It was the type of day that state officials slap on postcards and chamber of commerce presidents brag about. A bright, dazzling Florida sun sent golden streams of light across a deep azure sky. At the horizon, the gold disappeared into the lighter blue of the Atlantic. A slight breeze made the day bearable. White foam flowed to within three feet of the orange ice chest I had stacked with sodas. I stretched out on a beach chair with two books beside me. The wind ruffled the pages of the Churchill biography as the waves crashed softly into the sand.
Two beach girls in suits several Florida cities have banned smiled as they walked by. When I opened the container they rushed over and grabbed two cans. The blond wiped away the crushed ice from the lid and popped the top. Her shorter, brunette friend did the same with another can.
"Thanks. You live around here?" the blond asked. She wore a fluorescent green suit.
I pointed over my shoulder. "Right back there."
"Gosh, it must be neat living right on the ocean."
"It has its advantages."
Actually, I was just using the house for a month but I figured she didn't care for an extended explanation.
"We're from Ohio, Ohio State," said the brunette. "We're down for a break. Daytona Beach is such a great town.”
I smiled. “Daytona is nice but you have officially crossed over into the city limits of Ormond Beach. We get stragglers every year."
The brunette picked up a handful of ice and swabbed her neck with it. Water dripped across the tiny, orange covering. "We're just down to get some sun. Oh, that feels good. Cold up north but hot as Hades down here."
Her partner also grabbed some ice and patted her face. The brunette bent over to glance at the cover of my book. "Like history?"
"Yes." My gaze focused on the skimpy bright fabric on her and her friend. "Never have so many been so awed by so much concealed by so little."
The brunette thought for a moment, then roared with laughter. She teetered on weak knees then slid gracefully into the sand, still laughing. "That’s wittier than most lines we get. I'll have to remember that one."
"What? Heather, I don't get it."
"It's a takeoff on a famous Churchill quote. And a rather good one at that. 'So much owed by so many to so few...'"
Heather perched an arm on my knee and pointed to her friend. "Art major. They take all that multicultural stuff nowadays."
"Listen, I didn't expect to bump into Einstein on a beach," the blonde said.
Heather chuckled as she stood up and brushed off the sand. "I think a better analogy would be Toynbee, Glenda. Or Johnson. Or Thomas." She looked at me. "What is your name?"
"Harrison Craig. Call me Harry."
She stuck out a sandy hand. "Harry, I'm Heather MacAllister. My tall, blond uneducated friend is Glenda Gordon."
"Come on, Heather."
They smiled then continued their trek down the beach. The blond gave a half-turn and pointed to the cooler.
"Can we drop back by?"
"Anytime," I said.
I watched them go then settled back in the chair. I took some ice and rubbed neck and shoulders. I'm a native Floridian but I burn quickly. I grabbed a tattered shirt with the orange and blue University of Florida emblem and slipped it on.
The book held my interest. I read until someone called my name. I looked up and saw Rutger "Roddy" Hollins striding toward me. He wore a wide smile and his blue eyes flashed with friendliness.
"Harry," he said. "Just the man I wanted to see. The house was empty so I figured you'd be on the beach."
He wore a white beach shirt, dark slacks and tennis shoes. He is every woman's dream and every man's nightmare. Built well and solid, with dark hair and a flashing smile. He is a con man extraordinaire. I bumped into him while doing police reporting. You can't help but like the guy, but you'd be a fool to trust him.
He opened the lid of the container and fished around. He pulled up a can, groaned, dropped it, pulled up another one and moaned again.
"Don't you have any beer?"
“Never liked beer that much," I told him.
He plopped down in the sand, elbows across knees, ankles crossed.
"It's a shame you were laid off at the Breeze. You did some first-rate reporting. The coverage of the Cavender trial was superb."
"How did you manage to stay off the witness list?"
He raised his hand in protest. Words flow quickly from Roddy. He spits out sentences the way an AK-47 shoots out bullets. Sometimes he can be just as dangerous.
"I convinced the state attorney that I didn't know anything, and I didn't. Harry, buddy, the fact that Mrs. Cavender gave me ten thousand dollars didn't mean I knew about an attempt on her husband's life. Women, young women, middle-age women, older women, tend to give me things. I don't have to kill their husbands for it. To be honest, for me ten thousand isn’t all that much. Just a small, financial favor.”
