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Chapter 1: AN UNEXPECTED DISCOVERY
It's a tombstone.
The notion came out of nowhere; seeping into his consciousness the way fog sweeps off the sea on a cool summer evening, insidiously sliding into the center of his thoughts. Once there, it stuck hard and fast. The stone did, indeed, resemble a gravestone. The outer edges had been beveled at a slight angle, giving it a simple yet unmistakable sense of dignity. It had also been sealed to the dirt floor with mortar.
If it was a tombstone, then whose was it?
Why put it here, hidden beneath a river?
It just didn't make sense. Staring at it, Jake decided it had been a difficult afternoon. This latest addition to his troubles had started fifteen minutes ago, with Rick's arrival in his trailer.
"We need you in the cellar, boss."
"What the hell for, Rick?" Jake Caruso replied without turning. "You know Blake wants these estimates finished before two o'clock. I don't have time to look at every little thing that goes wrong. That's why I appointed you foreman, remember?" Jake was tired; the work had been going well, but Blake was on his back about even the tiniest details. It was starting to get to him. Why can't the man just back off and let me do my job? Jake wondered, not for the first time.
Rick's reply surprised him. "I know, boss, but I think you'd better come on down. It's important."
His solemn tone was what caught Jake's attention. Turning away from the work before him, Jake looked at Rick and started in surprise. His friend's lips were pressed tightly together. The tension in his jaw was easy to see despite the man's effort to hide it. His usually ruddy face hadgone sickly gray, and the cheerful light in his eyes had dulled to a lusterless sheen.
Jake's aggravation with the interruption vanished. Rick was the perpetual optimist. For him to look this bad could only mean that something major had gone wrong. Images of bloodied flesh raced through Jake's mind, with visions of men crushed by powerful tools.
"What happened? Somebody hurt? Should I call an ambulance?" Jake asked, reaching for the phone.
Rick held up his hands in a placating gesture. "No need for that. Nobody's been hurt. The crew in the basement found something I think you should look at, that's all."
That was it. When pressed for more details, Rick refused to say anything more.
Tossing his pen aside and running a hand through his already disheveled hair, Jake agreed to go look.
The two men left the trailer and crossed the lawn to the wide veranda that encircled the house. Climbing the steps, they entered through the front door. Moving along the foyer, they passed through the dining room, the butler's pantry, then down the flight of servants' stairs that led into the basement, where Jake's crew had been working for several days.
The home's original owner had made use of the land's natural features, routing a nearby stream directly through the cellar. The stream's steady flow turned a large waterwheel, which in turn generated electricity for the estate. Ultimately, the owner's eccentricity had caused more harm than good, for over the years the stream had backed up and pooled in the building's basement. Now it was nothing more than a deep stagnant pool.
Blake, the present owner, had decided that the cellar was to become a wine-storing area. Jake's men had dammed what was left of the stream out on the east side of the property earlier in the week and spent the last two days pumping the last of the water out of the cellar. The streambed would be filled with concrete and a foundation laid for the hardwood floors, as Blake had requested.
As they descended the flight of rickety old steps, the smell of mildew and rot wafted up toward them. It reminded Jake of childhood days spent hunting crayfish in swampy creek beds. The stench was the same. At the base of the stairs he paused and surveyed the job his men had done. Bright lights had been erected to illuminate the area, and in their harsh glare Jake judged the height the water had risen over the years by the dark stain left on the wall. Beneath this mark, layers of green slime and algae still hung, shimmering in the light. The air was heavy with dampness, making Jake feel as if he were walking through a vertical curtain of dew. He could see the wide trench that extended from one side of the house to the other, neatly bisecting it before disappearing out the opposite side. Rick led him over to the edge and pointed down.
* * *
Now, staring at the stone, Jake realized that Rick was speaking.
"...the last few inches of water about an hour ago, and I sent a few of the men into the trench to start widening it out. I was hoping we'd be able to start laying the pipe for the drainage system this afternoon, then we uncovered this thing."
Jake's gaze had not left the stone. He guessed it to be about six feet long and three feet wide. One corner had been chipped away, exposing an open space beneath and revealing that the stone was at least several inches thick.
"I had one of my men break it open just to make sure it wasn't an old storeroom or well shaft. When I saw what it really was, I didn't want to touch anything else until you'd had a chance to take a look," Rick said, handing a flashlight to Jake.
