Nestled between a ribcage and a skull is a wooden box about two hands long. Unremarkable yet mystifying. It looks familiar, but I can’t think why. Why is this box so important?
Duncan’s back is an ugly thing, a swamp of hairs and cuts and moles. The map of Tiverna Isle drawn onto it is crude, but there is an obvious path heading inland through some trees and over what looks like a mountain range into a cave. A clump of pulsating spots makes it appear as though the ‘X’ sits next to a chain of volcanoes. One of them looks ready to explode.
The loud bang of an exploding gun makes me jump, and I turn to see a stocky man walk into Ruby’s Inn. Smoke billows from his pistol, which looks heavy in his small hand. The man looks like a barrel with a head, and he’s staring at me through his cold grey eyes. I realize it must seem strange with Duncan sitting topless in front of me while I carefully study his back in a drenched Hawaiian shirt, sipping on a cocktail through a straw.
“What’s going on here, Dunc?” he shouts over at us.
Duncan lifts his head and smiles like a dog that’s just found its owner. “Aye,” he says excitedly.
The man walks over and sits down as Duncan puts his shirt back on. He eyeballs me, trying to look threatening, and I stifle a laugh. He’s about as frightening as a kitten with a ball of wool. He has round, chubby cheeks and a resting face that makes him look confused. He’s maybe forty, although I’m not good at guessing people’s age.
“You give him our price?” he asks, turning to Duncan.
“Aye,” Duncan responds, shaking his head and looking down at the floor, shamefaced.
“Two hundred,” the man says, turning to me and holding out his hand.
“Two hundred for what?” I ask. I feel like I’ve missed part of the conversation.
“To take you to the treasure of Tiverna Isle,” he says as though it’s obvious.
“Who are you?” I ask.
“They call me Bones.”
This time I can’t stop my face from breaking into a smile. “As in Billy Bones?” I ask, trying to sound serious.
“No,” he replies, affronted. “As in John Boniface. But people call me Bones.”
“Okay, for two hundred dollars, you’ll take me to the treasure of Tiverna Isle?” It sounds too easy. It is too easy.
“That we will.”
“And what will I find there exactly?”
“Wouldn’t be much of a treasure hunt if I told you that, would it?” He watches as I wrestle with the decision, and then says, “Tiverna Isle is a dangerous place to be right now. Lots of people going missing. I’ve heard strange things, very strange things indeed, about memories being bought and sold on the black market.” He tuts and shakes his head theatrically. “Wouldn’t want to see another tourist caught in the cross-fire like poor old Glenda.”
Duncan nods his head in agreement. They’ve performed this double act before.
I have a waterproof pouch filled with money hanging around my neck, and two hundred dollars pretty much wipes me out. “One hundred?” I say, and Bones agrees far too readily. I feel like they have duped me, but I have no other leads, and I have to start somewhere. “I’ll give it to you once you’ve taken me there,” I say, and it feels like a minor victory when Bones agrees.
“Come on then,” Bones says, and marches off, tucking his gun into its holster. Duncan follows, his head bent to avoid hitting the wooden beams. I take a deep breath and wonder what I’ve signed myself up to do.
Bones might be short, but he can get a pace on when he wants to. Even Duncan, with his long, ungainly legs, struggles to keep up as we march across the beach and enter a forest dense with flora. The air is heavy and sticky, and insects quickly swarm over my sweaty body. We follow a trail along a stream, and I try to recall the map on Duncan’s back to work out whether we are heading in the right direction. I’m not sure why I have put my trust in these two muppets.
We reach a waterfall which casts a rainbow as it catches the sun’s rays. It looks like the perfect place to bathe, but we don’t stop. Instead, we climb up the cliff from where it falls, using tree roots as our steps. From the top of the cliff, the trees quickly thin and then disappear, revealing a striking panorama of flowing hills. We continue, following the stream into a valley which meanders between two hills, the pace slowing considerably now. We’ve been walking for around three hours, and Bones has to keep stopping to rest his legs. “Just a bit further,” he tells me, taking a deep breath after each word.
The stream disappears into the ground, and we scramble up the hillside, taking it in turns to slip on the loose stones. “Aye,” Duncan says behind me as one hits his head.
Halfway up, we reach a cave.
“This is it,” Bones declares, and points into the cave.
“In there?” I ask.
Bones nods his head. “After you,” he says.
I walk into the cave and nearly trip over a hole in the ground. Someone left a shovel in the corner, and as my eyes adjust, I realise that at least a dozen holes have been dug in the ground.
“I suggest digging there,” Bones mutters and points at an ‘X’ which someone has recently marked in chalk on the floor.
“How convenient,” I comment with more than a hint of scepticism. “So, if I dig there, I will find the wooden box I seek?” I can’t help frustration creeping into my voice.
Bones looks at me, wearing the faint outline of a smile. “This is where the map takes us,” he says.
I play along with his little game and dig. It doesn’t take much effort—the ground has recently been disturbed. After a few minutes, my spade hits something hard. I scrabble with my hands and uncover a small wooden chest, which looks like a children’s treasure chest.
“What have you found there?” Bones asks, feigning surprise. “Treasure?”
“So it would seem,” I say. I’m annoyed they’ve wasted my time, but I’m also intrigued by what’s in it, so I smash the lock with the spade and open it up.
It’s a t-shirt.
On the front, it says, I SEARCHED FOR THE TREASURE OF TIVERNA ISLE. On the back it says, … AND I SURVIVED.
Son of a bitch!
“What sort of a—” I turn to look down the barrel of Bones’ pistol.
