CHAPTER FIVE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-SIX
“I’m here!” Seth yelled. “I’ve found it.”
The team jogged to him. He was twenty feet behind them and off to the left side.
“What did you find?” Alex asked.
“The entrance,” Seth said. “What did Pierre say?”
“We cannot get in up there,” Raz said. “It’s a rouse.”
“I agree,” Seth nodded.
“Pierre seems only to be able to speak in French,” Alex said. “He says it’s something to do with his childhood.”
“Makes sense,” Seth said.
The soldiers moved to around Seth. Pierre and Royce were the last to join the group. Ben put his hand on Seth’s shoulder.
“What are we looking at here?” Ben asked.
“This is an entrance to the mine,” Seth said.
“An entrance,” Ben said.
“One of a few,” Seth said.
“One of a few,” Ben repeated.
“Really? The whole repeat what I say thing?” Seth said.
Ben gave him a grin, but Seth shook his head.
“No stupid spy games,” Seth said pointing at Ben.
“Takes one to know one,” Ben said.
The men laughed while everyone else stood around them in uncomfortable silence.
“Sir, we are unsure of what you’re saying,” Margaret said.
“There are bound to be at least ten ways into this salt mine,” Seth said.
“Why so many?” Margaret asked.
“Most are booby trapped or there are other problems with them,” Seth said. “The idea is to exhaust the visitor and force them to try the main entrance.”
“Which we know is a fake,” Ben said.
“And where is this entrance?” Alex asked. She gestured to the wall.
Seth pointed down at his feet. He stomped a foot and they heard a hollow echo. Seth stepped back.
“It’s covered in an inch or so of dirt,” Seth said. “If you can help me get this open, I will head down and let you into the mine.”
“How can you be sure it’s not booby trapped?” Alex asked.
“I’m sure it’s booby trapped,” Seth said. “It’s just the most likely one to get into the mine.”
“And you know this because …?” Alex asked.
“I read the journal,” Seth said with a slight nod. He looked at Raz. “You’ve read it too.”
Raz squinted at Seth.
“There is a passage about …” Raz started.
“Root cellars,” Alex, Raz, and Seth said at the same time.
“Growing root vegetables to be stored in the cellar,” Raz said. “To be precise.”
Seth gave them a nod.
“You think that’s this?” Raz asked.
“Why?” Raz asked.
“Experience, mostly,” Seth said. “I’ve seen something like this before. But, we won’t know until we get it open.”
Margaret stepped up to him as if she were standing at attention, her shoulders were back and her head high.
“I will go with you, sir,” Margaret said.
Seth shook his head.
“I won’t take a Navajo down there,” Seth said.
“Racism has no place here,” Vince said quickly and firmly.
Seth raised his eyebrows at Vince.
“She’s terrified,” Seth said, nodded to Margaret. “Can you tell us why?”
No one said anything for a moment. Margaret gave a quick shake of her head.
“Navajo people don’t love going underground,” Seth said. “More than that there are dead bodies there.”
Seth looked at Margaret, and she gave a slight nod.
“How can you tell?” Vince asked.
“I can smell them,” Seth said. “I’m sure Margaret can, as well.”
Seth looked from person to person. His eyes stopped on Alex and then shifted to Vince.
“There’s no reason for her to go against her way,” Seth said, with a nod. “I can take Alex or Vince. Or both.”
“What about me?” Ben asked. “I fit the bill. I’m smaller than Hutchins, at least.”
“When was the last time you were in combat?” Seth asked.
“I … uh …” Ben said.
“Exactly,” Seth said. “You and Raz stay here. I’ll use a video link. See you can figure out any traps before they kill us.”
“I can do that,” Ben said.
“Would you like me to go?” Pierre asked.
Seth shook his head.
“I can take both of you or one of you,” Seth said to Alex and Vince.
Knowing that he’d never convince Alex not to go, Vince said, firmly, “We will discuss it.”
“I’ll head in first,” Seth said. “You follow me.”
