Linda and Hedda slipped through the breaker door and flattened themselves against the outer wall. A hundred yards away, four cars sat alongside the office building. One was a police car and it was moving away. The two women ran toward the office, hoping to get their attention. Linda halted mid-stride and tugged at Hedda's arm.
"Hey, what're ya doin'?"
"The police are leaving. What does that tell you?"
Hedda thought for a moment. "Well … That they're done here? … That maybe they finished their investigatin'?"
"Exactly. There must be someone inside the office they talked to, and that someone convinced them that everything's fine."
"Let's get a closer look at who exactly's inside the office and so persuasive."
The two edged their way along the perimeter of the parking lot. Linda pushed back a pine bough to get a better look. A branch cracked behind her.
It was 1978 and Linda was eleven years old. She had been waiting for her two sisters and parents on a lonely stretch of beach on the north coast of Cuba. It was a hot summer morning, and time seemed to drag on. She feared that something had gone wrong. When at last she heard the purring of their outboard motor, she stepped out of a mangrove thicket and waded into the shallow waters of the lagoon. She could see the small boat approaching. That's when she heard something crack behind her. A solitary soldier stood at the shoreline staring out at the approaching boat. His grin parted a dark moustache revealing a missing front tooth. He stood just a few feet away with a rifle in one hand. His mouth grimaced as he turned to look at her.
Hedda caught up with Linda and said, "Sorry about that. Not used to sneakin' around."
When they arrived at the back of the office, they peered through a corner of the six-lite door. Inside, a stooped-over elderly man dressed in a dark business suit was shuffling toward a chair in the center of the office. The tufts of white on his balding head were in the shape of a raggedy crown. As he pivoted to sit down, Hedda gasped, "It's Herman. It's Herman Borman."
The soldier motioned for everyone to come into shore. Linda saw the crestfallen faces of her family and with her shoulders slumped and head bowed in surrender, she waded back.
"Herman owns the rights to this mine. He gave Ben and me permission to run some excavations in the River Slope section …"
Before Linda knew what was happening, Hedda turned the handle and threw the door open. She marched into the office.
"Herman Borman! What's the meanin' of all this?"
Herman remained seated, pushed back his chair and placed his right hand in his jacket pocket. "Good afternoon, Hedda. Are you going to introduce me to your pretty young friend?"
Linda closed the door and followed Hedda. Before she could reply, Linda spoke up. "My name is Linda Garcia, and I'm here as Hedda's guest."
"And where are the other two?"
Hedda said, "That's none of your business. These folks are my guests. You still haven't explained yourself."
"Explain myself, Hedda? This is my office, my colliery, my land. I do not need to explain anything to you." Wiping his mouth with his free hand, Herman continued. "I know Ben and Adam Dove are also on the premises." He paused a moment, rose to his feet and looked directly at Hedda. His face was grim, and the sneer mutated into a worm of a frown. "I also know that Dr. Dove has an artifact in his possession that is most unusual. And it is this that I've come here to see."
Hedda's face turned crimson. She took a step closer to Herman. "So that's why you were chasing us, hunting us down like animals? You couldn't just ask? You're the same bullying dog that ran my husband into the ground so many years ago. Nothing changes."
"Now Hedda, it's not like that at all. This whole affair of the chase is just a misunderstanding. I only wish to talk to Dr. Dove and see the relic."
"Smooth talk. I ain't havin' it. We're gonna leave this place, and you ain't gonna follow us."
Hedda turned to the door with Linda in tow. They both froze at the unmistakable metallic sound of a live round entering a pistol chamber.
Adam felt the cage wire slicing into his fingers. His shins were screaming. In seconds the pain would begin to exceed his threshold. Dangling as he was, he knew there was no way back.
"You idiot! You're gonna kill yourself."
Adam moved hand over hand to the left in an attempt to circumnavigate the caged room, trying to find a way out before his fingers lost the little strength remaining. Through the gloom he spied the remains of a wooden platform at the entrance to the cage. He lunged and curled one hand on the base of the railing, and swung his body around the corner. He hung there, arms embracing the metal post. And then the cage shook violently.
