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Off Cornwall, southwest England, present day
“Jack, I can see silver. It’s fantastic. It looks like a piece of eight.”
Jack Howard stared at the diver wedged into the cleft in the rock in front of him. More accurately, he stared at the backside of the diver, coming ever closer with each surge of the sea behind them. Another wave hit him, forcing him farther up Costas’s legs, and he braced himself against the rock as the water boiled around them and then subsided, draining off with a giant sucking sound. “Are you sure?” he shouted, his voice sounding hollow in the cleft. “You sure it’s not just another shiny pebble stuck in the rock?”
“I’m no archaeologist, Jack, but I know treasure when I see it.” Jack braced himself, knowing to trust his friend’s judgment. Costas might be a submersibles engineer by profession, but after twenty years of diving together, a little bit of Jack’s passion for archaeology had rubbed off.
Another surge hit them, and Jack struggled to keep his mouth above water. “Can you get it out?”
“I’ve got the tool, but my arms aren’t long enough.”
“You’re saying you’re stuck.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“I knew I shouldn’t have let you go in first.”
“If you’d gone first, the surge would have pushed you beyond the pool in front of me now, and you’d never have seen it. With my more muscular physique, I was able to stop in time.”
“You mean you got stuck.”
A large wave broke over the rocks in front of the cliff behind them, rolled down the gully that led to the cleft and smacked into the entrance, spraying Jack with flecks of foam before the water hit him. The big waves came with every ten or twelve oscillations of the swell, the residue from some distant mid-Atlantic storm. Jack dipped his face into the water to clear the foam from his mask and turned to look back at the sea, his wetsuit scraping against the rock as he did so. He could see line-of-sight down the cleft to the entrance in the cliff some ten meters back, and then down the gully beyond the cliff base for another twenty meters or so to the open sea, the gray clouds visible above the distant lines of whitecaps. From where they were on the coast of Cornwall, the next stop down that line-of-sight was the northern coast of South America, some five thousand nautical miles distant. It was an astonishing thought, one that excited the explorer in Jack, as if he were looking through a porthole into the unknown, into the vast expanse of ocean that had drawn his ancestors and generations of other mariners to set off from these shores on voyages of discovery and revelation.
That line-of-sight was why he and Costas were wedged into one of the most unlikely dive locations in their twenty-five-year career together, not in the sea itself, but inside a crack in a cliff that was actually several meters above sea level when the tide was out. Jack had first discovered it years before, as a boy, when he had explored these cliffs searching for smugglers’ caves and collecting points for wreckage, but it had always seemed too perilous to venture inside alone. The Cornish name for the headland in the old maps even referred to it: Carrack y pilau, meaning “the undermined rocks.” At some point millions of years ago, titanic forces had split the cliff between the headland and the adjacent cove, leaving a fracture line in the serpentine that ran from the seaward gully some fifty meters through the cliff to an opening beside the cove. He had remembered it two weeks ago, when a storm had shifted the sand on the seabed and exposed a solitary cannon on a shallow reef beyond the gully, a discovery made by his daughter Rebecca and her friend Jeremy when they had been snorkelling around the headland. It had been a hugely exciting find, bolstering Jack’s theory that the seventeenth-century wreck they had been excavating for several months around the other side of the headland had been of a ship that had broken in two, and that the lost part was at their current location.
Something had been missing from that wreck, a mother lode of silver bullion that Jack knew must have been on board, and there was every chance that this new location would provide the key. But with the cannon being too eroded to date closely, the reef being surrounded by deep sand, and late autumn storms being forecast for the weeks ahead, there was little sense in shifting the excavation team to a new site, where they might be digging blindly for nothing and be blown off by adverse winds at any time. Jack’s idea would have to remain a hunch, one that would be impossible to test until they were able to get back to the site for more sustained excavation after the winter months.
