Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/438864-A-Serpent-in-Paradise
by Joy
Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Mystery · #438864
A family at a beach house and a puzzle to solve
          Our second day at Paradise Beach. . . A quiet beach, overcast sky, two sons jostling on sand, husband safely tied to a fishing rod. . . I was contented. Finally a few minutes for me for picking up after everyone without them messing the place all over again.

         I skipped out on the back porch to drop into the trash barrel some old newspapers I had found under the couch. The top sheet had yellowed and was crumbling with age.

         "Mom...Come, look."

         "Bring the Camera."

         Putting the stack on the steps, I ran back inside, grabbed the Leica, and ran out to the front to find out what had excited my family so.

         "Mom, I want to go swim there. Dad won't let me." Nine-year old Al was pointing out to the open sea.

         "Me, too. Mom, tell Dad..." Now George, the older one, was tugging at my arm.

         About three hundred feet out at sea, a school of dolphins were frolicking in and out of the water. Handing the camera to Nick, I said, "How about we drive down to the Florida Keys one day? You can swim there at the Dolphin World."

         "Yeah! Can we, Dad?" George was the easy one.

         "But I want to swim with the dolphins, NOW!" Al was pouting, his tears ready to flow.

         "I'd be so worried if you were to ride off on a dolphin out into the blue yonder. I promise we'll go see the dolphins close by," I said.

         "Something's biting," Nick said with excitement as he handed the camera back to me and started to roll in what he thought was his catch. "Honey, go look what that priest wants. I got two good dolphin shots anyhow."

         I turned to see a priest's dark figure, trying to open the door of the house. All kinds of troubling doubts crept up my mind as I rushed near him. Before I saw his face, I noticed the rusty old skeleton key in his long bony fingers. Under his arm he carried a worn, leather-bound, sepia-colored book, probably a Bible.

         "May I help you, Father?" I inquired as if a priest breaking into a home was the most natural thing.

         "I didn't know the cottage was rented. It never is," he answered somewhat tersely. Then he pointed out to the horizon. "They are jumping again. So I thought I should come in and pray."

         I was intrigued. "You're welcome to enter, "I said pushing the door open. "It wasn't locked."

         Then, I pointed to the beach, "That's my family out there."

         He turned his back to the door. "No," he said. "I won't go in. Sorry to bother you." A wavy smile curled around his lips, "Keep your eyes on your family. It isn't safe here. When the dolphins start jumping, you never know what. . ." He didn't finish. He started down the stairs.

         "Excuse me, Father," I walked with him. "Why did you want to pray inside the house?" He didn't answer. I repeated my question.

         "You have to talk louder," he said. "I'm hard of hearing."

         "Who are you praying for?" I asked again.

         This time he stopped, lifted his fist to his throat as if to dislodge something, "My brother Tom," he said. "Thomas Serpa." Without any other explanation, he walked swiftly away.


         "Let's go to that little restaurant, CafĂ© del Mar, half a mile down," Nick offered. "I wasn't as lucky as I had hoped."

         "Next time, I should take over," George muttered. He was unhappy with his father's fishing skills, but I sighed with relief. No fish to clean, no plates to wash, delicious restaurant food. May all the restaurateurs be blessed.

         Inside the restaurant, a matronly waitress started to make small talk. I asked her if she was from the area.

         "Yes," she said, "I grew up around here. All my family lives here."

         "Do you know Thomas Serpa?" She immediately crossed herself. "Sweetie, why would you ask about him?"

         "I met his brother this morning."

         "I didn't know he had a brother," the woman answered, startled.

         "He's a priest. He said he came to our rental to pray for Thomas Serpa."

         "You mean you got Thomas's cottage on the beach?" Her eyes were wide open. I sensed the fright in them.

         "Yes we have a house right on the beach and we like it a lot," George butted in.

         "Okay Sugar, but," she turned around to me. "Wouldn't you be more comfortable at the Holiday Inn? It's right by the beach, too. Only a few yards down from you."

         "Who was Thomas Serpa?" Now my husband was just as curious as me.

