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…

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