The uniform was not giving up.
Adam drew himself up and sat on the narrow platform. With a moment to regain his bearings, he rubbed his shins in a wholly inadequate attempt to ameliorate the throbbing. He swallowed when he noticed dark stains on his jeans. His hands were bleeding. The cage shuddered once more. The uniform was rounding its corner.
The descending staircase was long gone. Adam stood up and peered into the cage. The sheet metal floor, coated with soot and streaked with rust, sloped into the center like a rectangular funnel. Above him dangled the tattered remnants of a chute.
He was standing on the threshold of a crusher, a machine designed to break raw coal gathered from the mines down to smaller pieces. He looked down and saw the ragged metal teeth set on rollers at the base of the funnel.
A grunt behind him announced the arrival of the uniform. A surge of panic shot through Adam's mind, and in that instant, time slowed down. Everything in his sight assumed an eerie, crystal clarity. Seconds seemed to turn into minutes. Adam could hear the beat of his heart slow down, his breathing paused. There was time enough to clinically examine the machine below. The toothed rollers glinted in the shadows. He noticed pulleys leading to the rollers, and his eyes followed them back to a set of levers nearby. He yanked one and nothing happened. He pulled again, this time with both hands. The lever moved slightly yielding a gravelly groan.
Did the rollers part just a little bit?
He tried again, and heard two more squeals, a mechanical one from below and a very human one from behind him. He turned to see the uniform rising up on the platform and the slow-motion special effects ended.
No time left.
Adam leaped feet first into the funnel, sliding to the bottom in a cloud of black dust, down to where those dragon teeth had patiently been waiting so many years for their next meal.
Linda and Hedda froze, and turned their heads in unison. Herman was now standing and pointing a gun at them. Linda didn't know which was worse—the gun or the smug look on his face.
Hedda was the first to react. "Herman Borman! You put that thing down right now. Are you insane?"
Herman's reply sent cold shivers through Linda. "Vielleicht. Maybe so. Maybe not. Sit down … both of you. No one is leaving here. Not until I get the artifact."
"If it's this you want, here, keep it." Hedda pulled out the gold rod from her jacket and threw it on the table between them.
Herman's mouth tightened into a straight line. He replied very slowly, as if to make himself very clear. "And, the other one?"
Linda retorted, "We lost it. Just now. We don't know where it is."
Hedda was nodding as if to verify the claim.
A short rasp blew out of Herman's mouth sounding like something between a cough and a guffaw. He wiped his mouth again before replying. "How convenient. How utterly convenient."
He waved the Luger at the women. "Sit. Let's all of us sit here and wait." And, as they did, he continued, "My colleagues will return shortly, with Ben and Adam. And then, we shall discuss the whereabouts of the artifact."
They sat at the long folding table, the two facing the one. Herman kept the pistol pointed at them, and stared straight ahead as if looking past them. He then turned his eyes to Linda and smiled.
Tap. Tap, tap. A muffled sound was coming from above them, from the corrugated metal roof, signaling the arrival of an early evening shower.
A thunder claps punctuated the downpour. The calm waters of the lagoon boiled under the cold rain. Linda started to cry, holding her hands to her eyes. When she reached the shoreline, she collapsed to her knees and continued to wail. The soldier looked at her with disgust. With her head bowed low, she inched her way closer until she was out of his direct view. Between sobs, she reached for a baseball-sized stone trapped in a knotted set of roots. The soldier turned toward her just as she hid the stone beneath a flap of skirt. She glanced upward at him, and as their eyes met, started to bawl again. As she prostrated herself even lower, from the corner of her eye she saw that he had resumed his watch over her family coming to shore.
"Hey! Don't be stupid!"
The voice was nearby. Adam's feet slammed into the metal teeth, kicking up a blinding cloud of black dust. He reached down to the toothed rollers with one foot and traced their conical shapes, trying to gauge the size of the opening between them.
