Murder Molehill Mayhem!

 

By Stephen James

 

Isn’t it unusual how human beings congregate together through habit and in different social environments, chattering and listening at the same time? They share their stories, both brief and epic in differing layers of intimacy, all dependent upon how well they know the individual in question. The surroundings have little impact on the quantity of divulgence. Sure as sunset, our mood can influence it. At work, it can become quite deep if the acquaintance has been elevated to friend status. Exaggerations have to be filtered or diluted down. Facts are sometimes difficult little creatures for individuals to keep aligned in their mind’s drawer. Occasions when these tend to elevate are when one person is trying to impress a member of the opposite sex. Yes, it is a world of listening, speaking, sharing, believing and disbelieving, which can be at anytime, anywhere and anybody.
Such as this place…

An icy chill had lowered its unwelcome presence at Unwark, Newhaven, on the eastern coastline of the United States. The suburb, nestled about eleven miles out of town, was connected via a splendid grid of bus routes dotted with stops. The vehicles, which ferried the commuters with magnificent punctuality into downtown Newhaven, ran practically non-stop. Newhaven’s substantial population boom, after the discovery of copper at nearby Old Soak Town, had forced its urban sprawl back in the 1940s. Unwark was one of these newer regions, the rest of the city dates back to the 1600s. On this particular day, it was 7:35 am and it was the end of January, therefore, the tail-end of winter was still wagging. The year was 1989. At bus stop number 19, on the corner of Cypress Street and Anglerfish Road, Mrs Alton, a rather large woman of fifty well-worn years, was in full flight with Mrs Dingleworth. Agnes Alton had a mouth on her like a conveyer-belt. It just never stopped. Finally, she paused for some air…

“Oh, I couldn’t agree more,” said Mrs Dingleworth in false agreement, having only been able to process about thirty per cent of Agnes’s Gatling-gun onslaught. She needed to change the subject. “Did I mention my next-door neighbour’s oddity to you?”

“No. Oh, do go on!”

“Well, they don’t usually argue as a rule. Not audibly anyway I mean. But the other day I heard him say quite loudly, that if she didn’t stop visiting the Witch’s Society; a club of silly girls who dress up and sit around casting spells on each other, then he would…”

“Would, would, would… what?”

“He said he would kill her!” She grabbed Agnes for dramatic effect, then giggled to defuse her acquaintance’s startle. “I think he suspects she’s up to no good and he is just laying down the law. I think they are actually a very loving couple.”

Several other passengers were nearby. Some listening, others oblivious to anything outside of their newspapers. Two children were bouncing a basketball non-stop from 7:03 am, which was when they arrived. A hiss of brakes interrupted their conversation. This was Joan Dingleworth’s ticket to peace and quiet. A latecomer dashed through the melting snow. It was as if the hurry-music in his head had suddenly started. Agnes waved goodbye, unfulfilled by only the story’s bait, and wanting the meaty details; hers was the next bus to Lilydale. The two children did not board either, ergo Agnes would have to endure the confounded thumping of the ball a while longer. Before her bus arrived, a gaggle of four teenage girls wearing school uniforms converged under the roof of stop 19. They were all chewing gum and speaking three at a time in very high-pitched tones, with one alternating listener. Agnes grew even more impatient, deciding to take on the chilly air outside as a way to avoid the ruckus. She only appreciated the sound of her own vocal cords. Her friend, Vera Kennedy, whose closest companion was a small Yorkshire Terrier called Bunty, approached with a wind-assisted walk. Bunty, as usual, was scampering out front at the end of his retractable leash. Boston born Vera resplendently rounded her vowels with Royal Family aplomb and was always overdressed for any occasion. She held her hand out ready to shake way before her arrival.

“Hello Agnes, honey,” she said on the hover, observing Mrs Alton’s lips on the verge of opening. “I can’t stop this morning. Meeting my new man for breakfast at Clarissa’s Pop ‘n’ Stop. He’s devilishly handsome and thinks I am wonderful. Can’t believe my luck.” She withdrew her leather glove and blew a kiss at her friend. “Ta-ta!”

“Have fun now,” replied Agnes, flicking an unimaginative wave out of jealousy.

At last the bus arrived and the bouncing ceased its monotonous rhythm.

The following Monday morning at the bus shelter, the 8:00 am commuting crowd was building toward double figures. Mrs Alton, who was busily fussing with her umbrella in expectancy of drizzle, overheard Mr Ballinger saying something to Mr Czernovski. It went like this. “Tell you what, Czernovski, did you see on the Sunday night news? That bloke from the east side of the city did his wife in with a carving knife. Tried to tell the cops it was an accident! Yeah, six accidents in a row… all around her heart!”

“Wow! that is stifling. It reminds me,” interrupted Agnes Alton, who was catching the later bus this morning, “you should have been here last week. I was speaking to a woman who had just heard her next-door neighbour threaten to kill his wife because she’s a witch.”

“A witch did you say? I don’t believe we’ve met,” said Ballinger offering his hand, “Carl is my name, Carl Ballinger and this is Jake Czernovski.”

“Yes indeed. “Death will soon be upon you!” he’d threatened. I got it straight from the horse’s mouth. An honest woman that Joan Dingleworth — straight as an arrow! My name is Agnes, but you can call me Mrs Alton. We are not on first names yet young man!”

Rotund Jake rubbed his red beard. “Oh, good golly, you can’t go around believing everything you hear Mrs Alton. People do tend to exaggerate things at times. Ballinger here is a policeman. Just ask him about some of the mountains he’s seen made out of molehills—”

She turned on him like a thunder cloud…

“Well, how rude! If you don’t mind,” cutting Czernovski short, and withdrawing her hand with a huff, “we have only just met and already you have rubbed me up the wrong way. Excuse me!” Agnes stepped forward, relieving herself of their company.

Ballinger hunkered in alongside the busybody, politely coughing her attention. “Please accept an apology on behalf of my friend and I. All Jake meant was that the Newhaven PD cannot go around investigating every single rumour that gets tossed around.” He was a fraction behind her peripheral vision and giving his friend a wink. “I do believe your friend’s concern is possibly a correct one. Say, why don’t you take my card and keep in touch if anything else arises from this? There are two numbers, one is my private home number and the other will get me at the station.” Carl offered Agnes the plain but clear piece of cardboard.

“Alright, I shall accept your apology Officer Ballinger, and your card.”

At that precise moment the bus skidded to a halt and the bifold doors opened with a hiss, but nobody alighted. A small group, including the three, squeezed onboard. It was standing room only. Czernovski and Ballinger had the displeasure of listening to Mrs Alton’s complaints about the rudeness of the younger generation of today, as well as a laboriously detailed account of her version of Mrs Dingleworth’s little tale, all the way into Lilydale. Beside them, another middle-aged woman with bright purple hair was challenging her for the airwaves with her longwinded account of her husband’s wicked ways. Her booming voice drowned Agnes’s. Finally, before she parted at the mall, the purple-haired lady’s last few words went…

“This is an amazing admission of mine, but please, don’t whatever you do, tell so and so…”

An excited Mrs Alton hurried to the bus stop early the next morning. Her nosey head bobbing about, filtering the passing crowd, in search of the remotest acquaintance who may be catching the same bus as she. One by one, the murmuring crowd began to swell. Agnes burst into full verbal action with Eric Standwater whose three, of four, pet goldfish had mysteriously passed away in the night. She had a remedy for the prevention of a similar fate for the sole remaining one. In a blink, the crowd thinned when the bus to the bay pulled up, delivering four African American college students, and whisking away most of the gathered commuters. Eric, being one of them. Agnes grew impatient in the brisk wind that had begun to swirl the gently dropping snow. She was hoping to receive an update from her bus-shelter friend, but Mrs Dingleworth was nowhere to be seen. The busybody’s head flick-flacked back and forth like a sideshow alley clown, checking the pavement. What if the brute next door had gone on a rampage and killed her?

Minutes later, those four annoying teenage schoolgirls, who cared precious little for peace and quiet, engulfed the little building in their daily squawking. Mrs Alton hated their routine hair twirling and gum chewing, not to mention how sick her ears were of listening to their boy problems. She took refuge on the other side where, at last, the familiar figure of Joan Dingleworth was approaching in full stride. Before Joan was even in earshot, Agnes began her broadside of questions about the killer. Joan knew they would be coming, she waved excitedly with her free hand, clasping a raincoat with the other. Both women’s voices met within metres — soon entwining in a venturous hen hackle. As it thinned to a respectable alternating Spanish Inquisition, stimulated by the very mention of the words “murder” and “close-by”, the accumulating crowd encircled both women.

“So, has it gotten worse since we last met?” asked Agnes, making sure they could all hear.

“Let me simply put it this way for you to decide. There I was, nonchalantly pruning my border gardens, as one does at this time of year, when I heard his voice as clear as the Liberty Bell, roughly saying; “Your shenanigans and crafty witchcraft ways do not fool me. We have a serious problem here and I need you to make up your mind how we deal with it. Without attention, unfortunately Evanora, a hasty death seems imminent!” That is her name. Evanora then replied; “Tomorrow I am visiting Jadis, Locasta, Theodora and Medea. I have to, Seth…” those are her crazy friends with witch’s names. Her husband is Seth. Then she said; “…because it is our one and only shot at a full moon.” He cut her off with a raised voice and said; “Make up your mind what is more important, but let me warn you, the days are numbered!” I was right next to the fence. It was loud and clear, Agnes.”

