Chapters

Creekwood - a cozy romantic thriller

© e. lee caleca all rights reserved

                                                                                             Chapter 1


    Lightning flashed in the low hills.  Wes Henry took a deep breath of the stormy air and frowned as he looked at his friend still in the water.  He was already stowing gear against the imminent rain. 

    “You know how dangerous it is to be in the water during a storm,” he called.

    The wind twisted the dark hair around Natalie Dubhe’s face.   “I know, I know,” she shouted.  “I’m moving as fast as I can.”

    The storm had risen without warning.  An hour earlier, when the two had motored out to the island, the sky had been clear and blue. Now it was dark and threatening.  Thunder groaned in the clouds.  Most of the other boats anchored off Party Island had begun to head for home. 

     A permanent volleyball net had been implanted on the forty foot dune, which loomed about a hundred and fifty feet from the shoreline.  The two had been involved in a friendly game when the first thunder rumbled. 

    The pair had met at a Jeep rendezvous in Vale, Colorado four years back.  Wes was in one of the demonstration tents talking to a guy who was a survival specialist.  Mitch Patterson of Survival Science had made a thick brew of coffee in a tin cup and was giving out samples to onlookers.  Natalie Dubhe was not the type to play coy and cute.  She had spotted the good looking guy in the floppy outback hat and safari shorts, then twenty seven year old Wes Henry and the two discovered they both lived in Tennessee.

    At thirty-five, her straight chestnut brown hair still gleamed and only a few soft lines showed around her mouth and eyes.  She hated the one maddening crease between her eyebrows, but Natalie was a thinker and thinkers always seemed to be frowning. 

    “Ouch,” she squealed. 

    “What?”

    The water was only three feet deep here and Natalie bent into the water to pull out the smooth hard object. 

    “Natty, what is it?” Wes yelled again as she popped up from below.

    “It’s a little tin box!”  She walked in long difficult strides through the shallow water to Wes’s blue Baja which anchored twenty feet ahead, swimming the last few feet and grabbing the stern ladder.  She handed the tin to Wes and swung one foot up on deck.

    “Pull me up,” she said, reaching her hand up to meet his.  As he yanked her aboard, another jagged flash of lightening appeared in the distance followed by a roaring thunder boom.  It was getting increasingly darker and thick clouds were moving quickly overhead. 

    The two actually shared this love of thunderstorms and stared, mesmerized by the incredible display of nature.  Old Hickory Lake was impressive in size and now, with the hills silhouetted against the indigo clouds, it was awesomely beautiful.

    Startled by a loud thunderclap, Natalie spoke suddenly.  She had to yell to be heard above the roaring wind.

    “Let’s see what’s in the tin,” she said.  “It’s rusted shut.  I think we can scrape off some of the rust around the lid and pry it open with a screwdriver.  There’s definitely something inside.”  She shook the small can, holding it by her ear and making a display of pretending to find something valuable inside.

    The box measured about two inches on each side and was about three inches high.  It was dark red with a buff colored logo front and back.

“Brush Creek Smoking Mixture.  Net weight 1 oz.”  Natalie continued to read the tin.  “A mixture of rarest imported and domestic leaves.  Hand selected by master blenders.  Kentucky Club, Wheeling, W. VA.”

    Wes had been rummaging in a drawer below and appeared on deck with the required screwdriver.

    “Here, let me have it.”  Natalie did not want to give up control and grabbed the screwdriver from him.  “I found it.  I’ll do it.”  She scraped and scraped but could not loosen the top of the tin. 

    “Let me have a try.”

    “Ok, big boy, maybe you can do better.”  The next clap of thunder was so loud that it drowned out her voice and rattled the stones on the steep bank.  Rain began to pellet the deck and the two dove onto the cushioned seats below in fits of laughter.

    Wes leaned over her in a half hearted attempt to make a pass. 

    “Back off, bucko.”

    “Aw, come on.  You, me, here.  Alone under the romantic rain.  No one has to know.”

    “Oh, man, give it up, will you?”

