Relic Hunter… Cursed Labyrinth!

Before reading the final part of this artefact quest…

       please be sure to devour part one; “The Final Clue”.

            Then, I hope you enjoy sinking your teeth into

                   the very provocative part two; “The Keys Turn”.

 

“The Keys Turn”

 

The Gates of Magumembo lay agape behind the party of artefact expeditionary members. The exposed chasm between the towering rock faces, offered a biblical backdrop, beyond which sprawled Africa’s majestic, untamed, wilderness landscape. They’d clambered down the stone steps and gathered at the jaws of the repository.

“Typical, there’s always one more fence!” remarked the imperiously beautiful Jacinta Rhodes, with flippancy. Her intrigue was confronted by a large rectangular slot, big enough to feed her arm into, in the thick bronze barrier door. On its face, six obscure words gave nothing away. “My bet is, the key that opened the gates is the same key required to open this. Let’s hope so, anyhow.” Her clue-seeking eyes, wandering across to the words beside the huge ring handle.

“Why don’t you try to translate that inscription, yar, and I’ll go back and get the key,” offered Johannes Van der Meer, tilting his head forward to meet her eyes. “It’s a heavy bugger, I will require assistance, of course.”

Archaeologist and Chief Cook, Percival Straughn, stepped forward. “I’ll help you carry it, Diamond Jim. I’d love to get the feel of that Centuries-old platinum in my bare hands, for the first time.” Percival’s crystal clear and British-to-the-core accent rolled out from beneath his handlebar moustache. He was the only member of the remaining twelve wearing a pith helmet.

“Granted Professor!” nodded the expedition leader. “Bring all the trucks in. That way we can unload all the photographic and documentation equipment. Take a rope and a crowbar—”

Van der Meer interrupted, “You don’t have to explain, Jacinta. This part is my forte — it comes with the territory, yar! But first, we shall bring the key, so that you can explore the catacombs for the treasure. It could be tricky and may take some time, yar. Check the oil lamps… pitch dark in that tomb. Won’t be long.” He squeezed Straughn’s shoulder. “Come on Percy, let’s move it, yar!” They sprinted back up the ramp, to the stone steps.

Right from the outset, over two years ago, this scientific mission, which Doctor Rhodes had convinced her beloved Alexandru Ioan Cuza University, to fully fund, was one in search of a different kind of wealth. She’d made it clear that there were no intentions of plunder. Hers was a plight of notable discovery. One merely of documenting the find and gathering photographic evidence, interested in the platinum reserves — only to record their significant value to the world’s historians. Jacinta had stressed this expedition’s importance to the University, and of how she longed to become their leading teacher of archaeological studies.

She fondled the words with her fingertips, as she began to explain to the rest. “It appears to be a complicated mix of languages, most likely Zulu, and possibly one of the Bantu dialects, but I am not certain.” Rhodes removed her Fedora hat and began fanning her face in the semi-shade. “The inscription says; QAPHELA ISIQALEKISO – LOWO ONGENA ANGEKE ASHIYE.”

“Well, Doctor Rhodes. Are those languages you know?” asked Harry “Helping Hands”.

“I am not very proficient at Zulu. Well, not this version, at least. I believe it says; BEWARE THE CURSE – THE ONE WHO ENTERS WILL NOT LEAVE.”

The ten began murmuring like a pack of unsettled jackrabbits catching the scent of a fox.

“If the key unlocks this door… Do you want to risk it?”

Compelled to agree, they all turned to observe the other two’s progress. The rope had been launched over the twenty-metre-high bronze gate with the key’s head poking out above it. He had scrambled up the rope and stood atop, whilst Percy buoyed the other end. Diamond Jim seized either side of the key’s head and rotated it in the giant lock. They watched the two fifteen-hundred-ton gates drawing together, now all knowing, that the key could not be removed when the gates were open. Once sealed, they saw him extracting the metre-long platinum key and placing it on top of the gate. Next, they watched him wedging in the crowbar, tethering the rope around it, and tying the other end around the centre of the key’s shimmering cut-outs. DJ lowered it groundward, using the friction of the top of the gate, to ensure it landed delicately. Any damage to its teeth’s integrity may cause it not to unlock the other door. They grasped an end each — the solid platinum key was quite heavy. Small-framed Straughn struggled to cover the distance from the gates to the depository entrance, requiring a five-minute reprieve. Once they arrived, he sat perspiring in the shade of an enormous stone statue, while burly-built truck mechanic, Harry Murdoch, assisted Diamond Jim in inserting it into the lock. They turned it clockwise. The mechanism clicked. They twisted the ring.