“I haven’t had a chance to analyze the stability of this segment,” Raz said.
“We can send in a drone,” Troy said.
Seth gave a nod.
“While they dig this up, can you show us where the other entrances might be?” Vince asked. “Leena?”
He pointed Leena to Seth. Leena took two of Troy’s drones and a control tablet for them. They set off back down the mine tunnel with Royce. Matthew and Troy took out folding shovels and began to dig up this root cellar. They found a wooden hatch door under about a foot of packed dirt.
It took three men to lift the heavy wooden door. They opened a chemical light strips and dropped them into the area. To their surprise, it actually looked like a root cellar. There were even jars of pickles and other fermented foods along the walls of the cellar.
Troy dropped a drone into the cellar. They stood around the tablet watching the drone scan the cellar. In one corner, behind a basket of potatoes and a dozen jars of pickles, the drone sensed an opening.
Troy and Matthew dropped into the root cellar to clear the way. They found a small opening, no bigger than three feet wide, behind the potatoes. Troy put up his hand. They could feel a cool breeze coming from inside the mine.
“Do you think it’s an air vent?” Alex asked.
“Too big,” Troy said.
He sent his drone down into the passageway. Even with the drone’s light, the passageway was dark. The drone went no more than twenty feet before there was a larger room that was set up like a nursery for at least twenty children.
In one corner, the drone found the children’s desiccated corpses pressed into a corner with their faces away from the room. The children were small, under five years old. They each had a yellow star on their arm with the word Jude underneath.
“Gas,” Alex said. She glanced at Troy. “Is there anything left of that?”
“The drone sensor says that the air is clear,” Troy said.
“We’d have to get forensics in there,” Alex said, her eyes taking in the children. “God …”
No one said anything for a moment.
“The exit to this room seems to be behind where they are standing,” Troy said.
“They pressed there for clean air,” Alex said.
“Who covered all of this up?” Alex asked. “You think the Nazi’s put this back …”
“I think whoever left the mine trusted that someday, someone would come through and see the horror of all of this death,” Raz said. “She didn’t want them to be able to cover it all up and pretend it didn’t happen.”
Alex pointed to something on the ground. Troy made the drone’s camera zoom in on a piece of paper on the floor. It was some kind of form. Alex pointed to the signature.
“Isn’t that …?” Raz asked.
“The man who insisted on meeting us to review the mine,” Alex said.
Alex gave a quick nod.
“The Nazis knew about this tunnel,” Alex said.
“They may have known about the mine, but it doesn’t look like they got past the kids,” Troy said. He gestured to the tablet.
The drone continued on through a small passageway behind where the children had huddled. It went a long way before reading another trap door.
“Did you notice any traps?” Seth asked them as he walked toward them.
They looked at each other and shook their heads.
“Too focused on where it was going,” Seth said. “That’s okay. Find the bodies?”
“Children,” Alex said in a soft voice.
“Fucking Nazis,” Seth said with a shake of his head before repeating, “Fucking Nazis. Seriously. Will these guys ever go away?”
He turned his head to look up at the ceiling. After a moment, he sighed.
“What do you want to do?” Seth asked.
“We go into the mine,” Alex said. “Can you pick up this paper on your way through?”
Seth gave her a curt nod.
“I can fit,” Alex said. “Vince, Troy, Leena. Mattie, can you fly these drones?”
“I’m going with O’Malley,” Alex said. “The three of you have a choice. Two of you need to attend to these children.”
“I’d be honored to take on that task,” Leena said with a nod.
“I’ll help her,” Troy said, “and keep on top of security.”
“I’m too big for the passageways, but I can work the root cellar,” Raz said. “I’ll help Leena.”
“Good,” Alex said. “Vince?”
“I’ll go with you,” Vince said.
“Okay, Pierre, Ben — stay with Matthew and Troy until we’ve been able to assess this thing,” Alex said.
Pierre and Ben nodded in unison.
“Margaret?” Alex asked.
