Chapter NineMature

            “So if we want this person t’ help us, we need to go after one of our own kind, with no idea what they might look like or where they might be hangin’ around, and cut off their head so we can get a clue about how t’ find the treasure?”

            I nod dejectedly. Robin throws her hands up in exasperation and turns to stare grouchily out of the floor-to-ceiling windows. The midmorning light, heavy and gray behind the veil of smog above the city, casts a somber pallor over her pouting face.

            After the bodyguards carted us out of the club last night, we met up with Robin and retired to Xena’s place, a penthouse with enormous windows offering views of almost the entire city and the canal running through the center. Her stepmom had grabbed pillows and linens for us to make camp in the spacious living room, explaining that Xena’s mom was working late. Xena herself had retired almost immediately to her room, and my crew was so exhausted we simply plopped down and gone to sleep.

            Now, the following morning, we’ve raided the fridge and I’m taking the opportunity to fill in my crew on what happened when I was taken into Kayin’s chamber. A few of them, led by Anamaria, have agreed to go back to the ship with news of the plan—the one I don’t yet have—as well as to keep them from panicking over our extended absence.

            “It’s not entirely hopeless,” I try to assure Robin. “Before they kicked me out, Kayin told me that most of their spies have disappeared around the mouth of the canal. So we’ll start over there and just try to figure it out.”

            “In case you haven’t noticed yet, this city is freakin’ enormous. And that pirate could be living anywhere. In the mountains, for Christ’s sake. Do you know what you’ve done?”

            I arch an eyebrow in surprise. “Okay, since when did you turn into Miss Responsible Planner? And besides, what the hell else should I have done?”

            “Maybe, say no? Let the translator you insisted on dragging with us do her job?”

            “A water spirit gave me the elephant figurine and told me that I’d need it to find out the next step in our journey for an ancient buried treasure. That’s not a clue I’m about to just turn away from because suddenly things are getting a little hard.”

            “That’s what she said,” Jimena snorts into their cereal.

            Robin ignores them and gets up from her seat at the kitchen counter. “I’m heading back to the ship. When you’ve got a real plan that comes from actual logic and not some weird magic make believe stuff, come talk to me.”

            With that, she storms over to the elevator and presses the down button. The element of drama withers a bit as she stands there, arms crossed, waiting for the elevator to arrive. When the doors finally open with a ding!, she marches inside and jams her finger onto one of the floor buttons, not looking at us as the doors slide closed.

            “Well, that was dramatic,” Manuela observes, spooning a wobbling scoop of yogurt into her open maw.

            I let out a snort as I push my chair back from the counter and stand up. I know there’s no point in being pissed at Robin; I quell the irritation stewing in my gut, as well as the urge to shit talk her, and let it all out in a calming breath. Then I hurry across the apartment and climb the enormous glass staircase winding up to the loft floor.

            I go to what I assume is Xena’s bedroom door and knock gently. No response. I knock a bit harder, and this time hear a shuffling noise. Seconds later, the door opens, revealing an impossibly tall, lanky woman in a wispy nightgown. She must be Xena’s mom. She’s like a taller, darker-skinned version of Xena, but with a poufy afro framing her face rather than dreads. She looks out at me through slitted, exhausted eyes.

            “Uh, sorry to wake you up,” I say. “I’m Xena’s friend—Ingrid?”

            “I’ve never heard of you,” she mumbles.

            “Oh. Okay. So, um, which door is Xena’s?”

            She points down the hallway in the direction from which I came. “You won’t find her, though. She’s usually out by now,” she adds.

            “Do you know where she might be?”

            She shrugs sleepily. “Dunno. Junkyard, maybe? Lord knows she doesn’t go to school.”

            “Alright, then. Um, sorry again that I woke you up. Nice to meet you.”

            The door closes without even a drowsy nod. I shake off my discomfort and return to my crew. Most of them have finished eating and are lounging in the living room. Someone found the TV remote and is flicking through channels without stopping to see what’s playing on any of them. I yank the remote out of their hands, shut off the television, and toss the device on one of the couches.

