Connect · Exclusive Excerpt from "PLUNDER"

Exclusive Excerpt from "PLUNDER"

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CHAPTER TWO


Charlie’s hand shook with nerves and excitement as he started to fit the key into the lock. Despite appearing to be of the proper size, the key would not enter. Thinking this was due to his nerves and unsteadiness, he inhaled deeply and took control of himself before trying again. Only then did he realize the problem.

The keyhole was a ruse, nothing more than a small indentation in an otherwise solid wall. While it certainly looked the part—as it was designed to—this was clearly not the way the chest was properly breached.

Something very special must be inside. Maybe this is a treasure chest!

Excited by the prospect of what lay hidden within, Charlie began a thorough examination of the chest, searching out every seam and crevice with the tips of his fingers, hoping his sense of touch would reveal more than his sight could. Nearly ten minutes into his investigation, he found the answer. Atop the lid, in the very center, one of the many square panels was raised a mere fraction above the others.

Charlie hooked a fingernail under the panel and twisted. To his amazement, the panel rotated to the side, revealing another keyhole. By the darkness within, Charlie knew this keyhole was no con.

Charlie thought it curious that his mother would not tell him about the false lock—perhaps she did not know—but soon surmised that her silence was, in fact, a test. A test to see if he was truly worthy of the secret she had kept all these years. Worthy of whatever the chest contained. Worthy of being the offspring of the man the chest and its contents belonged to.

Jeffrey.

Tremors of excitement overtook him that no amount of deep breaths would quell as he thrust the large key into the lock. The hole swallowed half the key’s length, stopping with a resounding metal-on-metal thunk. Charlie sucked in another deep breath and turned the key. His efforts were rewarded with a satisfying click.

Rusted hinges creaked as he raised the lid. The first thing he noticed, on the underside of the lid, was an elaborate engraving. Charlie raised the oil lamp close to it to see its full detail. It was a coat of arms, intricate and glorious, with some words in a strange language—Latin, he guessed; it seemed that everything that wasn’t written in English was written in Latin—inscribed below a magnificent dragon.

Why would my father have a dragon engraved on the inside of his sea chest?

Inside the chest was a pile of clothing. Charlie lifted out the garments. Breeches, yellowed with age, and a dark-blue frock coat, plain but of good quality. He smelled traces of the sea.

Beneath the clothes was a book—what looked like a journal—wrapped in a layer of protective vellum, which seemed to have prevented deterioration during its long storage.

Charlie held it in his hand, tempted to open it and begin reading.

I hope it’s not in Latin.

Rather than risk disappointment at discovering a language alien to him, he put the journal aside for now to explore the remainder of the chest’s contents.

He extracted a small leather pouch containing a heavy medallion. Formed from a perfect meld of silver and ebony, it was shaped like a dragon and hung on a slim leather cord.

It’s beautiful but, another dragon? What is it with my father and dragons? When Charlie lifted up a second pouch, it jangled with the sound of coins. Even more excited at the possibility of riches, he glanced inside.

Gold and silver glinted in the light of the oil lamp. Charlie dumped the contents of the pouch into his hand. Coins of various sizes and shapes, the currencies of countries Charlie had never heard of, tumbled out. It was more money than he’d ever seen at one time, let alone held!

It is a treasure chest!

Charlie sat back on his heels, desperately trying to come to grips with his discovery.

This fortune has been up here all these years and Mum never said a word.

Then Charlie thought of what she had said about the promise.

But a promise to who? To my father? But why? Why wouldn’t he want her to have this money? And why wouldn’t he want me to know I was his son? Mum said he’d be proud of me. Was he afraid I wouldn’t be proud of him?

These questions caused Charlie to begin thinking a little deeper.

Was my father a thief? A common criminal? And if he was, that means these things weren’t rightfully his. Could that be the reason they were kept a secret?

These questions would have to wait, for he saw there were more treasures still to be discovered inside the chest.

Charlie removed something wrapped in a silk handkerchief. Whiter than fresh snow and embroidered with crimson brocade, the fabric was softer than a kitten’s fur. The most luxurious handkerchief Charlie had ever seen, he could only imagine what such finery was concealing. What he unwrapped made his eyes bulge and took his breath away.

A dagger!

But not just any dagger—a dagger fit for a king. The silver scabbard was encrusted with many brilliantly colored gemstones that glinted and sparkled in the lamp light. And the handle—wider in the center than at the ends so as to better fill one’s palm—was inlaid with spirals of gold. Although Charlie had no concept of the value of precious metals or jewels, he’d have bet the clothes on his back that this knife was worth more than he could earn in a year.

In ten years! Maybe even a lifetime!

When Charlie withdrew the knife from its scabbard, he was amazed to discover the exact same coat of arms on the trunk’s lid engraved on the gleaming silver blade.

