Great stories about good people caught in difficult situations.

Chapter Five Hundred and Seventy-five : Into the salt mine



Sitting in the back of a passenger van, Alex Hargreaves reviewed the people in front of her. Each soldier had been hand selected by her, trained by her, and proudly worked at her side for years. Today, they were competent, hardworking, and ready to get this done.

They’d agreed to enter and secure an old family owned salt mine.

According to the journal that Sandy Delgado-Norsen had purchased from an elderly Jewish man, the owner of the mine had sealed it off only moments before the Nazi’s took her to Belzec where she was murdered.

The journal’s author had been an award winning novelist. The original question had been whether or not she’d left her second, and possibly third, novel behind in this mine. The second had been optioned for publication and was said to be done. It had never been found. These novels alone would be worth millions.

The boys, Nash and Teddy, as well as Raz and herself, had researched the situation. They’d discovered that numerous great works of art had disappeared around the same time in this area of the world. While it had always been assumed that the Nazi’s took them, the Nazi’s had left the area in a hurry.

None of these important works of art were found when the Nazi’s retreated.

Not one of these important works of art had been found since that time.

The journal hinted that these works of art might have been hidden in this mine before it was sealed up in the 1940s. Sandy had spent a small fortune making sure that she had the exact and direct property rights to the farm, the mine, and the land that had lain fallow since the Nazis.

The final judicial pronouncement, obtained just a few days ago, was that Sandy owned the land and all that was on it or in it.

They had been so excited to take this trip.

It was the ultimate adventure. They could play Indiana Jones and the lost salt mine or whatever. She’d heard more than one person talk about returning art to the families of the original owners or discovering something cool or simply having the experience of being able to set a few things right.

Now there was this threat of the Nazi nuclear detonator.

When everyone else had gone back to bed, Alex had stayed up reading classified reports about the Nazi nuclear program. Just ahead of Allied forces, the Nazi nuclear scientists moved their uranium cubes, hot water, as well as the reactor to some caverns under the church in the small southern German town of Haigerloch — more than 500 miles south and east of this salt mine. That was February 1945.

In the move, the detonator as well as some of the uranium cubes disappeared. Allied forces formed the Alsos Mission as part of the Manhattan project. The chief objective of the Alsos Mission was to monitor the Nazi’s nuclear program. Allied soldiers found the reactor and heavy water under the church in Haigerloch, Germany. They were able to find and dig up the uranium cubes in a field just outside of town.

The detonator was never found.

US intelligence reports from the Alsos Mission postulated that the detonator was somewhere in the field where they’d buried the uranium or stolen by a Nazi scientist. Seth Bernbaum, the man she knew as “Bernie,” spent years looking tracking down this detonator. Alex had read his reports and the review of the mission.

Bernie had said last night that he believed that the detonator was in this mine.

From everything she’d read last night, he might very well be right. While Haigerloch was more than five hundred miles from the mine, the Nazi’s had built such an extensive rail system that it wouldn’t have been hard to move the detonator from its hiding place in Germany to this secure mine.

The implications of that were staggering. What else could be inside this mine?

Rather than speculation, Alex shifted her eyes to look at Ben. Ben gave her a nod, and she smiled. She, Raz, Ben, Bernie, and her father had met in the early dawn to discuss the situation.

If they found the detonator …

What then?

Alex had no idea. She didn’t trust the telephone system or Internet to notify her superiors in Washington. Their best bet would be to leave it in place.

Alex rubbed her eyes.

Their best bet would have been to stay home.

She looked down at the floor of the van. As she did before every mission, she went through the people around her. Leena Carmichael was sitting next to her. Leena was smart and sharp. She could spot trouble a mile off. Margaret sat next to Leena. Margaret was a master at puzzles. If there was something to be figured out, Margaret would be able to do it in record time.