         "He was a fisherman. Everyone called him Serpent. His two kids drowned when they swam too far out where the dolphins were jumping. He got a little soft in the head after that. Then a valuable painting, a painting of dolphins by a local artist, was stolen from the museum. Some thought he had something to do with it."

         "But what happened to him?" I asked.

         "One day they found his clothes on the beach. Then there was no news of him. He was presumed dead. I don't want to scare you people, especially the little ones, but it's said that the place is haunted."

         "A place being haunted is only in the imagination, not real," Nick said, looking at the boys.


         The wind had blown the beach towels off the railing and the newspapers I had left on the steps had scattered around. I noticed the date, July 1995, as I was picking them up. I took them back inside and started reading.

         A little while later, Nick walked in with the boys. "It started raining and they want me to drive down to the Keys to swim with the dolphins. Why do you always put ideas in their heads?"

         "Maybe we should do that, Nick. The sun always shines in the Keys." Piling up the newspapers again, I said, "Do you know what? I'm thinking that the Serpent, I mean Thomas Serpa, is still alive and is hanging around here." When I saw the worried look on George's face, I added. "None of our business. It isn't important."


         Dolphin World was in Key Largo, the closest key to Miami, but the trip took longer because Nick wanted to visit Key West. Had we stopped at Key Largo first, we'd never be able to pry the boys off the dolphins.

         Key West ended up being a marvelous side trip, with us taking pictures at the Southernmost Point, the old Key West Lighthouse and visiting Casa Antigua, Hemingway's home. Al had a grand time acting the cameraman with his tiny camera.

         In the late afternoon before we were about to return to Key Largo, Nick spotted an art gallery, actually an old cottage with its small rooms converted to the plush tastes of the art world. The owner, a stocky middle aged man with balding hairline, stood at the door. When he saw the children, he raised his eyebrows but he stepped aside to let us in.

         Most of the paintings were representational and easy to enjoy. When we entered the third room, both boys gasped with surprise. On the wall was a painting, almost in blue monochrome, of three dolphins jumping. The size of the painting was about sixteen by twenty but it looked larger because of its mahogany frame. Then Al took a few steps back and took the picture of the painting. The sudden glow from the flash brought an employee running into the room.

         "Taking photos are not allowed, Ma'am."

         "Put that away, Al." Then turning to the man, "It's only a toy," I said.

         To ease the tension Nick started to question the man about the painting.

         "Dancing Dolphins is a recent acquisition," he explained dutifully.

         The painting, quite a few decades old, was originally painted by a Floridian artist and bought by someone from Brazil. The owner of the gallery had acquired it a short time ago.

         Dusk had started to settle when we entered Snook's Bayside at Key Largo for dinner. Al insisted to sit at the bar because it was right under a thatched roof but the waiter made him change his mind.

         "I'll show you to a table with the perfect waterside view where you can see the moon rise. If you get lucky, you may be able to watch dolphins jump at the moon."

         "They go to sleep at night," George argued.

         "Some are insomniacs," the waiter joked.

         In the hotel, after the boys had fallen asleep in the adjoining room, Nick asked me, "Back at Paradise Beach what did you mean when you said the priest's brother was still alive?"

         "Oh, that. I found some old newspapers dating back to 1995. They had some kind of an obituary for Thomas Serpa, which said that he left no family behind."

         "Did they find the body?"

         "No, he isn't legally dead. Only presumed dead. I suspected that the priest could be Thomas Serpa himself."

         "You never know. Only, he probably isn't a priest."

         "Right, a priest wouldn't lie but there is more. Some of the papers wrote extensively about this man after his death, about the theft, and what had happened when Serpa was alive. They wrote that the police had questioned Serpa since someone had said he always hung around where the museum was. Serpa had said that he was in that vicinity a lot because he visited the bait shop right across the street from the museum. He was also cleared for the theft because he was out at sea fishing and he had an alibi."

         "An alibi?"

         "He was fishing with another man. I forgot the other man's name. That man had backed Serpa. So the police had cleared him. Later, however, that other man was questioned for credit card fraud."