    “Ok, ok.  Let’s lay that rag down on the table so I can scrape onto it.”  He hopped off the seat and grabbed a rag from the counter.  “Let’s see what’s in this tin of yours.”  He scraped and pried but the top would not come loose.  

    “Hey, let’s run over and ask Rex if he has any rust remover.”

    The rain had let up and the sky had cleared a bit, typical of a summer storm.  They motored back to the marina, chattering and speculating about their little find.  Once moored, they ran plowing and stumbling their way up the pier, Wes still carrying the tin.  They were both talking at the same time and puffing for breath when they entered the marina store.

    “Hold on there, young ‘uns,” smiled the old man behind the counter.  His walnut lined face peered at them from beneath a battered and serviceable straw hat.  “One at a time.”

    “Sorry.  Ok.  Sorry.  Do you have any rust remover we can borrow, Mr. Hardaway?  We only need a little bit to open this tin.  We found it out near Party Island.  There’s definitely something inside it.”  Natalie grabbed the tin from Wes and handed it to Rex who turned it over in his hands.

    “People are always finding something in the water.  Rings, dog chains, water pistols, coins, flip flops, plastic toys, you name it.  Someone even came in here one day with a bust of Chopin.  Cracked and green with algae, but Chopin nonetheless.”  He shook the tin.  “One time, I found a bunch of bananas still in a grocery bag.  Must’ve fallen off a boat that day.  Bananas were good and sound.  Ate ‘em myself.  Not a thing wrong with ‘em.”  He shook the tin again, holding it up to his ear.  “Sounds to me like it’s full of tobacco.  These tobacco tins were usually darn near air tight to keep the moisture out of the leaves.  I recall this brand.  Ain’t seen it though for about fifty years.  Had a good smooth taste as I recall.”

    The pair looked at each other.  Rex Hardaway was a local man of about eighty years and his mind was sharp.  He often retold stories and legends about local folks, past and present.  The area was ripe with the history of Native Americans - Cherokee mostly, Yankees, Rebels, and notorious outlaws such as Jesse James and the Younger brothers.  Any other day, the two would have waited patiently through his tale but today they were squirming like kids, anxious to find out what was in the tin.

    “Mr. Hardaway?” said Natalie.

    “Hmm?” mused Rex.

    “The rust remover?”

    “Oh, yes.  I’ll get it straight away.”  He popped out of his chair and rummaged around on a shelf.

    “Here you go, little lady.”  Natalie never thought of herself as a little lady.  She was 5’4” and weighed about 128 pounds.  She had weighed 118 in high school and felt like she just kept getting bigger and bigger.  Most people considered her petite.  Her face was round and wide with good high cheekbones.  She had almond shaped eyes and her lips were thin and well shaped.  Her figure was proportionate to her frame and she still seemed to be attractive to men but she could really never figure out why.  She just figured men were predators.

    “Let’s go outside and open it,” suggested Wes.  The two sprinted to the door, Rex keeping up behind them.  Out on the paved lot, Wes poured some of the remover onto a rag.  He then held it onto the tin, dissolving the rust quickly.  He worked his way around the lid and soon it was loosened.

    “You ready, Natty?” he asked.

    “Yes!  Open it!”

    “You may have the honor.  After all, it’s your tin.  You found it.  I’m surprised you didn’t break my hand trying to grab it back.”  He handed her the tin.

    “Actually, it found me,” she laughed.  “Ok, here goes.”  She ceremoniously pulled the lid.  Inside was tobacco, as dry as chert.  With a disappointed scowl, she poured the crumbly leaves onto the rag.   “Wait, what’s this?”  In the little pile of leaves was a small cylinder two inches long and about the diameter of a pencil.  It was made of glass and topped with a tiny cork.  Natalie picked up the little vile.

    “There’s a piece of paper inside,” she exclaimed.

    “And it’s about to come down again,” shouted Rex just as large pellets of rain began to pummel the ground.  Wes scooped up the towel and the rust remover, letting the wind take the dried tobacco leaves, as the trio ran into the store.

    “You two had better get home and dry off,” said Rex.

