alex pulled her away, confronting the man. “Better do as the lady asks.”

Tibbits picked up his mirrored glasses, which had apparently fallen off when Helena crashed into him, stuck them in his shirt pocket rather than put them back on his swollen nose, and as if nothing had happened, slowly headed toward his cabin.

As suddenly as the adrenaline had flooded Helena’s body, it dissipated, leaving her sick and faint. She sank to the sand in a billow of green brocade and to her acute embarrassment, started to cry.

Alex knelt beside her. “Are you alright? Did he hurt you?”

She shook her head, fighting nausea.

Sandy appeared from the crowd and knelt next to Alex. “She okay?”

Helena finally caught her breath. “Just a little dizzy.”

“Well.” Sandy stood. “I guess I had better go offer my services to Tibbits. If you broke his nose, the least I can do is tape it for him. I’ll just make sure I’m none too gentle in the process.”

“As far as I’m concerned, you can leave his nose crooked.” Helena said. “Maybe it will swell so much, he’ll suffocate.”

“One can only hope,” Sandy replied, then walked in the direction the security guard had taken.

“Come on, let’s get you back to our camp.” Alex helped her up.

The world wasn’t just fuzzy, it was tilting and leaning at unnatural angles. The ground rolled under her feet. Helena swayed, felt Alex take her arm, and tried to concentrate on moving one foot in front of the other. Her body seemed made of rubber, while her mouth tasted of rum, cabbage, and bile. In her head, she repeated the mantra, “I will not be sick, I will not be sick.”

With Alex on one side and Christa on the other, Helena was half carried to the campsite and helped into a chair. She leanedback, covering her face with her hands, trying to blot out the whirling world.

“I’ll make some hot coffee,” Arthur said.

“Good idea.” Alex knelt in front of Helena’s chair. “Sorry, H. H., I should have been there quicker. I didn’t see what was going on until he already had you.”

Helena took her hands away from her face. Alex’s expression of regret and disappointment in himself gave her something to focus on. “You stopped him. That’s all that matters.”

He gave her a lopsided smile. “I shouldn’t have let you drink all that rum, either. But it’s sort of a rite of passage within the PFC.” He sighed. “Bad timing all around, I’d say.”

Anger flared within her spinning brain. “A rite of passage? You let me get smashed on purpose, just to pass some stupid pirate test?” She sat up. Alex and the camp yawed and dipped. “You know what? I’m sick of pirates. I’m sick of playing dress up, and I’m really sick of using a privy.”

Alex stood. When he spoke his voice was flat. “I said I was sorry. I am. But until the ferry comes, you’re just as stuck on this island as Tibbits.”

“Don’t mention the name of that disgusting slob,” she said, wishing she could take a nice hot shower and curl up in her own soft, safe bed.

“Here, maybe this will help.” Arthur put a mug of steaming coffee in her hands, closing her fingers gently around it. “It’s not scalding, so go ahead, take a few sips.”

Helena stared at the mug, then carefully brought it to her lips. It smelled like civilization. She sipped. It tasted wonderful and coursed through her system like antifreeze.

“Better?” Arthur asked, smiling.

“Better,” Helena said, eyes closed, breathing in the scent of Colombian roast. When she opened her eyes again, Arthur was no longer in front of her—nor was Alex. She looked around, but didn’t see him. Christa and Julia sat in chairs some distance away, their expressions guarded. Bill and Don talked quietly, coffee mugs cradled within laced fingers. No one met her eyes. With one outburst, she’d destroyed the camaraderie between herself and the others. They might understand her anger over Tibbits’ groping attack, but not an attack on Alex. She closed her eyes again, sipped her coffee, and for the first time wished she’d stayed in Boca and let Alex play pirate without her.

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CHAPTER NINETEEN

September 19

Artesian spring, San Cristobal Island

Gray Dog had been lucky. He’d explored the summit of the island without meeting anyone. He’d learned the lava was riddled with hot, dusty paths, and that he had no idea which path was the right one. He’d also seen fissures and piles of rock, but no indication they had treasure hidden within or under them. He kept trying to envision Renaldo’s map, and where the place had been marked. He could only remember it was toward the north of the summit, but he’d walked those paths all afternoon and found nothing.

Several times he’d paused in his searching and looked down on the colonists. They had gathered at the large shelter again, taking turns parading in front of three others sitting at a wooden table and bench. It reminded him of a slave market, but he saw no money being exchanged, and none of the merchandise was stripped down so you could see what you were buying. Just one more bit of strange behavior he didn’t understand.

By late afternoon, hungry and thirsty, he’d returned to the spring. Rather than return to La Perla, he decided to stay on the big island to await darkness. He needed to steal more food before heading back to his hiding place.

He crept to the ridge, lay on the warm stone, and watched the goings on below. He thought he could smell spices on the breeze, which made his mouth water. As the sky deepened from azure to indigo, and the sun blazed the clouds orange and pink before slipping into a calm sea, Gray Dog heard the rasping music of a fiddle, then drums. A bonfire was lighted and the colonists sat around it eating and drinking. When the dancing started, he was envious, remembering the last reel he had cavorted to, in the company of a toothsome Madagascar beauty who drank him under the table. He inched closer, deciding that while the colonists were distracted, this would be the best time to steal more food.

Careful to stay under the trees, Gray Dog circled the camp, looking for another crate. With dismay, he realized most of them had disappeared, hidden no doubt, now the colonists knew he was here. Damn and blast. He had to have food.

He scuttled closer, looking for anything edible. Music, laughter and clapping filled the night with merriment while he went about his task. Some of the tunes he knew, but others were strange to him. It wasn’t until he’d gone halfway around the encampment that he discovered a crate close enough for him to grab. He scooted in and attempted to heft the thing to his shoulders. It weighed more than he’d anticipated. He couldn’t pick it up. Cursing, and glancing toward the bonfire, he dragged the chest into the trees.

Back in the safety of darkness, he opened the crate and was dismayed to find it full of metal canisters, held together in groups by some kind of flat, clear flexible rope. He pulled a manacled group out, trying to figure how to open one of them. But for a small flat ring, both ends of the canisters looked to be the same. He shook them. One slipped from its noose, but the canister he held dented under his grip into an hourglass. The metal was flimsy as tin. Quickly he slipped his knife from his belt, and with a quick jab, punctured the canister to see what was inside.

Liquid spurted out like a hissing snake, much like the syrup bottle. He put his mouth over the geyser and was surprised to taste something like weak ale. Well, this was a fine thing, he mused, tinned ale. He removed three more groups of roped canisters, unbuckled the belt he’d stolen from the colonist, and strung the canisters on it. Smiling, he pulled the rest of the canisters out of the chest, hoping to find food under them, but there were only a half dozen frozen bricks.

He abandoned that crate and went looking for another, the canisters bobbing against his hip. What he eventually found was a basket full of grain boxes, paper tubes of crackers, a small bunch of bananas, and a slick bag that, when ripped open, contained sugared dates. He decided to take the whole basket.

As he made his way back toward the spring, he chuckled, thinking how he must look—like some old grannie just come from Market Street. He had reached the far side of the water tower when, over the music, he heard screaming. He turned quickly, thinking someone had spotted him, but the crowd was intent on a heavy set man with his arms wrapped around some floozie. Gray Dog moved a safer distance away from the crowd, then paused to watch. By that time the woman was trying to scratch the man’s face. Then another man rushed up and hit the big man in the nose. Gray Dog liked a good fight, especially one he wasn’t involved in, so lingered to see what the big man would do. To his amazement he did nothing, other than fling curses. What sort of lily-livered sod was he, to let a punch like that go unanswered?

Gray Dog noticed the big man wasn’t dressed like the others. He wore an odd cut of shirt and loose pants. His shoes were black and heavy, with thick soles. Hooked through one side of his belt was a heavy cudgel. On the other side was a rectangular black satchel with a sort of thick black finger sticking up from the top. He wondered if it was some kind of weapon. It was apparent the colonists didn’t like the big man, for they surrounded him like a pack of jackals, even the women joining their men. Curious, Gray Dog crept a little closer.

Apparently the floozie belonged to the blond haired man, for, after she landed a smack on the big man’s cheek, she was pulled away and Blond Hair stepped between them. Why didn’t the big man use that fine club on his belt? Then Gray Dog saw the rapier on the blond’s belt, and the little knob on the point. What the hell? What good was a rapier with a practice knob on the end? He shook his head. What kind of man carries a useless weapon?

He noticed many of the onlookers had weapons at their side, but no one made a move to use them. Why? They could turn the big man into a sieve if they wanted. Was this a lunatic colony after all, and the big man a guard? He was wearing something that vaguely resembled a uniform. He better call for reinforcements, Gray Dog thought, ‘cause he was surely outnumbered.

Then Blond Hair said something, and everyone laughed. Gray Dog watched in amazement as the big man, after more cursing, retreated. The crowd began to disperse. Suddenly remembering how close he was, Gray Dog jogged into the trees, heading back to the spring.

