“I know you,” she said. “You’re that American with the video show. Buried Truths.”
I fought to keep the grin off my face. Being recognized never got old. “Yes. I’m Thatcher Bryn.”
Rather than offering her name in return, she just rolled her eyes.
“I know why you’re here, then. You must be looking for Raul’s treasure. Well, I’m sorry to tell you that someone else has already beaten you to it.”
The beer soured in my stomach. “What do you mean?”
“There’s a television crew here already shooting a documentary about the treasure.” She pointed to a spot on the map that was close to our current location at the bar. “Raul’s house here burned down thirty years ago, shortly after he died. The TV people are set up today in the vacant lot where it once stood.”
I picked at the label on my beer, feigning disinterest. “Do you happen to know which show?”
Her answer was immediate. “Hidden Treasures.”
“Of course.” I sighed.
“Friends of yours?” she asked.
“Not at all.”
The Envoy channel had an Emmy award-winning travel show hosted by my one-time friend, Derek Walburn. Before Envoy came calling, Derek and I had co-hosted a travel vlog together. After we’d parted ways, I continued to produce a solo show, though Derek’s A-list good looks and Envoy’s deep pockets made my show look like a backyard hobby.
They were always one step ahead of me, too. That was a large reason my viewership had sharply declined over the last year. They kept beating me to the same locations and posting their videos before I finished mine. Without viewers, ad sponsors went away. And without ad money, my bank account had dwindled dangerously into the red.
After I’d visited Gary and he’d tasked me to finish his hunt for the Santa Arminta treasure, I realized that I was sitting on a rare opportunity. There were no existing documentaries or television shows on this treasure. If I could be the first, it would tremendously boost my views.
“Don’t look so sad,” the bartender said. “There have been metal detectors all over the lot. If he really buried the treasure in his backyard, someone would have found it by now.”
I raked a hand through my wavy hair. “My friend —well, he was more like a second dad to me— heard the story of Raul’s treasure and asked me to look into it. Sort of as his last wish.”
Raul dos Santos had supposedly found the legendary shipwreck of the Santa Arminta more than forty years ago. As the rumor went, Raul hauled the treasure up to the surface, reburied it, and then took the secret of its location to his grave. Determined to find the treasure, Gary had acquired Raul’s journal years ago and used that to compile a list of potential coordinates. There’d only been a few sites left on Gary’s list to check when I saw him at the hospital: a spot deep in the Belizean jungle, Raul’s old house in town, and a vacant lot he’d secretly owned on the western side of Placencia. The place the bartender had told me I’d have to rent a boat to get to.
Her face softened as she studied me. “Your friend passed away?”
I nodded. “A few weeks ago. Lung cancer.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” I meant it. Even though Gary’s ashes sat in an urn back in my hotel room, it still didn’t feel real.
She reached under the bar for two shot glasses and then grabbed a bottle of top-shelf rum from the display behind her. She poured two shots and nudged one toward me before lifting her own.
“To your friend,” she said.
“To Gary,” I replied. I poured a little out onto the floor of the bar and knocked the rum back quickly. The warmth burned down my throat.
“I’m Selene,” she said.
“Thatcher,” I replied, then winced. She already knew who I was.
Selene didn’t laugh at me, though. Instead, she turned her head to gaze out at the sparkling Caribbean Sea barely fifty feet beyond the back patio of the bar.
“What was your friend’s interest in the treasure?” she asked.
I took a sip of my beer. “Gary was obsessed. We went all over the world together, diving wrecks, trekking through the jungle, listening for the whispers of treasure. My father too, until he passed away ten years ago. But no matter how far we wandered into the corners of history, Gary could never let this one go.”
Selene leaned back against the shelf behind her. “A lot of people can’t. My grandmother has lived in Placencia her whole life, and she remembers when the first people came down here looking for it. Not even the stories about the nagual deterred them.”
“Nagual?” I hadn’t realized there were naguals in Belize.
One side of her mouth quirked into a smile. “Your friend didn’t tell you about that?”
“Not that I remember.”
A man appeared at my right elbow, and Selene turned to take care of him. When she came back, she leaned over the map and spoke to me in a low voice.
“A nagual,” she said, “is a shapeshifter that comes out at night. And the treasure of the Santa Arminta is supposed to be guarded by a jaguar nagual. They say that’s why the treasure has never been found. The nagual doesn’t want the treasure to leave Belize.”
