Sugar and Vice by Eve Calder: New Excerpt
By Eve CalderApril 13, 2020
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As schooner-sized white clouds sailed high across the turquoise South Florida sky, Kate McGuire tugged at her green gardening gloves. Despite what the label proclaimed, one size definitely did not fit all.
“So what happens if I ditch the gloves?” she asked, pausing, as her friend rhythmically scooped wet sand.
“Nothing super horrible,” replied Maxi Más-Buchanan, sinking her shovel into the soft ground with a thunk. “Just keep ’em away from Mr. Oliver. Thanks to him, my last three pairs are buried all over Coral Cay. One at a time. The least that puppy could do is bury them in pairs. That way, if anyone ever finds them, they can maybe use them.”
Kate had to admit, the two of them had accomplished a lot in one afternoon. Two of the three raised beds were prepped and ready to go. One more and they could call it a day.
Oliver, in his wisdom, already had. Passed out under a shady tree, she could hear his soft snuffling sounds above the birdcalls on the breeze.
Maxi looked over her shoulder and grinned. “Some work ethic,” the florist said. “Our best digger has up and quit. On the bright side, you get a promotion.”
“Aye aye, captain,” Kate said, giving a mock salute. “So what’s going into this one?”
“For a couple of months, I’m gonna keep adding in compost and good stuff and build up the soil. Then, when it gets a little cooler, I can start planting. Oh, it’s gonna be tasty. I’m putting in those juicy, old-fashioned tomatoes and little baby lettuces. And we’re gonna surround the whole thing with hot peppers. Muy picante. ’Cause they keep the bugs away. That one over there,” she said pointing at a completed bed, “ will be herbs. Basil, dill, oregano, and chives to start. And peppermint—oooh, it’ll smell so good. And that other one’s gonna be filled with edible flowers. Not too shabby, huh? If these do well, I’ll sell what I grow. Like a side business. Maxi’s Kitchen Garden. All organic. I’ve talked to a couple of your chef buddies at the resorts, and they’re super excited.”
“I can see why,” Kate said, tucking a stray lock of caramel-colored hair under her navy ball cap. “An organic, small-batch garden? Nobody’s doing anything like that anywhere near Coral Cay. You’ll clean up.”
“But first, we dig up the yard and get super dirty. Poor Oliver’s going to need another bath,” she said, brushing a smudge of wet sand off her cheek. “Me too, for that matter.”
“How about we take a cue from Oliver and stop for a rest?” Kate suggested. “I’ve got a pitcher of lemonade in the fridge at the Cookie House.”
“Right now, I’d settle for cold water out of the sink. Or the hose.”
Fifteen minutes later, with frosty glasses in their hands, Kate and Maxi relaxed in lawn chairs, surveying their handiwork.
As they chatted, Oliver scrambled back to the area they’d excavated for the last raised bed.
“OK, so we’ve removed two-and-a-half feet of sandy topsoil. Now what?” Kate asked, eyeing the neat rectangular trench on the left side of the yard.
“Just like last time. We’ll fill it up with my super-secret planting soil mix. Then we drag out the frame for the raised bed, tack it down, and fill that up to the top with more planting mix. Then we’re done.”
Oliver circled the pit several times, then he hopped in and scratched the soil with his front paws, yelping. He put his head down, digging furiously. All they could see was sand flying past his fuzzy oatmeal-colored rump.
“What’s he doing?” Kate asked.
“Probably digging up one of the gloves he buried. Or one of his other treasures. Oliver’s got stuff buried all over town,” Maxi said with a rueful smile.
They watched as the poodle-mix pup paddled furiously with his front paws for several minutes. Then he sat back on his haunches and howled.
Maxi sat forward, alarmed. “He’s never done that before,” she said, setting her glass on the ground.
“Maybe the little guy hurt himself,” Kate said, as they both hurried over to the half-grown pup.
As they neared, Oliver began digging again, his over-sized paws frantically clawing the sand.
“Oliver? Come here, baby,” Kate called softly. “Come up here.”
When he jumped out of the pit and trotted over, Kate stroked his soft curly coat and scratched him lovingly behind one ear. “Now, let me see those paws of yours,” she said, gently examining each one in turn. “Nope, you’re fine. Everything looks good,” she called over her shoulder to Maxi.
“I don’t think so,” Maxi said softly.
“What do you mean?” Kate said, turning to see her friend’s face pale. Maxi silently pointed down to the hole where Oliver had just been digging.