When he reached it, he set the basket down, cupped his hands, and drank. He used his knife to puncture a hole in another of the ale canisters, dug the crackers out of the basket, and leaned back against a palm to enjoy his little feast. When finished, he must have dozed off, because he woke with a start. Not knowing how long he’d lain there, he quickly got up, slung the basket over his arm again, and turned toward the path to the isthmus.

“Hold it right there.” The big man stood blocking his way, his voice muffled and nasal. In the moonlight, Gray Dog could see the man’s nose was swollen and crusted with blood. In his right hand was the shiny black club. “Having a little picnic, are we?”

Gray Dog froze, inwardly cursing he’d been so stupid as to fall asleep, so hadn’t heard the man approach. This was no bumbling drunk he could knock over the head. The look in the man’s eyes was murderous. Carefully, he set down the basket and took hold of his knife.

“You’re a pretty old fart to be playing at pirates and stealing food.” The man moved closer, slapping the end of the cudgel in his left palm. Then he pointed it at the knife Gray Dog held, and a sly smile twisted his mouth. “And that little item is against island rules. Hand it over, along with the rest of that stuff, and come with me, or I’ll knock that filthy head off your shoulders.”

The man had that air of smug authority Gray Dog had detested all his life—stripe after stripe, beating after beating. Men who thought they were better or smarter than everyone else. Men who, given a uniform and a weapon, used them to bully and punish those weaker or beneath their rank. It was an attitude he’d lived under ship after ship until Renaldo had taken the Galliard. At least pirates had a say in how things were run on board, and no man was punished without due cause. This man, and all like him, were one of the reasons Gray Dog craved Renaldo’s stash. And he’d sink to Davey Jones before he surrendered to that life again.

“I’ll not be going anywhere with you, mate.” Gray Dog crouched, ready to spring if the man attacked him. “A man’s got to eat, and you colonists seem to have plenty, so I’ll be keeping the basket.”

“You don’t get it, do you? Your little game is over. Either you come with me, or I’ll whack this club upside your stupid head.” The man stepped closer, waiting for Gray Dog to give him an excuse to bash his brains in.

Gray Dog almost laughed. Big though the man might be, the lowest of pirate scum would be more dangerous than this fat-bellied drunk. Did the man really think that fancy cudgel would scare him? “Well, you can try. But I’m thinking anyone as slewed to the gills as you be, and who lets a gang of lunatics get the better of him, is not much of a threat to me.”

The big man’s eyes blazed in a face contorted with rage, and he raised the cudgel. “Fucking asshole.”

Before the cudgel could make contact, Gray Dog, with a vicious growl, sprang aside. With a quick thrust, he shoved the blade of his knife between the man’s ribs. Before the man could hit the ground, Gray Dog jerked the knife out and stabbed him again, and again, burying the blade to its hilt. With a slight gurgling noise, the man collapsed at Gray Dog’s feet. “Good riddance, swine,” he snarled.

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Glancing quickly about to make sure no one had witnessed the encounter, Gray Dog picked up the cudgel and stuck it through his belt. He knelt down and searched the man’s pockets. In the one over his breast, he was shocked to discover a mirror-mask like the ones worn by the demon-boat people. He flung it away, as if contact with it burned his fingers. In other pockets he found coins of a denomination he didn’t recognize. Also, a small comb, and a leather folding envelope filled with rectangles of paper, and stiff little wafers with strange writing and letters on them. He kept the comb and tossed the useless envelope into the shrubs.

Then he examined the leather satchel on the man’s belt. It encased a strange box with a narrow window at the top, and adorned on the front with tiny buttons. The thick finger protruding through the top was attached to the box within. Gray Dog unbuckled the man’s belt and removed the leather case. He fumbled with it, trying to figure out what it was for. It felt heavy, but when he shook it, nothing rattled inside, so it wasn’t some kind of personal coin chest. He turned it over and over, totally baffled. He was about to set it down when he brushed one of the buttons on the bottom. Suddenly a sickly green glow emanated from the little window, and the buttons lit up. At the same instant, a loud bleat erupted from it. With a horrified yelp, Gray Dog tossed the demon box into the spring.

Working quicker, he removed the man’s heavy shoes, added them to the basket, readjusted the ale canisters and the cudgel, then bolted for the beach. The water was knee-deep on the isthmus. He splashed across and returned to his little campsite.

He tried on the black shoes first, and was gratified to discover they fit. When he stood and walked around, the shoes felt heavy and awkward, but would be much better for tramping around the island than his long worn-out buckle shoes. He sat on the sand, removed the shoes, then walked to the beach to clean his knife and wash the blood from his arm.

He knew the colonists would be out searching for him in earnest once the big man’s body was found. He wasn’t too concerned, because they seemed nonviolent to the point of stupidity. Other than the blond-haired man and his doxy, not one of the colonists had shown any signs of hostility. If they’d been a religious colony, he could understand it, but these people flew the Jolly Roger, the very symbol of violent death. He shook his head, once again totally confused by the colonists and the strange things he’d encountered since waking from the hell-fog.

When he returned to his campsite he opened three more of the canisters, and although the ale tasted weak as water, he drank it down with gusto. He then ate most of the remaining crackers and half the dates. Before falling asleep, he decided it was useless to keep taxing his brain trying to figure out what he couldn’t explain. He would prey on the weak colonists like a fox preys on a flock of chickens, find Renaldo’s treasure, and leave San Cristobal a rich man.

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CHAPTER TWENTY

September 20

Boca camp, San Cristobal Island

Helena woke as she’d gone to bed, alone. A heavy-metal drummer beat a demented solo within her head, while purple and amber dots glittered painfully across her eyes. When she tried to sit up, the drumming escalated to pyrotechnics exploding like Fourth of July rockets. Her rum-embalmed stomach rolled and pitched. If I live, if anyone mentions the word pirate to me, I’ll kill them with my bare hands.

She struggled to get out of the sleeping bag, only then realizing she’d gone to bed still wearing the green hussy dress. Its heavy skirts were twisted around her legs. The tight-laced bodice pressed against her ribs. All the panic she’d felt before returned. She struggled, she tore at the laces in the bodice, gasping for breath, fighting the urge to be sick.

Half crawling, half pulling herself to the tent opening, she pushed the flap aside and flopped out onto the sand, gulping fresh air, dragging the weight of the skirts behind her. She rolled and lay face up, one arm over her eyes, willing her heart to stop pounding, her stomach to stop bucking.

“Helena, are you okay?” Christa’s voice penetrated through the war being waged within Helena’s head.

She didn’t answer. She didn’t want to talk or move. She wanted the world to go away or she wanted to die, whichever act stopped the pain knifing through her brain.

“Give her some of this,” Arthur said.

Someone helped Helena sit up. With eyes still shut tight, she smelled the coffee held under her nose. Her stomach recoiled and she suppressed a gag.

“Put this in front of her, quick,” she heard Bill command.

Something was set in her lap. Just in time, as most of the rum and coffee she’d drunk the previous night rushed violently back out.

“I told Alex this would happen,” Bill said.

“Now’s not the time,” Arthur commented. “Best get it all out, Helena. You’ll feel better.”

Taking a heaving breath, Helena managed to snap, “Like I have much choice?” Then retched into the bowl again.

“I’ll get a damp towel.” Christa rose from her place at Helena’s side.

“Think you can get any of this down yet?” Arthur held out the cup of coffee again.

With trembling fingers, Helena took it, then held it with both hands, feeling the comforting warmth seep into her palms. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure. I’ve been there myself. You may wish you could die, but I promise, you’ll feel better soon. Especially now that most of the ... eh ... problem is out of your stomach.”

Helena took a tentative sip of the coffee. Her teeth and tongue felt furry as a mohair sweater, but the coffee took away the taste of bile. She took another sip, and was relieved when both stayed down. Then she looked at the bowl in her lap. “Oh, God.”

Five minutes later, the bowl gone, a fresh cup of coffee in her hands, and Christa wiping her face with a warm damp towel, Helena thought she might live. With revival, came remembrance of her outburst the previous night.

She took another swallow of coffee then faced the three still sitting on the sand in front of her. “I’m sorry for what I said last night. I ... I won’t say I didn’t mean it at the time, but I’m sorry anyway.”

“You were drunk. People say all sorts of things when they’re drunk.” Arthur smiled at her, his pale blue eyes holding no hint of lingering resentment.

“Alex should never have let you drink so much. I told him this would happen,” Bill said.

Helena offered him a weak smile. “I’m a big girl, I can make my own decisions. I can also take the blame. Alex didn’t force the rum down my throat.”

“Well,” Bill frowned, “he could have at least warned you about the aftereffects.”

“I think he did. I just didn’t listen.” Helena looked around the camp.

Reading the question in her eyes, Christa said, “Alex isn’t here. He,” she looked suddenly sheepish, “he didn’t stay in camp last night.”

Helena took in a slow breath, let it out, then asked, “Where did he go?”

