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About this Book
About the Author
About the Agent Pendergast Series
Also by Preston & Child
Table of Contents
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Lincoln Child dedicates this book to his daughter, Veronica
Douglas Preston dedicates this book to his brother, Richard Preston
Such a day, rum all out:—Our company somewhat sober:—A damned confusion amongst us!—Rogues a-plotting:—Great talk of separation—so I looked sharp for a prize:—Such a day took one, with a great deal of liquor on board so kept the company hot, damned hot; then all things went well again.
—From the logbook of Edward Teach,
aka Blackbeard, ca. 1718
Applying twentieth-century solutions to seventeenth-century problems affords either absolute success or absolute chaos; there is no middle ground.
—Orville Horn, Ph.D.
On an afternoon in June 1790, a Maine cod fisherman named Simon Rutter became caught in a storm and a strong riptide. His dory overloaded with fish, he went badly off course and was forced to put in at fogbound Ragged Island, six miles off the coast. While waiting for the heavy weather to pass, the fisherman decided to explore the deserted spot. Inland from the rocky bluffs that gave the islet its name, he found a massive old oak tree with an ancient block and tackle dangling from one low-slung limb. Directly underneath it the ground had subsided into a depression. Although the island was known to be uninhabited, Rutter found clear evidence that someone had visited many years before.
His curiosity aroused, Rutter enlisted the aid of a brother and returned one Sunday several weeks later with picks and shovels. Locating the depression in the ground, the men began to dig. After five feet they hit a platform of oak logs. They pulled up the logs and, with increasing excitement, kept digging. By the end of the day, they had dug almost twenty feet, passing through layers of charcoal and clay to another oak platform. The brothers went home, intending to renew their digging after the annual mackerel run. But a week later, Rutter’s brother was drowned when his dory capsized in a freak accident. The pit was temporarily abandoned.
Two years later, Rutter and a group of local merchants decided to pool their resources and return to the mysterious spot on Ragged Island. Resuming the dig, they soon reached a number of heavy vertical oak beams and cross-joists, which appeared to be the ancient cribbing of a backfilled shaft. Precisely how deep the group dug has been lost to history—most estimates assume close to one hundred feet. At this point they struck a flat rock with an inscription carved into it:
First will ye Lie
Curst shall ye Crye
Worst must ye Die
The rock was dislodged and hoisted to the surface. It has been theorized that the removal of the rock broke a seal, because moments later, without warning, a flood of seawater burst into the pit. All the diggers escaped—except Simon Rutter. The Water Pit, as the flooded shaft became known, had claimed its first victim.
Many legends grew up about the Water Pit. But the most plausible held that around 1695, the notorious English pirate Edward Ockham buried his vast hoard somewhere along the Maine coast shortly before his mysterious death. The shaft at Ragged Island seemed a likely candidate. Shortly after Rutter’s death, rumors began to circulate that the treasure was cursed, and that anyone attempting to plunder it would suffer the fate threatened on the stone.
Numerous unsuccessful efforts were made to drain the Water Pit. In 1800, two of Rutter’s former partners formed a new company and raised money to finance the digging of a second tunnel, twelve feet to the south of the original pit. All went well for the first hundred feet of digging, at which point they attempted to dig a horizontal passage beneath the original Water Pit. Their scheme was to tunnel up from underneath the treasure, but as soon as they angled in toward the original pit, the passage rapidly began filling with water. The men barely escaped with their lives.
For thirty years, the pit lay fallow. Then, in 1831, the Bath Expeditionary Salvage Company was formed by a downstate mining engineer named Richard Parkhurst. A friend of one of the original merchants, Parkhurst was able to gain valuable information about the earlier workings. Parkhurst decked over the mouth of the Water Pit and set up a large steam-driven pump. He found it impossible to drain the seawater Undaunted, he brought in a primitive coal-drilling rig, which he positioned directly over the Pit. The drill went well beyond the original depth of the Pit, striking planking as deep as 170 feet, until the drill was stopped by something impenetrable. When the drilling pipe was removed, bits of iron and scales of rust were found jammed in the torn bit. The pod also brought up putty, cement, and large quantities of fiber This fiber was analyzed and found to be “manilla grass” or coconut fiber. This plant, which grows only in the tropics, was commonly used as dunnage in ships to keep cargo from shifting Shortly after this discovery, the Bath Expeditionary Salvage Company went bankrupt and Parkhurst was forced to leave the island.
