Bronco Cravens was sweating bullets.
Not only because of the heat from an intense Georgia sun.
But from his own damned case of nerves.
He rubbed his fingers together in anticipation, but didn’t move, just searched the undergrowth through narrowed eyes one last time. He tuned into the sounds of the lowland: The lap of water against the muddy banks, the whir of dragon-fly wings as the narrow-bodies creatures darted along the shore and the tonal croak of a bullfrog hiding somewhere in the reeds.
The air was still and thick. Sultry enough to paste his shirt to his body.
His nerves were stretched thin, his blood running hot at the thought of what he was about to do. He searched the heavy undergrowth for any kind of movement and licked his already-chapped lips. Sunlight and shadow played through the Spanish moss draped live oaks, but he saw no one, no flicker of movement, felt no eyes boring into his back.
Squinting, he tried to distinguish sunlight from shadow through these dense woods. The swollen river moved quickly in a soft rush, mosquitos buzzing near his head but he heard nothing out of the ordinary.
No sounds of footfalls or twigs snapping. No murmur of hushed voices or the crunch of tires on old gravel just over the rise. No whine of a distant siren.
No, it seemed, he was all alone.
No time to lose.
He patted his pockets, had the keys, his cell phone, a flashlight and his pistol, a Roger LCP, a lightweight automatic that was forever with him. All set. “Let’s go,” he hissed, glancing over his shoulder to his boat where the dog he’d inherited sat at attention, ears cocked, waiting for a command. Fender had been a gift from Darla, a pure bred blue tick heeler if the previous owner were to be believed. But that was before Darla had left suddenly, slamming the door behind her while screaming, “Don’t you ever call me again, you fuckin’ loser! And you can keep the damned dog.”
He had. Kept the dog, that was. And yeah, he’d never phoned or texted again. Nor had she tried to contact him. Which was just fine.
Today, bringing the heeler along may have been a mistake. Sleek coat glistening in the sun, Fender leapt over the edge of the boat to land in the shallows and followed as Bronco took off, running, his boots sinking into the thick mud. Fleetingly Bronco remembered playing on the grounds as a child, fishing, catching snakes and bullfrogs, skipping stones across the pond, watching dragon flies skim the surface, their wings crackling, sunlight catching on their iridescent bodies. He’d run this path often as a kid, but it had been years since he’d taken out his father’s fishing boat or stole some of his Camel straights, or hid a six pack in the old culvert. Back then, those had been the worst of his sins.
Now, of course, there were others.
More than he wanted to count.
Now the stakes were a damned sight higher than pissing off his old man and risking Jasper Craven’s considerable wrath. But he wouldn’t dwell on that now, couldn’t dare thinking about his run-ins with the law. Just the thought of prison, of being hauled back to a cement walled cell made his skin crawl. He couldn’t go back there. Wouldn’t.
And yet, here he was. Trespassing. Tempting fate. Intending to break into the Beaumont mansion where his grandfather had once been caretaker and had sworn the old lady who had lived there had secreted a fortune. His blood ran hotter at the thought of it. Wynn Cravens had admitted he’d seen the rare gold and silver coins, some dating back to the Civil War along with a cache of jewels and silver certificates and thousands of dollars that old Beulah Beaumont had secreted in the basement of the once-grand home. Beulah had been mad as a hatter, Gramps had claimed, but he’d sworn the valuables were there–viewed with his own eyes.
Bronco was about to find out.
And change his life.
He grinned at the thought.
No time to lose.
Sunlight was already beginning to fade.
Yesterday’s hurricane, named Jules and a goddamned category five had torn through this part of Georgia, leveling homes, splintering trees and flooding the city. Telephone and electric poles had been uprooted, the power was out for miles and cell phone service patchy at best.
A disaster for most of the citizens of Savannah.
And a blessing for Bronco.
He crested a rise, a natural levee that had kept most of the flood waters surrounding the old home within the river’s banks. From the corner of his eye, he caught a flash. Movement. His heart nearly stopped. But it was just his stupid dog taking off through the tall grass, startling two ducks. Wings flapping noisily, quacking loudly, they took flight.
His heart leapt to his throat, but he heard no footsteps, nor shouts, nor sirens, nor baying of hounds.
Good. Just keep moving.
Find what you’re looking for.
No more than fifteen minutes.
