Scorpion Archipelago October 31st 1997 12.20am

“I don’t think we could catch them even if we tried,” said Pete, looking through the night vision goggles. “They must be incredibly strong; they’ve nearly reached the island. Maybe they’re on some other sort of drugs.” He said the last sentence under his breath. Cobus risked a quick glance at him, and then, almost despite himself, grinned as they shared a rare, indeed unique, moment of complicity. It had been a risqué thing to say, but Cobus could tell the guy was using that very British defence, the combination of stiff upper lip and graveyard humour, to keep himself strong and he could only admire that.

“Just think,” said the Afrikaner, “we might be in pursuit of the last survivors of an ancient civilisation.”

“You don’t believe that crap do you?” was the terse response.

Cobus pursed his lips. “I didn’t, but then who the hell are these guys?” There was an embarrassed pause. “You’re right. I dunno why I said that. Who gives a shit, right? The only important thing now is your wife’s safety. Lucky the sea’s become a little rougher; it’s got to have slowed them a bit and hopefully they won’t hear us until we’re on them.”

Pete looked ahead through the goggles. “The sea might be rough, but it also means we’re not gaining on them.”

There was about a mile and a half between the two islands and they could see that the mystery boat would reach its apparent destination very soon. The two men were aware they didn’t have a firm plan.

Cobus spoke. “You do realise, if we lose these guys…”

“This is not necessarily a search and rescue mission? Yes, I’m aware.”

“I’m sorry man. I know we don’t see eye to eye, but I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”

“Thanks.” Cobus heard Pete exhale. “Look, I’m not pretending Jane and I had – sorry, have – a perfect marriage, but I want to get the old girl back. At the same time I know I can’t risk everybody’s life to do it.”

“Ja, I’ve a feeling these guys don’t take any prisoners.”

“Perhaps not the best phrase under the circumstances.”

“Ah shit, man, sorry. You know what I mean.”

“Won’t this FUCKING boat go any faster?!”

“It’s not us, man, it’s them. This is effectively an inshore lifeboat, so it’s not slow, but we wasted too much time arguing on the beach, and underestimated how fast these guys can paddle.”

The boat was being thrown around on the rollers despite the relative power of the motor. In the starlight of that southern sky they could just about see the sleek lines of other boat cutting through the water and heading towards a large area of exposed shingle. Seeing that the quarry had nearly reached its destination, Pete looked again through the goggles. A few seconds later he said: “They’ve just landed.”

Although they had both known it was coming, there was an ominous ring to that bald statement of fact.

“And can you see her?” Cobus cursed himself silently for not having brought another pair of goggles with him.

“It’s difficult to keep these things trained on them, but…there’s only two of them walking. Wait – they’re carrying something. Fuck, these guys must be strong. If that is a…if that’s Jane they’re carrying, one of them has just slung her over his shoulders like a sack of potatoes, even though they’ve just paddled at that speed. Now they’ve disappeared into the trees.” Cobus gave Pete a concerned look. “I’ll try to keep a note of where.”

“Shit, man, if I hadn’t been so stupid.” Cobus slapped his hand against the dinghy.

“Don’t beat yourself up so much. Any of us would have done what you did.”

Unexpected as it was from a man whom he had thought was a prick, Cobus found Pete’s conciliatory approach only made him feel worse. It had happened on his watch; that was the bottom line. He tried to focus now on the job in hand. It was the only way he knew. He had witnessed friends blown into pieces by mortars and landmines before, and if he had allowed himself to think about it then, he would never have made it back home.

About a hundred yards out from the beach Cobus said: “If we’re going in, then we’re at the point…”

“I know,” Pete interrupted, “we’re going to have to cut the motor; run black and silent. Let’s do it. We can’t help her if we’re caught. As we said before, we don’t know how many of them there are or whether they’re watching us even now. They certainly seem big strong boys.”

They killed the motor and picked up the two emergency paddles from the loops on the sides of the boat.