In 1840, the Boston Salvage Company was formed and began digging a third shaft in the vicinity of the Water Pit. After only sixty-six feet, they unexpectedly struck an ancient side tunnel that appeared to lead from the original Pit. Their own shaft filled instantly with water, then collapsed.
Undaunted, the entrepreneurs dug yet another, very large shaft thirty yards away, which became known as the Boston Shaft. Unlike earlier tunnels, the Boston Shaft was not a vertical pit, but was instead cut on a slope. Striking a spur of bedrock at seventy feet, they angled downward for another fifty feet at enormous expense, using augers and gunpowder. Then they drove a horizontal passage beneath the presumed bottom of the original Water Pit, where they found cribbing and the continuation of the original backfilled shaft. Excited, they dug downward, clearing the old shaft. At 130 feet they struck another platform, which they left in place while debating whether to pull it up. But that night, the camp was awakened by a loud rumble. The diggers rushed out to find that the bottom of the Water Pit had fallen into the new tunnel with such force that mud and water had been ejected thirty feet beyond the mouth of the Boston Shaft. Among this mud, a crude metal bolt was discovered, similar to what might be found on a banded sea chest.
Over the next twenty years, a dozen more shafts were dug in an attempt to reach the treasure chamber, all of which flooded or collapsed. Four more treasure companies went bankrupt. In several cases, diggers emerged swearing that the flooding was no accident, and that the original builders of the Water Pit had designed a diabolical mechanism to flood any side shafts that might be dug.
The Civil War brought a brief respite to the diggings. Then, in 1869, a new treasure-hunting company secured the rights to dig on the island. The dig foreman, F.X. Wrenche, noticed that water rose and fell in the Pit in accordance with the tides, and theorized that the Pit and its water traps must all be connected to the sea by an artificial flood tunnel. If the tunnel could be found and sealed, the Pit could be drained and the treasure removed safely. In all, Wrenche dug more than a dozen exploratory shafts of varying depths in the vicinity of the Water Pit. Many of these shafts encountered horizontal tunnels and rock “pipes,” which were dynamited in an attempt to stop the water. However, no flood tunnel to the sea was ever found and the Water Pit remained flooded. The company ran out of money and, like those before, left its machinery behind to rust quietly in the salt air.
In the early 1880s, Gold Seekers Ltd. was formed by a consortium of industrialists from Canada and England. Powerful pumps and a new kind of drill were floated out to the island, along with boilers to power them. The company tried boring several holes into the Water Pit, finally hitting pay dirt on August 23, 1883. The drill came up against the plate of iron that had defeated Parkhurst’s drill fifty years before. A new diamond bit was fitted and the boilers were stoked to a full head of steam. This time the drill bored through the iron and into a solid block of a softer metal. When the corer was extracted, a long, heavy curl of pure gold was found inside its grooves, along with a rotten piece of parchment with two broken phrases: “silks, canary wine, ivory” and “John Hyde rotting on the Deptford gibbet.”
Half an hour after the discovery was made, one of the massive boilers exploded, killing an Irish stoker and leveling many of the company’s structures. Thirteen were injured and one of the principals, Ezekiel Harris, was left blinded. Gold Seekers Ltd. followed its predecessors into bankruptcy.
The years immediately before and after 1900 saw three more companies try their luck at the Water Pit. Unsuccessful in duplicating the discovery of Gold Seekers Ltd., these companies used newly designed pumps in concert with randomly placed underwater charges in an attempt to seal and drain the waterlogged island. Working at their utmost capacity, the pumps were able to lower the water level in several of the central shafts by about twenty feet at low tide. Excavators sent down to examine the condition of the pits complained of noxious gases; several fainted and had to be hauled to the surface. While the last of the three companies was at work in early September 1907, a man lost one arm and both legs when an explosive charge went off prematurely. Two days later, a vicious Nor’easter howled up the coast and wrecked the primary pump. Work was abandoned.
Although no more companies came forward, individual diggers and enthusiasts still occasionally dared to try their hands at exploratory tunnels. By this time, the original location of the Water Pit had been lost among the countless flooded side shafts, holes, and tunnels that riddled the heart of the island. At last the island was abandoned to the ospreys and the chokecherry bushes, its very surface unstable and dangerous, shunned by the mainland townspeople. It was in 1940 that Alfred Westgate Hatch, Sr., a young, wealthy New York financier, brought his family to Maine for the summer. He learned of the island and, growing intrigued, researched its history. Documentation was spotty: none of the previous companies had bothered to keep careful records. Six years later, Hatch purchased the island from a land speculator and moved his family to Stormhaven.