“Three hundred dollars,” he demands, his finger steady on the trigger. It’s not the first time he’s done this. Duncan stands nervously behind him, nodding vigorously.
I laugh. I can’t help it, I’m being held at gunpoint by Danny DeVito’s doppelganger.
Then Duncan laughs. He doesn’t know why, he just wants to feel included. Bones turns to tell him to shut up. A split second, it’s enough. I’m still holding the spade, and I swing it at his hand. The gun drops to the floor and fires. The sound is deafening as it races around the cave in an endless whirl. I ignore it and hit Bones with the spade again, this time across the face. The impact confuses him, and he stumbles around in a large circle. Duncan has his hands over his ears and is running with his head down. The two of them collide and fall in a heap of entwined limbs on the floor.
I pick up the gun and walk over to them. I have no intention of using it, but they don’t need to know that. Bones has recovered enough to realise his predicament. He whimpers pathetically on top of Duncan, who still has his hands over his ears.
“What is this, exactly?” I ask. “You’ve created a myth about treasure to draw in tourists, and then when you’ve dragged them out into the middle of nowhere, you rob them?”
“No, no, no…” Bones sobs, his cheeks wet.
“There…” he sniffs, “there was an ancient map, made for Blackbeard himself, so they say, and the Flintlocks stole it from us, but one of our crew could remember it, so we had it tattooed on Duncan’s back.” I can barely understand him through his sniffles.
“We didn’t have any paper.” Bones sits up and releases Duncan. “We searched high and wide for the treasure, but we couldn’t find it and neither could the Flintlocks—”
“Who are they?”
“Smugglers. Nasty pieces of work. You think we’re frightening? You should see the Flintlocks. They’d skewer you for looking at them the wrong way. They’d skewer you for wearing that shirt.”
I keep my comments to myself.
“And by then word had spread about the treasure of Tiverna Isle. People from all over came looking for it, so we thought we’d take them on a treasure hunt and—”
“Rob them.” I finish his sentence, and Bones looks away.
“Not until recently,” he pleads. “Strange things have been going on here. People going missing. Tourists have been putting off coming, so we got desperate.”
“Aye,” Duncan says in agreement, and I feel sorry for them. Their pathetic predicament is pulling on my heartstrings.
“There is no treasure,” Bones says as though that made their actions acceptable. “There never was.”
“There has to be,” I mutter. “Duncan, take your shirt off.” I’m still holding the gun, and Duncan throws his shirt off as though it’s on fire. “Turn around,” I tell him, and he eagerly complies.
“Look!” Bones says and shows me the trail we followed on Duncan’s back, all the way to the cave. I study it carefully and concede that we have followed the route.
“What are those?” I ask, pointing at two small pictures that sit either side of the ‘X’.
“A lion and a lamb,” Bones tells me.
They look more like a bear and a rabbit to me, but I don’t quibble. “Why are they there?”
Bones shrugs. “Always wondered that myself,” he says. Duncan just looks confused. He’s probably never seen the map.
Then I have an idea. I head out of the cave and continue climbing the hillside. Duncan and Bones follow, intrigued. I climb until I reach the highest peak and then scan the area. “There,” I say, pointing to a rock formation a few hundred yards further on.
Bones squints to see where I’m pointing and then shakes his head. “What?”
“Over there,” I repeat. “Look at the rock formations on the left, what does it look like to you?”
“A lion,” I say, exasperated. “And on the right, look—a lamb.”
“If you say so,” Bones says, unconvinced. “But, there’s no cave.” He smiles dismissively, like he’s talking to a child.
I take a deep breath. “No, but someone has probably filled it in. Help me look, and I’ll give you your 200 dollars.”
The thought of leaving with some money pokes the fire, and Bones is suddenly interested again. “Very well,” he says. “We’ll help you move some rocks so long as you pay us.”
“Aye,” Duncan says, grinning widely.
I take them to a midway point between the lion and lamb rock formations. We claw away at some small stones, our hands quickly turning black with dirt and dust.
“There’s nothing here,” Bones complains after half an hour. “I told you, didn’t I? There’s no treasure. I’ll take our money now.” He stops working just as I expose an enormous stone that looks out of place.
“Shut up and give me a hand with this,” I tell him. “You too, Duncan.”
The three of us heave at the stone. It rocks right to left and then sits back in the same position. We move some rocks either side of it and try again, using its motion to build momentum. Right, left, right, left, right, left, right…
It moves, revealing a gap behind it. I look at Bones, smiling, his eyes are wide, excitement spreading over his face. I enter the cave, hoping that the rock doesn’t roll back to its original position. It’s dark, and there’s a stale smell in the air. As I walk, I can hear a crunching sound underneath my feet. I look down to see bones, human bones, and lots of them. At least seven skulls litter the floor and watch me with hysterical looks on their faces.
It’s Bones who sees it first and yelps in surprise.
Nestled between a ribcage and a skull is a wooden box about two hands long. Unremarkable yet mystifying. It looks familiar, but I can’t think why. Why is this box so important? Do I just take it? I crouch down and pick it up, weighing it in my hands.
I can hear Bones breathing heavily behind me. His breath smells vile, like he’s been feasting on raw meat, and washing it down with swamp water. He grunts and makes a strange clicking sound, and then I feel his drool drop on my shoulder. I’m about to tell him to back off when I realise that Bones and Duncan are squatting down next to me.
I hear the grunt again, and this time Duncan and Bones hear it, too. We turn our heads in unison.
Bones screams, Duncan falls backward, and I curse…