This is a stand-alone story that started back in the day after reading a few selections of Edger Allan Poe.
I stopped and got my bearings, hoping nobody noticed the uniform I was wearing was a bit on the baggy side and that there was a small hole right in the center of the uniform shirt. Ignoring the smell of stale sweat and old smoke that still lingered on the stolen garb, I picked up my pace, adjusting the rifle strap over my shoulder. Looking neither to the right or left, I strode purposefully down the worn corridor and tried to act like I belonged. The smell of rotting flesh hung in the air like a thick dust. Not surprising, these catacombs have been used for over a hundred years as tombs. Burial chambers. Resting places for the dead. I hoped I was in time to keep another body from being added to the decay.
I passed another guard, leaning against the wall at a juncture where three corridors came together. He looked up at me, a bored expression on his face. I mimicked his expression, my heart hammering, my mouth dry. I prayed he didn't question why I was here.
Rats scurried underfoot. I danced sideways a little to avoid stepping on the filthy creatures. The other guard looked down and with a swift kick, knocked one down the corridor. It landed against the wall with a squeal and scurried off. “Damn rats. They’re drawn to the smell of the corpses,” he said to me and went back to leaning against the wall. “Fresh blood attracts them as well.”
A low moan echoed up from the passageway. I didn't recognize the voice but something in my stomach flopped just thinking about the possibilities. The guard saw my gaze shift in the direction of the sound.
“You get used to it. The moans, the screams, the begging for mercy. You learn to tune them out,” he said to me, digging at a spot under his arm. Like the rest of the guards, he looked filthy. The first thing Jamie was going to do to me when we got back was give me a flea bath. Lice shampoo was looking better all the time.
“How many are down there?” I asked with a jerk of my head in the direction of the faint sounds.
“Used be about twenty,” he replied. “He’s moved most of them out. He just brings one or two in now.” He pulled out a wadded pack of cigarettes and tapped one out. He offered me the pack and I took one. He lit his and passed me the lighter. I took a long drag of the cylinder and then I leaned against the wall.
“What’s he keeping them for?” I asked. ONI had their suspicions, but no proof. That was one of the reasons I was here. The fact that one of my best friends had turned up missing on this island played no small part in me snooping around.
“Spies. Kan Lao has them brought here. This is where he interrogates them,” he told me. “It's an experience. You'll either get used to it, or it eats you up. He's been down there since they brought the new one in two days ago. He must be important. I've never known him to be down there that long.”
Another scream echoed up the cave corridor and something about this one hit me in the gut, twisted up something inside of me and I felt the first tremor of fear rise up from the pit of my stomach. I knew that voice. Something inside of me almost broke, thinking about what that sadistic Kan Lao was doing to my friend. That was why I was here. I was the extraction expert. No one else in ONI had my success. It's not bragging, it’s fact. It was the reason ONI continued to call on me, even though I sometimes came back a little worse for wear.
The guard looked at me, took a final drag off his cigarette then tossed the empty butt to the floor. He stepped on the still smoking end, grinding it into the thin dirt. Another scream filtered up the passageway, loud and guttural, primal and full of nothing but pain. At the end of the scream I heard his voice ground out, “GO TO HELL, YOU SICK BASTARD!!” followed by another scream—deep and long, almost as if he’d run out of air and couldn't scream anymore.
“He's not gonna last much longer,” the guard said, with a sideways glance down the dark corridor. He turned his attention back to me. “You plan on getting him out, you'd better move fast, else he's just gonna be another body to add to the tombs.”
God, this couldn't go on much longer. I couldn't hang on much longer. I had already lost track of how long I had been here. No sunlight, just instinct, told me I'd been here a day or longer. It felt like a lifetime. A never-ending cycle. The first day it was a simple beating. Hours later he returned with a riding crop. My back was probably still seeping blood. Now it was some kind of battery, capable of shooting out hundreds of volts. The last surge of electricity knocked me flat or it would have if I hadn't been chained by my wrists to the low ceiling.
“Who are you, American?” Kan Lao's dark features appeared close to mine as I tried to raise my head up and meet his gaze. Every muscle still screamed from the memory of voltage surging through my body. Kan Lao liked his little toys, apparently.
