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Grand Central Publishing
July 2007
ISBN-10: 044616516
ISBN-13: 978-0446616515

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Chapter One

Crazy is as crazy does...

Caleb Peachey jogged along the road, scanning the log cabin up ahead.  It sat nestled in the thick woods on the banks of the Little Juniata River, almost hidden from view.  He hoped to find the crazy woman at home this early in the morning.

Crazy Claire, that's what she was called by some of the locals.  Dr. Claire Cassidy, historical archaeologist, by her colleagues.  PhDiva, by him.  Actually, he was beginning to feel like the crazy one as he attempted to make contact with the elusive woman.  In fact, he was beginning to wonder if she even existed.  Crazy Claire is gonna be Crazy-Friggin'-Dead-Claire if she doesn't stop hiding from me.

Five miles back and a half-hour ago, at dawn, he'd left the Butterfly Bed & Breakfast in Spruce Creek where he and his team from Jinx, Inc., a treasure hunting firm, would be staying.  He'd arrived here in Central Pennsylvania yesterday morning.  The rest of the team would be here this afternoon, but the project itself couldn't start until Dr. Cassidy was on board, as per orders of the National Park Service which made sure no historical artifacts were disturbed.  Now he could understand the government being worried about metal detecting on a battlefield, trafficking in relics, defacing previously undiscovered prehistoric rock wall art, that kind of thing, but, dammit, they were just going to take some pearls out of this cavern...a privately-owned cavern, to boot.  They weren't exploring King Tut's tomb here.

Stopping in the clearing before the house, he bent over, hands on thighs and breathed deeply in and out to cool down, not that he had broken a sweat or anything.  Hell, he'd been a Navy SEAL for ten years, up till two and a half years ago, and they ran five times as far before breakfast, wearing heavy boondockers, not two hundred dollar, ergonomically-designed Adidas as he had on now.

He knocked on the door.  Once.  Twice.  No response except for some cats mewling inside.  Same as yesterday, except there was a battered station wagon here now, which he took as a good sign.  The woman hadn't responded to the messages he'd left on her answering machine the past few days, either.  "Hi!  This is Claire.  Your message is important to me.  Blah, blah, blah!" Caleb mimicked in his head.  Apparently not that important.

A fat calico cat--probably pregnant--sidled up to him and gave him the evil eye, as only a cat could do.  Then she sashayed past, deeming him unworthy of her regard.

Through his side vision, he noticed another cat approaching, but, no, it wasn't a cat, it was a rat.  Okay, it was a teeny tiny dog that resembled a rat, and it started yip-yip-yipping at him as if it was a German Shepherd, not a rat terrier.

Caleb couldn't fathom people who wanted such itty bitty things for a pet.  But then some people even took slimy creatures into their homes.  Like snakes.  Having a fierce aversion to snakes, he shivered.

The yipping dog gave him the same you-are-so-boring look as the cat through its beady eyes and sauntered off, around the side of a modern addition to the old cabin.

He decided to follow.

The back of the cabin was a big surprise.  While the front was traditional log and chink design, the back was all windows facing the river down below some fifty feet.  Cushioned Adirondack chairs had been arranged on a wide deck.  An open laptop sat on a low wooden table.

You-know-who must be home.  Ignoring my calls.  Son of a bitch!  Oooh, someone is in big trouble.

He turned toward the river.  And inhaled sharply at the view.  Not just the spectacular Little Juniata with the morning sun bouncing off the surface, creating diamond-like sparkles.  Fish were actually jumping out of the water to feed on the seasonal hatch of newborn insects hovering above.  He was familiar with this river, having grown up in an Amish community about ten miles down the road in Sinking Valley.  What caused him to gasp, though, was the woman standing thigh-deep in the middle of the river.  She wore suspendered waders over a long-sleeved, white T-shirt.  Her long, dark red hair was pulled up into a high pony tail which escaped through the back of a Penn State baseball cap.  Auburn, he thought it was called.

