Gunfire and madness cut across night. The camp site fell into anarchy: tents, chairs and people were thrown everywhere as chaos wrapped around them all. Bullets sprayed through the air; a metallic rain of death. In the darkness, somebody screamed as they died.
John Boothe dove to the ground, wished he had his gun. He was holding a metal dinner plate in one hand and a fork in the other. His rehydrated potatoes were strewn out in front of him—dinner was lost. His rifle was resting against his chair where he had left it, back by the fire. Twenty feet away.
Somebody was shouting—Boothe didn’t know who. It didn’t matter: he needed his gun. He rolled around in the dirt, started crawling back towards his chair.
More shouting—a voice he recognised. Lance Hancock. His friend.
“They’re in the bushes!” Hancock screamed. Yes, Boothe thought. They are.
The bushes—really, the jungle. They were deep in the Amazon, days from civilisation, with only the barest of dirt tracks to guide them; the only sign of humanity that had ever cut into this alien wilderness.
For somebody to find them like this, they must have been waiting. Boothe had stumbled into a trap. He should have known better. The stakes were too high to allow even a moment’s foolishness to unravel everything.
But he had his gun now. He grabbed his rifle, didn’t need to check that it was loaded—it always was. He scanned the bushes for movement. There! Boothe fired, saw arms and legs fly out in all directions, and one of the barking guns was silenced. Boothe felt no joy in the kill. He would prefer if nobody had to die.
“We need to circle around them. Cut them off,” Hancock said from his side. Boothe hadn’t noticed the older man approach, but what he said made sense. Boothe turned to look at the rest of his team: Johnny was dead, and Edrick was wounded. That left one other: Rick Carter. A cop, but Boothe didn’t hold that against him. Carter’s eyes were hard and firm. He had two pistols in his hands. He was sitting against a tree, at the other end of the camp. Too far away to hear Hancock and Boothe talk, but the man was smart enough to know the score. In the darkness, Carter nodded as he caught Boothe’s eye.
“Okay,” Boothe said. He looked over at Hancock. He was unarmed. “I’ll rush them from the other side. Carter can pin them down.”
“What will I do?” Hancock demanded, and Boothe saw he looked slightly hurt. Boothe just smiled: “try not to get shot!” He laughed, then he darted away from the camp-fire, disappeared into the bushes.
He was plunged into darkness. The trees and wet jungle leaves closed around him. Boothe pressed through it all, headed towards the gunfire that was erupting in front of him. He was close.
More gunfire: Carter, providing covering fire. Hancock was screaming, too. Boothe smiled in the darkness—Hancock, the old sea captain, sounded just like Boothe’s old aunt that time he had been caught stealing apple pie as a boy.
Boothe held his rifle at the ready, his finger on the trigger. He advanced through the jungle. Ready to kill.
More screaming—Carter, now. Boothe stopped, confused. Carter was screaming for him.
A feeling of unease settled over Boothe’s heart. He frowned inwardly, then advanced towards Carter’s voice. The gunfire had stopped. There was an eerie silence, punctuated by Carter’s cries.
Boothe walked back into the camp. Chairs and tents were destroyed. He saw that Edrick was no longer wounded: he was dead. Carter was standing in a panic. He saw Boothe emerge from the jungle, but didn’t smile. There was fear in his eyes. Boothe looked around.
“Where’s Hancock?” He asked.
“They took him,” Carter said. “Just then. They came and took him. There was nothing I could do—I couldn’t save him.”
“Damn,” was the only word Booth could think to say.
Rough, dirty hands grabbed onto Hancock as he was dragged through the jungle. He bit down, hard, but the hands held on. He was powerless to do anything more than struggle.
He looked around and behind him, but couldn’t make out anything about his captors except the shape of their heads. Hancock couldn’t even determine how many people were holding him; at least two, but possibly more. They did not speak, or even look at him. He was nothing but cargo.
They marched relentlessly though the jungle; it was several hours before they came to their destination. Hancock struggled the entire way, and by the end of the journey he was exhausted and on the verge of collapse. The site of the new camp brought him back to his senses, but it was a struggle to stay alert.
There was no fire, but several electric lights had been set up around the perimeter. The area had been cleared of shrubs and undergrowth, and the dirty jungle floor had been turned to mud from a dozen pairs of feet. Olive green tents had been set up in a circle, just inside the circle of light. Hancock was taken to one of the tents and thrown inside.
“Who the hell are you?” A grey-haired man demanded.
“I could ask you the same question,” Hancock shot back. The grey-haired man was sitting behind a desk, writing into a journal. Physically, he looked similar to Hancock: tall, so lean as to be almost wiry, and with skin that looked younger than his years. It was his eyes, though, that differed. Tired eyes.
“I’m Lance Hancock,” Hancock said, eventually. “Since you had me kidnapped, I suspect you know who I am.”
“Hancock… Hancock… Damn! Those fools grabbed the wrong one!”
“Then you were after Boothe,” Hancock said. It wasn’t a question, or even a surprise: people wanted Boothe all the time. “I apologise for disappointing you.”