            “Get up, you bums,” I order. “Forget Robin and focus on our task. We need to find that goddamn pirate.”




            The canal feeds off of a stream running through one of the mountains bordering the city’s inland edge. The water has carved an admirably sized tunnel through the mountain itself, but not large enough for a human being to fit, let alone live.

            The bulwark along the canal’s edge that keeps the water from flooding over the shores doesn’t stop neatly, but dwindles into piles of cement and stone, like the people building it just slowly stopped caring. This far from the center of the city, there are few buildings; mostly some scattered farm plots and plain suburban homes far past the days of their prime. Where the signs of human habitation end, the broad-leaved foliage begins, spreading up the scrubby mountainside and creating an impenetrable wall of green.

            “It’s so—bright,” Jimena says, yanking at a thick vine blocking their path along the base of the mountain.

            They aren’t exaggerating—farther inside the forest cover, where the shadows begin, I can see that the leaves give off a distinct green glow. I yank my hand back and wipe it on my pants, sticking out my tongue in distaste.

            I make my way up the gradual slope along the base of the mountain, hacking at the dense vegetation with my sword. I have no idea what I’m looking for or what I might accomplish by destroying half the forest on my way, but I look occupied in front of my crew, and that’s enough. The others have chosen more cautious routes, or are else skirting the forest entirely and lingering along the edges. None of them probably have any clue, either.

            Without really meaning to, I shift abruptly up the side of the mountain, tucking my sword back in its sheath and grabbing a fallen tree branch to use as a walking stick. The path isn’t terribly steep, but the forest floor is a mess of gnarled roots covered in slick moss and jagged stones, and it’s difficult to find a sure foothold.

            After a couple minutes of climbing, I’m short of breath and my legs are leaden. Give me a tack line to secure or a couple dozen baddies to cut down, sure, but climb a mountain? Now that’s a bit out of my reach.

            I turn around to survey the city and am met with a wall of green. Looking back along the path, I see that I can’t have climbed more than ten yards or so. Figures.

            Welp, definitely no way I’m going to make it much farther up this mountainside. I briefly consider meeting back up with my people on the ground when I notice that the path forks slightly. One side continues its steep route to the peak while the other wraps around the mountain in a much less sharply elevated manner. Way more suited to my ability. Walking stick still in hand, I continue along this much flatter route, still with no clue what I might be looking for.

            This path is clearer than the first, the well-worn dirt surface mostly visible beneath the outer layer of vaguely luminescent brush. I’m beginning to wonder what kind of people are hiking sideways up a mountain so often that the path shows signs of serious use, when I follow the curve of the mountain and nearly collide with a rock outcropping sticking straight out of the undergrowth.

            It’s triangular and hollow, like someone balanced a big cube on its point and then shoved it into the earth, leaving just a corner above the surface. Abstract markings are etched into the rough gray stone, but they’re so faded by weather and time that I can’t make any sense of them. I’m about to try and take a closer look when the tiniest of movements catches my eye.

            My head turns instinctively toward the source. Among the vines and branches of the forest, if I look hard enough, I can see a thin brown cord waving back and forth with the barest of motion. It’s so small that less practiced eyes wouldn’t have even noticed something was out of place. I follow the path of the cord down, down, to a deftly fashioned loop obscured in the bushy undergrowth. I then trace the cord back up into the canopy above, and see—

            The figure drops down from the tree cover almost soundlessly. Before I can finish processing this rapid turn of events, they’ve grabbed the front of my shirt in their fist and hold me close, their other hand holding the friendly end of a dagger against my throat.

            “Scream and you’re a dead pirate,” they say with deadly calm.

            Something in their voice triggers the vaguest of memories. The lower half of their face is covered by a purple cloth, but their eyes, a deeper gray than the foggiest ocean weather, pierce through me with a strikingly familiar intensity. My brain starts to race to pull up a name.

            And then it clicks. “Pavi?” I say.

