THE TREASURE HUNTERS
The sun had been shining for most of the day, but there was still a frost on the ground. The air was clear and cold, and the grass crunched sharply underfoot. Methos whistled softly as he walked, recreating the jazz music he had been listening to the night before. It put a spring into his step, and he smiled to himself beneath snatches of music.
He was in France, where he had been for the best part of a year now. Since the war with Germany had ended back in May the place had been rebuilding itself well, and the money brought in by the many resident Americans all played its part in getting the economy back on its feet. They seemed to be the only ones left with money, after everything that had happened; real money, that was. The war had just about bankrupted everybody else. Always with an eye for siding with the winners, Methos had made friends with a good many Americans since the end of hostilities, and it had proved to be a wise investment. Instead of drifting on to other places he had wound up staying, with a good job, a comfortable place to live, and a semi-regular position playing piano in a basement jazz club. With half a dozen European languages under his belt he was actually useful, too, which was a fairly new experience for him. Now that the war was well and truly over there was a good number of Displaced passing through, and few enough of them seemed to speak English. Methos could be a translator, a doctor of sorts, and if pressed just about anything else that was required, which was one of the benefits of being considerably older than anybody else in the vicinity. Sometimes people asked why he wasn't in the UK, helping the reconstruction efforts there, but mostly they were just glad that he was available where he was. That was a fairly new experience too; people didn't usually find him indispensable. It brought unexpected responsibilities; but he was enjoying himself anyway, most of the time. He wasn't even trying to get anything out of it for himself, which was making him feel pleasantly noble. It all added extra jauntiness to his merry whistling, and made him care even less about the coldness of this French December. Not that he was about to become at all selfless on a permanent basis; but it did seem to be quite a nice way to spend a few months.
He reached the office just as the night staff were leaving, in the sort of half-dazed, blinking at the daylight shamble of the very tired. It was an active department, with several armloads of paperwork for each displaced person who came through it; not to mention the extra files for all the missing people and myriad lost possessions. The various things taken by the Nazis, the things that had been stolen or had changed hands during the war - everything had a home to be returned to; an anxious owner wondering where it had gone. They wanted to get on with their lives and to get back to some kind of normality, and finding lost relations and regaining their heirlooms and money was an important part of that. By day the office conducted inquiries about long missing family members, hundred year old art treasures, and 'redistributed' wealth. By night the staff mostly sat by the telephones, hoping for further information, or trawled through the mounds of paperwork looking for clues. Theoretically it was all written down somewhere. Every child who had lost its parents, every parent who had lost their children; every husband searching for his wife - everything was supposedly documented; everybody's fate detailed in some record, somewhere. Or so they hoped.
"Coffee, Mr London?" The coolly detached Red Cross girl who had been detailed to serve as his assistant met him as he entered his office, a cheaply furnished room that had once been some kind of club. It served now as the base of operations for some five or six people, all doing the same job as Methos, and all similarly overworked. Most of them were already at their desks, and a line of people was waiting to speak to them. The usual types, by the look of them. Tired people who had come a long way, and had a long way still to go, figuratively if not literally. People who had probably lost everything, and had little real chance of getting it back.
"Yeah. Coffee would be good. Thankyou." It would also, as he had long ago learned, help to counteract the effects of too little sleep, too much cheap beer, and far too much loud music. The woman disappeared with a nod, managing to create the impression that there was nothing in the world she would rather be doing than making coffee. Given that she spoke six languages fluently, and had spent the war working as a liaison between the British secret services and the French Resistance, it seemed unlikely that she didn't have greater ambitions, but Methos had always made it a point never to question such things. He just wanted coffee.
"Good night last night?" Stefan was a tall, rangy sort with particularly dark and expressive eyes, who had spent the war years trying to smuggle people out of Poland and Czechoslovakia. Methos wasn't sure what nationality the man must have been originally, but he spoke French with a faintly Austrian accent, and had the strained, sad look of someone who had lost too many loved ones and friends.
"Yeah." It had been, too. The jazz band he had taken to playing with was a patchwork affair made up of two local doctors, an American Red Cross volunteer and a British journalist, not to mention an ancient Immortal of uncertain nationality on the piano. They were just starting to get a feel for each other's playing, and even had he been in the slightest bit modest, Methos still would have had to admit that they were sounding very good. "I don't see you there very often. You should get out more. It's fun."
"I need my sleep." Stefan offered him a slow, broad smile, though his eyes still held that certain sadness. "And with good reason. Looks like we're going to have quite a day today."
"It's certainly pretty full already." All those people, all hoping for information on some lost treasure, whether it was human or inanimate. It was overwhelming at times, but for some reason the knowledge that he could leave at any time, and slide effortlessly into a different life well away from all of this, kept him right where he was. Maybe everybody needed to be useful sometimes. Maybe even five thousand year old men who thought they had seen everything could still be affected by what went on around them.
"You ever find that old man last week?" Stefan's inquiry was off-hand, his voice like that of anybody doing a job where detachment was key. Methos shook his head.
"Did you think that I would? And in a week? They'll have to have their wedding with somebody else to give the bride away." He shrugged. "Besides, an old man like that? Do you think we're looking for somebody who's still alive?"
"No." The rangy mortal shrugged as though he honestly didn't care either way. "But miracles happen. And being old is no guarantee of weakness."
"It is when you've got Eastern European winters to live through, in some miserable prison camp somewhere, with no food and a tendency to get shot if you cease to be useful." Methos looked up as his assistant brought him his coffee, and smiled at her distractedly in thanks. "Who am I seeing first this morning? Are there any appointments waiting, or do I just grab somebody out of the queue and hope for the best?"
"The people in the queue have been waiting most of the night. They came in a train together, and they're just waiting to get their papers." The efficient young woman who clearly wanted to be doing so much more than making coffee and checking pieces of paper, regarded the two men with her usual frosty glare. "They're on their way to Poland, apparently, so they won't be wanting to speak to you."
"Shame. I should think that my Polish could do with a polish." Methos smiled at her rather facetiously, but as ever she offered not even the smallest of smiles at his humour. He was determined to make her laugh one day, although he was ready to admit that that latest joke had been rather a poor attempt. "Never mind. Who am I seeing today?"
"The usual. People looking for personal property stolen by the Nazis." She handed him a sheaf of papers. "Oh, and there's an American woman as well. She's looking for some permits to begin a search for certain items that she claims belong to the museum she works for back in New York. They were on loan, apparently, to another museum over here, and were lost when war broke out. She wants to conduct her own search on the grounds that we'll be too slow."
"She's probably not wrong," commented Stefan rather jauntily. Rachel shot him an icy glare.
"All the same, I can't say that I really approve of civilians wandering about the place trying to conduct independent searches. They'll only get in our way."