He saw the sagging fence with its rusted No Trespassing sign dangling from the locked gate and vaulted over what was left of the mesh then spied the house, built on a rise, surrounded by live oaks, the once-manicured lawn surrendering to brush. The white-washed siding was now gray and dimpled, paint peeling, roof sagging and completely collapsed around one of four crumbling chimneys.
For half a beat, Bronco stared up at the house, its windows shuttered and boarded over, graffiti scrawled across the buckling sheets of plywood, the wide, wrap-around porch listing on rotted footings.
His grandfather’s voice whispered to him: “Don’t do it, son. Don’t. This–what y’er contemplating– is a mistake, y’hear me? It’ll only bring you trouble, the kind of trouble no man wants.” He set his jaw and ignored the warning. He’d waited long enough. Now, finally the old man was dead. As if Wynn Craven’s had heard his thoughts, his raspy voice came again: “Boy, you listen to me, now.”
“Y’er gonna get caught,” Wynn Cravens cautioned from beyond the grave. “Sure as shootin’. “And then what? Eh? Another five years in prison? Hell, maybe ten! Could be more. Don’t do it, son.”
“Oh, shut up,” Bronco growled under his breath. Something he would have never said to his big, strapping grandfather if the man were still alive. Of course he wasn’t. Wynn Cravens had given up the ghost just two weeks earlier, his big heart stopping while the old guy was splitting wood.
With Wynn’s passing, Bronco’s fortune had changed.
This was his big chance, maybe his last chance and Bronco was going to make the best of it. After all of the bad breaks in his life, finally something good was coming his way. He took the hurricane as an omen. A sign from God Himself.
Right now all of the cops and emergency workers were busy being heroes.
Which gave Bronco some time.
From the corner of his eye he caught a glimmer of movement, a blur through the trees. Not the dog this time. Fender was right on his heels.
He felt his skin crawl. There had always been rumors of ghosts haunting the grounds, lost souls who’d found no escape from the tarnished history of the Beaumont family. Bronco, though he hated admitting it, couldn’t help believing some of the old stories that had been whispered from one generation to the next. Even his grandfather, a brawny no-nonsense Welshman had believed that tortured spirits moved through the stands of live oak and pine and had sworn on the family Bible that he’d seen the ghost of Nellie Beaumont, a seven year old girl who drowned in the river in the 1960s. Bronco knew nothing more than that her death had devastated the family. Glimpses of the girl had always been reported the same: A waif in a dripping nightgown, dark ringlets surrounding a pale face, a doll clutched to her chest as she forever wandered along the edge of the water.
And the sightings hadn’t stopped with Gramps. His father, too, and a man of the cloth had sworn he’d seen the ghost, though Bronco thought Jasper Cravens’s glimpse of the apparition had been the likely cause from his affection for rye whiskey rather than an actual viewing of a bedraggled spirit. And hadn’t he once, while sneaking through these very woods thought he’d caught sight of a pale, ghost-like figure darting through the underbrush.
He’d told himself, the apparition had been a figment of his imagination, but now, the thought of any kind of wraith caused the hairs on the back of his arms to ripple to attention.
“A crock,” Bronco reminded himself just as he spied a deer, a damned white-tailed doe, bounding through a copse of spindly pine.
He made his way toward the back of the house, through weeds and tall grass to the listing verandah that stretched across the rear of the house and offered a view of the terraced lawn and bend in the river. Quickly, across the rotting floorboards he walked to the side door, the one his grandfather and the rest of the staff had used. He slid the key from his pocket, sent up a prayer for good luck, then slipped the key into the lock. A twist of his wrist and . . . nothing. The key didn’t budge.
He tried again, forcing the key a bit. Shoving it hard.
Once more the lock held firm.
“Goddamn it!” Just his luck. After waiting all this time, after planning and hoping and . . . this always happened to him! In an instant he saw his decades long dream of wealth disintegrate into dust. Maybe he’d have to break through the old plywood covering the windows. But that would take too long, be too noisy.
“Fuck it.” He wasn’t going to give up. Not yet. Setting his jaw, he jammed the key in again, then suddenly stopped. This was all wrong.
He’d watched the old man do this a hundred times.
He remembered his grandfather babying the lock.
