Copyright © 2015 by Russell Blake. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used, reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law, or in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Southwest of Cajamarca, Peru, A.D. 1532
Lightning flashed through the anthracite clouds that roiled over the jungle canopy as an explosion of thunder shook the earth. A long line of llamas, their matted fur drenched from the constant downpour, shambled along a trail deep in the rainforest. The animals staggered under heavy loads strapped to their backs, hooves slipping in the mud and pulling free with a sucking sound.
Thousands of the unfortunate beasts had been conscripted into duty on the far side of the Andes Mountains, their drovers trudging beside them to see to it that none wandered off with precious cargo. Inkarri, the head of the expedition, had made it clear that this was a sacred mission, with the destiny and survival of the Inca Empire at stake.
Only two months earlier the Spanish conquistadors had betrayed Atahualpa, the Inca emperor, whom they’d captured through trickery. After hundreds of loads of ransom had been delivered to the Spanish leader in the Inca city of Cajamarca, the conquistadores had broken their promise and executed Atahualpa. Word had spread through the Inca world of the treachery, and an edict had gone out: the prosperous Inca nation’s treasure was to be safeguarded, far away from the invaders.
Inkarri had traveled for many weeks, first crossing the Andes and then tackling the western jungle’s swollen rivers. He’d braved impossible terrain to put as many natural barriers between his people and the invaders as possible. Now, hundreds of miles from home, the procession was running short of resources. Many of the animals had perished along the way, and every surviving beast now bore an insupportable burden.
Inkarri knew his trek couldn’t continue. The latest attack on his group by the hostile Amazon natives had taken its toll – hundreds of his men had died repelling the assaults. He slowed at the head of the column and cocked his head, his bronze features haggard from the trip’s demands, and listened intently.
From the thick underbrush ahead came Lomu, his second in command, who’d been scouting with anl advance party for possible new routes. Inkarri held his hand over his head to signal a stop.
Lomu wiped rain from his face before leaning in close. “I found a promising site an hour away. It has streams – tributaries to the big river that winds through the area, so there will be plentiful fish,” he said in a quiet voice. “And I saw an auspicious omen. A jaguar, standing in the center of a small clearing. It’s what we’ve been waiting for. As clear as the gods could make it.”
Inkarri looked to the sky. “An hour, you say? Very well. We have another few left before it gets dark. How difficult does it look to defend?”
“If attacked we would have the high ground. And there’s a river that runs along the northernmost section, which will serve as a natural barrier.”
Inkarri nodded. “Pass the word down the line. We’re headed to our new home.”
Lomu rushed to share the news with the men. They were close to their journey’s end, and the beginning of a new, secret life in an inhospitable wilderness. Their mission was clear – to establish a new city away from the Spanish where the wealth of the nation would be safe, a cradle for the fresh start of the civilization. When they had done so, Inkarri would return to the empire with news, leaving a trail of false clues and deceptive directions to confound any would-be pursuers. He’d seen the avarice of the conquistadores, and witnessed their duplicity, and knew their lust for gold and emeralds would never die – that he and his kind would never be safe.
It would take months to create a habitable enclave, but when he’d done so, he would set up small camps along the trail to help new arrivals find the city. Once he was back among his people, he would recruit women and more able-bodied men to colonize the area and build a new capital.
Inkarri watched Lomu disappear down the column of tired llamas, communicating the tidings to men who had been through an ordeal unlike any in their people’s history. The jungles east of the mountains had been the limit of the Inca world, and it was only a compulsion to survive that had driven Inkarri’s group into its reaches.
At last they arrived at the site. The sun broke through the clouds – the first pause in the rain in three days. Inkarri eyed the trees, taking the measure of the area. After several moments of silence, he moved to the center of the clearing and stood, his arms spread, the sun’s dimming rays warming him as he offered a quiet prayer of gratitude for bringing them safely to this spot. When he faced his warrior brethren, gathered in a large ring around him, he beamed confidence and conviction.
“Our quest is over. Remove the treasure from the animals and let them rest. Organize patrols to ensure our safety this night, for tomorrow we begin building a new future in this place.” Inkarri paused, taking in the men’s expressions. “Oh, Inti, god of sun and light, and Apocatequil, god of thunder, thank you for leading us to this blessed spot. We shall honor you with a city the likes of which has never been seen. It shall be called Paititi, after the jaguar father you sent as a sign. Its riches shall be legendary – the stuff of which dreams are made.”