    “Not until I see what this paper is.”  Natalie pulled the cork from the glass and with nimble fingers, slid the paper from its tube.  The two men watched with anticipation as she carefully unfurled the slip.

    “It’s a little map.  And it’s so detailed.  I can hardly read the writing though.  I’ll need a magnifying glass to read it.”  Rex had one lying on his desk which he used regularly to supplement his reading glasses.  He picked it up and handed it to her.

    “You read it, Wes.  Your eyes are better than mine.”  She handed Wes the magnifying glass and together they looked down at the drawing.  The parchment-like paper was yellowed with age and crackled as they handled it.

    “It says ‘Queen’s Treasure’ here at the top.”  Do you think it could be a real treasure map, Mr. Hardaway?”  Both Wes and Natalie looked automatically to the older man who was still looking down at the little map.

    “I’ve heard tell over the years of some kind of queen’s treasure somewhere around this lake.  That legend’s been going on a long time.  Seems to me I heard it way back when I was a boy.  I remember my daddy and some men talking about it.  I reckon folks have been looking for that treasure since the lake was built, maybe before.”

    Old Hickory Lake had been created in 1954 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of a plan to support a new hydroelectric power unit.  It included a system of locks, the dam, and the powerhouse.  It wasn’t long before people started putting up summer cottages all along the lake’s 97 mile perimeter.  Tennessee’s temperate climate made for a long recreational season of fishing, boating, and swimming.

     Natalie’s parents had divorced when she was 15 and she and her father and brother had moved to Hendersonville.  Twenty-three years ago, most of the older cottages were made of local limestone.  Theophilus  Dubhe had purchased one of these cottages.  He was an anthropologist who was away from home much of the time.  His wife, Lois, was an architect whose real love lay in sculpting.  She had an artist’s temperament and preferred being alone to pursue her art.  She really didn’t mind her husband being away so much and the children, Natalie and her younger brother Rudy, spent a lot of time with their father’s brother, Paul.

     Uncle Pauly had owned a bicycle repair shop in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, where they had grown up.   Natalie would go home every day after school, pick up 8 year old Rudy and the two would walk hand in hand to the bike shop where Paul Dubhe would let them tinker around.  He loved having the kids there and treated them respectfully as apprentices.

    When her parents divorced, Natalie and Rudy were not given an option as to which parent they would live with and Theo and his two kids trooped off to Hendersonville where he was working on a project with the University of Tennessee.  Lois Dubhe loved her children.  She had even sculpted an image of Natalie holding her new baby brother.  It’s just that she needed her time alone and that’s the way it was going to be.  Even after they had moved, Natalie remembered her parents arguing on the phone and it used to drive her crazy.  As she got older, she understood more about the differences in their lifestyles and was able to forgive them both. 

    Theophilus Dubhe was still away a lot, but now she didn’t seem to mind as much.  He and Lois had reconciled 10 years after the move to Hendersonville.  They decided they were still in love with each other and with no small children to look after, the marriage seemed to work. 

    Natalie stayed in the cottage which her father had bought more than twenty years earlier, but now she had her own friends and her own life.  Besides, she loved this cottage.  It was all she needed. 

    “To answer your question, I can’t rightly say whether it’s real or not.  Could be real.  Could be a joke someone’s played.” 

    A man and a woman had entered the store and now the couple approached Rex Hardaway’s desk with the items they intended to purchase.

    “We couldn’t help overhearing your conversation about the queen’s treasure map,” said the woman.  Her surly face and thin arched eyebrows seemed plastic under too much eye makeup.  “May I see it? I may be able to help.”  She nudged her way between Wes and Natalie to look at the map.  The man walked to the back of the desk where Rex sat in his chair.  Natalie instinctively grabbed the map from the desk and shoved it into the key pocket of her swim shorts.  The woman whirled around, intentionally jabbing her elbow into Wes as she turned to face Natalie squarely.  Natalie jumped back in alarm.

    “Give me the map,” the woman growled, “or I can take it from you.”  Rex started to stand but the man placed his hands on Rex’s shoulders to hold him in place.  The woman gave Natalie a shove.