            She seems to recognize me at the same moment. She lets go of shirt and steps back, unsure for a moment about how to react. Then in the next instant, she drops the dagger and launches herself at me, wrapping me in a choking embrace.

            “Oh my goodness, Ingrid, I can’t believe you are here!” she cries, burying her face in my neck. I hesitate, then allow myself to give her a brief squeeze before pulling away.

            “Weird as it is to be bumping into you here in the first place, considering your dad sent you to El Salvador two years ago,” I say, “why the hell are you hanging around a grungy mountain?”

            “Hey, watch it. This mountain is my home,” she says, nodding toward the block of stone sticking out of the earth. “And I escaped from El Salvador. Duh. Not that my dad ever really cared. We both know why he wanted to get me out of here.”

            She gives me a meaningful look as she says the last part, and I divert my eyes uncomfortably. My discomfort is surprising to me; under the circumstances, I should be thrilled to finally see the girl I once thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with, completely free and unsupervised, no longer having to sneak around private guards and suspicious parents. But the little corner of my heart that I’ve managed to spend the last year and a half or so shoving away my feelings toward her is dead; not even a happy twinge. The whole experience is just getting so surreal to me.

             “Hey.” She puts a comforting hand on my arm, and I look up at her face, softened and open. So unlike the meek teenage girl desperate to rebel from her family. She’s changed, too. “I didn’t mean to hit on a sore spot. If you don’t wanna talk about the past, just tell me.” I give a noncommittal shrug, to which she smiles and says, “C’mon. Blink once for ‘let’s talk it out together,’ twice for ‘leave me the fuck alone.’”

            I can’t help it; I snort with laughter and slug her on the arm. The exchange feels enough like old times to be comforting, but with a freshness, a new layer of maturity (well, you know, in a more relative sense).

            “Your jokes haven’t gotten much better,” I tease her.

            “Well, your reflexes have gotten worse. It took me, what, two seconds to put you at sword point?” She nods at my cast. “And I see the great, untouchable Captain Liston has finally gotten a well-deserved injury. What, did you strain yourself trying to comb that crow’s nest you call a hairdo?”

            I punch her again and dance out of reach of her return blow. “This is something we in the pirate biz call style. You might want to try it some time.”

            “Oh, really?” she retorts. She snatches up her dagger and follows me down the path. “So you’re still out there?”

            “Mmhmm. Plundering colonist villages, blowing up European ships, searching the seven seas for thrills and adventures. You know, the usual. Not that you’d know a whole lot about that, Miss Academic Scholar.”

            “Oh-ho!” A sly smile crinkles her eyes as she wags a finger at me. “A lot’s changed in two years, Liston. I’ve entered into business for myself.”

            “You? A pirate? What are you harboring, twelve thousand-peso nail polish?”

            “Better.” She catches up to me and jams her dagger into a tree trunk inches next to my head, trapping me with her arm. As she leans close, I can see the faint imprint of her lips against the cloth and feel a familiar light-headedness start to creep over me. “I’ve been looting cargo from the Kayin.”

            It takes a moment for her words to jam through the rosy screen descending over my brain. When they finally do, my heart plunges sharply down to my toes and my veins run cold. The sweet dizziness instantly recedes and is replaced with stark fear.

            “You’re the pirate who’s interfering with Kayin’s ships?” I say in a choked whisper.

            “Yeah, why? Don’t think I could do it?” She gives me a joking grin as she pretends to flex her muscles. When she sees I’m serious, her expression sobers. “Ingrid, is there something else going on here?”

            I find myself shaking my head without consciously thinking about it. “Nah. Nope. It’s all good. Just a little weird—you know, meek little Pavi, I go away for two years and come back to find you all grown up.”

            She yanks her dagger out of the tree trunk and replaces it in the holster at her waist. “What is it that you aren’t telling me?” she insists.

            Drat. She knows I can never lie about anything with her. But if I tell her, who knows what might happen? She could run away, go after Kayin, or worse—go after me. Shoot the messenger, screw romantic history.

            “Before I tell you, I need you to make me a promise,” I say.