"Well what does this American lady look like?" Raising his eyebrows and flashing a telling smile, Stefan made a show of looking about the office. "If she's pretty enough I might be persuaded to take on her case. Then I'll make sure that she stays out of everybody's way for... oh, might be weeks and weeks."
"Yes, well." Looking about as disapproving as it was possible to look whilst still retaining a modicum of respect for a technical superior, Rachel hitched up her already icy smile to a new degree of stiffness. "She's outside, so you won't be able to see her. She popped out for a word with her colleagues, and--" She broke off for a moment. "Are you alright, Mr London?"
"Um... what?" Blinking up at her, suddenly torn back from his moment's distraction, Methos rapidly dredged up a smile. "I beg your pardon?"
"I said, are you alright? You seemed to go rather... peculiar there for a moment. Perhaps the jazz club wasn't such a good idea the night before an early start here?"
"What? Oh." He smiled more confidently, and took a deep, bracing drink from his coffee. Fortunately she could always be called upon to make it strong. "No, of course. I mean... never mind what I mean, and I've had plenty of sleep thankyou. I just thought that I heard something, that was all."
"Ghosts, probably." Smiling grimly, if a little wistfully, Stefan looked back at the ragged queue of refugees. "Hardly surprising, surrounded by this lot."
"Ghosts. Yes." The ghosts of all the Immortals who make up the rush of the Quickening. His eyes flickered nervously about the room, but there was nobody who had just entered. Nobody who could explain that sudden sensation. Rachel rolled her eyes and moved away. Stefan grinned.
"You want to watch that one. She'll be reporting you for unacceptable conduct. I think she has eyes on your desk."
"She's welcome to it. Nobody in their right mind really wants to do this work, surely?"
"Then why are we here?" Stefan offered him a lopsided smile, then abruptly looked away. "Well well well. If that's our American girl, then I'm definitely taking on her case. Will you look at that."
She was just closing the door; just coming into the room; five feet and not much extra that glowed and gleamed from the tips of her expensive shoes to the topmost perfectly styled strand of her hair. Glamour was in her walk, money in her clothes, grace in her poise - and immortality in the shiver she sent down Methos' central nervous system. He didn't manage to return Stefan's smile. Immortal women, in his experience, were always dangerous; and so were women this glamorous, whether they were immortal or not. He definitely wanted nothing to do with this one.
"Good morning, madam." Zeroing in on her like a hungry shark bearing down on a distressed fish, Stefan reached out his hand for a greeting. The woman moved smoothly past him, her own eyes focused solely upon Methos.
"Hello." She was sitting in the chair opposite his desk before he had a chance to move away, or to pretend to be too busy to take her case. Stefan looked disappointed, but he flashed Methos a game grin nonetheless, and went back to his own desk nearby. Methos wished that he was going too. He dredged up the most strained smile that he had used in months, and tore his eyes away from Stefan. Time to size up this Immortal woman, and try to work out where he stood.
She looked fairly young, in mortal years, but with a maturity that came as much from her pre-Immortal life as from the years she had faced since then. Blonde, perfectly poised, wiry to compensate for her lack of height and brute strength. Her clothes were immaculate, and must have cost a fortune; a glaring contrast to the shabby refugees around her. American money showed in every perfect crease, every fibre of the material; in every stroke of her tastefully applied make-up, and every sweep of the spray that had set her hair into its fashionable style. There was something about her eyes though; some gleam of mischief within them that shrugged off the imperious poise and the unemotional set of her pretty, strong face. She was laughing at him, he realised. Laughing with her eyes, and mocking him with her apparently icy demeanour. Recognition came at last, and he sank back into his chair, glaring daggers that might have cowed anybody else.
"Amanda. What the bloody hell do you mean by--?"
"Ssh, darling." She offered him a playful wink. "That's really no way to be heard speaking to an important guest, is it."
"You? A representative from an American museum? How did you manage to come up with that scam?"
"What makes you think it's a scam? People do get jobs from time to time you know; even me. And I should think I'd make a fine museum curator. With my knowledge of little trinkets..."
"By the time you got bored with the job, there wouldn't be any little trinkets left in the museum." He folded his arms. "What did you think you were doing, waltzing in here all dressed up like that? I didn't recognise you. I thought you were... well. You could have been anyone."
"Anyone? Me? I'm insulted." She smirked, her vivid red lipstick heightening both the expression and its flirtatiousness. "I'm sorry, darling. I saw you yesterday heading into that little jazz club by the square, and I couldn't resist dropping by to see you. You see I could forge the documentation that I need of course, but it would be so much simpler - and quicker - to get it all done above board... So imagine my delight when I found out that the jazz club's favourite pianist is one of the volunteers here! Not the place I'd most expect to find you in, but I suppose war changes a lot of directions."
"It certainly doesn't seem to have done you any harm. Still, I suppose America was the obvious place for you to gravitate towards just recently. It's the only place left with any money."
"It hasn't done badly for itself just recently, no. But actually I didn't come from there, not directly. It just seemed to be the place to claim to be from. You have no ideas what doors it opens around here. Flash a few dollars, some chocolate, some silk stockings... the world is your oyster."
"I'm sure." He wasn't softening his cold expression. "What are you after, Amanda? It's got to be either gold or jewellery. Paintings would be too hard for you to turn into cash."
"Spoken like the true thief you've always been at heart." She smiled broadly, in honour of a particularly pleasant memory. "You made a fine pirate. I always thought it was a shame when you decided to give that life up. Not that you've been especially law abiding since."
"Just tell me what you want, alright? I'm not here to reminisce."
"So cold, old man. So cold."
"No. But I do actually have important work to do here. Work concerning people who really have lost things. Look around you, Amanda. These are people who have lost everything. All of the people and the possessions that ever meant anything to them. It's supposed to be my job to get some of it back."
"And how are you doing so far?"
"That's immaterial." He thought of all the wild goose chases, the false leads, and the endless disappointments. "You know what wars are like."
"I'm not sure that I do anymore. We've both seen wars, but I doubt either of us has ever seen one quite like this." She shrugged. "And it seems to have done some very odd things to my favourite ancient reprobate. Darling, you're behaving positively responsibly. It's quite disheartening."
"I'm not being responsible. I'm being useful. It's quite nice to help out, you know, and the jazz club is fun. Besides, I didn't have a whole lot of choice. Being British, male, and the age I appear to be when there's a bloody big war going on is hazardous to say the least. I've been avoiding front line positions since I left Africa in 1942, and helping out here after D-Day seemed better than going off with so many others to join the fight in the Pacific."
"That's over too now, you know."
"Yes. But like I said, the jazz club is fun. And I'm the best translator they've got."