“Oh my gosh! What should we do?”

“Well, I for one am not going to personally interfere.”

“Have you called the police?”

“No. I wasn’t quite sure if I should. Nothing’s happened yet. Only talk. Do you think they would do something?”

Agnes assumed control. “Well, I have already informed an officer. He took me very seriously, even gave me a card with his personal home phone number on it!”

Joan grinned. “Perhaps he’s interested in a liaison. You know, of the personal kind.”

Agnes needed more sizzle on her plate. “Nonsense, but either way, we should get together socially. We have so much in common. I too like to garden in my spare time. Let me offer you my phone number and address. I can take yours down as well.” Mrs Alton rummaged around in her handbag for a pen and paper. “I am in Cypress Street at number 41.”

“Really, well my house is in Anglerfish Road at number 668. I am surrounded by trees. Evanora, the witch, lives at number 666. Kind of spooky. Don’t you think?”

Right at that very moment, Vera Kennedy was making a beeline for the packed pavement. Yorkshire Terrier Bunty’s fully extended lead had her in a water-skier tow. Mrs Kennedy had decided it was ‘sable day’ today, therefore, at this precise second she had the chance to flaunt her fur. Bunty found the centre of the group, pulling Vera shoulder to shoulder with Agnes. “Good morning fellow Unwarkians!” she trumpeted, ceasing the conversation in a twirl. “What’s the skulduggery today then?” The sable stole slipped a fraction.

“Off for another date are we, Vera?” snapped Mrs Alton, hating to be upstaged.

“Yes, but not till five past eight. He’s scrumptious — like melting chocolate, and simply can’t get enough of me!” She flicked the stole’s end back over her shoulder. “Oh, c’mon girls, I’m early… do fill me in on the latest goss.”

Another bus arrived, whisking away the satisfied crowd, and leaving the three extroverts to their exchanges. Agnes allowed Joan the privilege of divulging the story while she patted Bunty. This was rewarded with a detailed exchange of her latest conquest’s generosity, which more than made up for his awkward habit of displaying affection in public places. Vera rolled back her sleeve, revealing a stunning heart-shaped Omega.

“Latest present! Goodness me, see how it flies when you’re with good company. Must get a wiggle on, Roger will be as antsy as a blindfolded tightrope walker. One mustn’t keep a love-hungry pet unfed! Ta-ta.” She tugged Bunty from his pat and pranced toward Clarissa’s Pop ‘n’ Stop.

Joan Dingleworth watched her disappear around the street corner, envious of her trim figure and ignoring Agnes’s rude remarks. At last, their bus arrived just as a light blanket of snow began to settle. An uncharacteristically late Jake Czernovski had to grasp the top of his hat as he ran to catch the city-bound bus. His belly wobbling with each stride. His red beard held stiff in the breeze.

After a long day’s work for the law firm she had been with for sixteen years, Mrs Alton eventually put her feet up at her home in Cypress Street. In her hand was a well-earned cup of tea. On her knee was her favourite women’s magazine. Beside her lay her Persian cat, Bartholomew. She had all but forgotten about the morning’s dramatics.

Until the telephone rang…

The bumptious know-all seized the handset from its rotary dialling cradle. “Yes hello, Agnes Alton here. Who may I ask is speaking?”

The voice from the other end came, “Agnes, it is me, Joan Dingleworth!”

“This is earlier than I expected, Joan. I am a little tired this evening—”

Joan interjected, “I had to call you. Moments ago, I was watering over by the fence and I heard him on the telephone. It’s happened!”

“What has happened?”

“The murder! I distinctly heard Seth saying; “I’ve got her body in a bag. Hurry up and get home, will you? I want to make sure we dispose of it properly!” Joan was overwhelmed with excitement. “I don’t know who he was talking to or who has been killed but I heard it as clear as crystal.”

“Stay put Joan and don’t panic. I shall call Officer Ballinger immediately. He told me he lives close by. Do not go over there. Do you hear me!”

“No, of course not. I’m not that silly. Please hurry!”

Agnes practically dialled the numbers off her old-fashioned phone. She heard Carl Ballinger’s voice. He was in his pyjamas watching television.

“I told you, Officer Ballinger!” she squawked, offering a highlighted rendition of her friend’s eavesdropping. It finished, “… now you must come at once, Joan is very concerned for her own safety. I must be there to comfort her. Can you pick me up on the way through?” She gave him her address and no alternative. “I’ll be waiting out front.”

“Call that other number on my card, Mrs Alton, it will get straight through to my colleagues,” he stressed. “Relay your message and tell them we’ve spoken. I must have some backup. I’m on my way!” Carl pulled on a pair of trousers straight over the top of his pyjamas and wrestled on a shirt, boots without socks, and a departmental storm jacket. He had no time to lose. Being a beat walker, the concerned policeman had to use his own car.

Feeling as though she was a very important link in the chain of events, meddler Agnes Alton made the two calls. One telling the police to hurry along to 666 Anglerfish Road, the other to Mrs Dingleworth, letting her know she’d taken care of matters. Minutes later, after locking Bartholomew safely in her orchid house next to the garage, she stood freezing outside under the streetlight. Hurrying to the epoch-making event, off-duty Ballinger whisked her away; the gloomy chill-filled darkness of nightfall seemed to be following them to the crime scene. They pulled up in front of number 668 Anglerfish, shrouded by a row of kerbside hedge maples. Observant Carl saw Joan behind the front door — security chain in place. He tiptoed in front of her, close by the porch. Her fingers were protruding between the gap, and wiggling about, pointing to her neighbour. She began to utter a few words, but he hushed her with his forefinger to his lips as his footprints marked her snowy front lawn. Ballinger’s senses heightened with each step, eyes scanning — ears pricked — nose drawing deep smooth breaths. The neighbourhood lay in silent wait. With identity badge firmly clasped, he climbed the five wooden steps completely mindful of the horrific danger that may be lying behind that front door. He knocked firmly. “Anyone home? Hello, is there anybody inside?”

Nothing but the wind in the trees. Carl looked to the street which fed from the main road for his backup patrol car. There were no saving headlights, he had to go alone. He knocked stridently once more. “Open up, this is the police!”

But again, there was no answer. He increased the strike. Still no answer…

Was he too late?

Suddenly, his peripheral vision noticed a pair of headlights turning into the street at the same time as the door slowly opened a fraction. There was no wailing siren.

“Yes,” muttered a young man, holding firmly onto the timber casing. His eyes, with episodic blinks, looked to be hiding some strange emotions. “What can I do for you, officer?”

Carl was feeling the tension, but he didn’t show it. Every nerve in his body seemed like a strained harp-string ready to snap at a touch. “You must permit me to enter. I have a well-informed reason to believe—”

His announcement was interrupted by the car swerving into the driveway. Behind the steering wheel sat a woman. She hastily opened her car door. Evanora climbed out still wearing her witch’s outfit, tall pointed hat in her hand. “What is going on, Seth? Why is this man here?”

“Hold your position miss!” ordered Ballinger, bewildered by her ridiculous attire and forcing his way past. “I am the police and it is imperative that I search your residence!” Seth allowed entry.

Once inside, he immediately threw a comprehensive search around the entire space — lips pressed firmly together assisting his concentration. Each detail of the room’s characteristics was being mentally recorded. When Seth attempted to speak, the edgy policeman held up his palm to hush his words. It didn’t take very long for the seasoned beat cop’s keen eyes to spot the large, well-stuffed, black, plastic bag that was partially screened behind the couch. Evanora had ignored his warning and followed him into the poorly lit lounge room. A nasty odour permeated throughout the smallish house. The pressure-cooker situation pressed heavily on the shoulders of the witch and the killer. Carl approached the motionless lump as a lion stalks its prey. The young couple fell silent, hands squeezing from uncertainty and not quite knowing how to deal with the situation, as the drama unfolded. They looked at one another with a lugubrious wash across both of their faces. He knelt beside the smooth curvy mound. Then placed his hand on its cold outline…

Ballinger’s steely glare burned its way towards the nervous couple’s embrace. “I suppose you are going to tell me that this is your laundry?”

Evanora burst into tears, but it was Seth’s sullen voice that answered his question. “Not at all officer. This was our beloved pet St Bernard, Maggie. She has been sick for some time now. I knew it would happen soon. She died earlier this morning and I wanted Evanora to hurry home so we could take her to the pet mortuary. We couldn’t afford to have her collected.” He held her tight. “Silly girl thought her crazy friends could cast a spell to save her from the inevitable.”

Carl pulled back the bag opening to be confronted by the huge, brown-and-white, furry head. He felt rather foolish. “I’d better give you a hand then,” he said with a wry smile.

The sound of a whirring siren, drawing closer by the second, filled their ears. Carl was not looking forward to explaining how he managed to get caught up in this exaggerated molehill to his approaching colleagues. No doubt, it will take a while to live this one down at the station.

The following morning before the dawn broke, at bus stop number 19, a small chattery crowd began to muster.

“I got it straight from Mrs Alton. She was there you know!” yapped Mrs Worthington. “She phoned me last night to let me know that she wouldn’t be catching her usual bus. It was the drama you know.”

“Drama… What drama?” asked Mr Ziebell-Doerff.

