A prisoner in my own country!

What mysterious scandals unfold, when hidden deep within the pages of privacy from a loved one’s own handwriting, after lying dormant for decades. The things we do for love! This amazing story will be sure to tug on your heartstrings, but don’t let your coffee go cold…

 

Several years ago, Susan Lyons was rummaging through an old metal trunk in the attic of her grandmother’s two-storey house in Melbourne. The home, one of three owned by the wonderful old lady, had been left to Susan in the will. The other two houses went to her parents and brother William, respectively. Unfortunately, Grandma Riedesel, as she was always referred to, had passed away at the ripe old age of ninety-four, of natural causes. Susan and her mother, Eve, had been given the unpleasant task of sorting through the deceased’s worldly possessions. Childhood memories flooded back to the thirty-eight-year-old bank teller, at the turn of every treasured item, which bore pertinence to her relationship with her mother’s mother. The fading photographs, all neatly stacked and tied with a piece of string, of herself and little William sitting proudly on the handsome woman’s knee at Christmas. The crumbly-cornered, black-and-white ones of her granny as a woman far younger than she. Several others brought tears to both women when stared at and fondled. These were of Eve’s father who had been taken by a sniper bullet during the Vietnam War in 1967. In the frame of one print he was cuddling his beloved. On the reverse side, written in his hand was the inscription: Us at the entrance to Royal Melbourne Zoo, 1963… together for life! Naturally, Susan had never met him because her mother was only a teen when he’d failed to return from service. His posthumous medals of honour brought further tears when they were unwrapped from the cushioned cloth inside an old shoebox.

“My he was a striking figure of a man, wasn’t he Mum?” said Susan, staring hard at the image, her fingers carefully gripping its broad white border.

“What I remember of him, yes. And a kinder gentleman you couldn’t wish to meet, either. Curse that wretched Asian war for taking him away. It wasn’t even our show!”

Around them the dust sat heavy, and a plethora of cobwebs spanned most corners of the ceiling and joined floor to walls. Tea chests and suitcases were stacked in precarious fashion, and shadows attempted to withhold their secrets. The bulb, hanging from its twisted-cloth wiring cable, was a dim one. Her clothes, many in plastic bags, others just folded in piles, had the smell of memory about them. They didn’t care — in these small confines lay the remanence of nearly a century of historic connection. In no hurry, Susan and Eve continued sorting through the tired objects that had meant so much at one point, casting comments between “ooohs” and “ahhhs”. An elbow out of place caused a large box to falter from its position atop four larger ones. When the lid fell away, a pair of crooked deep-brown eyes stared back at them. These eyes of love were set in a worn furry face with a piece of one ear missing and several stitches coming adrift from the black triangular nose. The fur used to be yellow but now appeared a more darkish ochre with splodges of brown.

Eve immediately reached in to raise the teddy in the dullish light. “It’s Ruxpin Cuddlesworth, oh-my-gosh!” she chirped, thrusting the dusty old bear to her cheek.

“Careful Mum, you don’t know where it’s been!” said Susan with concern.

“Not an ‘it’, dear. This was my first friend in the whole world. He used to belong to your Grandmother, and she passed him down to me. He is a 1920s model. I’d wondered what had become of him.” Smelly old Ruxpin’s weathered little face appeared to be smiling. “Oh, thank you Mum, for saving him all these years.” She eased him away and manipulated his paws and legs on their swivels, to sit him down in the typical teddy bear pose.

Susan looked at her mother’s excitement — remembering her own first serious teddy bear, received when she was four. Her name was Drop-stitch Gertie, because, even from new there was a loop in her nose triangle. She wondered about the coincidence between both soft toys and also thought how ironical it was that people never forget their names. She began opening boxes, in the hope of finding Gertie’s thick, shaggy, brown, mohair form amongst the paraphernalia. She stopped looking when an opened cardboard box revealed something of greater interest. Inside, was a mahogany jewellery box alongside a fawn leather-bound blank-page-style diary. Stuck to the diary by two rubber bands was a folded piece of paper. On the outside of the folds were the words:

Susan passed it to her mother and opened the drawers of the jewellery box which were stuffed with photographs. The wrinkly images were of Grandma Riedesel at a P.O.W. Camp. It was obvious to her because the figures were all lined up with slouch-hat-wearing soldiers patrolling, and in the background, she could plainly see the barbed wire fence. Susan leafed her way through, placing one behind the other, as her mother started reading the diary. “I never knew this about Grandma Gracie. Why was she locked up Mum?”

