She did not expect to see death. She had enough problems with heights. She asked the guide if the ropes were steady, and if he would be steady at the other end.
"Lady," said the guide, "I got hands of steel and a spine of platinum."
"What does a spine of platinum mean?"
"It means don't worry, lady, you ain't gonna fall."
Dr. Terri Pomfret looked up toward the top of the cave. Without a flashlight, she couldn't even see the top of the arched cavern.
Some visiting British spelunkers had crawled up there a month ago while exploring these caves of Albemarle County in North Carolina. They had been going along the ceiling, driving spike after spike, when they came across it. It was a plaque, some kind of metal, chiseled into the stone. They had made a hasty, sloppy rubbing of the stone. No one could identify the writing until it got to Terri Pomfret's office at the university.
"Of course it's Hamidian," she had said.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. Look at the letters. The formations. Perfect. Perfect ancient Hamidian."
"Then you can read it?"
"This is a bad impression," Terri had said. "I can barely see it."
"If you saw the original, you could read it?"
"It's at the top of one of the deep Albemarle caves."
"Shit," said Dr. Pomfret.
"Is that negative?" asked her department head.
"What it is is that I hate two things in the world. Going under the ground and going high."
"You're the only one who can do it. And don't worry, Terri, nobody as pretty as you is going to be allowed to fall."
So because of her fear of heights, her guide had strung a rope down from the spikes the British spelunkers had left in the ceiling, and attached a pulley to it. All she would have to do would be to go straight up to the plaque, pulled up by a rope. No climbing along the roof of the cave.
"It's safe, lady," the guide said.
"All right," said Terri. The flashlight was sweaty in her hands and her voice felt weak. Her pencil and paper were strapped to her belt in a little canvas bag. She was 32 years old, with cream-white skin and raven hair and a face that could have been used for a magazine cover, but she preferred to use her mind for her work, not her body.
And now her body was being lifted up to the top of the cave and her breath was stopped as she was thinking, I will not think about falling to the bottom of the cave. Definitely not. I will not think about falling.
Falling, she thought. She wondered if the silica sand at the bottom of the cave would soften a fall. The guide's light seemed very far below. She wondered if she released her bladder, what would happen. Then she reminded herself not to breathe.
Then the roof of the cave was up there at her belly and she saw the plaque and she said to herself, "This is not English." And then she said to herself, "Of course not, you beanbag, it's Hamidian. That's why you are here."
The plaque seemed to be chiseled in some rough Hamidian script; as she touched it, she felt that it was metal, but it had been covered with some kind of paint or stain.
She propped her flashlight, like a telephone receiver, between her cheek and shoulder and felt the plaque with both hands. It had the normal Hamidian greeting. It was from one trader to another. Even if she had not seen the markings, she would have suspected Hamidian, because they were the only tribe in the history of South and Central America that had been great traders, and they left themselves messages, such as this one, in many of the spots their ships had visited all over the world. A message at the top of a cave. A message mounted on a stone ceiling 75 feet beneath the ground, discovered only by exact coordinates. That was how they hid their supplies and treasures for each other.
And there they were at the top of the cave, the coordinates. Four inscriptions down and there were guidelines for other Hamidians. She had always been sure the ancient tribe had been to America, too, and here was the proof. She estimated it had occurred several hundred years before Columbus.
But then the Hamidians had died out, apparently killed off by the Spanish when they came to loot the Americas of all their gold. No one had ever found the Hamidian treasures.
She adjusted the flashlight.
A mountain? They were storing a mountain? Why would the Hamidians store a mountain? Why would they want to protect a mountain?
She got the next word. It was confusing. It meant valuable. It could also mean coin in some contexts. It was a very common word for the Hamidians. Would they exaggerate? In poetry, yes. In a message to their fellow Hamidian traders, no. They were very literal and precise.
Therefore, there was an entire mountain made of coins, thought Terri. Her back hurt. She wondered why her back hurt. Oh, yes. She was hoisted up here at the top of the cave and the rope was biting into her back.
Mountain of coins. She remembered one of the first Hamidian poems she had ever translated. That word was in it. A mountain of pure coins. The sun glowed like a mountain of pure coins.
No. The sun glowed like a mountain of gold. Gold. An entire mountain of pure gold.
And she was falling.
"You damned idiot," she screamed. "Hold that rope. I'm getting the coordinates."
