Prologue

T he form drifted eerily.

From a distance, it almost appeared to be a woman.

At first Genevieve Wallace didn’t know what she was seeing. There it was at the bottom, drifting ever so lightly with the current, looking almost like…a woman.

She looked to her left and saw that Vic Damon was just feet away, concentrating on a jutting coral ridge that created a cavelike effect in the pristine waters. With what they had recently learned about the La Doña, they were trying to see what might be hiding more or less in plain sight.

The easy, rhythmic sound of her own breathing filled her ears, and she looked at her air gauge. She still had twenty thousand psi, and her depth monitor showed she was hovering between forty-five and fifty-five feet beneath the surface. She could check out the strange form without compromising her own safety.

The water was like crystal, a shimmering color between blue and green. The temperature, too, was absolutely perfect. It was a wonderful afternoon in which to take the time to explore the smallest detail that drew her curiosity.

Last week, when they had started working the area, it had been different. Their first day out, three members of their five-person crew had been violently ill, including Marshall Miro, the owner of Deep Down Salvage. Gen didn’t get seasick, but with everyone around her heaving…it hadn’t been pleasant. But now the winds had died down completely. The surface was nearly as smooth as glass. The sand had settled.

Visibility was good.

It was almost as if the shape in the water was beckoning to her. Still hearing the rhythmic sound of her own breath, she gave a kick of her fins and started toward whatever it might be.

As she drew closer, she thought that someone had dropped a mannequin in the ocean. From a distance, it had looked like a woman. The closer she got, the more that impression became set in her mind. Yes, it was some kind of mannequin. She wasn’t easily frightened, but she could feel a frown of curiosity creasing her brow as she moved closer.

Blond hair floated freely in the water, creating a halo effect around the mannequin’s head. There was something soft and beautiful—eerily lifelike—about it. Kicking to propel herself directly in front of it, she saw that it was dressed in a white gown, which billowed with the movement of the water.

The serenely molded face stirred a feeling of deepest sadness in her.

She almost reached out in sympathy.

Almost…

With a shock, she realized that it was down here on the ocean floor because it was weighted. There was rope around the ankles, connected to a canvas bag full of what seemed to be bricks.

The sound of her breathing stopped abruptly.

She had to force herself to breathe again.

It wasn’t a mannequin. The body was real.

The blood in her veins turned to ice. Sickened, she did reach out, knowing she had to touch the face. There was no hope the woman was alive. There were no escaping air bubbles; there had been no other boat for her to have come from…and yet she knew she had to touch her, find out if there were some way she might be saved.

Just as her fingers were about to make contact with the woman’s lifeless skin, her head rose. Her huge blue eyes opened and rested on Genevieve’s. They were filled with sadness.

Her flesh was grayish-tinged white. Her lips were blue.

She stared at Genevieve, her mouth forming a silent O, and she lifted her hand, reaching out to Genevieve, as if seeking a touch of consolation.

