Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Choice, Part 2

The mausoleum rose above the surrounding crypts and gravestones, proclaiming its occupants to have a more luxurious, if not outright superior, afterlife than their neighbors. The ornately-carved door had turned green with age and mold. Bits of marble had chipped off over the decades, and the name – Meadows – was starting to erode into the surrounding stone. Still, even in its dilapidated state, the structure was an impressive display of wealth.

Mildred grasped the handle on the door, but it was sealed tightly. She handed the crowbar to her husband with an instruction to pry open the door. “Please reconsider,” Ezra asked, but he could see by the avaricious glint in her eyes that his request was far too late. He shrugged, placed his pipe in his pocket, and set to his task, popping the door open with little trouble. She handed him one of the lanterns, which he took in his left hand, retaining the crowbar in the right.

“Are you expecting anyone in there?” she said, scoffing at him. “Anyone alive, that is?”

“I hate to throw away a perfectly good tool,” he replied.

“You can buy a new one when we’re rich.” Mildred stepped into the gloom.

The flickering light revealed smooth walls, a marble sarcophagus, and several piles of rat droppings, but nothing else. Mildred looked for any signs of a message, but found none. Ezra entered the tomb behind her. He waited patiently.

She looked at him, tapping one foot impatiently. “Don’t just stand there, help me open the sarcophagus.”

“Mildred, maybe there is no treasure. Maybe we misread the letter, or it was all a joke, or someone else found it years ago. Whatever the case, we tried and failed. Let’s go home.”

“That’s my Ezra – always taking the lazy way out! Don’t be ridiculous; we’ve come this far, so we might as well finish the job.”

He placed his lantern next to hers and the two of them heaved at the top stone. With a great deal of effort, they eventually succeeded in moving it partly off the base and peered inside. The sarcophagus was empty! Mildred could hardly believe her eyes, and scanned the small space again and again for anything, her rage growing. It was Ezra who finally noticed the lever along the back inside wall of the coffin. The lever was made of the same white marble as its surroundings, and was nearly invisible in the gloom. “Should we see what it does?” he asked. The question earned him a withering stare, and he gave a great tug. The lever moved with surprising ease, causing the bottom of the sarcophagus to slide backward, revealing a set of stairs descending into darkness.

The look on Mildred’s face change from rage to pleasure, and she quickly picked up her lantern and climbed into the base of the sarcophagus and began her descent. Ezra shook his head but said nothing. Taking his lantern, he followed.

The stairs led to a hard-packed dirt floor. The dank smell suggested they were near the waterline, which was one reason the residents of the Cay who could afford to do so chose an above-ground crypt, as they did in New Toulouse for a similar reason. Ezra made a slow rotation, holding the lantern in front of him. The room, which extended no further than the crypt above, appeared bare, save for a skeletal body propped against the eastern wall of the chamber. Mildred gave a shriek when she saw it, although it was clear the creature had not breathed for decades.

“Where could the treasure be?” asked Mildred. “Is there another secret passage? Or another clue?”

As Ezra pondered the question, the sarcophagus slid back into position. Ignoring the noise, he made a second pass of the room and, concluding that the body was indeed the only object in it other than Mildred, himself, and the tools they had brought, took a closer look. The flesh had long since decayed away, leaving a skeleton clad in tattered clothing. Ezra knelt and examined the jacket, trousers, and overcoat, all of a bygone style. He found a calling card and an envelope in a jacket pocket. The calling card read simply “John Meadows.”

“Mildred, I think we found your Uncle John.”

She looked startled. “What would he be doing…Oh, he must have thought to look at his father’s crypt for his inheritance, found this room, and injured himself.”

“Or he found the same note you did, returned it to its hiding place, and set out for the crypt,” Ezra said. “Take a look: he has an envelope much like the one you found.”

He placed the envelope into Mildred’s outstretched hand, and she carefully opened it and unfolded the single sheet of paper inside. It was another piece of verse:

Congratulations, seeker:

You found the hiding place of my script;
The riddle’s solution led to my crypt.
You’ve come in search of buried treasure,
Of gold or rubies, wealth beyond measure.
But wealth without wisdom is a terrible find;
It saps the soul and weakens the mind.
My secret, however, is safe in this tomb
For finding this note has sealed your doom.

Mildred looked nervously at her husband. “What does this mean? ‘Sealed your doom’? Is there no treasure?”

Ezra laid his lantern on the dirt floor and walked quickly up the stairs. He pushed against the bottom of the sarcophagus, but it would not move. He ran his hand around the entire perimeter of the box, hoping to find the latch. It appeared the only latch was the one on the other side. “I think we’re trapped.”

“That can’t be!”

But it was. The couple tried both singly and jointly to find a way out, but it became clear that they, like John Meadows before them, were sealed inside the chamber. Ezra, calm and non-confrontational to the end, resisted the temptation to say to his wife “I told you so.”

[Was that the way the Squibbs met their demise? Yes, or very nearly so. After the small earthquake in the Cay toppled headstones and shifted crypts from their foundations, a caretaker, inspecting the damage, discovered the secret passage. From there, the story unraveled backward. We found Mildred and Ezra, still in each other’s arms – a “last embrace” indeed! – then read the notes and identified John Meadows. The police were content at that point, but I talked with neighbors in the Cay, as well as neighbors in Brigadoon. If I have taken liberties with the precise words and actions of our doomed couple, I will stand by the basic facts and my characterization of how the story unfolded. – RJ]


Dio said...

Very nicely done. Rather Poe-like in the way your version of the dark and creepy originates not in some demonic supernatural source, but within the human heart.


Rhianon Jameson said...

Thank you most kindly, Miz Dio!

I hope you didn't identify too closely with Ezra, Mr. Antfarm. :)

HeadBurro Antfarm said...

Wonderful stuff! I have to say I felt that Ezra had set the whole thing up to rid himself of his wife, but clearly I had the wrong villian in my sights! Evil Great-Uncle Symington!

More! I cry! More!

Bamika Easterman said...

A chilling tale. Reminds me anew of why I don't like being buried alive.

Rhianon Jameson said...

Thank you, Miss Bamika! And let us hope you have not been buried alive too often. :)

Vivito Volare said...

A wonderful recounting of a morose bit of local history. Splendid!

Rhianon Jameson said...

Thank you, Mr. Volare! The Cay has its mysterious charms, does it not?