The rope jumped again and she kicked, feeling a sway, seeing the plaque go farther away from her before she had the coordinates. She was swinging and the coordinates were up there getting farther and farther away and then she realized the rope was sinking through the piton and she was swinging wide like a pendulum, falling, in longer and longer arcs.
She felt her back would break where the rope held her, the flashlight went flying, the notepad went flying, and then she hit a wall at the far end of a swing. But it was not a hard hit, more like being bumped by a big man. It must have been at the outer reach of the arc, just before she came back. And she bumped again, and at the lowest point of the arc she brushed the ground with her legs, and that diminished the force of her fall, leaving her in the soft silica dust with the coils of rope coming down after her.
It took a few moments to get her breath. She felt her legs and her arms. No severe pain. Nothing was broken. A sharp yellow light about fifty feet from her illuminated a patch on the cave wall. The guide had not only dropped her, he had dropped his flashlight.
"Butterfingers," she said angrily. "Idiot, goddam butterfingers." He didn't answer. She had to get up herself and walk over to the flashlight herself and pick up the flashlight herself and then look around for the butterfingered moron.
The flashlight was warm and moist and sticky. She couldn't see what the liquid was and she didn't really care to. She wanted to find the butterfingered clown who had let her drop. She shone the flashlight around the cave.
"Shmuck," she said. "All right. Have you run away? Is that what you did, butterfingers?" She was almost crying, she was so angry. How could he do this to her? Him and his spine of platinum. Really.
She felt something beneath her foot in the soft silica sand, something like a small tube. Had butterfingers dropped that too?
She pointed the flashlight at the ground. And then she realized why her guide had butterfingers. She was looking at them. His fingers had all been cut off. And so had an arm, and the head was looking at her with that stupid open-pupiled gaze of the dead.
Dr. Terri Pomfret, professor of ancient languages, let out a scream in the Albemarle Caves that didn't stop until she realized that there was no one around to hear her. Unless, of course, it was the person who had done this to her guide.
Whoever it was did not come after her. And she made it outside, after what seemed like almost a full day of dazed wandering. It had been forty minutes, and the sticky liquid on the flashlight was blood.
She would have bet at that moment that the last place she would ever return would be to that cave. The police could find no suspect. Indeed, for a while, she was the suspected murderer of the guide, but then the investigation just died out, and one day soon after several men visited her. They were from the government and they asked her if she loved her country.
"Yes. I guess. Of course," she said.
"Then I think you ought to know what a mountain of gold is," said one of the men.
"It's a load of gold," said Terri.
"No, no. That's what a truckload of gold is. A mountain of gold," he said solemnly, "is the most dangerous strategic asset any nation can have. It is pure wealth. It isn't like oil that is vulnerable and in the ground. It is the most liquid wealth anyone could have. In such quantity, whoever owned it could literally control the world."
Terri couldn't believe it. Here she was talking to the government and they were talking nonsense at her.
"Do you really believe the mountain exists?" Terri asked. "I mean, even if the Hamidians were very specific when they were writing about money, well, let's face it, a mountain of gold is... well, a mountain of gold. I just don't think there is that much in the world."
Dr. Pomfret did not understand, said the men from the government. The possibility that the mountain might exist was so dangerous that they had to go looking for it.
Quietly, the government had called in geologists and mineral experts and they theorized about the structure of the earth and mining capabilities over the years, and on and on, and they said, yes, maybe there could be a mountain of gold.
"I'm not going to go back into that cave," Terri said.
"Meet Bruno," said the men from the government. Bruno was six-feet-five and had a head shaved like a bullet and a neck like heavy plumbing for an aircraft carrier. His hands were as wide as a breadbox. Hair grew on his fingertips.
Bruno smiled a lot. He picked up a telephone in Dr. Pomfret's office and squeezed it until the wiring popped out like carnival-colored spaghetti.
"This is your bodyguard, Dr. Pomfret."
Bruno's voice was surprisingly cultured, with even a bit of arrogance in it.
"I have never lost a client yet, Dr. Pomfret."
"I can see," she said.
"You can trust me," said Bruno.
"Yes. Well, all right," said Terri. He was big and he was strong and he did give that feeling of assurance. She was up and down in the cave that afternoon, with the entire inscription translated and the coordinates accurate.