Could this possibly be the slippery Dr. Claire Cassidy?  Crazy Claire?  For some reason, he'd expected someone older, more witchy looking.  It was hard to tell from this distance, but she couldn't be much older than thirty, although who knew?  Women today were able to fool guys all the time.  Make-up to look as if they were not wearing make-up.  Nips and tucks.  Collagen. Boob lifts, ferchrissake!

The woman was fly fishing, which was an art in itself.  Caleb was the farthest thing from a poet, but the way she executed the moves was pure art in motion.  Like a ballet.  Following a clock pattern, she raised her long bamboo rod upward with her right hand, stopping abruptly at noon to apply tension to her line.  Then she allowed the rod to drift back slowly in the forward cast, stopping abruptly at eleven o'clock, like the crack of a whip.  The follow-through was a dance of delicacy because the fly should only land on top of the water for a few seconds to fool the trout below water level that it was real live food.  Over and over she performed this operation.  It didn't matter that she didn't catch anything.  The joy was in the casting.

And in the watching.

Dropping down to the edge of the deck, elbows resting on raised knees, he breathed in deeply.  The scent of honeysuckle and pine filled the early morning air.  Silence surrounded him, which was not really silence if one listened carefully.  The rush of the water's current.  Bees buzzing.  Birds chirping.  In the distance, a train whistle.  He even saw a hawk swoop gloriously out of the mountains searching for food.  Caleb felt as if he'd been sucker punched, jolted back to a time and place he'd spent seventeen years trying to forget.

The Plain people, as the Amish called themselves, were practical to a fault.  Fishing was for catching fish.  No Lands End angler duds or fancy Orvis rods or custom-made flies.  Just worms.  But his Dat had been different.  As stern as he was in many regards, he had given Caleb and his four brothers an appreciation for God's beauty in nature and the heavenly joy of fly fishing.  Much like that minister in the movie "A River Runs Through It," Caleb's old man had made fly fishing an exercise in philosophy, albeit the Old Order Amish way of life.  Caleb smiled to himself, knowing his father would not be pleased with comparison to an Englisher, anyone not Amish, even a man of God.

And, for sure and for certain, as the Amish would say, they didn't believe in that wasteful "catch and release" business, which the fisher woman in front of him was doing now with a twenty-inch rainbow.  How many times had Caleb heard: "To waste is to destroy God's gift."?  No, if an Amishman caught a fish, he ate it.  With homemade chow-chow, spaetzle oozing with butter, sliced tomatoes still warm from the garden, corn fritters and Shoofly pie.

Stomach rumbling with sudden hunger, Caleb shook his head to clear it of unwanted memories, stood and walked down the railroad tie steps to the edge of the river.

The woman glanced his way, then did a double-take.  After a brief hesitation, she waved.

Yep, she must be crazy.

He was a big man, six-four, and still carried the musclature that defined a Navy SEAL.  The tattoo of a barbed wire chain around his upper arm usually gave women pause.  Plus, he was a stranger.  But did she appear frightened? Nah.  She just waved at him.  He could be an axe murderer for all she knew.  She was either brave or stupid or crazy, he figured.  Maybe all three.


He waded into the cold water.  It soon covered his shoes, his bare legs, his running shorts and then the bottom of his T-shirt.  Once he reached the woman, whose mouth was now gaping open, he gritted his teeth, then snarled, "Your phone broken, lady?"

She blinked.  Tall for a woman--maybe five-nine, she was still a head shorter than him and had to crane her neck to stare up at him.  "Ah, the persistent Caleb."  Then she smiled and shook her head as if he were not worthy of her attention.  Just like her damn fat cat and her damn rat dog.

Taken aback by her attitude, he failed to register the fact that she had, unbelievably, resumed fishing.  She's ignoring me.  I don't fuckin' believe this.  Three days of chasing my tail, and she thinks she can ignore me.  I.  Don't.  Think.  So.