“Sir?” Margaret asked. “I can go down and care for the …”
“I will not let superstition stop me from doing my duty,” Margaret said.
Alex shook her head.
“This isn’t about superstition, Margaret,” Alex said. “What’s clear is that we are each going to be tested today. Why take this on?”
“I don’t want you to think …” Margaret said.
“We make no judgement, Sergeant,” Vince said. “You are a valued member of our team. Period.”
“Thank you, sir,” Margaret said, visibly relieved.
“I need you to keep an eye on us as we go through these tunnels,” Alex said. “They are clearly booby trapped. You may notice them before we deal with them.”
“Do I get my own drone?” Margaret asked.
“I have another,” Troy said with a nod.
Troy helped her set up the drone and together they sent it into the vegetable cellar.
“We don’t know what we’re heading into,” Alex said. “I need all of you to stay on your guard. We may need you to drag us out. We may need to save your lives. Either way, we must consider ourselves to be under attack. Be awake. Be aware.”
Alex gave a curt nod.
“If we’re reading this paper correctly, our Polish representative may show up with a bevy of his own people,” Alex said. “Be careful.”
“You too,” Raz said. “No amount of treasure is worth dying for.”
Alex gave him a soft smile. They hugged. Raz went down into the root cellar to start moving things to make space for them.
“Helmets?” Alex asked.
She, Vince, and Seth put on Kevlar caving helmets. The team helped them into gloves.
“Before we go any further,” Seth said in a low whisper. “There are a few things.”
Alex and Vince nodded their go ahead. The team came around to listen.
“First, there’s always an off switch. Always,” Seth said. “Those kids got lived in these tunnels. There has to be a way to do that without being injured. That means that there’s an off switch to every booby trap. Look for it. In this situation, my guess is that it’s set up in various stages or rooms. There should be an off switch at each segment. We need to look for those first.”
“Roger that,” Alex and Vince said.
“We’ll look for them, too,” Troy said.
“Good,” Seth said. “Going underground is unnatural for human beings but not unheard of. We have senses that we don’t use on the surface. Some of you are experienced divers; you likely have some idea of what I’m talking about.”
Seth gave a nod.
“Specifically, you can smell more than you think,” Seth said. “You have a sense of the motion of air or the non-motion of air. You can sense things long before you see them. Trust that. Don’t hesitate to slow down or turn around just because of a feeling. Those feelings are ancient sensory capacities that aren’t used on the surface.”
“Roger that,” Alex and Vince said.
“Use care,” Seth said. “With yourself and with others. Trust nothing. These tunnels were set up by someone who knew the Nazis and their brutality. We may feel some of it today.”
“Yes, sir,” Alex said. Vince gave a nod.
“Time to go,” Seth said. “Ready?”
“Ready,” Alex and Vince said.
“Ear buds?” Matthew asked. He held one out to Seth. “They are a part of our usual wear.”
Seth gave him a nod and stuck the ear bud in his ear.
“Testing,” Matthew said.
“Got it,” Seth said.
“We can hear you as well,” Matthew said. “If you need attention, hit the button. It makes a beeping sound so we can pay attention to what you’re saying.”
“But you pick up everything?” Seth asked.
“Everything is recorded,” Matthew said. “And yes, we can hear it. We just might not be listening to you. Try it.”
Seth pushed the small button on the ear bud. There was a bell and Seth nodded.
“That works,” Seth said. “Anything else?”
Matthew shook his head.
With a wave, Seth jumped down into the root cellar. Vince dropped to where he was sitting on the edge of the opening. He tightened his helmet and went in after Seth. Raz stood at the entrance. He caught Alex and helped her into the root cellar.
Seth turned on the video camera in his helmet. With a nod to Raz, he climbed into the square hole and began to move into the mine. They watched his body disappear and then his legs. Vince went next. Alex waited until his feet disappeared before she started down the dirt hole. She belly crawled forward through the dirt. Her legs had just entered the hole when she heard Troy shouting.
She rolled over to look up at Raz.
