Virgil found the treasure map in a little Tijuana trinket shop, just off the main tourist route. The map led him to the edge of the Vizcaíno Desert and into the Sierra de Guadalupe in central Baja. In a cave set in a black granite cliff, Virgil found a mountain of gold coins. Sitting on top of the gold was a dragon the size of a railroad freight car.
"I've come a long way for this," Virgil told the dragon. Pulling a Glock pistol from his waistband, he pointed the gun at the dragon. "I'll fight you for the gold."
The dragon shrugged. "No need. Go ahead. Take it."
Virgil took a step forward.
The dragon looked at him with great red eyes. "How are you going to get the gold out of here?"
"I'll take some now and come back for more when I need it."
"Really? So, the fact that you found the gold doesn't cause you to wonder if someone else is on his way here, right now, with another map? Someone more organized; someone who'll take it all?"
"How many maps are there?"
"I have no idea. You might have the only one. On the other hand, this isn't exactly the ninth century where people seldom travel more than five miles from the town where they were born. The world is mapped, indexed, and gridded. I guarantee you that within six months, technicians are going to be crawling through here, running fiber-optic cable."
"I don't need it all. Maybe just a million dollars worth."
"Okay. Last I heard, gold was about $350 an ounce. A million dollars worth would be around 2800 ounces. That's roughly 175 pounds. And, really, you'll want two million since you'll lose half in taxes. That's 350 pounds. Can you carry that much out of here, through the desert and all the way home?"
"All right, I'll hire trucks and take all the gold."
"Good thinking. No one will notice dump trucks hauling antique gold coins through Customs. Certainly not the truck drivers. I'm sure they'll all be trustworthy."
"Everyone'll get a cut. There's enough to make us all rich."
"They'll be even richer when they cut your throat and take it all," said the dragon. He turned over one of his great paws, examining the talons. Each of the dragon's claws was as long as Virgil was tall.
"Tell me, how are you going to spend your fortune? Will you stroll into a Porsche showroom with a pot of gold, like a leprechaun? Don't you think your showing up with truck full of the bright and shiny is going to raise some eyebrows? Or are you an honest man who'll bring the gold to the bank and declare it as income on your tax return? I hope no one thinks you have connections to those hidden caches of Nazi bullion. It would suck to become the world's most hated billionaire."
"You're just trying to confuse me," said Virgil. He scratched his sweaty scalp with the barrel of the Glock.
"No, I'm pointing out that nothing is simple. This isn't the kind of world anymore were Jason can show up with the golden fleece, no questions asked. The IRS will put a lien on your assets. The Federal Reserve will send Treasury agents after you. Some impoverished country will file a claim in the world court claiming that the gold was stolen by pirates and demand its return as part of their cultural heritage."
"I've come all this way. I can't leave empty-handed."
"Maybe I can give you something better than gold. Maybe I can give you the secret to gaining riches all on your own." The dragon closed its red eyes and leaned its enormous head down low over Virgil. "Get a job, hippie!" the dragon shouted, and began laughing.
"If I bought in an ATV, I could haul out a nice pile of gold all by myself. No truckers. No questions."
"But you still have to get it across the border and home. People are going to notice when you start spending it and you know what's going to happen? Eventually, you're going to have to admit that you found a buried treasure. Aside from the legal hassles I've already pointed out, you're going to be famous simply for being rich. That's the worst fate in the world. Everyone will want a slice of you. Well, your fortune. You'll never have a moment's peace. Know who the happiest millionaire in the world is?"
"I don't know and neither do you because he's rich enough and smart enough that no one's ever heard of him!"
Virgil sat on a boulder. He spun the Glock on his finger, cowboy style. The dragon hummed quietly to itself. Clearly, it had been through this before. The creature's humming annoyed the hell out of Virgil. A moment later, he stood and holstered the pistol.
"Come with me," he said.
"Be your pack mule? Not in this lifetime."
"No. Leave the gold, We don't need it. We'll be partners. I know people in Hollywood. Believe me, a talking dragon is worth a lot more than a pile of gold buried in the middle of nowhere. We'll make a fortune on tour."
"I'm kind of a homebody," said the dragon.
"How long have you been in this cave?"
"I don't know. A long time. Centuries."
"Ever get lonely? You don't have to be lonely ever again."
"What, with humans? I can barely stand you one at time."
"When's the last time you had a nice long chat with one of your own kind?"
"It's been a while."
"Listen, a talking dragon would attract a lot attention from the scientific world. They'd want to study and understand you. They'll look for others of your kind and if there aren't any left, it wouldn't take much to get those same scientists to clone you. Imagine a whole new generation of dragons for you to pal around with and teach about the world. You wouldn't be alone any more."
The dragon was silent. It tilted its great, dark head -- almost brushing the stalactites that hung from the cave roof -- and stared down at Virgil.
"You'd really leave the gold?"
"Hey, I'm halfway out the door. Come with me."
Virgil walked out of the dark cave and into the bright desert light and heat. Slowly, cautiously, the dragon stepped outside and followed Virgil through the Sierra de Guadalupe and back home to LA.
Things went just as Virgil had promised. The two of them toured the world, made a fortune, and were happy. In their show, Virgil told a highly exaggerated version of the story of how he'd met the dragon, full of hijackers, desert banditos, and shootouts. The dragon answered questions about its life and did a comedy fortune-telling routine with volunteers plucked from the audience.
That Fall, a surveying team found the dragon's cave and the gold. They tried to pack it out of the desert, but mercury impurities in the old coins poisoned the entire crew. The ones who didn't die right there in the sand were MedEvaced to Tijuana in a coma.
One night, over dinner -- tandoori lamb chops for Virgil, a side of charred Niman Ranch organic beef for the dragon -- the great beast wondered aloud if it hadn't gotten things wrong back in the cave.
"Who was I to sit on a mountain of gold for a thousand years tempting every poor, dehydrated slob who wandered by? What hubris! What brass balls! It occurs to me that maybe I wasn't in that cave to test humans. Maybe I was the one being tested."
Virgil and the dragon had a good laugh over that and toasted each others' good health.
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Richard Kadrey is a member of a small group of innovative writers, including William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, Pat Cadigan, Tom Maddox, and others, who changed the face of science fiction in the 1980s. He also creates art. He lives in San Francisco.