I shook my head, not answering. I twisted my wrists, already raw and bloody, trying to pull my hands from the tight manacles. Kan Lao knew he had someone important but he didn't know who and he didn't know why. I wasn't going to tell him. Let him keep guessing. I was an idiot to think he would let me live once he knew who I was. Once my identity was known, it wouldn't take a genius to figure out what I had done.
“Why are you here?”
Like I was going to tell him about the virus I dumped in the computer system. The virus was my latest concoction, designed to make the entire computer system, satellite, and weapons systems simply freeze up and cease to work. I was the expert when it came to viruses and software. I just needed a little more practice at not getting caught. Lee was going to have a lot to say to me when I got out of this.
Lao brought up the two long, needle-like conductors and touched them to my chest again. The surge of power jolted another scream out of me that I couldn't hold back any longer.
“Your name, American,” he urged. I gasped, trying to pull air into my lungs to breathe. I wouldn't break. I wouldn't give anything up. I might scream myself hoarse but I would not break. I shook my head again.
“These tombs, they have been here for a hundred years, maybe longer. How would you like to be a permanent addition?” Kan Lao whispered in my ear before he touched the rods to my chest again. The first inklings of real fear danced up my spine.
I screamed. I couldn't stop myself. “GO TO HELL, YOU SICK BASTARD!!” I ground out hoarsely. He held the rods on me and I kept screaming until I ran out of breath. He withdrew and I tried to grip the chains with my hands, my muscles twitching and spasming. I couldn't stand on my own. My knees gave out and I would have collapsed had not the manacles around my wrists held me up.
“I think you will be the one who will be going to Hell, American,” Kan said, lifting the battery up with one hand and stepping through the small opening of the cell. My only source of light was a torch in a rusted iron ring in the wall. I lifted my head, and tugged at the chains bolted to the stone above me. There was no give. Slowly I got my feet under me and stood once more, my eyes automatically tracking the movement from the door. Something in the pit of my stomach dropped as I looked up.
The door to my cell was disappearing. From the floor up, Lao was rebuilding the wall that had once been there. He was sealing me in. Oh, God, I hadn't counted on that. I was going to die in here. No one would know where to find me, not in this maze of catacombs. I was going to die. Panic roared up and it took everything in me not to give in, to tell him who I was and that I had been sent to sabotage the island's defense system—anything to stop the horror that was closing in on me. I wasn't claustrophobic; claustrophobia wouldn't cut it on a submarine. What terrified me was the slow death that loomed ahead. Suffocation, dehydration, starvation; which one would claim me first?
The opening was growing smaller. As a kid, I had read The Cask of Amontillado*. Now I knew how Furtunato felt, watching the opening shrink. Lao took one final look at me, smiling.
“Last chance, American. You have air for a few hours yet. I will leave you the torch. You will see darkness soon enough I think. Good-bye, American. Maybe in a hundred years, some adventurous archaeologist will find your bones.”
The last final bricks were pushed into place. I stared at the now solid looking wall, tried not to give into the wave of despair that washed over me. No one would know what happened to me. Lee would never know what happened to me. Even if he was looking for me, he could never find me now. One of my worst fears was rearing its ugly head. I was going to die here, alone.
I tossed the half cigarette to the floor, grinding it to dust with the toe of one shoe. With reflexes honed by dozen of past missions I spun and caught the guard by surprise. I grabbed him by the throat, throwing him up against the stone wall of the cave. Gasping, he tried to pry my fingers loose but I running on adrenalin, and I wasn't letting go. “Who are you?” I snarled, trying to keep from tightening my grip and choking the life out of him.
His eyes bulging, his fingers clawing at my arm, he gasped a out desperate answer. “O . . .N . . .I . . . name's Carver . . .Sam . . .Carver.”
I loosened my grip giving him much needed air but didn't let go. “You know who I am?” I growled at him. He nodded.
“Crane. Figured you'd be here, once I heard Morton had been caught on the south side of the island.”
Furious, I slammed his head against the wall. “You've known he was here for two days and you did nothing? My God, you're as sick as Lao!”