But then the previous evening, he had stood on the cliff above the cannon and remembered the cleft. Ships wrecked against this coast were almost invariably caught in a southwesterly gale, blowing in from mid-Atlantic. Looking down at the rocks below him, he had realized that the cannon and the gully were on the same alignment as the cleft. He had been here before during storms and had seen the violence of the sea, with the swell piling into the cliffs and the spray hitting him thirty meters above. If the ship had wrecked in those conditions, then the part of the hull that might have impacted here would have smashed against the rocks and been driven up the gully, with smaller items such as coins being thrown down that cleft. A single datable coin could give all the proof that was needed to bolster Jack’s theory and justify a return in better conditions to search for the rest of the treasure in the sand outside. If Costas was right, if Jack’s hunch had been correct, they might just have hit pay dirt.
Another wave smashed against the cliff, and he turned back toward Costas just in time to brace himself for impact. Despite its height above low tide, the cleft contained a permanent sump of water, a result of the surge that ran constantly through it when the tide was high. Where Jack was now, the water was only about half a meter deep, allowing him to crawl and scrape his way to his present position with his head above water, but beyond Costas he had spotted a larger pool that might be considerably deeper, a likely location for heavy objects such as coins to have sunk into fissures. The problem now was that the tide was coming in and the swell was growing stronger. It had been a squeeze getting into the cleft, and rather than returning the same way, they had planned to carry on and exit from the cave on the other side, a protected location in the cove. But with Costas stuck and no way of backtracking, they had a situation on their hands, one that was becoming more serious as the surges became stronger.
He watched Costas pull down the zipper on the off-white boiler suit he was wearing over his wetsuit. “I’m going to have to shed my skin,” he said, wriggling around as he pushed the suit down. “That should give me the leeway I need.”
“I did warn you that wearing that suit might be a bit much in this space,” Jack said. “Bearing in mind your muscular girth.”
“I never dive without it. You should know that by now. Even if this isn’t really a dive. And anyway, if you can reach that coin, you’ll be thankful for the tool belt. It’ll have to be you that digs it out, by the way. My arms aren’t long enough.”
Jack helped by hauling on the suit as another surge enveloped them, pulling it down over Costas’s feet and then pushing it forward into the gap so that Costas could take it out with him. They waited for the next surge and then let the water move them forward together, Costas into a recess just ahead of the constriction and Jack alongside him, his head poking out above the pool where Costas had left his light shining into the fissure at the bottom. Another more violent surge brought them face to face, Jack’s cheek scraping against Costas’s chin as they wedged together again on the far side of the pool. The water burst over them once more, submerging Jack completely, and then drained off down the cleft, leaving them high and dripping in an awkward embrace. Jack stared at his friend’s stubbled face, only inches away and looking at him deadpan, and tried to suppress a laugh. “We must stop meeting like this.”
“This was your idea, not mine. I was quite happy tinkering with the remote-operated vehicle in the equipment tent.”
“You need a shave.”
“I’m a Greek sponge-diver, remember? Got to keep up appearances.”
“Maybe your grandfather was, but you’re a PhD from MiT in submersibles technology and you were brought up in the Bronx.”
“What are you, then?”
“Just a diver. Nothing fancy.”
“With a PhD in archaeology from Cambridge University. And a commission in the Royal Naval Reserve.”
Jack pushed hard to try to disengage, wincing as a barnacled outcrop dug into his hip. “When have we ever been in a jam like this before?”
“Huh? Like this? Well, let’s see. Last year, defusing a torpedo inside a sunken Second World War freighter.”
“That was your idea. Defusing the torpedo, I mean. Completely unnecessary.”
“I’d never done a Mark VII before. Anyway, you have to allow me some fun.”
“Other jams? Inside a sacred Mayan well in Mexico. Nearly drowning in the ancient sewer under Rome. That was a good one. Oh, and diving into a live underwater volcano. The list goes on. I’m writing it all up, you know.”
“I’m writing it up. My take on our adventures. A kind of alternative view of Dr. Jack Howard and the International Maritime University, not focusing so much on the archaeology.”
“That should be interesting,” Jack said, grimacing as he strained to move forward.
“Don’t sound so excited.”
“I’m serious. I mean, from a technological point of view. Looking at the equipment, the logistics. Your kind of thing.”
“Exactly. Lanowski’s going to help me. He’s doing the chapters on computer simulation and robotic nanotechnology.”