"Like I said, darling. Responsibility itself." She smiled more warmly, with less of the teasing glimmer in her eyes. "I think it's wonderful. I've done a little here and there myself you know. Got to do something, with whole continents apparently trying to wipe each other out. But now it's everybody for themselves. There's a fortune in Nazi treasure out there, you know."
"It belongs to these people."
"Not all of it. The jewellery is theirs, sure. The cash maybe, and the antiques and the paintings and all the hundred and one other things that we both know they're never going to get back. Bank accounts all over Europe full of money that none of these people are ever likely to see again. But it's not any of that that I'm after."
"So what are you here for? What is this 'American museum exhibit' that you're claiming to be here to collect?"
"Oh, I mentioned vases and tapestries on my original claim, I think. That was just so that I could be here, and go hunting and digging about, and not raise too many questions. I'm here for gold."
"Gold?" It was impossible not to be interested, which was doubtless her intent. She flashed him another playful smile.
"Gold. Tons of the stuff, almost literally. In fact possibly literally. How much would you say that ten million dollars worth of gold actually weighs?"
"Ten million dollars?" He blinked uncertainly at her for a moment, then shook his head sharply. "Ten million dollars? American dollars?"
"Yes. What else? It was stashed by the Nazis in the countryside near the French-German border, and it doesn't really belong to anybody. It wasn't stolen by anybody, that I know of, and it's just sitting there now waiting for me."
"Rather me than... well, than anybody else. Ten millions dollars, old man. That's a lot of dollars. It could keep me satisfied for... well for weeks, almost. Are you honestly going to tell me that it doesn't sound tempting to you? Help with the paperwork, old man, and then come along and help me look."
"You and me, in a field, and we're going to find, transport, and fence ten million dollars of probably illegal gold? Amanda..."
"Well it's not just us, no. I'm here with some friends. A couple of American soldiers, who... well the details aren't important just now, are they." She broke off to flash him the most dazzling smile yet, then leaned forward over the desk to give his arm an encouraging squeeze. "Ten million dollars, Methos. Get me some paperwork, see that the authorities don't get in the way when my friends and I start to look. Come with us to make sure that we're not going to do you out of anything. I'd say that a percentage of ten million dollars has got to sound pretty inviting, even to a guy who'd probably just spend it all on beer and clothes that don't seem to fit."
"My clothes fit fine." He glanced down at himself at that comment, and at the comfortably large clothes that he liked to wear. "I just like them to be baggy, that's all."
"Hey, would I be rude about your wardrobe? Look, Methos. I know that you think you're important here, and maybe you are, but this would only be a few days. Maybe not even that long. Plus I'm giving you the chance of looking for something that you actually have a hope in hell of finding. No platitudes, no calming the traumatised and dispossessed. No trying to find new and kinder ways of breaking bad news to the people you're helping. That gold is out there, and I'm going to get it."
"And you don't think it's possible that other people know about it if you do?"
"They might well do, and that's what the hurry is about." She leaned back in her chair, switching back to her glamorous, sophisticated persona as she chose a cigarette from a gleaming, lacquered box, and fitted it into a jet holder. "I don't want some interloper getting their hands on it. That's my gold." Her eyelashes fluttered. "Our gold. Don't tell me you're not tempted, darling."
"Stop calling me darling." He drummed his fingers on the desk, frowning at her through narrowed, suspicious eyes. "Two friends. Soldiers?"
"And they want to help you do something that's sure to be illegal?"
"They were archaeologists before the war. They're interested in finding hidden, expensive things. Goes with the territory. Besides, this isn't illegal, strictly speaking. That gold doesn't belong to anybody."
"I doubt the French or German governments would agree with you there. But even supposing you're right, it's not the kind of thing that archaeologists usually get mixed up with, is it. They usually prefer to dig things up in ancient ruins, where there's no ambiguity about ownership."
"Well nobody ever said that they were good archaeologists." She fluttered her eyelashes again, then pouted when she saw that it wasn't really working. "Methos..."
"Keep your voice down. That's not my name here."
"No, of course it isn't. A different name for every decade, that's you. Can't stick with the same identity for more than five minutes."
"Don't knock it, until you've found a better way to survive as long as I have."
"Oh I'm not doing too badly." She lit her cigarette, then leaned back in her chair and tipped her head back, posing like a movie star in the full knowledge that Stefan was watching her. "Maybe I should have taken this to your friend over there instead? He's cute."
"Stefan wouldn't help you once he found out what you're up to. He'd gape at you, flatter you, and try to take you out to dinner; but once he found out you're looking for Nazi gold he'd go straight to the authorities, and your feet wouldn't touch the ground until they hit the nearest jail cell. Stefan thinks that everything the Nazis had belongs to the people now, and he's probably right. That ten million dollars would make a real difference to the people who come through here."
She sat up straight all of a sudden, all pretence at sophistication gone. "You're not serious?"
"Yes. But that doesn't mean that I intend to turn you in, or redistribute that gold. I may like to play the good guy every now and then, but I'm not that good - as you very well know. Stefan is though. He's lost too many friends in the last few years not to be. He's not the guy to go to with this."
"But you are?"
"I might be." He stared at the many forms and official stamps on his desk, and sighed. Ten million dollars. It was a lot of money, and even if he had settle for a quarter of it, that was a lot of money too. He found himself nodding, even though he still knew nothing about her two associates, or really about the gold itself. "Alright. Meet me tonight at the jazz club, and I'll bring the papers. But I want to meet your friends too."
"I wouldn't expect anything else from the most cautious man in existence." She grinned, and blew out a stream of smoke, copying the famously photographed similar actions of the rich and famous. It was an act that she pulled off well, just like all of the others that she had tried over the years. "Tonight then. Are you playing at the club?"
"Then I'll look forward to it. You're a good friend, Methos."
"Tom, and no I'm not. I'm a pragmatist, and probably a greedy one at that. Don't stand me up."
"I won't. Not until I've got the papers anyway." Her eyelashes fluttered again, almost as if by their own volition. "Goodbye for now then, Tom." And with a puff of white-grey smoke, a toss of her head, and a wiggle of her hips that somehow managed to address itself to Stefan, she was gone. Methos watched her parade herself across the room, almost obscene in the contrast she made against the backdrop of half-starved refugees, and couldn't help smiling. She was incorrigible, and always had been, and he wasn't remotely happy about the things he had agreed to do. But ten million dollars! Maybe that was worth throwing away a few of his recently acquired morals and responsibilities. In his experience, such things usually were.