“I couldn't break cover. Who do you think leaked Morton's capture? It's the best I could do under the circumstances. Lao's getting more paranoid with each passing day. That virus Morton dumped into the system's gonna disable everything remotely electronic on this island in another two hours. I suggest you get a move on if you wanna save your friend.”
I let go of Carver and took two steps back. He rubbed at his sore neck, and I brought up the rifle in a two-handled grip.
Carver blinked. “I don't know, I wasn't here when they brought him in,” he said.
I stared at the three dark holes. One tunnel, one tunnel. Choose, Crane, you can't stand here forever. I held my breath, listening for something, anything, praying for a sound that would lead me to where Chip was being held.
Nothing. Was I too late? After two days, was I too late? I wasn't leaving without him. Dead or alive, Chip was coming home.
“Lao's been favoring the lower levels lately. About a week again he started opening up the older tombs, looking for gold. He might have taken Morton down there. Try the right hand tunnel,” Carver said
I looked back over my shoulder and nodded. “Thanks.”
“Crane, if you can find him, that tunnel leads to the north beach. Keep to the right and it will bring you out right onto the sand. I'm sorry, I can't do anything more. I can try to keep Lao occupied. Good luck.”
“And to you,” I looked down the right hand tunnel and the waiting darkness. Cautiously, I started forward, again trying to look like I belonged. God, don't let me be too late.
I was alone. More alone than I had ever been before. No chance of rescue. None.
Another wave of despair rose up and threatened to drag me under. It was like being caught in a rip tide. No matter how hard you fought against it, it washed you farther and farther out to sea. I closed my eyes to better ride out the wave and not give into the whimper of helplessness I felt rising up inside of me.
I had faced death before but never like this. Watching the torch gutter, it dawned on me the fire was eating away at what breathable air I had left. The tiny tomb was hazy with smoke. Already the air was getting foul and it was getting harder and harder to breath. It was getting harder and harder to care.
I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open. They stung and watered as the smoke permeated everything. My muscles, still occasionally twitching and spasming from the currents of electricity that had arched through my body, were starting to give out. My knees were getting weaker and it was getting harder to stand. I sagged against the chains, the rusting manacles biting into my already raw wrists.
Admiral, it's been an honor serving with you. It would have been nice to get my third stripe under you, but I guess that won't happen now.
Lee. My throat tightened as I thought about my friend and brother. I don't know what would hurt him more, the thought of him actually finding my dead body, or him never finding me at all. It would be nice to have a decent funeral. I didn't want to be a chain-rattling ghost doomed to wander some forgotten stretch of tombs.
I couldn't keep my eyes open. The torch finally guttered out, throwing the tomb into a cold blackness, so solid, so touchable, it was a blanket smothering all hope and all life. I closed my eyes and surrendered to the darkness. I'm sorry Lee, I just can't hang on any longer.
The tunnel gradually dropped further and further down. The smell of rot and death grew stronger with each step I took. It seemed like I had been walking forever. A quick glance at my watch said it had been two hours since I had entered the caverns, an hour since that last gut wrenching scream. It sill echoed in my head. I prayed it wasn't the last thing I would ever hear from Chip.
Torches lit the tunnel every few feet. All along the cavern wall, gaping holes loomed, like wide staring eyes. I peeked into one, seeing nothing but scattered bones and broken pieces of pottery. A grinning skull stared up at me from the floor of another. No Chip. No sign of my friend. Was Carver wrong? Maybe Chip wasn't even down here. No, I heard his voice; there was no mistaking his voice, that scream. . . I shook my head to try to clear the memory so I could concentrate on the search.
I pushed on, the silence unnerving. All I could hear was the sound of my own breathing. Nothing. I turned a corner to be met by another guard on his way up from somewhere below. He looked me up and down, squinting with pig-like eyes.
“Don’t know you,” he said to me. I was sweating bullets, my fingers itching to shove rifle barrel on his face and pull the trigger. Instead I forced myself into a calm I was far from feeling.
“Just came in,” I said. Not a lie exactly, I just neglected to say where from. He must have bought my story because I saw him relax just a hair, fingers drawing away from the pistol I noticed he had shoved into his belt.