The stretch of shingle looked horribly exposed, in contrast to the furtive shadows of the forest beyond it, which were alive with the suspicion of possibility. They beached their craft and picked up the rifles. Pete slung the goggles back in the boat.

“I’m just going to let my eyes adjust to the darkness. Besides, I need both hands on my gun.” They peered into the shadows. “Doesn’t feel fantastic, does it?” he said with massive understatement.

“Na, man. Look, I’ll leave it up to you. You wanna turn round?”

“Would you?”

“I guess not. “

“In that case, let’s go.”

They removed the safety from their rifles.

“Do you still have an idea where they went?” asked Cobus.

“They disappeared with such ease, I’m sure there must be a track. Yup, I think I know roughly where it was.”

They touched fists and moved off. Both of them could think of people they would rather have been with when moving into the slow jaws of death, but only suicides really get to choose their end, and even they do not always know the finer details.

After a few paces, Cobus whispered: “You know, I thought we might meet a reception committee of blowpipes, spears or AK47s better, but the reality – the absence of any sign of life – is worse.”

The sound of blackness and the colour of silence were encapsulated here, at the end of the earth and both men were wondering how much of that they could take, when Pete raised a hand: “Is that a break in the tree-line, over there?”

They crossed over and found not so much a path as a tunnel, where undergrowth and overhanging branches had been cut away. With just a brief glance at each other they dived in, running, just running, fearing to stop, lest their flow of adrenalin stopped with them. But then Cobus did come grinding to a halt: “Am I imagining it, or is there some kind of light – a flickering – up ahead?”

“No, I think you’re right,” said Pete. “At first I thought it was just the result of my own blood pressure.”

Both of them lifted their guns in readiness and went forward, though much slower now. They seemed to be approaching a clearing in the trees. Then both men stopped again and drew in hissing breaths.

“You’re kidding me, man,” said Cobus.

“What the fucking hell…?” was Pete’s equally prosaic response.

“I think we might have found TempleIsland.”

Ahead of them, incongruous in the middle of the forest, was a rock-face forty to fifty feet high, in the base of which was an opening, which appeared to be the entrance to a cave, but had been hewn into a square portal. Someone had even gone to the trouble of carving faux pillars alongside the entrance. There was also a riveting but gruesome adornment to the tympanum, where someone with great skill  had carved myriad skulls, which looked on like an audience at the devil’s own cabaret. The huge doorway was flanked by flaming torches, which created the glow on which they had commented. Still staring at that gaping maw, Pete said: I think we’ve also found where Jane is.”

Cobus nodded. “And Robbie.”

They looked around. There were no guards; no signs of the lives which had kindled those torches.

“It may seem a superfluous thing to say under the circumstances, but I don’t like this,” said Pete

“Ja, feels like walking into a trap, or the lion’s den.” Cobus agreed and turned to Pete. “Listen, man, I say again; your decision – on or back?”

“Has to be on. D’you know, even if they didn’t have my wife, it would feel wrong to turn back here.”

Cobus just nodded, less convinced perhaps, and they moved with cautious speed across to the doorway, peering through from opposite sides. They withdrew their heads.

“Did you see what I just saw,” asked Cobus, hardly believing his eyes, “or are we back to those drugs again?”

“I’m not one hundred per cent sure what I did see.”

“Didn’t look to be anyone around.”

They ducked inside. What they found astounded them, and it was rendered all the more surreal by the flickering light from more torches, which confused their eyes and gave the illusion of movement to the stonework.

They were in a huge natural space, doubtless once a cave, which had been worked into some regularity of shape so that it resembled a rough-hewn cathedral. Cobus reached out and touched the nearest wall. “Rocksalt,” he said, putting his fingertips to his tongue.

