Somewhere over China…
An open unpressurised De Havilland D.H.42 Dormouse …
Altitude eight-thousand feet…
Reading a three week old Manchester Guardian…
Just before tea time…
“Boss, didn’t we pass that mountain five minutes ago?”
“I was thinking the same thing Johnny. I’ve been flying by compass for a while. Can’t get over the top of this weather.”
“We can’t be out oxygen; we’ve not used any yet.”
“Prof took it out to fit the new engine.”
“You think it’s messing with the heading?”
“I’ll see if we can find somewhere to put down and take a look.”
Dirk flew us straight at the mountain then banked hard till it was behind us. Some pilots would have taken it easy in case there was something hidden in the clouds. That’s not the Dangerous way. He put the nose down and I started praying.
7000ft. 5000ft. 3000ft. 1000ft.
Suddenly we broke through the cloud and the ground was racing towards us. For a moment I thought my prayers had been answered. An airstrip appeared cut from the jungle. We were coming in too fast. If the chance of smashing into the ground and ending my days in some corner of a foreign field wasn’t enough a Dakota was pulling up from the strip.
The Dakota was climbing straight at us.
We both pulled back hard on the controls. Dirk pushed the Prof’s new engine till it screamed like a rabid string section in a Stravinsky composition. Looking over the side I picked out a dozen mangled, wrecks in the valley below. The violins were going full speed.
We banked hard to port the Dakota banked to starboard.
A dozen violas tore their stings apart.
I caught the Dakota pilots eye as our nose came up. I’d swear she winked at me although it could have been a reflection on her goggles.
We soared on a swell of cello supporting the straining metaphor into its dyeing bar.
Dirk turned the crate into the valley and put us down. The landing wasn’t text book but then neither was the track he’d used as a runway.
A hundred yards up the track a group of men were struggling towards us carrying something heavy. They dropped whatever it was and charged us, pistols blazing. It seemed unlikely they knew Dirk but with his reputation you never know when you’ll bump into one of his enemies. He pulled out the Suomi M/31 and with two well placed bursts sent them packing. We clambered from the crate and stretched our legs. I fished a compass out of my pocket, checked it, whacked it a couple of times for good measure then turned to Dirk.
“It’s not the engine that’s playing silly whatsits with our bearings – it’s that mountain.”
“Let’s take a look while we’re here. Get the bag and if those chaps were anything to go by I’d say you should keep the Enfield cleared for action.”
“Can’t we have a brew first, boss?”
“No time for tea now, Johnny. Maybe they’ll do you a nice pot of the local green char at the village up ahead.”
We advanced along the track. Something wasn’t right – and I don’t mean Dirk refusing a cuppa. In the middle of the track lay a safe; a brass plate read ‘Samuel Withers & Co Ltd. West Bromwich.’
“You go half way round the world and what do you find?”
“No way we’re getting that in the Dormouse.”
The track crested a rise revealing a small village clinging to the banks of the river at the valley’s bottom. Something wasn’t right. We moved cautiously forward. The only noise was the water racing and the wind in the trees. Dead birds covered the track. An ox lay dead in its harness beside the man who’d been driving the cart. Dirk checked his pulse, looked at me and shook his head. Looking down into the village we could see a horror I’d hoped never to see again. We both stood silent in recollection for a moment. I still have nightmares about Hill 60, May 1915.
“You can’t fight gas with guns and we didn’t pack gasmasks. We’ll follow this ridge up river and look for another crossing.”
Twenty minutes later we found a rope across the gorge. My compass still pointed to the mountain. We followed crisscrossing trails till we came to the hillside littered with wrecked planes. Ahead, steps had been cut into the cliff face and fresh mine workings cut deep into it. Spoil lay heaped at the cliff’s base.
We climbed the stair till the compass led us to a circular, ten foot high entrance. It had until recently been blocked by an iron-barred gate; its lock destroyed by a bullet hole clean through it. I fished a pair of torches from the pack and we advanced inside, our beams cutting along a long straight passage.
“Johnny – see how the floor slopes gently upwards?”
“And the faint scratch marks in the dirt.”
A faint line crossed the floor. Eight steps on was another. A giant blade scythed across the corridor. Five more another flashed by. Three more and a third swung through. Two steps and Dirk almost had his hair parted anterior from posterior.
“Blades by the numbers, Johnny!”
“Not the conventional equal separation.”