Lomu gazed at the hundreds of bags the men were placing on the wet ground, brimming with gold and jewels, and his eyes came to rest on the pride of the Incas: a massive chain crafted from thousands of pounds of gold, its gemstone-crusted serpentine links glowing orange in the waning light, so heavy that it had taken a hundred men to carry it. Even with all the other riches in the clearing, it was breathtaking to behold, and Lomu felt justifiable satisfaction in spiriting it away to safety.
The road ahead would be hard. But they would do it, and survive as a people until the Spanish were driven from the shores. Temples would be built, babies would be born, trade routes established, the empire would flourish, and their deeds would be spoken of in hushed tones of awe and respect.
They would achieve the impossible and be remembered in their culture until the end of time. Stories would be told around fires, and the name of their city would be known far and wide as the crowning jewel in the Inca crown – the great promise of its future, the legendary new center of the noble and ancient civilization’s universe: Paititi, the City of Gold.
Patricia hurried from her flower shop to the car. Night had fallen hours ago and traffic had dwindled to nothing, leaving the downtown deserted. She normally didn’t stay at the store after dark, but it was the end of the month and there were accounts to be balanced. Times were hard now, and she’d been handling the bookkeeping herself. She considered herself lucky that she still had a business.
Her sensible heels clicked on the sidewalk, her breath steaming in the frigid night air, and then she heard the sound again – something or someone was gaining on her. She struggled to stay calm as she reached into her purse for the can of pepper spray she’d hidden there years ago, praying that it still worked.
Patricia’s hand fumbled in the bag, a knock-off Coach she’d gotten on a Mexican cruise in better days, and her trembling fingers felt the distinctive cylinder. She tried to remember the effective range, but all she could think of was that she should run. Run as fast as her feet would carry her, run to safety, to her waiting car.
She hesitated at the junction of two gloomy streets, ears straining for any hint of a pursuer. A scrape from behind her, no more than twenty yards, reaffirmed her worst fears before she forced them away and slowed her breathing. That could have been anything. A cat. One of the heaping garbage bags she’d passed rustling in the breeze. Something shifting inside them, or a rat burrowing for buried treasure. Anything at all.
When she rounded the corner she sprinted for the parking lot, all pretense of calm gone as she ran on tiptoes to avoid the sound of her heels alerting whoever was behind her that she was in full flight. Because now, in spite of her inner dialogue, she was sure someone was tailing her.
Visions of serial killers played through her imagination as she reached the waist-high concrete wall that encircled the lot. She pushed through the gate, wincing at the groan of its corroded hinges, and made her way to her car as she fished in her overcoat for her key ring. God, she hoped it would start on the first try. She cursed silently at how she’d been putting off taking the old Buick to the dealership for months.
A decision she prayed wouldn’t prove her undoing.
Patricia fumbled with her keys and got the door open. She wasted no time sliding behind the wheel and throwing her purse on the seat beside her before twisting the ignition. The doors locked automatically as the starter ground.
“No. Oh, God, no. Come on. Come on!” she murmured.
Two black-gloved hands slammed against the driver’s side window. Patricia screamed and wrenched the ignition again. With a phlegmy roar, the engine coughed a cloud of black exhaust. She shifted into gear and floored the accelerator just as she registered the unmistakable shape of a pistol in her side mirror. Patricia swerved toward the street, ducking in panic as she saw the orange blossom of a muzzle flash and her rear window blew out in a shower of safety-glass fragments.
The old vehicle bounced over the curb with a jolt as she cut the driveway too tight, and then she was speeding down the empty street. Behind her, a pair of headlights blazed to life and grew frighteningly large. She gazed in spellbound horror in her rear view mirror as the shooter’s vehicle pulled after her, and she spun the wheel, hurtling toward the highway that led to the safety of her modest home ten minutes outside town.
Patricia blew through the red light at the base of the onramp. Panic replaced her momentary relief when the glare of headlights reappeared behind her, gaining on her even as she strained to drive the gas pedal through the floorboard, pulse pounding in her ears, a band of pressure tightening around her chest.
“Come on. Come on…” she hissed, willing the aging Buick to greater speed as she raced by the old gas station that marked the town periphery, the arched windows of its fifties-era building as dark as the night sky.