The jazz club was never the quietest place in town, but when the atmosphere was especially warm it was louder than ever. When Amanda ducked down through the low entrance and got her first look at the place that night, she realised immediately why Methos had suggested it as a meeting place. Even with an old friend he was always cautious, and in this place he could not help but be safe. It was packed. Around the outside of the room there were tables for diners, all with an excellent view of the room, and the full dance floor would have prevented the most agile athlete from having any hope of a quick getaway. The band themselves were at the far end of the room, on a raised stage, with Methos himself at the back. He glanced up as the familiar buzz of approaching Immortality reached him, but they didn't have any kind of sustained eye contact. He merely returned his attentions to his playing, and Amanda had no choice but to find a table. A waiter came over with a menu, and she and her two archaeologists ordered drinks. They had attracted some considerable attention she realised, for she was easily the most expensively dressed person in the club. Most of the other patrons were tired looking locals, or soldiers and medics in uniform, and Amanda basked in the glory of sudden notoriety. It was good to be noticed, especially since the glamorous attire that she currently wore was extremely effective as a disguise. Methos had proved that earlier in the day, when he had completely failed to recognise her until she had been sitting right in front of him. With the make up and carefully styled hair gone, and with a less expensive suit of clothes, nobody would look twice at her. Covering her tracks was second nature to Amanda after a thousand years as a thief, and she did it now as a matter of course.
"Why here?" asked one of her companions. She smiled at him, lighting up a cigarette as she did so. She didn't especially like the things, but they seemed to go well with her outfit, and she enjoyed using the gleaming black cigarette holder.
"Because he's paranoid, and he can feel safe somewhere like this." She watched some of the young couples gyrating about the dance floor, and wondered what sort of thing they might have in their pockets. A confident pick pocket could do well on a dance floor, when nobody was thinking about their wallets, and nobody was surprised if somebody bumped against them as they moved about. It took an effort to remind herself that she wasn't here for the thieving.
"Makes sense." The second of her companions looked about without any obvious enthusiasm. "Crowded places are good for hiding a conversation. He tell you what time he gets off stage?"
"No." She smiled up at the waiter as he brought her the drink that she had ordered, then settled back to enjoy it with a warm smile on her face. This was a nice club, friendly and warm, and although cramped it felt comfortable enough. She didn't mind having to wait.
In the event Methos didn't keep them waiting for long. About fifteen minutes after they had entered, the band's set came to an end, and he wove his way entirely immodestly through the loudly clapping audience. Amanda smiled a greeting, then gestured to the beer that she had ordered for him.
"Sounded good," she commented. He nodded.
"Thankyou. I thought so." His murky green eyes drifted over the two mortal men. "These are your archaeologists I assume?"
"Yes." She pushed a chair out from under the table. "Sit down, old man. Relax. We can talk things through properly then."
"I never relax when you're around." He sat down though, sipping his beer with the slightly suspicious frown of a man who probably thought he was about to be drugged. When the beer turned out not to have been spiked he drank more deeply, and turned his sharp gaze back to the two mortals. They looked innocent enough, which by his reckoning was a definite danger sign. People who looked innocent were generally anything but.
They were in their thirties, probably. Mid to late thirties most likely, dressed in rumpled suits of good material, with shoes well polished and cared for. The taller of the two had an athletic build and neatly Brylcreemed hair, and wore an expensive looking pocket watch on a gold chain. His companion was a little more heavy set, with a receding hairline, and what looked suspiciously like the bulge of a shoulder holster beneath the jacket of his suit. Amanda introduced the taller one as Simon and the heavier one as Claude. Neither of them looked especially glad to be making his acquaintance.
"So. Now." Amanda was eager for the off, as always, her enthusiasm for her latest project making it seem more of a game than a real, and potentially difficult, task. "We need permits. We need to make sure that the authorities don't mind us moving about the countryside, and that they don't object to us going on a treasure hunt and keeping what we find."
"You can have all the permits available, but if the authorities find out what it is that you've found, they'll still try to take it away. Ten million dollars in gold will have that sort of effect."
"I'll say." She smiled at him, completely unconcerned. "But we'll get the stuff away before anybody causes any trouble. You can get us a lorry, can't you?"
"Will it fit in only one lorry?" He shrugged. "But yes, I can get transport. I can probably get you some extra petrol vouchers too, depending on how far you want to take the stuff. What happens afterwards?"
"We take it to the coast. Smuggling is always fun, or at least it always used to be. Customs agents tend to be less entertaining nowadays, but that's progress I suppose."
"And anyway, a sea voyage at this time of year could be fun."
"Fun? The English Channel in winter?" He rolled his eyes. "Whatever. Just don't expect me to be on board. I've sworn off boats."
"No need to worry. We should have got the money by then, so we won't need to go with the stuff." She took his arm. "Oh Meth-- Well. We really appreciate this, Tom. Don't we."
"Yes." Neither Simon nor Claude, speaking in unison, sounded remotely grateful. Simon smiled a tight smile, and sipped rather stiffly at his whisky.
"How long do you think it will take you to get the paperwork done, Mr...?"
"London. And I can get it done right away. You can collect it all tomorrow I should think." He frowned, glancing from one to another of them. "Then what happens?"
"Take a quick drive, grab the gold, another quick drive - and we're all rather better off than we are right now." Amanda, of course, had the razor sharp mind of a criminal who almost never put a foot wrong, but she had a habit of acting like a child. Some people found it appealing; Methos wasn't one of them.
"How long a drive? And how long will it take to grab the gold?"
"We're going near the German border, like I said. Alsace. The gold itself? Well, that shouldn't take long. We know where it is, so we just need to move it. There'll be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing of course, but if we put our backs into it then it won't be too bad. Other than that I suppose it just depends on who else is looking."
"Who else?" It was just like it always was with her - the hint of fun, the promise of something very like a game - then suddenly a heavy blow back to reality. "Just who else is likely to be looking for it?"
"One or two people. Maybe." Amanda's smile was somewhere between childlike innocence and sultry insinuation. "Oh come on, Tommy. Don't tell me you're afraid of a little competition?"
"Depends on the competition. If we're talking rabid Nazis wanting to rebuild the Reich, you can find your own permits, and do your own treasure hunting." His deceptively temperate eyes swivelled to stare at Simon and Claude. "Same goes for gangs of rabid archaeologists. I don't like it when people point weapons at me."
"We don't need your help." It was possibly meant only as a statement of fact, but Claude couched it as a threat. Methos raised an eyebrow.
"Amanda's one hell of a forger. I've seen her at work, and she can get us any paperwork we need."
"But you're forgetting." Methos leaned forward slightly, the smallest of smiles barely raising his lips, yet filling his eyes with a faintly mocking glow of amusement. "I know what you're up to. One word from me, and you're all in the nearest jail cell. If you're lucky they'll just deport you back to the States, but you could find that the authorities take rather a dim view of thieves and looters just at the moment. There's a hell of a lot to fix in Europe, and disruptive factions are apt to get rather stung." His smile grew a notch, and his eyes hardened. "And don't think about getting me out of the way. Amanda will tell you that I'm surprisingly hard to kill."