            “God dammit, Liston, you can be so frustrating sometimes, honestly—”


            “Fine.” She grudgingly spits into her palm and holds it out to shake. I recoil in disgust.

            “I was thinking more along the lines of a pinky swear. But hey, this is cool too. I know you’re good for it,” I say. “I just need you to promise that when I tell you, you won’t get, um, mad at me. I mean, stabby-mad.”

            She unclips the holster from her waist and tosses it down the path, completely out of reach. “Good enough?”

            “Thanks.” I swallow hard and cross my arms over my chest protectively, trying to work out in my mind how I can possibly go about this. I mean, how do you tell your ex-girlfriend that you’re on a mission to find a mythical treasure and a water spirit gave you a glass elephant so a Cuban drug lord could order you to murder said ex-girlfriend in order to help you on the next step in your journey, other than just coming right out and saying so?

            She stares at me expectantly, placing her hands on her hips and fixing me with an impatient glare. “Hello-o?” she says in a sing-song.

            “Alright,” I begin. “To be honest with you, there’s a really weird reason I’m in the city right now, and you’re probably going to be very freaked out when I tell you about it, so I—”

            “Pavi! Guys, it’s Pavi!”

            I’m interrupted as my crew spots us from the bottom of the path and rushes up the mountain side to attack our visitor, bypassing me entirely. They pile onto Pavi, making her stumble back against a nearby tree trunk. She tries to look annoyed, but even pretending to be upset with Manuela and her gaggle is like being upset with a squadron of hyper puppies.

            “Okay, I missed you guys too,” she says through laughter. Gradually, she peels them off of her person and steps back to properly assess them. “You are looking fit,” she says, clapping Jimena on the shoulder. “Have you been working out?”

            “Crow’s nest. You know how it is,” they reply, beaming.

            “And Ashanti,” she says, turning to another crew member, “I am loving the braids. Did you do them yourself?”

            “Yep,” Ashanti says with a pleased grin. She turns to me and sticks out her tongue, saying, “Why can’t you be cool and nice like Pavi?”

            “If I was cool and nice all the time, you guys’d never listen to me. Like now, for instance,” I add, raising my voice to be heard over the chatter.

            “Hey, where’s my invitation to this party?”

            I turn at the sound of the familiar English accent to see Robin making her way up the forested path, tailed by Angelique, Anamaria, and a couple others from the ship. At the sight of Angelique, a spark of panic strikes me as I think about her meeting Pavi. I have no idea why; it’s not like I owe anything to Angelique, or she me, and even if we did, things ended mutually between Pavi and me two years ago. So whatever.

            “Robin! It is so awesome seeing you, little devil,” Pavi says, giving her a one-armed hug and rumpling her hair. She then turns to Angelique and extends a hand. “Hel-lo, there. I do not believe we have met yet. I am called Pavi.”

            Angelique shakes her hand with a shy grin. “I’m Angelique. It’s lovely to meet you.”

            If I was a cartoon character, my eyes would be bulging out of their sockets and steam would be shooting out of my ears. My ex-girlfriend, who I am most definitely over, flirting with my—friend? Where the hell did Pavi learn to be smooth? And since when has Angelique ever been shy about, really, anything?

            “Anyway, Ingrid,” Pavi says, “you were telling me why you are in the city?”

            “We’re on a hunt for treasure,” Manuela pipes up.

            “Oh, you are now?” She puts on an interested face to placate the younger girl, though she shoots a bemused glance at me over Manuela’s head.

            “Yeah! We went into the Rocas del Diablo and met this really cool water spirit named Olufemi and she gave us this elephant that we were supposed to bring to the city, and then we found Ingrid’s friend Xena who brought us to a party at this club and we tried to get in to see this drug lord person so they could help us figure out what to do next but we couldn’t get in so we tried sneaking in then we got caught and they brought Ingrid in to see the drug person so now we have to find this pirate who’s been destroying all their ships and kill them so we can figure out where to go next in our quest!”