Without warning, he picked her up and tossed her over his shoulder in a fireman's carry, just barely catching the bamboo rod in his other hand as it started to float down stream.  With her kicking and screaming, he stomped through the water, probably scaring off every fish within a one-mile radius.

"Put me down, you goon."

"Stop squirming.  I'll put you down when I'm good and ready.  We're on my clock now, baby."

"Clock?  Clock?  I'd like to clock you."

"I'd like to see you try."

"I mean it.  Put me down.  Aaarrgh!  Take your hand off my ass."

"Stop putting your ass in my face."

"You are in such trouble.  Wait till I call the police.  Hope you know a good lawyer," she threatened to his back.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I'm shakin' in my boots...rather, Adidas."

"Ha, ha, ha!  You're not going to be making jokes once you're in the clink."

The clink?  Haven't heard that expression in, oh, let's say, seventeen years.  Once on the bank, he propped the rod against a tree and stood her on her feet, being careful to hold onto one hand lest she take flight, or wallop him a good one.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" she demanded, yanking her hand out of his grasp, then placing both hands on her hips.

Ogling your hips.  "Getting your attention."

"You got my attention when you failed to complete the Park Service forms for the project...a month ago."

Oh, so that's what has her panties in a twist.  "They were fifty-three friggin' pages long," he protested.  The dumbass red- tape forms asked him as Pearl Jinx project manager to spell out every bleepin' thing about the venture and its participants.  There were questions and sub-questions and sub-sub-questions.   He'd used a red Sharpie to write "Bullshit!" across the empty forms and mailed them back to her.  "Okay, my returning them that way probably wasn't the most diplomatic thing to do, but, my God, the Navy doesn't do as much background checking for its high security special forces as your government agency requires."

She snorted her opinion.  "It's not my agency.  I'm just a freelance consultant, specializing in Native American culture.  You must know that Spruce Creek is situated right along what were once some major Indian paths.  In fact, an Indian path from the village of Assunepachla, located near present day Frankstown, merged with the Indian path from Standing Stone in Huntingdon, and that joint path took the Native Americans over Kitchinaki, Great Spruce Pine Land, till they came to Spruce Creek which they called Oligonunk, or "Place of the Cave."  Spruce Creek was considered a good resting place for weary warriors."

Blah, blah, blah.  "So?"

"So, Indian Caverns in Franklinville is only a mile or two away from the cavern you'll be working, and it was loaded with artifacts.  We have to be sure nothing of historical value is disturbed by your project."

If I needed a history lesson, sweetie, I would flick on the history channel.  "I'm aware of all that, but you're changing the subject.  I must have put a dozen messages on your answering machine in the past thirty-six hours and God only knows how many before that.  Guess how many times you called me back?"  He made a circle with a thumb and forefinger.  She was lucky he didn't just give her the finger.

"That doesn't give you the right to manhandle me."

"That was not manhandling.  If I was handling you, babe, you would know it."

"What a chauvinist thing to say!"

"Call me pig, just as long as you call me."

She threw her hands in the air with disgust, then shrugged her waders down and off, hanging them from a knot on the same tree where the rod rested.  Underneath she wore dry, faded jeans and thick wool socks, no shoes.  Only then did she turn back to him.  "You idiot.  I've been gone for the past week.  I got home late last night.  That's why I didn't return your calls."

Ooops!  "Oh."  Caleb had been working for two years on various Jinx treasure hunting projects, but this was the first time he was a project manager.  It was important to him that it be a success.  Pissing off a required team member was not a design for success. "Sorry," he said.  "I misunderstood."

She nodded her acceptance of his apology and offered her own conciliatory explanation.  "I like to spend time in the woods."

"How about using your cell phone to check messages?"  There I go, being abrasive again.

"I don't believe in cell phones.  Besides, what would be the point of taking modern conveniences into the forest?"

He rolled his eyes.  She doesn't believe in cell phones.  What century is she living in?  That's what he thought, but he was polite when he asked, "So, you've been camping?"

