The surface of the lake was calm and serene, except for the struggling fish that danced on the surface. Boothe pulled on his line and grit his teeth. The fish was big and his rod was small: he would be lucky if his rod didn’t break in the fight.
But the rod and line held and, with a satisfied grunt, Boothe lifted the fish out of the water and onto the bank. He hurried forward with his knife and cut out the barbed hook. The fish was still alive, and it was a beautiful specimen. Boothe wondered how old it was—older than most.
Boothe sighed, then gently lowered the fish back into the water. It gave a kick of its tail and disappeared. Boothe watched as it swam away, and then it was gone and he was alone once more.
Well… Not quite.
“You’ve been watching a long time,” Boothe said. He didn’t turn around.
“I wanted to see how you went,” a man said from behind him. “I didn’t want to ruin your concentration.”
Boothe turned around and took in the stranger: an old man with hard lines around his face and a frame that betrayed a hard life. Boothe thought he looked familiar.
“I know you,” he said.
“Yes,” the man replied. “My name is Howard Brown.”
“Brown… Brown…” Boothe frowned as he tried to place the face. “It must have been… ten years ago? You’ve aged.”
“Prison will do that to a man,” Brown said.
“Yes,” Boothe agreed. Silence, then: “are you here to kill me?”
“No,” Brown shook his head. “I need your help.”
“Me? I would have thought I’d be the last person on your list.”
“Trust me: you are,” Brown said, and it was the finality in his voice that made Boothe worried.
“You better come inside,” Boothe said, “and tell me everything.”
Boothe’s hut was small and mostly spartan. A wood fire burned in the corner, and a kettle sat above it.
“Coffee?” Boothe asked when he and Brown entered.
“No,” Brown said and started to fidget. He looked around the hut, took in the single bed and the small kitchen and tried to keep a level face. Boothe saw his expression and smiled.
“I’ve seen how the other half lives,” he explained, “and I don’t like it. So… You need my help. Why? Last time I saw you, you were being sentenced to five years jail. Smuggling and tax-evasion: rhino horn, I believe it was. You were selling it to the Chinese based in the US. Making millions.”
“Yes,” Brown said and tried not to grimace. “Making millions… But that was a long time ago, and it wasn’t just rhino horns that needed smuggling. There were other things. I’m sure you don’t need a list. I’m not doing that anymore, but a man leaves a legacy no matter what he does in life, and my legacy happened completely by accident. I want to protect it, if I can. Do something for mankind… But that does not look likely any more.”
“What legacy could you possibly be leaving?” Boothe wondered out loud.
“Plenty!” Brown growled. “Incan treasure! The likes of which you’ve never seen.”
“Incan treasure?” Boothe was dubious. “How did you get your hands on anything of value?”
“A statue of Viracocha—I trust I don’t need to tell you who that is?”
“An Incan God—hell, the Incan God. The Creator.”
“Yeah, that’s right—and I have a ten foot statue of him, made from gold. The artwork… You wouldn’t believe the detail!”
“You’re right: I wouldn’t,” Boothe said. “You don’t have any treasure. You’re a smuggler and a conman. I don’t know what you’re playing at, but I don’t need to listen. I suggest you leave, Mister Brown. I have a busy day ahead of me.”
“Please!” Brown cried, and he shouted with such emotion that Boothe settled down. “You have to believe me. Like I said: who else can I turn to? My story’s true, and the statue exists. But it’s in danger of being stolen… Ironic from a smuggler, I know, but that’s the truth. Will you help me?”
“You haven’t told me anything yet,” Boothe shrugged. “Why do you need me at all? Why don’t you just give it to a museum, or the government?”
“Because I don’t have it,” Brown said. “I hid it for safe keeping. I drew a map… That map was stolen.”
“So you don’t know where the statue even is anymore?” Boothe stood to usher Brown outside. Brown didn’t move.
“I know the island. I remember the details. I have a good memory: I can describe it to you. Do you know Lake Witchecca? It’s North.”
“Yeah, I know it. A lot of bears there—they come for the salmon.”
“Right. There are a group of islands on the far end of the lake. Not where the resorts are, but further out, before it joins the hydro network.”
“There are three islands, if I remember correctly.”
“Yes. The statue is buried on Boulder Island.”
“I don’t know that one.”
“You can’t miss it,” Brown said. “It has a big boulder at the top of a mountain.”
“Don’t tell me you buried the damn thing under the boulder,” Boothe scoffed. Brown didn’t smile.