A cold wind tore at the trees along the highway as the speedometer needle inched past eighty, faster than she’d ever forced it, but insufficient to pull away from the vehicle closing on her. Her gaze darted to the mirror again, where she could see the other car a hundred yards behind.
Patricia was doing ninety-six miles per hour when she missed the curve just before the river bridge. Her tires screeched like a wounded animal, and then she was sailing through space in a graceless arc.
The sedan chasing her slowed until it rolled to a stop halfway across the bridge’s span. The passenger reached up with a gloved hand and flipped the interior light off, and then opened his door and stepped out into the freezing gloom. His head swiveled right, then left, verifying that he was alone. He approached the edge of the bridge and peered into the darkness at the inky rushing water of the river hundreds of feet below. There, at the base of the gorge, was the Buick, partially submerged, mangled beyond recognition.
He shook his head and pulled his overcoat around him, slim protection against the chill wind as he returned to the waiting car.
“Nobody could have survived that,” he said, swinging the door open.
“Now what?” the driver asked, hands loose on the wheel.
The passenger glanced at the moon grinning crookedly from between the clouds.
“Now it gets hard.”
Drake Simmons peered over the dashboard of his Honda Accord at the row of clapboard homes across the street and took another sip from his lukewarm can of cola.
He hated stakeouts. Endless hours watching and waiting for the perp to appear, which often never happened, rendering for naught his patient vigil living off caffeine and peeing into a Gatorade bottle. He ran a hand over the dusting of dark beard on his lean face and wondered again how he’d wound up in this business rather than using his journalism degree.
The job market had gone from bad to worse since he’d graduated five years ago. Finding criminals who’d skipped out on their bond wasn’t quite in the same league as being an investigative reporter, but it required many of the same attributes: patience, dogged determination, research skills, and a certain crazy recklessness that had defined his character since childhood. It was just a lower-rent version of how he’d imagined himself, playing out his Woodward and Bernstein fantasies as the star of a major newspaper.
The door to one of the squalid houses opened and a tall man with the jaundiced pallor of an addict sauntered down the stairs, eyes scanning the street. Drake slumped down behind the steering wheel and pushed a long lock of dark brown hair off his forehead, and then adjusted his Oakley sunglasses before sliding up just enough to see.
No question that was his boy. Alan Cranford, two-time B&E loser up for his third count, a junkie, a thief, a cheat, and now a fugitive after he failed to appear at his arraignment last week. But most importantly, Cranford meant five thousand dollars in Drake’s pocket as his fee – ten percent of the bond’s value, which the scumbag had allowed his aging mother to post before kicking her, and the bail bondsman, to the curb.
Cranford had a rep for being violent, Drake knew from Harry Rivera, his sometimes employer and longtime friend.
“Be careful, kid. He’s mean as a reservoir dog and twice as dangerous,” Harry had warned in his distinctive gravelly voice, tempered by two packs a day of unfiltered Pall Malls and an affinity for Jack Daniels. “Last time he was in the joint he almost killed his cell mate. You don’t wanna play him wrong.”
“Sounds like my kind of fella,” Drake had said as he’d studied the photographs Harry handed him. “A sweetheart, really. I’ll just ask him politely to come in with me – that should do the trick.”
“Drake, don’t go overboard. I can’t afford any more complaints. Do you read me?”
“Complaints? Of course they’re going to complain. I drag their asses back to justice. What do you expect?”
“No unnecessary force. I’m still taking heat over Jarvis.” Mel Jarvis had been a drug dealer who’d skipped on an eighty-grand bond. He’d tried to remove most of the top of Drake’s skull with a two-by-four when Drake had caught up with him after a three-day meth binge at one of his girlfriends’ houses. Drake had tackled him and Jarvis had hit his head on the sidewalk when he’d fallen, resulting in a concussion and more than a few stitches. Of course the girlfriend had lied and said Drake had beaten her boyfriend unconscious. The police were still looking into the matter, although no charges had been filed – they had slim patience for dope dealers who skipped on bail.
“Jarvis was a fecal spec. He tried to brain me. What was I supposed to do? Frown? Give him one of my scary looks? Guy was trying to kill me.”
“That’s not what his squeeze said.”
“I love it when you use that old time talk. I think they call ’em ‘shorties’ now.”