The other man laughed, and some of the tightness disappeared from behind his eyes.
“I suppose you know who I am? No? Boothe was always one to keep his cards close to his chest. Marcus Wright, at your service.”
“I would say it is a pleasure to meet you, but clearly it isn’t. What are you going to do to me? You killed two of my friends—well, your men did—I suppose you are going to kill me, too. You might as well get it over with. No point wasting time.”
“People were killed?” Wright asked, and the colour drained from his face. “They weren’t supposed to… I’m sorry, Mister Hancock. People were not supposed to get hurt.”
“And yet you have enough guns to arm an army. What did you think was going to happen? We’d all play soccer together? Not bloody likely.”
“No, I suppose not,” Wright allowed. The man steepled his fingers in front of him and looked Hancock over with an appraising eye. “Obviously, I can’t just let you go. You were trying to stop me, so I have to take steps to ensure you don’t succeed. With you here, maybe the scales have tipped in my favour. Boothe won’t try anything stupid with you as my prisoner. No, I think we will just have to grow accustomed to each other—at least for the time being.”
“Great,” Hancock said, sourly. “Would you at least do me the kindness of allowing me somewhere to sit.”
Wright was about to reply when there was a commotion outside. People were yelling excitedly. A gruff, angry voice barked over all the others. Wright smiled, but his eyes betrayed a slight terror within.
“He’s here,” Wright said. “Come with me.”
Before Hancock could respond, Wright had jumped around the desk and grabbed the captain by the arm. Hancock was dragged outside, where a Latino man was standing, surrounded by a dozen men with angry dispositions and armed with heavy submachine-guns.
The Latino pointed at Hancock. The submachine-guns pointed at Hancock, too.
“Who’s this?” the man demanded.
“A prisoner,” Wright said. “I didn’t have any handcuffs. I didn’t want to let him out of my sight.”
“We should kill him,” the man said. Hancock tensed as the guns were raised to firing position. Wright stepped in front of Hancock, waved his arms downward.
“Not yet,” Wright said. “There is no need.”
The Latino lit a cigar and took a deep puff. Blue smoke drifted around his face. There was a moment of silence, and Hancock could see the dark-skinned man weighing his options. His men traded looks between each other. Nervous. After a few seconds, the man shrugged.
“He lives. For now—but if there is any trouble, you’ll die Wright.”
“There won’t be any trouble,” Wright said, and Hancock saw that the man was shaking. Hancock stayed silent; it seemed the prudent course of action.
Hancock knew his this Latino was, of course: Sebastian Piez, gun-runner. A man of violence, vice and fine-art.
“Have you got the sceptre?” Piez demanded.
“Have you got the money?”
“The sceptre first, then the money,” Piez said through another cloud of blue smoke. Hancock looked at the submachine-guns and the men holding them and wondered if they were all about to die as soon as the sceptre appeared. Piez did not look like a man that would pay for something he could get for free.
But he didn’t fire, and Wright nodded weakly.
“I’ll get it,” he said, then walked back to his tent. Hancock stood where he was, and suddenly felt very alone. Sebastian Piez just smiled. Hancock didn’t smile back.
Wright returned with a metal crate. He laid it on the ground carefully, in front of Piez.
“There it is,” Wright said. “The Sceptre of Christ.”
Piez took another drag of his cigar, then started laughing… And only then did people start shooting.
Boothe wiped blood from his face. He looked down at the body of Edrick. The dead man stared back with unseeing eyes. Rick Carter stood next to him.
“Do you think he’s still alive?” He was talking about Hancock.
“He has to be,” Boothe said. He looked around, took in the destroyed camp. He shook his head in despair. “This was a planned attack. They knew we were coming for them. I don’t know how, but they knew.”
“The Sceptre of Christ is a valuable item,” Carter said. “People will kill for it—and have done for years.”
“Yes,” Boothe agreed sadly. “The heart of the King…”
“I’m sorry?” Carter frowned, gave Boothe an odd look. Boothe just shook his head.
“It doesn’t matter. We have to go after Hancock. Those fools left a trail a mile wide—we can follow it easily. It will take us right back to their camp.”
“What about Johnny and Edrick?” Carter pointed to the bodies of their two friends.
“We’ll come back for them,” Boothe promised. “Right now, it’s the living I care about. Where are the rifles?”
Carter nodded silently, then picked up two rifles and a handful of ammunition. He gave one of the rifles to Boothe, kept the other for himself. Boothe grabbed a canteen of water and tied it to his waist, then they set off into the night.
The jungle was hot, Oppressive and wet. It wasn’t long before the two men were sweating, but they pressed through the heat without complaint. As Boothe had thought, the track that Hancock’s kidnappers had made was easy to follow, even in the dark. Boothe began to think they were walking into a trap, but quickly dismissed the idea. The people he was up against were arrogant, violent people. They would not expect any reprisals: they were used to dealing with frightened villagers and corrupt politicians. Boothe and Carter were neither.
They stopped after an hour. Boothe drank from his canteen, handed it to Carter.
“What were you saying before,” Carter said when he handed the canteen back. “About the heart of the King?”