On either side of them huge staircases, carved from the very rock itself, led down into the main body of the hall. Along the walls, seeming also to be fashioned from rocksalt, were statues of naked figures, most of them appearing either to be in agony or supplication. Were they saints or sinners? In a moment of peculiar detachment, which freaked him out, Cobus thought how much certain figures resembled a member of the old glam-rock band Slade, with their square fringes and long hair. Inappropriate though it was, he felt laughter trying to force itself through and decided that, perhaps, he was feeling a bit hysterical. However, one look at the far end of the hall killed any laughter, as he saw the piece de resistance; an enormous statue of some indeterminate, snarling beast that exuded malice, emphasised by the interplay of light and shade on its features.

“Where the fuck is everybody?” said Pete. “And if I didn’t know the answer already, I’d be tempted to ask what the hell we’re doing here.”

“Ja, doesn’t score high on the feelgood factor here,” agreed Cobus. “C’mon, you take the far steps and let’s go down. A split target is tougher to hit. There must be some way through at the back. I don’t sense anyone here. Guess they don’t expect too many tourists round these parts.”

It was soon evident that Cobus was right and they were alone in that vast place with its hostile statuary and the conspiratorial whispers of the torches. They looped round to meet in the middle of the hall.

“This is giving me the creeps, to put it mildly,” said Pete. “And we don’t even know they came in here.”

Splitting again, they looped around the back of the huge, sneering beast-god.

They both saw the opening at the same time.

“Aha! What’ve we got here?” said Cobus.

Pete peered into the darkness of what seemed to be a tunnel entrance, about eight feet across. “I don’t know, but it makes the rest of the temple feel like a sanctuary of peace and light.” It was as if the blackness came at them in waves; the flickering torchlight barely touched it. “Don’t think even the night-vision goggles would be to be a lot of good in there.”

“Nah, but I know what will be.” The Afrikaner removed his rucksack, dug around inside and pulled out some 40 LED head-lamps.

“You’re not Batman are you?” was Pete’s dry response.

Cobus grinned and lifted his pack. “My utility belt. I always have a couple of these lamps with me, for whichever date is foolish enough to come out into the bush with me.” He peered at the tunnel. “Looks pitch black. No point going for secrecy at the expense of safety.”

They fitted the lamps around their heads, switched them on and then, the very definition of reluctance, stepped into the tunnel.

“This looks like part of some original network of passages at the back of the cave,” said Pete as they took their first steps in a world devoid even of shadows. A few paces further on, he stopped and said: “Except this – ” he looked around “ –  has clearly been hewn by man.”

They were at an intersection.

“Part of the mines, d’ya think?” said Cobus softly. “The ones the Professor mentioned on the plane.”

“Don’t much care,” replied Pete. “I know I shouldn’t admit it when my wife’s life is at risk, but I’m fighting a very strong urge to retreat.” He looked left and right. “The question is which way do we go? I don’t much fancy getting lost in here.”

From a man of action, Cobus’ silence spoke volumes. The darkness was almost tangible against their skin and their fear leached out to meet it through their pores. At length he spoke: “Shit, I should have brought a compass. I just haven’t been thinking straight. These islands have completely fucked my thought-processes.”

“That makes two of us.” Pete’s tone was grim, but then he added with irony: “I just can’t understand why we’re a bit shaken up, standing in some primeval, shadowy temple, having just pursued a boat that might contain my wife, kidnapped during a night-time raid by an unseen enemy.”

Cobus put a hand on his shoulder. “You wanna go on, man?”

“Okay, let’s give it a go.” He looked at the crossroads again. “Let’s just go straight; ignore any diversions.”

 

But soon, they came to a fork in the tunnel where ‘straight on’ just couldn’t be defined. Then Pete had a thought. “Hey, you got any of that marker tape in your utility belt?”

“Ja, I have!” Cobus pulled off his pack again with a winning enthusiasm. “Good thinking, man. I had this pack on when we found the old city.”

“Let’s stick a piece every ten paces. I know it’ll slow us up, but we’re no good to anyone wandering in these tunnels forever.”

Of course, Cobus did not voice it, but it seemed to him the adrenaline junkie might have met his match. “We’ll put the tape where, hopefully, no-one else will see it. If we’re…not alone, or whatever, we don’t want anyone seeing twentieth century tape and knowing we’re in here.”

