Stolen Series, Book 1
The floor was still at least twenty feet below her.
Surrounded by utter blackness, Lisa Maxwell tipped her head so the cone light from her helmet could slide over the interior of the cave. Then wondered what the heck she’d gotten herself into.
“You okay down there?”
The man’s voice echoing from above drew her back to reality, and she shook off strange feelings of self-doubt as she continued her descent into darkness. Her hand slid down the rope as she let out slack inch by inch. When her boots hit the slippery rocks at the bottom, she unhooked the rope from her harness and stepped back. “Off belay,” she called.
“Belay off,” the voice yelled back.
She rested her hands on her hips and drew a breath of damp air. Mildew and the rich scent of earth filled her nostrils.
The ray from her carbide lantern bounced off thin, pointed stalactites hanging from the ceiling, orange and red sediments swirling through the fragile structures. Scattered throughout the room, large columns covered in white residue flowed from floor to ceiling, and everywhere, dripping water echoed through the vast dark space.
A shiver raced down her spine, so she pulled up the zipper on her coveralls. It might be nine million degrees outside in the Jamaican sun, but underneath all this limestone rock, it was downright cold.
Metal scraped against rock above, and she glanced up while her brawny guide descended the rope and dropped to the floor next to her. He unhooked his harness, letting the rope hang from the small hole in the ceiling they’d just come through.
“This room is bigger than the maps indicate.” His thick Jamaican accent hung in the air.
As she turned to get a better look, her light swept over the darkness, landing on a translucent structure suspended from the ceiling. Though she’d have liked to spend time examining that drapery, there were more pressing issues at hand. She gestured to the left. “You start over there, Simeon. I’ll look to the right. Be sure to note any tunnels or passageways.”
He disappeared into the darkness, his light bouncing off structures he passed, his feet shuffling along the rock floor. Lisa began her own in-depth search while he worked. As she moved, she checked her watch periodically, calculating how long they’d been below the surface, as was her habit whenever she was caving.
Simeon wasn’t one for talking, and today she was thankful for the quiet. She skirted a small rimstone pool filled with murky water, picked her way around columns, careful not to touch any in the process. A gypsum flower jutted out of the wall, the presence of the curling, rosette-shaped calcium-sulfite structure indicating this cave was more stable than she’d thought. The knowledge calmed her.
“Anything?” she asked after they’d been searching nearly fifteen minutes.
“A couple small tunnels. None big enough for a man.”
Damn. She wasn’t going to get discouraged yet. They’d only been in this cavern a few hours. There were lots of rooms left to check.
She resumed her search. When she reached the far side of the room, she glanced up and a stream of light from her helmet spilled over the cave. The undulating drapery now hung above her, the banded structure blocking her view of the opposite wall.
She needed a wider perspective. Without looking behind her, she took a step back. A loud crack resounded through the quiet, followed by the rush of flowing water. Lisa lost her balance, and her arms flew out to the side to steady herself, but it was already too late. She managed one shrill scream before the floor dropped out from under her.
Brisk air whooshed around her as she plummeted with the falling rock into a tunnel below. She hit the ground with a thud. Her light went out when her helmet cracked against the rocks. Pain ricocheted through her torso just as a surge of icy water washed over her body, pulling her through the darkness.
Instinct took over before she could panic. She kicked frantic legs, gasped for air and lashed out with her hands to grab on to something to slow her descent. Her fingers slipped on the slick rocks as she made useless attempts to stop herself.
The rush of water yanked her over sharp rocks and cave formations. Jagged points stabbed into her back, sliced up her hands and arms. She fought the fear, tried to keep her wits as her body was bruised and beaten. If she could just get one good grip, grab on to one solid rock…
Then the tunnel took a steep drop. A blast of cold air hissed over her, and a terror-filled scream tore from her chest as she fell feet first into the blackness below.
Her boots hit a pool of frigid water. She plunged beneath the surface, wrenched down by the sheer force of gravity. The muscles in her chest constricted while her lungs burned at the lack of oxygen. Kicking as hard as she could, she tried to swim up, but her senses were so disoriented in the darkness, she had no idea if she was heading in the right direction.