Troy Olivas was sitting with his head between the front seats so that he could talk to Matthew and Vince. He had memorized all one hundred thousand missing pieces of art. This morning, she’d had him review the workings of the Nazi nuclear program so that they could recognize it if there was something down there. Handy, he would be able to make anything they needed on site. He’d brought along a set of flying drones that he’d specified and secretly made in their garage. It had taken a couple of years and many practice tries, but the drones were small, flew well, and would get scan the environment before they went in. The little things could also protect the entrance when the team was inside.

Royce was sitting near the back entrance to the van. He was handling weapons for this trip. He’d come a day or so early and purchased a variety of weapons. Each member of the team now carried their preferred weapon — machine guns for some, bows and arrows for others.

Raz was sitting next to Royce talking about yesterday’s basketball tournament. Alex used to find this kind of chatter inane and stupid, but she knew that it helped to relax Raz and Royce. She’d learn to let it go.

Ben and Pierre Semaines were sitting next to each other. While Ben was born in the United States, his family had lived in Paris since before the city was built. Ben’s dark thick hair and dark eyes gave him a look of Gaul while Pierre’s blue eyes and dark hair made him look like the current fashion of Parisian fashion model. They sat pressed up against each other like Europeans tended to do. They spoke to each other in French slang and laughed easily. She’d never seen her biological father more comfortable with someone, other than his wife.

“We’ve reached the gate,” Matthew said breaking her ruminations.

Matthew jumped out of the van. He went around and unlocked the metal gate. Vince drove the van onto the property. Matthew closed the gate and relocked it. Matthew got back into the car.

“Any sign of anyone?” Alex asked.

“I can hear a drone,” Matthew said. “It’s faint so it may be somewhere else.”

“Or up high,” Troy said. Troy took a tablet computer from his backpack. He logged into a satellite. “There’s one about a half mile ahead. I don’t think it’s armed.”

Troy punched a button. The drone came crashing down into a field on their left.

They continued toward the small dilapidated wooden structure over the mine. They stopped in an area of the field next to the structure. The team got out.

“When do we meet the representative from Poland?” Pierre asked.

“He agreed to let us secure the mine,” Vince said. “We will meet him at the gate this afternoon.”

“We’ve had company,” Raz said pointing to tire tracks.

Alex nodded. The team looked at Troy. He tossed what looked like a tennis ball into the air. It began to fly. Looking at his tablet, Troy shook his head.

“There is no one in the general vicinity,” Troy said. “You think they got inside?”

“Non,” Pierre said from the structure. “But they have tried. This is new?”

Pierre gestured to a metal door, similar to a large, wide manhole cover covering the entrance of the mine. There was no obvious locking mechanism or key hole and no hinges.

“Secure,” Seth said.

“Your design?” Pierre asked Troy.

“Modified existing technology,” Troy said.

“Some Army vets took a vacation to Poland a couple months ago,” Alex said. “They did the work here in exchange for trips to Europe for themselves and their families.”

“Nice,” Pierre.

“No spared expense,” Raz said. “That is what Nadia wanted. We have been oddly fortunate.”

“Oddly?” Pierre asked.

Rather than respond, Raz simply nodded.

“I don’t like it,” Vince said. “Let’s get inside.”

“Time to get going,” Matthew said to the team. “You have your orders?”

“Yes sir,” the team responded.

“Let’s do this thing,” Matthew said.

The team started up the small embankment. With Troy instructing her, Alex worked through the security to open the new metal door. Troy, Vince, and Matthew had to heft the door open. With a nod to the men, Alex stepped inside with Leena and Royce covering her from behind. She used a key that came with the property and opened a small padlock.

Alex, Leena, and Royce stepped back as Vince, Matthew, and Troy opened the original mine opening.

“Stay alert!” Alex said. “This mine is likely booby trapped.”

“Yes sir,” the team said.

Leena and Royce started into the mine. In order be able to assess the mine itself, Seth followed close behind the soldiers. The mine was tall enough for Troy’s drones zoomed over their heads and out in front of them. Alex and Raz walked just behind Seth. Troy and Margaret walked behind Alex and Raz. Pierre and Ben came next. Vince and Matthew closed the new secure door and the older original mine door.