            She pauses to gasp for air once she’s got everything out. The partially amused smile on Pavi’s face slowly fades as she takes in Manuela’s words, then turns to unreadable stone.

            “Hey, everyone, do you mind letting me borrow your captain for a couple of minutes? I simply need a short conversation,” she says with unsettling calm for someone who just found out their ex has arrived in town solely to murder them and present their bloody head to a Cuban drug lord for monetary gain.

            She takes me by the arm and leads me down the path a ways. At the bottom, she yanks me aside into the forest cover and then shoves me away, making me stumble over a tree root sticking out of the earth and fall over. Ignoring the mind-scrambling jolt of pain in my shoulder and the probably bruising on my tailbone, I struggle back to my feet.

            “I didn’t know it was you,” I insist, holding up my good arm in a sign of surrender. “Swear on my mother’s grave, I wouldn’t have said yes if I knew.”

            “You idiot,” she snaps, advancing toward me with fury blazing in her eyes. I back away, careful not to trip again. “You cannot just leave the city for two years and expect that everything will be the same when you return. Much has changed here, but you cannot see it from the view of an outsider.”

            “Jeesh, Pavi. I mean I’m not a local but it’s not like I’m totally ignorant. I made sure I had someone with me who knows the city, I didn’t get into any serious danger—”

            “You are lucky you have a reputation in this country or else you would have been shot! Or worse!” She stops walking toward me, turns, and slams her fist solidly into the trunk of the nearest tree. A clearly audible crunch splits the air. She shakes her hand out and turns back to me, looking more wounded than angry now. “You do not know what kind of deal you have made.”

            “Relax. It’s not like I’m going to follow through with it now that I know who it is. You know me better than that,” I say. “But I am going to need some help figuring out where to go next now that my only leverage is gone.”

            “No, you are not understanding,” she says with increasing hysteria. “Kayin is ruthless. I have been trying to take them down for months now. It was because of them that my father lost almost all of his business and is nearly homeless. They will not just let you go free from the port. They will make sure that you deliver on your promise, or else give them something equal to compensate.”

            “You mean—?” I drag my finger across my throat. She nods solemnly.

            “We must find a way for you to deliver a prize to Kayin without them getting suspicious. It is likely that they will have spies following you, but do not worry about it, I will get rid of them. You just need to find someone to kill.”

            I nod once. “Cold-blooded murder for purposes of monetary gain. Just my style.”

            “Alright. Go get your crew and we will figure out a plan.”

            “What about your crew?”

            She pauses, halfway to leaving. She gives me a long look, then turns away and heads off along the forest path.




            It’s only mid-afternoon, but the smog over the city is so thick it’s nearly dark as night time. The vibrant neon city lights glow starkly against the murk. Pavi, my crew, and I are crouching in a slimy alleyway across the street from the building where Kayin’s night club is housed. Even at this early hour, a throbbing bass is clearly audible from inside.

            “’I assure you, our intentions are strictly honorable!’ Isn’t that the most suave goddamn one-liner ever? I could make it work,” I whisper.

            “For the last fucking time,” Manuela groans.

            “I swear to god, Liston, if you so much as fucking dare drop a Pirates of the Caribbean quote in there, Kayin won’t have a chance to even try to kill you because I will have already climbed in there myself, run my sword through your heart, then reanimated your corpse so I could stab you again,” Jimena snaps.

            “Besides, it wouldn’t even make sense. Kayin isn’t even a gentleman,” Manuela says.

            “Fine, fine. Butt holes,” I mutter, sticking out my tongue.

            “Robin, do you have the things?” Pavi asks.

            Robin proudly holds up a knapsack bulging with explosives. Not enough to take the place down, but certainly to break through the walls if—and when—necessary. Pavi claps her on the shoulder with a warm smile, and she beams in return. Ugh. The level of ass-kissing here is making me physically nauseous.

            She then turns to me. “You have the head, right?”

