Zack steadied himself and looked back toward the tunnel.
No turning back.
Fastened to the wall was a chain-link gate allowing access to metal stairs. He crawled to the gate, pushed it open, and started down on shaky legs.
Zack inched his way down, making deliberate contact with every tread.
Story after story, each landing led to more stairs.
Get a grip, one step closer to the ground. Don’t look down.
Ten stories later he stopped and stared at the cavern floor.
They looked like amphitheater seats.
He descended a few more stories and stopped, gripping the railing.
“Johnnn!” Zack cupped his hands. The echo faded with no response.
More stairs and landings. Periodically Zack would peer down another dark tunnel.
Zack stopped, leaning against the railing and panting.
Jamie, her hair, her skin and he smiled. Zack laughed as Jamie faded into John’s face and his hands around John’s neck, throttling him until his eyes bulged.
His legs ached and his feet burned, but he started again, only a few more stories. Zack planted his foot firmly on top of a concrete pillbox that looked fresh out of World War II. He expected the Guns of Navarone to be sticking out of the front.
He walked to the edge and grabbed hold of a rail.
Only about another 30 feet to the ground.
He walked back toward the stairs and stopped at a hatch in the concrete.
Zack took hold of a handle in the hatch and lifted.
“Oh, crap.” he mumbled. “More stairs.”
Zack sighed as his feet touched the ground and he looked back at the incredible distance he had just come. The stairs wound a tiny ribbon upward that disappeared at the top.
He stood in a concrete tunnel large enough to drive two eighteen wheelers down, side by side.
Behind him, a tunnel threaded with large, steaming pipes overhead stretched into darkness.
Zack walked the opposite direction toward the mouth of the tunnel.
“John?” He called through the whisper of the steam.
He cupped his hands again, louder. “John!”
Two large iron gates stood ajar at the tunnel opening. On one side, a keypad beeped in time with a blinking red light. Below it was a huge bank of industrial levers obviously controlling the flood lights.
Zack pushed through the gates and into the cavern.
He walked a few more yards and stood on the brink of a massive amphitheater with long flat seats descending away from him and steps dividing the rows.
Stone pillars lined the sides, reminiscent of ancient Rome.
John Welte sat in the front row, a dot in the vast expanse of the cavern. In front of him was an enormous carved-stone wall.
Zack bounded down the steps two at a time. “John!”
He reached John huffing and puffing and punched him in the arm. “You idiot! Where have you been?”
John didn’t respond.
“I’ve been looking all over for you, you…”
Zack followed John’s gaze.
“What the…” He turned toward the massive granite wall and looked up.
“It’s got to be 60 stories to the roof!” Zack said. Zack walked the length of half a football field to the wall and ran his hands along the smooth, cool granite. His fingers danced in and out of the cuts and polishes and he closed his eyes as if hypnotized, running his palm over inlayed gold. Zack laid his cheek against the even surface, allowing the chill to sooth the sweat running from his temples. The floodlights illuminated the carvings of horse and rider, shields and swords and crests from some ancient time.
Zack opened his eyes and stepped back, staring at the center of the wall. Affixed by heavy pins larger than his body were two polished marble gates.
“Holy…” Zack recoiled at the sheer expanse of the marble slabs. “And these have to be four stories at least!” His eyes wandered down every vein and cut in the gates.
“And no handles.” Zack looked up.
Over the doors, huge golden letters spelled out: SHEH-OLE.
“This is incredible!” Zack said. “This all has to be worth a fortune!” He turned and looked at John.
John stared past Zack at the gates, chewing on something. His jaw muscles tightened and relaxed as he pulverized whatever was in his mouth.
“John,” Zack approached him again and touched his shoulder. “John? Buddy?” he shook him.
John looked up. “How long?”
“How long what?”
“Have I been sitting here?” John asked.
“I’ve been looking for you for almost two hours now. What gives?” Zack threw up his hands. “I send you to get some oil and you end up praying in front of the altar of King Kong?” Zack chuckled. “What are you eating?”
He put his hand on John’s shoulder and John shrugged it away.
“You know I eat these when I’m nervous,” John picked up a small bag of Boston Baked Beans.
“What are you talking about? What is this place?” Zack glanced around.
John stared at him through blank eyes. “Do you remember Sophomore literature?” He asked.
“Sophomore Lit.” John adjusted himself on the seat, pulled out another handful of Boston Baked Beans and threw one into his mouth. “We talked about ancient Hebrew history. Remember?”
“No, not really… Well, I remember the class.” Zack shrugged. “But no details off the top of my head, man that was two years ago, I didn’t have to—”
“There was a particular passage in one of the scrolls that mentioned a word. Sheh-ole. You don’t remember?”
“No, I don’t remember,” Zack exhaled. “I already told you I didn’t. What’s this, a history quiz? Why are you being so weird—”
“It fascinated me,” John interrupted. “The term, I mean. We buzzed over it so quickly and obviously no one cared.”
“Yeah, so?” Zack said. “Obviously I didn’t care either—”
“But I went home and researched it.” John said.
“It means The City of the Dead.” John paused, looking back and forth at the massive wall. “Also HELL.”
John swallowed and drew in a breath, his eyes pierced Zack. “What have you gotten us into?”