“No. There’s a stream that winds down from the mountain. There’s a cave network about half-way up, still hidden by the trees. Find the biggest cave—you can’t miss that, either. The other caves are tiny.”
“And the statue is in the cave?”
“Yeah,” Brown nodded. “In a wheelbarrow. It is covered in a blanket and some plastic to keep out the damp.”
“So let’s say I believe you, and that I’m tempted to go… why haven’t you gone and grabbed it?”
“Look at me,” Brown spread his arms in dismay. “I’m am old man. The only adventure I have these days is trying to get to the toilet on time. Now, I admit, I haven’t been an honest citizen in the past, and more than once I thought about selling the statue on the black market, and that’s why I’ve come to you. The last man I told the treasure about stole my map the first chance he got. That’s another reason why I came here. You might be a bastard, but you’re an honest bastard. I have to face reality: I’ll never make any money from the damn thing. I might as well give it to the world.” Boothe laughed heartily.
“So what you’re telling me is, you tried to convince someone to get the statue for you, he shafted you, and now you’ve come to me for revenge. Is that it?”
“Yeah,” Brown growled. “That’s about it. And if that bastard Perch gets the statue first, I swear I’ll kill him. I don’t know how, but I’ll kill him!”
“Perch?” Boothe said, suddenly interested. “Jack Perch?”
“You know him?” Brown didn’t believe it.
“No, not exactly… Boulder Island, halfway up the mountain, follow the stream to the biggest cave?” Boothe stood and grabbed his coat.
“Yeah, that’s right… Where are you going?”
“To get your statue,” Boothe said as he marched to the door. “See yourself out.” And then he was gone.
Jack Perch… Boothe cursed at the man’s name. He didn’t give a damn about the Incan statue—but Perch… Perch was a catch too good to pass up. Boothe wasn’t a fool: he knew that Brown could have dangled Perch as bait, just as Boothe would bait a fish, but Boothe didn’t think so. For one, Brown wasn’t smart enough. He was a conman, and a bad one. He had only gotten away with as much as he had because he had been lucky. When Boothe had caught him, he was trying to sell Indian treasures out of the back of his Ford at a craft market. He was hardly a devious criminal. No, Boothe believed the Perch connection was real—and unlike Brown, Perch was a devious criminal. A man that wouldn’t hesitate to kill, if given the chance—and he had been given the chance at least three times previously, if the reports were accurate.
And yet, that wasn’t the reason Boothe was racing towards Boulder Island. His friend Lance Hancock was in danger and he didn’t even know it.
It was strange, Boothe reflected, how life had a way of tying loose ends together. It was the revelation of Perch’s involvement that made all the difference. Hancock had run off on a fool’s errand two weeks previously—at least, it had looked foolish at the time. Boothe hadn’t believed it: a cache of gold hidden up North, on an island in a lake. Someone was trying to organise an expedition to retrieve it, and Hancock had run off to meet the man without a second thought. Hancock, normally so reserved and cautious… Boothe hadn’t heard from him since. now it turns out that Jack Perch had a map to a treasure hidden on an island lake … The coincidences were too similar, and Boothe felt a pressure on his heart at the thought that his friends was in danger.
Hancock had only been after the gold and the adventure, but a priceless statue… That raised the stakes through the roof. Perch would be armed, and he’d be wary. Hancock would be lucky if he wasn’t shot.
And they had a two week head start! But they had started well behind where Boothe could start from—and neither Hancock nor Perch were expecting trouble. They would be moving slowly, calmly. Methodical.
Boothe raced down the Interstate at speeds that would be considered reckless. He had debated about catching a plane and hiring a car, but Lake Witchecca was only five hundred miles away, and it would be quicker to drive, especially at the speed at which he was driving.
The sun set, low and dark and orange, and still Boothe kept driving. He drove through the night, watched the moon rise and hover above the trees, watched the stars twinkle and flutter, felt the cold rise through the ground and through the floor of his pick-up truck. Still, he kept driving and never slowed. Always racing… Towards the lake.
It was still dark when he first saw the clear, black water. Boothe pulled his pick-up truck to a stop and jumped out of the cab. The wind was cool, but gentle, and it ruffled his hair around his eyes. He ignored it, pulled out a map and a flashlight. There was a service track that followed the lake. It was right… There, just to Boothe’s left. That would take him all the way to Boulder Island, and then he would just have to figure out the rest. With any luck, he would get there by dawn.