Just when she was sure she was going to drown, she broke the surface, gasped and pulled damp air into her blazing lungs. Heart thundering, she tried to slow her breathing. Long minutes passed before she opened her eyes and peered into the darkness.
She couldn’t see a thing. The new room she’d tumbled into was pitch-black, the only sound the fall of water somewhere to her left.
Maybe caving in Jamaica hadn’t been the brightest idea after all.
With unsteady hands, she flipped on her helmet light, praying the whole time that it wasn’t damaged. Her fingers passed over dents in the metal cap, and her breath caught at the realization that without the safety gear, she’d probably be dead now.
As that lovely thought settled in, her light flickered on, and she heaved out a long sigh of relief. Not dead. Not yet anyway. She looked up and took survey of the new room.
The ceiling was at least thirty feet above, the pool surrounding her wide and vast, reflecting stalactites hanging down from above. Large columns and stalagmites jutted out of the cold liquid. A waterfall spilled from a hole in the wall at least twenty feet up and to her left.
She swallowed hard. Had she landed on one of those stalagmites, she’d have knocked herself out, drowned before Simeon figured out where she’d gone.
Don’t think about that now.
Shaking the fog from her head, she swam toward the edge of the pool and hauled herself out of the water, then sucked in a breath and shivered in the cool air.
In the fourteen years she’d been an archaeologist, she’d encountered her fair share of tight scrapes in the field—a mudslide in a trench in Asia when a wall of sediment had caved in after a torrential downpour, a rockslide in Peru that had seriously tested her resolve and almost taken her life, and an underwater accident that had made her wonder why she’d taken up scuba diving in the first place. But in each instance, she’d gotten back up and kept going, because that’s what she did. She was a woman proving herself in a male-dominated profession, and she was doing it pretty damn well.
And after all that, there was no way she was letting one measly cave in Jamaica do her in. Especially not on her vacation.
She stood on sore, achy legs, tried not to think about the throbbing cuts on her arms and back or the fact hypothermia would set in if she didn’t get out soon. What mattered most was figuring out how the heck she was going to get back up to the top of that waterfall. If she was lucky, Simeon was somewhere up there looking for her.
If, that is, she was paying him enough to stick around and haul her ass out of this dark pit.
Simeon’s muffled voice echoed from somewhere above. Lisa was sure she’d never been as happy to hear another voice in all her life.
“Thank God.” His deep voice bounced off rock and limestone. Lisa glanced toward the waterfall just as Simeon’s tense face came into view. He propped dark arms against the wall of the tunnel, kept his feet shoulder-width apart to keep from slipping. “You alright?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. It’s a big drop. Be careful.”
“I be right down. Sit tight.”
He secured the rope, braced his feet on the wall of the cave and slowly lowered himself into the room. When he was five feet above the water, he kicked his legs to get a good swing in the harness and propelled himself to the ledge of the pool. He dropped onto the flat rocks, unhooked the harness and looped the rope around a nearby stalagmite.
Lisa resisted the urge to lecture him about not touching the structures. Playing teacher wasn’t going to save her life. Instead she shifted unsteady legs forward and wove around stalagmites as she made her way to join him.
“You hurt?” he asked.
More than she was willing to admit, but there was no way she’d let that stop her. “No. I’m fine. Just knocked the wind out of me, that’s all.”
He didn’t look convinced. “I think we done for the day. You freeze in here if we don’t get you out.”
Disappointment flowed through her. He was right, but she hadn’t found what she’d come for. “Since we’re already here, let’s do a quick sweep of this room first, then we’ll go.”
“I don’t think that a good idea.”
He nodded toward his left and shone his light between a massive column and a broken stalagmite. “Last guy not fare well.”
Lisa’s gaze followed, and her adrenaline spiked first with fear, then with intrigue, as her light illuminated the human remains Simeon had already spotted.
Carefully, she stepped across the slippery rocks and knelt by the remains. The skeleton was leaning against a massive rock formation, pieces of tattered fabric stuck to its bones. Leather boots still covered the feet, and a large knapsack was near the right hand.
“He’s been here a while.” She fought the excitement, tried to think rationally. This was probably nothing more than an unlucky caver. But something in her gut said it might be more.