“You really think they don’t know already?”

There was no response.

The roof of the tunnel was about two feet above their heads. Having taken an arbitrary left fork at the previous junction, they leapt up after every ten paces and stuck a small piece of tape that would reflect their lights.

Suddenly they came to a three-way intersection and stood, hopeless and bewildered. Pete raised his hand. “Just a minute,” he whispered. “You hear that?” They stood still. Above the rushing of blood in their ears, there might have been faint noise akin to the distant thrumming of an engine. They moved to the head of each tunnel in turn.

“I think it’s coming from here,” said Cobus by the left-hand tunnel. Pete joined him. They looked at each other and felt the chill of fear brush past them like a spirit, raising goose-bumps on their skin.

“You’re right. C’mon.” They marked the entrance and moved on.

Silent now, as if words might shatter their fragile courage rather than bolster it, they lost track of time and, despite the tape, had no real sense of place. All they knew was the resonance of the sound somewhere ahead and the cones of light they threw before them as they moved at an increasing pace. Despite their need to push on, they stopped to peer with caution into the black fissures that split the smoothness of the walls from time to time – they looked nothing more than crawl holes, but someone could have been lurking in the shadows. The sound was a thread they had grasped at in their blindness, preferring the devil’s guiding hand to their own clutching at nothingness. It could have been a hundred yards or a thousand they travelled, but then Cobus hissed: “Shit!” and they found themselves at a marked intersection. Both men stared at the mocking piece of tape. “It’s led us round in a fuckin’ circle. How can that be happening if we’re following a sound?”

“It could be echoing. Or maybe this place is just playing with our minds. I suggest we mark the entrance with a double piece of tape.”

“What good’ll that do, man? We’ve still got to go down the same tunnel. It might be further ahead that we went wrong.”

“Well, if we end up here again we’ll know which way not to go…oh, I see what you mean. FUCK!” Pete butted the air in frustration and shouted, not caring whether he was heard or not – if someone was toying with them, then it made no difference. He frowned. “Wait a minute, there was one intersection where we really weren’t sure which fork to take. The sound hasn’t grown any louder since then. We’ll take the other fork. We’ve got nothing to lose except our way.” They looked at each other yet again. Pete frowned. “Did that make any sense?”

“Fucked if I know,” said Cobus.

“As long as we’re both confused then.”

Suddenly they both burst out laughing. It was more hysterical than anything else, but somehow they sensed it needed to happen if they were to carry on.

“I don’t think…” – Cobus had to stop while he wiped his eyes – “…it served any purpose at all.” He smacked Pete on the arm. “Man, if you’d told me yesterday that we’d be pissing ourselves laughing together I’d have shot myself.”

They calmed down and followed Pete’s hunch; sure enough the sound seemed to grow in intensity. It felt now like any laughter had been well and truly left behind in the tunnels.

“Man, I hope we don’t come across any more of our tape now,” said Cobus. “If we do, I think we’re fucked.”

“I believe that is the technical term for it,” said Pete.

They moved on, gazing nervously at any tunnels that joined their own, hoping not to experience the desperation of seeing a little piece of reflective yellow.

And their luck held, till they found themselves confronted by a different intersection of three tunnels.

The hairs stood up on the back of their necks; not because of the choice that confronted them, but because the sound had started to take on definition. In the confusion that was their sensory world right then, it was like being able to see pitch and tone. And they knew; this was no devilish engine thrumming in the heart of a mine, but voices chanting in unison.

“Fuckin’ hell, man.” No other words were needed from Cobus, and he was speaking for both of them. They tested all three entrances.

“It’s coming from here,” said Pete from the middle entrance – I think.” The sound seemed to echo around them.

They were about a hundred paces down the tunnel when Cobus said: “Kill your light a moment.” This they both did, and noticed that the Stygian darkness was no longer so intense. There seemed to be a glow ahead, and with each step towards it the voices grew louder. There was another sound too, unless their ears were playing tricks; the faint babbling of water.