"Don't be such a jerk! Here, reach up and grab my hand!"
For a moment Adam considered the suggestion. He looked to the voice and saw the dim outline of the uniform hovering almost within arm's reach. Adam bent down and traced the shape of the corroded tips of the crusher's teeth with his fingers. With one leg through the opening, he twisted his body, trying to find a gap between the rollers.
"Give it up! You're stuck."
Every movement Adam made wedged him in even more tightly. If the rollers were to start turning, he'd come out looking like a thin slice of bloody Swiss cheese. He began to think that it might be better to give up when a high-pitched screech announced the movement of one of the rollers. It had shifted a few inches, enough to loosen up his leg. Through the widening gap he saw a chute descending from below the rollers.
He pushed both feet down between the teeth and through the newly opened gap and let himself slip through. An incomprehensible grumble spewed from above. For a moment, thoughts of a bottomless pit overwhelmed him. He descended along a grimy slide in a spiral curve, gaining speed, slipping through mottled streaks of twilight. He passed by the third floor and as the second whipped by, he fell through empty space. The chute was gone and before he could gather enough of his wits to formally enter a panic mode, he landed on the leeward side of a shallow coal pile, tumbling down its short slope and rolling onto the cement floor in a bruised and blackened heap. A thick cloud of choking dust and stones followed him down the chute. Adam was down, in one piece. A string of curses descended from above as the uniform began a search for a safer way back through the broken gangways above. Adam stood on bruised and shaking legs, and brushed himself off when a figure approached from the shadows.
"Are you okay?"
It was Ben.
"I think so. What happened to you? Where's the guy that was chasing you?"
"I managed to lose him at the far end of the breaker. We need to hurry and get out of here before he figures out I doubled back."
Linda held her hands to her face as she continued her sobbing. Through her fingers she saw Hedda's face turning a deep, dark red.
"Now, now, my dear," Herman purred in feigned empathy. "There is no need for emotion. I am strictly interested in the artifact. I just want to examine it, perhaps purchase it, and then you can go on your merry way."
"What will stop us from reporting all o' this to the authorities? The police don't take kindly to gunplay, even from you," Hedda countered with a contemptuous look.
"Ach, the police. Maybe you saw them leaving here?"
Not waiting for a response, Herman continued, uttering each word slowly to insure complete understanding. "The police belong to me, Hedda."
As the message sunk in, Herman glanced at Linda whose head remained buried in her folded arms. She hunched over the tabletop, moaning. Herman, no doubt repulsed by such an outward display of emotion, turned his attention back to Hedda. "You should know this, Hedda. You have lived in this town long enough to know my influence."
Her parents begged the soldier to spare the children. He laughed in response, and when he inhaled to catch his breath, Linda brushed back a lock of hair with one hand, held out the stone with her right arm stretched back ,and with one enormous swing landed it directly on his knee. A staccato yelp left his open mouth. He grabbed at his knee and rolled to the sand. His eyes bulged, and when his mouth opened as if about to scream out for help, a second roundhouse blow from the stone directed between his eyes knocked him completely unconscious. He lay at the shoreline, unmoving, blood oozing from his nose and one leg in the water gently swaying to and fro.
Hedda rapped her fingers in frustration, and then slumped into her chair in defeat. Herman laid the Luger on the table momentarily as he wiped his mouth once more. Suddenly, Linda lifted the table and flipped it onto Herman. As he collapsed beneath it, she glimpsed both the shocked look and the gun flying through the air. A look she could never forget now, or from long ago. She leaped onto the overturned table, pinning Herman underneath it.
The rain had come to a halt. The sounds of the gentle lapping of the lagoon resumed, interrupted only by droplets arriving from the palm tree canopy above. A gull swooped overhead followed by its call fading into the far side of the lagoon. Peace had descended. Her family stared at Linda in disbelief, and then, one by one, they turned to gaze at the soldier sprawled in the sand. No one spoke. No one moved. Linda arose, tossed the stone back into the mangroves, brushed off her soaked khaki dress, and with a voice only barely tremulous, said, "I think we should get in that boat now."