Jacinta held out her arm to quell their eagerness. “Be careful where you place your feet, everybody, and keep your eyes peeled. We don’t want to have to carry anyone out. Do we?”

Three members shouldered the weather-beaten bronze door. It resisted at first, then slowly opened with a loud squeak. Desert filth and insect-droppings fell all around them, and a musty odorous irritation crept from the blackness. Oil lamps were lit. Water bottles were checked. Jacinta drew her Luger pistols, and the dozen looked sternly at one another’s expressions…

“In the name of historic preservation!” enlightened Rhodes, in a gallant and confident tone. “Keep close behind me, stay together and for Christ’s sake, keep your wits about you. If any of you notice anything remotely untoward, shout out. Is that understood?” They all nodded. Her eyes engaged with Johannes. “Stay with me darling, until we make a discovery. Then, you and Percival can take the key to open the Magumembo Gates and bring the trucks in. There’s little point in us getting too excited until we are certain there is a reason to be. It appears fairly obvious, that the key can only be extracted from either lock when the barricade is closed, so only one can be open at a time. We won’t know for sure unless we test it right now. Does that make sense, Jim?”

“Perfect sense, my love!” he said, holding her at bay, eyes planted straight into hers. “I am so happy for you at this moment, Jacinta darling. I know exactly how much this means to you.”

Before entering they tried to extract the massive key, without success. The door was heaved shut and the key gradually withdrawn. Jacinta and Johannes nodded to each other. Her theory was correct — though dangerous, they would have to explore the vault for an hour or so with the door sealed behind them whilst he retrieved the logistics trucks. They entered the labyrinth. The dark internal surrounds typified what a person’s imagination would dream up when picturing a thousand-year-old burial chamber — be it bodies or treasure that is concealed within. Sheer stone walls, inscribed with words similar to those on the door, reached from floor to ceiling. The cobweb-covered walls were damp and oily looking. A strange smell of death mixed with ammonia could not be avoided. The group edged forward, in single file, past wooden stakes as thick as a man’s forearm; each with an impaled human skull atop. The stone floor was littered with human skeletal remains, which appeared to be lined up in sacrificial order. The glinting tips of hundreds of Assegai spears hung off every wall.

“Do you think those poor sods’ possible demise was from the curse, yar? or are they the descendants of the Rivombo who perished en masse?”

Jacinta pondered. “It’s difficult to tell. When I do a study of them, we will know more.”

They crossed a bridge and rounded several corners, and there it was, shining under the dim glow of their lamps, but unmistakable in its silvery lustre. A trove of magnanimous proportion, from floor to ceiling, stacked like crude miniature roof tiles.

“Magnificent!” exclaimed Jacinta, stare locked wide apart. “This is what we’ve waited over two years to feast our eyes upon. Back you go, Jim. See you soon.” They kissed.

Minutes later she heard the bronze door slamming shut.

From the top of the gates, Diamond Jim began hauling the platinum key up after Percival had tied it securely from where he stood, twenty metres below. A confused Percival watched, as the Dutchman, instead of resting it on top of the gate, in preparation of his accomplice climbing the rope to assist with its insertion, he lowered it down the other side. Next, he disappeared down the rope leaving it there for when he would return…

“What’s going on?” yelled the dumbfounded archaeologist, but to no avail. “This wasn’t part of the arrangement!”