Which was true. Roddy conned old ladies and young women but violence was never anticipated in any of his schemes. He had the muscles of a body builder and could use them - but only in self-defense. It was one of his redeeming virtues and he didn't have all that many of them.
He scanned the beach, darting glances at every angle. The coast was deserted except for an elderly couple almost fifty yards off to our left.
"Let's go back to your house, Harry."
I looked at him. "I'm not interested in your games, Roddy."
He had a well-modulated lively voice, full of gushing enthusiasm for whatever project he was hatching. But when he spoke this time, his voice was low and serious.
"I wouldn't scam you, Harry."
"Roddy, you'd scam your own mother."
He chuckled, the laughter coming in ripples like the waves. "Maybe, but I wouldn't try a scam on you. It wouldn't work." He paused for a moment, then stared at me. "This is strictly legit and there's enough money for a thousand lifetimes. Give me ten minutes and I will prove it to you."
I didn’t want to listen to any of Roddy’s verbal games, but being unemployed does mean you have time on your hands. I picked up my towel.
"Let's go," I said.
"Aha! Real booze."
Roddy scanned the portable bar with approval. He lofted a half-full bottle and smiled, swirling the liquor around as if inspecting it. I dropped some ice cubes in a glass, handed it to him and watched him pour the bourbon over the ice.
"Nice place. How did you wind up with it?"
I sat down on a yellow sofa. "A friend is up in West Virginia. I'm house-sitting. She was kind enough to let me use it."
"She’s not a teetotaler."
"Terry's in real estate. It's a tough field."
"Every field is a tough field nowadays."
I leaned back and extended my tennis shoes to a coffee table/foot stool. "So what's this all about?"
Roddy set his glass down and shifted to the edge of his chair. His elbows dug into his knees. The gaiety I was used to in his voice was gone.
"Eight hundred million dollars. Maybe a little bit more, maybe a little bit less." He picked up his glass, swirled the ice and liquor around. "You ever heard of Mel Fisher?"
Most divers and every treasure hunting buff on the east coast of Florida knew about Mel Fisher, the treasure hunter who found the Spanish galleon Aptechka with its estimated billion in gold, silver and jewels after twenty years of searching.
"I've toured his museum when it was down in Sebastian. Read his book,” I said.
"I've been to the museum twelve times. An even dozen. I've seen the gold doubloons, the silver coins, the emeralds, the diamond-encrusted crosses. Do you remember the key to the discovery?" he asked.
"Yes. It wasn't made in the ocean. It was made in Spain. One of Fisher's associates was going over some old maps and logs from the 16th century. He discovered an error in translation. The correction shifted the underwater search by about a hundred miles. When the correction was made and new search organized, they found the Aptechka. At the old spot, they could have dived for a century and found nothing."
Roddy nodded. "Which is why I will succeed. Knowledge. Expertise. Dr. Carlos R. Navarez is the best scholar in the business."
I raised my eyebrows. Generally, Roddy doesn't travel in academic circles.
"Yes, he is. I went to the University of Florida and his reputation is well-known. Aztec culture. Spanish conquest. Anthropology of the period. He’s an expert in them all.
Roddy leaned forward and tapped the coffee table with his finger.
"Carlos loves the sea and knows navigation. He's been to Spain, Cuba and Mexico studying documents. He reads 16th century Spanish like an English textbook. It took eleven years but we have found the Spanish galleon Diablo. In it and under two hundred feet of water is more than half a billion in Spanish gold."
"Well, pinpointed the approximate location. It'll still take a half dozen divers a lot of searching to find."
"Then why aren't you and the good doctor out on the sea?"
"Dr. Navarez is in his mid-fifties with a heart condition."
"Roddy, I think you're slipping. You're wasting your time. I don't have any money to invest in this scheme. You want to spring this on the friends of your former friends. They can pitch in big money if they believe in undersea treasure."
He shook his head. "I don't want a cent, Harry. I'm not looking for investors. I admit I've been conning people all my life. Big cons, little cons. Most worked, some didn't. I've lived off women, had fathers buy me off. But in one legitimate deal I can make more money than in all of my cons put together."
