See Chapter One here
Dead Man’s Gift
“I was first mate, I was, old Flint’s first mate, and I’m the on’y one as knows the place.”
-Billy Bones, Treasure Island
Fourteen years later, Perseus Corbett was still a thousand miles from his heart’s desire.
He was standing on a pier in Istanbul, before the gangplank of the steamer Aeneas, bound for New York, on a warm, clear night, and was just wondering whether he had forgotten anything. The visas were alright; perfectly genuine. He’d gotten them blank, but pre-approved from a friend in the American State Department a few years before, following a job in that country which hadn’t quite worked out. He was sure they had shaken off all pursuit, and in any case he doubted the Soviets would follow them all the way to Istanbul for the sake of retrieving their property.
Said property took the very pleasing form of a young lady with shiny, jet-black hair and deep grey eyes, accompanied by her young son. Dressed in the rude garb of a peasant woman and clutching her shawl tight about her head with one white hand, the Countess Nadezhda Vladimirovich looked very little like the great lady she had once been, save for the distinction in her face and carriage, which all her fear and suffering had not yet erased. And though Perseus had assured her again and again that the danger was passed, her eyes nevertheless darted fearfully about and she clutched her son’s hand tight in her own.
“I believe that is all, your highness,” Perseus said at last. “If you have any trouble in New York, asked for Daniel Kirby of the State Department and tell him that I sent you. Can you think of anything else, Martin?”
He turned to his partner. Martin Halritter was a tall, straight-backed man with faded gold hair and a severely lined face that almost never betrayed his emotions.
“I think not,” he said in a voice flavored with the air of Vienna. “I have spoken with one of the crew: Pierre Gustav. He is sympathetic to her highness’s plight and has promised to attend to her during the voyage.”
“Then I think there is nothing more to say,” said Perseus. “Have a wonderful trip, your highness, and best of luck to you.”
“Good monsieurs!” she said in her rich, husky voice. “I can never, never thank you enough! You have saved our lives! Still I cannot believe that you should run such risks, show such gallantry on our behalf, and to ask nothing in return!”
“Oh, think nothing of it,” said Perseus, though inwardly he flinched a little. “No more than what a gentleman ought to do. Particularly these days.”
“And to send us on to America,” she continued. “I almost fear to accept such kindness!”
“Please,” said Perseus. “It is clear enough that Istanbul is no place for you. You had much better go to America, where you can be far away from all of this. You will have a new life ahead of you; a chance to start over.”
He smiled down at little Foma as he said this. The boy had still not spoken a word since they met. But now that the moment of parting had arrived, he stole a furtive look at Perseus before turning away once more. Perhaps once in America, far from the horrors he had been forced to witness, he would begin to heal.
“I shall pray for you every day,” the countess promised.
“That shall be most appreciated,” said Perseus with a bow.
It felt odd to be saying goodbye. The had spent the better part of the past two weeks in company with the Countess and her son and had been through some very stiff times together. Smuggling them out of Soviet Russia had been no easy task, and it had cost most of what Perseus and Martin had been able to save. In such circumstances, twelve days are the equivalent of a lifetime, and the two men had almost come to feel that the countess were family. But they would not be going to America. There was, at present, nothing there for them.
The whistle of the steamer blew to signal it was time for all to be aboard. The countess kissed Martin and then went to do the same to Perseus. But when she approached him, he held up a gently declining hand and settled for a simple embrace. Then they bid farewell to little Foma, and with a final, grateful smile the countess picked up her small bundle of baggage and ascended the gangplank.
“So ends our attempt to retrieve the jewels of Russia,” Perseus sighed.
“I should say we succeeded quite admirably,” said Martin.
“Oh, I agree,” Perseus replied. “Don’t regret it for a moment. Rather have that lovely creature and that sweet little boy in the world than all the jewels the Tsars ever had in my pocket. I’m only noting that it seems a bit of a pattern with us, what?”
He fingered the Charles I medal that lay concealed under his clothing. In the years since he left England, Perseus had grown considerably. He was tall and broad of shoulder, tanned from long days under tropical suns, and muscular from constant exertion. He carried himself much differently than he had as well. Long, careful study and practice had given decision and grace to his movements and eloquence to his manners, belying his shabby clothes. His brown hair had faded a little from his time in the sun, and there was a new thoughtfulness and cunning in his dark eyes.
The two men sat down upon a set of crates. Perseus produced a battered cigarette case and they smoked in silence while they watched the Aeneas get underway. The countess, a small, dark figure on the stern, waved to them, and they waved back. Little Foma, they were pleased to see, waved alongside his mother.
“It occurs to me,” said Perseus after the ship had begun its trip down the Bosporus. “That the problem with becoming a gentleman is that gentlemanlike behavior is not at all conducive to making sufficient wealth for a gentleman’s lifestyle.”
“Indeed,” said Martin. “That is why most try to be born into wealth.”
“Bit late in the day for that,” Perseus said morosely, fingering his cigarette and glaring at it in some disgust. “How much money have we got left?”