On the outside, Van der Meer extracted a small mirror and commenced deflecting the sun’s rays, using Morse Code, towards the distant binoculars. He could still hear Percival’s faint shoutings for twenty minutes after his real companions arrived to pick him up. They loaded the precious key into the well-travelled truck and drove to the foothills, to their well-secluded camp. His seventeen associates, looking like desert pirates, were sitting around on director’s chairs. A quiet smokeless fire smouldered beneath several cooking pots. Whisky bottles were crashed together in merriment.

An unattractive bearded Bolshevik descendant, Vladimir Matkovic, crunched Johannes with a bear hug as he leapt from the military-looking vehicle. The driver and another fair-haired man with deep-set eyes carried the key. They sat with the others to discuss the next move.

Although he was the group’s leader, Vladimir’s immaculate words came gently, not overly rushed. He was a man with a lukewarm attitude, but his eyes commanded attention and respect. “So, my Netherlands colleague, it has been years since we last spoke. Tell me, what exactly are we dealing with here?”

“Doctor Jacinta Rhodes does not suspect a thing, yar. Together we unlocked the codes and discovered this magnificent key. It alone would be worth a fortune. It opens the gates and the vault door. Only one can ever remain open at a time, yar. The bullion of platinum is intact, in a tomb-like fortress. A few minutes inside, in plain sight. The expedition team are inside the tomb as well.”

“Terrific work, you scoundrel. I knew you were the one who could secure her trust!” said Vladimir, in his strong Russian accent. “It will be worth this arduous slog through the wilderness. I am so very proud of you. We must share a vodka immediately!” He turned to the blond man who was smoking a pipe. “Demetriou, please, some of our finest for comrade Van der Meer!”

“What about the others, Vlad, who are still trapped inside?” asked Diamond Jim.

“Well it looks like their fate is in our hands then, doesn’t it?”

Johannes clasped the stout glass of clear vodka. “Oh yar. But do we go and get them now, it’s mid-afternoon? They only have enough oil for those lamps for a few hours. And, the lamps, yar, are stealing their air by the minute!” He was thinking about the skeleton-littered floor.

Vladimir Matkovic gave his beard a rub, uttering through a controlled laugh. “I think it will be best to leave it until morning, let them sweat on it for a while. Some air will be entering. I am sure the clever Rivombo people would’ve had that covered.”

Johannes stared into the fire with an enraptured but concerned frown…

Inside the dark damp vault, Jacinta began to goggle with a similarly captivated stare, when confronted by the opulence in precious metal. Her Gypsy eyes lit up like a pair of greedy sapphires as her fingers fondled in disbelief. Her hand held the oil lamp close to the cold, grey, metal slabs. By the second, her demeanour appeared to drastically alter, and her fellow scientists feared their leader had contracted platinum fever.

“We must take it… take it all… fill the trucks!” she shouted through the wobbling glow. “Jim will be back soon with the key to open the blockade.”

“Don’t be foolish, Jacinta! Have you gone mad?” replied Murdoch. “Remember what our mission is all about. And what about the curse?”

She laughed. “Not mad, just realistic! This is just sitting here for no reason. Think about your salaries. They are a pittance, by comparison to what we could carry out of here in our trucks!”

Harry Murdoch argued back, “Do not jeopardise the trip by gluttony. If you overload them, and the trucks break down, we are done for. Africa’s bush will show little mercy for greed, and you can’t eat or drink this stuff!”

Jacinta replies, “I am willing to take any risk. Let’s face it, the whole expedition has been a risk… and you took that.”

Mutterings of realization began brewing amongst the awestruck individuals. They began picking up the hefty chunks of platinum, whilst discussing their paltry few-hundred-dollar-a-year incomes. But eventually, they all agreed to steal a realistic amount of the riches…

As they set to work loading the plates of metal by the door, Harry suspects a rat. “Why is Jim taking so long? Wasn’t he and Professor Straughn merely opening the gates, to start bringing the trucks in, with our supplies?”

“Don’t worry Harry, he’s completely trustworthy,” replied Jacinta — her hand resting against his leather vest. “We are bonded by love and mutual respect. He won’t be too long.”