As had so many others before him, A. W Hatch, Sr., became obsessed with the Water Pit and was ruined by it. Within two years the family’s finances had been drained and Hatch was forced to declare personal bankruptcy; he turned to drink and died soon after, leaving A. W Hatch, Jr., at nineteen, the sole support for his family.
Malin Hatch was bored with summer. He and Johnny had spent the early part of the morning throwing rocks at the hornet’s nest in the old well-house. That had been fun. But now there was nothing else to do. It was just past eleven, but he’d already eaten the two peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches his mother had made him for lunch. Now he sat crosslegged on the floating dock in front of their house, looking out to sea, hoping to spot a battleship steaming over the horizon. Even a big oil tanker would do. Maybe it would head for one of the outer islands, run aground and blow up. Now that would be something.
His brother came out of the house and rattled down the wooden ramp leading to the dock. He was holding a piece of ice on his neck.
“Got you good,” Malin said, secretly satisfied that he had escaped stinging and that his older, supposedly wiser, brother had not.
“You just didn’t get close enough,” Johnny said through his last mouthful of sandwich. “Chicken.”
“I got as close as you.”
“Yeah, sure. All those bees could see was your skinny butt running away.” He snorted and winged the piece of ice into the water.
“No, sir. I was right there.”
Johnny plopped down beside him on the dock, dropping his satchel next to him. “We fixed those bees pretty good though, huh, Mal?” he said, testing the fiery patch on his neck with one forefinger.
They fell silent. Malin looked out across the little cove toward the islands in the bay: Hermit Island, Wreck Island, Old Hump, Killick Stone. And far beyond, the blue outline of Ragged Island, appearing and disappearing in the stubborn mist that refused to lift even on this beautiful midsummer day. Beyond the islands, the open ocean was, as his father often said, as calm as a millpond.
Languidly, he tossed a rock into the water and watched the spreading ripples without interest. He almost regretted not going into town with his parents. At least it would be something to do. He wished he could be anywhere else in the world—Boston, New York—anywhere but Maine.
“Ever been to New York, Johnny?” he asked.
Johnny nodded solemnly. “Once. Before you were born.”
What a lie, Malin thought. As if Johnny would remember anything that had happened when he was less than two years old. But saying so out loud would be to risk a swift punch in the arm.
Malin’s eye fell on the small outboard tied at the end of the dock. And he suddenly had an idea. A really good idea.
“Let’s take it out,” he said, lowering his voice and nodding at the skiff.
“You’re crazy,” Johnny said. “Dad would whip us good.”
“Come on,” Malin said. “They’re having lunch at the Hastings after they finish shopping. They won’t be back until three, maybe four. Who’s gonna know?”
“Just the whole town, that’s all, seeing us going out there.”
“Nobody’s gonna be watching,” said Malin. Then, recklessly, he added, “Who’s chicken now?”
But Johnny did not seem to notice this liberty. His eyes were on the boat. “So where do you want to go that’s so great, anyway?” he asked.
Despite their solitude, Malin lowered his voice further. “Ragged Island.”
Johnny turned toward him. “Dad’ll kill us,” he whispered.
“He won’t kill us if we find the treasure.”
“There’s no treasure,” Johnny said scornfully, but without much conviction. “Anyway, it’s dangerous out there, with all those pits.”
Malin knew enough about his brother to recognize the tone in his voice. Johnny was interested. Malin kept quiet, letting the monotonous morning solitude do his persuading for him.
Abruptly, Johnny stood up and strode to the end of the dock. Malin waited, an anticipatory thrill coursing through him. When his brother returned, he was holding a life preserver in each hand.
“When we land, we don’t go farther than the rocks along the shore.” Johnny’s voice was deliberately gruff, as if to remind Malin that simply having one good idea didn’t alter their balance of power. “Understand?”
Malin nodded, holding the gunwale while Johnny tossed in his satchel and the life preservers. He wondered why they hadn’t thought of doing this before. Neither boy had ever been to Ragged Island. Malin didn’t know any kids in the town of Stormhaven who ever had, either. It would make a great story to tell their friends.
“You sit in the bow,” Johnny said, “and I’ll drive.”