Martine drew out their purse and counted.
“About thirty pounds,” he said.
“I suppose that’s just enough to start over, if we have an idea of where to start,” said Perseus.”
“I am quite certain you will think of something,” said Martin.
Perseus glanced at him. He wasn’t quite sure how to take that, but the Austrian was too well-trained to give anything away by his face.
Martin had been valet to a count in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the war. After having his leg shot off by the Italians and his Empire dissolved by the Americans, the count had retired in disgust to the West Indies, where he soon died and Martin had been left to ply his trade for tourists at a hotel. Perseus had taken him on to help dig up some pirate treasure, but yet another inconvenient revolution had left them with little to show for it beyond a fast friendship.
Ever since leaving England, Perseus had hunted treasure around the world. He’d gone to sea just before the Great War, did his part in the conflict from the deck of the destroyer Dauntless, and then scoured the globe for the chance to strike it rich, rich enough to make himself a gentleman. A mere business enterprise wouldn’t satisfy him; not only would that take longer than he wished, but the idea of working day after day in trade, trying to grow money like a farmer grew crops repelled him. He recalled the tales of the Darrow ancestors he had heard, of the knights and kings and cavaliers he’d read about in books, and the spirit of commerce seemed as far removed from them as could be imagined.
No, a real gentleman, he thought, earned his place by deeds, adventure, and daring. It was not something that could simply be bought by accumulating enough in a bank account. At least, not as he saw it. Wealth, of course, he needed, but wealth with a history, wealth earned by action and daring, not by plodding.
It had seemed straightforward enough when he began, and so it seemed with each new endeavor. He had dug for pirate treasure in the Caribbean, chased lost gold mines in the Rocky Mountains, sought hidden kingdoms in the jungles of Africa and India, dredged for shipwrecks in the East Indies, and dug for tombs in the Egyptian desert. Yet, somehow, each had left him as poor as ever, if not poorer. Many was the time he had stood at the brink of success, had handled ancient gold and hidden treasures, yet each time they had slipped through his fingers like sand.
And something else had slipped away as well; time. Years ago, the thought had formed in his mind that Elizabeth was not likely to remain unmarried for long. In fact, it was likely as not that she had already moved on and forgotten about him. There was no particular reason she should remember him, let alone wait for him. This thought had grown like a cancer with every delay and failure he had experienced and was now like a permanent cramp in his brain. Since the end of the war, he had carefully avoided returning to England, or even reading English newspapers, lest he find his worst fears confirmed. As long as he didn’t know, he could still hope.
Perseus threw his cigarette away in frustration and stood up. The Aeneas was almost out of sight down the Bosporus.
“Come on,” he grunted. “I need a drink.”
They left the docks and made for one of the numerous taverns that clustered like barnacles around the port. As they approached it, however, a large man in a black felt hat, with a closely trimmed beard stepped forward out of the shadows.
“Excuse,” he said in a husky Slavic accent. “But I am waiting for some friends of mine. Have you seen them, perhaps? Two men, a dark-haired and very pretty woman, and her little child? They were supposed to arrive in Istanbul today, but I have not seen them.”
Perseus carefully concealed the alarm that this question had raised. They had arrived at the port of Istanbul that afternoon and had immediately booked the Countess passage on the Aeneas, not leaving the docks the entire time. He was now immensely thankful they hadn’t.
“I can’t say I have,” he answered. “Didn’t notice any particularly pretty women on our ship coming in, and I generally do notice that sort of thing.”
The man smiled.
“Most unfortunate; perhaps they have been delayed.”
“Where have you come from, might I ask?”
“Naples,” said Martin. “And you?”
The man looked hard at him, which nearly made Perseus smile. He doubted there was a man alive who could read Martin’s face, if he didn’t want it read.
“Oh, I have been here many years,” the man answered. “I have much business in this city. I am most apologetic to have troubled you. Might I buy you a drink?”
“No thank you,” said Perseus. “We have business of our own to deal with. Good evening.”
The man bowed and they walked on down the winding streets of Constantinople.
“Well,” Perseus sighed once he was sure they were out of sight and that the man had not followed them. “It is damn good thing we sent her off when we did. I never would have thought the Russians would be so keen on getting her back.”
“Nor I,” said Martin. “It is puzzling, that.”
“What made you say Naples, by the way?”
“I happened to recall that the Karnak was the most recent arrival, so it seemed to me the most plausible.”
“Good lord, what a head for detail you have,” said Perseus. “Well, let’s find ourselves another tavern; preferably one without any Bolsheviks, if there is such a place.”
They turned down a narrow street and saw what they were looking for up ahead; a hole-in-the-wall tavern, the sort no doubt frequented by sailors and local working-class. As they approached it, a thin old man came stumbling out and nearly walked right into them.
“’Scuse me, gentlemen,” he muttered, though not in Turkish, but, English. “Much pardon,” he added in broken Turkish.
“After you, father,” said Perseus in the former language.