“Just bring him in without any broken bones. All right? You don’t want the contract, I got guys knee deep begging for work.”
“I’ll bring him in soft. I promise. Maybe I’ll use passive aggression. Perps looking at their third strike respond well to that. If he gets snotty, I’ll scowl disapprovingly or something.”
“Okay, smartass. Just go find him and stop breathing my air.”
Drake was pulled back to the present as he watched Cranford return to the door. Someone inside handed him a backpack. Cranford threw the street another predatory glare and began walking toward the main boulevard two blocks away.
Drake reached over the passenger seat and grabbed the bulky pistol grip of his stun gun, and then exited the car, the weapon’s bulk hidden in the oversized gray hoodie he favored for stakeouts. Patting the steel handcuffs in his pocket, he locked his doors with a chirp and sauntered across the street, pretending to talk on his cell phone as he bee-lined for Cranford.
It was looking like an easy takedown until some part of Cranford’s reptilian brain sensed he was being followed. He broke hard right across a ramshackle house’s brown lawn, accelerating with surprising agility for a dope fiend. Drake gave chase, his Converse Chuck Taylors pounding the ground as he turned on the speed. Cranford vaulted over a four-foot-high chain link fence and into the home’s yard, and Drake hesitated, but only for a second, any worries about trespassing overshadowed by the five grand Cranford represented.
He landed on the far side of the fence in time to see his quarry darting across the back lawn, which was littered with dog droppings and trash. Cranford threw his hands over the top of a wooden fence at the rear of the lot and pulled himself up and over. Drake was just about to follow him when the back door of the house creaked open and an old woman’s sandpaper voice called out.
“You. What are you doing in my yard? Filthy punk. Brutus! Get him!”
Drake gripped the fence and cursed under his breath at Cranford for making this hard. He was scrambling up, feet trying for a grip as he hoisted himself, when Brutus made all hundred and ten pounds of his Rottweiler presence known with a chomp on Drake’s left leg. Drake screamed and kicked at the monster as he boosted himself over the fence, his ankle radiating pain.
He tumbled into another yard and winced. After confirming that the dog’s teeth hadn’t penetrated his skin, Drake took off after Cranford, who was fumbling with a tall iron gate at the side of the house. He reached him just as Cranford was turning toward him, a sneer on his face, the metal trash can by his side emanating the telltale stink of a recent fishing expedition on the bay.
Drake pulled the stun gun from his pocket and held it aloft.
“It’s over. Only question is if you want to do this the easy way, or the way that zaps the crap out of you. All the same to me.”
Cranford responded by ducking to the side and lifting the garbage can in front of him to block Drake’s shot. Then he charged him, using the can for cover. Drake dodged to the left, but not enough to completely avoid the container, and found himself covered in fish guts and beer dregs as it struck his ribcage, knocking him backward. He landed on the ground with a grunt, and by the time he’d rolled and gotten the stun gun aimed, Cranford was swinging a leg at him, trying to kick his teeth in.
Cranford’s work boot struck him a glancing blow on the side of his head. A starburst exploded behind his eyes, and then he had the punk’s foot in his grip and the gun pointed at his crotch. He fired and heard a howl of agony as he shocked Cranford, who dropped like a sack of twitching rocks. Drake sat up and shook his head, trying to clear it, and zapped Cranford again, just for good measure.
“There. You like that? That what you had in mind?” Drake stood unsteadily and tossed the cuffs at Cranford. “Put those on. Try anything and you get another dose.”
A man’s voice boomed from the rear of the house. “What’s going on? I’ve got a gun.”
Great. Just what he needed. Drake looked over his shoulder.
“I’m apprehending a criminal, sir. Please don’t shoot me.” Drake returned his attention to Cranford. “Put the cuffs on or I push the button. Now.”
All the fight had gone out of Cranford, and he grudgingly snapped the cuffs in place. The man approached carrying a shotgun and stood a safe distance away.
“Why are you in my yard?” he demanded.
“This scumbag jumped the fence and was trying to get your gate open. I followed him over.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “You a cop?”
Drake shook his head. “No, he’s a bail skip.”
“So you’re a bounty hunter?”
“I much prefer fugitive recovery agent.”
