Herman Borman adjusted a knob below the green screen to widen the view. His wizened hands moved deftly over the controls as the limo grumbled onwards."Steven, do not be too fast. Let us be careful this time."
Borman wiped his chin of a thin line of spittle and resumed staring at the screen. The driver silently replied with an emphatic nod, and a quick sideways glance at Paul, sitting next to him. Still wearing a police uniform that served its purpose at the Schill incident, Borman could tell that Paul was decidedly unhappy. His preference to wear it again plainly gave away their arrival at the museum. That did not sit well with Borman, and things that didn't sit well with him eventually had a way of disappearing. Paul shot a nervous look over his shoulder and saw the old man huddled over his tracking device, face outlined in goblin green and seemingly indifferent to the world. He exhaled, trying not to make it too obvious, and did not notice Mr. Borman's sneer. Feigning an ignorance of Paul's backward glance, Borman knew that Paul was nervous. Borman spoke to the driver. "They are at the mine office. We do not want to spook them, so move ahead as quietly as you can. When we reach the office you and Paul will check the area. By this, I mean keep out of sight, and keep in touch with me. There may be more people involved. Once you have ascertained the situation, I will tell you what to do," And then, as if to himself, he continued in a whisper, which gradually increased in volume. "I want that medallion and I want the object Hedda has. I want both artifacts, and I do not care what it takes. Verstehen Sie mir? Are you understanding me?"
Steven and Paul nodded enthusiastically in an odd unison that could be comical under other circumstances. Borman had a habit of reverting to German when he became excited. They had been involved in similar activities for some time now. Tracking, hunting, retrieving. He had explained to them that he was a collector of rare artifacts, with plenty of money to finance retrieval operations. For this job, he was a bit more animated than usual, breaking with tradition to actively join in the hunt. They reached the outer gate.
Linda was the first to see it and tugged at Adam's arm. Just ahead, beyond a stand of overgrown forsythias, she made out the curved stone edges of a mine entrance at the base of a mound which blocked the view of the river beyond. The two approached, moving off the main trail and with an unspoken understanding more typical of a coordinated assault, adopted a flanking maneuver using the overgrowth as a cover. The remains of rusty iron rails protruded from the muddy trail and wound through the foliage into the bottom of a faded wooden wall inset a few feet into the mine entrance. Centered on the wall was a boarded up door announcing that the mine was closed, that there were dangers within and for any wayward trespassers to 'KEEP OUT'.
As they neared the blockaded entrance, Adam pointed at the base of the door. "Check out the footprints."
Between two nearly buried rails leading into the mine entrance, shoeprints in the dirt led to the door. Although such signs could be due a variety of curiosity seekers, one such print had a feature of singular interest. Its heel was visible while its toe disappeared under the wooden boards. This anomaly drew the two closer in for a more careful inspection. Adam gave the doorknob a twist and a pull, to no effect. While Linda felt around the edges of the door, Adam took a step back to take in a broader view. The wall consisted of unpainted planks, gray with years of oxidation. The coloring was uniform from top to bottom, except for a couple of small, nearly circular patches near the door. As Adam reached forward to press down on one of the marks, the board beneath gave in just a little. Linda joined him, pushing down on the other. A faint click sounded and the door swung outward along with its collage of warning placards. A plume of damp, cold air rolled over them. Instead of darkness within, they saw a string of light bulbs glaring along the roof of the tunnel and disappearing into the distance as they curved downward. Glistening walls and puddles caught between rails and rock debris scattered along the passageway completed the scene. They pulled the door closed behind them, careful to avoid making too much noise. Once inside the tunnel, they heard the sound of dripping, water seeping into the mine from countless cracks and crevices.
Linda folded her arms."Ooo, it's cold in here."
"Here, take this." Adam offered up his windbreaker which Linda gratefully accepted, wrapping it over her shoulders. He instinctively placed his arm around her waist and for a fleeting moment their eyes met, acknowledging their mutual anxiety and perhaps, more. They proceeded onward through the ragged circles of light, careful to step over the remnants of rails embedded in the floor. They felt the subtle tug of gravity with each step as the tunnel sloped downward. The rails once carried the coal cars or 'buggies' as they used to call them years ago. Rotting timbers running up either side of the wall threatened to crumble beneath their sagging crossbeams. Jagged outlines of blue-black rock reached out to them as they passed beneath hanging incandescents. The air they breathed carried a heavy dampness—a ghostly link to the miners who once worked the coal, perhaps to the miners who died here and were never recovered. There were several openings to either side of the tunnel, possibly marking entrances to side passageways. As they passed one such narrow excavation, something that might have once been a coal chute, they heard voices, distant and muffled, sounds that mixed with those of gurgling water. Intermittent splashes suggested vermin and other creatures of the dark scattering before them as they plodded onward, deeper into the mine. After a few minutes they could no longer make out the entrance, and instead, concentrated on what lay ahead.