Malin watch Johnny fiddle with the shift lever, open the choke, pump the gas bulb, then yank the starter cord. The engine coughed, then fell silent. Johnny yanked again, then again. Ragged Island was six miles offshore, but Malin figured they could make it in a half hour on such a smooth sea. It was close to high tide, when the strong currents that swept the island dropped down to nothing before reversing.
Johnny rested, his face red, and then turned again for a heroic yank. The engine sputtered into life. “Cast off!” he shouted. As soon as the rope was uncleated, Johnny shoved the throttle all the way forward, and the tinny little eighteen-horsepower engine whined with exertion. The boat surged from the dock and headed out past Breed’s Point into the bay, wind and spray stinging Malin’s face delightfully.
The boat sent back a creamy wake as it sliced through the ocean. There had been a massive storm the week before, but as usual it seemed to have settled the surface, and the water was glassy. Now Old Hump appeared to starboard, a low naked dome of granite, streaked with seagull lime and fringed with dark seaweed. As they buzzed through the channel, countless seagulls, drowsing one-legged on the rock, raised their heads and stared at the boat with bright yellow eyes. A single pair rose into the sky, then wheeled past, crying a lost cry.
“This was a great idea,” Malin said. “Wasn’t it, Johnny?”
“Maybe,” Johnny said. “But if we get caught, it was your idea.”
Even though their father owned Ragged Island, they had been forbidden to visit it for as long as he could remember. Their dad hated the place and never talked about it. Schoolyard legend held that countless people had been killed there digging for treasure; that the place was cursed; that it harbored ghosts. There were so many pits and shafts dug over the years that the island’s innards were completely rotten, ready to swallow the unwary visitor. He’d even heard about the Curse Stone. It had been found in the Pit many years before, and now it was supposedly kept in a special room deep in the church basement, locked up tight because it was the work of the devil. Johnny once told him that when kids were really bad in Sunday School, they were shut up in the crypt with the Curse Stone. He felt another shiver of excitement.
The island lay dead ahead now, wreathed in clinging tatters of mist. In winter, or on rainy days, the mist turned to a suffocating, pea-soup fog. On this bright summer day, it was more like translucent cotton candy. Johnny had tried to explain the local rip currents that caused it, but Malin hadn’t understood and was pretty sure Johnny didn’t, either.
The mist approached the boat’s prow and suddenly they were in a strange twilit world, the motor muffled. Almost unconsciously, Johnny slowed down. Then they were through the thickest of it and ahead Malin could see the Ragged Island ledges, their cruel seaweed-covered flanks softened by the mist.
They brought the skiff through a low spot in the ledges. As the sea-level mist cleared, Malin could see the greenish tops of jagged underwater rocks, covered with waving seaweed; the kind of rocks so feared by lobstermen at low tide or in heavy fog. But now the tide was high, and the little motorboat slid past effortlessly. After an argument about who was to get his feet wet, they grounded on the cobbled shore. Malin jumped out with the painter and pulled the boat up, feeling the water squish in his sneakers.
Johnny stepped out onto dry land. “Pretty neat,” he said noncommittally, shouldering his satchel and looking inland.
Just up from the stony beach, the sawgrass and chokecherry bushes began. The scene was lit by an eerie silver light, filtered through the ceiling of mist that still hung above their heads. A huge iron boiler, at least ten feet high, rose above the nearby grass, covered with massive rivets and rusted a deep orange. There was a split down one side, ragged and petalled. Its upper half was cloaked by the low-lying mists.
“I bet that boiler blew up,” Johnny said.
“Bet it killed somebody,” Malin added with relish.
“Bet it killed two people.”
The cobbled beach ended at the seaward point of the island in ridges of wave-polished granite. Malin knew that fishermen passing through the Ragged Island Channel called these rocks the Whalebacks. He scrambled up the closest of the Whalebacks and stood high, trying to see over the bluffs into the island.
“Get down!” Johnny yelled. “Just what do you think you’re gonna see in all this mist? Idiot.”
“Takes one to know one—” Malin began, climbing down, and received a brotherly rap on the head for his troubles.
“Stay behind me,” Johnny said. “We’ll circle the shore, then head back.” He walked quickly along the bottom of the bluffs, his tanned legs chocolate brown in the dim light. Malin followed, feeling aggrieved. It was his idea to come out here, but Johnny always took over.
“Hey!” Johnny yelled. “Look!” He bent down, picking up something long and white. “It’s a bone.”
“No, it isn’t,” Malin replied, still feeling annoyed. Coming to the island was his idea. He should have been the one to find it.
