Scene from Courtlyn Siepert: You’re driving home from work late at night when you begin to suspect the car behind you might be following you. You take every right turn until you have made a full circle. The car is still behind you…
Why are you so paranoid, and why are they after you?
I had been beaten. Again. This time I had the advantage though; I was intimately familiar with this neighborhood. I glanced in the rearview and made the turn, heading to the hillside that the latest clue had to represent. It would take anybody from outside the region days to do the research needed—
That’s when I noticed headlights in my rearview, making the same turn I had. My instincts twitched. Instead of continuing on, I turned onto the highway. I exited and returned to the highway, now going the other direction. Still, the same car was behind me. I didn’t spend long on the highway, but someone unfamiliar with the area, someone not using GPS, might not realize there was a much easier route. I took the exit and glanced in the mirror. Just a dark road.
I was being paranoid, of course. I resumed my course, driving into the forest, down a dirt road, and to the cliff-side I knew. I got out and looked up. This far from the city, the stars were bright and numerous, a shining dust in the sky.
Headlights snapped on behind me, and I whirled, throwing my arm up to shield my eyes. “Well played, Clarke! You turned your lights out on the highway, didn’t you?”
He stepped out of the blinding light, looking through my car’s window. “None of your papers. Nothing to steal. You’re getting more cautious, Lewis.”
I scoffed, walking up to him, and restrained the urge to punch him in his perfect, ugly teeth. “Do you blame me? How the hell do you get off stalking me!?”
He put a hand up to stop my approach, and I stopped before he could push me back – there was no way I would win a fight. I was just too old. “You were tracking me in New Mexico. Don’t try to deny it. I turned back on my own trail and found your boot prints behind mine. That perfect Timberland logo on the bottom of your shoe gave you away.”
“So, what, that justifies this? Back off. This clue is mine. I beat you here.”
He shook his head. “I’m not going anywhere. We get this together. Whoever has enough after that, wins.”
I considered my options. For months this game continued. Every week, we got four clues, leading to four coordinates. We were the only two real players. We got almost all the caches. The other players got a few, but it was a game to them. They talked online, gave away their advantage. Every time new clues came out, previous discoveries supplemented the new clues. To make real progress you needed to be a serious player, and now Clarke and I were the only serious players left.
But nobody could be in four places at once, get all four clues. We struggled and competed, but our advantage was never decisive, and this game was drawing to a close. This week there was been only one clue, perhaps the last clue.
“Fine. We share this find, and whoever has enough to fit it together, wins.”
So we went together. The riddle spoke of a place I remembered well. A tree by a lake, its roots washed away by a flood decades ago. Under the overhang formed by the roots, we found the tin box. More riddles. A few pictures. We both took pictures of every piece, we split up the contents of the box after we photographed everything, and we resorted to rock-paper-scissors over some of the pieces. Then, we left. Thus began the final phase of our competition.
Weeks later there was no new clue, and my progress ground to a halt. I sat in the library, books and notes scattered. I got lucky – the invisible ink I’d discovered in our latest find was information he wouldn’t have, having only photos. But it wasn’t enough. The connections weren’t there. If I didn’t make a breakthrough, I might lose this thing. I heard the door to the study room open, and there was my enemy, Clarke. Under his arm was an accordion folder, stuffed with papers. I hurried to hide my notes, close my folders, but he waited until I finished before approaching, and sitting.
“What do you want, rogue? Here to beg? Don’t have enough?”
“It’s been two weeks, Lewis. You don’t have enough, either, or you would have gotten it already.”
He was right. Despite that, I adopted an air of superiority and sneered. “I’m comfortable with my lead.”
Lewis seemed unsure in the face of my confidence. Then he resolved himself and placed his notes on the table. “I don’t have enough. So I’ll tell you what. We share everything, and we go as partners.”
That rankled. Partners. The man who had stolen notes from me, who stalked me through the night to steal my find. I rose, heat rising me, and slammed my hands on the table. “Share!?” I shattered the library’s stillness with my outburst. “With a thief! A stalker! Why should I give a criminal anything?” I struck the folder to the ground, scattering paper. “Get out!”