The style and manner of Rutger Hollins were different. He had always been a laughing, gracious charmer. The quick smile and quicker wit could disarm a critic. Now he spoke in a serious, even solemn tone.
"You're not looking for investors?"
"They're the last thing I want. This time I'm not asking for money. I'm offering it. I can't salvage the Diablo's treasures alone. I need divers. Skilled, expert ... and moral divers. I'm in an odd position, Harry. I'm a con man looking for honest men. Your share is 11 percent of eight hundred million dollars. That is a conservative estimate. There could be more than a billion in treasure on the Diablo. Each member of the crew gets one share. The professor gets one share. I get two because I'm putting everything together. Plus there’s one for our investor.”
Roddy did his imitation of a Great White Shark smile. “She’s an elderly, although still very spry, and intelligent woman who has developed an interest in sunken treasure. She’s wealthy so she’s not interested in the money but for the historical significance. She likes me and was also very impressed with Dr. Alvarez after a luncheon with him. He does have a distinguished air about him.”
“She is funding this venture?”
“Yes, indeed. Has bo-koos of money.”
“And looking for ways to spend it?”
“Let’s say she won’t turn down an investment that will do more than simply add money to her already considerable stock portfolio. She doesn’t like her kids much. Two snotty little offspring. One son and one daughter. Son is a fat, slimy looking man. If he had been born in a poor family, he’d probably be in prison by now. She doesn’t like her grandchild much either. The son didn’t want any children, but the daughter had one. But the child didn’t add much to the gene pool. So her kids have some trust funds but won’t get any of the rest of her fortune. She’s a very generous woman, actually. She could have asked for fifty percent, but she was content with one share and the fame of finding sunken treasure.” He looked at me. “That leaves more for you.”
I felt disoriented, the dizzy feeling you get when life pulls a major surprise on you. It wasn’t difficult to do the math. My share of the take totaled eighty million-plus, before the IRS of course.
"If I drank before five, I'd fix myself a double," I said,
Roddy stood up, walked to the portable bar, grabbed a glass and filled it with ice. He picked up the bourbon and drowned the ice.
"The chance of a lifetime," he said, as he set the glass down with a thump. "If you pass on this, you'll need more than a double to make up for it. Did you read about latest find off Ft. Pierce and that was only one item.”
I remembered reading newspaper stories about the find. “It was a five-inch, 22-karat gold Pelican, thought to be from one of the eleven Spanish ships that sunk off the Treasure Coast in 1715. It was buried in eight feet of sand. I didn’t realize until I read the story that, at one time, a Pelican was used to symbolize Christ.”
Roddy’s eyes glazed over. He wasn’t interested in the theological symbolism.
“Do you remember what it was worth?”
“A considerable amount,” I said.
“Eight hundred and eighty-five thousand, to be exact.”
“That is considerable.”
“The Pelican was only one item. One solid gold artifact worth almost a million dollars. We’re going after a ship. It’s full of thousands of those items.”
I picked up the glass but didn't drink.
"If this is true, why me? Why pick me for the crew?"
Roddy sat back down. His smiled beamed confidence. I realized I had just crossed a line. I didn't tell him his story was ludicrous nor did I throw him out of the house. I asked for details. His con, if it was a con, was working.
He popped up three fingers. "For three very important reasons. You're a diver and a diver I can trust. That’s the first reason. I'm not risking this with people who might double-cross me. Money does strange things to people. I can't chance having a bad apple on the crew. Harry, you're a man of your word, and you have integrity. That's almost as rare as eight hundred million in sunken gold. When you spend your life telling lies, you have to be able to recognize a man of integrity. You won't bop me on the head and leave me dead on the Diablo.”
I still held the drink. My fingers were getting cold. I placed the glass back on the table. "Mel Fisher had mostly family members on his crew. He knew he could trust his crew. Any crew going after gold will have to be alert."
Roddy leveled his gaze at me. "We will be fully armed."
That meant we'd have more firepower than the 82nd Airborne.
"That's the second reason I want you on the crew. I want men who can handle themselves and know how to use guns. I know of your abilities. Besides you and me, the other male diver will be Augustine Hardy, former Army master sergeant. He knows weapons and can go hand-to-hand. He's a good man to have on our side."
I shifted in my seat. Despite my initial reservations, Roddy's scheme was beginning to sound enticing.