Sensing the spotlight’s circle, Mrs Worthington plunged into a full explanation. “Oh yes there were three, or was it four, police cars in total outside the witch’s house at 666 Anglerfish. The dead body was in a bag! Dreadful set of circumstances!”

Mr Ziebell-Doerff leaned in, eagerly replying, “Was it cold-blooded murder?”

“I’m sure it had to be. They caught them red-handed you know, Friedrich. This sort of thing never normally happens in our neighbourhood.”

The crowd began to swell, as another dramatic rumour mountain began emerging…

 

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She met him in a lonely desert… an unexpected alliance!

“A Seven-Mile Stare in Her Eyes”

By Stephen James: see at Xlntreads.com

Back in 1865, the natural world knew little of mankind’s unexplainable quest for greed, domination, exploitation and cruelty. Here, the mountains — withered by the weather of time, stood still and watched in a tiny remote corner of the Americas. The mighty Rio Grande drifted past yonder delicate crescent, bent like an archer’s bow above a distant summit. Dawn was breaking. The cool of night had long since passed, but the smell of death and gunpowder hung heavy, fetched by a gentle breeze. The rolling river shouted, as ever, its cry of joyous conquest over the vitality of life, like a solitary spirited soldier before the face of inscrutable nature. Determined to defend their rights to suppress the African-American slaves, leaders of the southern states dug in their heels. For a gruelling four years, this country had battered itself to pieces with widespread bloodthirsty conflict, in an attempt to liberate the enslaved. As yet another day fled, the weary soldiers grew homesick and felt sorrow for their slain brother’s un-beating hearts…
A brief synopsis recalls; The eventual surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, once regarded as the most celebrated Confederate army, followed a defeat in the final official battle of the war in Virginia. Over 2,000 military events took place here during the four years — more than any other state. In early April 1865, the battle of The High Bridge raged. Confederates were able to burn much of the railroad bridge, attempting to prevent Union forces from crossing this vital bridge over the Appomattox River. The rebels were unable to destroy another lower bridge, however, enabling Federal forces to pursue General Lee’s army. Within the same month, Richmond fell to the Union Army. The Battle of Appomattox Court House was the climax of a campaign that began eleven days earlier at the Battle of Lewis’ Farm. Lee surrendered soon after.
The Battle of Palmito Ranch is considered by some criteria to be the final battle of the American Civil War. It was fought on May 12th and 13th 1865, on the banks of the Rio Grande east of Brownsville, Texas, just a few miles from the seaport of Los Brazos de Santiago. It was recorded as a Confederate victory. However, since the Confederacy had ceased to exist, it is also argued that this battle should be classified as a post-war action. Yet to be assassinated, President Abraham Lincoln, was all but celebrating the peace. Union and Confederate forces sharing territory in southern Texas had been observing an unofficial truce since the beginning of 1865. A brigade of 1,900 Union troops commanded by Col. Robert B. Jones of the 34th Indiana Veteran Volunteer Infantry, was on blockade duty at the Port of Brazos Santiago, near the mouth of the shipping channel of the Port of Brownsville. Brownsville rests beside the Rio Grande on the Gulf of Mexico. Strangely, a newly assigned Union Colonel, Theodore H. Barrett who had never experienced combat, ordered an attack on a Confederate camp near Fort Brown for unknown reasons. This Colonel, in his early thirties, was anxious to achieve status and higher rank. Several years prior he had volunteered for the newly formed “coloured” regiments and was appointed in 1863 as Colonel of the 1st Missouri Coloured Infantry. These enlisted men were keen to support Lincoln’s unprejudiced policies. In March 1864, the regiment became the 62nd U.S.C.T. (United States Coloured Troops). Barrett contracted malaria in Louisiana that summer, and while he was convalescing, his enthusiastic 62nd was posted to Brazos Santiago. He’d re-joined it there in February 1865. Barrett attacked the garrison a month after the official ceasefire. The Union attackers captured a few prisoners, but the following day the attack was repulsed near Palmito Ranch by Confederate Colonel, John Salmon Ford, and the battle resulted in a Union defeat. Union forces were surprised by artillery, said to have been supplied by the French Army occupying the nearby Mexican town of Matamoros. The Confederates were determined to protect their remaining ports, essential for cotton sales to Europe and the importation of supplies. The cunning Mexicans, residing across the border, tended to side with the Confederate forces because of the lucrative smuggling trade.
Based on the truth, but dramatized for entertainment purposes, the fictional story you are about to enjoy revolves around this particular incident.

Just prior to the heat of this skirmish, on a warmish May 11th morning, Confederate Captain, Curtis Jennings, sat down to pen a letter to his beloved wife, Henrietta. He was alone in this patch of wilderness for some moments of solitude. The previous day, he had carved both their names side-by-side along with the date in an old leafless tree, dead from relentless waterless summers. He’d said a prayer and forgiven the enemy — reminiscing internally about the antebellum period of 1860, then retired to a cave to sleep. Jennings had returned to the tree on his horse to commence the script beside her name. He wrote about the sorrow in his heart for his sick, maimed, mentally scarred and, of course, slain members of his company. Of the original 100-strong, it had dwindled to fewer than thirty-five at one stage, with replacements currently bolstering it back to seventy-three. He finished the letter informing her that the bloodbath was finally over. He told her to take care of their three children because soon he hoped he would be returning to their ranch in Mississippi. Curtis signed the letter in his usual military manner which included his rank. He knew Henrietta found this old trait amusing, but deep-rooted habits were hard to break, weren’t they? He tucked it into an envelope and prepared to return to the garrison. The weary captain patted the cumbersome LeMat 9-shot revolver which was always by his side, he looked forward to the day it could be unbuckled permanently. Curtis stroked his moustache and replaced his battle-worn hat, then pricked his ears to the haunt of movement. He stared across the dust and saw a river of men, much like the Rio Grande — their blue uniforms marching like an unstoppable tide. These were coloured Union soldiers on a mission of purpose. Knowing he had to alert Colonel Ford, the courageous officer leapt off the barrel-like rock serving as his writing platform, to head for his horse. From the silence of nowhere, a spread hand found the centre of his back and a sword blade appeared across his throat…

“One breath out of place means certain death,” commanded a stern voice. He froze. It went on, “Hands raised and don’t turn around, Captain.” It was the voice of a woman. “There has been much idle discussion as to which side has actually won the war.”

“Who are you?” demanded Jennings.

“A friend,” replied the woman.

“If so, then kindly retract your blade madam!”

“Not so hasty, Captain. First, you need to be trusted!”

Jennings’ eyes swivelled the length of the sword. He noticed it to be a Model 1860 Light Cavalry Sabre. “Steal it from a fallen soldier, did you ma’am?”

“Keep still and listen.” The woman removed his LeMat revolver from its holster.

“The war is at an armistice. Word tells me that General Lee has surrendered at a place called Appomattox, some months back. This has triggered a series of formal surrenders throughout Northern America. What the devil could you possibly want with me?” He began to turn around.

“Perfectly still, Captain! No, I didn’t steal this blade… but I certainly know how to use it! And will do exactly that if you disobey me. Are we clear on that?” She carried an accent.

He felt a mixture of fearlessness and trepidation lilted in her voice. “I’ve never bowed to a woman before… what makes you think I am about to start now? Kindly announce your intentions or run me through, woman!”

“My name is Susannah Sabotagé, and I am associated with a unit of the first Louisiana Zouave Battalion, raised by Georges Augustus Gaston De Coppens.” She eased the edge fractionally from his neck. “I have a special request for your commanding officer.”

“The French? Do you support Napoleon the Third and his puppet, Emperor Maximillian, and their Mexican occupation?”

“Not for one single moment.”

“Are you a spy?”

“Regrettably, yes I am. And that is why I must be able to trust you first. I am aware that you will see me hanged before I have the chance to—”

Jennings interrupted, “I have no sympathy for Yankee spies. Take my horse and go and re-join your regiment, at once. That is they in the distance, I take it?”

“What causes you to be so eager as to label me a Union fighter?”

“Confounded stubborn woman! Because you have a sabre cast to the throat of a Confederate Captain. Why else?”

“Not to kill you, more so to prevent you absconding. And they’re not my regiment.”

“I shall refrain from absconding — you have my word as an officer!”

And with that pledge, Captain Jennings’ glove reached for her hand, wrapped tightly around the sabre’s hilt. At first, a little resistance, then she permitted him to lower it and turn to face her. His eyes met with hers, calm like a mountain brooding over the sea. Susannah was breathtakingly beautiful. She looked back with faithful eyes, like a great mastiff to its master’s face. She now saw his features, seemingly rewritten over the years by a blunted chisel, and searched its every square inch. To her, it was obvious that not so long ago, he would have been a strikingly handsome man. Curtis was returning the facial inspection. He had not set eyes on such profound beauty in many months. Her thick auburn hair matched the fire in her eyes, which scorched his heart from close range. This woman looked nothing like the ones who had secretly enlisted for both sides by binding their bosom and hacking their hair short. She was wearing a dress and her shape was obvious. With a pirate smile, Susannah handed back his pistol.

Neither spoke for a moment, then…

“It would appear that you have caught me off guard twice today, ma’am. Your beauty has left me slightly short of breath!” said Curtis. “Pray tell me the urgency of your business. But make it quick, I have to warn my colonel of these advancing troops.” Jennings offered her his writing rock.

