Gabriel Hunt had taken a lot of punches to the face over the years. He’d come to think of it as an occupational hazard, dealing as he often did with criminals, pirates, gangsters, brawlers and all kinds of thugs who let their fists do the talking, and he usually gave as good as he got. But this time was different. This was the first time the guy throwing the punches was wearing a big, sharp silver ring in the shape of a horned stag’s head.
The punch stunned him, knocked him back into one of the large elephant tusks flanking the fireplace of the Discoverers League lounge. The tusk wobbled on its base, and Gabriel, feeling wobbly himself, dropped to his knees. Blood trickled along his cheek where the stag’s horns had cut him. He looked up at the slender blond man standing over him in a gray houndstooth blazer and gray slacks. He was wearing a crooked sneer. Glancing at his hand, he wiped a spot of blood off his ring.
"We can continue this as long as you wish, Mr. Hunt," he said. "I have nowhere else I need to be. But you see my friends back there? They don’t have as much patience as I do."
Behind the blond man, three men clad all in black stood with guns in their hands. One revolver was trained on Wade Boland, the weekend bartender, where he stood behind the bar. The second was pointed at Clyde Harris, a retired cartographer in his seventies who came to the League every Saturday to partake of his two favorite pastimes, drinking and swapping tall tales. He sat on his usual barstool at the end of the counter and stared at the gun unblinking. Neither Wade nor Clyde looked particular frightened by this turn of events, though they kept their hands dutifully raised above their heads.
But the third revolver was leveled at Katherine Dunlap, and she was a different story. The willowy redhead sat trembling at the table she’d been sharing with Gabriel before the blond man and his cohorts had stormed in and started waving their guns around. Her fingernails dug into the plush arms of the red leather chair, and her pale green eyes were as wide as soup bowls. It was obvious she’d never had a gun pointed at her before. Gabriel had only met her that morning, on his flight back from Brazil to New York City. Seated next to her in first class, he’d passed the hours answering her questions about his just-completed expedition along the banks of the Amazon, and once they’d landed he’d invited her back to the Discoverers League for a drink. She clearly hadn’t expected their date to end in violence. Of course, neither had he.
The blond man reached into the inside pocket of his blazer, pulled out a large, well-polished chrome handgun and leveled it at Gabriel. Gabriel eyed the gun unhappily. The three bouncer types he figured he could take even though they were armed. But this man was another matter. Compared to the other three he looked almost scrawny, but he punched like someone had taught him how, and he was holding his gun with a professional’s grip.
"I don’t have what you’re looking for," Gabriel said, rubbing his jaw.
"I want you to think very carefully about what you do next, Mr. Hunt. I’d hate to have to tell my men to start shooting." The man gestured around the lounge at the bookshelves filled with antique volumes and the display cases of artifacts, many of them fragile, all of them irreplaceable. "These beautiful things might get damaged. Bloodstains, you know. So difficult to wash off."
"Gabriel," Katherine pleaded, her voice shaking.
The man smiled. "You see? Your friend has a good head on her shoulders. I’m sure she would like it to remain there."
Gabriel rose slowly to his feet.
"No more heroics, Mr. Hunt," the man cautioned. "And no more lies. I know you were in the Amazon until this morning, and I know you brought the Death’s Head Key back with you. Just hand it over and we’ll go quietly." He smiled slightly. "Its name notwithstanding, no one has to die over the thing."
"Why should I give it to you?" Gabriel asked.
The blond man cocked his head and knit his brow. "Why? Because I am the man with the gun, Mr. Hunt."
"Why do you want it?" Gabriel said. "It’s not that valuable. It’ll fetch maybe five, six grand on the black market, if you’re lucky. It hardly seems worth your time."
The blond man stepped nearer. This close, Gabriel got a good look at the man’s eyes and could see the brutality he concealed beneath his veneer of civility. The man opened his mouth to answer, then changed his mind and swung his Magnum, slamming the heavy butt into Gabriel’s jaw. Gabriel’s head snapped back. At least this time he managed to stay on his feet.
"The key," the blond man repeated.
Gabriel narrowed his eyes. He tasted blood and spat red-tinged saliva onto the carpet. "You better hope I never see you again."
The man cocked the Magnum. "You will never see anyone again, Mr. Hunt, if you don’t hand over the key." And when Gabriel failed to do so: "For heaven’s sake, Hunt, what difference does it make to you? What were you planning to do with it, stick it in one of these cases? Photograph it for National Geographic? Give it to the Metropolitan? What a colossal waste. You don’t even know what the key unlocks."