“Well, Mister Fugitive Recovery Agent, my brother’s in the joint doing hard time, and I don’t like the law. Especially bounty hunters. So I’m gonna call the cops while you two wait, and then I’m filing trespassing charges. Now don’t you move,” he ordered, and pulled a phone from his pocket. Drake swore under his breath. He wasn’t supposed to trespass. That was one of the cardinal rules of his trade and a very real legal issue. Harry would be livid, and worse, the charge was likely to stick, if the man couldn’t be dissuaded from pushing it.
“Yes, sir. Of course, I wouldn’t have had to enter your property if this dangerous felon hadn’t been there first.”
“Shut your pie hole. You play this way for a living, you take the hits.”
A small voice called out from the open doorway. “Ew. You got fish guts on you, mister.”
Drake sighed, trying not to gag at the reminder of the rotting leavings soaked into his hoodie.
“I know, kid.”
The man snarled over his shoulder. “Shut up. Bailey, go back into the house. Git. Now.”
“I ain’t outta the house.”
“You want a strapping? Talkin’ back like that? Get back inside. Now.”
“You gonna shoot ’em?”
The man grinned, an ugly display of marginal dental work that chilled Drake’s marrow. “Never know, son. Now git.”
Sirens greeted them several minutes later, and Drake stood by patiently while the disgruntled homeowner insisted on swearing out a complaint. A second squad car arrived and carted Cranford back to jail as the officer finished filling out the form and had the owner sign it.
“All right, Simmons. You know the drill. We gotta take you in and book you.”
Drake shook his head. “Tell me this is a joke.”
“Wish it was. Sorry. Let’s go. Oh, and I need your Taser.”
Drake handed it over as the homeowner watched, a smirk on his face, and Drake got another waft of fish stink rising from his shirt.
“Christ. What is that? Smells like an open sewer,” the cop complained as they walked together to the car.
“You ever have one of those days?” Drake asked.
The cop stopped by his cruiser, opened the back door, and nodded. “All the time, man. Watch your head.”
The afternoon light faded to amber as dusk approached. Harry paced in the small area behind his desk, gazing through the window at a copse of trees behind the office, the stub of an unlit cigar clenched between his teeth. Obviously agitated, he finally stopped and faced Drake, who was sitting in one of two dilapidated chairs in front of the desk.
“I’m sorry, man, but I warned you. I can’t have this kind of crap associated with my company.”
“What crap? I nailed him. Dead to rights,” Drake protested.
“While trespassing on private property. You’re lucky the old lady didn’t jump into it and file, too.”
“She’s lucky I don’t sue her for the dog bite.”
Harry shook his head and sat in his worn executive chair, his nervous energy finally dissipated, and leaned over to open his bottom desk drawer. He extracted a locking metal box and lifted the lid.
Drake caught the bundle of rubber-band-wrapped hundreds in midair.
Harry smiled. “Good catch.”
“Thanks. This the five?”
“Yup. Listen. Drake. We go back a ways, so let me make a suggestion. Lay low. Take some time off. Go find a girl or get drunk or something. Take a vacation. And consider a different line of work. This isn’t for you. You’re too smart to be a bounty hunter. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you, a degree…you’re wasting your time with this.”
Drake’s eyes fixed on Harry’s face. “You firing me? For real?”
“You don’t work for me. You’re a free agent. So I can’t fire you. But if you’re asking, I’m not going to hand you any more jobs, at least not for a while. I don’t need the grief. You know better than to chase a perp through private property like that. And Cranford’s complaining that you used cruel and unusual subjugation techniques. He may press charges, too.”
“What? I Tasered him.”
“You got him in his family jewels.”
“While he was trying to kick my face in.”
“Still. It looks bad.” Harry’s gaze wandered to his message pad. “Dude, you’re the best I’ve ever seen at figuring out where these mugs are hiding. It’s eerie – like a sixth sense. But you don’t follow the rules, and that’s a big problem. So even though you’re great at the tracking part of the job, you suck at the obeying the law part, and I can’t have that reputation associated with me.” He squinted at the writing on the pad. “Oh. Hey. I almost forgot. This came in earlier. Some guy looking for you. An attorney, he said.” Harry tore off the message slip and handed it to Drake, who read it with a puzzled expression.
“Did he say what he wanted?”
“Nope. Maybe somebody else wants to file charges against you. Been a full day even by your standards, hasn’t it?”
“Very funny. Can I use the phone?”