“They’d not studied Fibonacci.” He shone his torch to one side where two more blades, each a step apart, were embedded in a pair of corpses.
“Been there no more than an hour by the look of them.”
“Weren’t they carrying the safe earlier?”
“Why do you think this death trap is here?”
“Don’t know. There’d better be something worth having at the end.”
“Have I ever led you to a death trap and not found something worthwhile at the end?”
“I’ll give you that.”
“The Mercury Mines of Peru?”
“I rescued that girl.”
“Nice girl. Long legs. Laugh like a donkey.”
“So you got the girl with the awful name and laugh. What did I get?”
“A warm feeling from a job well done.”
“Sore feet and torn trousers.”
“Well, if you’re ready for making jokes you’re probably ready to move on.”
We stepped round them; ahead the passage ended in a flat wall. Something went click. I hate it when something goes click. Something bad usually happens moments later.
Moments later a giant boulder smashed through the wall. We ran back counting steps and dodging axe heads. The boulder was smashing through the blades right on our heels as I followed Dirk out of the door. I’d have gone over the ledge but he grabbed me and swung me round. The boulder flung itself in a ballistic trajectory, illustrating the path I’d have taken, into the valley below.
We went back into the passageway, cautiously this time. Stepping over the remains of the false wall above us we could see a sloped alcove in the ceiling that had held the boulder. Ahead, the passage turned a corner. Just beyond it the miners who cut the passage from the rock had dug a narrow alcove. Finally another passage sloped gently to a solid wall.
I looked at Dirk “They wouldn’t have.”
“Wouldn’t have what?”
“Set another giant rolling boulder trap.”
“I think they’ve done a little more than that. See the holes in the wall.”
“Well the unpoisoned kind really just perturb me.”
“There should be a roll of tape in your pack. We’ll block the holes up with bits of rubble.” Minutes later and the darts were ineffectually buzzing like wasps in a jam jar.
“What do you think Johnny?”
“Mind if I take a breather this time boss?”
“You know you can call me Dirk when there’s no one around.”
“I was the loyal batman to your daring Royal Flying Corp Pilot. Wouldn’t have been the done thing. Habits die hard; it just doesn’t feel right.”
“And one day you’ll be the loyal friend carrying my coffin.”
“No sir. I think if these nasty traps get either of us it will be me first.”
“Probably for the best; you’ve met my five brothers so you know I’m the runt.”
“Some runt – what are you, six feet six inches?”
“Well yes, but my coffin would be at an odd angle with you carrying. Ready for another run?”
“No.” I hoisted my pack anyway.
“Too bad old boy.”
Dirk advanced, striding boldly down the passage. Sometimes I wish he’d just walk a bit slower into danger, look where he’s putting his feet. That’s not the Dangerous way.
I was trying to spot the trigger for the trap as we went. We found it with our feet again. Our only option was to run. I threw myself into the alcove, Dirk close behind me, the billiard ball of doom mere inches behind him. We listened to it bounce its way down the passages and then launch itself over the precipice.
Dirk sauntered to the tunnel entrance.
“Good shot. That one turned the Iris wreck into matchwood. I’d put a shilling on the next one taking out that Sopwith.”
Walking back down the passage we discover a second corner and another long straight passage with a slight slope. My torch picked out round holes in the wall again but these were bigger than the last ones.
“Spears, Johnny. I’d say a quickstep should get us through.”
Our poise was textbook perfect. We were on the balls of our feet all the way. Dirk led: right foot forward, heel to toe. My left foot went back, toe to heel we spun diagonally to the wall. We turned right on the beat as the first spear thrust itself out in front of us, then swayed out of the way of the next spear as it cut between us. His left, my right, to the side, turning. A little contra body movement and a little rise. My left foot closing to my right, his right to his left now facing diagonally to the centre. Turning and rising over another spear. An improvisation under the next one. His left foot to the side slightly while my right size twelve went diagonally back toe to heel. Sway on four round the spear – and repeat.
“Think you can dodge them on the way back?”
“Not a problem boss.”
“Good because here comes the boulder. You lead this time.”
If you’ve never tried the quickstep the time to learn it isn’t when you’re dodging spears and have a giant boulder racing towards you. Fortunately life as the companion of an international globe trotter requires certain skills beyond running, shooting and carrying a back pack. Mixing a good martini and dancing a quickstep are fortunately amongst those other skills. The spears missed and the boulder rolled on.
