Jeffrey-Francis, he insisted we use his hyphenated name, bothered me. His wagging finger and religious tongue were a constant insult. I’d endured him as best I could. But at the convention he’d gone too far. No forgiveness; I wanted slow revenge.
I held the anthropology chair at the University of Nevada. It was my duty to host the annual gathering of my colleagues. Jeffrey-Francis represented Aureate Christian, where he was noted as having a weakness for ancient hieroglyphs.
Ten years I’d worked on my treatise of man. Ten years preparing to reshape my field. At the brink of success, he bettered me. Presented first, claiming Divine revelation. Revelation indeed! He’d stolen my research.
I’d found him in the lobby after hours. “Congratulations on your win.” I said, my smile sincere despite the loathing in my breast.
“Bless you.” He glanced to the floor and dipped his face but couldn’t mask a prideful gleam. “God has rewarded me for unending work with widows and countless days of service at church.”
I blanched at his tone. “Have you seen Barnard?”
He turned about, chin raised above a puffed chest. “He was ill. I think lunch didn’t rest easy.”
I’d dined with poor Barnard and knew this. “A shame. I need his opinion on some newly discovered hieroglyphs.”
“An entire wall.”
A swallow bobbed his throat. “Miracle! May I help?”
“No, no.” I waved my hand at the milling crowd. “Stay and enjoy your well deserved triumph. There’ll be other finds.”
His lips parted, tongue flicking. “It’s my calling, my ministry. Barnard is sick.” He clasped my arm. “Take me.”
The corners of my mouth quivered. I leaned close, my voice conspiratorial. “Tell no one. There are thieves...”
Mt. Charleston is pocked with holes: silver mines, burial sites, and bottomless shafts. We tramped through sage, our lanterns illuminating the indistinguishable path. I stopped and glanced back. “You told no one?”
He zipped his coat. “Virgin hieroglyphs. God may grant me another win with this find.”
My jaw clenched. “Indeed.”
I lead him into the maw of the cave, the depth of the passage swallowing our feeble beams. The footfalls behind me stumbled and slowed. “Your claustrophobia,” I said, turning. “I’d forgotten.”
He was pale, pupils trembling, a labored wheeze in his throat. “We each bear a cross.” He retrieved an inhaler from his pocket. “Asthma. The dust.”
“And guilt, no doubt.” I approached him. “I’m certain Barnard…”
He shoved past me. “Barnard doesn‘t know hieroglyphs from crayons.”
Darkness constricted about us. Stalactites dripped wet and frigid like bleeding teeth. Swallowed by gloom, the only sound to reach my ears was the scraping of my companion’s increasingly labored breaths.
Hesitating, I studied him. Jeffrey-Francis strangled his lantern beneath crossed arms like a child holding a teddy bear during a thunderstorm. Pathetic, feeble. I slumped against the boulders, tugging at my hair with uncertain fingers. “It gets tighter below. We’ll have to crawl.”
I touched him. “No, I must take you out. To the hospital.”
The fool pushed on.
Granite and quartz pressed tight about us. When the way could shrink no further, it narrowed still until an opening no larger than a ferret’s nest stared like the eye of death.
I grabbed him. “Wait, this is meaningless, vanity. You’ve widows, church, service to God…”
“Let me be.”
“You don’t understand.” I hung my head. “There’s nothing.”
His mouth opened and closed.
“Friend, forgive me.” I wept. “Let’s return.”
He ground his teeth. “Liar. You want it all for yourself!”
“God loves…” he squinted at the passage ahead. “...me.” He wielded his sanctimony, a piercing spear.
“Is this obedience or lust?” My temples thundered and the malignance in my soul returned.
He looked away.
I released him.
Lying on his belly, he slithered through the cavity and into the pitch.
He stood, fingers tracing the ridges of the blank walls as I came in behind. A chain had been hidden in the tiny chamber, cleated to the rock. I locked it about his neck.
He turned, not comprehending. “The hieroglyphs?”
“Yes, a wall.” Returning to the passageway, I left him.
From inside, a shriek and the rattling of chains, frenzied and incoherent.
I began to roll a boulder across the opening.
A noise, the steady sob of a tormented spirit, dripped along the floor. “A wall?”
The stone shifted into place.
“For the love of God!” His cry was severed as the passage disappeared.
“Or lack thereof.”
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