Boothe jumped back into his truck and drove down the small dirt road, deeper and deeper into the wilderness.
Behind him, an owl watched him go.
Boulder Island: it hovered in the distance, floated in the middle of the lake. Boothe stared across the water, looking for the best approach. The island was large, but from where Boothe stood it appeared deceptively tiny. The massive rock that was visible on the crest of the central hill made the landmass look smaller than it really was.
There was a beach on the east side; just loose dirt and gravel. Boothe could make out a small wooden dinghy that was resting out of the water. Boothe grunted to himself, then extracted the inflatable dinghy he had brought with him. He had an electric pump in the rear of his truck; it was the work of a few minutes before the dinghy was inflated. Boothe lowered it into the water and rowed across the lake.
It wasn’t until he landed on the beach that he saw there were two dingies. He frowned, felt for his pistol. It was in its holster, where it should be. He knew it was probably nothing, but he couldn’t shake the feeling of unease that washed over him. The pressure on his heart was still there, harder than ever.
Still, Boothe pressed on. He followed the old smuggler’s instructions up the river until he reached the system of caves, exactly as Brown had described. Boothe grumbled to himself at the old man’s foolishness. He hardly needed a map to find the way: the path was well-worn and the cave was the only thing of interest on the whole damn island. It was only because nobody came up here that the statue had remained undisturbed—if, indeed, it did remain undisturbed. For all Boothe knew, some fisherman could have found it years ago and installed it to hold his toilet rolls. But, he was here now and there were two canoes on the island, both different and placed in different places—which meant there were at least two other people on this island, and there could only be two possible people here. Hancock and Perch. Hancock, his friend. Perch… Well, Boothe would see about Perch.
He pulled out his pistol, made sure it was loaded. Slowly, he entered the cave.
Darkness gripped him. Boothe wished he could turn on a flashlight, but that would be suicide. He had to proceed in the gloom, but as he waited he found his eyes adjust and what had been black became merely grey. There was the sound of water running in the distance: an underground stream. There were other sounds… Footsteps, metal on stone, breathing. Human sounds.
Boothe advanced, wiped his hands so his pistol wouldn’t slip. He rounded a corner, and then another. The sounds of mankind grew inevitably louder. Something glowed on the cave wall: a golden reflection of a gargoyle-like face.
The Incan statue. It was here. It was real! Viracocha, the Creator God… The old bastard Brown hadn’t been lying at all. Boothe felt his heart tighten.
Laughter—a giggle. A strange sound to hear deep underground. A smuggler on the verge of madness. Boothe knew that treasure could turn a man’s heart. Boothe had seen it before. If Hancock was here, if he was a prisoner… Boothe moved quick. He positively leapt around the corner.
There was an old hurricane lamp resting on a rock. Its light turned everything to shadow—except the statue. The statue was taller than any man; it dominated the cave with its ugly, carved face. It was staring at a wheelbarrow. There was something wrapped in a tarp lying inside. That something struggled.
There was a man standing in the middle of the cave, bathed in black. He had a gun and was looking at the wheel barrow.
“I don’t see any reason to let you live,” Perch said, and for a moment Boothe thought the madman was talking to him, but of course he was talking to Hancock. To his credit, Hancock didn’t beg. He stopped struggling and lay still. Waited for the bullet.
“Playing dead won’t save you,” Perch said and he raised his arm to fire.
Boothe didn’t have time to cry a warning or to issue a challenge. One heartbeat was all that separated life from death. No time to reason, only to shoot.
The gunshot was deafeningly loud in the cave.
Silence, then: “I’m still alive? Did you miss, Perch?”
“I didn’t,” Boothe said sadly.
“John!” The happiness in Hancock’s voice was unmistakable. “He’s dead?”
“Then hurry up and get me out of here!”
“You don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve had steak,” Brown said. “I’ve never been able to afford it since prison. Never did have that much cash.” He stared a the slab of meat in front of him. It was perfectly charred and dripped juice red and brown. His eyes were as wide as saucers.
“I thought it was the least I could do, considering what you have done for the history of mankind,” Boothe said. In the third seat, Hancock smiled at his old friend.
“So the statue will be placed in a museum?”
“More than one,” Hancock said. “It has become the centre-piece of a global exhibition. Millions will get to see it before it comes home and finds it rightful place. Because of you, the Incan legacy will live on—and its history will survive.”
Brown laughed bitterly. “I only wanted fame and fortune.”
“But you’ve found something better,” Boothe said. “You’ve found redemption.”