And that’s when Kate spotted it. In the sandy soil. Scraps of an ancient leather boot. Long and brackish brown. In tatters. Kate could barely make out what had probably been a wide cuff at the top. And a big silver buckle, blackened with age, at the bottom. It reminded Kate of something out of Treasure Island. Or the Discovery Channel. Exposed at the top of the boot, yellowed with time, was a barely visible swath of bone.
“What? Who?” Kate gasped.
Maxi took a giant step back and crossed herself. “Dios mio,” she whispered. “It’s him. It’s really him. It has to be.”
“Who? Who is it?”
“Gentleman George Bly. The pirate king. I thought it was just a story,” she said in a hushed voice, shaking her head. “Something to tell mi niños at bedtime. But it’s real.”
Kate stood and took a step closer to her friend. Oliver followed suit. The three of them stared down into the pit.
“I admit that boot looks old,” Kate said. “But what makes you think it’s him?”
“It’s all part of the legend,” Maxi said quietly. “Gentleman George, he pretty much founded Coral Cay. He and his men. They’re the reason we have our Pirate Festival every year. Well, them and to celebrate the end of tourist season. His crew used to raid the Spanish treasure ships sailing to and from Florida and the Caribbean. This island was their home base. He was smart, and he was sneaky. He bested the Spanish king every single time and swiped their loot. But he had a code. A sense of honor. And he was only stealing what had already been stolen in the first place. But one time—the last time—they were attacked by a galleon. A big war ship. He was wounded, his ship was nearly sunk. But Gentleman George? He still had a few tricks up his sleeve. And he got his ship and crew to safety. Back to Coral Cay.”
“What happened after that?” Kate asked, never taking her eyes off the boot buckle.
“No one really knows,” Maxi said. “Local legend has it once he and his men reached the harbor, they burned the ship to cover their tracks. And shortly after that, he died. Supposedly, his men laid him out in his very best clothes and even shined up the silver buckles on his boots. And, as a gesture of respect and gratitude, they buried him in a secret spot on the island with his share of the treasure—a fortune in gold and jewels. And the site has never been found.”
“And you think . . .” Kate started.
“I think our friend Oliver has discovered the last resting place of Gentleman George Bly, pirate king of Coral Cay.”
A few hours later, the backyard of Flowers Maximus was alive with people. A half dozen students and grad students paraded back and forth toting shovels, trowels, tarps, and plastic toolboxes like ants carry ing off crumbs from a picnic.
At the center of the operation was Dr. Marian Blosky, a history professor from Gold Coast University. One extended game of “telephone” resulted in the professor and her team of students swarming the yard en masse.
Still numb from the shock of the discovery, Maxi had called Ben Abrams at the Coral Cay police department. He, in turn, phoned the medical examiner, who called Dr. Blosky.
Clad in a tan T-shirt and buff-colored hiking shorts topped off with an olive-green fishing hat over frizzy blond-gray hair, Marian Blosky would have looked perfectly at home on a bass boat or a hiking trail. But in the backyard of Flowers Maximus, she was clearly in charge.
“I can’t tell you how thrilled we are with the discovery, Mrs. Más-Buchanan,” Dr. Blosky said, tapping her clipboard absentmindedly with her pen. “If this truly turns out to be Sir George Bly—or even one of his men—this find could help us fill in a blank page in the history of this state. Perhaps even the nation. Pirates and piracy played a much larger role in our story than most people realize. So how did you know he was here? Local legends? An old diary? Markings in the landscape?”
“We were putting in a garden, and poof—there he was,” Maxi said. “And Oliver found him.”
“Which one of the lads is Oliver?” the professor asked, scanning the corner of the yard where various neighbors and shop keepers had gathered to watch the action from the sidelines.
Kate hadn’t told anyone about the find. And other than a quick call to Ben, neither had Maxi. But somehow word had gotten out, and townspeople just started showing up. By the time Dr. Blosky arrived with her team, they’d already had a crowd.
“The fuzzy one,” Maxi said, pointing. By the edge of the trench, which had been haphazardly covered with a blue tarp, Oliver was stretched out, sphinx-like. Relaxed, but alert. On guard.
“So you mean you really had no idea anything was there this whole time?”
The professor shook her head. “When amateurs make a find like this? Well, most claim it was an accident. Or beginner’s luck. Some of them even try to tell us that they picked up their artifacts at a rummage sale. Likely story! Later, we usually find out they’re amateur treasure hunters. Scavengers, really. Working off some kind of tip. Local legends. Old maps. Oral stories passed down through the family. Something. And they just don’t want to give up the location of the site. But this? An untouched discovery in situ? Astonishing. And truly wonderful.”
“Maxi was installing raised garden beds for the flower shop,” Kate said, pointing to the two completed plots on the other side of the yard. “She’s growing herbs and heirloom vegetables for some of the local restaurants.”