“Brave man. Not many can handle the lower levels. Creeps a lot of them out. None of the locals will go down there. They think there’s a curse. Do you believe in curses?”
“It’s just a bunch of bones. Bones never hurt anybody,” I replied with snort. The guard gave me a leering grin. Made my skin crawl. I tried to ignore him and concentrated on looking naive and dumb.
“Didn’t they give you any gear?”
“They said you guys would hook me up.” Another lie I hope he wouldn’t catch.
“Idiots. Here, take my pick and light. I’ll get another from supply later. Happy digging. Lao says to stay away from the left-hand corridor. Keep to the right, report anything you find. Pickings haven’t been that great but you never can tell.” With that, the fat guard waddled off, leaving me with his tools and a general direction. Right-hand corridor. Right hand.
The left-handed tunnel was dark, like the gaping maw of some subterranean monster. The right hand was lined with torches, like the corridor behind me. That made no sense. If Lao was looking for treasure, why not check all the tombs?
I shone my newly acquired flashlight down the dark, left hand cavern. The walls were smooth stone, damp and cool this far under ground. I reach out and rested the palm of one hand flat against the wall. It felt like a solid wall of rock to me.
With a sinking feeling in my gut and a heavy heart I was beginning to think I was wrong. Maybe Chip was somewhere else down here. I stopped, playing the light across the ceiling, over the walls again, and finally the floor.
Someone, several someone’s, had already been down this corridor many times. Shoe prints tracked up and down the thin dirt. One shoe print caught my eye and made my heart skip a beat.
A left side shoe print, indistinguishable from any other shoe, except for the two v-shaped notches carved out of the heel. That was Chip’s shoe, the mark he carved into his boots incase we needed to track him. He had been here. I scanned the floor, but didn’t see any other prints that led out. I was on the right track then. I hadn’t lost him, not yet.
I followed the prints down the corridor, stepping carefully to avoid the tracks. Then suddenly the trail stopped. Dead end. The tracks walked right into a wall and vanished. I ran my hands over the surface of the wall. What was I looking for? A secret passage, maybe? A hidden door? I played the light along the walls, looking for something, anything, but at the same time, not sure what I was searching for. What I recognize it if I saw it?
I continued to move my hands along the wall. Without warning I hit something damp. Mud. Gray mud, the same color as the cave walls. The bottom dropped out of my stomach. Pulling the pick from my back pocket, I drew the flat of the blade across the wall, scrapping away about an inch of plastered-on mud.
I found myself looking at a pieced together stone wall, the mortar still wet. By now my heart was hammering my chest as I fitted the tip of the pick in the wet mortar and started to pry out the stones one by one. When I finally had a hole big enough, I shone the light into the chamber beyond, fearing what I might see.
Chip was strung up like a side of beef, his wrists locked in a set of rusty manacles, suspended from equally rusty chains threaded through a loop in the ceiling.
“Chip?” I called out to my friend. He never moved. His head rested on his chest, his eyes closed. I couldn’t tell if he was even breathing. I called out to him again, hoping for some kind of reaction. “Chip, it’s Lee.”
I clawed at the loose stones until I had on opening big enough to pull myself through. Once inside, I set the heavy flashlight down on a ledge that ran along the right hand side of the tomb. I dug out a slender pick and set to work on the manacles. With a snap, I had them off and Chip collapsed against me. I wrapped my arms around his chest and lowered him to the ground. Drawing back, I saw my hands were covered in blood. My God. Chip, what did they do to you?
I shook his shoulder, trying again for a reaction. His breathing was shallow, his pulse weak and thready, and he didn’t stir. “Come on, buddy. I just crawled through a rock wall to find you. Don’t make me have to carry you back. You're never gonna live that down, if I come back in better shape than you.”
“How touching. I hadn’t expected anyone to be able to find him, at least not for another hundred years.”
I spun around to find Kan Lao himself staring down at me. In his hand was a small snub-nosed automatic, the small mouth of the gun pointed directly at me. He waved the weapon to the side, indicating I move away from Chip. I got to my feet, hands raised.
“Two noisy Americans on my little island. Won’t you tell me who you are and save us both a lot a trouble?”
