Home > Dead in the Water (Deep Six #6)

Dead in the Water (Deep Six #6)
Author: Julie Ann Walker




   To Nikkie, for your big heart, your curious mind, and your never-ending love of family. It’s been my honor to watch you grow into the amazing woman you are today.



When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what the storm’s all about. ~Haruki Murakami





      July 29th, 1624...




   All dead.

   And very soon I will be dead too, Bartolome Vargas thought as he carefully wrapped his journal in oilcloth before placing it in the lead-lined box he had salvaged months earlier from the flotsam washed ashore after the wreck of the grand galleon.

   The Santa Cristina…

   Who could have known she would not survive her maiden mission?

   Certainly not Bartolome.

   The first time he laid eyes on her, anchored in the shipyard in Barcelona with her towering mainmast and hardwood hull gleaming in the sunshine, he had thought to himself, ‘Tis a ship to ply the seas long after the good Lord calls me home.

   Alas, Mother Nature had made other plans for the magnificent vessel.

   Mayhap the galleon could have survived the early season hurricane had she not been weighed down and riding low in the drink with a belly full of treasure from the New World. After all, she had been built tough by Spain’s best shipbuilders. A veritable floating fortress.

   Overburdened as she had been, however, there had been no hope for her when the seas grew angry and the winds howled like the very hounds of hell.

   “‘Tis why I made my decision,” he said aloud to no one.

   Or ‘twas possible he said it aloud for the benefit of the ghosts surrounding him. The invisible specters of the men who had sailed and fought by his side. All of them gone now. He, their commander, their capitán, was the lone survivor of the once heralded crew.

   Of the 224 souls who had sailed the Santa Cristina, only thirty-six had survived the violence of the big ship’s sinking. Thirty-six brave men who had continued to follow Bartolome’s commands despite the trials and tribulations they had faced once they found themselves marooned on the spit of mangrove forest and sand. Thirty-six sailors who had continued to prove themselves good and true sons of Spain until, one by one, they too had succumbed.

   Some had fallen victim to the elements or injury. Others to illness. But the last of them had been taken by that merciless demon known as thirst.

   After the blue death descended upon their camp, and after Bartolome dumped their water barrels in a desperate bid to keep more of his men from falling victim to the terrible illness, the stingy sky had refused to replenish their drinking supply with even one drop of rain.

   Helplessly, Bartolome had watched the last of his crewmen suffer the debilitating headaches and hallucinations brought on by dehydration. His own weakened state had made it impossible for him to stop those who had run into the sea, gulping of the salty water in a desperate attempt to quench their unbearable thirsts.

   Of course, their efforts had only expedited their departures into the great beyond.

   But mayhap ‘twas their intention all along, he silently mused as he closed the lid on the lead-lined box. And surely ‘tis no sin to hasten death when death is inevitable.

   The only thing that had been left to Bartolome then had been to dig their graves with the help of Rosario, the midshipman who had become his right-hand man. And then Rosario, too, had fallen quietly into the arms of death.

   With the last of his strength, Bartolome dug Rosario’s grave that very morn. Now he lowered the box into the shallow hole beside the midshipman’s body.

   “Keep this safe, my friend,” he whispered, brushing a strand of hair from Rosario’s cold brow. For the first time in weeks, the young sailor appeared at peace. No more furrowed forehead. No more pinched lips. No more glint of pain in his dark eyes.

   Bartolome had dressed Rosario’s body in his very own waistcoat, the buttons of which were stamped with the Vargas family seal. “You now hold the key to the location of the treasure.” He gently placed one of Rosario’s limp hands atop the precious box.

   Bartolome had no idea how long it took him to shovel sand back into the grave, his withered muscles shaking with fatigue. But eventually the deed was done, and he wiped a hand across his brow despite his shriveled body having long ago lost the ability to sweat.

   The wooden cross he had carved from the limbs of a mangrove tree found a home at the head of the narrow mound. He pressed his signet ring into the marker until the pattern from the ring was deeply imprinted upon the soft wood.

   His hope was that one of his countrymen would stumble onto the remote island, find the graves, and know the significance of the symbol on the cross. If so, and if they had an ounce of intelligence, they would dig up the body with the expectation of it being Bartolome himself, a captain known for his cunning and wits. A captain who would insist on leaving behind a clue, a code, that only their good king himself could decipher. A code that would pinpoint the location of the Santa Cristina’s enormous bounty.

   And if not? If no Spaniards arrived to find the grave and the secrets within? Then the massive cache of riches would remain safe in its new resting place. Safe from the covetous hands of Spain’s enemies. Locked away in a coral-encrusted tomb for all eternity.

   Bartolome dropped his hand atop the hill of sand covering Rosario’s corpse. “Rest well, my most trusted and loyal crewman. If there is an afterlife, you deserve all the glory that awaits you.”

   Dragging himself to the water’s edge, he lay on his back and let the surf lap at his legs. The beating of his heart kept rhythm with the warm waves as he stared into the cloudless sky. And then, after a time, his pulse grew thready and the world around him dimmed.

   Bartolome couldn’t see the bastard, but he knew the instant Death sat next to him.

   “‘Tis where I wish to face my end,” he told the Reaper, his voice a harsh rasp of sound. “Here, on this beach overlooking the watery grave of the Santa Cristina. The tide will carry my body out to sea where the fishes will pick my tired bones clean. A fitting end for a sailor, me thinks.”

   Death did not answer him, of course. But Bartolome thought for sure he could feel a cold, bony hand land upon his shoulder.

   “I am ready,” he declared staunchly. He had lived his life fearlessly. It was only fitting he greet his end with the same courage. “Take me.”

   With that, Bartolome Vargas, Spain’s most celebrated sea captain, breathed his last.



Chapter 1


      Present Day

   6:35 PM...



   “You ever have the urge to tell someone to shut up even when they aren’t talking?”

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