In spite of the heat in the bar, a shiver ran down my spine. It was just like Gary to neglect an important detail like that. He knew I wouldn’t be keen to look for a treasure with a curse attached. Hunting down the truths behind lost fortunes, ghost stories, myths, and urban legends on my show was one thing. Most turned out to be nothing more than local superstition. Curses, however, were something else entirely and a shapeshifting jaguar guardian definitely fell into the category of things I didn’t want to mess around with. Not after everything I’d seen.
I couldn’t turn back now, though. This was my last chance to save the show, and I’d spent most of my remaining money to get down here. Curse or no, I was going after that treasure.
“What about you?” I asked Selene. “What do you believe?”
A sad look crossed her face.
“I believe that many, many people have tried to use Belize to make their dreams come true. So why shouldn’t Belize hold onto a secret of her own?”
I looked down at the map in front of me.
“That man who got mauled by the jaguar. Was he with the TV crew?”
I lifted my eyes in time to see her nod.
“It happened late at night,” she said. “They’d gone to dinner and then to the bar. Not this one, but another. He wandered off by himself to find the bathroom and didn’t return. His friends assumed he’d gone back to the hotel until the police found him in the morning. He was hurt badly.”
Whatever bad blood there was between Derek and I, that man didn’t deserve this. None of his crew did. Not even Derek himself.
I had to admit there was a cruel sort of irony to it. One of the things that had driven Derek to Envoy was his desire to stop doing the “myth hunters thing,” with all its associated weirdness.
I took a breath. “Do you think it was the nagual?”
She raised one shoulder in a shrug. “Maybe. Who can really say? All I know is, a man is injured, and now we have to be extra vigilant about reminding tourists to keep to the main paths at night.”
Selene’s warning ran on an endless loop through my head as I crouched behind some dense, tropical foliage. I definitely wasn’t on the main path, but I had a clear view of the Envoy crew packing up for the day.
Raul’s lot was bordered by old wooden houses on either side. A rutted dirt road ran along the front of the lot, connecting the lonely street to the main road through Placencia. The back of the lot bumped up against the canal, where I’d hidden in the brush at the water’s edge.
On the lagoon side of the peninsula, small boats occasionally traveled along the narrow waterway from the larger sea beyond to tie up in front of the many houses and vacation rentals that dotted the area. Judging by the darkened windows and empty driveways, many of the properties were unoccupied at the moment, which was just as well. According to Gary, the lot Raul had owned was on the other side of the canal, directly across from where I was now.
By the time the Envoy crew left, it was fully dark. I straightened up, my back and knees protesting after being stuck in an awkward position for so long. I winced and swore softly under my breath.
I took out my camera and spent a few moments panning the lens around, letting the microphone pick up the sounds of Placencia. Water lapped against the walls of the canal and an outboard motor sputtered in the distance. The buzz of insects and unfamiliar bird calls added more layers to the sound of the peninsula at night. Something moved in the tree branches overheard. An iguana perhaps, or maybe even a monkey.
Then, I had the sense I was being watched. Turning, I looked over at the empty plot of land across the canal. The camera was still in my hands.
A pair of small green orbs hung in the shadows. Eyes. Reflected in the light from the nearby houses.
A chill raced down my spine. Had the nagual found me so easily?
But as quick as they’d appeared, the green orbs winked out of view. I strained my ears, listening for splashing. I knew jaguars swam, but I wasn’t sure if the canal was wide enough to prevent the creature from swimming across.
I waited another minute, two minutes, five minutes, listening, but I heard nothing except the water brushing the sides of the canal and the creaking of boats tied to wooden docks. I waited and watched until I was satisfied it was really gone.
Unzipping my backpack, I drew out a portable metal detector. After setting up the camera so it had a good view of the lot, I stashed the rest of my gear in the brush. Then, I approached the empty lot where Raul’s home once stood. I would have to work quickly, but if I was lucky, I’d have plenty of time to scan for treasure.
Unfortunately, luck was not on my side. I only made it about twenty yards before someone shone a bright light in my face and a gruff, masculine voice admonished me in a language I didn’t know. Not Spanish. Perhaps the Belizean Creole that many people on the coast spoke.
I raised my hands in a placating gesture. “English, please,” I said, then repeated the request in the couple languages I did know. Spanish, French, and Portuguese.
“This is a closed set,” the voice snapped. “You need to leave before I call the police.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. Thought it was public property.”
The guard scoffed. “You’re out here with a metal detector at night. I think you know exactly where you are.”
He was still shining the light in my face, and I squinted, trying to get a look at him.
“I left my backpack over there,” I said, pointing over my shoulder. “Let me get it, and I’ll be on my way.”
