There is no record of the name that the island’s native inhabitants gave their home. The Spanish paused there only long enough to kill and plunder. Any name they gave it did not survive. The French stayed long enough to christen it appropriately—Isle Dernier. The English, though accomplished at empire-building, were not original thinkers. They merely translated the French name into their own tongue. English-speaking Americans knew it only as Last Isle.
Nature was never kind to Last Isle. It was inundated by hurricanes time and again; each storm surge trenched further through the land, leaving it broken into pieces that over time acquired names of their own. Some of those pieces can no longer even be called islands.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, cartographers renamed the remains of Last Isle to acknowledge their plurality. Current sea charts no longer show a Last Isle. Instead, they warn mariners wishing to explore the crystalline waters off the Florida Panhandle to beware treacherous shallows around the Last Isles.
Long ago, life on Last Isle was idyllic. Its natives had no need of agriculture, given its abundance of fish and shellfish and waterfowl. Unfortunately, people whose lives are easy attract the attention of people whose lives are not. Their isolation had long protected the people of Last Isle from invasion, but the barrier of distance fell before the European conquerors in their tall ships. When they arrived, the massacres began in earnest.
Before the Americans finally wrested West Florida—and Last Isle with it—from the Spanish, the massacres had tapered off. There was no one left to kill. Then the slavers auctioned their human wares to the planters and misery came again to Last Isle. It took a great war to end it, one that touched even this tiny, remote spot. Its old trees have presided over centuries of killing.
The Last Isles are even now an attractive haven for a killer looking for a place to conceal a crime. No witnesses to murder lurk there, so far from civilization. There could be no more convenient place to rid oneself of an inconvenient corpse. With such a history, it is not surprising that the past and its bones sometimes surface. It would be more surprising if they did not.
Faye Longchamp was digging like a pothunter and she hated herself for it. Pothunters were a bare notch above grave robbers. They were vultures. Once a pothunter defiled an ancient site, archaeologists could only hope to salvage a fraction of the information it had once held. And information, not artifacts, was the goal of legitimate archaeology.
Pothunters, on the other hand, only sought artifacts with a hefty street value, and to hell with egg-headed academics who condemned them for trashing history as they dug. There was no more precise description of what she was doing; therefore, she had sunk to the level of a pothunter. The fact that she was desperate for cold, hard cash did not absolve her.
A narrow beach to her left and a sparse stand of sea oats to her right were all that stood between Faye and the luminous turquoise of the Gulf of Mexico. Since pothunters couldn’t excavate in the open, in front of God and everybody, they worked in places like this, patches of sand too small to have names. Not a soul lived in the Last Isles, and the island chain paralleled a thinly populated stretch of Florida Panhandle coastline. It was a good place to do work that shouldn’t be seen.
Looking up from her lucrative but illegal hobby, she glanced furtively over her shoulder at Seagreen Island. Its silhouette loomed like a dark whale cresting in the distance.
She knew how to excavate properly. During her abortive college career, she had tried to learn everything about field technique that her idol, Dr. Magda Stockard, could teach her. Even ten years later, working as she did on Seagreen Island as a field supervisor under Magda’s watchful eye, she still learned something new every day. And she loved it. She loved sifting soil samples through a quarter-inch mesh and cataloging the seeds, beads, and bones that stayed behind. She loved the fact that every day was a treasure hunt. She would have worked for free, if she could have ignored her inconvenient need for food and shelter. The paycheck she received for painstaking work performed amid the heat and the humidity and the mosquitoes was always welcome, but it was insufficient.
Her work on Seagreen Island was legitimate, but it disturbed her nonetheless. Unless Magda’s archaeological survey turned up a culturally significant site, there would be nothing to stop the developers who wanted to build a resort there. The lush and tangled vegetation topping the island would be scraped off to make room for a hotel and tennis courts and a spa and a couple of swimming pools. As if Florida needed more swimming pools.
This islet where she stood was too tiny to interest developers, though the government had found it worth including in a national wildlife refuge. It was really no more than a sandbar sprinkled with scrubby vegetation, but Faye’s instincts had always been reliable. The Last Isles were once awash in wealth. The wind and waves couldn’t have carried it all away; they must have left some of it under the sand, ripe for discovery by a needy pothunter. A tiny bit of that dead glory would pay this year’s property taxes. A big, valuable chunk of the past would save her home forever.
Home. The thought of losing her home made Faye want to hurl her trowel to the ground in frustration, but doing so would require her to stop digging, and she couldn’t do that. Something in her blood would never let her quit digging. Faye did not intend to be the one who let the family down.
Two eager archaeology students had volunteered to stay behind the rest of their field crew on mosquito-infested Seagreen Island. Tomorrow would have been soon enough to catalog the day’s finds and mark the next swath of dig spots, but these two were too dedicated to their work for their own good. If the student archaeologists had cleared out on the stroke of five, they could have been enjoying Tuesday-night sitcoms and beer with their colleagues. Instead, they were conscientiously digging their own graves.
The sun kept sliding toward the Gulf of Mexico, and the red-haired girl kept squinting through the viewfinder of her surveyor’s transit. She barked directions to her partner as he slowly—so slowly—placed one flag after another in yet another nice neat row. They checked and rechecked the grid of sampling spots, careful to ensure that everything was exactly as their supervisor had recorded in the field notebook that the young woman clutched like a bible.
The young man, standing in the shade of an ancient tree, twisted the surveyor’s flag, yelling, “Hey, Krista, there’s so many roots here, I can hardly get it in the ground.”
The young man grunted as he pushed the flag into the soil, ignorant of what lay beneath his feet. The base probed deeper. It struck something horrible, but the young man and his companion remained unaware, so they were allowed to continue breathing.