         "Could it be a different thing? Then, maybe not. Who knows? Like you said though, none of our business."


         "Are your sons experienced enough with snorkeling?" The official at the Dolphin World asked Nick. "Even so, each should be accompanied by a responsible adult."

         "My wife doesn't dive, but the boys are pretty good at it. I can keep an eye on both," Nick said.

         "I'll accompany them," one of the divers who worked there offered.

         "Okay, then Tom. You do that."

         Tom was a solemn looking man in his late forties, medium height with rough skin and slanted sad eyes. He stood by us as if not to distance himself from the boys. While we waited for the boat, he made small talk with the boys

         "So you're from Chicago. It is a big city, ain't it?"

         "Glenview," George said. "That's where our home is."

         "You swam at the YMCA?"

         "Yes, in Chicago. But now we're staying at Paradise Beach on our vacation."

         Tom hesitated for a second. "I know Paradise Beach. I've been there," he murmured.

         "The sand is the best. It doesn't stick to my feet," Al said, as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other impatient for the dive.

         "Just be careful when you swim there at Paradise Beach. There's a tricky current further out."

         "When we dive now, do you think we can pet the dolphins?" George asked.

         "One thing with dolphins. You don't go after them. You wait for them. They'll come to you when they want."

         The boat that took Nick and the boys farther out to the sea had grown smaller. I sat down on a bench at the dock. A young woman in a blue shirt and shorts, one of the workers in the Dolphins World, came to sit near me.

         "Too bad you couldn't go. It is really fun out there. Don't you swim?"

         "I do, but I'm afraid to dive. I have asthma. I hope they'll be all right."

         "Don't worry about it. They'll be fine. Your husband must be experienced, and Tom is an excellent diver. He never leaves the young ones alone. He's probably keeping an eye on all three of them."

         "Has he been working here long?"

         "Only a couple of years. He was in the hospital before."

         "I'm sorry to hear that. I hope he's okay now."

         "No, nothing to worry about. He suffered a tragedy in his life. Then his wife left him. He was depressed. He checked himself into the psychiatric ward in the Key West General. Later he was treated elsewhere. He's perfectly fine now."

         "Are you sure?" I was worried now. This new downbeat information about the man's mental health had created an uneasiness in me. I felt as if the safety of my family hung from a thin thread ready to snap any minute.

         "Me and my big mouth...Sorry, I shouldn't have talked. Tom and I have been going out together since last year. He's a wonderful man, believe me. Since I talked so much, I might as well tell you more. Tom had two children. They swam too far out into the ocean and they drowned. That's why he was depressed. That's why he is so protective of the children who come here."

         "Where did he come from, do you know?"

         "Some little town up the coastline. They treated him shabbily there."

         "Could that be Paradise Beach?"

         "Oh, my! Yes. How did you know?"

         "We're spending our vacation in a beachfront cottage which is said to have belonged to a Thomas Serpa. Over there they think he's dead."

         "He didn't let anyone know. Except the police chief who was his friend."

         The boat docked at the shore forty-five minutes later.

         "Mom! The dolphins...they were all around us. We weren't scared. We touched them. They liked us, Mom, they liked us!" I suddenly had two very excited boys in wet suits jumping all over me.

         "Guys, let's go change," Nick said. "We'll tell Mom all about it at lunch. Colleen, did you know Tom is from Paradise Beach?" he winked at me as he walked away with the boys.

         "Wonderful swimmers your boys, Ma'am. Please come to visit us again before you leave," Thomas Serpa said as he walked away toward the locker rooms.


         "Mommy, my camera, can you help me put in a new film?" Al asked when we were in the car.

         "We need to buy new rolls. Mom can we get the pictures done before we leave?" George asked.

         "I think there's a Fotomat in town," Nick said. "They may do it in one day or while we wait. We'll see."

         Both boys fell asleep in the car within minutes. It had been a very exciting day.

         "I learned quite a bit about your Thomas Serpa, from the man himself," Nick told me in a low voice as we drove northward on I 95.

         "I met his girlfriend when you were out on the ocean. What did he say?"