"Hedda! Quick, get his gun."
Linda was no longer sobbing. Hedda loped to the corner of the room to retrieve the Luger, all the while staring at Linda sprawled on the table and Herman's legs squirming beneath.
Herman cried out, "Get off! Get off me you stupid woman!"
When Hedda reached the gun, the backdoor at the opposite end of the office opened a crack revealing a set of grimy fingers curled around the edge of the door. She lifted the Luger, aimed and shouted out, "Whoever you are … I have a gun and I'll use it."
The door creaked open to reveal Adam's face covered in black, with Ben staring over his shoulder and adjusting his spectacles.
Adam spoke up first. "It's just us … who's that under the table? Linda, what are you doing? Hedda, what happened here?"
Linda, lying spread-eagled on the table, looked up at Adam. "What happened to you? You look like hell."
Herman managed to gasp, "Help me! Get this crazy woman off me!"
Adam responded, "I look like hell? Who do you have under there?"
"Herman Borman. This SOB tried holding us here at gunpoint!"
Hedda lifted the Luger in her hand to show Adam.
As the two men entered, Ben surveyed Herman's prostrate form. "Linda. I think you can let him up." He pointed to Hedda. "Since you have the gun now."
Herman, still pinned to the floor, pleaded, "Dr. Wuicjak! You know me. This is all a great misunderstanding!"
Adam and Linda lifted the table off Herman. Once they seated him into a chair, Ben asked, "What exactly do you want from us? Why the big chase?"
Herman looked up at Ben first, and then slowly took in the faces of the other three. He wiped off his mouth, and replied, "I only wanted to talk to you about the artifact."
Adam brushed himself off and took a step toward Herman. "That's right. It's about the artifact. How do you know about this artifact?"
"I have my ways."
Adam thought for a moment about the uniform back at Schill and then asked, "You knew about the lab work didn't you? Maybe, you had something to do with the explosion?"
Herman stared at the floor, avoiding Adam's eyes. "I know nothing about the explosion."
"And, the morning after, it was your man going through the lab?"
Herman shrugged. Adam continued, "You had no right to chase after us like this. We've called the police. You're going to have a lot of explaining to do."
Linda said, "I'm afraid that the police were here already. It looks like Herman is good friends with them."
Adam asked, "Is that right?"
Herman nodded while an incongruous smile slowly curled up his wrinkled cheeks, "Yes. Yes. The police were here. It seems someone reported a problem at the mine … clearly an error. Of course, I told them everything was fine." He took a deep breath and sighed. "You see, this place, this mine, belongs to me. And, you are the trespassers."
Hedda interjected. "You know perfectly well you gave Ben and me permission to set up shop here. To do some diggin' in the River Slope. You know that! So what are you gettin' on about?"
Adam turned to Hedda. "You guys have been working this mine?"
"A couple of years back, Ben came to the museum. He saw the gold rod that my husband had found. It turns out he were tryin' to track down the source of some coal deliveries to New Jersey just before the mine closed down. Once we figured that the coal probably came from the River Slope, he wanted to go explore it real bad. So, we made a deal with Herman here to do some investigatin'. Herman didn't appear to mind, as he was thinkin' about makin' this place a historical site." She paused to look back at Herman and spat out, "Probably a tax write-off."
Herman sat up a bit straighter. "So you see? I have a perfectly legitimate reason to be here. It is you who have attacked me. Go ahead and call the police again, and see if they believe your wild story … your fabrications."
Linda asked, "What about Herman's boys, the two who came after you in the breaker?"
Adam spoke first. "We lost them. But I suspect they'll be on us any moment now."
Ben said, "I think we should get out of here … the sooner the better. But Adam, what about your artifact? Shouldn't we look for it?"
