“Gold,” the greedy whisper echoed in the cave.
“Gold, gold, gold,” Steven repeated, clasping Mary’s hand tighter, hurrying her along.
There were deep in the dank tunnel. Water trickled somewhere, a steady drip down a stone throat unseen. If he flicked off his fading pocket flashlight, there would be nothing, a vast nothing, except the relentless trickle and their own breathing.
Nothing. But what lay before them, somewhere. Gold.
“I’m so scared,” Mary whimpered.
“A huge room,” Steven said with hoarse excitement, following the watery-yellow spray of light that bobbed along the rough stone floor. “Filled with jewels and gold. We’ll stuff it into our pockets, backpacks, socks. Then we’ll leave this filthy cave, and this filthy little country, and we’ll be rich forever.”
“God, it’s so dark in here.”
“Did you know, back around 1000 B.C., Egyptians sluiced the river sands of the Black Sea through sheep’s wool, trying to catch the gold dust? They dried out the wool, then shook out the flecks of gold.”
“Steven, I’m really really scared.”
He gripped her hand harder. The flashlight beam nudged the membrane of blackness, guiding them deeper. He figured the weak batteries held enough life to get them all the way in, then back out. Barely.
“The old man—” she blurted.
“That superstitious fool. He liked to tell stories.”
“Did you see how his eyelids twitched? And every time he spoke, that scar by his throat wiggled. Like a pink worm. Like it was alive.”
“I got the map.”
“You stole the map.”
“Who cares? It showed us how to find the cave.”
“He knew you stole it too,” she said, and he heard the blur of tears again. “Didn’t you hear the way he cackled when we left? He knew.”
“Mary, Mary.” He stopped. He tenderly kissed her brow, then drew back. Even in the darkness, he could see the gabbling fear in her eyes. “He doesn’t care. He’s lived so long with this secret. He’s never tried to get the gold because of his foolish, superstitious beliefs. Listen, I love you, I love you so much, and when we escape with this treasure, we’ll have the life we’ve always wanted.”
He pointed the flashlight down the long tunnel. The beam was already weaker, but he didn’t say anything. He set out in the lead, clutching her hand. They had to walk slightly stooped in the narrow, rocked passageway. His shoulder brushed the cave wall.
“What if it’s just a story? What if there is no gold?”
“It’s there!” he replied angrily. “It must be. Didn’t you hear the way he described this place? All the detail? He came here once, but he said he didn’t dare to touch anything.”
The tunnel began to angle downward more sharply. The dead air felt cooler against Steven’s skin. They must be almost a mile in, he thought. Back near the entrance, he had heard bats stir on the ceiling, but no noises for at least fifteen minutes, only the random drippings. The light caught the tip of a stalactite that pointed down like a large fang whittled to a sharp point.
“I’m just so scared, I’m so damn scared, Steven, I’ve never been this scared in my whole life, I just want to get out of here, I don’t care about the gold or anything else, please get me out of here.”
“Shut up!” he screamed. He wheeled on her, furious. “Just be quiet! We’re almost there. He said the cave sloped down, then there was the marking on the wall, then the chamber with the gold.”
He was shaking with rage. He sensed a new fear within her now—a fear of what he had become, in this damp place, so far from the sunlight and the jungle they had traipsed through to get here.
“Mary, just hold my hand. I’ll get us there.”
She nodded mutely, her eyes wide. They went on, his pace quickening. He felt like he was dragging her along by the hand. The throw of the beam had shortened; he figured it was only ten feet now.
“Gold,” he breathed again. “The most precious of all the metals. Did you know that the first laser had gold-coated mirrors? That the astronauts wore gold-coated visors to protect their eyes from the sun’s fierce glare in outer space?” He paused, but this time she said nothing.
“We’re close, I can feel it in my bones. Just be patient, Mary.”
He almost stumbled as the cave floor made a sudden lurch. He had to navigate around a few slick stones, then he saw it. On the wall. A rust-colored stain. The strange mark looked like an upside down cross.
“Yes,” he said, squeezing her hand until he heard a moan, but she didn’t speak. “Just like the old man said.”
The flashlight beam dipped and he saw a peculiar little animal squirming on the rock floor. It flinched away from the light, as if wounded by the rays. He bent down. The pale-white creature had no eyes, just moist indentations that hinted at where eyes might have been for its long-ago ancestors. It was soft and long like a salamander. He felt Mary trembling.
“A little cave critter,” he said, laughing.
He set out again, pulling her along. After another fifty yards, the cave walls spread apart. This must be the opening to the chamber, he thought.
“Gold,” he whispered triumphantly. “I can smell it.”
Mary’s hand tugged back, strongly, but he held onto it more tightly and kept moving forward. “Don’t give up on me now Mary, this is it, we’re there. Oh yes.”
Her grip became more relaxed.
On both sides, the walls disappeared. Above, the ceiling sloped away. The room was enormous, Steven realized. He slowly crossed it, amazed, then almost fell to his knees in wonder.
Before him was a mound of jewels. Rubies, emeralds, sapphires, diamonds. Jewel-encrusted brooches, belts, rings, vanity boxes. A tiara sparkling with precious stones. They lay in a loose pile, as if thrown there by an uncaring magnate who had treasures too numerous to count.
But what riveted Steven was behind them: the gold. He saw coins and bars and necklaces and rings, all in a heap that stood taller than a man. He gasped at the opulence. The old man in the shop wasn’t lying. This was a collection of gold beyond his wildest dreams.
“Gold!” he exclaimed.
Then he saw the mirror, resting against the bars and metallic riches. Gold chains and necklaces cascaded over the edges like luxuriant vines. The reflective glass showed him standing there, with a demented gleam in his eye, gripping in his right hand a dying flashlight. In his left he was holding a hand.
And nothing else. It was rudely severed at the wrist. Bloody strings and tendons dangled, going nowhere.
“Mary?” he said, his face whitening, not daring to turn. “Mary?”
He peered into the mirror harder, and saw something else, something behind him. A pair of large eyes — slanted and evil and glittering, with tiny black pits at the center—stared back at him. They were above him, in the darkness back there, a rich, malevolent amber, as yellow as…