"Not exactly."  Without elaborating, she started to walk up toward the cabin.

He hated it when women stopped talking in the middle of a conversation, especially when the guy was being logical, not to mention bending over backwards to tame his inner chauvinist.  He soon caught up with her.

"What was so important that you had to get in touch with me right away?" she asked when they got to her deck.

"Right away was three days ago, babe."

She arched her brows at his surliness, and probably at his use of the word "babe," too.

Tough shit!  He tamped his temper down, again, and replied, "The Pearl Project starts tomorrow."


"We've been told that you have to be there as a Park Service rep from the get-go."


"And you haven't confirmed."  Her attitude was really starting to annoy him.  Starting?  More like continuing.  Behave, Peachey.  Don't let her rile you.  An impatient man is a dead target.

She arched an eyebrow at him again.  "Since when do I need to confirm anything with you?"

Uh-oh!  Are we gonna have a pissing contest over who's in charge?  I can guarantee it's not gonna be her.  If we have to vett every little anal thing, we'll be here in the boonies for months instead of weeks.  He put his face in his hands and counted to ten.  When he glanced her way again, he said, "We have to find a way to work together.  Truce?"  He extended a hand.

She hesitated, but then agreed, "Truce," and placed her hand in his.  Her hand was small, compared to his, with short unpolished nails.  He could swear his heart revved up at just the feel of her calloused palm pressed against his calloused palm.  Am I pathetic or what?

"Are you hungry?"

That question caught him by surprise.  Was her new strategy torture by niceness?  Or erotic, calloused palm handshakes?  "Yeah," he answered suspiciously.

"Good.  I picked some wild blueberries yesterday and have muffins cooling inside."

He didn't immediately follow her, but sat down on one of the chairs to take off his wet shoes and socks.  Meanwhile, the delicious aroma of baked goods wafted out to him.  The rat dog trotted over and eyed his shoes.  Just as it was about to take a chomp out of the fabric, Caleb grabbed the shoe and set it and its mate up on the arm of the chair.  When he turned, he saw the dog running off with one of his wet socks in its mouth.

"Boney!" Dr. Cassidy yelled out through the screen door at the thief.  There were four more cats of various sizes rubbing  themselves against her ankles.

To his surprise, the dog stopped, peered back at its mistress dolefully, dropped the sock, and went off the porch and into the brush.

"You named your dog Boner?"

She made a clucking sound of disgust.  "Not Boner.  Boney.  You know.  Napoleon Bonaparte.  Little dog.  Napoleon Complex."

Well, at least she has a sense of humor.  "Did you know that Napolean had a fear of cats?  Ailurophobia."

"No.  Seriously?"

"Yep.  Learned it in a History of War class.  An aide found the general one time in his bedroom with a cutlass in hand, trembling, because he thought there was a cat behind a drape."


Yep, that's me.  Mister Fascination.  Okay, I see five cats so far and one semi-dog.  What next?

What next, he soon learned, was Indian tom-tom music, along with some guttural chants, coming from a tape deck inside.  "Ay-yi-yi-yi!  Ay-yi-yi-yi-yi..."  Two cages in one corner, one holding what looked like a porcupine with a splint on its leg, and the other holding a bird with mangled feathers.  And the good doctor taking off her T-shirt, whose sleeves were wet, leaving her with just a sports racerback running bra kind of thing.  Nothing scandalous.  It was midway between a Granny type cotton under garment and a hoochie Mama Victoria's Secret scrap of sexiness, but still...  It was pink.  And there was all that skin.  Bare arms.  Bare midriff.  Bare collar bones.  Plus, she was ripped, which would explain the exercise mat and hand weights over there.  Not weight lifter ripped, but female athlete ripped. And worst of all...or best of all...she had breasts that could make a grown man weep.

Good thing I am not looking.  Nope.  I.  Am.  Not.  Looking.  And I am not getting turned on.

"It's hot in here, don't you think?" she asked, belatedly explaining her "strip tease," he supposed.