“Sure. And then make yourself scarce. If you still want work, call me in a month. But for now, you’re off my approved list. Nothing personal, of course.”
“Of course.” Drake stood and walked to the office door. “I’ll use Betty’s phone, okay?”
“Mi casa, baby. Sorry to cut you off at the knees.”
“No sweat. Maybe you’re right. Time for some sightseeing someplace warm and sunny. Maybe Mexico. You can live pretty cheap there, I hear.”
“That’s the spirit. Get a tan. Have too many beers. Find a señorita to lie to. You’re a young man. Live a little.”
“Not that young.”
“What are you, twenty-five? I got stuff in my freezer older than that.”
“Twenty-six. Not that I’m counting.”
Drake sat behind Betty’s receptionist desk and dialed the number. Washington state, judging from the area code. It rang three times and then a musical female voice answered.
“Baily, Crane, and Lynch. May I help you?”
“I think so. I’m returning a call from a Michael Lynch?”
“Certainly, sir. And who may I say is calling?”
Music on hold waltzed in his ear for thirty seconds and then a refined baritone boomed over the line. “Michael Lynch.”
“Mr. Lynch, this is Drake Simmons. You called today?”
“Oh, yes, of course. First of all, let me extend my sincere condolences.”
“Yes. Your aunt, Patricia Marshall, passed away the day before yesterday.”
“I’m sorry. Patricia Marshall? You say she was my aunt?”
“That’s correct. I gather you weren’t close?”
“There must be some mistake. I’ve never heard of Patricia Marshall.”
“Mmm. Apparently she was your father’s sister.”
“My father didn’t have a sister, as far as I know.”
“Well, be that as it may, as executor of her will, her instructions were very clear. I have a package here that I’m to hand to Drake Simmons, currently of San Antonio Road in Mountain View, California, in person. Your employer was kind enough to confirm that’s you. I’ve also been authorized to purchase a plane ticket to get you to Seattle, as well as pay for accommodations for two days. And of course, compensate you for your time.”
“Compensate me?” Drake echoed, his ears perking up.
“Yes. A thousand dollars a day. Apart from what she left you, of course.”
“She left me something besides the…package?”
“Correct. Twenty-five thousand dollars. All the money she had in the world.”
“Mr. Lynch, I’m afraid there’s been some sort of mistake. I don’t know this woman, and as sorry as I am to hear she passed away, I’m not sure what to make of this. How do I know you’re legit?”
“You called the firm’s offices. If you like, go online and check us out – verify that I’m a member of the bar, that we’ve been here for over twenty years, whatever you like. You should be able to do that quickly.” Lynch paused. “Mr. Simmons, there’s twenty-five thousand dollars with your name on it in my account, and a package that requires you to sign for it in my office. Do you have something so pressing that you can’t make it here to claim your inheritance?”
“See, that’s the problem. It’s an inheritance from an aunt I didn’t even know I had.”
“If you say so. That’s not my concern. But it’s your money, assuming you show up to claim it.”
Drake thought about the odd set of circumstances. “And there are no strings attached?”
“Correct. Show up, confirm your identity, sign, collect your cashier’s check and the package, and you’re done.”
Drake picked up one of Betty’s pens. “Fine. I can fly in tomorrow. I’ll verify your bona fides, and if it all checks out, I’ll be on the first plane out tomorrow. How do I get a ticket paid for, and will you be there around lunchtime?”
~ ~ ~
When Drake arrived at Lynch’s building the following afternoon, he was impressed by the baroque décor and wood paneled offices on the firm’s floor. The suite smelled like prosperity, of weighty matters and important men. The receptionist was a perfectly manicured Chinese woman not much older than Drake, who peered over the rims of designer glasses at him with the glacial composure of a surgeon. One glance at her severe suit made him feel instantly underdressed in his dark gray cargo pants and blue polo shirt, his North Face jacket clenched in one hand as he waited for her to alert Lynch of his arrival.
A tall bearded man in a charcoal suit with a leonine head of graying hair approached from the back offices with an outstretched hand and a somber expression.
“Drake Simmons? Michael Lynch. Good of you to come. I trust your trip was uneventful?”
“Yes. It wasn’t bad.”
“Excellent. Would you be kind enough to follow me to the conference room?”
They moved through the hushed suite to a large room with a rectangular table. A bookcase filled with legal tomes occupied one entire wall, with a panoramic view of the Seattle skyline through the picture windows that ran its length the main attraction. Lynch offered Drake a seat by the window.
