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RUTH WARNECKI PAUSED to consult her map, even though she’d read it so many times it was worn and stained from use, with a smear of strawberry jam on one corner. Okay, she’d walked and crawled down this twisting passage exactly the 46.2 feet indicated on the map. She’d measured it carefully, just as she’d measured all the distances since she climbed down into that first offshoot passage at the end of the cavern’s entrance. A narrow and twisty passage, smelling strongly of bat guano, some lengths of it so low she’d had to crab-walk, it had finally flattened out. So far the distances had matched those on her map to the centimeter.

At this point, there should have been a small arched opening directly to her right. She focused her head lamp some eight feet up to the top of the cave wall then slowly scanned downward. She didn’t see an arch or any sign there’d ever been one. She went over the directions again to this point, rechecked the distances, but no, she hadn’t screwed that up. Again, she shone her head lamp on the cave wall, moved back and forth at least three feet in both directions. Nothing. She was in the right spot, she knew it.

Ruth rarely cursed when she was frustrated. She hummed instead. And so she hummed as she began to glide the palms of her hands slowly over the wall, pushing inward here and there. The wall was limestone, dry to the touch, eons of sand filming over it. Nothing but a solid cave wall.

She was disappointed, but she knew that was a fact of life for a treasure hunter. Her old uncle, Tobin Jones, a treasure hunter for fifty years, and something of a mentor to her, had told her that for every authentic treasure map, there are more fraudulent ones than illegal aliens in California. Of course that was because every fraudulent map was a treasure in itself if it sucked in the right mark. Problem is, Tobin had said with a shake of his head, we’re all suckers. But that, he’d always believed, was better than those idiots traipsing over an empty ballpark or a beach with their metal detectors, looking for nickels.

Actually, she used metal detectors, had a portable one attached to her belt along with two more flashlights. Yes, she understood all about fake treasure maps, but she’d really been excited about this one. All her research had led her to believe it could be the real deal. Even the age of the paper, the ink, and the manner of writing tested out—about 150 years old.

But there was no arch. She felt the crash of disappointment again and kicked the cave wall. There was always frustration, and it wasn’t as if she hadn’t been taken before. There were the two fraudulent maps that had sent her after the guys who’d sold them to her; they’d known she was a cop, the morons. Then there was the Scotsman who sold her a map of a cave not a quarter of a mile west of Loch Ness. She should have known better, but he was so charming she’d believed him for one delicious moment.

She shook her head. Pay attention. This map wasn’t a fraud, she felt it in her gut. If there was gold here, she intended to find it. If there wasn’t an arch, maybe it had crumbled and filled in over the long years.

Yeah, right. She laughed at herself, an odd, creepy sound in the dense silence. What an idiot. The arch certainly could have collapsed, but it would remain visible. Debris from a cave-in would remain in situ for longer than time itself. Nothing would magically occur to fill it in from bottom to top so seamlessly.

Only men could do that.

She stepped back, lifted her head so her head lamp shone directly on the wall. She studied every inch of it, pressing inward with her fist everywhere she could reach. Mr. Weaver had told her this part of Winkel’s Cave had never been explored, much less mapped. Even though he appeared worried for her, he still had a gleam in his eye at the thought of splitting any treasure she found.

It was the feel of the cave, she thought, the way the silence felt, the hollow sound of her footsteps. She was sure no one had been in this cave for a very long time, perhaps since the gold was left here. Mr. Weaver had installed an iron grate to close off the entrance—fools injuring themselves, suing him, he’d told her. He couldn’t find the key, but that hadn’t mattered. The lock had been child’s play to pick.

Finally, she stepped back and hummed some more. If someone had filled in an arched opening, they did it remarkably well. She could find no seams, nothing that looked out of place or staged. She sat back against the opposite cave wall and retied one of her walking boots. She realized she was tired. She pulled out an energy bar, her favorite peanut butter, and slowly began to eat it, washing it down with water from the plastic bottle fastened to her belt. Still sitting, she raised her head to train her lamp again on the opposite wall. She was beginning to hate that frigging wall. She began at the top, and slowly scanned all the way to the bottom again.