Bronco tried again, but didn’t force the key in hard, “gentled it” as Gramps used to say. “Like dealing with a hot-headed woman, son, you got to tread softly, touch her gentle-like.”
“Come on. Come on--”
The bolt gave way and the door creaked open.
He was in! Quickly, his heart hammering, his nerves strung tight, he stepped into a small vestibule with a narrow set of stairs running up and down and a door leading into the kitchen. He headed down the curved steps to find another door at another landing. Unlocked, it swung open easily to reveal yawning blackness and horrid stench that seemed to waft upward in a cloud. Nearly gagging, he pulled a rag to cover his mouth from one pocket and a small flashlight from another. God, the smell of rot and decay was overpowering. He switched on the flashlight and descended the final flight to step into three or four inches of water, black and brackish and thick with sludge.
This better be worth it.
He skimmed the standing water with the beam of his flashlight and tried not to think of what creatures might nest down here–rats and gators and water moccasins or black widows hidden in dark places.
Don’t go there. Don’t think about what could be living down here. Concentrate, Cravens. Find the loot and get the hell out before you get caught.
Ducking beneath raw beams black with age, rusted hooks and nails protruding, he slogged through years of forgotten furniture, books, pictures, all ruined and decaying. The flashlight’s beam skated over the water and mud, across broken down chairs and crates stacked atop each other.
A spider web brushed his face and he felt a skittering of fear slide down his spine.
This place was getting too him. Too dark, too smelly, too . . .
He froze at the sound.
What the hell?
His heart went into overdrive, thudding wildly.
He whirled, swinging the beam of the flashlight past a listing armoire to . . .oh, shit! A dark, disjointed figure stared back at him!
Bronco jumped backward, startled. Automatically he reached for his Roger. Someone was down here! A weird apparition that, too, was staring at him while scrabbling for a weapon and pointing a beam of a high-powered flashlight at his face. Reacting, Bronco fired just as he realized his mistake.
The dirty mirror shattered!
His own distorted image splintered into a hundred shards of glass that flew outward, glittering crazily in his flashlight’s beam. “Shit!”
A rat squealed and scurried between several stacks of boxes.
Freaked, Bronco took aim at the rodent, but stopped himself before pulling the trigger. The damned rat was the least of his problems. If anyone had heard the gun go off they come and investigate. Shit, shit, shit!
“No way,” he said under his breath. He just had to work faster.
Get in. Get out.
That was the plan.
Gramps had said there was some sort of hiding space at the southeast corner of the foundation, a deeper cache where he’d seen Beulah Beaumont hide her valuables.
So find it already.
Pushing aside a bike with flat tires propped against a post, he kept moving, still bent over as he stepped around a pile of empty bottles that had been stacked near the brick foundation. He ran the beam over ancient bricks stacked nearly four feet tall that made up the foundation. Carefully he eyed the mortar, searching for any cracks and— in a second he saw the seam. Partially hidden by an ancient armoire, he noticed a flaw in the design where the pattern of the bricks changed.
The old man hadn’t lied.
With renewed effort, he held the flashlight in his teeth and shoved one shoulder against the armoire, shoving the heavy chest to one side, wedging it tight against a stack of stained boxes. Sure enough, the seam was the outline of a small door cut into the bricks.
He just had to figure out how to open it. He had no more keys, no crow bar, but as he shined his light over the seam in the bricks, he ran the tips of his fingers over the rough edges of the mortar.
No handle of any kind.
There had to be a way.
More carefully he touched the edges of the seam again but . . . nothing. “Come on, come on,” he muttered in frustration.
No one said it would be easy, but he could use an effin’ break.
Thump, thump, thump, thump!
The noise thundered through the basement.
What the hell?
Oh, shit! Someone was running across the porch!
Had he closed the outside door? Locked it behind him?
Why was anyone out here after the damned storm?
In one motion, he ducked, dimmed his flashlight, and raised his gun, his eyes trained laser-sharp on the foot of the stairs where only the faintest shaft of illumination was visible. Sweat drizzled into his eyes.
Could he really do it?
Kill a man? Or a woman? Or a damned kid?
Crap, crap, crap!
Heavy breathing, more thumping as whoever it was rounded that final landing.
Oh, Jesus. Someone heard the shot! That’s what it was!
Bronco’s finger tightened over the trigger.
In a blur of motion a shadow leaped from the final steps.