Simeon crouched next to her on the rocks, a wary look in his eye. “Bad spirits in this cave.” He glanced around. “Not good to disturb the dead.”
Barely hearing him, she lifted the front pouch of the sack and extracted a worn wallet. She opened the leather folder. “Donald Ramsey. Born in 1946. ID reissued in 1982.”
Simeon glanced at the license in her hand. “He been down here close to twenty years.”
“That’d be my guess.” She looked up and around again. “If he was caving alone and tumbled in here like I did, he never could have gotten out.”
And that was the reason a sane person never went caving alone.
Lisa pawed through the front pouch some more and pulled out a worn map and a few sheets of yellow paper. “Looks like the guy was a treasure hunter.” She showed Simeon the frayed map. “There’s even an X on that one.”
A smile twisted Simeon’s dark face. “X marks the spot.”
“Yeah, right,” she said with a slight grin. “Only in Hollywood.”
But her smile faded as she took a closer look at the aged papers. They detailed the location of a sunken Spanish galleon off the coast of Jamaica.
Her heart thumped against her ribs.
Fingers shaking, she opened the top pouch of the pack and peered inside. And her pulse beat frantically as she drew out a rectangular piece of marble roughly nine inches tall by twelve inches wide. When she turned it, the relief on the opposite side came into view, and she drew in a sharp breath.
The marble depicted a woman dressed in a Greek toga. Her arms were crossed over her chest and her gaze was fixed down toward her feet. Bare toes peeked out from beneath the robe, her bent knee indicating her weight was perched on one foot. Small wings jutted out of her back, and through her hair, snakes encircled her head like a wreath.
“Holy Mother o’ God,” Simeon mumbled, looking toward the relief.
The cold of the cave slipped to the back of Lisa’s mind. “Trust me, this isn’t the Virgin Mary.”
She turned the relief in her hands, ran her fingers along the smooth back. The number one was carved into the bottom right side.
“It looks like there are cutouts on the side,” Simeon said. “Like it fits together with another piece.”
Perspiration tickled Lisa’s skin in the damp air, and she swallowed. Six trips to the Jamaican caves over the past fifteen years, and she’d never found a single trace of the Greek goddess now in front of her. And today she’d simply stumbled across it when the floor had caved beneath her.
“Two other pieces,” she said quietly. “It’s one of three.”
“Three? Where are the other two?”
Definitely not here.
Ignoring the question, Lisa shrugged out of her pack, extracted a thick piece of black fabric and wrapped it carefully around the relief. She slid the marble inside, latched the flap and stood as she slung the knapsack onto her shoulder. “It’s time to go.”
Wide-eyed, Simeon rose. He didn’t question her, simply let her step past him and move toward the rope. She was paying him enough to keep quiet about their little excursion and not ask questions, and he knew that.
With the pack secured to her back, she strapped on the harness and started her ascent to the top of the waterfall. Simeon controlled the rope from the bottom. At the top, she waited while he scaled the wall of water, the pack heavy on her back. Heavier than one small marble relief should feel.
She pushed aside the thought as they silently made their way back through the cascade of water, careful to keep their feet wide to avoid slipping. Twice Lisa lost her balance, and the strong Jamaican stopped her from sliding back down the tunnel.
Okay, so he’d more than earned his pay. She’d have to give him a nice tip and a good recommendation.
When they reached the spot where the floor had given out beneath her, Simeon’s hand covered her arm. Lisa flashed him an annoyed look, but paused when he held a finger to his lips. “Shh.” He lifted his hand and flipped off his lantern. Hearing movement above, Lisa did the same.
Voices echoed from the vast room—thick Jamaican Creole she couldn’t understand, followed by a softer voice speaking English. She strained to listen, could barely hear the tones, but couldn’t make out any of the words.
With a firm hand, Simeon pressed her back against the wall of the tunnel. “No sound,” he whispered.
Two voices. Maybe three. Male. Angry.
Crap, they’d found the Jeep parked outside in the brush. She thought they’d hidden it well enough to avoid a run-in.
Simeon tugged her back down the wet tunnel. For once, she didn’t argue and try to take control.