At least it felt like a strip tease to him.

Still wearing a baseball cap, she began to set a tray with super-sized muffins, butter, mugs of coffee, sugar and cream, unaware of how tempting she looked.  Forget muffins.  He'd like a taste of--

To his surprise, she gave him a once-over, too.  A once-over that gave special attention to his wet shorts.  Then, with a bland expression, giving no clue to her assessment, she said, "It feels like today will be a scorcher."

Tell me about it!  "It's probably your oven."  Shit!  Could I sound any more dorky?

She glanced at him again, and this time she smiled.

While she continued to set the tray with small plates and napkins, he studied her cabin.  It was either that or ogle her body, which would not be smart.  Pink?  What kind of serious archaeologist wears pink?  Shiiit!

The cabin was nice.  Dried herbs hung from the low rafters of the kitchen, giving it a fragrant, cozy atmosphere.  Colorful dreamcatchers at the windows caught and reflected the light like prisms.  He assumed that a bedroom and bathroom were off to the left.  To the right was the addition which was completely open making a combination kitchen/library/office/living room.  A huge stone fireplace was flanked on one side by a half dozen baskets, some woven, others coiled, and on the other by a rustic, low, armless rocking chair that looked homemade.  Two log walls of the addition held floor to ceiling bookcases with a built-in PC desk in the corner.  The shelves overflowed with books, many of them related to the Lenni Lenape tribe of the Delaware nation.  Also, Indian relics: an impressive arrowhead collection, a peace pipe, several tomahawks, and framed photographs.  And a small flat screen TV.

He walked over to check out one of the pictures.

Then wished he hadn't.

It was a side view of Dr. Cassidy facing some man of obvious Native American heritage.  Her long auburn hair was in braids.  His black hair was, too, and adorned with a single feather.  They both wore Indian ceremonial outfits.  His chest was bare.  On top she appeared to be nude, as well, except for the numerous bead and feathered necklaces she wore.  On bottom, he sported a loin cloth with leather flaps covering his belly and ass. She wore a low-riding, knee-length, fringed leather skirt and beaded moccasins.  Her arms were raised, shaking some kind of rattles.  He could care less about the man.  But!...her side was bare from armpit to hip.  From that view Caleb got a perfect view of the side of one of her breasts.

Not the way I want to be picturing the archaeologist assigned to our project.  She'll be talking Indian legends and I'll be thinking, "Wanna come over to my teepee and show me your beads."

A thought suddenly occurred to him.  "Are you married?"

"No.  Why do you ask?"

He was walking back to the kitchen and waved over his shoulder at the photograph.  "Geronimo back there."

She made a tsk-ing sound at the political incorrectness of his remark.  "That's Henry Hawk, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.  He's a full blooded Lenni Lenape Indian.  Geronimo was a Apache."

Well, big whoop!

"I'm not topless in the photo, by the way."  She grinned, obviously reading his mind.  "Lots of people think I am, but I'm wearing a flesh-colored leotard."

That's just great!  Ruin a guy's fantasy, why don't you?  "Don't you believe in historical accuracy?"

"Yeah, but I was young and naive then.  I let the promoter talk me into it.  Turned out that more people were watching my jiggling breasts as I danced, instead of learning about Indian rituals.  That was the last time they tried that."

Oh, good Lord!  Now I add jiggling to my fantasy.

Dr. Cassidy carried the tray out to the deck and motioned for him to move the laptop.  While closing the lid, he noticed it contained notes on some Indian mating ritual.  He wasn't dumb enough to ask if that's what she and Geronimo were doing in the photograph.  Not now.  But I'll bet my Navy SEAL Budweiser pin that I hot damn will later.

After three muffins and sipping his second cup of coffee, he leaned back.  "That was great, Dr. Cassidy.  Thanks."

"You're welcome.  The wild berries are smaller, but I think they're sweeter.  And, please, call me Claire."

He nodded.  "So, what were you doing in the woods when you were not camping?" he asked, repeating her words.

