The GPS illuminated well before the left hand turn Hope recalled leading to the highway. She glanced from the winding road shaded by pine and peered at the glowing screen.
“What are you up to?”
A spinning circle appeared and she released the wheel long enough to press the neon green go button.
“Rerouting,” said the placid recording.
“What do you mean rerouting?”
The squiggle leading to Granny Edna’s birthday party vanished and a new blue scribble took its place. Beneath Hope’s hand, the steering wheel to her SUV lurched. They blew past the sign for the highway and veered right at the fork.
“What the hell?”
Seizing the steering wheel, Hope pounded on the brakes. The pedal met the floor but the message never reached the wheels. Trees blurred by as they accelerated instead. She tried jerking the wheel left and right, but it stayed locked on the weaving roads taking her to wherever the GPS now had in mind.
Letting the wheel twist, the pedals speed and slow, Hope stabbed the off button on the navigation system. Despite her increasingly frantic punches, and even a switch of the power source, the unit remained bright.
“Turn left in 200 yards,” said the recording, cheerily providing directions the car made on her behalf.
“This is crazy.”
Hope fetched her cell phone from her purse nestled on the passenger seat beside Edna’s bagged gift. Signal, however, appeared nonexistent.
Tossing away the phone, she sought the lock on her door. The tiny plug remained snug in its hole.
The window failed to roll down either.
“What is going on?”
Sunlight pierced the branches and Hope stared out the windshield. Pine trees thinned and the two lanes opened up a moment later. Her car burst from the shade a good ten miles over the suggested speed limit and onto a coastal road hugging the lip of a cliff. Ocean stretched to her right beneath gray skies and before her, water crashed against mammoth rocks, the waves white and frothy.
Staring at the plunge, Hope clutched her seatbelt. The car bolted on, the squeal of tires and ocean pound at each swerve.
“Your destination is on the right.”
Hope grabbed the steering wheel when the car turned, momentum flinging her in her seat as they careened into a lookout point’s parking lot. The guardrail neared like a trip wire and closing her eyes, Hope slammed the brakes.
The car stopped.
Hope’s panting breaths warmed her face, the snug seatbelt tight against her chest, the steering wheel rumbling beneath her grasp. The world, however, appeared on the level and when she peeked out, the GPS’s dot throbbed at the end of the route. With a nervous chuckle, Hope sagged and rubbed the back of her neck while the engine idled.
The guardrail met her front bumper, a gray ocean and sky beyond. A placard with a faded trail map sprouted at the perimeter of stalls but the buzz of static drew her attention to the opposite side of the lot.
A lean man in a black v-neck sweater and pleated slacks approached from a sedan, his features matching the battered rocks behind him. Hope tightened her grip on the wheel and eyed the remote he carried, complete with extendable antenna. He halted in the neighboring stall and Hope jumped when all the locks in her car unbolted at once. She suspected her reaction inspired his smirk as he motioned for her to come out.
“Sure I will.” Hope locked her door.
His smirk faded but she missed its smugness when a grim shade took its place. The stranger looked down. Damp bangs dangled and hid his gaze, one intent on his remote’s screen. He pressed a sequence of buttons and the lock popped back up.
“No you don’t.”
Hope slammed the plug as the stranger strode forward, but this time the bolt wouldn’t budge. Her palm stung with a second and third slap, the fourth cut short when the stranger opened the door. The smell of the sea, the crash of waves against rocks, and a hint of cologne swirled into the car.
“I’m sorry for the inconvenience Miss. But this is rather urgent.” He filled the gap in the door with his wiry frame and a gravely James Bond accent. “You see, you have something I need.”
Hope shrank back. “If you want my purse take it.”
He smiled, a patronizing curve Hope wanted to slap off his face. “I’m not interested in your purse, or you, Miss.” The stranger made a quick inspection, his muddy brown eyes darting over her linen jacket, tapered jeans, and flats with red bows, and seemed satisfied with his conclusion.
Hope waited as he navigated up her torso to her eyes. “Then what do you want?”
He pointed at the passenger seat. “Your gift.”
“What? No, that’s for my granny. It’s her 90th birthday.” Hope set a protective hand upon the bag, making the tissue paper crinkle.
“Miss.” The man’s face grew rocky again, etched by time and the winds off the sea. From behind his back, he retrieved a small pistol and aimed it at her chest. “I don’t mean to be rude but I’m going to have that bag. You can give it to me or I can take it. Which would you prefer?”
Hope licked her lips, her mouth dry and void of a witty retort. The man’s weapon, his poise, his self-assurance left her no doubt he would make good on his claim. But he hadn’t shot, not yet.
She grabbed the bag by the taffeta handles. “Tell me why you want it so bad.”
The stranger winced, a sprinkle of lines showing at the corner of his eyes. “You don’t want to know. Knowing could get you involved and you don’t want to be involved.”
“Well, if you know I have this,” said Hope, drawing the bag into her lap, “doesn’t that mean other people might too? How do I know I’m not in the middle of some weird international conspiracy?”