         "He said the house was never his. People thought it was his. It was a rental but he lived in it with his family for about fifteen years, since the eighties. Back then, there was practically no town. Only a main street and some houses mostly for vacationers. It grew into a town when people started moving down to Florida."

         "Did you tell him about the priest?"

         "No, but I asked him if he had a brother. He said he never had a brother, only a sister who died in a car accident when she was in her teens."

         "What happened with the theft?"

         "Tom said that the people who did the stealing wanted the attention shift to the wrong person. They even framed his fishing buddy to discredit Tom. Also it wasn't only one painting that was stolen. There were others but this painting was done by a local painter. The town was proud of it because the fame of that painting had put Paradise Beach on the map. Since Tom's tragedy and subsequent illness had something to do with the dolphins, it was easy to blame it on him. Depression and mental illness are so misunderstood, even to this day."

         "I'm afraid I'm guilty of that myself," I admitted. "When you were out at sea and his girlfriend told me that Tom had been ill, I worried about you guys."

         "You shouldn't, Colleen. For one thing he'd had treatment. Second, very few of the mentally ill harm other people. Tom had a terrible experience which affected his mental health. He's really a very decent guy. Anyway, where was I?"

         "You said how important the painting was to the townspeople."

         "Oh yeah, that's when they started calling him, "Serpent". Some people, including his wife, blamed him for letting the boys swim far out on their own and drown. Not only that. He also blamed himself. The people taunted him so much that the police investigated to see if he really had anything to do with the theft. For him, this proved to be too much to handle in that mental state. He really wanted to kill himself. One day he undressed to his shorts and went in the water. When he swam halfway through, he changed his mind. He ran back into the house, packed a small bag and left."

         "That's why his clothes were left on the sand and they found no body."

         "Exactly. Once he got to Key West, he called the police chief and told him where he was."

         "So strange...I can swear his girlfriend told me that the police chief was his friend."

         "He might be. The investigation into the theft is probably still open. It might be why he's tight-lipped."

         "Or he's in on it. The police may do crooked things, too."

         "We don't know that, Colleen. Anyway, we're here for three more weeks. We'll be lucky if we don't get caught in a Florida storm with all the hurricane scare going around this summer."


         I thought I had turned off all the lights, but the porch light was on when we parked the car in the back of the house. George groggily stumbled on the steps as he held my hand. Nick was pulling Al along, whose eyes were still closed as his feet groped their way.

         "He sleeps so heavily when he's tired," Nick panted while I turned the key in the lock.

         When I switched the light I gasped with shock. Someone had been inside the house while we were away. The place of the furniture was changed, a cocktail table was turned over, and a floor lamp lay broken on the floor.

         "Don't anybody touch anything!" Nick yelled. "I'll call the police."

         We sat outside on the front steps and watched the hazy moon over the ocean until the police arrived.

         The police asked us if we were missing any of our personal belongings. I said we were away and all our valuables were with us. What was inside the house seemed to be there except a few things had changed their places.

         "Sometimes, drifters pass by here. When they see an empty house they take advantage of it. Since it is summer, most of the vacation houses are empty. We'll ask around if anyone saw anything," the policeman said.

         "Do you want us to move to the Holiday Inn?" Nick asked me after the police was gone.

         "No way. Nothing's missing. They didn't take anything. We'll never have this much room in a hotel," I answered him, while doubting if it were really the drifters who had broken into the house.


         "Don't open it yet. Wait until we're inside the car," I told Al who was yanking open the envelope with the photos.

         "At least, don't drop the negatives," Nick said, attempting to stop Al's impatient attack at the newly developed photos, but it was too late.

         Half of the prints were spilled on the floor inside the Fotomat. Two people stepped aside while we scampered to pick them up.

         "Well, I'll be...What a nice picture? Where did you get that?" An elderly woman held Al's arm as she looked at the photo through the bottom half of her bifocals.

         "Lucy...Look at that! Give it to me a sec, little boy, okay?"

         "Could that be? Where did you take this photo?" Another man had drawn closer to look at it.

         The girl from behind the counter, who I assumed to be Lucy, leaned over to look. "Yes, it seems to be it."