“So how would you score this one?”
“Technical merit or artistic?”
“At the moment I’d say whoever built it had hit the ball for six.”
“You think it’s a six?”
“Well they didn’t hit the ball out of the ground but it’s definitely over the boundary rope.”
“I’d say it was more of a four. It’s worrying but a bit repetitive. Not really deadly.”
“Tell that to the chap over there.”
“What, old Bob Skelly?”
“It certainly looks to have done him in.”
“He’s set-dressing. Whoever put this show on wanted to put a scare up you. Look closely and you can see where they rushed the job of cleaning his bones but the real give away is that he’s wired together.”
“We’ve had darts, spears and scything blades.”
“And great rolling balls of doom.”
“Yes but none of its really very original. Where’s your giant lens focusing the sun into a burning blossom of death?”
“Mexico, Caves of the Lord of Death. I lost a good flying jacket to that one.”
“Or your funnelled wind of extinction.”
“That was a good one. We got all the way through to within sight of the treasure without setting off a single trap and then it blew us back through them all.”
“We’d have been pushing up the daisies with that one old boy.”
“Some foreign flea pit would have forever have been England.”
“Good job for us that two thousand year old traps tend not to work.”
“A very good job. If they had that would have been a six. At Trent Bridge I’d have put it in the Trent.”
“And I’d have had to go and fish it out.”
He was off and walking before my eyes had come back down from heaven. I expected another trap sequence followed by another great ball of doom but this passage turned and brought a different view. The passage turned a corner and opened out into a vast natural cavern.
“Wow. Do you think this is it?”
“You know, where the treasure is?”
“Why are you obsessed with money Johnny?”
“Because, unlike the Dangerouses, my wealth doesn’t run back to the Norman conquest. We don’t have a family vaults in Zurich to fall back on for small change.”
“Johnny are you turning into a Bolshevik?”
“No, Boss. Like you said, I’m a filthy capitalist oppressor of the masses. I want to get horribly rich overnight so my great-great-great-grandchildren never have to do an honest day’s work.”
“So your great-great-great-grandchildren will be lawyers?”
“And an occasional politician with a seat in the House. Second great-great-great grandsons may take the cloth.”
“The odd granddaughter might, too.”
“Call me a Bolshevik and then there you go with your progressive thinking. If your granddaddy hears you talking like that he’ll cut off your allowance and disinherit you.”
“Why do you think we’re five thousand miles away from dear old gramps?”
“I thought we were here for a cricket match.”
“Other than that.”
“Anyway since when did England play Nepal in a Test series and since when did your ban on playing for England get lifted?”
“It’s a friendly series. Hands across the oceans and all that. They were two men short. We were in the area. I said we’d make up the numbers.”
“Hang on. What’s this we business?”
“You’re keeping wicket.”
“But we left my kit in Shanghai.”
“There wasn’t room for it and us in the crate.”
“There was space for your full whites, pads, bats, balls and stumps; three of each type of suit, jungle gear, the Suomi, the Lee-Enfield, two brace of pistols, climbing gear, five hundred rounds, a crate of vintage Bollinger and a picture of mater?”
“You’re ranting, Johnny.”
“You’re surprised, Boss?”
“Well the Suomi did come in handy back up on the strip when those chaps charged us as we got out of the plane.”
As we moved deeper into the cavern a dozen narrow beams of brilliant lights burst to life cutting down from high above. They met at a single point at the heart of the cavern. Atop a plinth stood a small, green statue. Checking the floor for traps as we went, we moved forward till we stood barely a foot away.
“You know what it is, Johnny?” Dirk whispered.
“No, Boss.” I whispered.
“Why are you whispering, Johnny?” he whispered.
“I don’t know Boss. Why are you whispering?”
“It’s a little jade statue – that’s why, Johnny.”
“Why don’t we grab it and run for it?”
“Now, Johnny, we both know people don’t build death mazes to protect valuable jade heirlooms and then not put their best trap on the treasure. So first we check everywhere for traps.”
“How much do you think it is worth?”
“Probably worth a bob or euwww.”
“How many bob to the ewe, Boss?” I laughed.
“No euwww Johnny something just dripped down my Ewwww!”
“Something just dripped down your ewe?” I was struggling not to have the laughs turn into guaffaws.
“My neck again. There’s something up there.”