His slap-worthy smirk returned. “It’s nothing like that.”
“Then what is it like? I’m not about to hand this over without some kind of explanation.” She stiffened, ire lining her voice. “Do you know how much I paid for it?”
“I do actually and I’m afraid I don’t have the cash to compensate you.”
“Then what do I get in return?”
He made something in the gun click. “Your life?”
Hope slouched around the bag. Her voice faltered but she forced her words out anyway. “This is a broach for my grandmother.”
“It’s a piece of a puzzle. One I need. Now.”
She looked at the pistol, then into his hard-lined face. “I need you to put your gun away.”
His mouth thinned into a dissatisfied line Hope approved of heartily. He holstered his pistol and held out his empty hand.
Hope doubled her hold on the bag. “What do you think it is?”
The crashing waves muted his sigh. “If you want, you can watch me take a look. If I find nothing, I’ll even give it back to you.”
Hope searched his eyes, wishing some spark of trust or honesty flickered within them. Falling into the dark pits made her dizzy and she retreated into the peach-hued tissue paper. “What’s your name?”
“You can call me Iain.”
“Okay Iain,” said Hope, mimicking the cockney twist he gave to the name, “we’ll take a look.” Shutting off her ignition, Hope unbuckled her safety belt. She stepped out of the car, pocketed her keys, but kept hold of the bag. “Where do you want it?”
Iain motioned at the front of her car and she set the bag on the cooling hood. Sifting through the tissue paper, she found the velvet box and brought it out. She opened the pale blue lid and plucked the oval broach.
Iain snatched the pin out of her hand.
In silence, he pitched his remote onto the SUV’s hood and fetched a small pouch from the waistband of his slacks. Unrolling the bundle revealed a collection of odd shaped tools, a mix from a dentist’s tray, jeweler’s shop, and excavation site.
Hope gathered the bag before the wind carried it off, crossed her arms in search of warmth against the blustery chill, and inched closer.
Iain held the broach up to a monocle he’d put to his eye, reminding her of the man on the monopoly board. Tilting into the faint sunlight light, he peered at the hinge.
Hope pointed at the other side when he turned the broach around. “It doesn’t open. See? It’s melted. The dealer said it had been in a fire.”
“Not quite.” He ignited a pencil-thin rod and aimed the hot white flame to the sealed edge.
“Hey. You said you were going to look not break it.”
“I’m not breaking it.” Iain shifted, blocking her reach with his shoulder. “I’m going to get it open.”
Curiosity froze her and Hope bit down on her lip.
Silver dripped onto her hood, leaving tiny molten spots, but within seconds, the seam of the broach appeared. Dousing his flame, Iain fetched another tool with a flat tip on one end, a hook on the other. He scraped out the seam, flipped the tool about, and wedged the thin head inside. After a wiggle, a grunt, and another push, and the hinge sprang and the broach opened.
A coil of hair lay inside, a bleach blonde lock bound with a thin purple ribbon. With teasers, Iain laid the loose ends of the ribbon flat. He tilted forward, his lips moving, his murmur pitched low.
“What does it say?”
He waved offhandedly. “It’s numbers. Code. Gibberish.”
Hope bent alongside him. “What does it mean?”
“Answers.” Iain winced and straightened. Giving her the broach, he tucked the blonde curl and ribbon into his pouch, and slipped his tools into their respective slots.
Hope stared at the broach’s white face inlaid against a cornflower backdrop. “What kind of answers?”
“The less you know the better.” Iain cinched his pouch, tucked it away, and retrieved his remote. He used the antenna to tap the broach. “You might not want to keep that.”
Hope ran her thumb across the Victorian profile. “Are people going to come looking for it? People like you?”
Iain cocked his head and shrugged. “They’re not as friendly.”
Hope stared back at the broach. “What should I do with it?”
Iain sauntered to his car, his feet light on the asphalt. “Crush it. Hide it. Throw it into the sea for all I care.”
“You’re a big help. Are you just going to leave me in the middle of nowhere?”
“You’ve got a GPS.” He waved before dropping into the driver’s seat of the slick sedan. White lights glowed as he reversed, and then red lights faded during his exit from the parking lot, the sound of his departure swallowed by the trees.
Hope watched the entrance, waiting for him to come back, to explain, to make some sense of what had happened. A minute passed and logic prodded her with a ticking clock and Edna. Witty, kind, doddering, and utterly innocent Edna.
Hope glanced at the broach, the porcelain cool against her hand except where Iain’s torch had scorched.
“You have got to be kidding me.”
Shaking her head, she walked to the guardrail and flung the piece of jewelry as far as she could. It tumbled end over end, plummeting in a smooth arc to the water and rocks, to be lost in the foam.
Returning to her car, Hope tossed aside the bag and eyed the GPS. The panel gleamed, waiting for input.
“Are you going to play nice?”
The system glowed. With a sigh, Hope requested a new route to Edna’s, one without Bond wannabes and an antique store along the way.