I gave the guy credit. He did his research. He had to hack the university library database or get close to someone I knew to find out I had a thing about maps. Well, maybe an obsession. Pissed me off that he had this on me, waved this bait at me, rendered me predictable. If I didn’t make him wrong, he had me.
I blew out a breath in unfaked disgust, rolled my eyes at him. I took a deep breath and took refuge in my professionalism. Sneaked one more glance at the ancient artifact. Bloody insanely fine map. To add to the lure, part of it was obscured, looked gesso-ed over, filled with spiky writing. It could take hours to—. No.
This wasn’t what I did. I got paid to decipher things no one else could read. Privileged people overlooked my differences, my unknown, probably mixed parentage, my lack of orthodontia, my previously-owned everything. They didn’t care if I went with men or animated cyber flesh heated to body temperature and programmed to morph to any perverse shape desired. All that mattered was I could crack.
I met his eyes, sailor’s eyes full of the sea. Kept my eyes away from the ancient cartography, the thing of dreams: a treasure map that looked for real. Young queens in tight jeans laughed outside the window, notes running up and down the scale.
“You might want to take this to a university or a museum, maybe even some eccentric antique book dealer or ship captain.” I tried my best crooked grin on him.
He shook his head. The street light glinted on his overlapping incisor between street-walkers clipping by. Only us have-nots smile with imperfect teeth.
The man didn’t add up. He had the funds to offer me a hot bribe, but wasn’t so vain as to get his teeth fixed the way wealthy people did. Conclusion: He grew up poor, prospered as an adult, and didn’t give a rat’s nuts what anyone thought of his looks.
For me, his imperfections added to his hotness.
“Look again,” he repeated.
I narrowed my eyes at him. He didn’t look away. He tapped the table, redirecting my gaze to the map.
I looked. Kind of humoring him, but also hooked by the need to solve it. I already had the general location.
This time, it got into me. The squiggles, the hillocks, a possible lagoon’s border, the ragged lines of the coast, and bits where the lines subtly doubled to shape a symbol. They formed a code, a language without vowels that appeared to have elements of Egyptian hieroglyphs interspersed with much later formulas. A reference to eggs made me leap to possible recipes for tempera paint, a valuable secret worthy of the 15th-century version of a trademark.
The late version of the map could have been the work of a brilliant artist, or some painter whacked on wormwood. Da Vinci set some dangerous precedents with his experiments and codification. Secrets upon secrets: these were the sea monsters that could wreck me.
Beneath the ancient map and codes, the visible bits of a much earlier map sang to me.
They sang Ptolemaic Egypt.
The word palimpsest rang through my mind. This map had layers. More than one hand in different eras and in different cultures marked and marked over this. I needed a lab.
Whatever the over layers meant, I knew where to start. I’d solve for X, the treasure map’s heart. I eyed Garth’s hands, his open shirt, his silvered chest hair shining in the booth’s light. He smiled, and looked older and younger than I’d imagined. One of those ageless sages you encounter at an art gallery who gives you hope there’s still intelligent life here.
I sipped the rank coffee and stared out at brave new women in high heels walking Polk Street.
I didn’t need this. I was a solo act, always had been. Had to be. This was how I lived, and no shit, it was dangerous. People would kill over their secrets: personal, industrial, political—life was cheap when it came to hiding what you had to hide. I caught myself eying him again. Mesmerized, the way I get at a museum when I feast on a painting, the way I used to focus on school lunch the days I had the scratch to buy it. I let out my breath, got my gaze off his mustache and his lips.
“Yeah, there’s something here.” I said it to the table, without meeting his eyes. He reached over and tapped my wrist. Heat on my skin. I held still by pure will.
I looked at him. His eyes glowed like a cat’s. I wanted him. This was all going wrong. It was supposed to be a gig, only that.
I just wanted a new Blink, the latest eye-controlled device. It would allow me to work anywhere, without a keyboard or voice entry. Much more discreet for what I do. Decipher one page and I’d have the latest beta Blink, beyond anything released yet.
That was the deal he hooked me with, as if he’d read my mind. That’s what got me out to this dive in the middle of the night. I wanted it, I wanted him, so I nodded.
“Okay,” I rested my hands on the table beside the map, coveting it.
If he hadn’t brought it to me, I would never have seen it. I wouldn’t be taken up in the quest. But now he’d exposed me to it and it worked its way with me like a virus. There wasn’t much I wouldn’t do to discover its secrets. I wanted to plumb every layer. The map’s, and its owner’s, too.
Garth extended his hand. I grasped it and he enfolded mine, the warmest touch I ever felt.
“Good. Let’s go to my place.”
My heart tripped. I took a breath. Leap or fold, Jag Codebreaker. It wasn’t like I had a choice.
“Sure. I’m in.”
He gave me a slow, hot smile. My toes curled in my boots. Damn. If he was a killer, I’d die happy.
I hope you enjoyed this excerpt of Secret Treasure.
I grew up on speculative fiction. Early gay books meant a lot to me. May have saved my life. It matters to me to share this. Thanks for reading.
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