Lynch moved to the head of the table, where a package wrapped in brown paper sat next to a check and a heavy green leather-bound signature book.
“Let’s dispense with formalities. Do you have identification?” Lynch asked.
“Of course. Driver’s license okay?”
Drake slid it across the table to the attorney, who pressed a button on the intercom box mounted on the corner of the table. “Would you please come in and make a copy?”
Twenty seconds later a blonde in a black business suit entered and wordlessly took Drake’s license. She offered a polite smile and departed as quietly as she came, exuding high-priced professional discretion.
Lynch made small talk until she returned with a photocopy and deposited it in front of him. He studied the license like it held nuclear launch codes and then opened the big ledger and slid it, and the ID, to Drake.
“Sign there, by the X, if you would,” Lynch instructed. Drake did so and pocketed his license.
“Well. There we have it. All done. This, young man, is yours,” Lynch said, presenting him with the cashier’s check. “And this is also yours.” He handed him the package. “Oh, and I’m afraid there’s one tiny caveat. It’s nothing, really.”
“A caveat?” Drake repeated, instantly suspicious.
“Yes. You’re to open the package while seated in this room, and read the note inside. After that, if you choose to do nothing else, I will return with another check for your two thousand dollars of expense money, and you may leave the contents of the package with me. I’ve been instructed, if that’s your choice, to forward it on to the largest museum in New York, and you may leave, your part in the matter finished.”
“Wait. All I have to do is read a note from some lady I never heard of?”
“Your aunt. Recently departed.”
“Sure. Okay, go get the check. This won’t take long.”
“As you wish. I’d suggest you be careful with the wrapping. You don’t want to tear the note,” Lynch said with a frown, and then stood. “I’ll be back shortly.”
Drake waited until the heavy door had closed and smiled to himself. Fine. He’d humor the old codger. Play along, pretend interest, and then take the money and run. Twenty-five big ones. No, counting the extra two, twenty-seven. Added to the five he’d just gotten for Cranford, that was enough to lounge around on the beaches of Baja for a good year, if not longer.
He leaned forward and began tearing at the brown paper, which to his eye was an old sandwich bag hurriedly sliced up and used for wrapping, and then remembered Lynch’s warning about going easy. He folded back the flaps, the cheap tape yellowed from age, and found a single creased sheet of binder paper sitting atop a five-by-seven battered brown leather book, held closed with a grimy piece of twine. Drake gave it a cursory glance and opened the note. A flowing, clearly feminine hand filled the ruled page in blue ballpoint ink.
If you’re reading this, I’m dead. How or why isn’t important. What is important is that you know some things about your past. Important things. About your father.
After his death, I moved from Portland, leaving everything behind. I did so because the men who killed him would be looking for me. As they would for your mother, who was a saint. By the way, I’m sorry she passed away. She’ll be missed.
Where do I start? Best at the beginning.
I was at your baptism. At your first four birthdays. At countless outings, picnics, dinners. Then everything changed. Your father went away and never returned. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Do you know the story of your name? You’re named after one of the greatest adventurers of all time: Sir Francis Drake. Your father admired his courage no end, which was probably his undoing. And your real last name is Ramsey. Drake Ramsey. Your mother and I changed our names after your father died, and yours, too. Why you don’t use the Ramsey name is one of the topics of this letter.
Your father loved you more than life itself. Words can’t describe his joy when you came into the world. It breaks my heart that you never really knew him.
Your father, Ford Ramsey, was an adventurer. A treasure hunter. He was a good man, but with a wild streak that couldn’t be tamed. Your mother knew it when she married him, and she did so willingly.
He was killed searching for a lost Inca city said to contain the greatest treasure ever known. The journal contains his notes and his reasoning, up until he left for South America. Word arrived later that he’d died in the jungles there. Murdered, although the details are muddled. I know this because his trusted friend, who also changed his last name and is now using the name Jack Brody, returned from that trip with the news of his death.
I have left you whatever money I’ve managed to cobble together in my new life. And the most precious gift I can offer – the words of your father, in his own hand, chronicling his thinking, and ultimately, his journey to his fate. Read it and guard it well. Its value is substantial.
Your loving aunt,
To read more, order Ramsey’s Gold on Amazon!