Eve’s fingers had parted the tardy-looking secret-holder near its centre. It separated there because of a photograph, fading into sepia, of four teenage girls dressed in Charleston-style flapper regalia, inclusive with hats and fake cigarette holders, lay quietly. “Shhh, listen to this,” she said, gradually turning the pages. “That I did know about. It was because of her surname, even though she was a third-generation Aussie, it is of German heritage. They arrested thousands of people at the start of World War Two — if they suspected them of anything whatsoever. Men, women and children of many nationalities were sent to camps just like those ones you are looking at. Not really prisoners of war — more detainees, at least, that’s what Mum always called it… Yes, I knew all about it, but I most certainly did not know about this!”

Eve went back through the pages — to begin at the paragraph below 17th December 1940. “After the outbreak of war last year, Australia fell into absolute chaos. Troops had been enlisted and sent to the far-reaching corners of the globe. Women now did the work of men and many enlisted to begin training as nurses. I do not properly understand and neither do my friends. We had learned about World War One at school, although, still could not grasp the idea of it reoccurring.”

Susan, Eve and Ruxpin sat in a small circle facing each other as the story came to life…

She cleared her throat to commence reading the dossier, which had the dates at the top of each page, but they were in random daily, weekly and monthly accounts. “We had been rounded up at an ungodly hour of the night and sent to an internment camp at Rushworth, Tatura. A lost little town in the Goulbourn Valley. It is a date that I shall never forget. The weather was stinking hot and I cried. It took ages to get there and we were all made to feel like criminals. Men and women are segregated. I am located in Camp 3 along with my Mother, older sister Hilda, and two of our friends, Anne-Maree Schmidt and Gwenaël Ludendorff who is a very pretty girl, although sadly, she has a slight mental disorder. It is some sort of autistic syndrome and she loves everybody but can’t stand being touched by anyone except me. Gwen is terrified. We, along with all of the other women, and I presume the men in the other camps, have been interrogated. The Australian authorities are extremely suspicious of spies. This is not what a respectable sixteen-year-old expects to have happen in her own country of birth, but in some strange way, I understand it all. We each have an area about the size of a bathroom to exist in, with three communal washrooms. The food is very basic, and many of the vegetables are grown in the farm section.

25th December 1940. Well, what can I say… I have just experienced the saddest Christmas of my whole life. The entire camp tried their hardest to make it a joyous occasion, but nobody wanted to be here. We all wanted to be at home celebrating with dinner and cake. Mother is wonderful and I think right now I would be shattered without her love and support. Perhaps New Year’s will be a little more enticing. Apparently, there is a bit of a bash being put on at the main hall. We have been told we can attend but have to return to the barracks immediately after midnight. Never mind, I will be able to bury my nose back into the last few chapters of Huckleberry Finn. I have fallen in love with novel reading recently and find Mark Twain to be particularly good.”

Eve continued reading aloud. Each page was filled with the emotional turmoil which all these unfortunate victims of the war effort were experiencing in their cloistered environment. It was a dirty and unpleasant habitat. Susan listened intently feeling the grip of the conflict around her. After thirty minutes, Eve was nearing the flapper photograph. She continued…

“12th July 1942. Still no sign to the end of the war, which we all thought might be over by now. The crude tin sheds are very hot in summer and very cold in winter. I have written about this a number of times, but it can’t be expressed how miserable it makes us all. All the girls are pitching in to help, whether it is cleaning or cooking, washing clothes or mending them. A routine has been enforced to simplify our work. A few close friendships have developed for me and I am slowly growing accustomed to internment lifestyle. The boredom and loneliness of stolen freedom feels unbearable. To ease this, the Australian Army holds monthly dances with live swing bands playing, but our dance partners are always garrison soldiers. We are treated fairly respectfully.

Sue interrupted her mother. “Sounds dreadful to me. What on earth was the government of the time thinking? Obviously, these innocent women had no secrets. They would have been far better off allowing them to continue with their productive civilian lives! Don’t you think, Mum?”