“It is, too. And I bet it’s from a man.” Johnny swung the thing back and forth like a baseball bat. “It’s the leg bone off somebody who got killed trying to get the treasure. Or a pirate, maybe. I’m gonna take it home and keep it under my bed.”
Curiosity overcame Malin’s annoyance. “Let me see,” he said.
Johnny handed him the bone. It felt surprisingly heavy and cold, and it smelled bad. “Yuck,” Malin said, hastily handing it back.
“Maybe the skull’s around here somewhere,” Johnny replied.
They poked among the rocks, finding nothing but a dead dogfish with goggle eyes. As they rounded the point, a wrecked barge came into view, left from some long-forgotten salvage operation. It was grounded at the high-tide mark, twisted and pounded onto the rocks, buffeted by decades of storms.
“Look at this,” said Johnny, interest rising in his voice. He scrambled out on the heaved, buckled deck. All around it lay rusted pieces of metal, pipes, busted gears, and nasty snarls of cable and wire. Malin began looking through the old junk, keeping an eye out for the gleam of a pirate doubloon. He figured that the pirate, Red Ned Ockham, was so rich he’d probably dropped a whole lot of doubloons around the island. Red Ned, who’d supposedly buried millions and millions in gold on the island, along with a jeweled weapon called St. Michael’s Sword, so powerful it could kill any man who even looked at it. They said Red Ned had once cut a man’s ears off and used them to make a bet in a dice game. A sixth-grade girl named Cindy told him it was really the man’s balls that Red Ned cut off, but Malin didn’t believe her. Another time Red Ned got drunk and cut a man open, then threw him overboard and towed him by his guts until the sharks ate him. The kids at school had a lot of stories about Red Ned.
Tiring of the barge, Johnny motioned for Malin to follow him along the rocks that lay scattered at the bottom of the bluffs on the windward side of the island. Above them, a high dirt embankment rose against the sky, roots of long-dead spruce trees poking horizontally from the soil like gnarled fingers. The top of the embankment was lost in the clinging mists. Some of the bluffs were caved in and collapsing, victims of the storms that slammed into the island every fall.
It was chilly in the shadow of the bluffs, and Malin hurried on. Johnny, excited now by his finds, was bounding ahead, heedless of his own warnings, whooping and waving the bone. Malin knew his mother would throw the old bone into the ocean as soon as she found it.
Johnny stopped briefly to poke among stuff that had washed up on shore: old lobster buoys, busted-up traps, pieces of weathered planking. Then he moved toward a fresh gash farther up the bluffs. A bank had recently caved in, spilling dirt and boulders across the rocky shore. He leaped easily over the boulders, then disappeared from view.
Malin moved more quickly now. He didn’t like having Johnny out of sight. There was a stirring in the air: it had been a sunny day before they disappeared into the Ragged Island mist, but anything could be happening out there now. The breeze felt cold, as if weather was coming on, and the sea was beginning to break hard over the Ragged Island ledges. The tide would be close to turning. Maybe they’d better start back.
There was a sudden, sharp cry, and for a terrible moment Malin feared Johnny had hurt himself on the slippery rocks. But then the cry came again—an urgent summons—and Malin scrambled forward, clambering over the fallen rocks and around a bend in the shoreline. Before him, a huge granite boulder lay at a crazy angle, freshly dislodged from the bank by a recent storm. On its far side stood Johnny, pointing, a look of wide-eyed wonderment on his face.
At first, Malin couldn’t say a word. The movement of the boulder had exposed the opening of a tunnel at the foot of the bank, with just enough room to squeeze behind. A clammy stream of stale air eddied from the tunnel mouth.
“Cripes,” he said, running up the slope toward the embankment.
“I found it!” Johnny cried, breathless with excitement. “I bet you anything the treasure’s in there. Take a look, Malin!”
Malin turned. “It was my idea.”
Johnny looked back with a smirk. “Maybe,” he said, un-shouldering his satchel. “But I found it. And I brought the matches.”
Malin leaned toward the tunnel mouth inquisitively. Deep down, he’d believed his father when he said there never was any treasure on Ragged Island. But now, he wasn’t so sure. Was it possible his dad could be wrong?
Then he leaned back quickly, nose wrinkling against the stale smell of the tunnel.
“What’s the matter?” Johnny asked. “Afraid?”
“No,” said Malin in a small voice. The mouth of the tunnel looked very dark.
- On Sale
- Jul 1, 1998
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Grand Central Publishing