He pushed her into a small tunnel to her right. She dropped to her hands and knees. The pack hit the roof of the cave, and she paused, wiggling out of the straps. Rolling to her side, she shoved the pack in front of her and slithered through the tunnel. Without light, she had absolutely no clue if the tunnel was getting bigger or smaller, or even where the heck they were headed.
Simeon’s breathing at her back was all she could hear. That and the pounding of her heart echoing through her head.
The tunnel took a sharp right turn, and Lisa curved her body to mold to the space. The walls closed in tighter. The oxygen level dropped as the tube grew smaller. Her helmet hit the ceiling, both shoulders brushed the walls, and she stopped, fearing she was at the end of the line.
“Keep going,” Simeon whispered from behind.
“I can’t. It’s too tight.”
“This tunnel goes through. I checked the map before we came down.”
He had to be kidding. No way she was purposely turning into a sardine without seeing the map or tunnel for herself.
“I’m going to turn on my lantern.”
“No!” he whispered sharply. “They still back there. Go.”
Holy crap. She didn’t want to spend the next ten years in a Jamaican clink, or worse, wind up dead. She’d been warned—in no uncertain terms—not to trespass on private property again. And obviously, she hadn’t listened. But then, she didn’t exactly take kindly to unsolicited advice.
Drawing in a deep breath, she peered into the blackness ahead, contemplating her choices. This was the stupidest thing she’d ever done.
Before she could change her mind, she kicked over onto her side, dropped her head against the floor of the tunnel and wriggled deeper into the tube. The walls pressed in on her, front and back. She couldn’t lift her head more than an inch off the ground. With the pack in front of her, she tried to slither through the shrinking space.
The tunnel took a sharp turn to the left. She folded her torso around the corner. This was it. She was going to get stuck in here and die, with the first of the Furies in her grasp.
No way. She wasn’t giving up.
Blowing out all the oxygen in her lungs, she kicked her legs and gave one last thrust into the tunnel. Her chest burned, every muscle ached, and just when she thought she was a goner, the cave widened.
Warm, sweet air filled her lungs. The steadily rising ceiling allowed her enough room to lift her head. Just ahead, the soft flicker of light shone through the darkness.
She suppressed the glee rolling through her and kept moving forward, slithering until the tunnel widened enough so she could push herself up to her hands and knees, then finally stand when the ceiling took a sharp rise.
Hands braced on her thighs, she bent over at the waist and drew in large gulps of musty air. She could hear Simeon still struggling in the cave. If she’d been stuck, he had to be in serious trouble. The man was at least twice her size.
She crouched in the darkness, calling out to him softly.
“Almost there,” he croaked. Metal scraped against rock, and then she heard him scrambling across the tunnel floor toward her.
Lisa grappled in the darkness and reached out, wrapping her fingers around his thick arms. Mud covered every part of their bodies. She helped him to his feet. His muffled coughing filled the space.
“How the hell did you get through there?” she asked in a whisper. “I barely made it myself.”
White teeth flashed in the darkness as he straightened. “I pray to Olorun to make me small as a snake to slither through the cave. He answer my prayer.”
Lisa frowned and let his answer roll right off her. She wasn’t going to get into a religious debate with him, and there was no way she was touching that one.
She slung the knapsack over her shoulder, turned and headed for the crack of light ahead. “Come on. Let’s get out of here while we can.”
“Your goddess pull you through that tunnel?”
Was he serious? She suppressed a laugh. Sheer female determination had saved her ass, as always. “No.”
“She will,” he said behind her. “You let her, and she’ll pull you to the light.”
Lisa glanced over her shoulder. In the dim light she could just make out his serious expression. “Thanks.” She shifted forward and kept walking, feeling the need to put as much distance between her and this cave as possible. “But I think I’ve got all the light I need.”
“You think that, but you don’t. You in the dark, Dr. Maxwell. Pitch dark. But things change. You see.”
Her guide had lost some serious oxygen in that tunnel, but he was right about one thing—something had definitely changed. She finally had what she’d been seeking for nearly fifteen years. With a little luck she’d be on her way to the second of the three Furies real soon. And she knew just where to start looking.