“I was just thinking about the sceptre,” Boothe said. “It’s had a bloody history. It started back in the crusades. People have always fought and killed for the damn thing. I wonder if they always will.”
“The crusades?” Carter laughed bitterly. “I’m after a gun-runner, not the Holy Land.”
“And I want the sceptre. But history has a way of repeating itself: King Richard the Lion-heart managed to steal the sceptre from Jerusalem, way back in eleven-eighty-seven. He never managed to retake the city, of course, but the Sceptre of Christ… Almost as prized as the city itself.”
“And now it is in the Amazon jungle.”
“Yes. I wonder how Wright managed to get his hands on it? It has been lost for centuries.”
“It could be a forgery.”
“Good men don’t die when forgeries are at play,” Boothe said, darkly. “No, I think we are dealing with the real thing.”
“So how did the sceptre get lost?”
“Well, I’m sure you know that King Richard was killed by a peasant—a child, no less. The boy was forgiven by Richard on his death bed, but as if that meant anything in those days? The boy was murdered by the guards, just after the King died.”
“So people don’t like it when boys are murdered by a conquering king,” Boothe said. “The sceptre was to be sent to Pope Celestine, along with the king’s heart. On the way, the boy’s family intercepted the convoy. There was slaughter all around. The sceptre disappeared—as did the heart of the king. They have both been lost ever since.”
“Which is all very interesting,” Carter said, “but it’s hot and wet and I’m sick of this damn jungle. Can we press on? Let’s get this over with.”
Boothe just smiled, and they kept marching through the jungle.
Gunfire exploded all around the camp site. It took Hancock a moment to realise that it was Wright’s men shooting, and not Piez’s.
Wright stumbled backwards and fell over Hancock. The two men fell to the ground.
“Stop shooting!” Wright screamed. “Stop shooting!”
By then, it was too late- Piez and his men were firing back. People screamed and died all around the camp site. Hancock kept low to the ground, made sure he wasn’t a target. He felt bullets whiz past his head. Wright lifted himself up and stared at Piez.
“Get down!” Hancock urged, but Wright ignored him.
“The sceptre!” Wright cried. He jumped up, started running through the camp. Hancock called after him, but Wright wasn’t listening.
Hancock saw what was happening, of course—Piez had grabbed the metal case and was fleeing the scene, blasting away with his submachine-gun as he went. He hadn’t seen Wright chasing after him, but Wright was too slow: Piez disappeared into the jungle, with Wright a few seconds after him.
They left a camp in chaos. Hancock looked over the two groups of men. There were only a few left alive, the rest were dead.
A gun was lying some feet away.
Wright crawled across the muddy camp until he reached the rifle. He snatched it up, aimed at the nearest of Piez’s goons.
“Put your hands up!” Hancock demanded. The goon spun around, saw Hancock and his rifle aimed at him. The man reacted the only way he knew how: he tried to shoot Hancock. Hancock was faster—the other man died. Hancock cursed. People didn’t need to die. What a waste.
More gunfire: this time coming from the edge of the camp site. Hancock turned and saw Boothe and Carter firing at the other men. Hancock cried out for them to stop, but his voice was drowned out by the screams of violence all around him.
The gun battle was short and ferocious. When it was over, Boothe and Carter remained standing. The others did not. Hancock stood, dusted himself off. He looked at Boothe, and there was sadness in the captain’s eyes.
“These men didn’t have to die,” he said.
“They were killers, kidnappers and worse,” Boothe answered. “They never showed any mercy. Why should we?”
“Because we’re better than they were,” Hancock said. “We’re not killers. At least: we weren’t.”
There was another gun shot. Carter’s head jerked towards the sound. The gun shot was faint, in the distance. Wright and Piez, they knew.
“We can argue about morals later,” Carter said. “We haven’t finished yet.”
Hancock and Boothe raced down the path Piez and Wright had taken. Carter hurried behind the two men, but he struggled to keep up. The path wound itself around a small hill that quickly dropped off and became a cliff face. Before long, they were running above the tree tops as the jungle stretched out far below them, partially hidden by an endless mist.
They found Wright and Piez near the highest point of the cliff. They were locked in a vicious struggle for the Sceptre of Christ. Wright had both hands on the large staff; Piez had one hand on the staff, and another was trying to draw the pistol that was holstered at his hip. Neither of the men noticed as Hancock and Boothe approached.
“Hands up!” Hancock ordered. Wright jumped with a start and lost his grip on the sceptre. He fell backwards, landed in the dirt. Piez grinned. He drew his pistol, aimed it at Wright.
“I said: hands up!”
Piez ignored the command. Hancock fired.
Piez staggered backwards, towards the waiting embrace of the cliff.
“Grab him!” Boothe cried, but they moved too slow. The ground under Piez’s foot gave way and the Latino tumbled over the edge. He screamed as he fell. The sceptre disappeared with him.
“The sceptre!” Wright moaned. “The sceptre!”
Boothe ran forward, looked over the cliff’s edge. He could see nothing below him. He shook his head sadly.
“It’s gone,” he said.
There wasn’t anything else to say.