"Very true." Amanda was nodding slowly, her eyes warm and bright. "And besides, I want him on board, so he's with us. If I wanted to forge the documents I'd have done it. I want Tom in this because I trust him."
"You do?" Methos was surprised, and Amanda laughed at him.
"Well no, not really. But I am fairly sure that you're not likely to try to kill me, which is more than I can say for my colleagues here. With you around I have an extra pair of eyes on my side, I can stop looking over my shoulder, and if it means we all get smaller shares, then I don't care. Finding you here was a godsend, Tommy."
"That remains to be seen." Simon clicked his fingers to summon the waiter. "I still don't see how some guy who works in a refugee centre can really be any use to us."
"Try this." Methos steepled his fingers, granting the archaeologist a gentle smile only slightly frosted by his growing dislike. "Chances are you can pull this off without even being asked for a permit, at least until you take the gold to the coast. But what if something happens? What if somebody's a little more observant than they usually are? Do you know what colour the permits issued in this region are? Of course you do, Amanda's eyes were all over the place when she came to visit me this morning, for just that reason. But what about the colour of the permits for Alsace? For being on a commercial, rather than a personal, mission? For being foreign nationals? Do you know what signatures all those different papers need? You can be the greatest forger in the world - and Amanda might just be that - but you can't do anything without knowing what you're copying. You need somebody inside that office, and I'm the only one who wouldn't go straight to the authorities. Those others have all got a personal stake in all of this. They've lost relatives, friends, possessions. They've seen their countries invaded and occupied. They're committed to making sure that nobody takes advantage of this mess."
"Then I suppose we're lucky that you're cut from different stuff." Simon's voice was level, but there was a faint colour to it; the suggestion of an insult. Methos' eyes went deathly cold, though the expression on his face didn't waver.
"I suppose we are," he said equably. Amanda flashed him a sympathetic smile, but Claude was frowning.
"You're sorry that you didn't lose anybody in the war?" he asked. Methos allowed him a smile that might have meant anything, or might have hidden a lot more.
"Or maybe I'm sorry that I don't care enough for it to matter." He drained the last of his beer. "I'll see you at the office tomorrow, Amanda - and I want to hear everything this time. Whoever else is after this gold, who it really belongs to, and what you're really planning to do with it. Understood?"
"Of course." She fluttered her lashes, all childish playfulness, and he knew that his irritation was all a part of the fun for her. Getting him involved, winding him up, toying with two clearly duplicitous partners - it was all to add extra spice to her eventual seizing of this haul of gold. Great. Just great. No chance of this being anything like straightforward, then. Contenting himself with a glare more fierce than usual, he put his glass down with needless force, stood up and headed off across the club. Dancing patrons moved aside for him, cheering and calling his name in recognition of his relative celebrity, but he barely nodded to acknowledge them. He was thinking about Amanda. He should tell the proper authorities and get her stopped. Save himself needless strain, stress and danger. Teach her a lesson. Get her two unpleasant accomplices in prison where they undoubtedly belonged. It made sense. In fact it made no sense at all not to do all that. Except...
Ten million dollars in gold. He smiled to himself, and imagined that much gleaming yellow stuff, all laid out before him. Ten million dollars. He had seen more. Owned more. Lost more. Stolen more. Killed and been killed for considerably less. It had an appeal, though, and it was enough to separate him from his common sense. After all, a man could do a lot with a share of ten million dollars - and a whole lot more with all of it. It wasn't as though Amanda wouldn't be expecting him to try to double-cross her; she would be planning to do the same to him as well. All in all it could prove to be a profitable association.
Something prickled in his subconscious as he left the club; some tingle in the furthest reaches of his sixth sense. A hint of danger ahead? Perhaps. He almost slowed; almost began to think things through again. And didn't. Why worry when his life couldn't possibly be at risk? Ten million dollars in gold... It was enough, apparently, to upturn even the most level of heads.
When Amanda arrived at the office the following day she found Methos already at work on the permits. Stefan greeted her with a little bow and a big grin, and she smiled at him warmly. He had sad eyes, she decided; the eyes of somebody who had seen too much in such a short space of time, and had probably lost far too many friends. He had bounced back, though, the way that mortals seemed almost invariably to do, and had turned grief to a determined drive to put things right. She might have respected him - did respect him - but for the fact that he could be dangerous. Methos was right; people like this would never help her to get that gold.
"There's really nothing he can do for you that I can't, you know." All but fluttering his eyelashes, Stefan made a playful stab at diverting her towards his own desk. She smiled anew.
"Probably. But he's been working so hard. It wouldn't be fair to jump ship now."
"Oh, Tom doesn't mind. He's the understanding kind. Besides, if there's one thing you should know about Tom London, it's that he's fiercely allergic to work. He'd be grateful if I took you off his hands. Honestly. He'd much rather be putting his feet up."
"I don't doubt it." She shrugged, apparently apologetic. "But I rather like him. Sorry."
"Oh it's alright. There's no accounting for taste, after all." He jerked a thumb over towards his desk. "But you know where I am, if you change your mind."
"Thanks." She went past him, smiling faintly at his enthusiasm, and was still smiling when she reached Methos' desk. He looked up at her, frowning in suspicion the moment that he saw the upwards turn of her lips.
"You're up to something," he accused her. She shrugged.
"I'm always up to something."
"Yes, I know. Sit down."
"Ever the gentleman."
"You know my opinion of chivalry." He used his foot to push the chair out from under the desk, and she sat down with a display of primness that almost made him smile.
"Chivalry can be a wonderful thing. Your problem is just that you've always been on the wrong side of it. You should try spending a thousand years as a woman."
"No thanks." He indicated a sheaf of papers on his desk. There seemed to be dozens of them, all different colours, with different stamps and headings and typefaces. "Papers confirming who you are," he announced, indicating the first few. "Papers saying why you're here, where you're going, and what you're allegedly going to be doing when you get there. Permission to do it. Travel papers, permission to transport what you find, and anything you need to get yourselves out of the country afterwards." He put the papers down so that they would be just out of her reach unless she stretched for them. "So. Whose gold is it, who else is after it, and what are you going to do with it?"
"You never trust anybody, do you."
"Never." He folded his arms, trying not to look too cross. That was fatal with Amanda; it only made her tease all the more. She smiled at him, in her infuriatingly nonchalant manner, and gestured expansively and casually.
"The gold was originally found in a secret wine cellar hidden beneath a French chateau; or so my information goes. A group of Nazi soldiers found it there. Whoever had it was obviously holding it in secret, so it could well have been stolen even back then."
"It might have been hidden for years, waiting for the heat to die down after a robbery. There have been a lot of gold robberies over the years. It might even have been around for centuries."