“I don’t know.”

Bill said, “I don’t know where he is either, but before he left he told Arthur and me to keep an eye on you, in case Tibbits had any more nasty ideas.”

“I suppose I should be grateful Alex bothered.” Helena attempted a smile. “I hope you two didn’t stay awake all night playing guard dogs.”

“It wasn’t so bad. We took turns, and were glad to do it.”

Arthur stood, brushing sand from his pants. He held out a hand to her. “Come on. Let me help you up.”

Helena took the offered hand, let Arthur pull her gently to her feet. “Thanks. All of you.”

“I’ve got some eggs ready to scramble.” Arthur said. “Why don’t you get changed, and I’ll have a bit of breakfast waiting for you. I’ll brew up more coffee.” He pointed to an old fashioned perk coffee pot set on the propane stove.

Bill and Christa stood as well. Christa offered, “If you want, I’ll help you get out of that dress.”

Helena nodded, and the two women returned to the tent.

An hour later, wearing fresh clothes, and having eaten a few spoonfuls of scrambled egg, Helena felt almost human. Two more cups of coffee had helped. Don and Julia, also sipping coffee, sat at the folding table. Arthur was cleaning up the egg pan with hot water from a pot on the stove, and Bill and Christa had taken bags of trash to the large dumpster next to the pier. All obviously trying to avoid discussing the fact that Alex hadn’t returned and no one seemed to know where he’d gone. Helena was more concerned about where he’d slept.

As Bill and Christa returned from the trash trip, someone started shouting from the other side of the encampment. All of the Boca group turned heads, wondering what the commotion was. Eamon came rushing into their camp.

“Where’s Alex?” Eamon demanded, looking at Helena.

Helena’s head started to throb again. “He wasn’t here last night. We haven’t seen him yet this morning. What’s going on?”

Eamon's eyes were pools of darkness, his face pale. “We need to find him, fast.”

Bill, his mouth set, asked, “What’s Tibbits done this time?”

Eamon only shook his head. “Find Alex. This is major.”

Helena’s fragile stomach rolled. “What’s happened?”

“Eamon, tell us,” Christa stepped toward him, her voice tinged with fright. “What’s happened?”

“I’m going to find Sandy. You guys find Alex. Tell him to meet us up at the spring.” He turned fierce eyes on Christa. “And you stay here. Don’t follow us.”

“Eamon?” Christa cried.

But he was already racing toward the first-aid cabana.

“Oh, God. Someone must be badly hurt.” Helena met the frightened expressions of the others. “Where would Alex have gone last night?”

Bill looked at the ground. “He was angry and he was drunk. Who knows?”

“Drunk?” Helena asked. “I thought I was the only one drunk.”

“You were, until...” Bill shrugged.

“Until I yelled at him,” Helena said, the guilt creeping back.

“Forget all that for now.” Julia interrupted. “Let’s get busy. Split up. Just find him. We can point fingers of blame later.” She pushed past them and jogged to the next encampment.

“Right.” Helena, ignoring the headache pounding behind her eyes, ran toward the Bilge Rat. Christa, breaking Eamon’s order to stay in camp, followed her.

When they reached the cabana, Eamon, with Alex and Sandy racing at his side, joined them. Alex’s bloodshot eyes and expression of cold fury made Helena shiver. Sandy had the first aid kit tucked under one arm, a medic’s aura of efficiency in place.

Alex turned to Helena, his voice harsh. “Stay here. Keep Christa with you. Don’t let anyone up to the spring until I say so.”

“Like hell, Alex,” she shot back. “Where were you? What’s happened? Who’s been hurt? Its not one of the children, is it?”

Eamon and Sandy passed them, running up the path to the spring.

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Bill and Don rushed up. Alex turned to them. “Bill, come with me. Don, go to the water tower. Don’t let anyone take the path to the spring.” Alex faced Helena. “I stayed with Sandy last night. I was still there when Eamon came to get him. Right now I would rather you went back to our camp, but if you insist on coming with me, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“Warn me about what?” She ran after him, trying to keep up. He didn’t answer, just charged up the path. She could hear Bill hot on their heels.

The path was steep, and it twisted between palms, shrubs and clumps of sawgrass. When the palms thinned out, the ground changed from sandy loam to volcanic rock, already shimmering in the heat. By the time Helena reached the artesian spring, her breath rasped from her lungs and her thin blouse clung to her sweat-soaked body. What she saw halted her in her tracks.

Helena would always remember that split second in time by the sound of flies. Tibbits lay sprawled across the path. Thick black stains spread across his chest and down his side. Flies crawled on him, and swarmed in a dark cloud around him. Birds had been at his eyes.

“Mother of God!” Bill said, as he stopped abruptly next to her.

Sandy knelt over the grisly figure. Donning latex gloves, he carefully unbuttoned three buttons of Tibbits’ shirt and lifted the material so he could look at the skin beneath. Then he just as carefully buttoned them. He turned to Alex. “He’s been stabbed. At least twice, maybe three times.”

Helena’s heart lurched. “Stabbed?”

“Who found him?” Alex asked.

“I did.” Eamon said. “I was just exploring a bit. Thought this place would be a fine spot to bring Christa for a nice private picnic. Then I saw—that.” He pointed to the body.

Alex rubbed a hand over his face, then looked at Bill. “What do we need to do?”

Bill’s face went blank. “Do?”

Sandy stood and barked out, “Come on, Bill. You’re the lawyer. This is a crime scene. What the hell do we do to preserve any evidence? We can’t leave him out here, so it needs to be done fast. With this heat and humidity, in twenty-four hours he’ll be jelly.”

Stifling a gag, Helena said, “Camera. Has anyone got a camera?”

Bill came out of his daze. “Hell, I’m a corporate lawyer, not criminal. I don’t know anything about crime scenes. But I do have a camera. Back at camp.”

Helena looked at Alex. “Then, no one touches anything until Bill gets back here with his camera and takes pictures.”

Bill nodded, then bolted back down the path.

Alex looked around. “Shit. We’ve probably already trashed any footprints.”

Eamon, his face still pale, said, “Look at his belt.”

“Oh no, oh no, no no.” Helena cried, panic griping her insides like a vice. “The satellite phone. Where is the satellite phone?”

“His billy club is gone, as well as his shoes,” Sandy observed. “First Flash’s boots, now Tibbits’ shoes. What’s with this guy, he got a shoe fetish?”

“We need to find that satellite phone,” Alex said. “If we’re lucky, Tibbits left it in the cabin. Sandy, you stay with the body. Eamon, stay with Sandy. Look around, see if whoever did this left any traces. If you find anything, mark the spot so Bill can take a photo.”

Eamon nodded, then said, “You know what this means, don’t you?”

Helena knew what he was going to say. She turned to Alex, saw his eyes go hard as flint.

“Yeah, I know what it means. One of us is a murderer.” He turned and headed back down the path.

Helena followed, her heart aching for him, wondering who in the group was capable of such brutality.

By the time they reached Tibbits’ cabin, the whole camp was buzzing with rumors. Several frantic women asked Alex if it was true, that someone had died? Alex calmly told them not to worry, and that he would explain everything as soon as possible. That didn’t satisfy all of them. Many refused to leave until they were told what was going on.

Alex, clearly losing what little patience he had left, snapped, “When I have time to tell you, I will. Now please, go back to your camps and don’t go up to the spring until I give the okay.”

Reluctantly, they departed, but their expressions told Helena they were beginning to lose their trust in Alex. She wondered how they would feel when the truth finally came out.

Approaching the front of the little cabin, Alex tried the door. It was locked.

“What’s going on, Alex?” Arthur jogged up to them. “A minute ago, Bill tore out of camp like a maniac. People are saying someone’s been hurt.”

Ignoring Arthur’s question, Alex ordered, “Let’s get this door open.”

“Wait,” Helena stopped both men. “Before you break your shoulders, why not try the window?”

Alex took a deep breath. “Right.”

The window was locked. Alex removed his rapier and with a quick punch of the hilt, smashed one of the panes of glass. Knocking away the fragments, he reached in, flipped the catch, and opened the window. He crawled through, the broken glass crunching under his feet. Moments later the door opened, and Helena and Arthur stepped into the room.

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The rank odor of sweaty clothes and unwashed body made Helena’s fragile stomach roil. Crusty paper plates littered a small metal table. A thermos, its top off, stood next to a grimy white coffee cup. Against the far wall was a cot, unmade, the sheets rumpled, a blanket trailing half on the floor. Next to the cot was a brown heap of soiled clothing. Beer bottles lay around the floor like fallen bowling pins.

What had all three of them frozen in place and staring were the magazines. About a dozen of them, strewn over the bed, and spilling out of the black duffle Helena had seen Tibbits carry off the ferry. Magazines with lurid covers depicting naked men and women performing various sex acts. Some of the couples wore studded collars, others were elaborately bound and blindfolded. From every visible page, bodies writhed, tongues licked, sexual organs glistened.