The drunk’s eyes lit up.
“By God, is that a man of my own country I hear?” he said. “What are you doing in this forsaken place, my fine fellow?”
“Seeking my fortune, as are we all,” Perseus answered.
“Not I!” said the man with some dignity, drawing himself up straight and swaying as he did so. “Not I! I have found mine! Found it long ago. But I will say no more…no. Not another word. It is mine. Mine only.”
“As you say, father,” said Perseus kindly.
“Don’t you tell a soul,” he said, pressing a finger to his withered lip. “Not a soul. Mine alone. I shall go collect it one of these days. But tonight, I think I must go rest.”
“Quite,” said Perseus. “Do you need any help, father?”
“I need no one!” said the old man, pushing he way past them. “Mine alone. I need only time…yes. Time alone…”
He stumbled on to the end of the street. Perseus and Martin watched him go, Perseus giving his friend a bemused look.
“Poor old fellow,” he said. “Wonder what his story is.”
“A sad one, I should say,” said Martin. “But common enough…”
But then, just as the old man reached the end of the street, three figures jumped out and set upon him. The old man cried out, and struck one of them a solid blow, but was knocked down in an instant.
“Here!” Perseus shouted, running to his aid. “You leave him alone!”
The three attackers turned in evident surprise as the two men charged them. The nearest brandished a blood-stained knife at Perseus, who checked himself and raised his hands in defense. The assassin thrust at him, and Perseus dodged the stab and caught him by the wrist, pulling the man between himself and the second attacker while driving his fist into the man’s stomach. He grunted and dropped the knife, and Perseus pushed him into the second man.
Martin, meanwhile, engaged the third attacker. This man was just bending over the fallen drunk, and Martin kicked him hard in the ribs, knocking him over. The assassin grunted, and tried to roll to his feet, but Martin caught him on the way up and struck him back to the ground.
The toughs had evidently not been expecting anything like this kind of resistance. They had jumped a defenseless, drunken old man, but now they suddenly found themselves facing two young, fit, and experienced fighters. They stumbled to their feet and scattered as soon as they were able.
“Bastards,” Perseus grumbled as he knelt over the fallen drunk. “Here, father; are you all right?”
The old man was clutching his side, right under his heart. A dark stain was spreading over his ragged clothing and onto his withered old hand.
“Thank you, friends,” he breathed. “Thank you very much. No one has done so much for me these many, many long years. Oh, but I have deserved no more! May God have mercy on my soul…”
“Here now, it isn’t so bad,” said Perseus, looking significantly at Martin. “We’ll get you a doctor and you’ll be right as rain.”
Martin nodded and set off at a run.
“No, no,” said the old man. “It is over; I feel it. I have wasted my life; lost my chance.”
His face suddenly became anxious and he felt inside his shirt. Then relief spilled over it.
“It is there,” he gasped. “It is safe.”
He drew out a small, square bundle wrapped in dirty leather rags and pressed it on Perseus.
“I give it to you,” he said. “My treasure! My fortune! All I have in the world.”
At these words, Perseus’s eyes lit up and his heart leapt in spite of himself.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Read it,” the man said. He was fading fast. “Follow it. And when you are rich beyond mortals, remember old Joe.”
Perseus took the bundle, the old man’s warm blood staining his hands, and mechanically put it into his pocket.
“Treasure house of the gods,” the man breathed. “Forbidden…valley…”
His hand dropped and he breathed no more.
A moment later, Martin appeared, a constable in tow. He paused upon seeing the huddled, shrunken old body and silently made the Sign of the Cross.
Perseus and Martin explained what had happened to the policeman, and the body of Old Joe was given up to the state. The Turkish authorities, who had many such bodies, disposed of it in their own fashion, and probably no one in that city thought of or remembered the old man ever again. He slipped below the surface of history as a tiny pebble, even as the ripples he had set in motion began to spread.
Perseus did not mention the bundle to the police, and it remained tucked away in his pocket. They went on their way in search of a place to spend the night and soon found themselves at a small camp of Tsarist refugees near a part of the city still scarred by the war. With a few quick words of Russian to explain that they were just fled from there, they were welcomed and permitted to take a small corner of the camp, under the walls of a half-ruined house. There, under the glow of a borrowed lantern, Perseus told Martin what had happened after he left and showed him the bundle.
“Why did you not mention it to the police?” the Austrian asked.
“I was worried they might take it in evidence,” Perseus answered. “Anyway, I don’t suppose they care, and the old boy gave it to me expressly.”
“Hm,” said Martin, a faint crease appearing between his well-trained eyebrows. “What is it, then?”
“No idea, but he said it was the way to treasure beyond the lot of mortals. Let’s have a look, shall we?”
He carefully unwrapped the dirty bundle and found that it was a small notebook. Or rather, part of a notebook; the second half or more of the book had been torn away, leaving only the cover and the first few pages. Perseus opened it and read the following on the front leaf:
“True Narrative of Certain Events in the Brazilian Jungle, by Robert Cooper”