“The outside world?” suggested Pete, more in hope than expectation.

“Nah, man,” whispered Cobus, “I reckon we’re right in the heart of the shit.”

They crept forward and could see the end of the tunnel ahead, beyond which was an as yet indefinable space filled with flickering. Getting as close as they could on foot, they crawled the rest on elbows and knees. They could tell there was a drop ahead and soon it was apparent that this was the top of a set of steps.

“No sentries posted,” commented Cobus.

“You’ve said it yourself; I don’t think they’ve been expecting anyone to drop by.”

Flattening themselves against the floor of the tunnel, both men slid forward. Cobus peered over the edge, then jerked his head back. “Shit, man, shit, shit, shit!”  He buried his forehead in the crook of his arm.

Pete had not seen anything yet and stretched his neck further forward. “My God!”

As Cobus had put it so succinctly, it was the heart of the shit. There were perhaps fifty men, wiry yet muscular, bare-chested, their lower bodies clothed in ragged kilts that might once have been magnificent, and they were in kneeling in ranks, facing what appeared to be an altar or other object of worship; a pedestal studded with stones or gems that caught the firelight from the torches held by the supplicants. And on the pedestal was an object, perhaps a hand span across, too far away to see in detail. It seemed to pulse with light sporadically, though it was made of something that might have been brass, maybe gold, and stood in a stream of water that rose from the top of the pedestal before flowing down its sides and draining away through the base. All strange and wonderful in its own right, but what had caused Cobus’ reaction was the object standing next to the pedestal; a rough stake of wood about ten feet high on which was skewered the body of Robbie McCulloch, or at least what was left of it.

Cobus had seen enough sights during his time in the army not to release the contents of his guts onto the floor of the tunnel, but it had been close. Sudden anger blazed in his eyes. “The bastards!”

He made to get up, but Pete held him down. “Cobus!” he hissed, “Get a grip.”

“But that’s my friend down there.”

“These,” Pete shook his gun, “are not machine guns, they’re rifles. And those guys down there look big and mean enough to me. You might get a few of them, but they could rush us; maybe even surround us in the tunnels. It’s too late for Robbie.”

“But not for your wife, man. She might be next.”

Pete looked at him and clenched his jaws. “I know. God knows I know. But we said at the start we might not be able to launch a rescue this time round. What use are we to her if we’re dead?”

“I don’t get it. How can you say this?”

Pete pushed with anger at the Afrikaner’s shoulder. “You think it’s easy for me? But we don’t know for sure they’ve got her.”

“Oh yeah, man, she just went walkabout, like Robbie.”

“And she might have done just that. You’ve been a soldier; think like one. We’ve done a recce, we know what we’re up against. Now we get reinforcements. We’ll fetch Jim, and we’ll come back with automatic weapons. Plus some of that plastic explosive the Professor tried to hide. We’ll give these mother-fuckers something to pray for. We’ll threaten to blow up that precious object of theirs, whatever it is.”

“So we’re coming back in broad daylight?” Cobus was not happy about this at all.

“Don’t be stupid.” Pete glanced at his watch in the firelight. “It’s only one o’clock in the morning. Even at this time of year we still have a bit of night-time left. We’ll get back to the camp, grab Jim and the guns and heads straight back here. With any luck these bastards will still be at worship and we’ll have the higher ground – take them all out if they don’t hand Jane over. Anyway, we haven’t got enough ammo. Neither of us was thinking straight, and we didn’t grab any spare clips.”

Cobus smashed his fist on the ground in desperation. Then he seemed to get a grip on himself. “Ya man, you’re right.” He put a hand on Pete’s shoulder and looked at him with great intensity. “Sorry I lost it there. I tell you, I see you in a whole new light. Your wife could be in there, but you’re thinking straight. Not like me; I haven’t used my brain all night. I dunno what this fuckin’ archipelago had done to my head.”