First the engraving, then the amulet, and now the dagger—what is it with the dragons?

The dagger’s blade was short but finely honed. Charlie touched a finger lightly to its point and found it sharper than a stropped razor’s edge. Obviously not for decoration, this tool would wreak havoc on flesh or fruit.

Charlie already had a knife, a small folder with a chipped and rusty blade that he had won in a game of mumblety-peg against the toughest boy in the neighborhood. His prized possession, he carried that knife everywhere he went without fail. Now he was going to throw that knife in a bog and smile as he did.

Charlie rolled his wrist back and forth, cleaving the air with the dagger’s blade. Its weight was perfectly balanced, making it feel like an extension of his hand. And that could only mean one thing.

This knife wasn’t meant for decoration. It was meant for fighting. But who could afford such a magnificent weapon? Only someone very important. Or very wealthy. Or both!

Once again Charlie wondered if the items he now examined had rightfully belonged to his father or were stolen by the man whose blood he supposedly carried in his veins. While

it didn’t matter at the moment—these possessions were now his and his alone—the mystery of their history would forever plague him.

Until I find the answers.

Suddenly, a thought sprang into Charlie’s mind. A thought so wild it seemed a little foolish to dwell on it. Taking into account everything he had seen thus far . . . the sea chest, the clothing that smelled like the sea, the foreign coins, the silver and gold bejeweled dagger, and the dragons, one word came to mind.

Pirates.

Pirates were criminals, and those that weren’t killed were usually publicly executed after being captured. Anyone associated with them—including women and children—were almost always ostracized out of fear that they shared the pirates’ unlawful tendencies, or that the government would view anyone who befriended them as enemies of the crown. So it would make sense that Charlie’s mother would keep such knowledge a secret.

Then why tell me now?

Once again, there were far too many questions and not enough information to yield any answers. Charlie only hoped the remaining contents of the sea chest would enable him to learn more about its previous owner.

Jeffrey, my father.

Charlie sheathed the dagger and tucked it into his belt. Its presence gave him a sense of security he’d never felt before. It also seemed to belong there, like it was meant to be.

Next Charlie discovered a small, elaborately carved wooden box. The imagery impressed into the wood made his heart jump. More dragons! These had fierce gaping maws, taloned feet, and were covered with scales. But the carvings were not the box’s most interesting feature.

On the front of the box was an odd triple-lock mechanism. Judging by the openings, three different keys were required, each keyhole being a different shape. Farthest left was a circle with a small notch in it. In the middle, a square with a crescent moon jutting from the top. And on the right, what looked to be a six-pointed star.

Charlie tried pulling it open, just in case the locks weren’t secured. But they were, and the box didn’t open.

Charlie turned the box over to inspect it further. There were no visible seams. The corners were solid, as if the box had been hewn from one solid piece of wood. And what fine wood it was. Almost black, in the light it had a slight red hue.

Blood red. The kind of box a pirate would have.

And it was heavy too. Much heavier than a box of its size should be.

Unable to find any keys, and the one he had used to open the chest would certainly not fit any of the three openings—it much too large and the fitment on the end didn’t resemble any of the keyholes—Charlie pulled his new dagger from its scabbard and tried to fit the point beneath the box’s lip. It wouldn’t go. The edges were perfectly clam-shelled. Locked down so tight it looked as if not even a slip of paper would wedge into the opening.

Damn.

Unable to breach the box’s sanctum, Charlie set it aside for the moment and turned his attention to the final item in the chest, concealed beneath yet another fine white handkerchief. Judging by the outline of the object, Charlie had a good idea of what it was.

He lifted the handkerchief and gasped.

The last item was a flintlock pistol. And, just like the dagger, it was a flintlock pistol unlike any he had ever laid eyes upon. Growing up in Bristol, Charlie had seen his fair share of pistols. He’d even stared down the business end of a few—and not by choice—but this specimen was truly a work of art.

Its stock was made of ebony. The head of a dragon was expertly carved into the rounded butt and inlaid with silver filigree. Jaws open, fangs bared, split tongue flickering, the image was as menacing as the weapon itself. The barrel, not round but hexagonal—amazingly he remembered the term from one of the few days of school he attended—was comprised of Damascus steel, a rare mottled and banded metal he had learned about from the tanner. The entire weapon was polished to a magnificent gleam and looked as if it had been placed under that kerchief yesterday, not however long ago it had been concealed.

Charlie hefted the pistol, feeling its weight in his palm. It was the first time he’d ever held a pistol, and this one fit his hand as though it had been designed and crafted specifically for him.

Just like the dagger.

He looked around at all the amazing treasures, lost in thought. Today wasn’t just the best birthday—it was the best day of his life. But one question still remained: Who was my father?

And that prompted another one: Where is he now?

Hopefully, in time, he would have the answers.