She rammed the sabre into the dirt and sat down. “If appropriate, your name, sir?”

“Captain Curtis Jennings, under Colonel John Salmon Ford. Do you travel by horse?”

“I thought so, then I do have the right officer,” Susannah replied to his astonishment, “I watched you come out here yesterday, also. No horse, I travel by rail during the daylight and by foot at night. I know of Colonel John “RIP” Ford. As a matter of fact, I knew him back in the days when he was a Texas Ranger. A great man.”

This sharpened Jennings’ attention. “Do go on, please.”

“It concerns my brother, Jacob. He is being held captive at the garrison. At first, I had come to warn you about the impending attack on your regiment blockading at Brownsville. However, yesterday you were so fleet of foot that I failed. I had to rest after a hurried three-day trek ahead of that brigade from whence I came. My own is upriver.”

“Why is he still being held captive, we are at an official ceasefire? Thousands of prisoners from both sides have been released. That is the news which finds our ears, at least.”

“Because, he too is a spy. To be more accurate of the truth… he spied for the North and the South. Jacob had good reason for what he was doing, but I don’t really have time to explain. I fear his days are numbered. There will be little chance of a pardon from either, where he is concerned. It, of course, is regarded as high treason. We all know the potential punishment is hanging. That is unless you decide to help me.”

“Miss Sabotagé, I am sorry, but I have very little influence in regard to the positioning of the laws of the Confederacy, disbanded or otherwise. What he has done, whether it be with good or unjustifiable intentions, is in the hands of my superiors. I simply cannot and will not interfere!”

He’d forced her to into a loquacious explanation. “I am fully aware that your highest duty is obedience to your superiors. I am not asking you to reason with them. I am asking you to assist me in freeing him under the cover of darkness, tonight. You see, that brigade of men we can both clearly see will be attacking your camp tomorrow. Led by   Lt. Col. David Branson whose senior officer, Colonel Theodore Barrett, wishes to steal your three hundred horses for their unmounted cavalrymen. Barret also has his eyes on the two thousand bales of cotton for their monetary value. I don’t have to draw it to your attention how hopelessly outnumbered your troops are, do I? Their intention is to seize Fort Brown which is where Jacob is imprisoned. I have overheard an instruction that he is to be released by a special insurgence group during the attack and executed as though it were part of the battle. Preceding the war, Jacob was a minister at our local church. He is a good man, Captain Jennings!”

“I appreciate the warning and your situation is a sad one. But you have brought it upon yourselves by your own acts of espionage. At present you are free. However, any effort made by you to attempt to release him shall cause me to arrest you, miss. Is that quite clear?”

“I can pay handsomely. If that is what you desire!” She produced a small bankroll of notes.

“Keep your money woman! This is a matter of principle.”

“As part of the enemy, I could have run you through on sight, Jennings, but I refrained from doing so. Just how long are you going to sustain your arrogance?”

He squared her in the eye. “But you needed me. So, you didn’t.”

Susannah turned away to stare at the distant rocky escarpments. Appearing as though some underworld giant had punched great chunks of rock through the earth’s crust, these towering pillars stretched way off into the horizon. Natural monoliths touched by little but the wind and the rain. Susannah held her silence with a seven-mile stare embedded in her eyes. She spoke at the prehistoric picture she had just travelled through. “Yes, of course I needed you.” She turned to face him. “Must I drop to my knees to beg of you to help?”

His jaw raised away in the hot breeze. “I’m prepared to escort you back to the garrison. I shall speak well of you, Miss Sabotagé. Once there, you can appeal your story to Colonel Ford.”

She pulled his jaw back with both hands to face her distress. “This I cannot do, sir! I did not wish to disclose this… but Ford and I were lovers once, long after he divorced Mary. It ended in bitterness when the war started.”

“Perhaps you should have considered where your true loyalties lie?”

“Oh, the certainty of a closed mind! For some reason, when we actually met, I foolishly believed you may prove to be more than merely a yes man to political views. What if it was your children who were being held captive, and it was you who was appealing to me? Would that mark to soften your rigid manner?”

“What makes you think I have any offspring?”

She shot back a most venturous tone, “I can see them in your eyes!”

Curtis stared back at this woman’s beauty, not just in her flesh but in her resolve of passion. She was magnificent and only inches away. Her eyes were honest ones and her lips were full. The woman had planted a seed in his vulnerable garden — his family. He had been many seasons in the filth of battle, covered with the red dust and sweat, far away from the affections of Henrietta. After the proposed attack, Curtis knew he may very well be dead by tomorrow. He wanted to kiss Susannah right there and then, but knew it wasn’t right. Before he could give her an answer, the sounds of repeated rifle fire startled them. A succession of bullets ripped past their heads, some embedding into the craggy dead tree bearing an engraving of his family name, others ricocheting off nearby boulders. She threw herself into a desperate embrace. Captain Jennings whistled loudly, but his battle-savvy stallion had already deserted its place of pasture; the one solitary patch of greenery for miles. In seconds, he’d arrived…

Jennings hoisted her into the saddle and thrust his boot into the stirrup, hauling himself up behind her, bareback. “My sabre!” she shouted over the gunfire.

“Not worth your life!” he yelled back, nudging the large black horse into full stride with his heels. “Hi-yaaar Midnight!”

On retreat, Captain Jennings took a bullet in his left shoulder but did not fall. Midnight had two skim his hindquarters and a third passed through the saddle’s pommel, lodging in his withers. It missed Susannah’s thigh by inches. Curtis knew his steed had taken the minor hit. He also knew that the Federal soldiers would probably not break ranks to chase. So, once they were well out of range, he eased his gait back to a canter — then to a walk. The spot, at which they’d met, was over thirty miles from Fort Brown, proving to be a good six to eight hours ride for a solo rider with a fully fit horse. They had put an hour between the marching troops and themselves, but in order to forewarn Ford of the planned attack, arriving before nightfall was both urgent and near impossible. He could smell Midnight’s blood mixed with sweat and wanted to rest the stallion to evaluate the grade of his wound. The bullet needed to be removed from his own shoulder also. After five hours tedious ride over rugged terrain, during which the unpredictable Miss Sabotagé shared her brother’s full story, they reached a grassy forested area beside a small lake. The reflection of escarped rocky outcrops with mountainous backdrops on a millpond of extreme calm created a commanding picturesque view. They admired its allure. The sun was scorching, low, and golden. He removed the western saddle, filled up his water canteen and waded into the water fully dressed — minus his gun and boots. The horse followed him in, as did Susannah — minus her dress…

Jennings produced a bayonet from his saddle and handed it, with a handkerchief, to Susannah. “Cut the lead out fast and tie this around it,” he quietly said, while removing his uniform. He bit on the sleeve preparing for the pain. When the crumpled bullet fell into the grass, he asked, “Can you do the same for him? They will be following our trail. Without Midnight, we will die for certain.”

The captain had noticed that the horse also had one lodged just below the surface of his withers, only the thick leather pommel had stood between his loyalty and most likely becoming lame, which meant death via Jennings’ pistol. Curtis urged the animal down on his side. Susannah went to work. They bathed both wounds and rested. He checked his fob watch, knowing they had to leave before the hour had passed. The captain was fully aware that the enemy soldiers would also require resting before their proposed assault, but he had no idea where or when. Without hearing of any previous written warning from Union Colonel, Theodore H. Barrett, which was the accepted protocol before regulation battles, he had determined this man to be a rogue commander in search of glory after the fact. In his heart, Jennings felt like he owed her in several ways and spoke to her of a plan.

Cleaner and fresher now, after bathing, they remounted the steed and advanced slowly to nurse his injury, arriving at Cameron County just after dusk. Jennings was aware of the fact that she had to be alienated from Colonel Ford, who would know that she was with the Union forces. He could not be reliant upon any sympathy from his senior officer, despite the fact that she was the one bearing the forewarning message. They met a shortish saluting corporal at the entrance to the camp outside the fort. He was a Texan-Mexican with a big moustache and full beard. He had shaggy curly hair, which appeared to have been cut with a knife and fork, and peculiar exophthalmic eyes, so bulbous that it made the lids appear as though they would struggle to close shut.

“Good evening, Captain Jennings sir,” greeted the corporal, “you are somewhat late to return. Is everything in order?”

“Yes, good evening to you also, Corporal Chauhan. There was some delay, but I must speak with the colonel on a matter most urgent. Will you take care of my cousin here, and see to it that she is fed? Then await my return. Her name is Susan Smith. She is a historic journalist for The News Scimitar out of Memphis Tennessee. Do not let her out of your sight, Corporal. Is that understood?”

“Yes sir! Immediately, consider it done sir!” Chauhan snapped a second salute accompanied by his boot heels crunching together. He helped her down.

“Wait here in the camp, Sue,” Jennings said to her with a wink, “and no flirting with any of my company!” He squeezed her hand. “I shan’t be able to return for you tonight, the news I have will take considerable preparation. I shall return for you tomorrow morning. Corporal Chauhan here is a good man. He will see to your needs.”

“But Curtis, I cannot possibly—”

“No objections, cousin. I must ride fleet of foot. Now go!”