         "I took it," Al boasted. "In Key West."

         The photo was slanted and slightly fuzzy but it showed the entire painting of Dancing Dolphins, frame and all.

         "Do you know what you did, Young Man? You may have found what we lost here. You may well be our hero."

         "They scolded me for taking it, but Mom said my camera was just a toy."

         "So you think this is the stolen painting?" I asked Lucy.

         "It sure looks like it. Do you mind telling us where this was?"

         For the life of me I couldn't remember the name of the gallery but George did.

         "Treasure Island," he said. "I know, because of my favorite pirate book."

         "Right across the street from the Hemingway House, there's a side street. It is either the second or the third building on the right hand side," Nick gave directions.

         "An Italian painter, Francesco Bernardi, lived here when there were hardly a hundred people living in Paradise Beach. This was in the late forties. Not even a town was here at that time, just a few homes scattered here and there, among the brush. We had to drive up north for an hour to go to a grocery store. I was a little girl then," The old woman said. "Later Francesco became famous and returned to Europe. When he heard the opening of our museum, he sent us that painting as a gift. All the papers wrote about it. We were so honored. Several years ago someone broke into the museum and stole a few paintings and some Seminole artifacts but the loss of this painting hurt us the most. They say a mad fisherman did it. I don't know really. No one knows for sure if he was the one. Now, we'll find out about it, won't we?"

         We let Lucy keep the negative. She promised Al extra prints and didn't charge us for anything.

         Later in the day, a police detective arrived to ask us again what we had seen. Two days later our sons' photos were in the local paper. The police had gotten a court order and had the painting confiscated. An investigation was under way.

         One evening, the local police chief came to see us.

         "Around the time when your place was broken into, people saw a navy van on the old road in the back, which is rarely used, since US 1 was built. Did you happen to see a van or anything suspicious around here?" he asked.

         "No," Nick shook his head, "That's not even important anymore, but I hope you find the art thieves."

         "We've gotten the FBI involved now, thanks to your little boy. They'll have to work backwards from the gallery owner. God knows to whom this will lead us."

         The police chief had talked with Tom on the phone after the photo incident. "Tom is my friend and from the beginning I had enough proof that he didn't commit the theft," he said. "I know who could have stolen the artifacts, but I didn't have any evidence. The thief or thieves spread rumors about Tom, on purpose. They knew at the time Tom was in no condition to defend himself. Nobody believed it when we declared him innocent. People like to believe what they want to believe. Then Tom left, and I kept my mouth shut, because I didn't want anyone to go after Tom to mess his head up even more. After that, rumors kept running wild about his place being haunted. How could that be when Tom was still alive?"

         "Who do you think did it?" I asked.

         "The museum director and whoever else he's connected with. He came here from the Cayman Islands with an art degree and some references, claiming to be an expert in Seminole and Aztec crafts. He was accepted since not many people were willing to work in Florida then."

         "Could you recover any of the stolen material?"

         "No, and I don't think we can. The small articles are easy to take out of town. The only thing is, there were two wall-sized abstracts. They couldn't have taken them out immediately. Maybe they did in the subsequent years but not then. For all I know, they could still be hiding somewhere close by, even in this town."

         "What happened to the museum director?"

         "Nothing. He was at home entertaining a party of people at the time of the theft. But he could have left and come back without anyone noticing. We didn't have any real evidence, so we couldn't accuse him. A few months later, he resigned and left. No one saw him again."


         Two days later, we went to CafĂ© del Mar once more. We were led to their best table and given extra attention. At the end of the dinner, they brought us a little "thank you" cake. Without meaning to we had become local celebrities.

         "I don't want to go back to Chicago," Al, who was enjoying all the attention, said. "Let's settle here."

         "All my friends are in Chicago," George objected. "Paradise Beach is good for vacations. Mom can we go stay in Key Largo next year?"

         There were very few lights around when we returned. The night was cloudy and dark. Nick kept the flashlight on while we went up the steps. As soon as I flicked the light switch on, I heard George who had walked in ahead of us shriek with fear.

