The pockmarked man leaned back in his leather chair, his hard obsidian gaze pinned on Katy. “So, Dr. Ryan,” he said in his clipped Oxbridge accent, “are you interested in the job?”
Was she interested? Hell, yeah. He was offering her the chance to explore the wreck of RMS Lusitania up close. Growing up with Grandma Ryan’s vivid tale of how her parents survived the torpedoing of the ship in 1915 had given Katy an early interest in the topic—an interest strong enough that she’d written her doctorate on its ramifications for the First World War. Given how stingy the Irish government was about handing out dive permits to explore the wreck, this was quite literally the opportunity of a lifetime.
And yet…Something didn’t smell right.
Katy returned the man’s stare, equally hard and unwavering. “Don’t bullshit me. You were sure you’d hook me with your offer before you opened your mouth. What I want to know is this: where’s the catch?”
Mr. Devon—or whatever he was called when he wasn’t using a pseudonym—cracked a hint of a smile. “I was warned about you, Dr. Ryan.”
Katy jutted her chin, irked by the emphasis the man placed on the academic title she’d gained only recently. So what if it had taken her a couple more years than most to finish her doctorate? She’d done so with distinction, so screw him. “What did they say? That you can take the girl out of the Navy but not the Navy out of the girl? Or is it a class thing like you Brits are obsessed with? Brooklyn-girl-goes-to-Trinity-College and all that crap?”
“I was told you were as street-smart as you were academic, and possessed of razor-sharp instincts. In short, precisely the sort of person we need for this mission.” The smile broadened to expose a set of teeth so blindingly white they had to be veneers. “Plus I understand your mother is ill. The money from this venture would allow you to cover her medical costs in America.”
Whoa…Bringing up her mother was a low fucking blow. Glaring at her visitor, Katy drew a pack of chewing gum from her desk drawer, popped a piece into her mouth, and engaged in some ostentatious mastication. She didn’t much care for gum but she loved screwing with people’s stereotypes of the dumb American abroad. The man on the other side of her desk was a cool customer but he was a millisecond too late in disguising his distaste. Score to Katy.
“The word ‘mission’ doesn’t conjure up thoughts of a staid academic project, Mr. Devon, and you don’t strike me as the kind of guy to fund one.”
He opened his mouth, as if to protest but she cut him short.
“Wherever you work, it’s not Oxford. Yeah, you might have gone to college there—in another lifetime and under a different name—but I don’t believe for an instant that you have any academic or scientific interest in the Lusitania.”
His crater-ridden jowls wobbled. “I—”
“Yet here you are offering me a ridiculous sum of money to join a research project and take underwater pictures of the wreck. Why? More importantly, why me?”
The large man stiffened. “You’re an experienced deep sea diver and you’ve photographed numerous shipwrecks in the Pacific and around the British Isles. Your specialization in the sinking of the Lusitania makes you the ideal candidate for this job.”
Katy shifted her gum from one cheek to the other. “Flattery will get you far but not with me. In my time as a diver for the US Navy, I participated in several shipwreck dives, check. My main role in those dives was to take pictures, another check. However, I haven’t dived much since I sidelined into academia. As you not so subtly noted, the ink is barely dry on my PhD. Yet here you are dangling a crazy sum of money as bait. Why do you want me to dive that particular wreck? And who is your mysterious employer?”
“I work for a man named Trevor Masterson. He collects antiques and rare jewels.” Without so much as a flicker of emotion across his fleshy face, Mr. Devon withdrew a piece of paper from his briefcase and laid it on her desk. “A map of the Lusitania.”
“I can see that,” she said dryly, taking in the elegant reproduction. “After looking at maps of that damn ship for the past three years, I could give you a guided tour.”
“That is precisely why we want to hire you.” The man tapped the area where the first class cabins had been located. “Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt. What do you know about him?”
Katy rattled off the details from memory. “Wealthy American playboy and son of Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Traveling on the Lusitania from New York to Liverpool on a business trip. Accompanied by his valet, Ronald Denyer. Went down with the ship after allegedly acting the hero during the sinking. Body never recovered.” She eyed the man across from her. “Have I left out any pertinent details? I didn’t think his womanizing warranted a detailed analysis.”
The man on the other side of her desk smirked. “That’s where you’re wrong, Dr. Ryan.” With a flourish, he produced an old sepia photograph. “Do you know what this is?”