“Be quick about it,” the guard said. He finally lowered the light, and I blinked the bright spots away. The man was not as tall as I was, but he was barrel-chested with biceps as big as ham hocks. We’d probably be an even match in a fight. Not that I intended to come to blows with him. I just wanted to know what sort of security Derek had hired on his set. Expensive and highly professional security usually meant Derek was confident in what he’d find in the dirt.
This guy, though strong and burly, looked like the kind of rent-a-cop you could pick up for a song. If I had the money, I might have tried bribing him. Even though I now knew there was nothing worth investigating here.
I smiled and raised my hands a bit higher. “I won’t trouble you anymore, sir.”
I arrived at the second lot just before nightfall the next day. To the casual observer, I looked like a tourist who had discovered the perfect spot to catch the sunset. But the black duffle bag I carried filled with my metal detector, shovel, and penlight told a different story.
The sky was a wash of rose pinks and golds, the ocean below a postcard-perfect shade of turquoise. As I recorded the sunset, I caught a few dolphins leaping out of the water in the distance. That would make excellent B-roll footage.
I took my time setting up the camera on its tripod. This was the last spot on Gary’s list, and my pulse quickened at the thought of finding the treasure tonight. If I could get this episode edited and uploaded in the morning, that’d give me a big advantage over Derek. I didn’t want to have to reshoot, so the angle on the lot had to be perfect.
I settled on a spot near where I’d tied the boat. Checking the viewfinder, I saw that the camera had a panoramic view of the entire lot. With the camera now rolling and the sun fully below the horizon, it was time to get to work.
I canvassed the lot in tight lines, sweeping the metal detector slowly from side to side. It was a hot night and sweat quickly gathered on my brow. Mosquitos buzzed in my ears, and no matter how many I swatted, there were always more.
I was almost breathless as I worked, expecting at any moment to stumble onto the treasure. This was the last site on the list. It had to be here. It just had to be. Except the metal detector hadn’t given so much as a half-hearted bleep since I’d started. With each quiet moment that passed, the knots in my stomach tightened.
If I didn’t find the treasure, this episode would be DOA: dead on arrival. I had some nice footage of Belize, sure, but that’s not why people watched my show. They wanted to know the hidden truths behind the world’s biggest mysteries and secrets, the weirder and more supernatural the better.
More importantly, I’d be letting Gary down if I failed.
The metal detector let out a beep.
“Thank you,” I muttered, pausing to stick a wooden marker into the dirt. As much as I wanted to retrieve my shovel right then, I needed to finish the whole lot and look for any other promising areas. Only then could I decide where to dig first.
I walked a few more feet and then the metal detector let out a loud screech. I looked around, cognizant that there might be people in the area. Though none of the buildings immediately around the lot had lights on, it didn’t mean someone wasn’t on their way home.
The only things that moved in the darkness though were the tide and palm branches waving in the breeze. I sunk another wooden marker into the soil and walked on. The metal detector kept clicking for several more feet before falling silent. Whatever it had found, it was certainly big.
The rest of the lot turned up few other points of interest. I marked them all the same, but my attention was on that second spot.
I retrieved my gear and then used a penlight to locate the site again. My stomach fluttered with excitement as I set my shovel against the ground.
For a while, there was only the rasp of my shovel as it bit deeper into the earth. I dug for so long I was beginning to wonder if the metal detector had malfunctioned. Then, my shovel hit something solid.
Grabbing the penlight from my pocket, I shone it down into the small hole I’d made. The faint beam revealed a bit of wood poking through the sandy soil, and I tugged at it with my fingers, not sure if I’d just found a loose board. The wood didn’t easily come away from the surrounding soil, and I picked up my shovel to continue digging.
I dug for what felt like hours, lifting more soil out of the hole and away from what I’d found buried inside. It seemed to be some sort of wooden box or chest. Old, but solidly intact.
Then, my shovel hit the corner of the box and the wood gave way. It was followed by a metallic clinking sound. Heart beating fast, I pulled my penlight out and shone it into the hole.
Golden coins had spilled out of the box and into the sandy soil.
“You did it, Gary,” I whispered. “You found it.”
Pausing to catch my breath, I put the light away and wiped the condensation off my glasses with the corner of my shirt.
The treasure of Raul dos Santos was real, and I’d caught it all on camera. All my problems were about to be solved.
That’s when I heard a growl that turned my blood to ice. Grasping the shovel in my hands, I slowly turned toward the sound.