Linda tugged Adam's elbow. "Do you hear that?"
They listened, trying to filter out the watery background sounds in the dank, half-lit tunnel. It was music, slow dance music—an old Sinatra, or perhaps a Nat King Cole croon, waxing and waning. The slow song, the tempo and undulating volume, mixed in with the dull echoes of trickling water and their own steps. As they neared the source, a subtle clicking brought up an image of a hand-wound record player to Adam. He recalled his father fussing with an conical megaphone contraption, probably an old Victrola, with a picture of an attentive dog pasted on the side. They picked up their pace, carefully placing each step to avoid announcing their arrival. It was almost as if the melancholy sounds emanating from the distance were calling out to them, drawing them nearer like sirens to rocky shoals. They reached what at first looked like a dead-end, a rock fall or cave-in. The broken rails continued on under a pile of coal and debris—a volcanic isle on a dark, shimmering ocean puddle. A second look made it clear that the tunnel turned to the left, and as they followed the curve, they found fresh timbers. A hundred yards or so ahead a sharp band of light from a side entrance stretched across the path. The crooning was louder.
Mona Lisa by Nat King Cole.
While staring ahead, Adam failed to notice a discarded bottle near his feet. His toe kicked it ahead, producing a loud and disquieting pinging as it tumbled across the floor. The noise may have been barely noticeable in the outside world, but here, in Nature's echo chamber, it was a clarion call. A moment later all the lights went out and the pair froze in their tracks. The music stopped. Seconds crawled by as they wondered what would happen next.
Then Adam ventured a call out. "Hedda, is that you?"
No response. Adam tried again. "It's us, Adam and Linda. We came down here to look for you."
A spotlight flashed on at the far end of the tunnel. A moment later, a familiar voice echoed through the tunnel. "Well, I guess ya found me. Hold on, I'll bring up the lights."
The overhead lights returned and Hedda emerged from the side shaft to greet them. "I thought I told ya to wait for me."
Linda said, "We started to get worried."
Hedda shook her head. "Well, I guess I'd be bringing ya here anyhow. Come with me, I got something to show ya."
They followed Hedda around the corner and into the shaft from where the music had been coming. The mine shaft led to a room with white-washed wooden walls and planked flooring. They felt warmth emanating from the room, cutting through the damp chill. There was a desk covered with notes and books, some chairs, cabinets, even a couple of easy chairs. In one corner Adam spotted a beaten up old desktop computer, and the grim lines of his mouth upturned into a smile, when in the opposite corner, he saw a bona fide Victrola.
"Have a seat. I think ya'll need to be sittin'," Hedda remarked as if to herself, and pointed to a pair of worn out and over-stuffed easy chairs. She slid onto one of the desk chairs. They all stared at one another for a few moments, as if waiting for something to happen.
Then Hedda sighed and turned her head to the paneled wall. "Ya'll can come out now."
A panel section swung open with a creak.. A white-haired man stepped through, stooped over and head bowed. As the door reseated itself behind him, he raised his head and smiled from ear to ear.
"Adam, my boy, what a pleasant surprise!"
Adam's neck hair stood at attention. Standing in front of him was a dead man, Dr. Ben Wujciak. The impossibility of it left Adam breathless. The man he saw before him looked exactly like the Ben Wujciak he remembered seeing back in New Jersey, perhaps with a bit more color and certainly more lively. He frantically looked to Linda, who returned only a blank stare, oblivious to the specter standing before them. With both hands clutching the arms of his chair, providing much needed support, Adam managed at last to cough out a response.
"But … but, how can this be? Are you really Dr. Ben Wujciak?"
The old man replied with a perplexed look. "Of course! Who else would I be?"
The VW in the parking lot.
Still dazed by the shock, Adam arose on trembling legs and walked over to Ben. He stared at his old family friend for a few seconds and then the two embraced. "My God. Ben, I thought you were dead. It's incredible that you're alive and here in this place."
Adam's eyes were misty as the pair unclenched. When he sat down, he unconsciously flashed the splayed-finger Vulcan greeting to his old friend.
Ben smiled and asked, "And who is this remarkably beautiful girl?"
No return greeting?
Too excited to press Ben further, Adam responded, "This is Linda. Dr. Linda Garcia. She's from the university. We're working on a DNA project."
Adam's mouth became dry and his tongue seemed tied in knots, unclear as to what to say next. He eased back in his chair and studied Ben. As he pondered, his smile faded to a thin, determined line. He needed to get past the normal niceties and drive the conversation toward enlightenment. He noticed Linda slowly shaking her head. The incongruity of the situation was sinking in.
Ben asked, "Is there a problem? It looks as if you two just saw a ghost."