Katy squinted at the grainy picture. “Some kind of necklace. Whatever it is, it’s gaudy as hell.”
“That is a priceless diamond-and-ruby necklace,” Mr. Devon said in a severe tone. “It’s a photograph of one of the items from the Fire and Ice collection.
With a one-shouldered shrug, she leaned back in her chair and shoved her hands into the pockets of her utility pants. “What can I say? I don’t accessorize.”
“Not only is that necklace worth a fortune, it is part of a set Mr. Vanderbilt was carrying with him on the ship.”
She cocked an eyebrow. “Alfred Vanderbilt had a penchant for elaborate jewelry?”
“Alfred Vanderbilt had a penchant for expensive mistresses,” Mr. Devon said in a bone-dry tone.
“Lemme see that up close.” Katy picked up the photograph and snorted with laughter. “So Trevor Masterson wants me to attach myself to the expedition as photographer and find this butt ugly necklace and its companions. Did you steal the plot from James Cameron’s Titanic? Infamous shipwreck and a priceless necklace at the bottom of the sea?”
“Necklaces,” he corrected. “This is no film script, Dr. Ryan. The jewelry was being transported in a special carrier case Vanderbilt kept in the safe of his stateroom.”
Katy tossed the photo back on her desk. “Sir, do you even know the history of the ship? The Lucy is a wreck in every sense of the word. She was torpedoed by a German submarine and suffered a second explosion due to the munitions she wasn’t supposed to be carrying. The British Navy is alleged to have dropped depth charges on the wreck in an effort to conceal the evidence, causing further damage.”
“Tut, tut, Dr. Ryan. The munitions story has never been proven. The second blast could have been caused by a boiler exploding or coal dust igniting.”
Katy shook her head. “Bullshit. The ship took just eighteen minutes to sink. Torpedoes back then weren’t as effective as they are today. One torpedo into a ship that size shouldn’t have caused damage so devastating that it sank within eighteen minutes. The Titanic was a similar size, and it took almost three hours to go under. Survivors reported only one explosion within the ship, so it had to have been devastating. The only logical explanation is that the torpedo hit the cargo hold, and the cargo included explosives.”
Mr. Devon’s bland expression was irritating the hell out of her. “Whatever the cause of the sinking,” he said in his clipped accent, “the British were keen to get the Americans to enter the war. The opportunity to accuse the Germans of murdering twelve hundred innocent civilians was ideal fodder for the propaganda machine.”
“Well, you’ve answered one question,” she said, eyeing him speculatively.
He raised a quizzical eyebrow. “What question was that?”
“You’re not a spook. If you were an intelligence agent, you’d want to oil the cover-up the British and American governments have been maintaining for the past one hundred years.”
This comment elicited a chuckle. “For an academic, you have a strange proclivity for dramatic accusations. I work for a private collector. I’m not a spy, although I have no doubt one will be dispatched to monitor the exploration of the wreck. As you said, the British and American governments don’t appreciate questions being raised about the precise cause of the sinking. Which means you’ll have to be extra careful in concealing your true purpose in participating in the project.”
“You talk like I’ve already accepted your offer.”
That arched eyebrow again. “Haven’t you?”
He had her there. The memory of her mother’s panicked voice when she described her latest medical bill still rang in Katy’s ears. Damn. Even if she never found the jewels, the base fee Mr. Devon was offering would cover her mom’s medical expenses for the next few months.
And she’d be a liar if she said the prospect of exploring the ship she’d spent years researching didn’t have her blood humming. For better or worse, Katy could never resist an adrenalin-fueled challenge. That was one thing she had in common with her reckless former fiancé.
On instinct, her hand slid to her flat stomach. Her eyes stung with unshed tears when she recalled the nightmare of the past year. She blinked them away and considered her options. If Dex were in Ireland, he’d be all over this dive. Last she’d heard, he was on the other side of the world, exploring a shipwreck off the coast of Queensland. Which meant there was no reason for her to turn down Mr. Devon’s offer and every reason to accept it.
“All right. I’m in.” She extended a hand, resisting the urge to spit on it first and totally horrify her snobby visitor.
The man’s handshake was surprisingly limp for a man of his size. His oily smile sent a shiver of unease down her spine.
“Excellent, Dr. Ryan,” he said in his smooth baritone. “You won’t regret this.”
Part of her already did.
From Her Treasure Hunter Ex by Zara Keane, Copyright 2015