Obviously Chip hadn’t told Lao anything. Neither was I. We stared at each other, neither moving an inch. At my feet, Chip lay as still as death. I let my eyes drift down to Lao’s feet, then sharply brought my gaze back up, trying to bait him. I let my eyes drift again. This time Lao fell for it and looked down.
I didn’t have time to bring the muzzle of the rifle up, so I swung the rifle butt up in an underhanded swing, catching Lao under the chin. His head snapped back and he dropped the automatic to the ground.
He recovered quicker than I expected and launched himself at me, his fingers going for my throat. I lost the rifle and we both hit the dirt, rolling in a no-holds-barred, dirty street fighting kinda brawl. I would get one punch in and he would land one on me. He managed somewhere along the line to sock me in the eye. I got a couple of solid punches in then took a punch that split my lower lip open.
Lao was bleeding from his nose, both nostrils dripping blood. His dark eyes darted across the floor to the rifle lying on the ground where I had dropped it. We both dove after it. I got to it first, my fingers barley managing to close around the stock when Lao brought his foot down hard on top my hand. I felt bones crunch and snap under the weight. With a yell of pain, I was caught off guard as Lao lashed out with one foot catching me I the ribs. I felt something inside give.
Panting from pain and exhaustion, I lay on the floor as Lao brought the rifle to bear on me. He sneered down at me, blood dripping from his chin. With the sleeve of his filthy shirt he reached up and wiped it away.
“Looks like there will be two dead Americans for someone to unearth someday,” he said, looking down at me and bringing the rifle up. I could only watch as he drew back the hammer and the shot echoed around the tomb.
I jerked reflexively, expecting the searing familiar white-hot lance of pain to pierce right through me but it never happened. Instead I saw Lao’s eyes roll back and a slow trickle of blood leaked out of the corner of his mouth. In slow motion he simply fell forward. Then I saw the shooter.
Chip leaned against the wall, behind Loa’s body, the forgotten automatic in a shaky two-handed grip. I saw the ghost of a tired smile drift across Morton’s face as he slowly focused his pain-clouded eyes on me. In an equally tired and shaky voice he asked me, “Who’s rescuing who, anyhow?”
I swear, I’ll be bald before I retire.
Just when we were beginning to think we had lost the both of them, the pair of so-called ‘experts’ comes wandering in just after dawn, both looking like they had been dragged through the very bowels of the earth.
Chip had taken a pretty bad beating. He had some bruised ribs, his shoulders where strained, and his back was a bloody torn mess. One look at his raw and rust-stained wrists and I made sure he had a tetanus shot in addition to the painkiller and the antibiotics. I forgot to mention the nice stiff sedative—on the house.
I don’t know where Lee found that outfit, but it was coming off. I gave it a decent disposal in the incinerator. Lee had a date with a de-lousing shampoo as soon as possible. He had two broken fingers, and two cracked ribs. I put two stitches in his lip and like Chip, pumped him full of antibiotics and a nice stiff sedative.
Sitting in my small alcove of an office, I could just make out two voices, one just a hair deeper than the first.
“Tomorrow. You just wait,” Chip was saying.
“In your dreams, Morton,” replied Crane.
“You think Jamie's cutting you lose anytime soon? With two cracked ribs, and two busted up fingers? Not likely, pal.”
Lee wasn't going to be out done. “I saw your back. Jamie's got you pumped so full of drugs, I'm surprised you can see straight.”
Time for me to step in. This was my turf, my field of expertise. “Alright, gentlemen. That's enough. I need the both of you to settle down and rest, not plotting havoc and chaos behind my back,” I said to the both of them.
I caught the mischievous gleam in Lee's golden eyes before the yawn ruined it.
“But we're the experts, Jamie. Two days . . .tops. You can't . . .put up with us . . . much longer than that.”
Lee's eyes finally closed, unable to fight off the sedatives any longer. I turned back to Chip, but the exec was also out like a light. Shaking my head, I walked back to my office. The admiral would be down any minute now to get a full update of his boys.
Experts, my foot. I can guarantee, if there is an ounce of trouble to be found, these two experts are bound to dig it up. Heaven only knows what the two of them are liable to get into the next time they venture out of Admiral Nelson's sight.
*Edgar Allan Poe.