Phantom Pearl Excerpt

PHANTOM PEARL   –   CHAPTER 1

It took three rings before Riki decided to answer her cell phone. She should’ve left the offensive thing back in the room turned off, battery disconnected.

On ring four, she heaved a sigh and grabbed it. “I’m on vacation,” she snapped.

“Your brief e-mail said out of town,” Kai replied, “not out of touch.”

“Can’t you read between the lines?” When a soft ocean breeze drifted beneath the bamboo and thatch roof of the pool bar, she savored the warm freshness of it. “Why are you calling?”

“The same reason you answered,” Kai said. “Work.”

She wanted to groan. “That last job you sent me on nearly killed me. Don’t I deserve one measly week in Baja to soak away the bruises?” Riki didn’t like to complain, it’s just that Russia was still frozen this time of year, and that comrade punched like a two-ton block of ice. She ached down to the bone.

“You knew the path chosen would not be easy,” Kai replied.

The phone line crackled. Day two at a beach resort on the outer edges of cell reception, and she had barely begun to thaw out. She loved Kai Menita like the father figure he was, but more often than not, contact from him meant work. Right now, she needed a five-minute time-out. Taking this call had been a mistake.

“I never complain. Not ever. This time though, just this once, I want to enjoy squishing my toes in the sand and devouring fruity drinks with little umbrellas.” To prove it, she sucked the last of her lime daiquiri through a straw until it gurgled.

Kai made a noise of disapproval on the other end of the line. “One Russian tsar and a three-man security team is no match for a woman of your skills. I taught you better than that.”

It was true. And no one could ever claim that Riki Maddox shirked her duty. Down time was as rare as the antiquities she chased. Her life was complicated, her work demanding, but she’d just finished a brutal job that left her in dire need of a vacation.

“You also taught me the Tao of Revitalization,” Riki said with seriousness. “The importance of mental and physical balance.” She set her glass aside. “I’m not there, Kai. I could use a little time.”

“You know I freely give you what you need, yet every decision we make demands a price.”

Riki sighed. It was always like that with him. Give and take, yin and yang, the inherent duality of the natural world that proclaimed nothing was truly free. Even the smallest movement caused a ripple of energy that spread indefinitely. She understood the principal and believed in the strength of focus it brought. But right this moment, the only thing she wanted was the warmth of the sun, the sound of the ocean waves, and the simple pleasure of a few color-soaked sunsets. Kai’s phone call said she wasn’t going to get them.

“Whatever this is, it better be worth interrupting the first vacation I’ve had in forever.”

For a couple of seconds, there was nothing but silence on the other end of the line. Then, “I’ve found the plane,” Kai declared.

Riki’s breath caught on the bombshell.

She shoved away from her seat at the bar and headed for the privacy of Baja Palmilla’s tropical gardens. “How? Where? Are you certain?” That was a dumb question. Kai never joked about anything. If he said he had found it, then he had.

“Phantom Pearl’s survival may prove true.” The words rang with his usual calm intensity, but there was another layer, an excitement she’d not heard before.

An empty bench under a bright pink bougainvillea arbor beckoned, and she sat down under the weight of Kai’s claim. For the most part, he’d kept the search for the downed aircraft separate from their recovery business, a scholarly pursuit that spanned years and bordered on personal obsession. She never believed he would find it.

Not because he wasn’t capable of locating the impossible; he’d done that more than once. The problem was that the plane, a WWII Japanese transport aircraft, had been lost at sea during a typhoon in 1944. Everything went down, the cargo, crew, and the incomparable crown jewel of Yamashita’s treasure—Phantom Pearl—an exquisitely carved, centuries old mammoth tusk.

“Please tell me it’s not at the bottom of the South China Sea,” she said. “You know I don’t like to scuba dive.”

“How do you feel about a crocodile infested rainforest?”

No contest, really. She’d choose the heat of a mosquito-laden jungle over the liquid isolation of a world reduced to a breather and a mask. “Where is the plane?”

“Not where one might expect.” He hesitated for effect. “Queensland, Australia.”

She frowned as she gazed back at the infinity pool, at the line of palm trees reflecting on the mirror surface of the water. “That’s the wrong direction, Kai.”

Yamashita, a harsh and brutal general of the Imperial Army, had plundered all Southeast Asia to steal enough gold, jewels, art, and antiquities to fund the Japanese war effort. He had amassed the treasure horde in Singapore first, then slowly moved it across the Philippines to one-hundred-seventy-two locations so secret the transporters were entombed inside. Australia might be in the right hemisphere, but too many miles lay between it and every reported, or speculated, treasure location.

“Your assumption would be true had the general been the only one to steal the Pearl,” Kai stated with a hint of satisfaction.

Riki stood up as his meaning sank in. “Are you saying someone actually had the balls to steal it from a monster like Yamashita?”

Kai gave a soft laugh. “Denki was a Japanese intelligence officer of high regard. But he, and his balls, folded under the temptation of impossible wealth. He made it as far as the Solomon Islands before getting caught.”

Static interrupted the connection again, so Riki aimed toward the beach to find a clearer signal. “What happened to him?”

“Yamashita sent his enforcers.”

Bad news for the traitor. “The Yakuza?”

“You know they do not suffer betrayal. Not then, not now.”

She knew, but the risk didn’t stop her thirst for vengeance. “Go on.”