"It was. There's some local legend about a treasure stash in just that area, supposedly hidden by some dastardly landowner in the sixteenth century. For all I know it was a perfectly legitimate haul, but at any rate he's not going to lay claim to it now, is he. The chateau has changed hands a hundred times since then, and had been abandoned for some years before the war, so there's no way of knowing if the gold even has any genuinely legitimate owners."
"And even if it does, there's no way that they can know about it, is there."
"I don't know. You found it."
"Only by chance. I was posing as a war correspondent out with some American troops, and a German prisoner was brought in. He happened to mention it. Fortunately I was sitting in on the interrogation."
"Which was being carried out by a certain pair of alleged archaeologists?"
"Exactly. Not that their archaeological credentials are in any doubt. It's what they did before they joined up... which, now that I think of it, was probably a good way of avoiding charges over something. Anyway, we got to talking afterwards, and I might have let slip that I've been involved in... one or two illegal operations now and again. They deserted and came with me the very next day."
"Deserters? And you trust them?"
"Of course I don't trust them! I've already told you that much. But don't act so high and mighty, you old hypocrite. Don't tell me you've never been a deserter?"
"I do my damnedest not to join armies in the first place, but yes I've deserted. I ran out on a Mongol army I was conscripted into about a thousand years ago, and there was a thing over in Greece a few millennia back. That's different though. I never did it in the hope of stealing some gold and slitting the throat of my hugely vexing lady associate. That I remember."
"Lady? I seem to have gone up in your estimate."
"I was being polite." He sighed. "Look, Amanda. Seriously now. Is anybody else after this gold?"
"I can't say for sure. The gold was re-hidden by the same group of German soldiers who found it in the first place. Several of them are now dead, the one we got the story from is still in custody, and there's two others who are probably still at large somewhere. As far as we know they'd been planning to keep the gold for themselves, rather than handing it over to the Fatherland, so they're probably just opportunists. It shouldn't be hard to discourage them, and if the worst comes to the worst and we have to fight it out, so what? This is a totally no-risk situation for us, Methos. Nobody is going to have swords. It'll be all bullets if there's even a fight at all."
"I never consider anything to be no-risk." He shook his head. "It seems... dubious. Either you're still holding something back, or you don't know the full story yourself. Either way, I'm sure it can't be as easy as you're making it out to be."
"Why not? Good luck enjoys my company, Methos. These little opportunities love popping up and batting their lashes at me. Why do you always have to be such a grouch?"
"Because I'm always the sensible one, that's why. And good luck does not enjoy your company all that much. What about that time in Russia when you were caught in the Czar's private treasury?"
"That wasn't due to bad luck. That was due to a revolting little guard who was sulking because I wouldn't go to bed with him. But anyway, we're all allowed to have things go a little wrong occasionally. Doesn't alter the fact that this is an easy run all the way. We know where the gold is, we've got you to smooth out any official difficulties... It'll be easy, Methos. And after it we'll be ten million dollars richer. We'll leave Simon and Claude tied up in a ditch somewhere, and the pair of us will split the gold between us."
"Or you'll bash me over the head as soon as I take my eyes off you, and you'll take the whole ten million for yourself."
"That is always a possibility, yes. All adds spice to the mix, doesn't it, darling."
"Don't call me darling." He sighed, looking at the collection of papers and permits, and sighed again. It really would be simpler to tell her just to get lost. He'd have wasted all those hours of patient collating, forging and rubber-stamping, but at least he'd be sure of his neck. Still, there was always the chance that it would be Amanda who would accidentally turn her back on him - and then it would be him making off with the gold. He smiled resignedly, and pushed the papers across to her.
"Those papers name me as one of the party, so don't go thinking of skipping town before I can meet you."
"We're not going right now?"
"No. I need to sort out the transport. I'll meet you tonight. Where are you staying?"
"A little inn, called the Tricolour. Looks like it was renamed after the Liberation. Red, white and blue paint all over the place."
"I know it. It's not far from the jazz club. Okay, I'll meet you there at eight. You'd better be there."
"We will." She stood up, leaning over to shake his hand for the benefit of anybody else who might be watching. "Well thankyou for your time, Mr London. I appreciate it."
"It was no trouble." He shook the hand, resisting the urge to slap it away and tell her to stop attracting attention. "Good day."
"And yourself." She turned smartly on her heel, leaving the room with the sort of precise, swaying walk guaranteed to draw the eye of almost any male present. Methos rolled his eyes. Confounded woman. She was one of the great constancies of immortality - always infuriating the way that Kronos was always crazy, and Connor MacLeod was always honest.
But admittedly she did have her uses.
They made their start just after nine, in a noisy, rumbling convoy of two khaki trucks that had once been the property of the American army. By the time Methos had paid off the young clerk who had delivered the second one to the Tricolour, and Amanda had dug her two pet archaeologists out of a nearby bar, a frost was already beginning to settle. They loaded their equipment quickly, and rolled out of town almost bumper to bumper. It wasn't through any lack of trust, for the two archaeologists, who were bringing up the rear, didn't seem to have considered the possibility that Amanda might be planning to double-cross them. Either they didn't believe that a woman would be capable of doing so, or they trusted in her endless flirting, and genuinely believed that she was in their control. Methos found it rather funny, but then it had been a long, long time since he had trusted in Amanda's word.
"You want to drive through the night?" he asked her, as he wrestled with an argumentative steering wheel on rough ground just outside town. She shrugged.
"It doesn't really make much difference. We're not in that much of a hurry, but it might be sensible to get it over and done with as quickly as possible."
"Before your two friendly neighbourhood Nazis get in there first?"
"If they do we can always snatch it back off them." Clearly she was unconcerned about any of the possibilities. "Which is what we can do if those two back there try the same thing. Knowing them they'll put a bullet in us both and make a run for it. They'd hardly be expecting us to head them off, would they."
"You'll pardon me if I don't get enthusiastic about anything that involves me getting shot."
"Old woman. Anyway, it's hardly my fault that they're here. I couldn't make a move without them, since they were the ones who interrogated that German prisoner. It seemed easier to keep them close. Just don't worry about it. They won't try anything until we've found the gold. They'd be fools to halve their manpower when we don't know what we might be coming up against."
"Two ex-Nazis shouldn't put up too much of a fight."
"Might not be alone, though, might they." She settled back into her seat. "This is nice. Clear night, starry sky, big moon. You should be serenading me with hopelessly romantic songs."
"Because it's what men do in these situations."
"Oh." He shrugged, still wrestling with the wheel. "I can't say that I ever have. Besides, before you go serenading people, shouldn't you actually be in love with them?"
"I've never really thought about it. On the whole people just like the whole romance thing, and to hell with the details." She glared at him. "And do I take that to mean that you're not in love with me?"