The clang of the new secure door echoed through the area.

They were locked inside.

Two of Troy’s drones buzzed over their head toward the locked door. Troy had jokingly named these drones “Trece and White Boy” after their teammates who usually guarded the door. Since Trece and White Boy couldn’t be here, at least the drones would be on the watch. These two, combined with the drone Troy’d set in the field, would “stand guard” while the team was inside.

The floor and walls of this part of the mine were dirt. They walked on a steady pitch down into the earth. The mine was clear of debris and their way was easily made.

Seth O’Malley held up his hand in a gesture of stop.

They stopped walking. Alex stepped up to Seth. He was so focused on his thoughts that he didn’t seem to notice that she was there.

“What is it?” Alex said in a low tone.

“Opening,” Seth said in such a low voice she had to watch his lips to make sure she heard correctly. “Either to another mine or a different mine.”

“Part of this mine?” Alex raised her eyebrows with surprise.

“No salt,” Seth said. He pointed ahead. “Salt.” He pointed to forty-five degrees, “No salt.”

She gave him a curt nod. He pointed to forty-five degrees to his right.

Alex waved Troy forward. She pointed in the direction Seth had said. He nodded. Margaret turned around and Troy got another tennis ball sized drone from the backpack she was carrying. He tossed it in the air. The drone zoomed ahead of them and then disappeared down a nearly invisible floor to ceiling crack in the wall.

Alex, Raz, Troy, and Seth leaned over the tablet computer. They watched the drone fly through a narrow opening. The drone reached what looked like some kind of living space. The floors were covered in rugs. Old, sagging furniture lined the walls. Then the drone found a desiccated, rotting corpse of what looked like a child. The child had a yellow star armband that said Jude on it. The child had been shot.

They collectively sucked in a breath.

The drone counted at least fifteen bodies — all with the yellow star and the word “Jude” on their arms. The few adults and many children, including an infant, had been shot multiple times.

“Machine gun,” Raz said.

Alex nodded. Troy turned on the drone’s powerful light. The room flashed with light. This had clearly been these people’s home. They were caught while they were eating dinner. Food had dried and rotted on the table.

The drone scanned the walls of the room until it came to hover near what might have been an entrance — a wooden trap door. The pointed end to long, ugly nails haphazardly protruded on this side of the door.

Someone had entered this hiding place, killed everyone inside, and sealed the entrance.

“Let’s leave the drone there in case someone comes in the door,” Alex said. “Do you have enough?”

Troy nodded.

“I’ll figure out where it is when we get out of here,” Margaret said.

“Good,” Alex said. “Thanks.”

They went back into formation. Leena and Royce turned to look at Seth. He gave them a nod and they continued to creep forward. Seth held up his fist to stop again.

Alex went forward to Seth.

“There is some kind of a barrier ahead, and another blocked opening to our left,” Seth said.

“Opening?” Alex asked.

Seth shook his head. He seemed to be sensing out ahead of them.

“This mine …” Seth turned his hand sideways and made the shape of a curve.

Alex nodded. The mine turned to the right up ahead.

“Ends,” Seth said with a nod. “Salt.”

Seth pointed straight ahead. He put a finger to the side of his nose.

“You can smell it?” Alex asked.

Seth nodded. He held up a finger and pointed above.

“Someone is here,” Seth said. “Truck.”

Alex walked back to Troy. She pointed above them. Troy nodded and showed her the image of a pickup truck pulling up above them. A team of mercenaries got out.

“Isn’t this still Sandy’s property?” Troy asked.

“It is,” Alex said.

Troy nodded. He pushed a button on his drone. He shot a blast of energy just in front of the truck in warning. The mercenaries began to scan the sky.

“Do you know these guys?” Troy asked.

“Know them,” Alex nodded. “Like them?”

She and Raz shook their heads.