My heart slammed against my ribs, and my brain seemed to stutter to a stop as it forgot how to form complete thoughts. The moonlight illuminated the jaguar’s gleaming black coat, helping to distinguish it from the shadows that surrounded it. I glimpsed wicked-looking teeth as the big cat pulled its lips back in a snarl. Two predatory green eyes rooted me to the ground as the jaguar took a commanding step forward. It stood between me and my boat.
All treasure forgotten, I slowly raised the shovel in what I hoped was an intimidating posture. When I’d traveled to Costa Rica, I’d learned the basics of how to handle an encounter with a jaguar. Though if this was the nagual Selene had warned me about, I doubted any of that would matter.
The jaguar took another step forward, and I moved sideways, hoping to pressure it into changing positions without inciting it to attack. I needed to maneuver it so that the creature was no longer blocking my escape route.
We moved in a slow dance of calculated movement, eyes never leaving each other. The beast moved another two steps, and so did I. One step that I matched, and then another, until I finally found myself standing with my back to the path that led to my boat and the jaguar standing between me and the treasure.
The jaguar growled again and laid its ears flat against its head. Its muscled hind end tensed, and I raised my shovel higher, waiting for it to pounce. But, the jaguar remained where it was for several long moments, merely growling at me or huffing a snarl. It made no move to attack, though I was well within striking range.
I thought back to what Selene had said, that the nagual didn’t want the treasure to leave Belize. That gave me an idea.
I slowly lowered my shovel and offered it to the jaguar, the palms of both hands facing up.
“Easy,” I said. I definitely felt silly talking to a jaguar, even if it was a nagual. “You don’t need to attack me. I’ll leave the treasure where it is.”
I gently set the shovel down at my feet and slowly stepped back a few paces. The jaguar didn’t move to come after me.
I walked backward until I’d covered so much ground the jaguar had disappeared into the darkness, and I no longer saw its eyes watching me. Only then did I turn and run back to my boat, stopping only long enough to grab my camera.
I stayed up all night editing the episode and just after sunrise, I finally hit publish. Then, after a quick nap and a shower, I left my hotel to look for coffee.
As I stumbled bleary-eyed up the steps to the tree-house café in the center of town, I ran smack into something solid.
When I stepped back and saw it was my old friend, Derek. That woke my tired brain up better than any cappuccino.
“You,” Derek said, his tone decidedly unfriendly. Judging by the grayish cast to his skin and the purple shadows under his eyes, he hadn’t been sleeping well. I’m sure what had happened to his crew member was weighing on him.
“Been a long time, Derek,” I said. I thought about extending a hand for him to shake, but quickly decided he wasn’t in the mood for pleasantries.
Neither was I. In the years since Envoy had stolen Derek away, I’d imagined this moment over and over. What I’d say. The confidence I’d radiate. The satisfaction I’d feel, knowing that I was doing better than ever without him.
Instead, I just felt tired and defeated. My head hurt and I missed Gary.
Derek lifted his chin and looked down at me. “How’d you know about that other site?”
It took me a moment to connect the pieces and understand what he was talking about.
“You watched the episode?”
“My boss called me.” He fairly spat the words. “Your video is trending on all the major social media networks now.”
I blinked. I’d been too afraid to check how the episode was doing when I woke up from my nap. Whatever crushing disappointment was in store, it would surely be better handled with coffee.
“It’s trending?” I asked. I was fully aware how stupid I sounded, parroting the words back, but I didn’t care.
Derek’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Envoy had their best people on this project. And yet, here you are, finding the treasure at a site no one has ever heard of.”
“Well, your best people have nothing on Gary.”
He looked incredulous. “That old fossil is still alive?”
Derek and Gary had never gotten along. It was one of the major reasons Derek had declared himself done with the whole ghosts and monsters thing and accepted Envoy’s offer. Publicly, we’d cited creative differences for our split, but if I was being honest, things were said on both sides that would have been best left unspoken. On Derek’s side, mostly about Gary and his influence on my life. For my part, I’d allowed my temper to drag every one of Derek’s insecurities out into the light.
I was tempted to do it again now as I thought about what to say. He wouldn’t care that Gary was dead and I didn’t want to give him any more leverage over me. I wanted to hurt him first.
Yet, as I looked at the exhaustion in his eyes, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
“I had some good information,” I said. “And a little luck. That’s all.”
The phone in Derek’s shirt pocket vibrated and he pulled it out to look. It must have been someone important because his whole body tensed. Maybe his boss calling back.
“I have to go,” Derek said.
He pushed past me and headed south on the main road, toward one of the better hotels. I watched him go before trotting up the stairs to get myself the strongest cup of coffee they sold.