She started to smile, as if heartbroken.It was a terrible smile, a knowing smile. A lifeless smile.Then she formed a single word with those blue, dead lips.Beware.“H ey, no one ever said the sun made people sane,” Jack Payne, an old-time and expert diver, said, staring at Thor Thompson with an amused cant to his head.Thor, in turn, was staring at the woman.He’d first seen her earlier that day, when his boat, The Seeker, had met up with the group the state had hired. They were both involved in the same exploratory mission, and there had never been any reason, as far as Thor was concerned, not to co-exist with other companies and other divers. Especially on this project. The state of Florida, along with the environmentalists and the historians, was solidly against some of the methods treasure seekers had used in the past. Coral reefs were fragile. It was one thing to disturb a little nature when there was a verified find; it was quite another to rip the sea floor to shreds in the pursuit of a find. Though the historians were the ones who had set this project into motion, they were going on a theory, and there had to be proof of that theory before the state allowed in any of the big machinery that might tear up the beauty of the reefs—the state’s real treasure, as far as tourism went.Thor was working for the federal government, not himself, and since the Deep Down Salvage group was working for the state, it wasn’t as if one of them was going to seize the treasure from the other. If it turned out to be true that the Marie Josephine was hidden beneath sand and coral and the continuous reef life, and they did discover a pirate cache, they would both make out well, but it wasn’t as if the proceeds wouldn’t be divided, or as if the state and U.S. governments—and maybe others—weren’t going to be taking the majority of the haul. As a diver who’d spent his career working on old wrecks and salvage, he had done well, and it wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate his creature comforts. But he had never been in it for the riches that some salvage divers continually sought. He liked the work, the history and the thrill of discovery.With the recent discovery of the wrecked La Niña just off Calliope Key, all sorts of people had once again become excited about the fact there were thousands of undiscovered wrecks off the Florida coast. It was more than plausible that at least some of those wrecks had been hiding pretty much in plain sight. Too often, people simply didn’t know or wouldn’t recognize what they were looking for. The sea could totally camouflage the remains of a ship after centuries, something researchers had learned much more about in the recent past when vessels of various kinds, having outlived their usefulness, had been purposely sunk to help create artificial reefs. Along with the passion, however, had come the cautionary voices of the historians and environmentalists. A number of the search areas where archives suggested the Marie Josephine might be found were marine sanctuaries. Solid proof of a find—more than a few pieces of eight, some ship’s silver, or even cannons—would have to turn up to allow for any dredging, hauling or sifting equipment to come out.Thor’s group, known as the Seekers, along with their lead research boat, wasn’t on call for just fantastic finds. There were times when the work was far more painful than exciting, when they went looking for survivors or the remains of a crash, times when they didn’t dive into the extreme beauty of the Caribbean, the Florida Straits or the Gulf of Mexico. There were dives into swamps, as well, and those were excruciating. The work here, though, was something he enjoyed—at which he hoped he excelled. They were on the trail of pirates. The initial work, done by the state historians, had sent them straight into some of the most beautiful water he had dived anywhere in the world. He liked what he was doing right now. It was the intimate kind of work that was the most exciting. Because they were going on speculation, this was real underwater exploration. Sure, they had sonar and radar, but because storms and time could play such havoc with the remnants of the past, they were also going back to basics, using their own eyes, their own instincts.Big money—despite the possibility of a big payoff—was hard to get in the speculation stage. Still, people were more important than equipment right now. That was why he was there, and that was also why she was there.The woman he was watching was an expert diver, so he’d been told. But he and his crew had been about half a mile from the Deep Down Salvage boat when he’d seen her bob frantically to the surface. He would have rushed in for a rescue, but her own people had been quick to recover her. When they had come broadside just to make sure everything was okay, she’d sounded like a lunatic, going on and on about a body in the water. He’d gone down.And found a lot of parrot fish and tangs.Since they were all staying at the resort, she was there now, with her buddies, and from the look on her face, they were still ribbing her. The whole thing felt strange to him, because she looked like the last woman in the world who would ever lose her cool. Frankly, she had a look that instantly aroused whatever was sexual and carnal in the male psyche. She was very tall—five eleven, at least—and everything about her was elegant. Even now, she appeared both calm and confident. She had long auburn hair, striking green eyes, dark, well-formed brows, a heart-shaped face and features that exemplified the phrase “perfect symmetry.” He’d seldom seen anyone look better in a bathing suit. She would have made a hell of a model, then again, she also would have made a hell of a stripper.Her mere presence in any room was enough to draw the eyes of any red-blooded male within range.It was a pity she seemed to be certifiably crazy.“Conchs are the worst of the lot,” Jack said, breaking into Thor’s thoughts.“What?” Thor looked back at the older man.“I said,” Jack told him, lighting his cigar, “that Conchs are known for being crazy. You know, Conchs. Like me. Native Key West folks.”“Well, I’m glad you added a subcategory there,” Thor told him.Jack shrugged. “That’s right. You’re a Jacksonville boy. North of the state—might as well be a different breed.”“The sane breed?” Thor said, offering a dry smile.Jack puffed on his cigar and watched the flame. He was somewhere between fifty and sixty years old, hair still long and iron-gray. He wore a huge skull-and-crossbones earring in one lobe and a chain with a Spanish doubloon around his neck. He was built like a man half his age who spent hours at the gym. In his own words, he’d been diving since the rest of them had been in knee britches. He was a man who knew what he was doing.“Ever hear of Count Von Cosel?” Jack asked.