            “Duh.” I hold up my backpack and shake it so she can hear the severed head roll around inside. Getting the head hadn’t been an issue; just a random sketch ball we found behind one of the carnival games, positively reeking here-children-have-some-candy vibes. It was snapping the neck—you wouldn’t believe how resilient the human spine can be—and getting the blood to stop seeping through the backpack that had been the real challenges.

            I take a deep breath as I glance down the street at the passage between the two buildings where I’d have to get past the guard at the entrance. Would he recognize me? Would it even be the same person? What if I get stopped before I can even get to Kayin’s chamber? What if I drop my bag and the head falls out in the middle of the crowd and somebody steps on it and gets eye mush on their high heels and freaks out and calls the police and—

            I give my forehead a couple of good smacks. You cabbage-headed moron, nothing’s going to happen, you’ll get through okay, everything will be fine…

            “Ingrid? Hello, Ingrid?”

            Pavi punches my shoulder. “Ingrid. It is time for your curtain call.”

            “Right.” I nod once, take a steadying breath, and get to my feet. At the mouth of the alley, I check both sides of the street, even though there are few vehicles out at this time of day.

            “For fuck’s sake.” Robin reaches out and flicks the back of my knee, making me stumble onto the sidewalk.

            Sparing a quick 360 to make sure no one saw, and shooting a couple daggers at Robin, I sling the backpack over one shoulder and scurry across the street. A little ways down the sidewalk is the original alley that Xena brought us to. I turn down it and into the little square lot between the buildings. When I rap gently on the door, the panel slides open, but before I can speak the door opens with a groan.

            “Thanks,” I say to the guard holding it open. They don’t acknowledge me behind their opaque black shades.

            The same thing happens when I get to the little cement gap between this building and the main one. The bouncer, seeing me, waves me in ahead of the line and points me wordlessly toward Kayin’s chamber.

            Now that I’m not completely bowled over by the rush of noise and heat, navigating the room is a bit easier, although part of me aches a bit for Xena’s presence. It’s kind of weird, really, how her being around changes me. My weird quasi-envy at her obvious skill and independence can be attributed to my own weird self-esteem thing and my discomfort about being in a familiar place without actually knowing much of anything about it. That, at least, is an emotion I can pinpoint quickly.

            Thinking about it now, I realize, Pavi kind of acted the same way. Sure, I didn’t grow up here like the two of them did, but I stuck around for a good while longer than I normally do. I like to think of myself in terms of the sea—flowing and ever changing, never lingering for long, adapting to new conditions when I can and carving my own path when I can’t. Kayin’s knowledge of my history and abilities is certainly a sign that I left a pretty serious dent in this place while I was here. I liked to think that I had gotten a pretty good feeling for the city while I was here. Liked. Past tense. As in, used to.

            I don’t know. There’s just something that comes along with being orphaned at a young age and spending your whole life on a ship training to be a pirate captain so that you can fulfill the legacy left by your parents that makes you a little uncomfortable about feeling out of place or incompetent. Especially when it’s one of your old friends and the girl you once thought you were going to marry who are the main source of that discomfort.

            And even between the two of them, their approaches are completely different. Xena makes me feel like an idiot because she moves so easily through this place, lithe and collected, whereas I just sorta bumble along trying not to get my arm ripped out of its socket again. Pavi kind of acts the same way, but less—assuming, I guess? Like she doesn’t even realize how much she’s changed from her previous shy, adolescent self.

            The more I consider it, the more I realize just exactly how different they truly are. Pavi is so charismatic and friendly that my crew has always naturally gravitated toward her, to the point where I almost feel a bit left out, while Xena unapologetically cast Robin out of the group so that we could get in to see Kayin. The city has had previous issues with the British gangs and the people are still pretty sensitive about it, so I can see where a natural rift might occur, but the way Xena was so cold about the whole situation—I don’t know, it gives me a weird feeling.

            And now I suddenly get why Robin was so mad at me. I totally could have stuck up for her—hell, I probably would have goddamn enjoyed getting in that guard’s face and tearing him a new one. So why didn’t I? Jesus, I really am an idiot.