“Iraq,” Alex said.

Troy nodded. These mercenaries had botched things during the Iraq war. Alex put her finger over one. Her eyes flicked to Leena. Troy gave a nod.

Using friction, the drone sent a hard shock to one of the men who’d injured Leena. He jerked with the shock and fell to the ground. The team scrambled back into the truck. One of the men grabbed the man on the ground and dragged him into the truck. The truck drove away.

“They’ll be back,” Troy said.

Alex nodded. She turned to Seth. With a nod, they continued their slow progress forward.

This area of the mine was for all intents and purposes a tube of dirt. The air was still and quiet, but, according to Troy’s drones’ sensors, still of good quality. Someone had gone to a great deal of work to create this mine shaft.

They reached the bend in the mine. As far as they could see, there was no obvious entrance to the shaft of salt. Seth went to the wall. He began running his hands over the wall. Shaking his head, he walked backward.

The small team stood in front of the wall. Pierre made a “tsk” sound. They turned to look at him.

“May I?” Pierre asked.

Alex nodded. She pointed for Matthew to go with Pierre.

“I have seen this before,” Pierre said as he walked back toward her. “This is a booby trap.”

Pierre pointed down the tunnel and started jogging. Matthew and Vince scurried after him. Pierre stopped short. He turned to the wall and the ceiling. He held up a stop to Matthew and Vince. He knelt down to the dirt.

Alex pointed to Royce. He jogged over to Pierre.

“Sir, I am a trained and skilled tracker,” Royce said.

“Oh?” Pierre asked looked up at Royce. “Why?”

“We each have specialist survival training,” Royce said. “I happen to be good at this. Childhood adventures and all.”

Pierre grinned. Royce dropped down to Pierre.

“Can you tell me what you’re looking for, sir?” Royce asked.

“Seth thinks that the entrance is straight,” Pierre said. “I’ve seen this kind of things before.”

Pierre repeated what he’d said previously. He gave Royce a nod.

“Yes, sir,” Royce said. “I heard you say that.”

“Did I repeat myself?” Pierre put his hand to his chest. “God.”

Pierre gave himself a disgusted shake of his head. Royce put a hand on Pierre’s shoulder.

“Are you all right, sir?” Royce asked.

Pierre’s eyes scanned Royce’s concerned face.

“My childhood training is secrecy,” Pierre said. “I just fell into it. I apologize. You don’t deserve that. I was thinking, remembering and …”

Pierre made a gesture as if he’d thrown up. Royce grinned.

“I cannot …” Pierre said.

“It’s okay. We will go slowly,” Royce said. “What are we looking for here?”

Pierre blinked with confusion. Royce pointed to the ground. Pierre’s brain seemed to click into gear because he nodded. Pierre held up two fingers and mimicked walking.

“You’re looking for whoever went through here last,” Royce said.

Pierre nodded.

“Where,” Pierre said.

Royce gave Pierre a curt nod. He dropped to his belly. He looked for a moment.

“It’s been swept,” Royce said.

Pierre pointed to Royce and nodded.

“Does that mean something?” Royce asked.

Pierre nodded. He made an explosion gesture.

“You’re saying there’s a bomb?” Royce asked. Pierre nodded. “Here?”

Pierre pointed to the wall. Leena, Alex, and Raz stepped away from the wall.

“Is there another entrance?” Alex asked in fast Parisian French.

“Oui,” Pierre responded in French. Surprised at himself, he grinned. “This is a rouse. There is no entrance here.”

“Can you show me?” Royce asked in French.

“Je le pense,” Pierre said with a wide grin as if he was simply thrilled he could speak. “Oú est O’Malley?”

The team started looking around.

“Seth?” Alex called down the tunnel. She shook her head. “He’s not down there.”

“He passed me,” Vince said.

The team turned around to look down the mine. There was a whistle.

“I’m here!” Seth yelled. “I’ve found it.”

The team jogged to him.

Denver Cereal continues next week…

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