But Jim does not return, and the lamps are rapidly chewing up the oxygen. Tension mounts. Tempers flare. Accusations fly and time passes. They realise that there is something wrong and Jim has vanished, along with the key to their freedom. The exhausted team decide to extinguish the lamps to conserve their precious paraffin oil and see if any daylight is entering. A dust-filled beam pours through a tiny hole at the vault’s highest point. It is enough to keep them alive in the dark. They desperately needed to sleep.

“Tomorrow we shall devise our alternative plan,” said Rhodes, with confidence. “Perhaps something has happened to DJ, and we have gotten it all wrong. Little else can be done right now. Do we all agree?” All did.

It was a long and uncomfortable night — broken only by a match flame, lighting one of the near-empty lamps, in the morning. Under the solitary glow, mechanic Harry Murdoch inspects the lock and gradually discovers a way to possibly reverse the mechanism. It is worth a chance…

He sets to work, improvising with smaller pieces of platinum, as picking devices. The giant tumblers finally align. They heave the door. A cheer arose as the daylight floods in. They storm through but Jim is still nowhere in sight. The trucks have not been brought in, but the crowbar is protruding from the top of the enormous gates, with the rope still visibly hanging over the other side. They commence loading the proportion of platinum at the top of the ramp, in preparation, just in case he returns, but Jacinta now recognizes that she has been double-crossed. Suddenly, her keen ears detect the sound of trucks mustering outside the Magumembo Gates…

Johannes and Demetriou use the rope to climb to the top. They haul the key up and hoist it into position. They turn it and scale their way back down, as the huge gates parted. The clattering noise they make is horrendous. Diamond Jim has heard it before. All eight of their own trucks, plus the seven expedition ones, filed in. The scene is perfectly silent. An amount of bullion, the size of twenty tea chests is sitting outside the opened vault door, waiting to be loaded. Everyone is dead, except for Doctor Rhodes. She is nowhere to be seen.

The eighteen men stood facing the mesmerizing pile of stacked plates and bleeding corpses. The group, led by Head of Investigations, Vladimir Matkovic, are disguised Interpol Field Agents who have been assigned to save the platinum from being stolen by Romanian, Jacinta Rhodes, who has been an international artefact thief, just like her great-grandfather, for her entire adult life.

Matkovic is cautious. His eyes begin to roam the area searching for an inkling. There is not a breath of wind, nor a hint of movement. “Careful gentlemen. She’s still inside the chamber, I’d say.”

“What should we do, Vlad? Should we put the bullion back, yar?”

“No!” a female voice shouts from over their shoulders. She’d been behind the enormous stone statue where Percival had sought shade. “First raise your hands. Then, load as much as you can onto my truck, you lying bastard. I suppose you think you and your brigand friends are gonna get your filthy hands on my bullion?” Two fully loaded Luger pistols were aimed at the group. “Now, turn around very slowly.”

They inched around — hands raised.

“Don’t be a fool, Jacinta! We are Interpol, yar, not thieves. You’ll never get away with it!” shouted Van der Meer, tilting his leather hat back. “You’ll die out there!”

“Really? Don’t move a muscle Jim. Well, I believe differently… and I’ll shoot anyone dead who doesn’t cooperate. Just to prove I mean business…” She pointed one of her 9mm Lugers at Vlad’s chest and shot him at near-point-blank range in the heart. “You will be next lover boy!”

“Load it yourself.”

“Tut-tut, handsome!” She shoots a second Interpol Policeman. “Now get at it, Jim. I never did tell you what the real final clue was.”

“Oh yar, Doctor Rhodes, and what exactly was that?”

“IN IPSO VITA REALI FUR. ABSTULIT A VOBIS IN TEMPORE.”

He snarled, “Still clueless, yar, darling!”

Jacinta translated, “The real thief is life itself. It has robbed you of your time!” she laughed. “Because you are going to be here forever. But that won’t be very long. Unless of course, the Rivombo return!”

The relic hunter’s truck was loaded with sufficient supplies to get her to civilisation, and millions of dollars’ worth of platinum. Next, Jacinta methodically shoots holes in all the vehicles’ radiators, leaving them all stranded.