"And you do?"
The blond man leveled the barrel of the Magnum at Gabriel’s forehead and said, "Five."
"Tell me," Gabriel said. "Tell me what the key opens."
"Gabriel, for God’s sake," Clyde muttered from his barstool. "My ice is melting. Just give the man whatever he’s looking for, and I’ll buy you and the lady a round."
The blond man swung the gun to point it at Katherine. Her hands shot up as though they might be able to deflect a bullet. "Two."
"All right," Gabriel said. "All right. Just...put that thing away."
The blond man took the gun off of Katherine and swung it to face Gabriel instead.
Gabriel unbuttoned his shirt. The Death’s Head Key hung on a leather strap around his neck. He lifted it over his head. The blond man snatched the heavy bronze key with his free hand and held it up, eyeing it with satisfaction.
No one knew how old the Death’s Head Key was. It had been given its name in 1581 when the explorer Vincenzo de Montoya found it on a trip through Asia and noticed its bow was shaped like a skull, with concavities where the eye sockets might have been and a diamond-shaped groove between them. No one, not even de Montoya, knew what it unlocked—but whatever it was, Gabriel could guess from the look of the thing that it was no simple door. Most keys had a single blade that fit into the keyway of a lock, but the Death’s Head Key had three, one straight and the other two flanking it at forty-five degree angles. De Montoya had reportedly worn it around his neck as a good luck charm, but it hadn’t kept up its end of the bargain. His luck ran out when he disappeared during an Amazon expedition a few years later, and the Death’s Head Key had been lost with him.
Lost, until Gabriel found it, still dangling from the broken neck of de Montoya’s skeleton at the bottom of a deep pit in the rain forest.
Now, watching the blond man stuff the Death’s Head Key in his pocket, Gabriel couldn’t help feeling it was about to become lost once again.
"Very thoughtful, Mr. Hunt," the blond man said. "You’ve saved the custodians of this establishment quite a bit of mopping." He backed slowly toward the lounge door, keeping his gun leveled at Gabriel. "Let’s go," he said, and the three thugs holstered their revolvers and exited before him. The blond man gave Gabriel a final nod and disappeared through the doorway.
When he heard the front door open, Gabriel followed at a run, passing Hank, the League’s elderly doorman where he lay slumped unconscious on the floor.
In the street outside, a pair of doors slammed on a gunmetal gray Cadillac and it peeled off, tires squealing against the asphalt. Gabriel raced out into the street and ran half a block after them, but they shot through a red light and vanished in the distance.
Gabriel walked back to the League building and into the lounge, where Wade was already dialing the police from the phone behind the bar. "Button up, young man," he said, aiming a finger at Gabriel’s chest. "There are women pres—oh, hello, yes, I’d like to report an incident."
There was only one woman present, and Gabriel lowered himself into the chair beside her, fuming. For weeks he’d meticulously traced de Montoya’s path through the Amazon, sweating through the jungle heat and all the days of false starts and backtracking, and for what? So the artifact he’d worked so hard to recover could be stolen by some skinny blond thug with bad taste in jewelry?
He looked up and noticed Katherine was still trembling. "Are you okay?" he asked her.
She stood slowly and walked to the bar, grabbed the scotch glass out of Clyde’s hand and downed it in a single gulp. Then she returned to the table where Gabriel sat. She put a hand on his arm.
"So," she said, and Gabriel could tell she was trying to keep her voice steady. "Does this happen every time you take a girl out for drinks?"
Gabriel touched the cut on his cheek and winced. "Not every time."
Katherine patted his arm. "Don’t call me," she said. Then she turned and walked out. A moment later they all heard the front door shut.
"The police are on their way," Wade said, handing Clyde another scotch. Then he reached into his pocket, pulled out two twenty-dollar bills and handed them to Clyde as well. When he saw Gabriel watching the transaction, he said, "We had a bet."
Gabriel frowned. "What kind of bet?"
"I bet Clyde twenty bucks you never lose a fight."
"I could have told you otherwise," Gabriel said. "What’s the other twenty for?"
"I also bet him that you always get the girl."
Gabriel rubbed his sore jaw. "Sorry to disappoint," he said.
Copyright © 2009 by Winterfall LLC.