“Should be a humdinger,” Jack said, remembering the first time he had met Jacob Lanowski, at an archaeological science conference. It had quickly become clear that they would need him at IMU, but it had taken most of one afternoon for Jack to extricate himself from Lanowski’s passionate attempt to explain the mathematics of 3-D modeling using a portable blackboard that seemed to go everywhere with him.
“And Rebecca’s going to contribute a chapter on your relationships,” Costas added. “I mean, with Katya and then Maria. Always good to have a daughter’s perspective. She really has a pretty good take on you by now. I mean, the first half of her life spent in Naples with her mother, and then in New York with her guardians, followed by the tragedy of her mother’s murder by the Mafia, and then you find out that you have a daughter and she moves in here. It’s been pretty intensive for her, but it’s left her with a keen eye for people. And Jeremy’s going to add his angle too. You know, from his work with Maria at the Institute of Palaeography in Oxford. Jeremy may be Rebecca’s boyfriend, but actually I think he knows Maria just as well. After all, she supervised him when he first came over from the States as a graduate student. He must really have the lowdown on what she thinks.”
Before Jack could reply, another surge swept violently over them, and he felt Costas moving. He pushed himself hard against the rock behind him, and as the surge dissipated he saw that Costas was ahead of him, the daylight from the cove at the end of the tunnel clearly visible ahead. Costas swept up his boiler suit in front of him, fumbled in the belt and reached back, thrusting a tool into Jack’s hand. “This should help to get it out. Remember to bring my torch. Brace yourself against the next surge, otherwise you’ll be coming with me. Okay, I’m out of here.”
A wall of water boiled and hissed along the cleft toward them, and Jack wedged himself into the recess that Costas had just vacated. With the plug removed, the danger now was not so much getting stuck again as being thrown uncontrollably against bone-shattering rock, and Jack knew that he could not afford to linger longer than was absolutely necessary. The water hit him with the force of a body blow, and he saw Costas being swept on down the cleft. In the lull that followed, he dropped into the pool, floating for a moment on the turbulent surface. It was little more than a widening in the cleft, just long enough for him to stretch out, but it was easily two meters deep, the rock walls smoothed and sculpted by millennia of storms and tides. Costas had perched his torch in a crack, illuminating most of the pool, and Jack could see the problem he would have had in reaching into the fissure at the bottom; his own longer arms meant that he might just be able to do it.
He waited for the next surge to wash over him and then put on his snorkel, staring along the length of the pool. After only a few seconds he saw it, a distinct metallic reflection in the light, wedged among worn pebbles in the bottom of the fissure. He weighed up the tool, a metal crowbar with a rubber-padded clamp at the other end, something that Costas had knocked up in the engineering lab specifically to loosen wedged coins and then extract them with minimal damage. He tried to relax, taking deep breaths, and then held his breath and plunged down, just avoiding being pummeled again. He kicked hard against the buoyancy of his wetsuit and held on to an outcrop of rock at the bottom, drawing himself down and poking the bar as far as he could into the cleft, pushing the sharp end into the accreted pebbles on either side of the shiny object. When he could see that it had loosened, he pulled the bar out, spun it round, and dropped the clamp around it, closing the simple lever handle and pulling until it gave way. He raised it, opened the clamp, dropped the object into his hand, and grabbed the flashlight, rising to the surface as he did so and clearing his snorkel. Then he braced himself against the sides of the cleft with his legs, opened his hand and shone the light on his palm.
He let out a whoop of excitement through his snorkel. There was no doubt about it. They had found a Spanish silver coin at least three hundred years old, a crudely struck cob typical of the millions minted from New World silver at the time of the Spanish Main, the period of the Spanish Empire during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when the vast wealth of the Americas fueled the economic and political upheavals not only of Spain but of the entire Old World.
He took the coin carefully between his fingers and inspected it. He could clearly see the snip marks where the planchet, the coin flan, had been cut from a rolled bar of silver, and then further small snips where it had been trimmed to the correct weight. He knew from its size that it was a four-real coin; not a piece of eight as Costas had supposed, but identical to the larger coin in all its main features. Most silver coins that Jack had found on wrecks were encased in corrosion or worn so thin by centuries in shifting sand that they were little more than thin discs of metal. This one, though, was in good condition, having become embedded in the fissure before it could be tumbled around too much; the constant water movement in the cleft since then had kept its metallic surface clear and shiny, with a dark patina only in the impressed parts of the design.