Grateful of the lighter weight now, Midnight cantered towards the fort. Susannah merely observing the back of his waving glove…

At dawn, the once-was spy paced up and down impatiently because there was no sign of him. Still, by noon of May 12th, Jennings had failed to appear before Susannah Sabotagé and there was no sign of her brother, Jacob, either. Her concern intensified. Many of the troops in the camp had been summoned to make haste for White’s Ranch — she’d overheard the issued orders. She was mindful that word had gotten to Col. John Ford, and it appeared that Union Lt. Col. David Branson must have changed tactics. Susannah saw the fully armed soldiers riding out. In tow, were six 12-pounder Napoleon Model 1857 French field-guns. The fighting had commenced, but not at Fort Brown. Had Jennings betrayed her? Had he been shot in the interim period? Does she stay put and wait, or attempt to free her brother by herself?

An attempt to leave was thwarted by the corporal. “You must not leave, Miss Sue. I have my orders. The ceasefire has been disrupted,” he stressed, grasping her arm. “It is dangerous out there for a woman.”

“How can I possibly document this battle from this, this, this… prison?”

“Orders miss!”

Corporal Chauhan knew nothing of her courage, but she could not reveal her reasons for wanting to visit the garrison and therefore was forced to sit and wait. In the distance could be heard the cannon fire. In her head could be heard the cries of frustration. She spent a second night at the camp which offered the opportunity to wash her clothes. Wrapped helplessly in a blanket, she waited all the next day. The siege had essentially fully engaged at Palmito Ranch near the Boca Chica crossing zone at the mouth of the Rio Grande. The screams of dying men carried to her ears on the wind. The French cannons bombarded her Union cohorts into oblivion. She sat holding her face in her hands. Tears were rare for this spicy female, but for these long hours they flowed. Deprived of the daily emergencies of conflict, she now had time to think. She wept for the mindless slaughter brought on by the pride and petty grievances of a select few and the guilt of having been a part of it all. She wept in the belief that her brother was probably dangling from a rope. There were no other women around for her to confide in — just several groups of fed up ex-soldiers, both wounded and mentally broken. For the first time in her life, Susannah Sabotagé wished she was dead. Another long hot night passed.

The morning sunlight began to burn her closed eyelids. She lay outside one of the tents; head on an arrested carpetbagger’s confiscated belongings. It was a Sunday.

“Someone to see you Madam Sue,” said Chauhan, tapping her upper arm with his rifle.

She looked up, red-faced and silent.

“Sister? It is you!” said Jacob with an element of surprise and wearing humble prison garb. His voice’s tone also carried a French seasoning.

“No closer, prisoner Sabotagé!” warned the corporal, holding the rusty-barrelled Springfield rifle in Jacobs’ back. “Not too sure what exactly is going on here.”

Susannah scrambled to her feet in total disbelief.

“Special pardon from the nation’s new leader, President Andrew Johnson himself,” said Captain Jennings who’d kept momentarily out of sight; his arm in a sling. He was on a different black horse and had allowed Jacob to approach Chauhan, still shackled. Curtis waved an important-looking wad of papers in front of his corporal’s face. “I’m to escort them to the railroad soon. And I’ll need your help.”

Alberto Chauhan, who could neither read nor write, which Curtis was aware of, removed his hat and eyeballed the documents with precision. The only things he recognized were the enlarged words; United States of America which appeared at the top of Jennings’ requisition for convalescent leave, approved by Col. Ford the day prior. Curtis had marked; 17th President of America Andrew Johnson with a signature-like script in heavy pen over the top of his commanding officer’s signature. “All seems in order sir. Naturally I will assist you.”

“Naturally,” said Jennings, folding and tucking the misleading paperwork into his coat. “You realise we’ve beaten the bluecoats at Palmito Ranch, don’t you corporal? Splendid effort. Completely outnumbered we were. Fetch him some clothes, at once. Be ready by tomorrow noon, all of you. I shall arrange the horses.” He extracted a bottle of whisky from his coat. “Here Alberto… celebrate the victory, but save it until tomorrow. Sunday today, remember!”

Susannah wanted to hug him but said nothing at all.

“Thank you, sir… that is very kind of you. I shall fetch an axe at once.” He did so, and with an almighty swing — it severed the chain between the shackles. “Almost free now, Mister Sabotagé, or is it Smith?”

“I’m grateful for that corporal, and any name is fine,” replied Jacob. “Congratulations on the victory, albeit too late. This battle was fought in vain. My cousin has informed me of much in the last twenty-four hours. I am now privy to the news of the armistice.”

Chauhan, fidgeting with his beard asked, “How is it to be that you were arrested for being a spy, and yet you are related to my captain?”

Jacob felt a twist of irritation. “A good question fine sir. It was—”

“An unfortunate case of mistaken identity, hence the pardon. I had no knowledge of his incarceration,” interrupted Jennings, “he shall be compensated.”

“I see,” said Chauhan, rotating his treasured bottle of gold.

Susannah approached. “Where is Midnight, Curtis? This steed bares a white blaze on his face.” She patted the horse’s bobbing nose. “Did he make it?”

“You shall see him again tomorrow, cousin. This one is called Satan and will be yours in the morning. Now I must prepare to leave. Be sure to be ready early!” He juddered his heels into the magnificent horse’s belly. Again, Susannah observed the back of the waving glove of the man she was growing to admire at an alarming rate…

At 6:00 am, Jennings arrived beside their tent with Corporal Chauhan who was driving a prairie wagon with a large timber chest and some supplies in the rear. The curved top steamer trunk had rope handles, was secured shut by two engraved leather straps and all the corners were reinforced with metal shrouds. The wagon was being pulled by the two black horses. Jennings produced a key, which he slotted into the locks of the metal cuffs still attached to Jacob’s wrists.

“My humble apologies for not having these removed yesterday. Lt. Frankston, the jail keeper, had been sent to fight at Palmito Hill; as was I. With such strained resources, my company required his leadership.” This was only the partial truth, offered in front of his enlisted man. It was true that he did fight at the front line despite carrying the wounded shoulder. Near the battle’s demise, when Col. Barrett’s men were retreating, he managed to return to the fort to release Jacob, but he could not locate the other key.

“You are a sight for sore eyes, cousin Curtis,” grinned Susannah.

“Climb aboard, we have a long journey ahead. We are headed for the railroad. Satan and Midnight are coming with us aboard the trains to Mississippi. The corporal will return to camp with this wagon after we purchase two replacement horses.” Jennings then pulled from his pocket the envelope addressed to Henrietta, written alongside the dead tree. “I’ve decided to hand-deliver this.”

The plan Curtis had made at the lake, when he promised to help her, included escorting them back to his ranch just outside Jackson. She would then travel on to her family home in Missouri. They would share the costs. Susannah and Jacob Sabotagé eagerly climbed into the prairie wagon for the first leg of the eight-hundred-mile excursion northeast — through the states of Texas and Louisiana. A connecting route of alternating stagecoaches and railroads awaited over the next four days. She threw one last look behind her at the war-torn camp as they departed…

The two powerful horses eased the old wooden wagon away from the throws of the last battlefield of the American Civil War, and onward towards the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railroad Station, built roughly ten years prior. Scarcely nothing but the sound of their clunking hooves, and the occasional whinnying snort, could be heard during the initial stages of the uncomfortable first leg. These noises, and the relentless rattle of their harness chains, blended with the clattering spoked wheels of hickory wood and crude flat metal tyres against the dirt trail. Outlying skirmishes were still being fought between the uninformed rebel resistance and the remaining stragglers of their Union rivals. Distant gunfire rang through the valleys. Half a day later, they boarded the proud old steam train with her locomotive’s broad funnel and front-mounted cowcatcher, and farewelled the reliable Texan corporal, who had long-since drained his whisky bottle. An entire day further on, the stagecoach whisked them along the frontier towards the next station. As the trio passed each dusty mile and through many storms, they shared stories of the war which Susannah documented. Although Jennings had not known it previously when he bluffed his corporal about her journalism position, the attractive young woman had previously aspired to become an author. All that was required was a catalyst to pursue her passion.

The familiar landscape of Jackson looming through the carriage windows brought a smile to Captain Jennings’ face. On approach to the tiny platform, the locomotive let out a multi-blasting array of whistling sounds, like a forlorn call rewarded only by the ears it fell upon. He felt excited about seeing Henrietta once again and longed to see how much his children had grown. It had been many years since he had obtained a sabbatical of any description. He still wore the sling but intended to remove it, so as not to alarm his beloved, when they set eyes upon each other. The train rumbled in with diminishing chuffs, accompanied by brake-hiss and screech, as it began slowing down to a standstill. A whistle pierced loudly from the guard leaning from the caboose at the rear. They alighted, gathered the remainder of their supplies, along with the trunk, plus the two horses and purchased a new wagon from a nearby stock dealer.

“You must spend several nights with Henrietta and me at our ranch, Shenandoah Gardens,” said Jennings, as they passed his neighbouring homesteads. “We can get further acquainted and you can both freshen up before you set off for Missouri. She’ll feed you both well… I’ll hear nothing of a refusal from either of you.”

“So much kindness,” said Susannah, bashfully looking at his striking now cleanshaven profile. “I did not ask this much of you, Captain Jennings, when our paths crossed out there for the very first time. My request was merely the freedom of my brother.” She turned to wave at Jacob who was lying on the boards beside the wooden trunk; his smiling face rocking with the bumps. “I shall repay you handsomely one day in the future.” She rested her head against his shoulder.