"I think I know where it might be. We can retrieve it later."
Ben walked over to the front door leading out to the parking area and looked out to see if the way was clear. "I'll take my car. You guys follow me in Adam's car. I know a place where we can stay tonight."
Linda and Hedda made their way to the door as Ben scurried out. Adam lagged behind for a moment and yelled out to the door held ajar by Linda.
"I'll be there in a moment."
Herman looked on in frustration, barely keeping himself seated. Adam made his way back into the office area, walking over to the microwave perched atop a counter shelf. He opened the oven's door, reached in and pulled out his laptop. When Adam's hand emerged grasping a shiny gold disk, Herman gasped, "Mein Gott!" He began to sputter, seemingly incapable of coherent thought. Adam waved the medallion at him. By the time Herman could put two words together, Adam was out the door.
Linda was in the front seat of the Pathfinder with Hedda looking on from the rear. Through the rain-speckled windshield they saw the brake lights of the VW as it putt-putted past the entrance gates.
Ben spoke over his downturned window. "I'll wait for you at the end of the drive!"
When Ben left the parking lot, Adam turned to the two women and whispered through clenched teeth. "Give me a second."
He threw his laptop into the backseat and disappeared from view as he bent down outside the car. Moments later he reappeared on the opposite side with something in his hand.
"I found the bugger."
Adam tossed a small black box into the parking lot and eased himself into the driver's seat. Seeing that the two were eying him curiously, he clarified, "It's a transmitter. I noticed the receiver on the floor back in the office. It's got to be how Borman tracked us here."
Hedda handed the keys to Adam and they drove out of the lot, exiting through the inner gate. In the rearview mirror Adam saw Herman staggering through the office door, pointing and shouting at the breaker. A few turns in the road later, Linda spoke up. "There's a police car sitting off to the side of the road."
A curtain of light rain caught the shimmering remains of the evening's sunset. Their headlights illuminated the way ahead and caught Ben's VW parked alongside a police cruiser.
Adam said, "And there's Ben. The police are still here. He looks like he's talking to them."
As they slowed down, Ben looked up and waved them on. "Everything's fine folks! I'll catch up with you in a minute. Just wait for me by the entrance to the street ahead."
Ben was all smiles, and as Adam slowly passed by he saw that so were the two policemen inside their patrol car. For reasons that he could not identify, Adam's stomach tightened up.
Whatever story Ben spun appeared to be going over very well.
When they reached the city street, Adam stopped the car and turned to his passengers. "Does either of you think that any of this makes any sense? Wouldn't the police want to talk to us?"
Hedda spoke up first, "It is odd. But Ben has been visiting the mine for a couple of years now, and he knows a lot of the police around here. Maybe he just explained everything as a misunderstanding."
Adam asked, "When was the last time you saw Ben?"
Hedda wrinkled her eyebrows as she thought back. "He's been visitin' about every other week. It were about two weeks ago."
Adam continued, "And he looks the same to you? That is, the same as he looked two weeks ago?"
Hedda bent her head to the side, pulled down her spectacles over her nose to look at Adam more closely. The pitch of her voice increased ever so slightly as she replied, "Just what do ya mean? Sure, he looks the same."
"I don't know what I mean. Not yet."
Adam looked grim. After a glance at his mirror, he powered the Pathfinder out onto the road.
Linda said, "But shouldn't we wait for Ben? And, what about your medallion? It must be back in the mine somewhere or maybe in the museum? Aren't you going to look for it?"
Adam grinned and pulled the artifact from his pocket. Linda was first to react. "Dios Mio! Where did you find it?"
Adam pocketed the gold disk and answered with a grin, "I never lost it."
Hedda stuttered, "But you said…"
"I know what I said."
Then after a moment more Adam added, "There's something not quite right with Ben, and until we know what that is, this artifact stays lost."
Adam lowered his head. The two women stared at him with their mouths open as he gunned the Pathfinder.
"What will it be? Hamburgers or pizza?"