            All these epiphanies buzz through my mind as I make my way the short distance across the room to the bodyguards outside Kayin’s room. Dunno what it is about carrying a random pervert’s severed head into a night club to deliver to a drug lord in exchange for assistance in finding a fabled treasure that’s making me so damn pensive.

            The guards move aside and open the door for me without a word. I don’t bother thanking these ones. Inside the chamber, without the scent of teenage sweat and old roller skates crowding my thoughts while throbbing dubstep pounds against my skull, my nerves ease a bit. They promptly shoot back up at the sight of Kayin descending from their weird egg chair thing and approaching me.

            They know, they know, somehow they know I’m lying and they’ll find out and try to have me killed and I’ll never get to see my crew again and—

            Kayin stops a couple feet away from me and extends a hand. I shrug the backpack off and toss it across the gap. They catch it easily and unzip the pocket. I watch their face for any sign of suspicion, any hint that they might sense my betrayal, but their features remain neutral as they grasp the head by the hair and pull it out.

            They hold it up to examine in the harsh red glow of the lamps above. “I must be honest with you, Captain Liston. I almost believed you were not up to the task.”

            “That’s me, ol’ Reliable Liston,” I joke. “You ask, I deliver. Simple give n’ take.”

            “Yes, quite right.” They snap their fingers and one of the body guards rushes over bearing a small wooden box. They kneel in front of me and bow their head, offering the box to me.

            “So I just, uh—?” My hand is half extended, unsure. At Kayin’s nod, I flip the clasp on the box and open the lid.

            Inside lies one of the most unbelievable works of craftsmanship I have ever seen. Coils of delicately painted red beads interspersed with larger gold ones connect at the ends by a bronze clasp so delicately molded that even the untrained eye would be able to detect the incredible skill used to make it. When I look a little closer, I can see that on each of the gold painted beads has been carefully carved an elaborate design, every one different than the rest.

            “Holy shit,” I say breathily.

            “This is a Yoruban necklace carved by the spirits themselves,” Kayin says. “Several years ago, I too went to the Rocas del Diablo to search for San Abel’s treasure. When I met Olufemi, I pledged my life to her. In exchange, she promised me wealth beyond anything I could ever imagine. So I gave up my search for the treasure and came here, where, indeed, I have found fortune only the spirits could bestow.

            “Before I left, Olufemi also charged me with a sacred task. She told me to take this necklace and guard it until the day when an adventurer worthy of Abel’s treasure rose.” They regard me with a slight smirk. “It seems that the spirits see much promise in you.”

            “Whew. Spirit endorsement. That’s great to hear, really,” I say, giving her what I hope is my best smile free of the terror brewing just beneath.

            I reach for the necklace, but before I get close, Kayin suddenly launches a foot into the body guard’s back, making them crumple forward. The box flies across the room and crashes into the wall, spilling the necklace onto the cement floor.

            In the next instant, Kayin’s face is an inch from mine, the severed head still clasped in their hand. All traces of anger or mirth are gone. “I am not the bad guy here, Captain,” they say with hushed calm.

            My heart plummets. They know, they know—! “Kayin,” I say quickly, “I assure you, my intentions are strictly honorable.”

            I don’t hear what they say next, because as soon as the words are out of my mouth, the far walls bursts inward, pelting us with rubble. I immediately duck down and put my arms over my head to protect myself. Shades of cement only graze my arms, but Kayin and the guards, caught unsuspecting, are bowled over by the force of the explosion. The room is soon filled with a thick cloud of gray dust and the raw tinge of burning plastic.

            Hands pull me up off the floor, bodies shielding my face from the dust. I peek my eyes open enough to make out the familiar faces of my crew members guiding me out of the building.

            “Wait! The necklace!” I cry. Speaking makes me suck in a lungful of dust, and I crumple over in a fit of hacking.