“We all get repaid in some way or other, ma’am. You have already repaid me with your faith and trust. I require no money. Mention my name in your book. That will suffice!” His smile flattened to one of satisfaction. They spent some moments of quiet as the wagon rounded a sweeping bend, passing a tributary of the Mississippi River lined with great oaks. Then he said, “I’ve decided to let you keep both of my favourite horses too, ma’am. You see, Midnight and Satan are brothers. It wouldn’t seem fair to separate them now, would it?”

As the two stallions sensed home to be not too far away now, they elevated to a canter. The oaks began to move swiftly by. They scurried past his next-door neighbour, Geoffrey William Calhoun, who was waving frantically and shouting on the side of the road, but nothing was going to slow them down. Jennings nodded. If Susannah had only mildly felt like she was falling in love with him before, it suddenly had become confirmed in unprecedented fashion after she fully realized his caring nature. This compassionate disposition had been hidden so deeply beneath that tough rugged and extremely disciplined exterior. Sadly though, this dynamic feminine character with the Aphrodite looks would fall agonisingly short of her second military man, in her thirty-two years spent breathing. Both for differing reasons. Susannah knew she would be handing him back to the deserving woman who, at this point, had no knowledge of his return. Her mind mulled over the prospects of her spinster life, with honour and glory but wasted beauty, as an author. She saw a large roadside sign, which, in spectacular, bold, italic, Caslon lettering spelt out the words; Welcome to Shenandoah Gardens Cattle Ranch. The sign was flanked by bushy Magnolias with a grand archway of stone beside them to pass under. They turned left beneath the archway. Once in, the long gravel driveway weaved smoothly down a gentle slope. A backdrop of green hills spattered with cattle spanned endlessly off to the horizon. Birds filled the rich oxygenated skies and a cooling breeze caressed their faces. Ahead, the drive took an uphill sweep over a hill familiar to Curtis because, beyond it, lay his glorious sprawling house with its surrounding verandahs.

The horses now in a near gallop…

Approaching the grade, he eased them back to a trot, then to a walk — Jennings knew his livestock well. However, he not only wanted to save the pair’s strength but also wanted to savour these moments. It had been a long time coming. Susannah stared up at his glow in admiration, then, as the vehicle broke its temporary horizon, to reveal the splendour, her face broke into tears. The wagon stopped still on the crest. In front of them lay a once-smouldering ruin. What used to be the captain’s loving household was now just a pile of disintegrated logs and stonework. Two elaborate blackened chimney stacks remained standing, but there was no sign of life. Word had not gotten to him about the Federal raid on his property barely six weeks prior. They had run amuck, stolen or desecrated his belongings and razed it to the ground. A deathly breezeless silence hung over the holocaustic property. Curtis sank to the lowest depths of his entire life. The exhausted pair of horses hauled the wagon slowly down the last few-hundred-metres of road, somehow themselves also sensing the loss. The three onboard climbed down to survey, but there was nothing left. Everything he’d possessed, including his family, was lost forever. The broken man’s entire worldly belongings now lay in that small wooden trunk. At the eastern side, where his small apple orchard once stood, were four mounds of soil; three small and one larger, each with a crude cross made from lashed sticks pressed into the soil. Beside the mounds sat a small timber board bearing the statement…

You barbarians… Now who are the slaves?

Jennings fell to his knees with his hands covering his face, crying with all his heart. After several minutes, he stared heavenward uttering, “Explain fairness Lord? One moment you are running along, and the next moment you are not.”

She dropped beside him — arm comforting his grief. Jacob’s tears wetted the grave soil also, but either’s words somehow seemed fruitless. The brother and sister just needed to be there right now. Jennings removed the enveloped letter from his Confederate uniform and placed it on the larger grave. Next, he removed his coat and spread it over the top. The three said a prayer before returning to the wagon. The captain retrieved a hessian water bag from the rear; filling a metal bowl to allow his horses a well-earned drink. He suspected the dam’s water supply would be poisoned, as was a typical procedure. They mourned for a period but there seemed little point in lingering in sorrow. “I no longer wish to be a part of this bitterness. I guess this is what Geoffrey William Calhoun was trying to warn me about way back before the entrance. Best go and pay him a visit, folks.”

Calhoun explained in full what had happened, giving them his maximum hospitality for several days. He told them to stay for as long as was necessary. Susannah and Jacob passed on their address then bid them all farewell after five days, paying Calhoun for two of his horses, which Jacob harnessed to the wagon. He gave the money to Jennings after they departed.

Eighteen months later, retired captain, Curtis Jennings rode into Cassville, Missouri, on Satan’s back with his baggage-laden brother in tow. He asked the local post office operator for directions; which he got. The old lady then added, “Are you a-fixin’ to stay? If so, you just pushed our population up to 263 townsfolk. You know, I’ve been here since ’45. One of the first to arrive, I was!”

When he arrived at the tiny log cabin, there was a bespectacled woman with a blaze of auburn hair flowing in the breeze. She was sitting on the porch and looked up from a manuscript she was writing, then rose to her feet. Calmly, Jennings stepped off the saddle and tipped his hat. “Just looking to uphold my promise, Susannah. After all, I did give them to you,” he said, handing her the reigns. “Do you know where a man could start a new life?”

“I’ve nearly finished the book,” she replied, “and… of course, you are in it!”

Once again, Curtis Jennings took note of the seven-mile stare in her eyes. When she tried to search his mind, he simply kissed her and said, “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

She replied, “I couldn’t stop thinking about you.”

Another ten-minute thriller… the devil inside!

If you love the attraction of a powerful story — wrapped around a dramatic setting, you will have to allow this picture to nudge you off the starting line. As if a door were suddenly left ajar into some world unseen before, allow yourself to drift back in time to the years of nostalgia.

The morning fog had finally lifted. The raging surf was like the advancing lines of an unknown enemy, endlessly flinging itself upon the shoreline. Her lonesome figure stood precariously… barely inches from the spikey grassed edge. Doreen McCumhail, whose dark hair and dark eyes were thought to be descendant traits from the Spanish Armada crews of the mid-1500s, had trekked the well-worn trail known as the Doolin Cliff Walk and been to the top of O’Brien’s Tower on numerous occasions with her father, Dermott. She’d walked with him from the Cliffs of Moher’s most southern point at Hag’s Head, every step of the eighteen kilometres to see the giant stalactite in Doolin Cave where the rockface descends seaward. Soaring to 214 metres at their peak, at the Burren Region, the etched stone cliff face reaches its long fingers southward to counties Cork and Kerry beyond. The girl’s keen eyes had often spotted the Aran Islands in Galway Bay to the north. She’d travelled all the way to Malin Head at the very northern tip of Ireland’s Inishowen Peninsula, in County Donegal, and visited as far south to the safe haven of Kinsale Harbour in the very southern region.

In the dead of a cold Irish winter, late in December, the wind-whipped sea spray fills the air with the invigorating freshness off this rugged east coast. It has been this way for millions of years with nature’s slow carve sculpting the future. The Wild Atlantic Way is a sensational, winding, 2,750-kilometre journey of soaring cliffs and buzzing towns. It boasts a feast of hidden beaches and epic bays smattered with wildlife; like chattering kittiwakes, Atlantic puffins, and if you’re fortunate enough, even an elusive peregrine falcon. During modern times you can drive its full length. Many, like Doreen, trek across the clifftop, the edges peaking slightly upwards like the crests of the haunting waves that roll endlessly below. Eyes cast out to sea, would find it hard not to feel as though you were braving the ocean from the prow of a magnificent ship. It was along this stretch of the south-western Irish coast, at the dramatic Cliffs of Moher, that Doreen McCumhail from Kilshanny, County Clare had ridden her bicycle to the base of O’Brien’s Tower. It stands just to the north of the cliff’s halfway mark. Constructed in 1835, this round stone tower captures the staggering beauty of the views from the top of a jutting angular sheer face.

Now at eighteen years of age, the pretty and shapely lass had refused the flirtatious invitations of almost every boy in Kilshanny — waiting for Mr Right to stray her way. It was nearly Christmas 1965, at a time when the influence of Britain’s rock invasion had grasped the world firmly. Young Miss McCumhail wore her raven-coloured hair in a tall bouffant and her panda-style eye makeup enhanced her already large eyes. The morning’s brisk cutting wind would deter many from the view; the way she liked it. Requiring a doubled silk scarf to protect her locks, and a matching chequered twill-woven gabardine skirt and coat, she gazed through a dream. Here, she could face the white-water of the ocean waves and contemplate her future. At Doolin village, the music capital of Ireland, her sweet voice had proven popular with the squeezebox and fiddle players, so much so, that she aspired to become part of the mushrooming ’60s pop culture.

Transfixed, Doreen never noticed a stranger approaching from the south. With both hands thrust deeply into his trouser pockets and brandishing a strong swaying stride, came a whistling twenty-one-year-old man from Ennis. This medium town was on the Fergus estuary of the famous Shannon, Ireland’s longest river. His name was Deaghlan O’Brien and he worked as a carpenter. Today, which was Wednesday, was his monthly day off. He and his boss were adding an extension to the O’Cléirigh’s pub at Lisdoonvarna, an hour’s stroll away. Confident by nature, but far from confident about the height of the drop, Deaghlan called out to her to encourage her attention. “Aye, miss! If you just aren’t the loveliest thing I’ve seen since I was but a boyeen. And just pray tell me, what would a fine young lass, as pretty as yourself, be a-wantin’… so close to that terrifying edge?”