“Car pulled up outside,” Raz said.
“Mercs?” Alex asked.
“It looks like the official,” Raz said. “The one we’re supposed to meet.”
“I should …” Alex moved to get out of the tunnel.
“No,” Raz said. “We can handle this. Go I’ll wait right here for you.”
The tunnel darkened as he closed the hatch to the root cellar. The team on top shoveled the dirt back into place. Raz sat down in the darkened root cellar and waited.
“Go,” Raz said.
Alex gave him one last look and followed Vince into the tunnel. She belly crawled a little more than ten feet before dropping into the room with the children’s corpses.
“I forgot the camera,” Alex said.
“I have it,” Vince said with a nod. “It’s in my pack.”
He opened his backpack and took out their digital SLR camera. He took a series of videos of the area and followed up with detailed digital photos.
“Together,” Seth said.
He gestured to the children. One child at a time, Alex and Seth moved the corpses away from the tunnel while Vince took copious photos. In the last forty years, the bodies had dried out almost completely. They had to use special care to not to break the tiny children. They moved the bodies from where they had huddled back to the beds.
Their noses and mouths filled with the dust of the dead. The tiny figures brought tears, which fell unnoticed from each of their eyes. Overwhelmed with emotion at the macabre work, they worked in silence. When they finished, they stood over these precious babies for a long moment. Alex bent down to pick up the paper from the floor.
“Order for execution,” Alex said, wiping her tears.
“Fucking Nazis,” Seth said, numbly.
Alex took a handkerchief from her pocket. She wiped her face and blew her nose. She looked up to see Seth and Vince doing the same thing. Alex put her hand on Vince’s arm.
“Can you send these images to the cloud?” Alex asked. “In case we can’t keep possession of the camera.”
“Already done,” Vince said with a nod. “I used your satellite codes.”
“That’s why I shared the codes,” Alex said.
They heard someone shout and some amount of shuffling above them.
“We need to keep moving,” Seth said.
Vince and Alex nodded. Seth moved to the next tunnel.
“From here out, we need to consider each area to be booby trapped,” Seth said. “Every. Area. Use extreme caution.”
“Yes, sir,” Alex and Vince said in unison.
“There is only one way to bring justice to these children,” Seth said.
“Bring their deaths to the attention of authorities,” Alex said.
“Yes,” Seth said. “And get into that salt tunnel. Someone went to great lengths to hide something there. It’s up to us to bring all of this to the light.”
Alex gave him a curt nod. Vince was looking at the floor.
“Vince?” Seth asked.
“Yes, sir,” Vince said. “I’m just … my youngest is this age.”
“Let’s make it matter,” Seth said. “Ready?”
“Ready,” Alex and Vince said reflexively.
The entrance to the passageway was a few feet off the ground. Seth boosted himself into the tunnel. He peered down the passageway and turned back.
“Do we have lights?” Seth asked. “It’s dark.”
Alex nodded. She took three head lamps out of her back pack. She gave one to Seth and another to Vince. They attached the lamps to the clip on the front of their helmet. Seth gave them a nod and went into the next passage. Vince went in next. As soon as Vince’s feet were inside the passage, Alex followed.
This section of tunnel was long and the going slow. They belly crawled through the square passage. There were small shafts for air flow every six feet or so. Whoever built this passageway had made provisions for the possibility that someone would come down here.
Alex swallowed hard and wondered if they would find more bodies. They continued their silent journey through the small passageway. Alex felt Vince slow and then stop.
“Room,” Vince passed the information to Alex. “He thinks there’s a trigger plate at the entrance.”
“Roger that,” Alex said.
She rested her forehead on the passageway for a moment.
“I didn’t see anything. Do you?” Vince asked. “Any button or off switch?”
“Not here, but …” Alex said. “I think I saw something behind us.”
There wasn’t space for Alex to turn over or around. Instead, she started the even slower journey back twenty feet to where she thought she’d see something that might be an off switch.
Denver Cereal continues next week…
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