 

They headed back, switching on their lamps once they were away from the grisly chamber, and sought out their pieces of tape in the light. Then something stopped them in their tracks.

They looked at each other; questioning; afraid.

“You feel that?” asked Cobus.

Pete nodded slowly. “Suddenly I don’t want to be seen,” he said with deliberate understatement.

They looked around them in the darkness. No way out.

“What you reckon, man? Back to the chamber of horrors?” asked Cobus.

The question needed no answering and they headed on towards the source of their growing unease; a presence somewhere ahead of them. Then to the left of them they spotted what they were hoping for; one of the niches in the tunnel wall.

By now, a disturbing mixture of cold and heat was oozing down the tunnel towards them.

“Quick, in here!” hissed Pete. They flicked off their lights, then Pete squeezed in sideways, unsure at first how far he could go, but managing to push his way twelve to fifteen feet in. “C’mon!” he urged Cobus, whose backpack had prevented him from getting into the crevice. The Afrikaner removed it with a clumsy, anxious fumble, and then forced his way in; a tougher operation for him, as he was perhaps twenty-five pounds heavier than Pete. Still he made it in, dragging his pack, and then both of them stood silent; waiting.

At first they only felt it, but then they fancied they heard a soft tread of feet. Whatever it was, its approach was marked by an aura of malevolence that was all the more sinister for the gentle footfall.

Now they couldn’t be sure, but the presence seemed to pause at the mouth of the crevice. Both men tried to hold their breath, then realised that they had already stopped breathing. Cobus turned his head – a slow, terrified twist. He fancied he saw eyes straining through the darkness towards him, and he shut his own, telling himself it was to avoid the remotest possibility of any glistening reflection. The reality was he had gone the way of the child that hides under the blanket in the hope the monster can’t harm him. He was sure the thundering of his heart would give him away, like some bizarre twist of the Edgar Allan Poe story.

At last the spectral presence moved on.

Only when the feeling of menace had faded at last – when they sensed that the deeper darkness within that lightless place had gone – did they dare to move.

On leaving the crevice, they stood and looked down the tunnel in the direction of the departing shade.

“I think our decisions to hide and to leave have just been vindicated,” said Pete, the morbid dry wit a shield against the terror. “I’m not so sure about the one where we said we’d come back. What the hell was that?”

“Fuck knows,” was the Afrikaner’s terse response. “But I felt its dark soul, whatever it was. Got to admit, for the first time in my life I’d be happy just to run from something.”

Suddenly Pete shot across the tunnel with a cry and fumbled for his light, while Cobus, in a confusion of reflexes, raised his gun and pointed it blind into the darkness.

“What is it, man?”

“Something grabbed at my ankle.” Pete found his lamp switch at last and turned it on – which was when they discovered they were nowhere near done with the horrors of the labyrinth.

Lying in the opening of the crevice, looking up at them in desperation was a figure straight from the liberation of Auschwitz. It – they assumed it was human – pleaded with hollow eyes, which had seen the Day of Judgement and been found unworthy. One skeletal arm lay extended into the tunnel while the other attempted to reach in their direction. As this husk of a human being, weighed down by savage, crushing weakness, tried to crawl towards them, they could hear his bones scraping on the stone floor and the sound almost put fur on their teeth. To describe the cobweb of rags on his body as clothes would have been stretching imagination. Despite their horror and revulsion, both Pete and Cobus felt the profoundest pity for the obvious, prolonged suffering of this human being, on whom that epithet had as tenuous a hold as his rags.

He was trying to say something, in a grating whisper that told of one who had lived a comparative eternity in silence.

“I don’t know what the hell he’s saying, man,” said Cobus, “but I think I can translate it anyway.”

“Yes,” said Pete, the word catching in his dry throat, as if it was coming out in sympathy, “let’s get this poor bastard out of here.”