         "Don't anyone move."

         A short pug-nosed man had grabbed George and was holding a gun to his head. Two other men, a tall red-head with freckles and a slightly shorter stocky man with dark hair, faced us. These two had their guns directed at us. All the men were wearing blue jeans and pocketed t-shirts.

         "Put your arms over your head."

         I put my purse on the small table right by the entrance and slowly raised my hands.

         "You, with the little boy, move inside this way." He was addressing Nick.

         I saw Nick hold on to Al with one hand and slowly move to the middle of the room.

         "Please let the boy go," I begged.

         The man holding George pushed him forward. George ran behind my back. I thought he did that out of sheer fright but I felt him moving. I moved with him slightly to cover him. George suddenly ran out of the door that was left ajar. One of the men ran after him.

         "You come back here, Kid, or all your family will be gone and it will be your fault," I heard him yell outside.

         I heard a shot. I started to cry. After a minute or two, the man came back.

         "I can't find the brat," he said.

         Another man grabbed Al. Then, he looked at Nick.

         "You go get your kid back in here," he said. "If you don't come back within five minutes, this one's a goner." He turned to the other man. "Get her."

         The man pulled me to the middle of the room holding the gun to my head. Nick left without saying a word. After he left, they pushed me to the couch and let Al come sit next to me. I put my arm around him. He was shivering.

         I watched the short pug-nosed man pull a ring on the side of a wall lamp on a free standing wall meant as a partition between the kitchen and the living area. Funny, I hadn't paid any attention to that ring before. It seemed as if it were an appendage to the lamp. When the man pulled the ring, the wall panel moved.

         I looked toward the door. If I could only find a way to send Al out...but one of the men was holding his gun on us. The other two were busy with the wall.

         I saw one man pull up the flange from the bottom of the paneling. The wall moved. It had to be on sliders, I thought. They pushed the wall panel all the way out. Inside the opening there were several huge rectangular panels wrapped in sackcloth. The paintings, I thought. They took them out carefully one by one. I was expecting only two but they had several of those stashed in there.

         I recalled Nick wondering why they had built such a thick inside wall when we had first moved into the cottage. We had guessed that they had done that to hold the roof up in case of a hurricane.

         Soon, Nick came back with George. The red headed man left what he was doing and walked over to George. Suddenly he slapped him. George reeled, took a few unintended steps, but stood up erect. The side of his face looked crimson but he was looking at the man with piercing eyes.

         "You obey orders," the man thundered. "You two go sit on the couch with the mother."

         "He was just scared. He was hiding behind a boat," Nick said. Inside me, I was angry with Nick for trying to appease them. Why did Nick and George come back? What if they got rid of all of us now?

         The man walked back and opened the sack cloth. Then, he tore the paper covering the painting slightly and peered through the opening.

         "All intact," he said. "No mildew."

         There was a knock on the back door. Nick straightened up, nervous. I saw him and George looking at each other. Something got exchanged in their stare. I couldn't fathom what.

         The dark-haired man opened the back door. The priest walked in. Unbelieving my eyes, I stiffened, but he didn't even look at our way.

         "Hurry," he ordered the other men. "Someone has caught on to the operation. They sent the boat a day early. We have to move the merchandise fast."

         Then, he opened up the lid of his bible. A box in the shape of a bible, who'd have known? He took a key out of it and handed it over to the pug-nose.

         "Go into the side closet and bring all out," he said. "No time to lose."

         I remembered the locked closet door beneath the fuse box in the laundry room. That had to be it. There was a sign on it that said, "Don't touch! Live wire inside."

         Pug-nose went to the laundry room.

         The red-head pointed toward us. "What do we do with them?"

         "That's why I came with the small van after you. We'll send them off to their final destination with it," he grinned.

         "Don't be too sure," George blurted. I saw Nick elbow him. What had gotten into George? Where did his sudden bravado come from?

         "Shut your kid up," the dark-haired one ordered.

         "Hush, George," I said meekly.

         There was the sound of something falling outside.

         "What's that?" the priest asked. "Jay, go look."