“Fine.” He bent over and collected his notes. “Take your win, if you can win at all. I hope you choke on it.”
I watched him collect his papers, well aware that this was my last chance at . Where would he keep his research? If he could steal my notes, he would expect the same from me. No doubt he would have them under lock and key. Gritting my teeth, I tried to devise a course of action, my jaw aching from tension.
My laptop darkened at that moment, catching my eye, and I saw my own face reflected in the dark screen. Angry and suspicious, ready to steal what he freely offered. “Wait.”
He turned with a hand on the door handle, his face as hard as stone. “Make it good.”
I opened my folder and pushed it across the table. The invisible ink came out with heat. It won’t be in your photograph.” My words were easy enough, but I felt acid in my throat at the prospect of working with him. It sickened me, but I would need his help.
He sat down and pushed his folder toward me, venom in his eyes. Together, we looked through each other’s notes – together, we made connections.
“So the rose—”
“—the compass rose from the map. And if the serpent . . .”
“The river. If the serpent is the river, the jaws must be the peaks at the falls.”
“In the serpents’ jaws . . . there’s a cave, there must be.”
” ‘We must number the stars.’ If they’re these four constellations, the numbers in each . . .”
“A combination lock.”
That same night, we thought we had everything we needed, and we left despite the late hour. We were right about the cave. A shelf of stone ran behind the falls, leading us into the cliff-side. The safe we found there was a heavy iron thing, an antique.
I ran my hand over the metal, looking it over. “This safe alone is worth thousands. Wonder what’s in it?”
“Only one way to find out.” He kneeled and spun the dial. He turned the handle with a thunk. The safe resisted, squealing as we pried it open. Inside lay a beautifully wrought box of dark wood, and an envelope labeled ‘read me.’ I retrieved the letter and pulled open the flap. The paper was thick and heavy, and as I unfolded it, I found the calligraphy graceful, looping, artistic. The ink was deep blue with sparkles of gold under the flashlight’s beam.
“Well? Read it!” Clarke hissed.
I cleared my throat. “Intrepid adventurers. Your participation and zeal was, at first, an irritant. But with time, I grew fascinated with your rivalry. This game has become your playground, your obsession. And thus I made your reconciliation the only outcome. Open the box. You know what you have to do.”
“And? What else?”
“That’s all. ‘You know what you need to do.’ ”
We looked first at the box, then one another. Clarke opened it, revealing a bottle of whiskey, and two tumblers. He picked up the bottle, looking surprised. “This thing is fifty years old.”
My brow furrowed. “That’s a little on the old side for aging whiskey.”
He shook his head. “Japanese whiskey. They use Mizuhara, Japanese oak. It has a tighter grain.”
“So it takes longer. Suntori, then?” I paused, looking up at Clarke. I hadn’t expected he’d be a connoisseur. He apparently hadn’t expected it of me, either. A quiet understanding passed between us as our eyes met and held. He broke the seal on the bottle, then he broke eye contact, pouring the two glasses. He held one out, and I took the glass from him.
I looked at him over the glass as he held his glass up. “You know,” I said, “there’s another geo-caching competition coming up. A big one.” I clinked my glass to his.
“In March. Yeah.” We both lifted our glass and drank.
I tasted caramel and vanilla, a little spice, a little oak. “Oh. Oh, my.” Across from me, Clarke closed his eyes, and tipped his head back, as if in rapture. For a while, we sat and drank, not saying a word, just sharing this remarkable whiskey.
I set my glass down and looked across at him. “I say we don’t open this bottle again until we win the next one. As a team.”
He looked at me, his eyes calculating, but also smiling. “They’d never believe it. Us working together. And none of them can compete with us.”
“And what better name for a team than ‘Lewis and Clarke?’ ” I held my hand out to him, and he slapped his hand into mine, clasping my hand tight. Those events marked the beginning of a remarkable partnership.