Doreen turned to match the face to the voice she had just heard. “And… what business of yours might it be, where I do stand?” She clearly took notice of his rugged good looks with a smile wider than the proverbial Emerald Isle itself.

He froze in his tracks about twenty metres from her and removed his cloth cap. “Why, b’ Jesus, you are even prettier from the front! M’ name is Deaghlan O’Brien… What name might ya go by? Please be careful, miss. Are you from close-by these parts?”

“Yes, I’m a local girl, from Kilshanny, no less. I’m not a bit afraid,” she laughed, noticing his angst. “My father and I would flirt with the very edge, when I was barely a three-year-old! Why should I tell you m’ name, at any rate?”

The wind buffeted her from behind. She fought to keep her hair in place.

Deaghlan inched toward her. “Please, you’re puttin’ the willies up me, b’ Jesus. Come away, before the wind changes and takes you from me, forever!”

“I might be a-wantin’ to jump for all you know, Deaghlan O’Brien! Next up, ya’l be tellin’ me you’re a long-lost relation of Sir Cornelius, the man responsible for buildin’ this monstrosity!” Her smile grew larger than his, and with it her face lit up the beaten pathway between them.

“To be sure… I am just that. He’s me father’s great, great, oh… I dunno how many times, grandfather. And show some respect, will ya?”

“Well, my name is Doreen McCumhail, from Kilshanny and I’m on me way to becomin’ a pop star, no less. So, how d’you like that? You may be a handsome specimen, Deaghlan O’Brien, but when it comes to risk with gals and cliff faces, I’m bettin’ you are a fraidy-cat!”

“As sure as the mood strikes, I’ll come an’ spank your cheeky backside!”

“Oh, will ya now? Well, you’ll have to catch me first… I’ll also be bettin’ that you’d be far too slow!” Doreen leapt onto her bicycle — parked leaning on a weathered fence surrounding the tower and pushed hard on the pedals. She untied her scarf and let it go with a burst of laughter. Deaghlan caught it in the wind, stalling him a second as he watched her withdraw the combs holding her bouffant hairstyle in place. They landed on the path. At once, she flicked her waist-length black tresses and looked back over her shoulder. “Return them if you catch me!”

He scooped up the pink combs and broke into a full stride. “Aye… you’re a sassy minx worth a-chasin’. I’ll teach you a lesson in humility, Doreen McCumhail from Kilshanny!”

Doreen pedalled with everything she had, leaving him pounding in her wake. He ran like a deer along the undulating path as it ventured alongside the drop. The girl on the bicycle shrank further and further into the distance. As he gradually gave her up as a lively memory lost forever, the young carpenter puffed his way back to a jog, then back to a walk. Doreen disappeared over a distant hill.

A struggling sun peeped its way from behind the winter clouds lifting Deaghlan’s lost spirits. His heart had been warmed by his brief encounter, but he had little, other than a silk scarf and four combs to show for it; they remained stuffed, one in either side, in his trouser pockets. His fingers twiddling the soft material on the left and plucking the springy teeth on the right. He’d returned to the tune he had been whistling twenty minutes ago as a stranger passed by…

It was an aging man who raised his hat, saying, “The top of the mornin’ to ya, m’ boy.”

Deaghlan tipped his cloth cap, replying, “And the remainder o’ the day ta yourself.”

“A fine day to be a-findin’ true love!” sparked the man’s character-filled face, perhaps noticing the glow in the much younger man’s eyes. “Ya be an O’Brien if ever I saw one, that be for sure!”

O’Brien nodded the plaudit, keeping his eyes on the trail, knowing his chance had gone begging. What if he had said something different? What if he had displayed more courage to her? After all, women did like to be saved — even when they weren’t in danger. His mind pondered the ifs buts and maybes, as his sightline ventured towards the horizon. Something he suddenly noticed was how close to the precipice he was strolling, almost as if the girl from Kilshanny had unlocked his fear of heights. At least something good had come of it. Usually, when walking this route if heading north he would always stay well to the righthand side, and consequently, when heading south, he would remain strategically far to the left. Deaglan wandered up the hill he had last seen her disappear over — eyes confidently out to sea. He rounded a bend adjacent to an ancient derelict stone Viking cottage wall, one of the dozens strewn throughout his homeland.

She sprang from behind the wall…

“Boo!” she taunted, grabbing him from behind with her hands barely reaching around his broad shoulders. “So, the old man never gave me hidin’ spot away then?”

He flexed rigid, startled face staring over the escarpment. All he could see was the violent waves crashing over the boulders below. Deaghlan’s abandoned fear had swiftly returned. “The devil be in you, young gal! He never said a word of ya. Y’ feisty beag vixen!”

Junoesque Doreen released him, pulling him around and planting a succulent bullseye kiss square on his lips. She laughed, saying, “Better teach me some manners, hadn’t ya?” She kissed him even harder and then dashed behind the stone wall and sat on the grass. “I’ll have m’ scarf and combs back then. But there’s no spanking, because you didn’t catch me now. Did you?”

Deaghlan had been completely swallowed by her high-spirited nature, which tailed in the vortex of her innocent Irish beauty. He fell helplessly by her side. Their eyes affixed upon each other’s as if it was always meant to be. He held her face with both hands feeling for her honesty and reaching for her soul. Again they kissed, both were in total disbelief of the other’s chemistry, then leaned on the billion-year-old stones. From their wind-shielded position, the pair gazed out over the blue-green Atlantic waterbody, which appeared as endless as time itself.

He handed back her belongings, uttering, “This is sheer madness… You have stolen m’ heart, in no time lassie. To be sure, I think I love you! Shenanigans and all.”

“I’ve waited a long time for you t’ come along, Mr O’Brien. Ya shan’t be lettin’ me down now. Can ye be counted on?”

“For sure, I’m the most trustworthy fella you’re ever likely t’ meet. Let’s come back ’ere again and again. I love it! We’ll call this our secret li’l meetin’ place, and not tell anyone else about it. Will ya marry me, already? I’m practically beggin’ ya, Doreen McCumhail.”

“I’ll have to think about that, now. Will ya come ta meet me Father? How far were ya plannin’ on walkin’ t’day?”

He stood up and reached for her hand to pull her up. “I’ll walk t’ the end of the Earth for your love. If that’s what it takes… Now, show me the way!”

The couple were married at St. Augustine’s Church, Kilshanny, the following March. It was a small intimate family and close friend’s affair. Doreen’s three older sisters, Mary, Clodagh, and Caitlin were her bridesmaids. Her father, Dermott, proudly gave her away. Deaghlan’s brother Sean and sister Laugemoran represented his side because, sadly their parents had been taken in a freak boating accident four years previously. His mates, Chris, Cabhan, Cairan, and Conlaoch, from the fledgeling band The Misty Irish C’s played a mixture of pop and traditional, whilst Doreen adlibbed the words. The whisky flowed and the dance went all night.

They rented a small house In Ennis where the carpenter had many contacts — soon forming a truly grounded relationship. Bolstered by Deaghlan’s sure-footedness and kept laughing with Doreen’s feisty sense of humour, a lifetime brimful of over-indulgent love sprawled like a venturesome road before them. Many evenings were spent sharing tales on the front porch with a glass of Irish whisky, Deaghlan plonked in his only family heirloom from Sir Cornelius; an ancient Victorian iron-backed chair, and Doreen in her grandfather’s mahogany Rococo chair.

The couple matured with the passing years refraining from children, by choice of Doreen, who never gave up on her dream to sing professionally. By the mid-1970s, still without her big break, the forthright woman began to lose faith in her ability to ever reach the big time. She had taken a job in Limerick as a shop assistant. Deaghlan consoled his lover by working harder at his family carpentry business, which had flourished in the country’s mini-boom. The Misty Irish C’s had made several records and always invited them to any gigs around the country, but it wasn’t the same. He kept his word by taking her for frequent walks along the Cliffs of Moher where they would reminisce about their unexpected meeting, which all seemed so long ago now. Every time they reached the old stone wall, they would stop and clown around, just as they did almost ten years ago.

During the spring of 1978, the now thirty-year-old Doreen met a man from Liverpool, England, who happened to venture into the perfumery where she worked. He browsed the shelves and heard her singing behind the counter.

“Beautiful voice you have there, miss. Are you a professional?”

“Oh, how I wish,” she said, turning to meet the customer. The 60s panda eye makeup had long-since vanished, but her big dark expression-filled eyes still retained the allure which had captured Deaghlan. “I’ve always wanted to be — but so far, no such luck. I’d do practically anythin’ to break through! So, what ya be interested in?”

The European man, in his forties, wore a sharp suit highlighted by snakeskin ankle boots. He had a moustache and long wavy hair. An unnecessary pair of large sunglasses were perched on his hairline. “Now you’ve really caught my interest in more than the fragrance I came in for,” he said in an Anglo-Spanish accent. “My name is Marlowe Johnroshe, I’m a music producer from the Merseyside. How would you like to do us both a big favour?”

She spread her hands apart on the counter, leaning in his direction. “Do go on!” Doreen’s plunging vee neckline was doing far more than barrack for her singing prowess.

“Firstly, a bottle of Yves Saint Laurent Opium, largest one you have.” Marlowe retrieved his wallet producing a business card and several hundred Irish pounds, all in twenties.