"You said there were three reasons you wanted me as a diver. You named two. What's the last?"
Roddy flashed his big, laughing smile. "You're a born-again Christian. Perhaps that accounts for your truthfulness and honesty. I'm an agnostic. But if there is a God, I want Him favoring us out there on the ocean."
"Roddy, you can't con God."
"I'm not conning him. In addition to you, there's another crew member who's a born-again Christian, so I assume God will be on our side. After all, I'm sure He'd want to bless his people. If you two don't get the treasure, some group of sinners might find it. Why would He bless sinners? If God doesn't help his own, why bother with Him?"
"Even in a legit scheme you try to work all the angles, and I do mean all the angles, don't you?"
"With this much money at stake, I’m not leaving anything to chance. That treasure means no more scams, no more games, no more lying. Those gold doubloons are the gold ring, Harry. I don't intend to pass them up. I want you on the crew. I can trust you on the water and under the water.”
He reached in his pocket and brought out a piece of paper. "Professor Navarez's address and phone number. You can call him and check out everything. Go over to Gainesville and talk to him. He'll confirm what I told you." He waved the paper in his hand. "Give me your word and make the call, Harry. I need you on this one."
I took a deep breath. If this was a scam, I couldn't see the benefit to the con artist. If he didn't want investors, why bother spinning a treasure hunting tale? I scratched my jaw. The best con artists could have been good psychiatrists. They read people well. What Roddy left unsaid was that I owed him.
Some years ago in South Florida during a bar scuffle I was fighting my way to the door. Good interview, wrong location. I punched one man aside, tossed another over a table when something knocked my legs out from under me. I wound up on the floor with a grinning migrant worker who flashed a knife. He jabbed toward my midsection but Roddy broke a beer mug over his head. Blood spurted from both cheeks. He howled with pain, dropped the knife and fell to the stained floor. Roddy helped me up and we ran for the exit.
Roddy didn't mention it because he didn't have to. He knew I hadn't forgotten it.
The odds were against it but perhaps the friendly shyster did have a rough guess about where a sunken treasure ship was located. He might be among the rarest of men - the con man who has found an honest game.
Then again, if Roddy ever told the truth it was strictly by accident. Knowing his past history, I had trouble with his credibility.
“You don’t trust me, Harry,” he said.
“You don’t like me.”
“Half and half. At times you can be a pleasant companion. But that doesn’t mean I’d go in business with you.”
When he spoke next, he had the Roddy-confident tone in his voice. “You get a big severance package from the Breeze?”
“What does unemployment pay nowadays? Three hundred a week?’
“In Florida, less than that.”
He reached into his back pocket and brought out an envelope. He plopped it on the table in front of me, “That’s for you, Harry.”
I reached for it and opened the flap, exposing the stack of fifties.
“Two thousand dollars. Just for you.”
“For going on the trip?”
“No, for making a phone call. Call the good professor. Make an appointment to go see him. He will echo what I’ve said and can provide even more details.” He held up the paper again that had Navarez’s phone number. “Two thousand dollars for two minutes, Harry, or for however long you want to talk to him. Good money for someone that’s out of a job.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
I slipped the envelope into my pocket, then reached out my hand.
"Give me the number," I told him.
Professor Navarez answered the call promptly but his voice held a note of irritation. He was in the midst of a project, planning to attend a seminar in Miami and reviewing historian Lee Montez's book on Cortez and the conquest of Mexico.
"The Montez book is extraordinary, one of the best I've read and I've read them all. He has a massive intellect and writes wonderful prose. Knowing how academic politics work, he must be hated by many of his colleagues," Navarez said.
I smiled. That was politics all right.
"I do hope to finish the book tonight or early tomorrow, then I must prepare for the seminar. How long will you need?"
"Only about an hour."
"Tomorrow evening then. I should have most of my seminar work finished by six. I usually break for dinner then and, afterwards, relax before going back to work. Seven o'clock?"
"That's fine." I paused. "Doctor, do you know anything about Rutger Hollins?”
"I know Roddy is a man with a varied background, Mr. Craig. I also know that everything he told you about the Diablo is true."
I thanked him and hung up. Roddy wore the Great White smile again. He leaned back on the sofa and tossed a yellow pillow into the air.