“Denki was executed at Honiara, on the island of Guadalcanal. They loaded Phantom Pearl onto a C-47, a long range, military freighter aircraft. Advanced for the time. Records indicate the cargo held military dignitaries, a sealed war chest of classified documents, and enough yen to cover a month’s payroll.”

“They were flying it back where? Japan?”

“Singapore, but they never made it. It was April sixteenth, 1944.”

He said the date like it was significant. “Okay, what happened April sixteenth?”

“A sudden and unexpected storm hit New Guinea. The weather so severe they called it Black Sunday due to overwhelming loss of aircraft.”

This was beginning to get interesting. “So the plane leaves the Solomon Islands and heads west toward Singapore, hits the typhoon over New Guinea, and gets blown off course only to crash land in Queensland.”

“You are beginning to understand,” Kai said. “Shall I go on? Or do you wish to get back to your pursuit of leisure?”

She rolled her eyes at Kai’s attempt at humor. He knew full well she’d been hooked. She ignored his question and asked one of her own. “What makes you believe the plane was blown so far off course?”

“I have a contact in Cairns. He researched old Queensland Civil Defense briefings and found mention of a plane crash in the Far North mountains of Cape York Peninsula. It’s rugged, remote, and lower elevations are covered in rainforest. The date matches, and the location is within fuel capacity of the C-47.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s our plane,” Riki replied. “It was war time. There were hundreds of US and Japanese air fleet in the area. It could be any one of them. Besides, Japan wouldn’t just abandon their dignitaries or Phantom Pearl.”

“The Australian Defense briefing stated there would be no rescue. The country’s resources were allocated to recovery efforts after the destructive typhoon, not spent in search of a small enemy plane deep in the wilderness.”

“That explains Australia,” Riki stated. “What about Japan?”

“They were busy fighting a war. By the time they could piece together a team, the unthinkable happened—Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Dealing with the overwhelming devastation of an atomic bomb took precedence over finding one piece of lost treasure, no matter how valuable. The story of Phantom Pearl eventually faded into the pages of history.”

Riki paced the beach, absently watching the sun fall below the horizon. “Since you’ve called, I assume you want me to investigate?”

“It is your choice, Reika.”

On a normal day, she’d scold him for using her proper name. Today she didn’t utter a word, just closed her eyes against the deepening blue of a cloudless Baja sky. She inhaled a calming breath and focused on birdsong to center her thoughts. She quickly identified the Cactus Wren, but it was the soothing ku-koo-ah of Shearwaters as they glided over the Gulf of California that gave her the clarity she sought.

“It may help you to know,” Kai’s voice interrupted, “that the plane’s passengers are still on Japan’s missing soldiers list. The C-47 continues to be classified as lost, and not a single trace of the Pearl has ever been mentioned since Guadalcanal.”

She didn’t need convincing. If it was important to Kai, she would do whatever was needed. She could vacation later. “Why haven’t treasure hunters considered Australia before?”

“Perhaps they have,” he said. “The more significant concern is… Why is Ken Cho mounting an expedition to Cooktown, a small coastal village near the edge of the range?”

An icy chill snaked down Riki’s spine. He was wrong—the most significant question was why hadn’t he opened with that piece of intel? Any move against Ken Cho and the Yakuza was an automatic in for her. She despised everything they represented. Extortion, drugs, money laundering.

Murder.

Publicly, they had the support of the Imperial family for their role in reclaiming Yamashita’s treasure. Didn’t matter that Japan had stolen it to begin with. Privately, they commanded a sizeable finder’s fee for every piece of art or antiquity they scavenged and brought back. They were cold-blooded, ruthless, and eliminated anything or anyone who got in their way.

Phantom Pearl would be an irresistible prize. Kai wanted it. The Yakuza wanted it. She was going to get it.

“What about Homeland Security?” Riki asked.

“They are not on my inform list,” he scoffed.

Maybe not, but they’d interfered with missions before. Kai well knew it.

“Stop messing with me. Is the Cultural Division aware of the movement?” The question was more about a specific agent, but she refused to acknowledge that curiosity to Kai.

“Dallas Landry is in Singapore, if that is what you are asking.”

Dammit. It was. And for good reason. When it came to near misses, Landry had gotten closer than anyone else, even Cho. Her ill-advised fascination with the agent was an inconvenience she’d rather keep to herself.

“How much time do I have?” Riki asked.

“If you leave now, perhaps a three-day head start.”

Not much considering one full day would be spent in flight. Fourteen hours from Los Angeles to Brisbane, another two or three to Cairns, and an unknown stint to reach Cooktown. That didn’t allow much time for setting a plan in motion, but she’d worked with less.

“I’ll head home for LA tonight,” Riki said, “and catch the first flight to Brisbane.”

“I’ve already made the arrangements,” Kai replied. “A custom carrier for the artifact will be waiting at the airline counter.”

Of course it would. He knew exactly what her reaction would be.

“It better be first class.”

“I’ve never let you down yet, Reika.”

“Please, Kai,” she begged for the hundredth time. “Stop calling me that. I’m not a delicate flower, or lovely petal, or whatever nonsense it’s supposed to mean.”

“It is your name,” he said simply.

“Not anymore.” Not in a long time. Not since the day of her father’s funeral, and hatred had become her guiding force.