“We finished shoveling out the third one and were super tired, so we took a break,” Maxi picked up. “That’s when Oliver woke up, ran over to the trench, and just went nutty. Digging like mad.”
“He was totally freaked,” Kate added.
“And there he was,” Maxi finished, shrugging. “Gentleman George.”
“What happens next?” Kate asked, quietly, nodding toward the hole in the yard. “To him, I mean.”
“Well, first we have to verify that it is him,” Blosky said matter-of-factly. “We have an anthropologist who focuses on osteology and bioarchaeology coming for that. And he should be here”—the professor consulted a battered silver Timex on her wrist—“anytime now. He’ll give us a rough estimate of how long the skeleton has been in the ground, as well as filling in a few basic characteristics that can help us determine if it might be Sir George or one of his crew.”
“What do you mean?” Maxi asked.
“Well, Sir George died more than four hundred years ago. And he was a tall man, roughly six-foot-four. We also know he was fifty or so when he died. And he’d recently been injured in battle, though we don’t really know the nature of his injuries. But if all of those indicators are present, then we know this stands a chance of being him. If the age of the burial is correct but the other features aren’t there, then we could be dealing with a member of the crew. Either way, we’ll take him to the university and run a few more tests.”
“And that will tell you if it’s Gentleman George?” Maxi asked.
“It will certainly help,” Professor Blosky said enthusiastically. “Sir George Bly grew up in the country, outside of London. He was the second son of the Duke of Marleigh, if you can believe it. So we can check if the isotopes in his teeth match an aristocratic childhood in that part of the world. We’ll also look for skeletal development and conditions consistent with a life spent largely at sea. Certain repetitive injuries, that sort of thing. And early in his naval career, Sir George was shot in the shoulder. French musket. So we’ll look for evidence of that. Of course, this might not be him at all. It could very well be one of his crew. And a few of them hailed from the upper classes, as well. From what little we know—rumor, really—many of them stayed in this area. Married local women, raised families. That’s my bit—the oral history. To me, that’s what makes this find so fascinating. We’ll finally have a few hard facts to start piecing together their story. Separating fact from fiction.”
“The folks in Coral Cay will love that,” Maxi said. “Sir George is practically a hometown hero.”
“I didn’t want to say anything before, but I heard Sam and Barb and Amos already strategizing on how Coral Cay can use the discovery to boost interest in this year’s Pirate Festival,” Kate said with a smile.
“Was that before or after mi padrino covered Sir George with the very elegant blue tarp?” Maxi asked.
“During,” Kate admitted, recalling Sam Hepplewhite carefully draping a plastic sheet over the find.
“Um, just out of curiosity, what happens to the treasure?” Maxi asked.
“Treasure?” Blosky looked surprised.
“Apparently, local legend holds that Gentleman George was buried with his share of the ship’s treasure,” Kate explained.
“Oh, well, I don’t know if that’s true,” the professor said, dismissively. “If it is, we’ll photograph it and catalog it, of course. But ultimately it would go to whoever owns this property.”
Kate looked at Maxi, whose face lit up like a kid at Christmas.
“And my aunties said I’d never make any money selling flowers.”
“So what are you going to do with your pirate treasure?” Kate asked Maxi, after Dr. Blosky went into the florist shop to make a few phone calls.
“Ah, that is the question,” Maxi said, grinning. “First, college funds for mi niños. Let me tell you, school is expensive.”
“Maybe that’s why Gentleman George went to sea. Running away from his student loans.”
“Then I wouldn’t blame him one bit,” Maxi replied. “Super smart guy.”
“I wonder why he really did go to sea?” Kate pondered. “I mean, you figure back home he was wealthy and accomplished. Why give it all up to sail the Atlantic?”
“Why didn’t you stay in New York and marry Mr. Rich Guy? You’d have had a mansion and all the jewels your fingers could hold. Instead, you moved here and now you own half a bakery.”
“Good point. But something must have happened. I wonder what?”
“You think he had lady trouble? The one woman he wanted was the one he couldn’t have. Promised to someone else. Their love was taboo.”
“Oh yeah. Mi mami’s latest. Pasión Prohibida. Forbidden Passion.”
“Have you told Peter yet?”
“I gave him a quick heads-up after I called Ben. But we’re not telling the little ones anything until we know for sure. With the festival coming up, they’ve already got pirate fever.”
“So much for a quiet Sunday afternoon,” Kate said. “I’m either going to have to stay up tonight or get up extra early to get the bakery stocked for tomorrow.”
“I could come over and help you catch up. After all this, it’s not like I’m going to sleep anyway.”