    “Hey, what do you think you’re doing?” she yelled.  The woman had grabbed Natalie by the wrist and was digging in with her nails.

    “You’re hurting me.”  Natalie’s voice was firm and level and her eyes did not waver from the woman’s.  “Let go.  Now,” she said. 

    “Or what,” the woman snickered.

    “And take your hands off him, too,” said Wes.  The man was neatly tying Rex’s hands behind the chair with speed and adeptness.

    Wes and Natalie’s eyes met in a knowing look and the struggle was on.  Natalie twisted slightly to the right and kicked the woman hard just below the kneecap with the flat heel of her bare foot.  The woman fell but did not release her grip on Natalie’s wrist.

    At the same time Wes jumped onto the desk, taking the man - and Rex - by surprise.  He kicked the man squarely in the nose, slipped backwards on some papers and landed smack between Natalie and the woman, breaking the woman’s grip on Natalie’s wrist.  He winked at his friend.

    “Nice save,” she laughed.

    “Any time,” he countered.

    The man, particularly angry over his now bleeding nose, flew in a rage to the pair who were still sitting on the floor.  They scooted apart quickly, both sticking a leg up to trip him.  He sailed forward, carried by the momentum of his run and landed head first in a tub of live fish bait.  Natalie squealed with laughter.

    “Now that is a beautiful sight!”

    “Yes, m’am,” said Wes and the two touched fists.

    Then he felt a blow to his right ear.  The woman had recovered.  She had picked up the nearest object, a broom, and swung it hard.  Fortunately for Wes she had miscalculated and only the bristles made contact with his head.  It was enough to topple him over and the woman lunged at Natalie who was still sitting on the floor.  The two rolled around a little and seemed evenly matched.  Natalie was younger and more agile but the woman was fit and seemed fueled by hatred.

    Rex Hardaway, having worked his way loose, had phoned the police.  Now he and Wes, taking an arm each, were easily able to pull the woman off Natalie.

    “You ok, son?” Rex asked of Wes.

    “I’m ok.  You?”  He was concerned about the older man.

    “Shoot.  That fella’s an amateur.”  The two looked over at the man who was dripping with slimy water.  He made a comical scene picking worms from his hair and collar.  The other men laughed.

    “How did you get loose, Mr. Hardaway?”  Wes looked at Rex with respectful admiration.

    “I’m an old sailor.  That fella never even tied a good knot.  Just a half slip.  I just felt around for the end and pulled it loose.”

    “Lucky for us.”

    “Hello!  Doesn’t anybody care how I’m doing?”  Natalie feigned a hurt look and picked herself up off the floor.

    It was only seconds before three police cars came barreling into the lot.  Six police officers jumped from the cars, leaving their lights blaring and ran into the store with weapons drawn in front of them.  Quickly assessing the situation, the man and woman were handcuffed and escorted out to the squad cars.  The woman smiled at Natalie with a thin, tight mouth and squinted eyes while the man kept his head down.

    “You ok, Mr. H.?”  Detective Sergeant Hansen Bell of the Hendersonville Police Department was the officer in charge.  He was a long legged, golden skinned Cherokee who grew up in the lake district and knew Mr. Hardaway well.  Rex nodded affirmatively.

    “What’s this all about?  Who are those characters?”

    “Ain’t never seen ‘em round before today.  Seems they have some interest in the queen’s treasure.”

    “The queen’s treasure?  I haven’t heard that story since I was in high school.  And then it was just a legend.  No truth to it.  Is there?”  He looked at Rex not really expecting an answer.

    The three were silent.  Detective Bell looked from one to the other then back to Rex.

    “Is there?” he repeated, this time with a little more enthusiasm.  Natalie looked at Rex who nodded his approval to bring Detective Bell into the loop.

    “Wes and I found a map today.  Look.”  She reached into her pocket to pull out the map.  “It’s gone!  The map’s gone!  Quick, look around the floor for it!”

    “That’s why that woman was grinning at you, Natty.  She managed to get the map during the struggle without your knowing it!”

