A Heart of Pure Gold

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From the Adventures of Grant McSwain, Hero of Harrowing Deeds, Delver of Dangerous Depths, and Charmer of Cold-Hearted Dames...

Accompanied as always by his hapless assistant, Teagan O'Daire, the Ginger of Galway

Teagan swept thick layers of spider-silk aside with a machete and slipped between the narrow walls of the tunnel onto a small shelf overlooking deep darkness. Pebbles jostled and fell, clattering on stone and splashing in water far below. "There's a ledge here, Grant. Watch your step."

Her partner stood frozen, his sharp and fetching jawline offset by a grimace, his wide eyes inspecting every inch of web. "Set it on fire, Teag," he whispered.

"The webs are ages old," Teagan replied. "There aren't any—"

"Burn it!"

Teagan gave him a playful smirk and waved the torch around the opening. The webs recoiled from the flame as if alive. "Better now, muffin?"

Grant exhaled loudly and took a deep breath, then crept forward.

"If Master Roquefort could see you now," Teagan said with a laugh.

"Not one word, Teag," Grant growled.

"He'd think less of your next round of tall tales, I don't doubt!" She shot him a sour look, wasted in the dim light. "You have that poor sot fooled—a feat I admit might be a trifle too easy."

"He's a good chap with a heart of pure gold," Grant said. "Keeps us paid, doesn't he? And agreeing to lure out the Pops Kimble twins for the Feds took some guts."

Grant held his torch aloft. The outlines of an underground structure appeared in the shadows below. "The Fortress of Castanzo Vallarte," Grant declared. "Hamwich will thrill to hear of this discovery."

Teagan tied a firm knot around a rocky outcropping and tugged on the rope. "Only if we find the treasures of the Corazon de Oro. Vallarte's ship bore wealth from the Ixthacan Empire when it ran aground."

"True, Hamwich may care more about that," Grant said. "If he ever hears about it." He took the rope and descended into the shadows before Teagan could press him for an explanation.

She wrapped the rope around her leg and caught the length between her feet for a measure of control. Even so, her heavy leather gloves grew warm from friction on the descent.

At the edges of the circular plaza surrounded by an underground lake, proud likenesses of the conquistador sneered at Teagan as she stalked across the dusty stone. "What do you mean 'if he hears,' Grant?"

Grant had already moved to the front of the rough-hewn fortress. He stood at a pair of iron doors, looking for a means of entry. He didn't even turn at her voice. "I promised the treasures to Bonhomme in Paris," Grant said. "He offered twice as much as Hamwich."

A mechanism clicked out of Teagan's view, and Grant gave a triumphant laugh as the doors swung open. "Don't worry. I have a reliable fence with a reputation for discretion. Hamwich need only hear tell that someone beat us to it."

He crept down the wide hall toward the central chamber, pointing out an obvious trap with a long pole.

Teagan followed, fingering the Saint Nicholas medallion in her pocket. "And if, God forbid, he discovers the truth? He funded the expedition, after all."

"Not to fret," Grant said. "We'll burn that bridge when we come to it." He flashed her his devilish smile, the one that shook her steel will and resolve. Then he noticed her hand in her pocket. "I assure you, Saint Nick won't jot your name on his naughty list, Teag. It's just business."

"It's not Santa Claus, you dolt," Teagan hissed. "After so many voyages and successful expeditions, even a lout like you has cause to thank Saint Nicholas of Myra, patron saint of sailors." She swallowed a wave of guilt for ill-gotten bounty. And repentant thieves.

Grant brushed Teagan off. "Me an' God? That bridge burnt long ago." He stepped into the main chamber and began a methodical search for Vallarte's wealth. "God's of the mindset money's the root of all evil, and I—like Vallarte—am rather fond of it."

"Love of money," Teagan corrected while checking their supplies.

Grant laughed. "Yeah, but who has money and doesn't love it? We have about four hours before we need to head back. Let's get to work."

But after three hours of grueling search, Grant and Teagan sat on the steps outside the Fortress, defeated. "What are we missing, Teag?"

Teagan reviewed research notes she'd meticulously copied. "Castanzo Vallarte dedicated the spoils to the Throne, of course. But historians claim he was infatuated with Princess Anna of Austria, before she married King Phillip."

She glanced at Grant. "How would you try to win the heart of a queen?"

Grant nodded. "Gold more pure and plentiful than she'd ever seen before..."

Teagan surveyed the plaza's silent sentinels. "Could Vallarte have hidden his treasure in plain sight?"

Grant grabbed a pickaxe and dashed to the nearest statue. Then he plunged the point into the stone man's chest. Pieces of rock fell away, and Teagan held up her torch.

Gold glittered in the flickering light.

Grant laughed and broke more of the stone. A flow of coins, cups, and dinnerware poured from the cavity. But Grant's eyes stared into the statue's remains. "Teag," he whispered, breathless, "shine the light here."

She did so, and beheld a massive golden heart on a stone support. "A literal corazon de oro," she said with a gasp, "meant for his love."

Grant pried it free and turned toward Teagan, that charming grin splitting his face—then shrieked at the furry spider crawling across the heart.

Before Teagan could react, she caught the massive heart in the chest with a sickening squish of spider guts. The impact knocked her back, and she splashed into the chilly water.

Weighed down by the massive gold heart, she plummeted into the gloomy depths...

To be continued in "A Trace of Terror"

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