"Of course I'm bloody not. Happily I don't even know you all that well. And don't pretend to look so hurt."
"I am hurt." Clearly she wasn't in the slightest. "After all that I've done for you. And of course, I'm hopelessly in love with you myself. I'd always harboured secret hopes that--"
"Shut up, Amanda."
"If I must." She leaned on the door, gazing out of the window and up at the broad expanse of heavily star-sprinkled sky. "It is nice, though, isn't it. Before the war, the world was starting to get so light that you'd never see the stars in the cities. That's one thing that I will miss about the war. Blackouts make everything so much more pretty."
"I doubt that many Londoners would agree with you. And Paris has been itching to light itself back up again. New York never stopped I suppose."
"Not really. There was worry of course, because of what happened at Pearl Harbour, but it's not like there was ever any Blitz to contend with." She rolled down the window for a moment, in order to better admire the stars, then hurriedly rolled it back up again. "It's cold out there."
"I hear that it often is at this time of year. So what does a grumpy old man like you do at Christmas, Methos?"
"I drink beer and eat oranges, and try to hide from carol singers. Not that there have been many to hide from the last few years."
"And the New Year?"
"I try not to remember too much of the past. And I drink beer." He shrugged, and fought briefly with the gear stick. "I've spent the majority of my life in a world where Christmas didn't exist and the New Year either didn't happen, or happened in a different month. And aren't we supposed to be talking about how not to get shot by your friends?"
"No. Annoying you is far more entertaining." She craned her neck to look back at the second truck. "I wonder what they're talking about."
"How best to shoot us and when."
"Methos... shut up. Do you want this gold or don't you?"
"I wouldn't say no to the gold, no. But given that I have to fight those two for it, and avoid getting robbed by you as well, my enthusiasm is currently rather limited."
"Oh, look on the bright side. I might not try to double-cross you."
"How many times have we both wound up within reach of something valuable at the same time?"
"Maybe three times?"
"And how many times have you tried to double-cross me over something valuable that we've both wound up within reach of at the same time?"
"Maybe three times? But that's no reason to assume the worst, darling. Perhaps I'm reformed."
"Yes, you and the flying pigs both." He glanced at the rear view mirror. "We should have made them go first. I don't like having them behind us. Wanting extra manpower seems a pretty slim reason for not trying to kill us just yet."
"Oh there's more to it than that. They need me at least, for the time being. I'm the museum representative, remember? I made sure that I made as much noise about that in public places as I could. Whatever gets dug up belongs to me in the eyes of the law. They'll never get the gold out of the country without me; and they won't get a good price for it here."
"Maybe they're not planning to try just yet. And don't be so confident about your right to the stuff. I've already warned you about what could happen if the authorities see it. The assumption will be that it's more of the Nazis' 'redistributed' wealth. The Allies will have their own ideas about where it belongs."
"Which probably wouldn't be with the people they think it's been stolen from."
"Probably not. But it won't be with us, either. I know you find it very difficult to be even remotely low key, Amanda, but this might be a really good time to get some practice in."
"Because I'm such an amateur at this."
"No. But you do like attracting attention. Remember that you have to be a museum curator, not a jewel thief. That means if we meet anybody, you don't go flirting with them, don't go flaunting what you're stealing, and don't pick everybody's pockets just for effect. Museum curators tend to be too well behaved for all that."
"Only the less interesting ones. I've met a few in my time who'd raise your eyebrows. Not all tweed and dusty artefacts you know."
"Please don't enthrall me with the details." He glanced at the wing mirror. "Amanda, how many sets of headlamps can you see?"
"Um... one." She frowned, looking again. "No, two. Well, it is a public thoroughfare. It's not like we have exclusive access rights."
"They're coming up pretty fast."
"Yes, they are, aren't they." Her eyes narrowed. "Trouble?"
"You're the one who knows about our rivals. What do you think?"
"I think trouble." She scowled. "And it's such a lovely night, too."
"Our Nazi friends?"
"Almost certainly. I thought I'd lost them in the Russian section of Berlin, but they're obviously better at this than I gave them credit for."
"What the hell were you doing in Russian Berlin?"
"Whatever it was, something tells me this isn't the time to discuss it."
"For once you might be right." He wrenched the wheel violently around. "Damn. They got past your friends easily enough. Do you have a gun?"
"Me?" She looked shocked. "Why would I have a gun?"
"Oh, alright." With the sort of faintly sulky expression that told him the gun had been supposed to remain a secret until she came to use it on him, she pulled the weapon from inside her coat. It was a chunky Russian model, with notches on its barrel, and he wondered briefly who it had belonged to during the war. He didn't think about it for long. Glancing once again at his wing mirror, he saw that the suspect vehicle was now almost bumper to bumper with his own. He wrenched the wheel over again to stop it from attempting to pass, and glowered heavily at the road.
"I suppose they might be innocent," he commented, just before a bullet vaporised the glass in his wing mirror. He jumped.
"Accelerator!" Turning around in her seat, Amanda tried first to peer out through the back of the truck, then gave up to use her window instead. "And steer to the left! I can't get a good shot off!"
"Where the hell are your friends?"
"Where do you think?" She fired a shot out of the window, then reappeared looking decidedly dishevelled. "It's windy out there."
"Looking concerned might be encouraging." He began to pull the wheel from left to right in an attempt to keep the road blocked. Another gunshot rose above the sound of the engine, and the windshield cracked alarmingly. "Oh great."
"Keep driving erratically." She began to climb over the seats so that she could get into the back of the truck. Methos stared at her in amazement.
"Are you mad? Amanda, there are people with guns out there!"
"Which is why we were wanting to shoot back, remember? I can't do anything out of the window." She patted him on the back, then flinched as another bullet zipped past them both. "If I get shot, keep driving. If I fall out I can always catch up with you later, but I'll be damned if I'll let them get ahead."
"Whatever happens, just keep driving!"
"And I suppose--" He broke off to duck as a bullet took a large chunk out of the back of his seat. "I suppose you're not going to bother telling me just where it is that I'm meant to be driving to?! I'm working blind here!"
"Oh." She frowned briefly. "I suppose I'd better not fall out then."
She waved him a little farewell, then stumbled away through the back of the wildly rocking vehicle. Through the canvas back she could see a car behind; a chunky, dark blue machine, with a swarthy-looking type at the wheel. His accomplice was leaning out of the window, shouting something inaudible, a Luger pointed directly at Amanda's zigzagging shape. She ducked.
"Shoot back, damn it!" Having only narrowly escaped losing a finger to the bullet, Methos had to struggle to regain control of the wheel, which had received a direct hit. Several instruments on the dashboard had ceased to exist, but he was willing to live without a speedometer. He had left the speed limit behind long ago, anyway.