Helena covered her mouth with both hands, as bile rose in her throat. The thought of Tibbits, sequestered in this filthy room, pawing over pictures, drinking and fantasizing, then joining the crowd at the Bilge Rat made her skin crawl. That he had come from this room and then touched her, with these images coiling through his mind, made her tremble with revulsion.

Next to her, Arthur sucked in a breath. “My God, the man was a pervert.”

Alex let out an oath, then visibly collected himself and asked Helena, “Do you see it anywhere?”

“No,” she whispered. “And I’m not touching anything in this room to try and find it.”

“Find what?” Arthur asked, obviously confused and alarmed.

Helena, forcing herself to look more closely at Tibbits’ living quarters, replied, “The satellite phone.”

“Doesn’t Tibbits have it?” Arthur looked from Alex to Helena. “What’s going on? Why have we just broken in to his cabin?”

Helena put a hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “Tibbits is dead. The satellite phone is missing.”

“Dead?”

“Yes,” Alex said. “Up by the spring.”

“How? Was there an accident?”

Alex turned to the confused man, his voice gentle. “No, not an accident. He was stabbed.”

“Stabbed?” Arthur’s pale blue eyes widened. “I don’t understand. The rules stated no one was allowed to carry sharp weapons, other than for eating or display. How could he have been stabbed?”

“Obviously, someone isn’t playing by the rules,” Helena murmured, looking at Alex.

Alex met her gaze, then turned his attention to the squalid room. “Come on, let’s see if we can find that damned phone.” He crossed to the cot, and with the blunted end of his rapier prodded the pile of clothes on the floor, then pulled back the blanket on the bed. There was nothing but the disgusting magazines.

Helena picked her way among the beer bottles, letting her eyes wander around the room, while Arthur inspected the clothes duffle. He even opened a large ice chest, but it contained only prepackaged meals, more beer, and a half empty bottle of vodka.

“Nothing,” Helena said when their search was completed. “Which means he must have had it on him when he was killed.”

“Whoever killed him must have taken it,” Alex said, as he opened the cabin door.

Arthur shook his head. “I can’t believe one of us would do such a thing. I mean, why? Yeah, Tibbits was an obnoxious ass, but you don’t murder people because of that.”

The three stepped into the bright sunlight. Helena breathed deeply of the clean, fresh air. She only wished it could wipe away the images of what she’d seen in the last hour, as easily as it replaced the fetid smell of the cabin. She looked around the encampment and saw they were being watched. Though they stayed at a distance, it was clear the group wanted answers, and were resentful at being kept in the dark.

As if he’d read her thoughts, Arthur asked, “What do we tell them?”

“Nothing, for the moment,” Alex answered. “Not until Sandy and Bill have finished with Tibbits and moved the body.”

Remembering Sandy’s comment about the effects of heat and humidity, Helena asked, “What will they do with him? There’s no place we can lay him that would stay cool enough to prevent ... well, you know.”

Alex shook his head. “That will be up to Sandy. Personally, I don’t much care what happens to Tibbits. I’m more concerned with finding the satellite phone. Without it, we’re all stuck on this island with a murderer until the twenty-third.”

The full implications of his statement flooded Helena’s brain, threatening to rip away her tenuous grip on her fears. Who among them was a killer? Bill and the others who had searched the island the previous day had reported seeing no one. Although they hadn’t searched La Perla, those with binoculars hadn’t seen anything there either. Which left someone within the PFC. She shivered, despite the tropical warmth, as the feeling of being trapped returned. Only this time it wasn’t just a feeling. Without the satellite phone, they were all trapped.

“I’m going back to the spring. Maybe you two should go back to camp. There’s nothing you can do up there.” Alex looked pointedly at Helena.

“I’ve already seen him,” she said. I’m not likely to lose my breakfast over it now. I’ll go with you.”

Arthur took a deep breath, then blew it out slowly. “I’ll stay. I don’t mind admitting I have no desire to see a dead body. What do you need me to do while you’re taking care of things?”

“Just keep everyone reassured, if that’s possible. Don’s up by the water tower, preventing people from climbing to the spring. You can keep him company, if you want.”

“I think Christa’s with him as well,” Helena added.

Arthur gave Alex a curt nod, then headed for the tower.

Alex turned toward Helena. “You don’t have to go back with me. There’s no point in subjecting yourself to that again.” He gave her a guarded look. “If there was a way for me to get you off this island, I would.”

“Why? I’m not a baby. I don’t need to be shuffled off home, like some helpless damsel in distress.”

“Because you never wanted to come to San Cristobal in the first place. You said from the beginning it was an event ripe for disaster.”

Anger boiled within her, mixing with the fear. “And if I recall, you were the one who wanted the real experience. Well, as most pirates were thieving, murdering villains, I guess you got your wish.”

His eyes narrowed and she saw a muscle tighten in his jaw. “Maybe that fact will help make up for what you went through last night.”

She stared into his hard, closed face, not believing he could be so cruel. “You think I take some kind of satisfaction in Tibbits’ death? That I’m glad someone within the PFC is a killer, just so I can gloat? If you truly think I’m capable of something so despicable, then you can just go to hell, Alex Hunter.”

His expression never changed. “Funny, I feel like I’m already there.” He turned away and headed toward the spring.

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CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

September 20

Summit, San Cristobal Island

Sweat beaded his forehead and dripped from his nose as Gray Dog scrambled over the rough lava rocks of San Cristobal. He’d skirted the spring, avoiding the two men posted as guards over the body of the man he’d killed, and traversed the eastern shore of the island. From there he’d climbed to the rocky summit, his ears tuned to any sound that would alert him to danger. He’d spent the better part of the morning looking in fissures, pulling up rocks, investigating any formation that might lend itself to the hiding of gold. So far, all he’d accomplished for his efforts were bruised hands and bleeding fingers.

His new shoes weren’t helping. The black leather was hot, and since they weren’t exactly his size, they had rubbed blisters on his heels and on both his greater and lesser toes. He would have taken them off long ago and gone barefoot, had the rocks not been so hot. The shoes lay on the path in front of him like two dead beetles, as he pulled off the short hose he’d stolen from the boy he’d hit with the syrup bottle, and let his pounding feet cool in the breeze.

From his high promontory he could see crescent San Cristobal from horn to horn, the bay they embraced blue as a rare sapphire. The greens, blues, and tans of the odd tents clustered around the beach reminded Gray Dog of the barnacles and sea growths he’d scraped from many a careened ship. He wished he could get rid of these colonists in the same way—scrape them off the island and feed them to the gulls.

He prodded a quarter doubloon-sized blister on his right heel and winced, then pulled his knife from his belt and punctured the swelling. He did the same to his other blistered heel. As he started to put the knife back in his belt, he stopped, and for the first time, really looked at it. Had Renaldo not tossed it into the boat, Gray Dog’s punishment would have been much worse. The knife had been his only companion since he’d used it on Crow Legs. It had saved him from having to share what little water Renaldo had given them. The previous night, it had protected him from the big man and his club. As Gray Dog turned it over, admiring the heavy hilt and gleaming blade, he decided it was his good luck piece, better than any religious medal. As long as he had his knife, was able to defend himself, he was safe.

Gray Dog looked around. The sky was clear, with no cloud to mar its vastness. The sun, almost directly overhead, baked the dark rocks beneath his feet, and jeweled the froth of the incoming waves below in the bay. With a resigned sigh, he put his hose and the black shoes back on and carefully stood. No time to admire the view, he thought. Plenty of time for that after I’m a rich man, with nothing better to do.

It was the dream that kept him going. The vision of sitting in a fine cushioned chair, a plump, sweet-smelling whore on his lap, and the most expensive rum filling his cup. The feeling of exhilaration he would get from strolling into his favorite tavern and buying drinks for all his friends, impressing them with his heavy purse and generosity. He’d have fine clothes, a soft bed and more food than he could eat in a lifetime. That’s what Renaldo’s gold would buy him, the life of a lord, and he meant to have that life or die.

Once again he tried to remember Renaldo’s map. It had been a crude drawing, showing few landmarks other than the spring and the place where the treasure was hidden. There had also been a drawing of a ship in the bay so, presumably, that’s where Renaldo anchored the Vautour. If he came ashore on the beach, what path would he have taken to the summit? From where he stood, Gray Dog could see a half dozen paths leading from the beach. Most of them he’d already walked, at least as far as the palm grove. What was he missing? What would Renaldo have used to mark the place?

He ran a rough hand over his face, wiping away the sweat that stung his eyes, then looked down at the colony. It was unusually quiet, with few people out wandering the island. He grinned. Put the fear of God in them, I ‘spect. Good. It will keep them out of my hair for awhile. Although, he did wish he could get his hands on one of those young boys. If there were clues to the whereabouts of Renaldo’s gold, he wanted to know what they were. He supposed, now the colonists knew they weren’t alone on the island, it wouldn’t make much difference if he snatched one of the lads and pricked the information out of him with his good luck piece.