“Great-granddaddy, you would be so proud of me!” she cackled raucously while driving away. Rhodes had gotten away with another raid. Now, the only thing between her, and a life of staggering wealth was the gruelling length of the mighty Limpopo River…

Advertisements

Relic Hunter… a stolen affair?

I am making terrific progress with my novel, and I hope you all enjoyed reading the small excerpt that I posted last week. The comments you have sent me are greatly appreciated and inspire me to continue…

Since it has been a while since I treated you to a ten-minute thriller, I have put in an extra effort to get this out to you. I hope you enjoy the adventure…

 

“The Final Clue”

 

When striking a literary chord… the word Africa exposes the raw emotions of romance, adventure, treasure, lust, murder, jealousy and of course, mystery. All have a perfectly resonating allure — making even the deafest of ears prick straight up. We all love a great story, especially when good triumphs over evil. But what if you were one of the evil ones?

It was January 1934 and the temperature had soared into the excruciating. The non-stop distant rumblings of jungle drums, beating their rhythmical pattern, overshadowed every sound. Eager young relic hunter — Jacinta Rhodes, couldn’t believe her luck when she stood at the Gates of Magumembo, observing the sheer cliff faces, deep within southern Africa. The cerulean sky stretched endlessly above, punctuated only by five small clouds quickly evaporating in the oppressive heat. Her distinctive silhouette, with legendary desert khakis and trademark sable fedora hat, stood motionless. Lodged between a giant thirty-metre-wide gorge, with inch-perfect tolerances, sat two enormous solid gates. These gates held a treasure behind them, according to the ancient map she was holding in her hand. Guided by the elaborate messages, inscribed upon eight ancient papyrus scrolls, they had finally arrived!

Though a Romanian national, her father was a British sailor who’d married a woman from Bucharest at the turn-of-the-century. Born a year later, the unfairly attractive young adventurer was a living fireball of beauty and passion, with a face of blazing loveliness and a Mediterranean temperament to match it. Her right-hand man for the expedition, a Dutch-born stentorian speaker, Johannes Van der Meer, couldn’t help himself — but he did, anyway… The pair had become lovers — thrust together for the extensive journey and galvanized by each other’s charm. He couldn’t resist her romantic Gypsy magnetism — she couldn’t resist his handsome ruggedness.

For Jacinta Rhodes, though, this story began many years prior…

After settling in the central mountains, a millennium earlier, a tribal descendant of the early Tsonga people known as Rivombo, had stumbled across a magnificent greyish-white metal. This metal was platinum, and the Rivombo settlers had mined the ore and discovered a method of smelter for the dense metal’s very high melting point. To these natives, the majesty of this white gold was far higher than its modern-day monetary value. To them, it represented tribal supremacy and everlasting strength. They wore it around their necks and wrists into battle, believing the shimmering silver metal would protect their spirits and guide them into the afterlife if slain. The success of this tribe, in battle, had spread their bloodlines far and wide throughout southern Africa. The secret mine, where they extracted the rich ore had never been disclosed. Kept secret also, was the ancient stone vault which stored their reserves, high in the mountains.

The secret of these riches was not leaked until the fifteenth century. In 1498, during a search for African riches, namely spices and gold, Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer and once Viceroy of India, had been one of the first Europeans to see the mouth of the Limpopo River. His tiny 27-metre ship, a carrack called São Gabriel of 178 tons, anchored there. A crew had sailed up the river and met with the Sultan of Mozambique. This turned to hostility when suspicion of their true objective was revealed. Vasco da Gama absconded with his life and knowledge. His scribe created the eight scrolls of secrecy, which exposed the whereabouts of the treasure trove. He never returned — his destiny remained in India. Over the many decades that followed, several attempts to procure the bullion have resulted in dismal failure and death, following resistance by the Rivombo descendants. Without the map or scrolls, would-be treasure hunters were completely in the dark.

The legend, according to the scrolls, had described in Portuguese Latin, the route to the discovery of a rare and beautiful, silvery-white, precious metal being worn by the natives. Luckily for Jacinta, these had been illegally procured by her artefact-seeking great-grandfather during one of his many trips to Lisbon. The hunt was on.

