CHAPTER FIVE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-SEVEN
There wasn’t space for Alex to turn over or around. Instead, she started the even slower journey back twenty feet to where she thought she’d see something that might be an off switch.
“Sir, it’s Margaret.”
“Yes?” Alex, Vince, and Seth said in unison.
“Um … okay,” Margaret said. “I was referring to the Fey.”
“Roger that,” Vince and Seth said in near unison.
“But actually, if you’re listening,” Margaret said, “which of course you would be … um …”
“Peaches?” Vince asked.
“Yes, sir,” Margaret said. “That’s not the release. The one the Fey is climbing back toward.”
“Oh?” Alex said. Her head dropped to her hands to take a few deep breaths.
“I don’t think so,” Margaret said. “The catch appears to be next to Mr. O’Malley’s left foot.”
Seth turned to look.
“I see it,” Seth said. “Vince?”
“Yes, sir, I’m backing up,” Vince said.
After a few moments, Seth was able to belly crawl backward toward the object Margaret was talking about.
“Do we have gas masks?” Seth asked.
“In your backpack, sir,” Matthew said.
“We assess that gas is not what this chamber is about,” Margaret said. “I cannot send you an image but there are wood spikes that come out of the walls. It will hearten you to know that there is more than one Nazi body stuck there.”
“Tunnels of death,” Seth said under his breath.
“This appears to be correct,” Pierre said. “I realized that I have heard of this place. It is an replica on the ‘Subtarreaneis Mortis’ in Rome.”
“Really?” Seth asked.
“Does that mean something to you?” Leena asked. “Sorry. He’s been saying that for a while.”
“Yes, in fact, it does,” Seth said.
He pushed down the lever in the wall and crawled to the chamber opening. Without hesitation, he turned so his feet dangled into the chamber before dropping down.
“We’re safe here,” Seth said. “If this tunnel is a replica of the ‘Subtarreanis Mortis’, we have three more chambers to go.”
“Any news from up top?” Vince asked.
“You won’t believe me if I told you,” Matthew said.
“Try us,” Alex ordered.
“Trece and White Boy are here,” Matthew said. “We were about to open the tunnel to talk to them when Pershing and his entire team arrived by chopper. To review this as some kind of a heritage site.”
“Oh great,” Raz said from the root cellar. “I wondered if that might come through.”
“Our little Polish government official is furious, but there’s little he can do,” Matthew said with a chuckle.
“Good to have friends,” Alex said.
“Good to have lawyers,” Royce said.
“They were Nadia’s,” Alex said. “Her company has an entire departments of world class lawyers on staff. They took it on. With Sandy’s permission, of course.”
“Friends with brilliant timing,” Ben said.
Alex dropped into the chamber. The wall on her right was embedded with at least twenty of what looked like lodge pole pine trees sharpened to deadly points. The last foot of tree and the horrible points stuck out of the wall. There were four human remains on the points.
Seth knelt next the remains while Vince stood next to him.
“German soldiers,” Seth said. “Can you take photos?”
“Why should we care?” Vince asked. “A dead Nazi is a good Nazi.”
“While that may be true, even Nazi’s have mothers and children,” Seth said. “Someone has been waiting a very long time for these men to come home. Imagine if this were you? Or someone you loved? Because, in terms of the human family, this is someone in your family.”
Vince gave him an unsure look.
“I’ve spent time with your father,” Seth said. “You can’t honestly tell me you don’t have scumbags of questionable intelligence and morality in your family.”
“You know my father?” Vince asked.
“And mother,” Seth said. “And that brutal older brother of yours.”
“Sir,” Vince said and began digging around in his backpack. When he looked up, he squinted at Seth, “How …?”
“I’m Catholic?” Seth shrugged.
“I thought you were Jewish,” Vince said. He pulled out the camera.
“So does my father,” Seth said. “My step-father was Catholic. Which means that my brothers and I were raised Catholic. My daughter, Sandy, is Catholic. Lizzie is Jewish, now, but she was Catholic before she married Jammy. Julie Ann is a Marine so …”
“A Marine, sir?” Vince asked.