         "It's the cat," Nick said. "Please don't kill it. Just a stray that comes around here."

         I didn't know of any cat. Were Nick and the boys trying to adopt a stray? Why would they hide it from me? They knew I loved cats. Or was it something else? I looked at Nick questioningly.

         "Don't worry," he whispered, sure of himself.

         Pug-nose had come back carrying some objects wrapped in brown paper. "There is more," he said. "We need a bag."

         "Give me your gun," the priest ordered him. "Go into the bedroom. Get their bag."

         Pug-nose came back with our Samsonite. They placed the small objects in it. Then Pug-nose went back into the laundry room to get the rest of the stuff. They shut the bag and put it aside.

         The priest held the gun on us. "All three of you carry the stuff into the big van. Be careful with the large packages. Don't damage anything but hurry up! We have to make it to Miami by five A.M."

         After they had all the big packages out, the three men came back in.

         "Why did you all come back?" the priest scolded them. "One of you should have stayed."

         "It is okay, Boss. No one's out there," Red-head said.

         "Okay, you come with me," the priest said. "We'll take it to the docks. Jay, you two take care of the family and send them on their way. I don't want mess."

         "Shouldn't we use their own car, Boss?"

         "No, the van's wired better. You two go start both engines."

         I felt the blood freeze in my veins. Al started sobbing. George whispered something to his ear. He seemed to calm down.

         Pug-nose and the dark haired man went out. We were left with the red-head and the priest.

         "You all get up. We are going on a trip," the priest said.

         They had us walk to the back door. I guessed that they had parked the vehicles on the side road behind the dunes.

         Just before we stepped out, we heard gunshots.

"          What the heck?" The priest pushed us back into the house. "Go look, be careful," he ordered the red-head as he grabbed me and put the gun to my head. "The rest of you go stand against the wall. You do anything funny, she gets it."

         Nick pulled the boys with him to the wall. The priest was standing in the middle of the room holding the gun to my head. The red-head didn't come back. I saw the boys' faces suddenly light up.

         Few seconds passed. I felt that the gun wasn't as tight to my brow. I turned my head slightly to the side. From the corner of my eye I saw the heads of three police men crouching behind the couch. An old movie I had seen suddenly flashed inside my head.

         "I feel faint," I said as I let myself fall like a limp rag. The next second the three policemen were on top of the priest.


         The entire beach was bustling with policemen, headlights, and flashlights.

         "We owe it all to your son George's quick thinking," the police chief said. "He grabbed your purse as he ran out the door because he knew you had the cell phone in it. Then he hid and called us. Before we could answer him back, we heard the other man's voice and the gunshot. A few minutes later, he came back on the phone. Afterwards, your husband took the phone and informed us about what was going on. We felt there was a lot at stake. So we got extra help and came over."

         "They said they had two vans. Did you get them both? Be careful with the small one. They talked about it being wired," Nick warned him.

         "Don't worry, we'll take care of everything from now on," the police chief said. "It wasn't just what they stole from our museum. It was a much bigger operation. They used this house and possibly some other less used residences to temporarily store their loot until they shipped them away."

         "That's why they started a rumor about this cottage being haunted," George exclaimed.

         "Exactly. Up until you came, very few people rented it, and no one stayed more than a week or two."

         "When we came here for a month and a half, we messed up their business," I said.

         "Probably. Still they would have waited you out. Except, because of the photo your younger son took, the FBI started an investigation. They must have panicked as the result of it. They probably wanted to get the merchandise out of the country as soon as possible."

         "Do you think what was in this cottage belonged to the museum here?"

         "I can't tell. Knowing what we know now, probably what we got here is from other heists. They probably moved our things around much earlier. According to FBI, it is a big operation having ties to the Colombian Mafia."

         "I hope you get them all."

         "We will, sooner or later. Your two sons were a big help. At least now, the door's open a crack into their business."

         "Well, Colleen, now do you want to move to the Holiday Inn?" Nick asked.

         "I have a better idea," I said. "Let's go spend our last week in Key Largo."

         George and Al exclaimed in unison, "At the Dolphin World with Thomas Serpa."

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