The scrolls she had. The map she had. The treasure’s secret she wanted to unveil.

Each scroll had a puzzling question written in an old form of Portuguese. She was fluent in Swahili, Hebrew, and also Bantu, which are widely spoken in Africa… and fortunately for Miss Rhodes, she also held a master’s degree for this ancient language known as Vulgaris Latin, achieved at The Alexandru Ioan Cuza University in Iași. This skill made her one of only a handful of people in the world capable of deciphering the cryptic questions.

It had been an epic journey to this point. Africa in its rugged central core is slow to negotiate. In 1934, it was even slower…

After two thousand kilometres of rock-strewn landscape, their seven old 1920s Ford AA trucks were terrain-battered and tired. When the expedition started, there were ten such light logistical trucks. After two broken axles, three shredded gearboxes and one seized motor, the mechanic, Harry “Helping Hands” Murdoch had cannibalized the wrecks for salvage purposes. The metal skeletons of the remnants now lay in the burning heat, to be pecked clean by human vultures. Fuel was scavenged from outposts and the occasional dirt-runway airport. They hunted wild game and gathered indigenous fruit to supplement their crude supplies. Water was sourced from the river.

For the last two years, they had travelled through the rugged Highveld Plateau, following the north-east flowing zigzagging path of the river, but a mistake had been made. Miss Rhodes’ attempts to interpret the clues, for the whereabouts of the gates, on the second last scroll didn’t correlate with the map, and she had guessed. The map had indicated a turnoff from the Limpopo River, but she had misread the instructions, taking the much wider Mokolo River. The expedition’s doctor, Louis Jean Voîtures, had also died of malaria three months ago. The loss of such a vital member of their expedition, and having to backtrack, had been costly in time and morale was now at an all-time low. The roads they had to negotiate were nothing more than red dirt pathways, beaten wide by the constant file of elephants and other beasts, wandering along the broad shoreline. But feisty Jacinta was determined to succeed.

They had to return to the fork at the Mokolo and Limpopo Rivers. The term Old Man River personifies the Limpopo beautifully. The ancient body of slow-moving water has glistened out here in the African sun for aeons. The source was in the high lands where the Marico and Crocodile Rivers began. For hundreds of kilometres, the Limpopo and Marico Rivers ran side by side. A confused interconnected patchwork of water and landmass, almost too difficult to navigate had cost them vital time as well as supplies. Their journey had become fraught with many dangers. As if the extreme weather, wild animals and remoteness were not enough to contend with… there were also the native tribal warriors. Out here, running from the Assegai is a way of life. These range-weapon spears, used by the Zulu and Nguni people, since time began, are as mysterious as they are deadly.

Now, this courageous woman stood at the doorstep of victory…

Jacinta had made up for her error, by guiding the expedition’s remaining contingent of eight males and four females, using a mysterious sixth sense. She knew her destiny and followed her trusted hunches. The others had no choice, but to believe in her… tolerances had been strained to their maximum. Now here, a fever of bristling enthusiasm twitched each adventurer’s heartstrings. The weary dozen comrades were staring at the immense bronze gates, fabricated from Benin bronze nearly a thousand years ago. At a staggering twenty metres tall and fifteen wide, each gate must have weighed over one thousand five hundred tons. The five hinges securing them, each the size of a man but twice as wide, alone would have weighed several tons. There were no handles, nor locks to speak of. It looked impregnable. Not another soul was in sight. It was a non-baleful but somehow unnatural sensation. Jacinta’s sweat-soaked felt hat hung from its cord on her back, her eyes strained on the text.

“So, what does it say, yar?” barked Johannes, suffocating in his own excitement. His big hand nearly tearing the fragile document from her grasp.

“Quiet, Diamond Jim,” she replied, using his preferred heroic explorer’s title. “I am having trouble reading the last eight words.”

“Thought you would’ve had it memorized by now, yar my darling!” he laughed, placing an arm around her tiny waist.