When I returned to the lot a little while later, I discovered someone had already filled in the hole I’d dug the night before. They’d done such a good job masking my work; I almost couldn’t tell where it was. But there were still a few tracks left behind— jaguar prints mingled with bare human feet.
The metal detector and shovel were piled haphazardly on top of my duffle bag. For a moment, temptation tugged at me. It was daylight, and according to Selene, naguals only came out at night. I probably had enough time to dig the box back up and get back to the mainland with the treasure.
But this treasure had never been my obsession. It was Gary who had devoted much of his life to ferreting out clues to the mystery of the Santa Arminta. Though he hadn’t been able to see it for himself before he died, I’d fulfilled his last wish— I’d found the treasure.
Stepping around the prints in the dirt, I put my things back in the duffle and zipped it up again. Hoisting it on my shoulder, I paused to study the human prints left by the nagual.
I’d learned to track a bit during my adventures, and knew the footprints likely didn’t belong to a man. Compared to my own, they were small and slender. Likely a woman or a teenager had left those.
I nodded in the direction of the treasure I knew was buried underneath the dirt.
“Your secret is safe with me.”
As I steered my boat out a little way offshore and headed south around the tip of Placencia, the sun was shining brightly off the water. When I rounded the bend, I cut the engine and let the boat drift in the current. There was still one more thing I had to do.
I reached over and unzipped my backpack, revealing the urn with Gary’s ashes inside.
“Hey, Gary,” I said, laying a hand against the container. “I sure wish you were here, buddy. Turns out you were right about the Santa Arminta treasure. Almost got killed by a jaguar for my trouble. A nagual, I think. You sure left that one out of your notes.”
The breeze kicked up as I lifted the urn out of the bag and walked to the back of the boat. I stared at the edge of the horizon for a moment, holding Gary’s urn to my chest.
“Thank you. For everything. For fixing my glasses all those years ago with that Scotch tape you found in the drawer. For being there for me in high school. For teaching me all you knew.” My voice cracked as tears welled up. I pushed my glasses up the bridge of my nose and wiped at my eyes. “I have to admit, I was so pissed at you when I found out you’d been hiding your cancer from me. But now, now I think I know why you did it. You didn’t want me to remember you sick.”
My hands shook as I gently removed the top from the urn.
With a last deep sigh, I upended the urn over the back of the boat. The wind quickly whipped his ashes out and away from me, spreading them over the turquoise blue water.
I heard the music and laughter spilling from the Barefoot Bar before I saw it. Though it was barely five o’clock, the bar was packed with patrons.
I made my way over to the counter and sat down on the same stool I’d occupied the last time I was here.
Selene smiled when she saw me.
“I watched the new show,” she said, setting a cold Belikin beer in front of me. “Interesting choice of closing material.”
I spread my hands out wide. “Like you said, maybe Belize should get to keep some of her secrets. Besides, it’s too dangerous to keep going after it with that nagual around.”
“That was certainly one beautiful animal you saw.”
Though the footage was dark, the camera had captured enough of the jaguar that it was obvious what sort of creature I’d met out there. Its growls and my voice were also quite clear on the audio. From the comments I’d scrolled through, that encounter was a big reason the video was doing so well. Some people even believed I’d met a real nagual.
Selene leaned in close. Close enough for me to smell the jasmine scent of her shampoo.
“I’m glad you did what you did,” she whispered. “A story like that getting out, it would ruin this town. Make it too busy.”
Though I’d mentioned at the end of the episode that I’d left the treasure where it was, I’d also made sure to obscure the location in the editing and direct people away from looking in Placencia, just in case people decided to take on the jaguar nagual themselves.
“So, what are you going to do now?” Selene asked, straightening up. She reached under the counter for a rag.
I ran a finger around the rim of my beer bottle. “I’m heading back home tomorrow.”
She raised an eyebrow at me.
“There are other treasures out there,” I said. “Ones that don’t come with curses or supernatural guardians.”
The corner of her mouth twitched into a smile. “Well, I hope you find your treasure someday. One you can keep.”
Selene moved further down the bar to help a few new customers that walked in, and I picked up my beer again. But before the bottle touched my lips, something caught my eye.
Sitting on the coaster was an old gold coin. I picked it up and rubbed a thumb over the top of it. Though I’d only had a brief glance at them last night, it looked like one of the coins that had spilled from the chest.
I closed the coin inside my fist and looked down the bar at Selene. I thought of the jaguar’s green eyes and the slender footprints I’d found this morning. Of the story she’d told of the nagual.
Selene caught me looking her way and winked.