With another wince as the blisters on his heels tore, he set off down one of the narrow paths, his eyes scanning every rock and scrawny shrub, looking for a mark or some indication that men had been here before him, going about their secret business.

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CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

September 20

Artesian Spring, San Cristobal Island

When Helena reached the spring for the second time, she was grateful to see someone had draped a shirt over Tibbits’ face. Unfortunately, the shirt wasn’t long enough to cover the dark, crusted blood on his clothes, or drive away the thousands of flies. Sandy stood to one side of the body watching Bill take a picture of something by the spring. A shirtless Eamon was stationed on the path, apparently to prevent anyone getting closer to the body if they managed to get past Don and Christa on guard at the water tower.

Alex went directly to Sandy, whose expression was grim. “Did you happen to find the satellite phone? It’s not in Tibbits’ cabin. We looked.”

Sandy nodded toward Bill, who was crouched down and still taking pictures. “Unfortunately, we did. Not that it’s going to do us much good.”

Helena’s heart sank. “What do you mean?”

Bill stood and gestured for them to join him. When they did, he pointed to the spring, its clear water gurgling cheerfully over and between the black volcanic stones of its bed.

“Shit,” Alex said.

“My sentiments exactly,” Bill replied, putting the camera back in its case.

Helena closed her eyes, not wanting to believe what she’d seen. Wedged between two rocks, about a foot underwater, was the satellite phone. She opened her eyes and whispered, “Now what do we do?”

Alex shot her a fierce glare. “There’s nothing we can do until the ferry gets here. We’re on our own for the next three days.” Then he looked at Bill. “Let’s pull the thing out of the water and test it, just to be sure.”

Bill shrugged, pushed up his sleeve, then bent down and retrieved the dripping satellite phone, still in its waterlogged leather case. He punched a few buttons, but nothing happened.

Helena sighed. “Well, it was worth a try.”

“Is there a chance, once it dries out, that it might work?” Alex took the phone from Bill and looked at it.

“I doubt it, but I’ll ask around, see if anyone is familiar with electronics.” Bill said.

Alex handed the phone, still dripping water from its complicated innards, back to Bill.

“The satellite phone isn’t all we found. Whoever killed Tibbits went through his pockets and took whatever loose change he might have had, but tossed away a wallet stuffed with credit cards, and two twenties.” Bill gestured toward a stick that had been pushed into the ground to mark the spot. “We found it over there. I got a picture of it, then Sandy wrapped it in one of his spare latex gloves.”

Eamon approached, his bare chest tanned and lean with muscle. His physique reminded Helena of a gymnast rather than a body builder. His face had regained some of its color, but his eyes retained the spark of fear she’d seen in them earlier that morning. He looked to Alex. “We may not be alone, as we thought yesterday. I found tracks leading away from the spring and heading for La Perla. I also found where a boat may have been pulled up on shore. There’s no boat there now, but the tracks from La Perla are more than just one day’s worth. It looks as if someone has gone back and forth many times.”

Helena and Alex turned toward the islet. It looked innocent, a tiny jewel of green palms and gleaming sand. Was it hiding drug runners after all? Had they stumbled onto some trysting place where drugs changed hands? Had Tibbits accidentally interrupted a transaction, and been killed for his stupidity? Better that, she thought, than to think one of the PFCers had killed him.

Yet, as Alex had pointed out before, why would drug dealers steal food and clothing? Why would they remove their victim’s shoes? Was it their trademark warning, like serial killers who left notes or signature marks on their victims, as part of the ritual of the kill? Goose flesh rose on her arms, and she shivered.

Alex turned back to Sandy. “Have you decided what to do with the body?”

“Only thing we can do is find something to wrap him in and then bury him. Otherwise, he’ll be pretty messy by the time the ferry gets here.” Sandy looked at Tibbits, then back at Alex. “You realize, as soon as the ferry does get here, we’re going to have to call the police. They’re going to ask a lot of questions.”

“They’ll think one of us killed him,” Helena said, the sick sensation returning to her stomach.

“I hate to bring this up,” Bill said, “but everyone at the Bilge Rat heard both you and Alex threaten to kill him.” He held up his hands before either of them could protest. “I’m not for one minute implying I think you did kill him, I’m just pointing out what the police are going to hear, and warning you to be prepared.”

“What about the tracks Eamon found?” Helena asked. “Don’t they prove we’re not alone here, that someone else killed him?”

Bill shrugged. “The tracks could be anybody’s. Unless we catch someone, there’s no way to prove they aren’t Alex’s or yours.”

Helena cursed silently, then said, “God, even dead, that man is still causing us trouble.”

Alex looked at the body. “Then we better get busy trying to find out who really killed him.” He said to Sandy, “I’ll send someone with something to wrap him in. Then I’m going to assemble everyone at the pub and tell them what’s happened.” He glanced over to Eamon. “Can you organize a crew to dig a grave?”

“It doesn’t have to be deep,” Sandy interjected, “just enough to cover him. And make sure it’s above the high tide mark.”

“Right.” Eamon nodded.

Before he could started down the path to the camp, Alex added, “Eamon, keep it quiet. Pick some guys from your Merry Death crew. I don’t want to start a panic.”

Eamon nodded again, and left.

Bill, the satellite phone tucked under his arm, said,“I’m through taking pictures. What do you need me to do?”

Alex scrubbed a hand over his face. “Sandy needs help getting the body down the hill. Find Don and a few others and meet back here. Don’t recruit Arthur. He’s already made it plain he doesn’t want anything to do with a dead body.”

“What about Eamon’s discovery? Should some of us search La Perla, see if anyone is still there?” Bill looked over at the islet, his expression unreadable.

Alex shook his head. “We’ll take care of Tibbits first, then let the rest of the PFCers in on what’s happened. Then we’ll decide.”

Bill nodded, and set off down the path.

Sandy came up to Alex and put one hand on his shoulder. “Things might get pretty ugly. You’re going to have forty frightened, angry people on your hands, especially when they find out the satellite phone has been destroyed.”

Alex gave him a sardonic smile. “Now I know how the captain of a sinking ship must feel.”

Helena, her anger at Alex’s harsh accusations gone, took one of his hands. “Your ship isn’t sinking, its just run into some rough seas. You have friends who will do all they can to make sure she stays afloat.”

“She’s right, Alex. This ship doesn’t go down without a fight. We’ve got three days to find the killer, assuming he’s still on the island. If we don’t find anyone, then the police will deal with the case. No matter what happens, you can’t blame yourself.”

The word case struck Helena as sounding strange and out of place. How could an event that promised a week of fun on an idyllic tropical island turn out to be such a disaster? Amid palm trees and cerulean seas, inviting as any travel poster, they were suddenly involved in a murder case. It seemed impossible, yet not ten yards away from her was the body of Charlie Tibbits, covered in blood, as incontrovertible proof. Whatever arguments she and Alex might have had, they were meaningless when compared to murder. He needed her support, and she would give it with her whole heart.

Alex seemed to feel the same. He smiled, gave her hand a little shake, then said, “Come on, H. H., let’s see what we can do to quiet the storm.”

On their way back, just before they reached the water tower, they met Julia coming up. Her expression was one of concern. “Bill told me what’s happened. Anything I can do?”

Alex shook his head. “No, Sandy is handling what’s left of Tibbits. What’s the mood in camp?”

“Quiet. No one has told them anything, but because of that, they know it’s got to be something pretty bad.” Julia gave Alex a look. “By the way, where were you this morning? I spent twenty useless minutes searching for you, before Bill jetted into camp looking for his camera and told me what had happened.”

“Sorry. I stayed with Sandy last night,” Alex replied.

Julia glanced at Helena, but didn’t comment, merely fell in step with them and returned to camp.

* * *

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Helena and Alex stood on one of the picnic tables at the Bilge Rat, facing a crowd of sullen, silent PFCers. Alex had explained the situation to them, and it was brought graphically home by the burial of Tibbits’ tarp-wrapped body. Eamon and his crew had just finished filling in the grave, which was situated just outside the camp.

Alex addressed the group in a steady voice, trying to keep everyone calm. “Eamon found evidence that we may not be alone on San Cristobal. It looks as if someone has been crossing from La Perla, maybe for several days. I’ll take a group over and see what we can find. In the meantime, no one goes anywhere on the island alone. In fact, I strongly advise you all to stay close to camp. We don’t know who or what we’re dealing with, and we’re out of communication with the mainland.”

“Someone should have been smart enough to bring a backup phone.” Flash, his head still bandaged, glared at Alex.

“It’s a little late for that,” Matilda snapped.

“I agree, we should have had some kind of backup system, but we don’t.” Alex met Flash’s angry stare. “One of the crew of the Spotted Dick Tavern is attempting to fix the phone, if that’s possible. We have to take care of ourselves until he does fix it, or the ferry arrives from Key Biscayne on the twenty-third.”

“Hell, that’s three days from now. If one of us is the murderer, who’s to say he or she won’t kill again?” A furious Rum Runner stood at the forefront of the group. “I’ve got kids here. They came for fun. They didn’t need to see some damned body being buried.”