“That’s short hand for I don’t know,” Seth said. “It may surprise you but I am not the world’s best father.”
Thinking that Seth was a lot better than his own father, Vince gave him a vague nod.
“You met my father at …” Vince said.
“Vince?” Alex asked. “What is it?”
“I thought everyone thought my father was awesome,” Vince said.
“I never have,” Seth said. “He was cruel, brutal, at best. I thought he was horrible to you, in particular. I was sent away to school when I was young. I argued with your parents about it, but they couldn’t be swayed. How can you be an ‘every life is precious’ Catholic and send your son away for getting his girlfriend pregnant? Just pathetic.”
Vince gave Seth a nod and went to take the pictures of the men. Seth looked up at Alex.
“Can you help me?” Seth asked.
“Of course,” Alex said.
“When he’s done, let’s see if we can find some identification,” Seth said. “That means that we’ll have to go in their pockets. Are you okay with that?”
“Kind of gross, but I agree with you,” Alex said. “Everyone deserves to come home.”
“Yes, I thought you did.” Seth gave her a curt nod.
“Can you take video, Vince?” Alex asked. “You have a lot of practice with it.”
“Of course,” Vince said with a grin. “My daughter is a world class soccer player. Plays for the American team.”
“Amelia is a wonderful girl,” Seth said. “Before you ask, I know Lamberton. And, as point of reference, I was officially always on ‘Team Vince.’”
Vince’s face broke into a rare, wide smile.
“Sir,” Vince said. He went back to taking pictures. “I’m done with photos. I’ll set up back there so we can get the entire scene.”
“Thank you,” Seth said.
Alex dropped down to him.
“The easiest way to do this is to be fast,” Seth started.
“Yes, sir,” Alex said with a soft smile. “I have done this before.”
Seth gave her a quick look.
“Of course, you have,” Seth said. “Please forgive an old man’s arrogance.”
Alex grinned at him. Her grin slipped as they began the grisly work. Seth found a wallet on the first man.
“If you can set it like this, we’ll take a photo of the remains and the identification,” Seth said.
“Good idea,” Alex said. She pulled a pocket knife and a clump of keys out of the young man’s pocket. “They seem so young.”
“Teenagers,” Seth said. “They’re always teenagers.”
Alex nodded. They continued the rest of the work in silence. When they finished, Vince took a series of photos. They waited while Vince sent the images to the cloud. He gave them a nod.
“Where is our next tunnel?” Vince asked.
“If it is a replica, the exit to this room would be …” Seth looked from wall to wall. “There.”
He pointed to the wall they’d come from. Along the floor was a square sized hole.
“It should go to a chamber behind this mechanism,” Seth said. “Do we have gas masks?”
“In our packs,” Alex said.
“Including mine?” Seth asked, taking off the pack.
“Yes sir,” Vince said. “Our Sergeant packed your backpack last night.”
They rummaged through their backpacks and came up with gas masks.
“Handy,” Seth said. “The chamber next door is should be gas. Let’s put this on in case we trigger it.”
“Good thinking,” Alex said.
The belly crawled into the next chamber. Margaret and Pierre led them to the “off” switch. They stood up in a chamber with two more bodies. One of Troy’s drones hovered over them.
“The air is clean there,” Troy said.
They took off their gas masks and got to work on the bodies. With Vince taking photos, Alex and Seth found identification for the men. Vince took photos and video. They waited while he sent them to the cloud.
“They really came after this tunnel,” Seth said, mildly.
“Make the story about the nuclear detonator seem more probable,” Vince said.
Alex nodded. Vince looked up to indicate that the images had been sent.
“After you, sir,” Vince said.
“The next tunnel always looks like nothing,” Seth said. “But it could be anything. When I say anything, I mean any thing — flooding, crushing walls, ceiling dropping, anything. The more unlikely, the more it’s possible to happen.”
“Yes, sir,” Vince said.
“Do you think they could do ceiling drops or …?” Alex asked.