"I don't camp in the traditional know, tents and kerosene stoves.  I build a wigwam up in the mountains like the Lenni Lenape Indians did and cook over an open fire."

"Alone?"  He was picturing her with some guy...okay, him...bending over the fire.  Maybe dancing a little, making those beads and other things jiggle.  Then, they'd go into the wigwam, and--



"I usually go alone.  I like the solitude.  And I'm able to explore and dig for Indian artifacts at my leisure."

He could understand the solitude part--he was a loner himself--though he liked his fantasy better.  "And you planned all along to be back here for the start of the project tomorrow?"

"Of course.  I always honor my commitments."

And she couldn't have told me that.  Not even one little phone call, or email.  He decided to hold his tongue.  "You're not going to make me fill out those forms, are you?"

She shook her head.  "Not all of them.  I'll help you, if you're willing."

He liked the fact that she was willing to bend the rules and decided reciprocation was in order.  "I'll help you."

"You're staying at the Butterfly Bed & Breakfast?"

"Uh-huh.  It's convenient, with the cavern right there on the property.  Abbie is giving us a nice deal on rooms."

She cocked her head to the side, probably at his use of Abigail Franklin's first name.

"I met her grandson Mark in Afghanistan, and we've kept in touch occasionally," Caleb said.

"The Navy pilot?"

He nodded.

"How's he doing?"

"As well as a young man with one arm could be, I suppose.  You should know, Jinx is here because Abbie contacted me."

"Abbie's a smart cookie.  Don't underestimate her because of her age."

"You say that as if I should be wary."

"Let's face it, cave pearls don't have a huge value.  They lack lustre," Claire pointed out.

"There's some kind of chemical fusion bath that was invented recently.  It supposedly gives them lustre.  Market value could be over five hundred thousand dollars, maybe a million."

She didn't look convinced.


"Abbie's always been kind of secretive about her home, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the cavern.  I wonder if there might be something else, and she's just using your firm on the pretext of the pearls."

In other words, we do the grunt work, and she skips off with the real bonanza.  This was something Caleb would have to investigate, but not with Ms. Indian Preservation on his tail.  "All I can say is that Abbie has been very accommodating. Not just to me.  The other members of my team will be staying at her B & B, too."

"And they are...?"

"Adam Famosa, a professor at Rutgers, and John LeDeux, a police officer from Louisiana.  This is a relatively simple job. No need for the usual six-man team."

"And you're the project manager?"

"Yep.  You'll meet Veronica Jinkowsky, owner of Jinx, and her on-again, off-again husband Jake Jensen.  Ronnie is a lawyer, and Jake is a professional poker player.  They won't be staying, though.  They're off to another treasure hunt in Mexico."

She nodded.

Caleb wouldn't be surprised if she had already researched every one of them, as well as the cavern to be explored and the targeted treasure.

"A college professor, a police officer, a poker player, a lawyer, an ex-Navy SEAL...what qualifies you guys to be treasure hunters?"

"Good question.  Actually, each of our fortune hunting expeditions is different and requires different skills.  Could be anything from deep sea treasure to buried gold to a lost heirloom.  Once an elderly Southern belle hired us to dig up her backyard hoping to find her family's silver from the Civil War days.  Some of us are climbers.  Others have diving experience.  Those of us on this project put in an additional fifty hours to get further certified in cave diving."

"Is cave diving so different?"

"Actually, yes.  There are almost forty different swimming techniques just for negotiating underground water passes.  We don't take on jobs we can't handle, or if we do agree to a project requiring special expertise, we hire someone to join the team.  Mostly, though, we all share a love of adventure."

"Did you find the lady's silver?"

"Yeah.  That and a couple of dead Yankee soldiers." 

She appeared to be satisfied with his explanation.

"What is it you hope to find on this project, Claire?"

"Well, artifacts most likely.  Arrowheads, tools, that kind of thing.  Caves have long been used as dwelling places, burial sites, storage houses, places of worship.  Add to that the fact that Pennsylvania has been homeland to the Lenape tribe for more than ten thousand years."

