Skeleton Coast, стр. 98

But as their eyes adjusted they all saw that what at first looked like sacks of cloth draped over the table were actually the mummified remains of two men who’d died facing opposite each other. Their skin had turned gray as their bodies dried out and seemed as brittle as paper. One wore nothing but a loincloth around his waist and the stalks of feathers that had lost their fletching in a band around his skull. The other wore rough bush clothes and next to where he lay his head sat an enormous slouch hat that had been white eleven decades earlier.

“H. A. Ryder,” Sloane breathed. “The other must have been one of the Herero warriors their king sent to retrieve the stones.”

“They had to have attacked just as the storm hit,” Austin said, returning from down a short corridor.

“There are a dozen or more bodies lying in the cabins. Most looked like they died in a fight. Lots of stab wounds. The bodies of the Hereros don’t have a mark on them, so they probably died of starvation when theRove was buried.”

“But they didn’t kill him.” Juan pointed at Ryder’s corpse. “I wonder why?”

“From the looks of it, these two were the last of them, Zavala remarked. “Probably died of dehydration when the ship’s water supply ran dry.”

“Ryder was well known in his day,” Sloane said. “It’s possible they knew each other. They could have been friends from before the heist.”

“That’s one mystery we’ll never be able to solve,” Max said, stepping forward to reach for one of the bags placed under the table. “As to another one.”

When he lifted the saddlebag the dried-out leather split and a cascade of diamonds tumbled into the sand. Unpolished and in poor light, they still dazzled like bits of captured sunshine. Everyone began cheering at once. Sloane picked up a twenty-carat stone and held it to the porthole to plumb its depths.

Mafana scooped up handfuls of diamonds and let them sift through his fingers. His expression told Juan he was thinking not of himself but of what wealth these stones meant for his people.

The old sergeant broke open the other bags and began sorting through the stones, plucking out the largest and clearest. There were many to choose from because the original miners who’d brought the diamonds to their king had taken only the finest they had wrested from the earth. When his hands were brimming he turned to Cabrillo.

“Moses said that you gave him one handful of stones as a down payment,” Mafana said solemnly. “He ordered me to give you back two as our people’s way of saying thank you.”

Juan was overwhelmed by the gesture. “Mafana, this isn’t necessary. You and your men fought and died for these stones. That was our deal.”

“Moses said you would reply that way so I was then supposed to give them to Mr. Hanley. Moses says he is less sentimental than you and would accept them on behalf of your crew.”

“He’s got a point there,” Max said and held out his hands. Mafana gave him the stones. “Having played a master jeweler not too long ago I’d say there’s about a million bucks here.”

“You couldn’t have done a very good job of playing at it.” Sloane took the largest stone from the pile and showed it to him. “This one alone will fetch about a million when it’s cut and polished.”

Max just stared at it goggle-eyed, bringing a fresh round of laughter.

AN hour later, after everyone had explored the ship, Sloane found Juan standing at theRove ’s prow, his hands clasped behind his back.

“What’s that line?” she asked as she approached him. “Give me a tall ship and a star to sail her by.”

He turned and smiled. “Only look out for the sand dunes.”

“I’ve been reading the ship’s log. H. A. Ryder continued to write in it after they were buried. Kurt was correct about the Herero attacking at the height of the storm. They slaughtered the crew to a man, all except Ryder. The Herero leader had once worked for him as a guide and owed him his life following a lion attack. Not that it mattered. The reprieve was temporary.”

“What happened?”

“The storm raged for a solid week. When it was finally over they couldn’t push open any doors, including the one leading to the bridge, and the portholes were too small to fit through. They were trapped. There was enough food and water to last them nearly a month, but the end was inevitable. One by one they died off until only Ryder and the Herero chief remained. I have to assume that Ryder went next because there was nothing in the log about his companion succumbing.”

“That is definitely on my top ten list of ways not to die,” Juan said with a shudder.

“There was something else in the log that Ryder mentioned, something pretty interesting. He wrote that when he and his companions plundered the Herero’s diamonds they left behind four beer pots brimming with stones. I know from history that their king never used them to buy protection from the British against the Germans occupying his lands so the stones are still out there.”

“Forget it,” Juan said, grinning. “Last time I helped you I ended up stranded on a giant metal snake in the middle of the ocean and had a supertanker sink from underneath me. If you want to go looking for more diamonds, be my guest. I’m going to stick to something safe, like hunting terrorists.”

“It’s just a thought,” she said, teasing.

Cabrillo shook his head. “While we’re on the subject of diamonds there’s a couple of things I’d like to ask you.”

“Fire away.”

“Are you sure you’ll be able to get a good price for these stones?”

“My company will pay close to full market value for them just so they can maintain their monopoly. They won’t like it much that I didn’t bring them back myself, but in the long run they’ll have no choice. Don’t worry. Moses will get more than enough money to see the leaders of his country get sent packing.”

“That brings me to my second question. I assume that once the deal is done you aren’t going to win employee of the month any time soon. I was wondering if you’d consider changing careers.”

“Are you offering me a job, Chairman Cabrillo?” Her smile was brighter than any one of the diamonds they’d found could ever be.

“The hours are long, the work’s dangerous but, as you just saw, the pay can be pretty good.”

She stepped closer to him so that their chests were almost touching. “I had a chat with Linda not too long ago and I got a sense that there isn’t a whole lot of fraternization among the crew.”

“Office romances are tough enough. It’s even worse when you all live together.”

She ran a fingertip along his bare arm and looked into his eyes. “In that case there’s something I need to get out of my system first before I’d even consider going off and playing pirate.”

“What’s that?” he asked, his voice husky.

“This,” she said as their lips met.