“Jim, this document is over five hundred years old. This form of Vulgar Latin is no longer used. You have seen it on many occasions. The handwriting is poor and has severely faded. There are some letters missing. Believe me, I am doing my best. Even through my magnifier, it is difficult.”

“I helped you solve the other clues which brought us here. We were all counting on your genius Doctor Rhodes!” His sarcastic wink was both swashbuckling and irritating.

“Alright, mister cleverness — help me with it. To my best ability, I think it says; RESPONDEO TALE SIT IN EJUS SINGULIS DOCUMENTIS CONECTITUR NUMERUS PLACE.”

“Yar! Which exactly translates to…?” Diamond Jim had no dialect knowledge, outside of Dutch and English, the latter by which they always used, to converse to one another.

“Roughly it means; EACH DOCUMENT HAS ONE ANSWER IN ITS NUMBERED PLACE. But that makes very little sense to me right now. I have read all the documents hundreds of times and translated every word. To begin with, there are no such numbers inscribed.”

Bamboozled also, Johannes stared at the greenish-golden gates in all their vastness, in search of another clue. There were heavily eroded engravings and markings embossed on the towering solid bronze gates. Like the twelve apostles who sought to represent the fundamental faculties that embody our divine nature, the eleven other faces joined with his and feasted their eyes over the huge stockade. The gates offered nothing, creating more questions than answers. The towering rock faces beside each gate were attractive, in their own way, with their jagged relief of multi-coloured faces. Eroding words of wisdom were engraved by the Rivombo ancestors on the smoothened surface in huge metre-high letters. Up close, Jacinta translated their thought-provoking incitements to regale the rest. The team sat in the shade of a sprawling Acacia tree and inspected the rolls of papyrus, looking for an overlooked answer. They pondered until nightfall.

They had set up camp by a convenient loop in the river some distance away.

That night Jacinta couldn’t sleep. The humidity was unbearable and the air, thick with insects, made it almost impossible to breathe. She sat in her tent with the oil lamp slowly burning, as was the riddle in her mind. Hours passed by with the relic hunter, still wearing her boots, eventually dozing off with the collective of scrolls across her chest. She dreamed most of the remainder of the night, then, just before light, burst awake, stirred by the solution…

“Of course,” she said, fumbling to place them back in order. She refilled her oil lamp, relit it, and looked at the very first word on the first document and read it aloud. “CLAVIS.” It had never made sense as to why it was there in the first place. Then on the second scroll, she inspected the second word and sounded it aloud. “EST.” Then the third from the third. “INTUS.” …and so on. Miss Rhodes scribbled the words down in their respective order on her notebook and said them out loud. After reading the scrolls on numerous occasions she had been mystified by these out-of-place words but not thought much about them. Now they made perfect logic, but did they?

Diamond Jim rushed inside her tent. “What are you uttering?”

She repeated them to him. “CLAVIS EST INTUS SOLDANO MOZAMBIQUE CONJUNCTUS EST CLYPEUS.” Her tired face looked a shadow of its former Romanian splendour, but it was forgivable, given the hour. “I have solved the final clue!” She showed him how she had figured out where each word of the phrase came from. “And it converts to, THE BOLT or KEY IS INSIDE THE SULTAN OF MOZAMBIQUE’S SHIELD.”

“You astonish me, I am lost in admiration.” He kissed her filth-ridden face. “Considering the fact that he died over four centuries ago — now all we need to find out is what the heck to do next!”

They stepped out from her tent, to be greeted by the morning’s awakening sunlight; its rays creeping over the mountain range behind them. Jacinta circled Jim as he lit a cigarette to think, his back was to the Gates of Magumembo. They were joined by the others who had woken to their dawn chatter. Van der Meer rubbed his ample jaw, shook his head, and said, “I got nothing. How about you?”

She looked in his eyes and said, “What if I’m wrong, again? Perhaps it is not spurious!”

“Is that more Latin, yar?” he asked, exhaling a cloud of spent tobacco. “It’s not like you to be wrong. How unusual.”

“No, silly it means genuine. What if the whole thing is a wild goose chase?”