            “Where is it? I’ll grab it,” someone says. I try to stop my diaphragm from convulsing long enough to lift my head and point, but once I do, I see through the dust a guard, shirt collar pulled up to protect their nose and mouth from the dust, bending over the box and scooping the necklace inside. My stomach twists up anxiously. Our once chance—

            “Well?” the guard calls out, hurrying over to us. “Let’s scram.”

            They cast away their shades, and I realize that it’s Xena beneath the meager disguise. How she managed to get past me, let alone Kayin’s keen guard, is a matter I shelve away in my mind to focus on another time. At the present moment, my foremost thought is to run.

            We hurry out of the wreckage of the building and sprint through the streets toward the harbor, Xena at the head of the group. Soon, the meager crowd of afternoon tourists is visible milling the boardwalk just ahead. My legs are sore unused to this kind of exertion and I’m starting to fall toward the back of the group, but I ignore the discomfort and the awkwardness, willing them to move, dammit. We’re nearly there, I can smell the ocean again—

            Gun shots ring out behind us. I risk looking behind and see a sleek black automobile revving down the street. Inside are half a dozen of Kayin’s guards, all of them wielding very fancy and very frightening-looking rifles. Seeing me slow down, one of them takes aim and shoots again, managing to nail a lamp post right next to me instead.

            I face front again and increase my speed. My legs are at the point that I’m not so much running as swinging them in a general forward direction, but at least I’m moving. At the front of our group, I see Xena whip out a gun of her own and shoot over her shoulder without looking. I can’t see where the bullet landed, but from the sound of a pained howl and squealing tires, I’m tempted to be impressed.

            We hit the boardwalk and take a sharp turn toward the marina. Past the pinging carnival games and reeking food stands, down the pier—I can see the Aventura now and the rest of my crew on the deck. They spot us, too, and rush to lower the ladder over the hull.

            More gunshots make me turn around again. The guards have abandoned their car and are rushing along the boardwalk, weapons pointed to kill.

            My crew run toward the ship, but Xena and I stumble to a stop halfway down the pier.

            “Come with us,” I say suddenly. I almost regret the words as soon as I say them, but she shakes her head slowly.

            “I’ll take care of them. Go,” she says softly.

            “You’ve been kind of a jerk the past twenty-four hours, but hey, you’re my friend. You can’t seriously think that there’s any way I’ll just walk away from you right now,” I reply.

            “Ingrid, I get that you just love these mushy sentiments, but unless your cutlass can deflect bullets, there is nothing you can do for me here.”

            “But that’s no reason to—hey, where’s Pavi?” It has only just occurred to me that Pavi is missing from our cozy little group of runaways.

            As if in answer, the sound of an engine roaring to life splits the air. From out of the maze of streets, just beyond the boardwalk, soars Pavi riding a majorly tricked-out motorcycle. She cuts across the guards’ path, making them stumble back to avoid getting run over. Weaving deftly between the panicking tourists, Pavi reaches over her shoulder and grabs a shotgun strapped to her back. She shoots one-handed at the enemy guards, who by now have gathered themselves and are trying to shoot back at her.

            She goes to the end of the boardwalk, turns, and heads right for her opponents, as if intending to crash right into them. She stands up on the seat and leaps straight up in the air moments before impact. The bike continues forward on its own, bowling over two of the guards. Pavi lands easily on the boardwalk, weapon still in hand, and starts shooting again.

            Xena grabs my hand and places the box with the necklace into it. “Take it. Take it and get out of here, quick,” she says, shoving me toward my ship. She then turns and rushes down the pier to assist Pavi.

            I watch her go, torn between leaving and running after to help. The cries from my crew rouse me; I turn and race toward my ship, clambering up the ladder and onto the deck.

            As the others weigh anchor and open the sails, I go to the railing and watch the gun battle playing out on the boardwalk. In moments we’re too far away to see or hear anything concrete, but I don’t move.

            Anamaria comes to my side and puts a comforting arm around my shoulder. I realize that a hot tear has escaped and is making a trail across my cheek. I start to rub it away, but my hand goes limp halfway to my face. I let it drop to my side and lean into my guardian’s warmth, letting the tears flow freely.

The End

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