“It’s unlikely,” Seth said. “Given these conditions. I’ve seen the most unlikely things in the most unlikely places. You’d be surprised what can be rigged up. So mind your ‘p’s’ and ‘q’s’.”
“Yes, sir,” Alex and Vince said together.
Alex looked up at Troy’s drone.
“Can you send the drone in to see what we’re dealing with?” Alex asked the drone.
“Roger that,” Troy said.
Looking at Seth, Alex said, “We can see what the drone finds.”
“Good thinking,” Seth said.
The tennis ball shaped drone zoomed down the tunnel. Vince took out his water bottle and passed it to Seth. Seth raised his hand that he didn’t need any. Vince took a long drink and put it back into his pack.
“Looks like nothing,” Troy’s voice said in their ears. “No catch, no stop, nothing. And the room is empty.”
“That only means that we need to be very careful,” Seth said. “Troy, what’s the floor look like?”
“I’ll scan it,” Troy said. “Give me a minute.”
They waited for what felt like a long moment before Troy said.
“Good catch,” Troy said. “The floor is weak. Looks like it’s fallen through before.”
“Is there any way around it?” Seth asked.
“There’s a ledge around the outside of the room,” Troy said. “It’s narrow, just a couple of inches, so you’ll have to climb.”
Seth turned to Vince and Alex.
“Did we pack rope?” Seth asked.
“Climbing rope,” Alex said. “I have a small compound bow in my pack. I can make a rope arm rail for us.”
She looked at Vince.
“Doable?” Alex asked.
Vince nodded. Alex looked at Seth.
“Let’s get to it,” Seth said. “You go first.”
Alex smiled. She took a micro-compound bow from her pack and a quiver of arrows. She tied the arrows to her arm and the bow to the outside of her pack. She gave Seth a nod and started into the tunnel. It was as long as the others. Tired, they were moving slowly.
Alex reached the end of the tunnel. She could see the salt tunnel through the exit to this room, which was nearly opposite to this tunnel. It was easy to see why people would just hop out of one tunnel and fall to their death.
Alex tied her rope to the end of the bow and shot it to her left about waist high above the ledge. The arrow hit the wall and went in deep. She cut the end of the rope and tied it to a peg which she jammed into the edge of the tunnel.
“I’ll go first,” Alex said. “Make another support. We should go one at a time. The walls are soft, so be sure not to put your whole weight on the rope.”
She climbed out of the tunnel. Making sure not to touch the bottom of the room. Using the rope for support, she shuffled side to side along on small ledge. Once near the corner, she made another rope support for the wall. She tied it off on the arrow she’d shot. Without ceremony, she started along the side wall. Once she’d made the corner, she shot an arrow to the long side of this room. Again, the arrow stuck in deep in the soft wall.
Alex climbed along the far wall to the exit tunnel. She entered the tunnel face first.
“This is it,” Alex said, her voice rose with excitement. “The salt tunnel is big and full of all kinds of stuff. I can see the door to the main tunnel. We should be able to open it so the others can come through.”
“We’ll have to look for booby traps,” Seth said.
“Of course,” Alex said. “But there is a piano right here near the door. You can play while Vince and I get impaled.
“Awesome,” Seth said with a grin. “Can’t wait to play.”
Vince gave a quick cheer.
“Go ahead,” Alex said.
Seth started around the room. He easily made it to Alex. Vince stepped out onto the ledge and the rope began to pull from the wall.
Alex was tall, but not a very heavy.
Seth was not a very big person.
Vince was muscular and strong. Nearly cut in two by an underwater explosion, Vince’s body was now made up of metal and muscle. He shuffled along the first wall.
Vince had just made the corner when the rope pulled free from the first wall. In a breath, it pulled free from the second arrow. Vince began to fall. There was a collective gasp over their ear bud communicators.
Alex lurched out into the gap. She managed to catch his hand.
“Alex!” Vince screamed.
The floor below him collapsed.
“Don’t let go!” Alex said.