"Ten thousand years!"

She shrugged.  "As you probably know, a cavern of any size is at least a million years old.  We're talking ancient and near history here.  Near history being the past few hundred years of which we have more concrete evidence.  The Lenape were among the first Indians to come in contact with Europeans in the 1600s."

"Uh-hum," he said.  Good God!  She's giving me a lecture, like I'm one of her students.

"It would be really great if there were pictographs, as well.  Cave paintings," she blathered on, pleased no doubt that she had a captive audience.  "Oh, and aside from the usual artifacts, I would love to discover some new fetishes.  I only have a few now."

He couldn't help himself.  He had to chuckle.  "Yeah?  I've got a few myself.  I'll tell you mine if you'll tell me yours."

She stared at him for a long moment.  "Oh, you!  I meant Indian fetishes.  Like small carvings in wood or stone.  A turtle, for example.  Things that hold some mystical spirit important to--"  She let her words trail off as she realized he'd known what kind of fetish she'd meant all along.

"Yeah, well, back to what you hope to find.  I've studied all the maps and history.  I suspect the only things, other than pearls, that we're going to find are bats and bugs and..." He shivered, reflexively, "...snakes.  I do hate snakes."

Claire tilted her head to the side.  "Didn't Abbie tell you about Sparky?"  Then she smiled.  Smirked, actually.

The fine hairs stood out on his body.  "Okay.  Who's Sparky?"

"A snake."

"A snake with a name?"  Uh-oh, this does not sound good.

He must have turned a bit green because she grinned.

Oh, great!  A sadist, on top of everything else.

"A big ol' snake."

"Define big."

"Ten feet long and, well not quite as wide around as your tattoo."  She pointed to his left biceps where the barbed wire tattoo peeked out from under the sleeve of his T-shirt.

Well, he would hope not!  His bicep was sixteen inches in diameter, and had been eighteen when he was an active SEAL.

"More like the size of your wrists."

Okay, that's better, but still one mother of a snake.

"Sparky's been living in Spruce Creek Cavern for at least ten years.  Not that there aren't other snakes, but Sparky is the Big Daddy.  Every so often, he sticks his head out, but then slithers back in before anyone can catch him."

Yeah, but has anyone ever shot him?  With an AK-47?  "Are you pulling my leg?"

"I wouldn't think of touching your leg."

Okay, I recognize an insult when I hear one.  He thought about taking her hand and placing it on his bare thigh, just to annoy her, but sanity persuaded him to restrain himself.  "I.  Hate.  Snakes."

"Afraid of them?"

"Hell, no.  Just don't like 'em."  Probably stemmed from all those years as a kid when he'd helped hand-plow the fields and uncovered lots of the slimy buggers...usually black or garden variety, but even the occasional rattler.  And he'd had to deal with plenty in SEAL survival training, too.

"You had to know coming here that an underground cavern would have snakes."

"Sure, I knew that.  I just didn't expect any anacondas."

She laughed, and her whole face lit up, even her eyes which were a pale, pale green.

Nice.  But he could see how some people might consider her eyes sort of woo-woo, fitting into the crazy category.

"Don't worry, he's not poisonous...though he has been known to bite."

"You're really enjoying yourself at my expense, aren't you?"

"Yep!"  But then she switched subjects and floored him.  Women had a talent for doing that to a guy, one minute talking about the latest hot chick movie and the next asking him something personal, something he absolutely does not want to discuss, like the size of his...oh, let's say...rifle, or why he hasn't ever married, or what's that huge chip on his shoulder with the word "Family" chiseled on it.

What Claire zinged him with was:  "Peachey...that's an Amish name, isn't it?  An Amish Navy SEAL?  That's an oxymoron, isn't it?"

I'm a moron, all right.  Left myself wide open.  Why don't I just paint a target on my chest that says, "Shoot Me."

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