We both looked up. I wish I hadn’t. If I hadn’t it wouldn’t have hit me in the face just on top of my hat. It was wet and solid. I bent down and picked it up. A dirty, damp rag with a large knot tied in the middle.
“It’s not worth a dime,” echoed a voice.
“I’m up here,” said the voice.
“How do you know it’s worthless?”
“It’s a fake.”
“I had it made.”
“Why would you have a fake jade statue of Qin Shi Haung made?”
“Don’t worry, we’ve a few days before we’re due in Kathmandu.”
“I’ll tell you all about it, but if you could be a pal and get me down.”
“We’ll have you down in a jiffy.”
“Where are my manners? I’m Johnny and this is my boss Dirk Dangerous.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Joseph D. Haynes Junior, but you can call me Jo. I’d shake hands and do proper introductions but I’ve been hanging upside down by my feet, trussed up like a turkey with a piece of old cloth as a gag for the last few hours.”
“I know you. Don’t they call you Énigme? Can I get your autograph for my nephew? He’s a big fan.”
“Sure thing, Johnny.”
“We saw you in New York last year. You were fantastic. When you made that man act like a cockerel and had the women who locked you in the box unlock it, let you out and lock the box again – then get all surprised when you weren’t inside.”
“Now, Johnny, leave the nice man alone.”
“And then you did it again except this time you didn’t have anyone unlock the box for you.”
“Johnny drop it.”
“I was just saying…”
“Jo’s one of the world’s greatest living escapologists. He’s probably a little embarrassed right now. What with being tied up sixty feet off the ground and not being able to get himself free?”
“Sorry Jo. We’ll get you down and I promise we’ll not tell anyone.”
“No problem Johnny.”
“So, boss, how do we get Jo down?”
“It’s going to be tricky. You see those wires running from the plinth.” He waved his torch along the floor. “Those connect to those explosives that I think will bring the cave down if anyone knocks the plinth or takes the jade.”
“So we don’t touch the plinth until we cut the wires and disarm the dynamite.”
“Then there’s another set of wires. Well more like twenty more sets. Pick the wrong ones to cut – Boom! Goodnight Dirk Dangerous. Goodnight Énigme. Farewell Johnny. There’ll be three kippers spare at breakfast.”
“So why don’t we just get a ladder and fetch him down?”
He waved his torch in the air. Gossamer threads twinkled in the light.
“You see all that tightly strung fishing line.”
“It’s connected to the dynamite, too.”
“So we touch that and some foreign cavern is forever disputed territory of Great Britain and the good old US of A?”
“Something like that. Now if you’ll both be very quiet for just a moment.”
I listened hard. Something was dripping. Each drip was followed by a hissing noise.
“Jo, can you tell if you’re held up by rope or chain?”
“I thought so. When we walked in here whatever put the lights on also set a container of acid dripping onto the chain holding you up. Even if your guests didn’t set the bomb off the acid would burn through the chain and drop you onto the fishing line.”
Dirk stood staring upwards his torch beam swinging back and forth aimlessly in the air for a minute, maybe two.
“Johnny old boy, do me a favour would you, run back and pick up as many of the shafts from those scything blades and thrusting spears as you can find in one piece.”
“Be right back.”
When I came back with my armfuls of shafts, Dirk was standing around tossing a cricket ball idly in one hand.
“Was I carrying that ball all the time, Boss?”
“Don’t you worry about that, Johnny me lad. Just bind those poles together. That’s right. Now I’ll take that. If you could hold my ball for me.”
He tied his torch to the end and walked to the wall below one of the lamps. Carefully he raised the pole. The beam caught a line; he edged it to one side. There was another. He threaded the pole through the narrow gap and pushed against the lamp high up on the wall. Ten minutes later three of the lamps shone across the room picking out the lines. Another five and the chain was illuminated too.
Dirk reached over and took the battered cricket ball from me. He tossed it in the air once, twice, then pulled back his arm and threw it as though pitching at the strike end from deep extra cover. It flew fast and high and struck a pipe above the chain. The ball dropped and a jet of liquid streamed after it. A fizzing puddle ate its way into the cavern floor leaving the ball a pulpy mess.
“Well that ball’s had it Johnny, old boy.”
“That wasn’t your Lords’ ball, was it?”
“It’s gone out for a good cause. Now we’ve got a bit of time we can defuse these bombs. Be a good chap and run and fetch the climbing gear we don’t need. ”