Outside the cave, Bruno kept telling her how he never lost anyone. His grin became bigger. He told her how most assassins and killers were dumb. That the guide had to be especially stupid to get his head cut off like that. And his fingers and his arms.
Bruno assumed that the killer had apparently seen him and exercised some rare intelligence.
"He's probably running right now, back where he came from," said Bruno as they entered his little M. G. convertible. Bruno smiled again. Bruno put the key into the ignition. Bruno smiled again. Bruno turned the key in the ignition. Bruno's head fell off into Terri Pomfret's lap.
She was looking at a gushing severed neck and the head was in her lap. This time when she screamed, not even her sore throat could stop the yelling. People had to lift her out of the car still screaming. She was under sedation for a week.
When the doctors said she could talk, a government representative came into her room. Terri felt as if she were on a cloud and she was also feeling that when she got off the cloud, the terror would begin again.
The government official was apologetic.
"Well, golly, I guess we did it again, didn't we?" he said. "Seriously, however-- --"
"Uhhh," said Terri and slipped into comfortable blackness. The doctors explained to the government man that even though the hospital could give the patient sedation, she also had her own form of self-sedation that mankind had used throughout history.
"What's that?" the government man asked.
"It's called passing out in terror," said the doctor.
"Was it a loud scream? Was her whole body in it? Did her breasts move when she screamed?"
Neville Lord Wissex waited for an answer. He wanted to know exactly. He sat in the great hall of Wissex Castle, in afternoon grays, with a magnum of new Peruvian white, that made most Chablis taste like a soft drink. A subtle dash of cocaine always aroused the true bouquet of a white wine.
Outside the window, the British countryside rolled in a pleasant and rare sunny day, green hill to green hill, the ancient estate of the Wissexes. Behind Lord Wissex were stuffed heads, mounted on mahogany, with small brass plates under the necks. The eyes looked realistic because they came from ocular prosthodontics. People used glass eyes for moose. Why use less for humans?
The Wissex family always insisted that the eyes be the same color as the subject. Therefore, the head of Lord Mulburry had green eyes as he had had in life. And Field Marshal Roskovsky had blue and General Maximilian Garcia y Gonzales y Mendosa y Aldomar Bunch had deep brown eyes. As they had had in life.
But the heads were old. The House of Wissex did not take heads any more. One did not need them as a selling point anymore. Not in this rich world market made so bountiful by all the new countries created after World War II.
Wissex wanted to hear exactly how the woman screamed and after the Gurkha knifeman explained how he had made sure the head fell into the lap by the angle of the cut as Lord Wissex had suggested and how the woman could not control herself, Lord Wissex smiled and said it was time to dispense with pleasure and get down to business.
A small computer terminal rested on a silver tray. Wissex punched the result of the job into the computer. There were certain things one did not let servants do. One had to do these things oneself if one wanted to continue to prosper.
"Let me see your thrust again if you would be so kind," said Wissex.
The Gurkha made the short smooth thrust and Wissex punched its description into the computer.
"Yes, that's fine," Wissex said, calling in a draw from the computer. It showed immediately how many knife fighters were in the employ of the House of Wissex, how many could be recruited, how many could be trained in how much time and the general state of the market at the moment. They had lost some people in a small job in Belgium that the local authorities there had mistaken for a sex attack because the victim happened to be a woman and the weapons used were knives.
But there would be no more jobs like that if this new one worked. The House of Wissex would be able to go on for the next ten years on just this job if it worked.
Lord Wissex looked at the market pattern on the screen with wedges going to the Middle East, to South America and Africa. There was so much good business in the Third World nowadays, but this one could put them all to shame.
"We're going to promote you and give you a raise," said Wissex, looking up at the Gurkha. They might need many good knife fighters soon, if everything worked out as beautifully as it had in the caves of North Carolina.
When Terri recovered, she thought she heard a government man say she was going to be protected by a force so great and so secret that even the head of the department only knew that the President had given such assurance.
"The President of the United States, Terri, is personally authorizing a protection so awesome we don't even know what he's talking about. How is that?"
"How is what?" said Terri. She was fighting with all her strength to keep some broth down in her stomach.
"You are going to be protected by something only the President can authorize."
"Protected for what?" Terri Pomfret asked.
"You're going back into that cave," said the man.
Terri thought that was what he said. She could have sworn that was what he said. But she wasn't quite sure, however, because she was in a very comfortable, deep blackness.