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…

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