“Easy for us to think so, Susan… but these were desperate times, my dear. Now, let me proceed.” Eve knew she was reaching the section which had caught her attention. “14th August 1942. During the middle of a bitterly cold winter, word came through to the detainees that a new detachment of soldiers would be taking over part of Camp 3. This was not important to us because although some half-decent friendships with the troops had been established, they were often rotated for various reasons. Some of the women managed to acquire a few extra rations on occasion, as well as the odd weekly bar of chocolate from two or three of the more-manipulatable Quartermasters. They were always careful to keep space between us though. Fraternisation with detainees was not permitted for the boys in uniform by their superior officers, and as I’m led to believe, punishable by court-martial. As I lay awake at night on so many occasions with only Ruxpin Cuddlesworth to keep me warm, my mind races with worry about our foreseeable future. My mother has been taken ill with Pneumonia and been transferred to an army hospital but neither Hilda nor I have been able to visit her. I have grave concerns for her wellbeing. Hilda has taken over the role as our main guardian. I am now eighteen and playing nursemaid to my dear friend Gwen who is struggling with the claustrophobic feeling of living behind the wire. She is a very poor reader, so I read out loud to her every afternoon. 21st August 1942. It was freezing last Wednesday night. An officer entered our quarters around six o’clock. We had never seen him before. This man is unattractive to look at, however, he seems gentle and kind. He arrived with two other soldiers wearing Red Cross armbands, announcing himself as Medical Corps Officer, Major Rivan Janus PsyD. He said he was doing ground-breaking research in the field of psychiatry and was going to help Gwen. She was very unhappy about the discussion which occurred. The psychiatrist major said he needed to work closely with her at the makeshift hospital for about one week each month. I mentioned to him that my mother was there and he said he would see what he could do for us. I am hoping to tie a visit with her and my mother in a few days. They took Gwen away.”

“That should cheer her up a bit,” remarked Susan, shuffling her bottom about. She was getting pins-and-needles from sitting cross-legged on the floor. “This Major Janus seems to be quite a reasonable fellow!”

“Stop interrupting Susan, or I shall save it for later. We have a lot to do here and haven’t got all day. Would you rather here the story afterwards, downstairs?”

“Gosh no! This is far more in the genre of things… cooped up here in the attic. Golly, I almost feel like I’m right with her!”

“Good. The next section is dated 29th August 1942. They would not let me visit the hospital last week, and when Gwen finally did arrive back at the camp last night, something was clearly wrong. Major Janus told us she was responding well to the therapy and said he needed to see her again in early September. She refused to communicate with anyone. Instead, no matter what I asked her, she just shook her head and cried into her pillow. Hilda and Anne-Marie are going to talk to her tomorrow. All else is managing fine in our barracks. I have just finished reading The Prince and the Pauper, another classic historical fiction book by Twain. 12th September 1942. It is very late at night and I am writing secretly under candlelight. Our curfew has long since removed the lighting. Several hours ago, Major Janus brought Gwenaël back to the camp. She is worse than ever. The therapy isn’t working at all. Gwen has some bruising, which Major Janus reported to his superior officer as attempted self-harm. She has never done anything like that before. When he removed her five days ago, the poor girl fought like a cat to prevent him. The other two soldiers, who were always the same two, held her down to receive a needle. This pacified her. He is very aloof towards the other women in our barracks and tells us nothing of her progress, other than; ‘It’s going well’. Again, he refused to help me get to see my mother. I do not like him anymore.”

Eve fell silent, running her fingers down the pages until she reached the page just before the dress-up photograph.

The stoutly built bank teller appeared concerned. “What’s wrong Mum?”

“Sorry Susan, but that section only spoke of the remainder of September. It was just elaborating about the mundane chores and camp discipline, plus a few more books she has read. We’ll get back to that when we show it to William and your father. Here’s the bit that caught my attention. 3rd October 1942. Gwen has finally opened up about her treatment to me. She has made me swear not to talk to the others. I am entering it in this manuscript, just in case anything ever happens to me. I am appalled by what is going on. Gwen said she is being ordered to wash, then she’s taken to a small padded room and locked inside. There are no windows and only a hard mattress on the floor with a wooden chair beside it. She does not know whether it is day or night. She told me that Doctor or Major Janus, whatever he is supposed to be, enters several times a day to have his way repeatedly with her under mild sedation. He forces her to perform all kinds of dastardly sexual acts at scalpel point. She said he calls her insulting sluttish names and says she is stupid. He warned her that if she ever spoke of his behaviour to anyone, he would take her somewhere in the night and cut out her tongue, then cut her to pieces. He told her that he would file a report saying she escaped, and that it was of her own doing. He told her his up-to-date examination report mentions irrational and aggressive behaviour. I know Gwen is not lying because we have been friends since we were three years of age. She has always told me everything, including the fact that right up until now she was a virgin, just as Anne-Marie and myself are. I hate what he is doing to her, but I feel quite helpless. I don’t think the authorities would believe her story. Doctor Janus has made it clear to all that the poor girl is delusional. Talk about an appropriate name. I cannot even tell the others in case they do something which puts her at risk of serious harm or perhaps even being killed. I shall never forget his face as long as I live. 21st October 1942. They came for Gwenaël, an hour ago. When I opened my mouth to confront the major, Gwen’s eyes begged me to shut up. She knew how angry I was, but she is terrified about the consequences of it being revealed. We hugged and she whispered; ‘I’ll be alright my friend — take care’. I feel more than just trapped behind the fence. I desperately need to see my poor mother before I go mad.”