“Spray or splash on?”

“Let’s try the splash on, shall we?”

Doreen scavenged about for the popular scent and placed it on the countertop. “Who be this for, Mr Johnroshe? She’s a lucky gal in anyone’s language.”

“My sister… She won’t wear anything else. And secondly, take this card — if you want to try out at the Dublin Music Festival. I’m searching for something I believe you have. That is why I am here. Give me a call if you think you might be interested. Tomorrow would be fine. I can drive you everywhere.” His eyes swam outside to where a silver Aston Martin sat waiting. “Keep all the change. Let’s just call it the down payment of my investment, shall we?”

“You’d be jokin’ of course, Mr Johnroshe. You’ve barely heard a tune from me. I can’t possibly accept this!” She gawked at the crisp banknotes — then fell as silent as the sheeted dead. Inside her head, the imaginary wheels of success turned faster than she could cope with.

“Heard enough to know… and it’s Marlowe. I’m deadly serious miss, eh?”

She fanned the cash like a hand of cards. “Just call me Doreen. I may be in touch.”

He left her with a quizzing smile…

Doreen O’Brien drove home that afternoon with her head in a cloud of showbiz mania. Her beloved Deaghlan was working late, as usual, to finish their house he’d started building at Lahinch, on Liscannor Bay, each day after work. He arrived on dusk. As the curtain of night fell upon her that evening, she said nothing to Deaghlan about the auditioning, in case she failed.

After two months of meeting Marlowe three times a week, Doreen’s attitude had changed. An air of importance exuded from her usually devil-may-care persona. Though she still sang around the place they were living at, on weekends, the songs sounded different from the ones he was used to. Still, she said nothing of her surprise. One month later, he began arriving home before her and it was often dark. One night he questioned her. “Aye, I got t’ be askin’ ya, love. What are ye up to these days? I’ve nearly finished the house, an’ ya haven’t visited it for over a month. Y’ seem very tired lately too. Are y’ workin’ a second job or simply losin’ interest in our dreams?”

Gone was the fire in her eyes — replaced by the tiredness of long days. She gave him a peck on the cheek and replied, “I’ve never stopped dreamin’ Deaghlan. Mine are perhaps a wee tad bigger than yours. I’ll be goin’ ta Dublin for a week or two soon. I can’t tell ya why though. I just need ya ta trust me, okay?”

His face, which stared back helpless, seemed as unflustered as fate. “Dublin, y’ say? And what’s so special goin’ on there that ya can’t share it with y’ husband?”

“Oh Deaghlan,” she eased in her rich County Clare accent, “remember what I told ya when we first met?”

“O’ course I remember! Ya drove me mad up there with y’ teasin’ and jokin’ around… on the top of Moher. I’ll never forget it, ta be sure. Damned changed me forever, woman!”

“Exactly, Deaghlan… people are a-changin’ regularly—”

He interjected, “B’ Jesus, I’m comin’ ta Dublin with ye!”

“No! This is something only I can take care of, me boy!”

An argument, the likes of which they had never encountered before, followed. For the first time in their marriage, they slept in separate rooms. In the morning, when he woke up to apologise, she was not there. He was left with no option other than to trust her words. A lonesome week slogged by. Then a phone call. Another week — another phone call. Doreen sounded fine and reassured him that all was okay, and she would be returning on Wednesday, in three days.

And return she did…

The couple moved into the house he had finally completed — however, something had drastically changed. The year that followed was an unpleasant metamorphosis by comparison to the previous twelve harmonious ones. Devoted Deaghlan felt as if he was negotiating an unpredictable roller-coaster ride. Her mood swings increased by the equivalent level that her laughter decreased. He began to feel quite ill, simply putting it down to the stress of their situation. Often distant to him, she began dressing in expensive labels and had changed her perfume from his favourite; Diorella by Dior to Yves Saint Laurent Opium. Their walks along the trail above the Cliffs of Moher diluted to once every three months. He started doing the trek alone, enraged by the feeling of being there without her. Deaghlan grew suspicious and decided to follow her to work. He waited across the street in the cosy coffee shop owned by his mate Conlaoch O’Toole, bass guitarist with The Misty Irish C’s. At 10:35 am, he heard the little bell above the shop door ringing. Deaghlan stared across the rim of his mug, as a bearded debonair gentleman with long hair entered the perfumery. His heart fell into a world of pain when he saw their hands clasping across the counter through the big glass window. Doreen had no idea that she had caused it.

He whispered into the cup, “Holy Motter o’ God, I just hope he’s a relation or somethin’, that’s all.” Deaghlan masked his face with the mug to watch them leaving together. Her beaming smile was the very one which he hadn’t seen for quite some time. Doreen’s laughter made him feel sicker than he’d been before. He left the coffee shop with his heart dragging along the ground behind him. Marlowe Johnroshe was no more a music producer than he was the country’s Prime Minister; he had made a fortune from selling cocaine to rock bands. He was, however, a master of seduction whose charming words and spoils of cash had quickly poisoned her honour. Foolish Doreen had become entangled in his web of duplicity, and she’d sampled more than just his wares of white powder. Her involvement with him had cast the loyal affections of Deaghlan aside like a worn-out pair of shoes.

The burly husband said nothing when they met that evening, because he loved her so much that he couldn’t risk losing her. He went about his business as though nothing was wrong, mindful of keeping a watchful eye on her every move. He desperately wanted to confront the philandering pair but hoped it would soon be over and he would get her back. A month later he fell very ill forcing a visit to his doctor.

“Somehow you are slowly being poisoned by potassium chloride, Deaghlan. The blood tests I have had done on you are showing this almost undetectable increase in your levels,” remarked the brilliant American physician, with a look of unbridled concern. “Who on Earth would want to do something like that?”

“Must be just m’ own stupid self that done it. I’ve been crook recently, so I upped the ante of m’ dosage,” he replied, “I’ll be more careful from now on, Doc!” Knowing that divorce for staunch Catholics was out of the question, he now feared the real truth…

Deaghlan watched his food and drink intake over the next month and began to recover but acted as though he was ill. He noticed the fuss Doreen had been making of him lately and accepted the attention. Still, he said nothing…

On a glorious Saturday summer morning during July 1979, Doreen mentioned that she had to work. Apparently, a new fragrance line from a recently established manufacturer, Renzo Rosso was being instated at the shop and she had to set up the display. Deaghlan waved good-bye, saying he needed to finish a job up in Abbeyknockmoy in Galway, anyway. He told her he would have a surprise meal prepared for her return. They kissed. He drove straight up to the ancient village to paint the customer’s new walls and collect his money. By 2:30 pm he was on his way back and decided to encompass the view from the Doolin Cliff Walk, since it was such a clear day. As usual, Deaghlan tipped his cap to the odd passer-by wishing them a grand day. He observed a pair of peregrine falcons plummeting towards the Atlantic at blinding speed, each seizing an unsuspecting pigeon in mid-flight and flying off. In the distance, his keen eyes caught sight of the little stone ruins of the Viking cottage, and his heart skipped a beat. The sea breeze was minimal, and so, he decided to pay it a visit. Despite his troublesome marriage, with such a fine day surrounding him and a pocket replete with cash, and having just witnessed nature in its rawest, he felt good about life. Keeping well away from the edge, as always, Deaghlan drew closer to the crest of the hill — clear was the stone wall. A smile found its way to his face.

Then the unexpected happened…

As he approached, the distinct sounds of laughter invaded his ears. It was her laugh. His mind catapulted back nearly fourteen years, to when Doreen burst from behind the overlapping-stone structure. His smile sank to a scowl at the sight of Marlowe grasping for her waistline. They sauntered onto the pathway and kissed. They hadn’t seen him. Seeing it right here, in blatant dishonest view, a knife of deceitful shame pierced his heart. Deaghlan saw his love disappear as swiftly as the glint of light does on a turning sword. His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay. A voice angrier than the North Atlantic waves shouted, “Aye, I be right the first time around, weren’t I? The devil be in you, young gal!” Deaghlan launched toward their embrace, stopping short because they were near the extremity. “What the hell a’ ya thinkin’? I know all ‘bout ya tryin’ ta poison me! These cliffs were ours! For t’ love o’ Mary, I’m wishin’ I’d never stepped foot up here in me life. It’s drivin’ me stark ravin’ crazy!”

Doreen spun around in Marlowe’s arms. It was impossible to conceal her guilt. She had her full lips pressed silently together. She had her thick black hair free in the gentle breeze and, as always, those piercing eyes, as deeply dark — as are the desert skies. Suddenly, she broke into a Delilah laugh right at his hurting face. In an act of malice, she stroked her fingers through Johnroshe’s hair.

“Who are you?” uttered the brazen Marlowe. Deaghlan did not answer.

“Why lover,” Doreen grinned, “he was m’ husband, once!” She kissed Marlowe briefly, then added, “Ya don’t have to be too concerned, not only is he nearly dead — but the scaredy-cat is terrified of the Moher’s sensational abyss!” She enlarged her eyes. “Boo!”

Within a second, O’Brien stepped forward, placing his strong hands against the pair and shoved them mercilessly over the edge. Their screams vanished into the breaking whitecaps. He stood inches from the cliff face, without fear and quietly said, “Aye, ta be sure, darlin’ — sheer madness. It seems like ya cured me.” Nobody saw them falling…

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 hear 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…

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!