To her surprise, Seth jumped from the entrance to the salt tunnel. He swung in the air for a moment before falling in Vince’s direction. Seth managed to pass Vince a rope before swinging toward the wall.
“Oof,” Seth said as he hit the wall hard.
Alex looked back to see that Seth had tied two ropes around the piano. He was on one and the other was for Vince. She managed to grab Vince’s other wrist. His hand automatically went around her wrist.
“Let go of my hand!” Alex said. “Tie it on you.”
“Don’t let go!” Vince said. “Don’t you dare let go.”
“Tie the rope on!” Alex screamed. “We’ll pull you up!”
“Sir, he’s panicking,” Leena said. “Blanking out.”
Vince’s eyes flicked down.
“Vince!” Alex said. “Look at me. Don’t look down. Look at me!”
Vince’s eyes were rooted to the ground.
“Look at me,” Alex said, screaming at the top of her lungs. “Don’t you dare look anywhere else, soldier! You look at me!”
Vince’s eyes flicked to Alex’s face. For a long moment, he stared at her with blank eyes.
“Hi Vince,” Alex said. “You want to sing with me?”
His eyes still vague, his head went up and down.
“How about one from Sunday School?” Alex said.
“This little light of mine …” Seth started singing.
“I’m going to let it shine,” Alex joined in.
At the sound of Alex’s atonal voice, Vince’s eyes began to clear.
“Let it shine! Let it shine!” Alex and Seth sang together.
“Just tie the rope around your waist, son,” Seth said, in the soft kind voice usually used for children.
Vince’s eyes flicked to Seth’s face. For a moment, the men just looked at each other.
“Tie it around your waist Vince!” Alex said.
Vince’s eyes flicked to Alex. He gave her a grin. Just like that, he let go of her hand so that he could awkwardly tie the rope around his waist.
“Nicely done, son,” Seth said.
“I’m going to let go of your wrist,” Alex said.
Vince shook his head.
“I need to pull you up soldier,” Alex said.
“You’ll swing to the wall where I am,” Seth said.
Vince looked at Seth for a moment. With a nod, he let go of Alex’s wrist. He swung toward the wall, hitting it just a few inches from Seth.
Alex turned her attention to the rope that held Vince. She grabbed onto the rope and began to pull. Vince’s military training kicked in. His legs worked automatically to walk up the wall. Once his head was visible, she grabbed the back of his jacket and pulled him on to the edge of the salt tunnel.
Breathing hard, Vince lay face down.
“Now you!” Alex leaned over the edge to look at Seth.
“Sounds good,” Seth said.
Alex grabbed Seth’s rope. While she pulled, Seth was able to leverage his legs and the rope to basically walk up the wall. Seth fell over onto his back with exhaustion. Alex dropped to her knees to catch her breath.
“There … is … supposed … to … be … three … more …rooms,” Seth said. “We just went through two.”
“We need to look for traps near the entrance,” Alex said.
Seth nodded. Alex climbed over to her pack and took out her water bottle. She gave it to Vince. He took a drink and gave it back to her. Alex gave the water bottle to Seth. He drank deep. When he was done, there was just enough for her to have a drink.
She threw the aluminum bottle hard at the floor in the room. The floor began to crumble. After a few minutes, the floor fell away to show a deep cavern that dropped at least a hundred feet before hitting an underground stream.
“Whoa,” Vince said when he looked over. “I’m glad you …”
He looked at Alex and then at Seth.
“Thanks,” Vince said.
“We’re not there yet,” Seth said.
Seth hopped to his feet. He looked left and right before stepping into the salt tunnel.
An arrow came out of nowhere and struck Seth in the shoulder. The arrows momentum was such that the arrow knocked Seth off his feet. He slid toward the chamber with no floor. Vince threw his body over Seth’s legs to stop his movement toward the empty chamber.
“Ow,” Seth said, in a mild, joking tone.
Alex and Vince laughed. Seth pulled the arrow out of his body armor.
They collapse to the ground to rest.
Denver Cereal continues next week…
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