Adam said, "Ghost is about right. Ben, do you remember my last office visit. Do you remember what I brought with me?"
The old man put both hands on his hips. "Well, it's been a long time."
"What was it that I showed you?"
With a shrug, as if explaining something very simple to a recalcitrant child, Ben answered, "Adam, my dear boy. I remember it quite well. It must be the reason you are here. It's the reason I am here." And after a very pregnant pause, he added, "It's the object you found in a lump of coal."
Adam slumped back into his chair. "But you're dead. You can't be here. How could you be alive?"
Ben cocked his head and responded, "Relax, Adam. I'm fine. Tell me why you think I'm dead."
Adam related the events of the past couple of days—the analysis of his medallion, the explosion, the note from Ben, and the fateful and extremely odd findings in Maplewood which eventually led him and Linda to Hedda and the museum. When Adam finished, Ben took a seat in one of the wooden desk chairs, clamped his hands across the back of his head, and appeared to be trying to absorb all the details of Adam's story, including those of his apparent death. His eyes closed and a deep silence settled amid them.
After a minute or so, Ben raised his head and said, "Adam, do you have the medallion with you?"
Ben's smile abruptly disappeared as at the same moment they all heard a thud in the tunnel, then another, and another. Hedda ran out of the room to investigate, returning moments later to shut off the tunnel lights. She brought her fingers to her lips and whispered, "There's someone trying to break in. They're at the front entrance."
The entry door caved in with a crash. Adam and Linda jumped. They were trapped in a dead-end mine.
Ben used a steady, calm voice. "Someone's followed you here, probably the gentlemen chasing you from the museum."
Hedda joined Ben as he rose from his chair and added, "No need to panic. Just follow us."
Ben led the group to the hidden door and swung it open.
"A secret passageway?" Adam inquired as they entered.
Ben turned his head. "Nothing so fancy. You're in what used to be the hospital section of the mine, and this is just another way out."
Rubbing his hands along the paneling, Ben continued," I put this panel in myself, so I suppose now it's a 'secret passageway', as you call it."
Hedda secured the door behind them and flicked on a light switch while Ben placed a heavy metal cross-brace into position against the closed panel. Unlike the old wood used at the entrance, the panel and wall were built with oversized beams that would be able to withstand any attempt at breaching. They found themselves in a small room with rough rock walls and an exit at the opposite end.
Ben tried calming the group. "If we can stay quiet, maybe we can wait here a bit and hear what these intruders have to say. It would be nice to know who they are, or at least what they're after."
It only took a few minutes before they heard the arrival of the uninvited duo.
"Paul, shine the light over here."
Desks and chairs were moved about.
"I found the switch. There's nobody here, Steve. Borman's gonna flip."
"You sure they came this way?"
"You saw the foot prints."
"Let's give this place a good overhaul, don't leave nothin' standin'. He'll be pissed off 'cause we came back empty-handed, but I don't want him jerkin' us around 'cause we weren't thorough."
The sounds beyond the door painted a vivid picture—furniture scraped across the uneven flooring, drawers were pulled and emptied, chairs fell over and cabinet doors slammed.
"Get a load of the record player."
"Leave that be."
"What about the computer?"
"Yeah, let's take it with us. They ain't here which means they're someplace else."
"There's nobody asleep in that little noggin' of yours."
Computer equipment cables dragged across a table top. And from the doorway, "Paul, check out that chute up ahead. They could've gone up in there. Maybe there's another way out."
"Shit, Steve, you gotta be kiddin'. Nobody's gone up that chute. Besides, I'm gonna get my uniform dirty."
"Aw, shaddup. Check it out. Borman's not too happy with you, so you better show some initiative."
The voices faded. Hedda spoke up. "We know Borman. I know Borman. That asshole were Luke's boss long time ago. A few years ago he bought this mine. We made an arrangement to do some diggin' here. But that doesn't change anything. He's still an asshole."
Linda tilted her head and asked, "Did this guy know about the stuff Luke found?"
"Oh, he sure did. He were gonna take care of the find in the mornin'. The same mornin' the mines got flooded."
"Do you know if he got hold of the other metal pieces before the flood?" asked Adam.
"Don't rightly know, but I wouldn't be surprised if he did."
Adam turned to Ben. "Was there anything important on that computer they took? And, by the way, just what are you doing down here? If you really are Ben Wujciak, who did I see back in Maplewood?"
Adam could not let it go, and almost as an afterthought, and to no one in particular, he mumbled, "This is crazy."
Linda brought her arm around Adam's shoulders and they both looked to Ben with expectation dappled across their faces. The shadows brought on by the single light bulb directly above Ben added an eerie touch of drama, deepening Ben's eye sockets and chiseling his stubbled chin. When Ben spoke, the shadows danced upon his face as the most startling of revelations were about to be articulated, from the incredible to the inconceivable.