Jake took the flashlight and jumped down into the trench, moving closer to the stone. The muck at the bottom of the trench sucked at the soles of his shoes and coated them with a foul-smelling mud. He didn't care; his interest was on the slab of stone before him. Bending down beside it, he ran his hand along the surface where the men had cleaned off the layers of mud that had collected over the years. He was surprised to find it extremely smooth.
"Don't bother," Rick said from his position above. "There isn't any writing on it. I already checked. But take a peek into the hole beneath it."
Jake flipped on the flashlight and shined its beam down into the darkness beneath the slab. The light pierced the gloom lurking there, giving him a clear view of what lay beyond.
He realized what it was that had upset his foreman.
Stone stairs lay just beneath the stone.
Deeper into the earth.
"What the...?" Jake mumbled to himself. He reached into the opening with one hand and ran a finger lightly over the top step. It was coated with a thick layer of dust that stirred slightly with the movement. There was no sign that any of the water that had lain overhead so long had seeped through. On a hunch, Jake reached sideways and felt the inner surface of the nearby wall.
That, too, was bone dry.
It also was solid stone.
Jake sat back on his haunches and looked up at Rick. "We can't do any more work until we check this out. Send a couple of men out to my truck. There should be some crowbars in the back."
Ten minutes later, Jake and Rick were heaving at the edges of the slab with the help of several others. It was hard work. The stone had lain there long and was heavy. They wedged several of the bars between the slab and the stone walls, using the first step as leverage. In that manner they managed to get enough torque to snap the stone from its seal. They slid the stone far enough to the side to leave an opening wide enough to admit a man. The stairs below were clearly revealed. They could see that the steps descended about twenty feet, then stopped at the opening of another tunnel.
Jake was preparing to go down to investigate when Rick caught his arm. "Should we be going down there?" he asked.
"Sure. How the hell else are we going to find out what it is?" Jake's eyes gleamed. Visions of dark caverns and secret chambers danced in the back of his mind.
That frightened look was back on Rick's face. "I don't know if that's such a good idea, Jake. We don't know how safe the tunnel is or what it might have been constructed for. For all you know it might be the gravesite of one of Blake's ancestors. I don't think the old man would appreciate you poking around in the family crypt."
Jake remembered his initial reaction to the stone, and a chill raced through him. What if it is a crypt? Does that make any difference? If I am going to finish the job, I'll have to discover what lies below and relay that information to Blake. I can't very well go to him and say we stopped working in the cellar because we found a hole in the floor. Blake would be furious. He'll at least need a valid reason for the delay. He explained as much to Rick, who shrugged and reluctantly agreed, but the troubled look never left his foreman's face. Jake knew Rick was just going along because Jake was the boss. Well, so be it then, he thought. That's the way it is. Jake turned back toward the steps before him and forgot what Rick was feeling, caught up as he was in the excitement of exploring the unknown. Jake gingerly rested one foot on the top step, checking that it would support his weight. Then he stepped down with trepidation, worried about booby traps and the entire structure's stability. When nothing happened, he repeated the process, moving down onto the next step, then the next. Behind him, Rick picked up one of the crowbars and followed. After the first few steps Jake grew more confident and quickly descended to the bottom, where he waited for Rick to join him.
Together they shined their lights into the darkness of the tunnel ahead.
The passage extended directly ahead, farther than the beams of their flashlights would reach. Jake felt his excitement rise as he stared down the tunnel.
The air was dry but cold, and Jake was thankful for the sweatshirt he'd donned before heading out the door. He set off down the tunnel, with Rick close behind. The tunnel continued for several hundred yards. About halfway down its length, it began to rise gradually toward the surface.
Eventually, their lights revealed a ninety-degree turn. When they reached it, Jake hesitated a moment, wondering what he might find around that corner. A strange feeling of unease suddenly crept over him, and the walls seemed to be closing in. He was struck by the urge to turn around and get out of the tunnel as fast as he could. He was about to tell Rick they were turning back when his good sense reasserted itself. Go back now? a voice whispered in his mind derisively. Just because of a little claustrophobia? I've come this far. I might as well see what's on the other side.
No sooner had Jake convinced himself to keep going than Rick spoke up in a slightly quavering voice, "Jake? Don't you think we should wait until..."
Jake wasn't listening.
Intent on what lay ahead, he stepped around the corner.
The tunnel ended some three feet ahead in a perfectly laid wall of brick.
"What the hell?" Jake stepped forward and slapped the wall with his hand. A flat sound reached his ears in response.