“Right now, I’m leaning toward taking a very long shower and curling up with a book this evening,” Kate said. “Besides, something tells me you and Peter are going to have a lot to talk about tonight.”
“The only thing I care about right now is who’s making dinner,” Maxi said. “And that’s a problem Gentleman George and his treasure can’t solve. Unless the pub started accepting gold doubloons.”
“I wonder if I could make cookies that look like doubloons?” Kate said dreamily. “For the festival.”
“See? I told you, pirate fever is super contagious. And once you catch it, t here’s no cure,” Maxi said, suddenly glancing toward the street. “Ay, if this is our skeleton doctor, he is muy caliente.”
Reflexively, Kate turned. “Oh, blast! That’s not the anthropologist—that’s Evan! What the heck is my ex-fiancé doing here?”
“Uh-oh, you want to go into the flower shop? I’ll tell him you had a very important phone call. Then I’ll accidentally smack him with a shovel.”
Kate smiled. “No. Might as well get this over with. Whatever this is. How bad do I look?”
“Way too good for him. But t here’s a little mud on your right cheek. That’s it, you got it,” she whispered, as Kate quickly rubbed her face. “Just remember, he’s scum. Hot scum. But scum.”
“Kate? Hey. Wow, you look great!” Evan said, as she turned to face him. Decked out in trim jeans and a navy blue golf shirt, he looked better than she remembered. Stronger. More chiseled. The shirt and a newly acquired tan accentuated his blue eyes.
“What are you doing here, Evan?” Kate asked flatly. “Some teenager at the bakery said you’d be over here,” he said, looking her up and down. “I wanted to say ‘hi.’ You look good. Really good.”
“I meant what are you doing in Coral Cay?” Kate said.
“You know me,” he said with an easy grin that revealed two perfect dimples. “Figured I’d get a little sun. See the sights. Do some fishing.”
“You don’t fish,” Kate replied.
“There’s more than one kind of fishing,” he said, pushing aside a curly lock of nearly black hair, as his eyes twinkled. “Besides, this place seemed to mean something to you. I wanted to see it for myself. You visiting for a while?”
Kate shook her head. “I live here,” she said evenly, trying to focus on a spot past his right earlobe. How could she have forgotten those eyes? And the thick dark lashes. Suddenly, she was unsteady all over again. Unsure.
“I’m Maxi Más-Buchanan,” the florist said quickly, sticking out her hand, as Kate silently thanked her for creating a distraction. “This is my flower shop.”
“I’m Evan—Evan Thorpe,” he said, smiling. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to barge in. Is this a party?”
“Nope, it’s a discovery,” Maxi countered.
“A what?” he asked, clearly puzzled.
“We found a super old skeleton in the garden,” Maxi said brightly, as though it happened every day. “We think it could be Gentleman George Bly, one of the early founders of Coral Cay.”
“Wow, that’s got to be pretty huge,” Evan said. “Congratulations!”
He looked over at Kate, who was staring off into the distance, stone-faced, seemingly a million miles away.
“Look,” he said softly to her. “I really didn’t mean to intrude. I just wanted to see you. The way things ended . . .” he trailed off. “I wanted to apologize.”
“You did.” Kate said quietly.
“I mean really apologize. To your face. I owe you that. Much more than that. Any chance maybe I could take you to dinner?”
“I’m busy. Although Jessica has plenty of free time. I know because she spends a lot of time texting me photos.”
“OK, I deserved that. Lunch? Some place very nice and very public. Nothing shady, I promise. Just a friendly meal. Maybe somewhere on the water?”
“No need, Evan,” Kate replied. “I said everything I needed to say that night. Now it’s time for you to go.”
His face fell, his broad shoulders slumped. He looked down and appeared to be studying the grass beneath their feet. If Kate didn’t know him better, she’d have thought he was truly dejected. Maybe he was?
“I’m going to be here, in Coral Cay, for a few days,” he said finally. “I wasn’t kidding about wanting to see this place. And why. Don’t decide now. Just—I don’t know. Think about it. A quick bite somewhere. Old time’s sake.” With that, he looked up and smiled. And it was like the sun had burned through the clouds. “Please, Katie?” he entreated. “Just think about it.”
“Maxi, it was very nice to meet you,” he said, offering his hand to the florist and clasping hers warmly. “And good luck with your, uh, skeleton.”
And with that Kate’s former fiancé turned and strode purposefully back across the yard toward the street.
“Damn,” Maxi said.
“Yup,” Kate said ruefully. “That’s Evan Thorpe. Now do you understand why I had to put thirteen hundred miles between us?”
Copyright © Eve Calder, 2020.
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