He fired--Bang!--And caught a glimpse of shiny fur as an animal yelped in pain.
No! His stupid dog! Jesus Christ, he’d just killed his damned dog!
The shot was still ringing in his ears but still, he heard a pitiful whine and scrambling paws. “Boy—here, boy.”
The heeler was at his side in an instant, unhurt, just scared and shaking, brown eyes bulging. But no blood. Bronco checked with his flashlight, running the beam over the dog’s mottled coat. “You idiot,” Bronco muttered, but gave the shivering animal a quick scratch behind his ears. “I coulda killed . . . oh, hell . . .” There was no time for this. Now there had been two shots fired. No telling who might’ve heard them. One could have been dismissed, but two? Nope. No way. He had to work fast. To the dog, he whispered. “You stay. You hear me? Don’t move a muscle.”
Fender whined, his tail tucked between his legs his body trembling.
Bronco couldn’t worry about it. He had less time than ever. He had to find the release for the door. And fast.
He swept the light over the beams, searching for electrical wires that would lead him to a switch for the small brick portal even though, if that were the case, if the catch on the door was electrically controlled, he was screwed. The power to the house had been shut off long ago.
Think, Bronco, think. This has to be simple. Something you’re missing! What had Gramps said? Something about a combination?
He returned to the door, crouched beside it, ran the flashlight’s beam over the dirty bricks once more.
From the corner of his eye he saw the dog nosing around again, but ignored him. Right now he had to concentrate. Crouching low, Bronco took a step backward, ran the flashlight over the door again and . . . he saw it. A chip on one of the lower bricks that was slightly different than the others. Smoother. A long shot, but he knelt in the muck, placed his finger in the small divot and waited for a click.
Yet . . . then he spied another, similar notch on the brick above. He touched it. Again, zilch.
Fender crept up to him. Curious. Nosing around.
Bronco ignored the dog and tried several times to open the latch. But nothing happened.
This had to be it. Right?
The dog whined, the hackles on the back of his neck bristling, but Bronco was deep in concentration before he noticed the third notch on a brick that abutted the other two.
Tentatively. Sweat dripping from his nose, he placed a finger on the notch. Still nothing. Damn. Maybe he was way off base with this.
Fender, muscles tense, let out a low growl.
“Hush!” Bronco muttered. He couldn’t be bothered with the dog right now. He rocked back on his heels holding the beam steady on the small door. No more notches. Just the three in those abutting bricks. That had to mean something. Had to. He chewed on his lip. What if he touched all three impressions at once? What were the chances?
Again the dog let out a warning growl, but Bronco paid no attention.
He leaned forward, placed his fingertips into the holes one at a time. Nothing budged. He tried again this time touching all of the indentations simultaneously.
Over the low rumble of Fender’s warning growl, he heard a soft, but distinct click.
His heart hammered. He licked his lips. But nothing moved. “Damn.” This had to be it. Nervously, knowing he was on the brink, he tried again, then on inspiration, pushed on the rough bricks, rather than waiting for the door to magically open.
Scraping loudly as he shoved on it, the door slid slowly inward. The scents of dust and dry rot sifted out.
He was in!
Bronco could have shouted for joy!
All the years of waiting!
As Bronco leaned forward, shining his light into the dry space beyond, the stupid mutt gave out an eerie whine. “Shut up,” Bronco said, leaning forward. He peered into the dark, tight cavern, sweeping the beam of his flashlight over the interior, expecting to find a cache of unimaginable treasure.
No glittering gems or stacks of bills.
Instead . . .
What the hell?
What the bloody hell?
The flashlight’s beam landed on a skull.
A human skull.
With empty black sockets where eyes had once been, the jaw open, teeth visible in an eerie grin of death, the fleshless face seemed to stare straight into the bottom of Bronco’s soul.
He let out a scream before he saw the second skull, next to the first, smaller and just as long dead. Their clothes were tatters, blouses, one with a bra, shorts and sneakers. Bits of jewelry winking in the flashlight’s glare.
Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!
Frantically, he scrambled backward, as if expecting the skeletons to stand and start chasing him. He stood quickly, his head cracking painfully against a rough beam.
His knees buckled, but only for an instant.
Then he ran. Knocking over boxes and bins, banging his knee against a forgotten chest of drawers, Bronco Cravens ran as he’d never run before.