“You heard me instruct all parents to keep their children away from the grave site,” Alex countered. “If you chose to ignore those instructions, then whatever your kids saw is on your conscience, not mine.”

“You act like it’s Alex’s fault Tibbits was killed,” Helena said. “Yet, he’s done everything he can to handle this ghastly situation. You shouldn’t be attacking him, you should be helping him keep things calm.”

Rum Runner was still intent on placing blame. “How do we know Alex isn’t the one who killed him? Maybe the two of you planned it in revenge for what Tibbits did last night. We all heard you threaten him.”

“That’s ridiculous.” Helena jumped down from the table. “How could you even think such a thing?”

“Back off, Rum Runner,” Alex said, glaring down at the man. “I had nothing to do with Tibbits’ death, and you know it. I don’t mind admitting I would have loved to beat on him a little, but I didn’t kill him. Accusing Helena of anything is just plain stupid. You do it again, and I’ll break your nose the same way I did Tibbits’.”

Rum Runner stepped forward to challenge Alex. Before he could, Helena pleaded, “Stop this!” She swept her gaze over the crowd. “We need to stick together, help Alex deal with the situation, not make more trouble for ourselves.”

“She’s right,” Matilda said. “Yelling at each other isn’t going to change things, and I don’t believe Alex would kill anyone.”

Rum Runner looked daggers at Matilda, then Helena, but kept silent and stepped back.

Alex paused a moment, waiting to see if anyone else had accusations to make, then continued, “For the children’s sake, we’re going to carry on with their games and contests. Keep things as normal as possible. As for the adults, those who had classes scheduled can decide if they want to hold them or not. I hope you do, but it’s your call.” He stood, meeting Rum Runner’s still hostile stare. “I’m sorry this has happened and spoiled our event, but a man is dead. It doesn’t matter that he was unpopular. Until we can figure out who killed him, or turn over the case to the police when the ferry gets here, we need to stay calm, and we need to be careful.”

“When are you leaving for La Perla?” Rum Runner demanded. “I want to go with you.”

“Not for at least another hour. All those wanting to join me can meet back here at the Bilge Rat.”

Rum Runner nodded, then led his family away from the crowd.

“Should I cancel the treasure hunt?” Matilda asked.

“I hate to say it, but I think it would be for the best. It’ll be too dangerous to have people out searching the island with a killer running around. I’m sorry, Matilda. I know how hard you worked to set up the hunt.”

Her disappointment was plain. “There may be people out looking right now. I posted the third clue early this morning.”

Alex, shading his eyes, looked toward the summit of the island. When he turned back to Matilda, he smiled reassuringly. “I’m sure if anyone’s up there, they’ll be fine.”

Helena prayed he was right.

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********

Helena, and the others who had accompanied Alex to La Perla, stood staring at a small campsite. It reminded her of a transient’s nest. Strewn around a checkered tablecloth that had obviously been used as a bed, were root beer bottles, punctured beer cans, torn food packages, an empty basket, a pile of ratty looking clothes, and a pair of worn-out shoes with tarnished buckles.

As she watched, Arthur picked up one of the shoes and examined it—turning it over and over, looking inside, even sniffing it, then jerking his nose quickly away. A look of puzzlement came over his face as he put it back with its twin. Then he knelt and examined the pile of clothes, pulling out a filthy shirt.

Alex gestured at the rubbish. “It’s the stolen food. Or what’s left of it.” He circled the area as the dozen PFCers glanced warily around.

“Do you think whoever slept here is still on the island? Maybe watching us?” Helena asked.

Bill joined Alex. “Let’s spread out a bit, see what else we can find.”

Arthur, Don, and Julia, also with the group, waited for Alex’s instructions.

Alex nodded. “ Be careful. Stay in pairs. This is a killer we may be cornering.”

To Helena, the situation became surreal. As the group fanned out, creeping through the filigree shade of the palms, they became in earnest the pirates they had for the last three days portrayed in fun. Each had removed his peace-tied weapon and held it at the ready. Each face wore a grim, intense expression. Alex’s rapier, the point no longer blunted by a practice knob, looked deadly. They could have been a raiding party stepped from the pages of a history book, their mission just as dangerous.

“Ahoy,” Eamon called. “I found a boat.”

They all rushed to where Eamon and Rum Runner were in the process of tossing palm branches away from what looked like a long boat. Eamon reached in and pulled up a pair of boots. “I think these belong to Flash.”

Arthur leaned over the side, peering into the bottom of the boat. He ran his fingers over a drooping flap of the sail, then pushed it aside. Reaching under it, he came up with what looked like a water skin, with strips cut from the hide. He turned it over, examining it as he had done the shoe. “That’s interesting,” he mumbled.

Helena looked at the skin, then at the sail, which was loosely wrapped around a small mast that had been removed from its brace and lay across the wooden benches. The canvas was mildewed, tattered, and patched in several places. The boat itself was crusty with barnacles, and showed signs of sea worm infestation.

“I hope no one had to travel far in this thing. It looks like it would sink,” she said.

As Helena watched, Arthur kept looking at the boat. Obviously fascinated, he ran his hands along the boards, picked at the sticky stuff oozing from between the slats, and even climbed on board, checking the benches, the oars, and tugging slightly on the short tiller. He looked even more puzzled over the boat than he had been over the shoes and clothing.

“It is pretty beat up,” Bill commented. “Definitely not something a drug runner would be caught dead in.”

“So it’s one of our own people after all,” Eamon said.

Helena shook her head. “Not necessarily. Let’s face it, no one would risk going thirty miles in that wreck, so they didn’t come from Key Biscayne.”

“Maybe Tibbits was right about a stowaway aboard the ferry,” Bill replied.

Alex said, “I have a hard time believing a PFCer killed Tibbits.”

“Well, whoever it is, there’s proof positive they’ve been stealing our food,” Rum Runner jerked his head in the direction of the intruder’s campsite. “And they didn’t do much to hide the evidence.”

Helena was still unwilling to believe a murderer was living on the islet. She prayed whoever had killed Tibbits left after doing so. Hadn’t Eamon seen where a boat had been brought to shore on San Cristobal? It had to be some other boat, not this poor wreck.

“Maybe it’s the island version of a transient camp,” she said. “Whoever stays here uses the boat for storage. It could be some homeless person. Maybe they steal food and clothes from whoever uses the campsite on San Cristobal. They may not have had anything to do with the murder.”

Rum Runner looked at her as if she’d lost her mind. “That doesn’t make a damned bit of sense. How would a transient get here in the first place? It’s not like they could just thumb a ride.”

She fired back, “If a PFCer could stow away on the ferry, why not a homeless person?”

Rum Runner, clearly unconvinced, shook his head and walked away.

“Which brings it back to being one of the us,” Alex said. “Personally, I would prefer the killer to be a homeless person with mental problems. That might give them the semblance of an excuse. But I doubt that’s going to be the case.”

Bill nodded. “I agree. The killing of Tibbits was too savage. And whoever did it left most of his money behind, so it wasn’t a robbery turned deadly.”

Julia, who stood next to Bill, her cutlass gripped firmly in her right hand, looked at Alex. “So, what do we do next?”

Alex paused a moment, looking at the boat. The group waited in silence. Then he turned back to them. “Just in case this boat is being used by someone, and until we know why they are here on La Perla, let’s make sure they can’t escape. We’ll remove the mast and oars and take them back to camp.” He signaled to Rum Runner. “You and I will hoist the mast between the two of us.” He turned to Helena. “Will you and Julia take the oars?”

Helena looked at Julia, who nodded. Helena followed her and pulled an old oar out of the boat.

Since the mast was already out of its brace, it was only a matter of moments before the group was ready to depart.

Behind Alex, Rum Runner, with one end of the mast balanced over his right shoulder, asked, “Okay, now what, fearless leader?”

Helena winced at the sarcasm, and saw Alex’s eyes narrow, but he merely adjusted his end of the mast more comfortably on his shoulder and replied, “We go back to San Cristobal. We post lookouts on the ridge and keep tabs on the isthmus. If there are strangers still on either island, we’ll find them. But no one accosts them. Got that? You see someone, you let me know, but under no circumstances do you attempt to stop them. One murder is enough. Agreed?”

They all agreed and the group returned to the isthmus. As they waded through knee-high surf back to the big island, Helena thought it looked as if they’d been on some bizarre scavenger hunt—Rum Runner, with Alex behind him, carrying the mast and sail, Julia with an oar balanced on one shoulder, herself holding one end of the other oar while the paddle end floated behind her, Arthur with the useless water skin, and Eamon carrying Flash’s boots.

As the tropical water lapped against her legs, Helena’s gaze turned to and was fixed on San Cristobal, its western slope lying in shadow, the late afternoon sun resting on the black, volcanic crest like a flaming torch. Somewhere among the rocks and palms of that peaceful paradise, lurked a killer.

