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Day Forty-nine: Hunters

Alex leveled his gun at me, a small, efficient automatic. It was the third time in twenty-four hours that I had been held at gunpoint. Not the record, but still not anything I would aspire to in the future. “Well,” he said. “Look who’s mister clever.”

“That would be me, I hope,” I said. “It’s good to put on business cards.”

Alex’s smile was tight and short-lived. “A comedian to the end. Well, mister funny-”

“I thought I was mister clever.”

“Shut up.” The smile dropped. “Once I put you down, all I have to do is leave the way I came in. By the time anyone ever comes around to this god-forsaken place, I’ll be long gone. And I’ll take the Harkness fortune with me.”

He was right, too. The mansion was on the outskirts of Winter Falls, a relic of its better days, and now the only people who made their way out were hunters and hobos. The great ancestral home of Xavier Harkness was on the verge of being overrun by wildlife and the forest, and it was only the stories of his vast hidden wealth that had brought the group out there in the first place.

What was left of the mansion was falling apart, being devoured by the forests. Trees encroached on the walls, grass sprouted from every crack, and animals of all sorts nested in whatever nooks and crannies they could find. It was still easy to imagine its better days, though. You could see the vast front hall, the opulent ballrooms, the intimate library that had stood there for a century and a half before becoming a home to mice, owls, and mushrooms.

But what had brought us there wasn’t the promise of archaeology. It was the hint of what lay underneath the mansion. A great vault that would have survived the ages, filled with treasure to drive men mad. The stories said that Harkness hid gold here, some people say that he had stock certificates to some of the oldest and richest corporations in the world. No one knew for sure what was there, but everyone was sure of one thing – whoever found it would be set for life.

Unfortunately, the mansion had become nearly inaccessible over the years. Dense woods, unpredictable river currents and even a giant sinkhole had made it a place that only a determined treasure hunter could find. Michelle Roth had been just such a hunter. She had researched the area, studied previous expeditions, and assembled the best team she could find. She spent good money on equipment, making sure they could get in and out, and planned for the worse. She had done everything right.

Her body was currently a hundred feet underground, battered and broken at the bottom of a cave with a bullet in her head.

“Alex,” I said. “I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but – you’ll never get away with this. How’re you going to convince Mantelli to lift you out of here?”

“I can fly a helicopter too, Dante. You forgot about that.”

I nodded. “Yeah, I guess I did. So you’re going to shoot him too?”

“Like I said. Mister clever.”

I had to keep him talking. If my gamble was going to pay off, I’d just need a few more minutes. I hadn’t found Josef’s body, and if any of us was going to put Alex down it would be him. He just needed time, wherever he was.

“Alex, you realize you don’t even have Harkness’ treasure yet. You killed Michelle, you’re going to do Mantelli, you’re ready to kill me, and your hands are still empty. If anyone here is mister clever, it sure isn’t you.”

He smirked and spat. “Shows what you know.” He picked his way across the broken floor towards me, digging into his pocket. He pulled out a small bag, which he held aloft. “Diamonds, Dante,” he said. “They’re gorgeous. And this is just one bag. I have a dozen in my pack, along with emeralds, sapphires, rubies. Turns out old Harkness was quite the jewel collector.”

I stared at the bag. If he was telling the truth, there’s be thousands of dollars in that bag alone. If the treasure of Xavier Harkness was real, he may indeed have found it. “Where were they?” I asked.

“The library. While everyone was looking underground, trying to find the hidden vaults, Harkness had left these in a set of hollow books that eventually got turned into squirrel nests. When I went through there, I couldn’t help but look to see what he’d put on his bookshelves. Imagine my surprise when I pulled a giant leatherbound tome off the shelves, and these were inside.” He hid the bag back in his pocket. “You see, Dante? It pays to be literate.”

“Yeah, it does,” I said. “But, as a literate person, you realize that this is exactly the point where the villain’s plan gets foiled, right? While you’re busy explaining everything to me….”

“You’re right, Dante. You’re absolutely right.” He thumbed back the hammer on his gun. “So let’s skip to the end.”

I swear I saw his finger tighten on the trigger when Josef’s voice bellowed out of the shadows. “Wait, Alex,” he called.

Alex glanced over without taking his gun off me. “Josef?” he said. “Where are you?”

Josef walked out from behind a fallen wall. His face was bloody and he was limping, but his strength was still evident. “Here,” he said. He unslung a backpack from his shoulder and held it out. “I found it.”

“Wonderful,” Alex said. “Bring it here.”

My heart sank. Josef walked with pained determination, but not to confront Alex, not to wrestle him to the ground and take his weapon away. Josef was in on the plan, it seemed. And he had been all along.

“Surprised?” Alex asked me. “Don’t be. Josef is just following his own self-interest, as we all do.” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “He may need this even more than I do.”

Josef brought the bag over, not looking at me. His face was grim as he dropped the bag to the ground, unzipped it, and reached inside. What he pulled out was at once dazzling and horrifying.

It was a deep violet crystal, carved into the shape of a sleeping infant, almost life-sized. In what sunlight filtered through the trees, it seemed to glitter and shimmer, almost with a light of its own, and it hurt to look at. Josef paled as he held it up to show to Alex, who was practically drooling.

“Excellent,” he said. “Now we really do have everything we came for.” He nodded, and Josef put the thing back into the bag. Alex refocused on me. “One last loose end to tie up, and-” He was cut off by the unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked.

“Change of plans,” Josef said, aiming his pistol only inches away from Alex’s head.

The silence was palpable, only broken by the call of a couple of mourning doves. “Well,” I said after a moment. “This is interesting.”

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