When Rick caught up, Jake said, "Give me that crowbar, will you?"
Rick handed Jake the crowbar and watched as Jake took a step back and swung the bar at the wall. It rebounded off the surface and nearly struck Jake in the face, but he seemed not to notice. He stepped up and put his ear against the wall, listening.
A frown crossed his face.
He stepped back and swung again.
"Hear that?" he asked.
Rick shook his head.
"There's an echo," Jake told him. He struck the wall again, harder. This time, Rick also heard the echo.
"I think there's a room on the other side of this wall."
By then Rick was also getting caught up in the excitement of discovery. "Want me to have the jackhammer brought down?" he asked.
Jake absently handed the crowbar back to Rick as he considered his next move. More than anything, he wanted to do what his foreman had suggested. He knew that he shouldn't, however. There could be a good reason the area had been sealed off. He didn't want to put anyone in danger.
He decided it would be best if he checked with Blake first.
Jake let Rick know of his decision, and the two men returned the way they had come.
Leaving Rick to dismiss the men for the day, Jake headed back to his trailer. Excitement or not, he still had a deskful of paperwork that needed to be finished before he could call it a day.
Much to his dismay, he found he couldn't concentrate on the work before him. His thoughts kept returning to the stone, and the tunnel it had concealed. Again and again, he found himself asking the same question.
What is behind that wall?
In the darkness, he stirred.
At first, there was just a vague feeling of confusion. Confusion a child might feel when waking in a strange room in the middle of the night; yet what was waking here was anything but a child. Against the disorientation, he fought to hold on to his dreams. Though dreams were but a poor substitute for reality, they were all he had. His only companions. To anyone else, they would have been nightmares; dark visions of death, gloriously colored with the rich crimson flash of freshly spilled blood. They were his link to life, his last toehold on the edge of sanity. Without dreams he would long ago have succumbed to the fate that his enemy had planned. But then, like now, his desire for life had been too strong. Long ago, when he'd first felt the crushing bonds of his prison, when he'd first recognized the true nature of his imprisonment, he'd retreated into the cold embrace of the darkness that surrounded him. He surrendered himself to his dreams, finding in them the sanctuary he needed to survive. Over time, he'd forgotten what was real and what was not, the line between illusion and reality blurring. He'd come to see his dreams not as a mere reflection of reality but the very image itself.
Then, as the first faint tugs of reality prodded his consciousness, he fought against them, not yet ready to relinquish that which had kept him safe from the hateful silence and despair that had surrounded him for so long.
Then, like the slow trickle of a muddy stream, he began to remember.
Sights and sounds and images from days that had long since fallen into dust came to him, fragments of a time forever frozen in the depths of his mind.
He moved to leave his prison, only to find that his sentence had not ended, but had merely been exchanged for another.
He screamed then, a long, howling cry that would have been awful to hear had there been a throat from which it could have issued forth, a cry filled with such rage and frustration that it would have turned the listener's blood to ice and bones to stone, had it been possible to hear.
In the midst of that cry, another memory surfaced.
The image of a face formed in the darkness of his mind. The face of one he had known long ago, the face of the one who had imprisoned him in the darkness of eternity, the one who had brought him such misery and pain.
The face of his enemy.
Cold, reptilian reason took over then, strangling his silent cry, shoving aside his emotions. A calculated cunning immediately set to pondering his current situation.
Summoning his strength from somewhere deep inside, he sent out his newly regained senses and discovered something more.
Men were near.
He could sense them, could hear the clank of their tools and the sounds of their voices. He could feel the minute vibrations that descended through the earth each time they moved above him.
For the first time in countless ages, he began to hope that he might soon be free. Once he was, nothing would stop him from having revenge on the one who had imprisoned him.
Exerting himself, he cast his consciousness out farther, past the walls of his prison, across the fields just beyond, among the living. Searching, seeking, briefly touching the minds of all he encountered before moving on, jumping from one to the next...until, at last, strength deserting him, his consciousness rushed back like the snap of an overstretched rubber band.
But in that last instant, he'd found him.
His enemy was old now, old and frail, no longer the awesome force that had once defeated him in battle. His foe's powers had waned; the man's body had grown feeble with age.
Having expended what little strength he'd had, the beast slipped back into the restless edge of sleep.
Yet this time, he remained aware.
And in the depths of his inhuman mind, a plan began to form.
Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Joseph M. Nassise