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CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

September 20

San Cristobal Island

From the shadows under the palms, Gray Dog watched the colonists as they crossed the isthmus. A blind rage engulfed him at the theft of the mast and oars from his boat. He wanted to strangle each and every one of the thieves until their eyes bulged from their sockets and they gagged their last breath. He wanted to punch, kick, and stab until his arms went limp and he was ankle deep in gore.

If the colonists had any sense, they’d post guards. He would no longer be able to sneak between the two islands unseen. Without mast and oars, his boat was useless. He might be able to get those back, but he was truly trapped if they had scuttled his boat. He’d have to hide out until another ship arrived. Surely a supply ship had to arrive soon, or this colony wouldn’t survive.

Having avoided the spring and the activity there, Gray Dog found himself thirsty again, with no access to water. He could attempt to reach it further down the ridge, but the terrain was steep and treacherous. The marsh was no good, either. It was too close to the colonist’s camp and the water would be too salty to drink.

His feet ached and he suspected more than just sweat dampened his new short-hose, as his blisters burned hot as pokers. Hot, tired, and frustrated at his inability to find any trace of Renaldo’s gold, he slumped down in the sand, bracing his back against the trunk of a palm. He resolved to rid himself of the painful black shoes and go back to wearing his old ones. After dark, he would sneak to his camp, check on his boat, and then abandon La Perla for good.

He pulled the new shoes off and tossed them away. As he’d thought, his hose were soaked with blood. Well, hell, most of the rest of him was bloody in one way or another. His hands were a mess, and his elbows and knees were scraped and bleeding from his having lost his footing among the rocks and fallen, which had also opened some of the half-healed scabs on his back. Added to that was the lump on his head where a rock had come loose and dropped on him, nearly knocking him out.

To add insult to his injuries, he’d thought he’d found a part of the treasure. With the joy of expected gold, he’d come across a small wooden chest sitting in the shade of a large boulder. On top of the chest was painted a skull and crossbones, but not the death’s head design Renaldo used. He’d been cautious, not sure if the chest was bait set out by the colonists to trap him. He looked around and listened carefully, but saw and heard no one.

Curiosity and greed got the better of him. To his fury and frustration, when he opened the chest he found no gold. Instead, he pulled and tossed about him a black neck-scarf with more death’s heads, a pewter tankard, a pair of earrings shaped like swords, several small bits of parchment decorated with what looked like tattoo designs, a narrow red and white striped sash with beaded fringe, a paper envelope which, when opened, held another slip of paper with writing, and, to Gray Dog’s mind, the only thing worth keeping—a small bottle with the bright parrot on it.

He’d tied the rum bottle to his waist with the sash, pulled one of the small brass rings from his left ear and replaced it with one of the sword earrings, which he’d fancied, then abandoned the chest. All the while he kept wondering who would bother to hide such worthless trinkets.

Between the apparent hostility of the land, and the disappointment over the false treasure, Gray Dog was sure the whole island was against him. It was as if Renaldo had laid some curse on it, that hid the treasure far better than any trap.

He rested in the shade, taking sips from the rum bottle. Maybe it was as he’d first feared. He was in hell, doomed to look for the treasure for all eternity and never to find it. Even his notorious bad luck couldn’t be this bad. If God was all powerful, then surely so was the devil in his own realm. The colonists, the man he’d knocked on the head, the guard he’d killed, the mock treasure, all could be visions contrived to torment him. Even if he was dead, couldn’t the devil make him think he was still alive?

If he wasn’t in hell, then maybe he should just give up, try and find a way to mainland Florida. It was what, ten, twelve leagues west? If he were lucky, he could retrieve his mast and oars and sail his boat. He might make it. He’d still be a penniless able seaman, but he’d be alive. He could wait for a ship, maybe sail back to England. Then he thought of the cold winters—aching joints, crawling hunger, pitiful tavern rooms. He was old for a seaman, and his abused body needed the warmth of the tropics to ease his many aches and pains. In the mild weather, even if you had to sleep rough, you wouldn’t freeze to death, or die of some congestion of the lungs. No, he could not go back to England. It would kill him.

So he waited, drinking and dozing, until long shadows crept across the water, the air cooled, and the evening breeze stirred the palms. He rose unsteadily, and in his stockinged feet, hiked cautiously toward the spring. Yet again, his luck turned against him. Two men were posted, each with a cutlass. Silently, he retreated to his hiding place near the shore and finished the last of the rum, while he waited for night to smother the islands in darkness. Then he hurried across to La Perla, the salt water burning his blisters like acid, sure that watching eyes were boring into his back.

He quickly put on his old shoes, checked the boat, which appeared to be unharmed, then stole back across the isthmus to the big island. He would have a better chance of avoiding capture on San Cristobal, where he couldn’t be cornered. Food and water were also going to be a problem. He still had his knife, and so far, no one knew what he looked like. If he kept his food hunting to the murderous hours between midnight and dawn, and if he were quick, he might be able to dart in, grab something, and if seen, be mistaken for a colonist.

If someone did get in his way, well then, he thought, worse luck for them.

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CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

September 20

Boca camp, San Cristobal Island

An eery quiet had fallen over the PFC camp. Helena and the other members of Alex’s group stayed together, as did the other crews. No fire danced cheerfully at the Bilge Rat. There was no singing, no fiddle playing. The campground was darker than ever, the ocean more vast, the island more remote. In defense, the PFCers had separated into tribes, staying among those they thought they could trust.

After assigning volunteers to guard the spring and placing lookouts along the ridge, Alex had retreated to the Boca camp. Arthur, exercising his culinary skills, made sure dinner that night consisted of as much comfort food as their remaining fresh supplies would allow. Bill had opened a bottle of brandy afterwards, and no one refused an offered glass.

Helena and Alex sat across from each other at the folding table, both sipping the expensive liquor. Helena was being especially cautious after her experience that morning, but the brandy soothed her unsettled stomach, and blunted the edge of fear knifing at her insides. One of the lookouts had reported seeing someone cross to La Perla, but as instructed, had contacted Alex. As of this moment, no one knew if the person was still there, or had crossed back while the guard was reporting in. The most disturbing thing about the sighting, was that the stranger appeared to be dressed like a pirate.

In one respect, Helena thought, the sighting of the stranger was a relief. It meant neither she nor Alex were still under suspicion, a feeling that had haunted them both since the body of Tibbits had been found. She was grateful of Bill’s warning, or Rum Runner’s accusations would have blindsided her. The looks cast Alex’s way, before the group had discovered the little camp on La Perla, spoke volumes. As Rum Runner had insisted, almost everyone heard the threats the two of them had made to Tibbits the previous night. Both of them had good cause to hate the man. With no one else to blame, the collective finger had pointed at them. Now it could point at someone else.

She took another sip of the brandy, letting its warmth slide down her throat. Alex remained quiet, staring at the glass lightly wrapped within his fingers, as if the liquor radiated warmth like a cup of hot coffee. For the first time since they’d met, she felt awkward around him. Although he’d assured her again that Sandyhad put him up the previous night, their bitter exchanges over the course of the day still hung in the air between them, and she fumbled for something neutral to say.

He must have sensed her uneasiness, for he looked up, smiled and said, “This event has turned a little too pirate-like even for me.”

Treading carefully, she asked, “Why did you join the PFC? I know you liked pirates as a kid, read all the books, but not everyone who enjoys a certain era in history attempts to recreate it in real life. They’re content with collecting memorabilia, or watching movies.”

He sniffed. “What you’re really asking is, why do I run around acting like a kid?”

“Partly, but I already know there’s more to it than just fun. Otherwise you’d have become bored with the whole thing. But you’re not really recreating the past, either.”

The hard look he’d given her earlier that morning returned. “Helena, I’m not stupid enough to think you can bring back the past. Nor would I want to. I have no desire to abolish the use of antibiotics, drink typhoid-infected water, or bring back the plague. I like air conditioning and modern medicine, and I sure as hell wouldn’t give up my truck.”

She smiled, knowing how much he liked his black truck with the skull and crossbones sticker in the rear window. He’d even named it Black Mariah, and referred to it as her, as if it were a ship.

“What we’re attempting here,” he gestured to the campsite, lanterns and forbidden candles glowing in the darkness, “and at any of the events we hold, is to give people a hint of what life back then might have been like. A ... glimmer of life from another time. If we just wanted to have fun, we could run around with fake swords, halloween costumes, and all wear stuffed parrots on our shoulders. Instead we research everything we wear, every piece of equipment we use, because we want to get as close to the real thing as possible.”

“I understand your dedication. I just don’t think you can even get close to what life was like for a real pirate.”

“I can’t.” He looked exasperated at her inability to grasp the point he was trying to make. “People back then thought about their world in a completely different way. They feared God in a different way, and lived under a form of rule totally foreign to us. Their food tasted different, and the air they breathed smelled different. They put up with abuse and living conditions that would horrify us, and they regarded death as a day to day threat.”

She tried to interrupt him, slow the tirade, but he was too intent on making her understand.