“Then I guess we’ve had a good time becoming this wretchedly filthy, yar?”

Then she saw it…

As the sunlight wandered its way from the two dividing clifftops to the valley floor, filtered through his cloud of smoke it reflected a perfect image of a gigantic shield-carrying warrior etched on the left cliff face. On the right was a female. The words of wisdom had been carved below their feet. In this hue of light, they were obvious, but almost before she could mention it, the increasing brightness began dissolving the carved relief’s shadows.

“Look!” she blurted with a smile as bright as the very sun itself. Jacinta’s finger pointed over his shoulder. “Side-by-side, on the escarpments either side of the gates. And if I’m not incorrect…” she hesitated, noticing a glint at the very summit. “There is something shining up there.”

Within the hour, Johannes had scaled to the top, using his bare hands. He stood on a narrow ledge holding onto a deliberate metal hook. Through his mind passed the words; Those ingenious devils, they thought of everything.

The contingent stared aloft as he vertically withdrew an enormous platinum key, over a metre long, from a cavity at the top of the carved shield. The magnificently fabricated piece of engineering had an intricate zigzag pattern of ridges and notches down the blade, each the size of his hand. Its circular head, about the size of a large dinner plate, bore an engraving of the Sultan. This was the bit that Jacinta had noticed when the sun struck it. With every ounce of strength he had left, Jim held it aloft. They cheered with vigour.

Harry “Helping Hands” Murdoch cupped his palms and yelled from below, “Can you see where it might fit, to open the gates?”

Diamond Jim pointed to where the two massive gates met. From up here, roughly one hundred metres above ground, he could tell they were easily wide enough to walk out on. At the meeting point, he could just make out a slot. He shouted back. “I can see the lock, but it will take two of us to get it across. Come on up and help me Hands.”

Percival Straughn, a demure archaeologist with the team shouted, “What can you see on the other side of the gates, DJ?”

“Two gargantuan chains fixed to the gates’ centres. And, what looks like a fortress or at least the remains of one. There’s a set of steps leading to a doorway and thousands of bones. They appear to be human.”

Harry Murdoch packed a tin of grease in his knapsack and steadily scaled the vertical cliff. The two men precariously wandered out along the top of the gates, carrying the large heavy metal key, twenty metres up from the rocky ground below. The entry point was smeared with grease and the key was tilted to vertical and lowered into place. The tip fed slowly in, tight with the tarnish of grit, built up over time in the lock’s grooves. The two men pressed it down and heaved the head clockwise. They could hear the tumblers meshing inside the enormous barrel.

“Such technology, for so long ago,” said Harry. “It is fantastic.”

“What is fantastic, Hands, is the fact that it still works, yar!” replied Jim, hearing it click home.

At that moment, they had to brace as the gates gradually groaned open. Both men witnessed the taut chains winding back, their unseen ends feeding into the rock face nearby.

Murdoch barked over the noise. “Must be an intricate spring, pulley, and counterweight system. Ingenious. Let’s turn it back and see.”

They wrenched the key back to its original position. The gates stopped, then began to return shut once more. With an agreed nod, they turned it back to clockwise. The Gates of Magumembo opened to their full extent. The excited members hurled a rope over the top to enable each man to climb down, against the other’s weight. The twelve rushed towards the giant steps to prepare to funnel through the doorway — their mouths watering at the prospects of what lay ahead. The fifty steps led down a corridor about the width of a half-decent road. Everything was carved from stone. By 8:30 am, the sun’s heat was intense. Below, in the shadows, a large closed bronze door could be seen. An inscription was just visible at this distance. At which point, Jacinta, still puzzled as to where any inhabitants might have been, went first.

During the entire expedition, not one solitary member had noticed the party of seventeen, following barely an hour in their wake. This group, which had its own wealth agenda, stayed just out of sight every step of the way. They had traced Jacinta’s mistake like a shadow of hungry scorpions in a desert. Right at this moment, a host of powerful binoculars were watching from the foothills, their weapons cocked and ready.

Our daring anecdote will continue…