This is the beginning of my forthcoming gay adventure book, Secret Treasure. I hope you enjoy it.
What he called me to decipher wasn’t what you’d think. I’ve done dirty work. Breaking into laptops and brain phones of cheating spouses, cracking confidential personal and government correspondence coded for privacy. My methods ranged from simple to outrageous, intercepting and unscrambling communiques of terrorists and the cyber equivalent of rubbing grave stones. I uncovered betrayals, terrorist threats, formulas capable of changing life as we know it, and idiotic ad campaigns for crap no one with a few working brain cells should want. Strange what businesses will pay to find out about each other.
My favorite code consisted of chicken footprints. No shit, an artist savant worked out a system of signs that stood for every letter and number using subtle differences in toe length and claws. Mesmerizing. I spent hours on that thing. Blew the client’s mind that anyone could make sense out of chicken scratchings.
After that guy crowed about what I could do, I dumped all the marital discord work, cut loose the clients obsessed with recipes for soft drinks and deep-fried feces, took my pick of assignments that at least had a shot of doing some good for humanity, or what passes for humanity at this stage.
So in the someone’s-got-to-be-taking-a-vid-of-this department, I met up with some snaggle-tooth stud at 3 AM in a 24-hour restaurant in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. The place had bad coffee and worse food, and our booth looked out at the Polk Street parade of hookers of every gender and combination thereof.
Rugged guy reached across the booth and set a piece of paper in front of me. Paper. Weird. It was so old it was brown. Looked like parchment, or maybe papyrus, like I saw at the university’s Egyptian museum. The light was too dim to see plant fibers. I reached for it and he gripped my arm like some jujitsu master out to break my bones.
“Don’t touch, Jag.” Garth had big knuckles and a low voice, no last name of course, any more than me, here. We were just two anonymous guys drinking coffee in a zone so low it escaped surveillance.
Based on one semester of museum studies, I figured the paper was ancient and my skin oils would cause irreparable damage.
I nodded and stared at it, clamping my hands to my thighs. My legs thrummed. Nerves or something. It was a map. It showed a jagged coastline and a detailed sea serpent resembling the high tat art: scales, shading, kill-you eyes. ‘Here there be monsters,’ indeed. Geographical features stood out, vividly rendered hills and plains. I followed the land’s contours, its coast, and X marked the spot.
The adrenaline surge about lifted me from my seat. I whirled back to the sunken treasure and pirate adventures that first made me want to read, back when I was often so hungry at school it was hard to think.
All the mealy euphemisms should be shredded to the shit they were. We were poor. Working poor. Abandoned mother with three kids poor. I went to school with holes in my sneakers outgrowing my brother’s hand-me-downs. I wanted the floor to open and let me fall through it every day. I hit the asphalt in the playground so many times with every part of my body, I wanted to leave that torture zone and never look back.
If I wasn’t a freak with numbers and letters no one would have given a damn about me. But I was, so they did. They put me in a weird-ass gifted program and gave me busy-work so they could vid me like a chimp. Play with blocks, solve puzzles, write puzzles, solve equations, write formulas, crack code.
It was my language, the zone I lived in where there was no drunk mother, violent big brothers, bully classmates—deep in this place where there was peace, patterns that made sense. It was music and color, light, touch all at once. I felt like I was being stroked by singing beings of light. The patterns glowed and I followed them, like Theseus in the labyrinth. I sat at a desk but I danced. I was in the pattern, the pattern was in me, and for those hours of absorption, I was safe.
The clatter of dishes, the muscular, unkempt man across from me, the waitress rushing by in her running shoes receded, leaving only an imprint as I entered the map.
The shapes resonated. The key was, they’d aged. I scanned through every ancient map I knew, and I studied a lot of them. Somehow, this bastard knew it. Even just this fragment, I was high on it, seeking the pattern, the match, riding the waves, sweet as the surf at Santa Cruz.
I oriented. I knew where I was in the map. I looked at the man, and hid the knowledge from him.
“It’s a map. Perhaps you misunderstood.” I kept to myself that I understood more than he might hope. “My thing is called cryptanalysis. Nothing to do with old graves.” I smiled, but couldn’t read his expression because of black and silver hair falling over his eyes. He didn’t seem amused. “They call me Jag Codebreaker. I break the codes people use to hide information, usually on computers.” I say it the way I’d explain it to third graders, which is how working with most clients felt. “Breaking that chicken scratch was still about words and numbers. I’m not connected with anything about cartography.” I shrugged. My leather jacket settled protectively around me, my armor.
He raised his head and eyed me, vitality coming off his weathered face and broad-shouldered body in waves. Sea-gray eyes. His outdoorsy health contrasted with the business types and street toughs in other booths.
“Look again,” he gestured at the map. His hand was broad and calloused, with gentle-looking fingers.
He had the kind of voice used to being obeyed, yet I didn’t look away from him. I needed to understand what I was dealing with. I hadn’t made it this long, stayed out of jail, stayed alive, without sizing up every potential contact and client as if my life was on the line. Which it was. Always was.
I smelled rancid grease from the kitchen. Cutting through it, I smelled him. All man, without cologne and hair spray and all that crap. Clean, natural, masculine, and crackling with pheromones.
He looked ex-military, a veteran whose mind replayed it all, his buddies and their deaths, the screams, the men he killed. The way he flinched as the waitress dashed by from behind him confirmed it. Yet he had a sculptor’s hands. Hands that could cradle a baby, as in a late 20th century photograph by Saudek. The vibrant, bare masculinity of the photographer himself with his big, sensitive hands holding a newborn to his shoulder. I pictured Garth’s masterful hands carving an almost-naked Jesus out of marble.
But he didn’t make the map. I knew it. I stared at it again. It was real. The treasure map of my childhood pirate-adventure escapes. This wasn’t some manipulated ‘reality vid’ for idiots hooked up to screens to ward off any genuine experience or realization of how empty their lives were.
I sensed danger—with that part of me that has always known, has always had to know, every possible threat. This assignment could cause my death. I should walk away.
I leaned closer, followed that coastline back to the wide-armed X. Right there, baby, yes, that was it, the baited hook, right there. You got me, mister.