    Detective Bell was already on the radio calling dispatch.  “Send car two back to Hardaway’s on the double.”  The radio crackled off followed by the sound of sirens blaring back down the peninsula.

    “Her hands are cuffed behind her back.  She won’t be able to reach into her pockets and probably has had no chance to get a look at the map,” said the detective.

    “I’m sure you’re right, J.B.”  Rex’s face was troubled.

    As the squad car raced back into the lot the four ran out to meet it.

    “What’s the trouble, sir?” asked the officer in the passenger seat as she quickly stepped out of the car.

    “A quick check of the detainees, Chan.  Please remove them from the vehicle.”  Wendy Chan was a petite Chinese American.  Her sleek black hair was pulled back into a tight bun, exaggerating the slant of her eyes.  She held her 5’2” frame as though she were six feet tall and Natalie was amazed that she was able to carry the fifteen extra pounds of leather belt and gear around her hips without appearing any heavier.

    “Yes, sir!”  She turned to the police car and opened the right rear door.  “You heard the man.  Everybody out.  Watch your head, now.”  She placed a hand over the head of the woman who stepped out of the vehicle.  “You, too.”  The man inched his way across the seat and slid out after her.

    “What’s this all about?” scowled the man.  “I want to call my lawyer.”

    “You’ll have plenty of time for that and I recommend it,” Bell snapped back.  “Officer Chan, please search this woman’s pockets.  We’re looking for a map.”  Wendy Chan turned on her heel.

    “It’s only about this big,” Natalie interjected.  She held up her thumb and index finger about two inches apart to indicate the size of the map.  “And it’s probably a little crumpled.”

    Chan stuck her hand in the woman’s jacket pockets, checked its inner pocket, the pockets of her slacks and shirt and even removed her shoes and socks.  No paper was found.

    Natalie’s eyes lasered in on the woman’s balled up fists.  She spoke through gritted teeth.  “Check her hands.”

    “Open your hands, please,” said Chan.  The woman’s hands were empty and she mocked Natalie with a saccharin smile.

    “They’ve got to have it.  We searched everywhere inside.  They’ve just got to have it.”

    “That’s it.” Wes beamed triumphantly.

    “What’s it?” she asked.  Everyone looked in his direction.

    “You just said it.  They’ve got to have it.  She passed it off to him.  It was probably still in her hands when she was cuffed, just as you guessed.  She passed it to him behind her back when they were in the car.  It’s the only thing they could have done.  Check his hands.  I’m sure I’m right.”

    “Ok, open those hands.”  Officer Jack Boston had emerged from the driver’s seat of the squad car and had been standing with his arms folded in front of him behind the man.  He was a former U.S. Marine in his late forties, a big man with a no nonsense attitude and a gruff exterior.  The man refused by keeping his hands closed.  Bell nodded and Boston immediately obeyed by applying pressure to the man’s wrist and prying open the fingers.  There lay the crumpled paper.  Boston lifted it carefully.

    “This what you’re looking for?”  He grinned and handed the paper to Detective Bell who opened it. 

    “Well I’ll be darned.  Maybe there is some truth to this mystery after all if the likes of these two are willing to commit a crime for it.”  He gave a cursory look and handed the map to Natalie, who was chomping at the bit to see it again and make sure it had not been damaged.  She carefully smoothed the page noting that a smudge had appeared from the dampness of her swimsuit pocket. 

    “I hope this doesn’t affect the map too much.  I would think on a map this small, everything counts.”

    “The three of you can come to the station anytime tomorrow and make your statements,” said Bell.

     “Come on, Natty, I’ll walk you home,” said Wes.  “I’ll come back as soon as I walk Natalie home to help you clean up this mess, Mr. Hardaway.”

    “Don’t bother.  It’s no trouble, kids.  I rather enjoyed myself.”  The salty old timer cackled a bit.  “Ain’t had no excitement around here in a dog’s age and that’s the truth.  Don’t worry about the mess.  Just a few papers and things.  You go on home and get cleaned up.  Come on back tomorrow and we’ll chat about that map of yours.”