Susan was gripping the other pictures of the P.O.W. Camp tightly. Connecting with it visually added to the horror of where her granny was. She saw the barbed wire even more clearly now and felt very sad for this ugly secret which had never been disclosed. “Mum, I could not go through what Granma Riedesel went through. I am so soft.”

Eve lifted out the eight-by-ten image, placing it between the rear of the diary’s cover and the last page. “You might be surprised, dear. 29th October 1942. This was the worst we have seen her. I think her spirit has been broken forever. All I can do is comfort her on her bed. She hardly speaks and will not eat. She is not interested in listening to me reading to her either. I thought it might help. It is very difficult for me to put pen to paper because Gwen’s circumstance is presiding over my every thought. Some good news is that my mother has recovered, according to Janus, and will be returning shortly. 5th November 1942. Last night it was raining very heavily. So heavily, in fact, that you could hardly see outside but I went for a walk regardless, to clear my mind. The campgrounds were deserted. I strolled amongst the crude gardens out at the front of the tin sheds. Suddenly, I saw that slight figure, whom I have grown to despise, just up ahead. He was approaching and wearing a raincoat, but I knew exactly who it was. We were both alone out there. He stopped in my path and I became scared. I looked around but saw no sign of life, except for the dull lights near the guard tower in the distance. He asked if Gwen was okay, and I don’t know what made me say it, but I accused him of raping my friend. He produced a scalpel and grinned right at me, calling her a foolish girl. I became very angry and reached down into the garden and picked up a large jagged rock. I rammed it hard as I could at the side of his head again and again. Before I knew what I was doing, Major Janus had fallen to the ground without a sound. I stared at him dead and bleeding, then turned and ran back to our hut without being seen. I was ashamed at what I had just done, and never told any of the other girls, but somehow, when we were all interviewed the following day, I think they knew. We all denied knowing anything.”

Susan Lyons sat with her mouth wide open. Was her beloved favourite grandmother a murderer? She couldn’t speak…

Eve did not read the account any further. She reopened the cover which was marked by the sepia-coloured print of the four girls. Opposite it, on the last page, she read out loud, “This is the only diary I have ever kept.” The emotionally moved woman looked at the photograph of her mother and Aunt Hilda, with Anne-Maree Schmidt and Gwen Ludendorff, pretending to attend a Great Gatsby party several years before the war’s outbreak. She hugged the diary tightly to her breast and stared down at the teddy bear’s long-since-hidden misty eyes. “You have known about this all along… haven’t you Ruxpin Cuddlesworth?”

Susan said, “At least she has closure, now that we know. Well, I for one forgive her. How brave she was. This diary is a symbol of real courage!”

Eve instantly replied, “Absolutely, I agree dear! Come to think of it now… I do recall Mum telling me about Gwen Ludendorff being properly diagnosed several decades after the war. Asperger’s Syndrome was not appropriately identified and named until 1981, I believe it was. Gwen never married and lived with us under Mum’s care until she passed away in the 1990s. Susan, do you think we should show this to the boys?”

Before Eve received her answer, the feeble bulb, dangling at the end of its twisted-cloth insulation wire, flickered several times then fizzled into blackness. The only glow shone like an eerie omen from the manhole entrance, hidden behind Gracie Riedesel’s hand-painted portrait…

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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…

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…

28th July 2018 – Life is amazing!

Wow! It has been a while since I have posted anything on my site. So here goes…

I have been busily working on a couple of new projects during the last few weeks. Nothing like writing three books at once!

I have been getting some pages out to a few friends and family to get some feedback on the main project at hand. Yes… I am still not settled on the title. This is the real hard part of the journey that tests your patience to the max. It all seems to go at a snail’s pace. In fact, it goes so slow the snails are passing me by.

The old google has also been working overtime to get my ideas together to write the “pitch” for submitting my book to some publishers. You only get one chance with each submission. If you don’t get them hooked to want to read on, well you’re done for!

Just finishing up doing the final read and doing the last “shine” so to speak and then the moment of truth.

On another note, I am thrilled to be invited to speak in front of a writing group about my children’s books. I still have to finalize the details, however this will hopefully be in the next few weeks. I’ll fill you in more once this happens.

 

Keep Smiling!