"A man with a varied background. That's one way to describe you," I said.
"The professor is a man of cultivation and breeding. I guess politeness goes with that."
I walked back and sat across from Roddy. "There are other things I want to know."
"Since my neck's going to be on the line too, who else is on the crew?"
"Besides you, me, Gus and a captain of the ship, there's three women."
"Well-shaped and beautiful. Try Lynn Monrow."
I frowned. "She's a five-foot-three blond bundle of trouble. She's frivolous and doesn't follow dive plans."
"Harry, that's not true. She's five-five at least. She's good with handguns."
"That doesn't surprise me."
“Yes, after you there as a boyfriend who had knife throwing abilities. He taught Lynn and she became quite skilled in the art. Sinewy little gal, isn’t she? All that energy and vitality packed into a small frame. Can you imagine what she’d be like in… but you don’t have to imagine. Part of the pre-Christian days?”
I ignored him.
“Did you really serenade her one night at local bar?”
“It was not a bar. It was a restaurant. The Inlet. It has a piano bar, and I did sing one night, probably off-key.”
“No, she said you’re a passable singer. Said you drop into a baritone when you sing. Course she has talents too.”
“Despite her talents and characteristics, she is not as dependable as a diver should be,” I said.
"You won't have to worry about her. She's my dive partner.”
"If she's your partner, fine. Who's my partner?"
"Coral Delaplaine. Remember her?"
“I helped out the instructor when she took diving classes. She’s a tall brunette. A very tall brunette."
"Almost six feet. She looks like models used to look before they started starving themselves. Best pair of legs on the seven seas. She told me you were a very good teacher. She seemed very happy you’d be on the voyage.”
I doubted that last sentence. "That’s surprising. During the classes, I didn't talk to Coral that much. She was very competent. They were other students who needed my help more. A very tall and very young brunette."
"She's twenty-one. As you get older, other people start looking younger, Harry."
"I'm surprised she remembered me.”
Roddy's shark smile gleamed. "Oh, she remembers you, old buddy. She's the other born-again Christian. Two of God's chosen people. We should have favorable weather, wouldn't you say?"
I decided against arguing theology.
"And the third woman?"
"Stephanie Kimball. She's a little older, older than you. I don't think you know her. She'll be with Gus."
He walked to the bar and mixed another drink. He took a long gulp. "Those are the dive teams. If anyone is suspicious, it will appear that we are three couples heading out for diving, sun, booze and sex, not necessarily in that order. Nothing will appear out of the ordinary. I don't want anybody asking nosy questions. I don't want anyone thinking we're hunting sunken treasure. Nowadays some thugs will kill you for a quarter. Imagine what they'd do for eight hundred million."
I frowned. The combination of diving, sun, booze and sex could be lethal. Second thoughts crept in. How exactly did you get into this harebrained scheme, Harry? Well, a con man I knew, who couldn't be trusted to help a blind man across a street pops up and spins a treasure hunting story. And I believe it. I shook my head. I had been out in the sun too long.
Roddy reached into his pocket. He brought out an object and flipped it over to me.
"Look at that, old buddy," he said.
I shot him a skeptical glare. "Roddy, whether or not I go on this trip, I am not your old buddy."
I looked at the circular item. It was round, ancient, corroded by tides and time. Spots of brown diminished the gold sheen. A cross was on one side, the Atlantic Ocean on the other.
In spite of Roddy's rhetoric, I was stunned. I turned the object backward and forward. It was real.
A gold doubloon.
Roddy gave a triumphant grin. "You're something of a treasure hunting buff. Know what that is?"
"The large cross is the Cross of Jerusalem with the two lions and two castles symbolizing the Spanish cities of Lyons and Castille. On the Atlantic side, the eight is the denomination of the coin. To us, it's about a $20 gold piece. The large 'L' signifies Lima, Peru where captive Inca Indians carried out the minting."
Roddy nodded. "Believed to be part of the Spanish Cinco Fleet that also carried Aztec gold and sunk in 1721 in the Gulf of Mexico. The value of the cargo has been valued, conservatively, at eight hundred million."
I looked at the coin again. It was genuine. Even almost four hundred years under water couldn't hide that fact. I flipped it back to Roddy. He caught it in mid-air.
"Welcome aboard, old buddy," he said.
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