He could see immediately that it was a “shield” coin of the design specified under Philip II of Spain in 1570, giving a clear terminus post quem for the coin. The exergue, the lettering around the edges naming the king and his empire, HISPANIARUM ET INDIARUM—of Spain and the Indies—was mostly lost, as was typical of these coins; getting the planchet exactly positioned between the dies during the strike would always have been a hit-and-miss affair. What mattered most was the design in the middle, a quartered shield showing the arms of the Habsburgs, the Austrian dynasty who had taken over Spain in the sixteenth century. Turning it over, he could see the characteristic Greek cross with decorative finials quartering the arms of Castile and León, the two kingdoms that made up Habsburg Spain, the little castles and lions just visible in each quarter as he angled the coin into the light.
He flipped it over again and peered closely at the worn metal to the left of the shield, rubbing the silver to remove the patina and checking for any irregularities. This was where he would expect to see the letters signifying the mint and the assayer, the man in charge of the mint. As he moved the flashlight slightly, he spotted them: the letters OMP vertically beside the shield. He knew that OM referred to the Mexico mint, the oldest and greatest mint of the Spanish Main, rivaled only by the fabled silver mountain of Potosi in Peru, and that P referred to an assayer who was in charge in the middle years of the seventeenth century, up to 1665. His excitement mounted as he realized what that was telling him.
The wreck they had been excavating dated from 1684, well within the circulation span of coins minted twenty or thirty years before. It was not conclusive proof that they had found the other part of the wreck, but it was enough to go on. All they needed now was a storm to blow away the sand overburden around the cannon and then a spell of fine weather to allow them to carry out an excavation. This late in the season that would probably mean next year, but Jack had learned from experience to keep his frustration at bay by always having other projects on the go. Wreck archaeology in these waters was a waiting game, a matter of keeping a weather eye on the horizon and being ready to seize the chance at a moment’s notice.
He clasped one hand around the coin and the other around the flashlight and Costas’s tool, and waited for another lull so that he could crawl forward out of the pool into the cleft for the next wave to push him on after Costas. He held his breath and dropped down underwater, relishing the moment of calm and opening his hand to look at the coin once again. Something had been niggling him, something else that he had seen but not properly registered, and now in the half-gloom it was there before his eyes. Over the shield was the faint outline of another design, with straight lines like the cross on the reverse. At first it looked like the impression of a double strike, a common enough feature where the first strike had been too shallow, but in this case unlikely as it was a different design from the one underneath. And then he suddenly realized. It was a six-pointed star, a Star of David, a sign struck into the coin after it had been minted, perhaps years later. It was exactly the same as the sign they had found engraved into the lid of a small bronze box uncovered only days before in the excavation, a box that had been wrenched open during the wrecking, spilling what Jack now knew must once have included a treasure in silver bullion.
He punched the water with his clenched hand. His hunch had been correct. They had found the other part of the wreck.
He clasped the coin again, relishing the infusion of history he always felt when handling artifacts, his mind working overtime as his elation quickly turned into questions. If the chest contained the treasure of a merchant, why had he stamped his coins with the Star of David? Jack already knew that the ship they were excavating was an English vessel transporting equipment and people back from the failed colony of Tangier in present-day Morocco, on a route that would have had them sailing through waters off Spain and Portugal, where the Inquisition held sway. If the merchant was Jewish, why would he have openly revealed his faith at a time when to do so would have risked imprisonment or worse for him and his family?
Jack had already set Jeremy and Rebecca the task of researching the documentary evidence for the ship, of unearthing all possible material in the archives that might be of use to them, and this question would now go to the top of their list. As happened so often, one result, one discovery opened up a Pandora’s box of further questions, leading to a path of discovery that Jack himself could never hope to navigate alone, knowing that it was always a team effort that drove the story forward.
He positioned himself to ride the next surge, hearing the water beginning to rush up behind him, and thought of Costas somewhere ahead in the light at the end of the tunnel.
He could hardly wait to show him what he had found.
Copyright © 2017 by David Gibbins