“That’s the way life was back then. Let’s face it, you grow up seeing rotting heads on pikes as a warning to criminals, or watch carts loaded with plague dead being hauled away, it sort of deadens your sensibilities. It’s the way our time will be looked on by someone in the twenty-fifth century, assuming the planet lasts that long and we don’t nuke it into atoms. They’ll look at a 2006 Mercedes in the same way we look at a coach-and-four from 1706.”

“You make the times sound pretty grim. What’s the attraction?”

He leaned back in his chair. “The romance of it. The simplicity of it. The rare freedom the pirates had, compared to sailors on war ships or merchantmen, or everyday citizens, for that matter. They had their own set of rules, quite democratic for the times, to which they each adhered. That’s what I was trying to recreate here. Not the filth, or the savagery, but the camaraderie. The bonding together under adverse conditions.” He sat up, took a swallow of the brandy, and gave her a crooked smile. “Tough to feel a sense of camaraderie during rush hour gridlock, or talking on the phone to some computer while trying to straighten out an error on your credit card bill.”

She tried to lighten his dark mood. “I thought that’s what guys did at football games, or sports bars. They bonded.”

His smile softened to the one she loved. “I guess that’s true, but you can’t really say the conditions are adverse.” He gave a resigned shrug. “I just think people today are too disconnected from each other. They spend all their time watching TV or peering into a computer screen. There are drive-through banks, fast food, and instant messaging. Hell, you have people walking around with cellphone headsets on all the time, so they don’t even hear the real world. At least at a PFC event you interact with other human beings.”

Helena had never seen him so serious. “Alex, this is the first time you’ve let me see past that boyish facade you hide behind.” The realization was painful.

He gave her a rueful smile. “This is the first time I’ve had to deal with a murder.”

It was even more painful to her that he made no attempt to deny that all he’d shown her for the last six months was a screen, hiding the true man. What other secrets were buried within him? What dreams did he have, that he felt he couldn’t share?

They sat silent for a long time, and because the camp was so quiet, Helena could hear the chorus of frogs from the salt marsh, barely discernible over the rumbling surf.

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Arthur approached their table, pulled up a chair and sat next to Helena. He seemed nervous, his expression one of puzzlement, as if he were struggling with something he didn’t understand, or couldn’t believe.

He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, then looked at Alex. “This is going to sound crazy, which is why I haven’t said anything about it so far this evening. I’ve been pondering it over and over in my mind, and want to run it by you first, see what you think.”

“What’s up?” Alex asked, visibly bracing himself for more bad news.

“There was something about the things I saw on La Perla that have me puzzled.”

Helena remembered Arthur’s careful examination of the shoe, the clothes, and the boat. How he’d seemed fascinated by them. Had he noticed something the rest of them had missed?

“What did you see, Arthur?” she asked.

Still, the history teacher hesitated.

“Come on, Arthur, spit it out. What’s bothering you?” Alex demanded.

“Well, for one thing, the boat. It’s not milled. I mean the wood wasn’t milled. Even the oars were hand-carved. All the metal fittings were hand-forged. Everything on the sail was hand-sewn, no machine stitching anywhere. And the boat planks were sealed with tar and oakum.”

Alex shrugged. “So its a really good reproduction. Why is that strange?”

“Because it’s too good a reproduction. The wood is oak and it’s aged from long use. The growths on the hull show it’s been in the water a long time, and most of them are still alive. That means the boat wasn’t washed up on the beach and abandoned for years and years. If that were the case, the growths and barnacles would all be long dead.”

“You know how fanatical some of these reenactment members can get. Isn’t it conceivable they could have acquired the timber and fittings from the remains of some old boat and reconstructed it?” Helena asked. “After all, you can get anything on eBay these days.”

Arthur shook his head. “It’s conceivable, but highly unlikely. Then there’s the shoe, the clothes, and the water skin.”

“What about them?” He had Alex’s full attention.

“The shoe was cobbled, and very poorly, not manufactured. The water skin looked old and foreign, the painted designs African or South American. And ... it was cut up. Strips had been sliced off.”

“Why would someone slice up a water skin?” Alex asked.

“Bear with me, because this is where things get weird,” Arthur replied. “The water skin was just that, a skin. People who are starving will eat anything in order to survive. Some of the strips had teeth marks on them. Whoever it belonged to, adrift in that boat, might have been desperate enough to try and eat it.”

“Eat that disgusting thing?” Helena imagined she’d have to be nearly dead before she would consider eating anything so gross.

“When it’s a choice between eating or dying, I’d say, yes.”

Alex cut in, “What’s the point you’re trying to make, Arthur?”

Arthur took a drink from his own glass, as if to bolster his courage. “I think the boat and everything in it was made before the industrial revolution. Way before.”

There was a moment of stunned silence, then Alex said, “You’re joking.”

“I don’t think so. Now you know why I didn’t say anything about this right away. I needed time to think it over.”

Helena was incredulous. “You’re sure they couldn’t be just really good reproductions?”

“At first that’s what I did think. Damned impressed, too. But the more I looked at the stuff, the more I felt it, smelled it, I suddenly got this tingling down my spine. I was sure I was touching the real thing, not some counterfeit.”

“But, Arthur,” Helena stammered, “that’s not possible. How did the boat get on La Perla? If left by early explorers, it would have rotted away ages ago. You must be mistaken.”

“I think it more likely you’ve found a really good reproduction.” Alex leaned back in his chair again, the almost empty glass of brandy cradled in his lap. “There are a certain percentage of reenactors who will go to extreme lengths to replicate the tools and construction methods of the past. There must be dozens of pirate groups along the Florida coast. Any one of them could have used San Cristobal in the same way we have. Or, it’s some loner. Tibbits scared him or threatened him, and the guy panicked.”

A sudden thought occurred to Helena, and the fear within her flared again, stronger than ever. She faced Alex, hating to contradict his theory on the motives for the killing, but compelled to voice her fear.

“Alex, what if someone within the PFC wasn’t satisfied with just camaraderie? What if they came to San Cristobal because they wanted a chance to cross the line between reenactment and reality? They weren’t content playing a pirate. What if, in their mind, they think they are a pirate?”

“You mean some fanatic, who would go to all the trouble of making a real long boat, using old tools, cobbling his own shoes, and killing anyone who intruded on his dream world?”

“Something like that.”

“Funny, I don’t recall anyone lugging a long boat onto the ferry.” Alex replied.

Helena, stung by his sarcasm, snapped, “Well, have you got a better idea? I don’t buy your poor loner theory. A loner would have avoided Tibbits, not killed him.”

Arthur, who had stared at his hands during their debate, looked up. “Assuming the long boat is a reproduction, and I still don’t think it is, then Helena’s explanation makes more sense.” He met Alex’s hard stare. “Maybe one of the PFCers who didn’t have a ticket for the event, but who liked the idea of a vulnerable group of people in an isolated spot, decided it was the perfect place for him to play out his fantasy. If that’s the case, then he most probably got here before us, rather than cross with us on the ferry. There are just two little snags to that theory.”

“What snags?” Alex asked.

“Snag number one, a PFCer probably isn’t going to be hungry enough to attempt to eat a water skin. Snag number two, the shirt had blood stains on the back of it. In a crisscross pattern, as if its previous owner had been whipped. I don’t think even the most fanatic role-player on the planet would whip himself for authenticity.”

“What are you implying? That not only is the boat pre-industrial, but so is its owner?” Alex gave a soft chuckle. “Arthur, I think you’ve had too much brandy for one night.”

“Each item if found by itself might be explained, but with all of it found together in one spot, you gotta start asking yourself questions. The biggest one being, how the hell did the stuff get there?” Arthur was not being facetious. In fact, Helena was certain the outlandish idea had him quite excited.

Alex looked from one to the other, clearly tryingto decide whether to believe them, or dismiss either of their ideas as totally nuts. He leaned forward and carefully put his empty glass on the table.

“I find it easier to believe in Helena’s role-playing fanatic, than I do Arthur’s opinion that the boat and whoever brought it here are over three hundred years old.”

Arthur smiled. “I have a pretty hard time believing it myself. However, the first thing I plan to do when we get back to the mainland, is figure out a way to get that boat, along with all the other artifacts, to a place where they can be examined by experts.”

“In the meantime, if my theory is correct,” Helena interrupted, “we’ve got a nut case running around who thinks he’s Blackbeard reincarnated.”

“Which makes our situation worse,” Alex said. “I can understand why someone might feel compelled to kill Tibbits. He was a belligerent asshole. But someone who has gone totally mental, thinks he really is a pirate, would even flog himself, isn’t likely to stop at just one killing.”

Helena met Alex’s eyes. “To him, we’re just fantasy figures, like in a video game. Except, if we die, we don’t pop back to life when the new game starts.”

“Or.” Arthur downed the last of his brandy. “We’re dealing with something even stranger. Which begs the questions, where did he come from, how the hell did he get here, and what does he want?”

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