The man was incapable of standing and they helped him to a position where they could lead him out supported on their shoulders. The feel of the non-physique beneath their fingertips made them wince. Cobus rummaged in his rucksack and produced a lightweight fleece, which afforded him protection against direct contact with bone as much as it eased the man’s pain. “Three hundred grammes – his body should just about be able to bear this,” he said.

They continued on their way, slow despite, or perhaps because of their burden. Although sharing an unspoken acknowledgement that they wanted their own carcasses away from the place that had spawned this being, they knew his suffering had to be off the scale, and took care not to hurry him.

Cobus glanced over his shoulder as they neared the tunnel exit. “I think our luck’s holding; we don’t seem to have been followed.”

And then they were out; first into the twilight of the temple and then into the outside world.

“Thank God!” said Pete, raising his face to the night air.

Cobus looked at the stars. “Never seen them looking so bright.”

It was a moment’s respite only and they moved on till the black fingers from the temple entrance no longer brushed against their necks.

“C’mon fella,” said Cobus, as he and Pete adjusted their shoulders under the armpits of their gaunt companion and carried him through the forest over the worst of the shingle, though he groaned with pain at the pressure of their hands. They placed him with gentle handsinto the boat, pushed out into the surf and started the motor. Neither Cobus nor Pete looked back; there were a number of reasons, chief amongst them being the fear that one glance might have been enough to convince them not to return. The skeletal figure did, however, turn his fragile neck and a peculiar expression crossed his bony features. He said something, recognisable only as being the same two or three phrases repeated.

“Sorry, old chap,” said Pete, “haven’t got a bloody clue what you’re saying.”

They rounded the headland that hid their camp from view and in the distance saw the campfire was now blazing. Their passenger was something of a paradox, becoming both more agitated and weaker. He was slumped against the side of the boat and his mutterings were growing in intensity. Meanwhile his breathing had become as ragged as the rest of him.

“This might be stating the fuckin’ obvious,” said Cobus, “but I don’t think he’s got long left.”

“His voice doesn’t seem to be getting any weaker,” said Pete with evident irony and some irritation. It was as if the man was investing the last of his strength in his message.

“It’s no good, buddy, we don’t understand a freakin’ word.” Then a light clicked on in Cobus’s head. “But Catalina might.”

“Oh yeah?”

Pete’s comment had a dismissive ring and Cobus bridled a little. “Hey, I know she looks good in her dry-suit, man, but she’s also bright – one of the best in her field. And what might help us is the fact that she’s studied Botany, so she has an interest in the life and work of Schomburgk…”

“Yea, I was just thinking that – good old Schomburgk.”

Cobus allowed Pete his sarcasm. “He was a German botanist. No, I hadn’t heard of him either, but Catty was going on about him. Anyway, her interest meant she spent a lot of time in South America. Along the way, a bit like…your wife, she’s become pretty good with ancient languages. It’s one of the things they shared…sorry man – share. Look, I may be clutching at straws, but back at the ruins, wasn’t it you who mentioned something about the Mayan civilisation?”

“’Twas I, though God knows where that came from.” Pete’s self-deprecation seemed genuine.

“Ja, you did. So did the others – when we found that section of wall. So perhaps Catalina may be able to make out what he’s saying. And if there is some South American connection there, remember – Cat’s family was originally from Argentina.”

There was no response from Pete. Cobus looked at him. Mention of Jane had affected him. He seemed lost in thought. The Afrikaner had to acknowledge once more how tough it must have been for the guy to walk away, knowing his wife was being held in that monstrous place.

 

Indeed Pete’s thoughts were with his missing wife, but also with that strange artefact they had seen in the temple. Some force had been emanating from it. In the shock of seeing his dead and mutilated friend, Cobus had perhaps not felt it, but Pete had. And with an inherent certainty he knew it would be a prize worth having. That black force in the tunnel knew it too; was part of it, because the air around it had throbbed with the same pulse, beyond the hearing of those whose hearts were not alive to its darkness. They had to be linked, as inextricable as light and shade. The others could have their piles of bricks; he sensed something greater was waiting for him.

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