"Stop hitting every damn bump in the road!" she yelled back at him, but either he failed to hear, or just couldn't hope to comply. It was a rough road, and he did not really have the luxury of picking the best route down it. Another bullet tore through the canvas just beside her, and she threw herself to the side out of sheer instinct. With luck Methos would stay un-hit, or they risked losing their scant lead. If anybody was going to be run off the road, she resolved, it was going to be these two men in their chunky blue car. She tried to spot her two associates, but there was no sign of them on the road. She hadn't heard any crashes, so she was assuming that they were still in one piece, but clearly they weren't about to risk their necks to help her. Thinking furious thoughts she sent three bullets into the car, but the combination of rough road and wild driving spoiled her usually excellent aim. The first bullet bounced harmlessly off the front bumper, the second hit the roof, and the third carved a deep, diagonal channel across the bonnet. She cursed loudly.
"Did you hit anything?" called back Methos. She scowled, and muttered unpleasant things under her breath.
"Not quite!" The man in the car behind fired back at her, and this time she felt the passage of the bullet as it all but scraped the hair from the top of her head.
"Then try harder!" He hurled the wheel around again as he yelled, completely throwing off her aim despite his insistence that she do better. Steeling herself against the side of the truck, and steadying her arm as best she could, she squeezed off another bullet. It hit the radiator, and for a second she was hopeful, until she realised that it must merely have glanced off. She scowled. In the car behind her assailant threw aside his empty gun and snatched up a replacement, identical in appearance, that lay within easy reach.
"Damn." With no choice but to duck back down and take the time to reload her own gun, she listened to the shots that rang out above her head. The windscreen finally shattered, and Methos swore loudly enough to suggest that he had been hit somewhere. Damn it all, where were Simon and Claude? They might not be the two most dependable men on the planet, but they had army training, and ought to be useful in a situation like this. They could turn the tide, and send these two men packing. Amanda might have nothing to fear from their guns, or from anything else that they could do, but she had no intention of being bested by them. Falling backwards to avoid the latest volley of gunshots, she whipped up her own gun and fired off as many bullets as her weapon could hold. Something made a satisfying crunching, metallic noise, and she was sure that she had hit some part of the enemy car - but by now her own vehicle was veering across the road with a new kind of erratic motion. Before, Methos had been trying to avoid being shot - now it was becoming increasingly clear that he had been. As she reloaded her gun once again, she crawled a little closer to the front seat and called him. He didn't answer.
"Methos, I don't care if you've been shot in the head! Just keep this thing on the road, and stay ahead of these people!" This time he growled something in reply, and she smiled in satisfaction. She didn't recognise the language, but whatever he had said sounded rude. He was conscious, then, and would stay that way for at least as long as he was angry. Another bullet hit the floor of the truck less than an inch from her hand, and it was her turn to curse.
"Won't these people take a hint?!" She crawled back, and had to throw herself to the floor to avoid a new volley. "You alright up there, Methos?" This time the answer was immediate - and in English, and most definitely extremely rude. She considered responding in kind, but instead saved her own rude words for breathless muttering, pointed in the general direction of whatever mortals were in the immediate vicinity.
"Just shoot the bastards, will you?" Raising his voice with difficulty, Methos shouted the words at her with most of the strength that he had, and the vehicle wobbled furiously in return. Amanda was thrown violently to one side, and had to cling to the framework of the truck for fear of being thrown out. Methos coughed out what might have been an apology, but might equally well have been his last breath, and the truck began to slow. Amanda crawled towards the rear - and certain that they were about to crash to a halt at the side of the road, emptied her gun at the car behind. The already smoking radiator gushed up a cloud of boiling steam, the front crumpled, and the car veered away. She watched it smash into a tree, and threw the gun to the floor in tired relief. So much for her shooting skills. Time for more practice, apparently.
"They gone?" Up in the front, Methos was struggling to bring the truck up to speed again. She nudged him into the passenger seat, and took over the wheel herself.
"They're gone. Still no sign of our highly supportive back up, though."
"Beware mortal archaeologists bearing gold hunting equipment." He spat blood on to the floor, and groaned. "I've been shot, you know."
"I hate being shot."
"I know." She offered him a sympathetic smile that was not particularly genuine. "Where did they get you?"
"Lung, I think. One of them, anyway. And an arm."
"Oh well. You've got two of each." She smiled again, encouragingly this time. "Healed yet?"
"I'm coughing up blood, Amanda. Doesn't that tell you anything?"
"It suggests a certain tardiness, yes. And a lack of basic hygiene, quite possibly."
"People are usually sympathetic when other people get shot."
"Not when it's Immortals getting shot. Now pull yourself together. We've still got a long drive ahead of us."
"And more Nazis with guns?"
"Possibly." She smiled one of her sparkle-eyed smiles. "But a challenge is always a good bit of fun, isn't it."
"Not when it involves being shot, no. When all this started, I don't remember anybody saying anything about high-speed chases, and me being shot in the lung by angry Nazis."
"I did mention Nazis."
"Yes, but not that they'd be angry, shooting Nazis! They're supposed to be demobbed by now, and locked up where necessary; not speeding about the countryside trying to shoot me."
"Gold attracts that kind of behaviour."
"And that's another thing. When did this get so complicated? It started out as 'there's some buried gold, come and help me dig it up.' Now it's all angry Nazis, and shooting."
"Shut up about the shooting, and I did warn you--"
"I always seem to get shot when I spend time with other Immortals."
"Probably because you always seem to be stealing things." She grinned at him merrily. "I know it tends to be when I'm stealing things that I get shot at."
"Am I stealing something?"
"Well in all honesty this gold isn't exactly ours, is it."
"Actually I was under the impression that it didn't really belong to anybody, but maybe you were lying about that too." He scowled. "Great. This is just great. Your two friends are obviously trying to pull something, I'm betting that you're planning to double-cross me, because I know that I've been planning double-cross you, and now there's angry, shooting Nazis in the way, too. Does whoever actually gets this gold win some sort of medal?"
"No..." She shrugged. "But I suppose you could use some of the gold to make one. If you really wanted."
"I'm not really that much of a goldsmith."
"I'm not bad." She nudged him. "And I am the one who's going to be getting the gold."
"Yeah? Because right now I'm betting on the angry Nazis. And on whatever other obstacles there are that you haven't told me about yet."
"I like to keep you on your toes."
"Meaning that there's a lot more I should know."
"Meaning that I wanted your help and still do. And that if I told you the truth you'd probably never have come." She steered the truck to the side of the road, and jolted it to a standstill. "Two heads are generally better than one, even when one of the heads is yours. And this isn't going to be easy, you know."
"I had actually guessed that, yes."
"Yes... I'm sorry about the, er..." She gestured at the drying blood that covered his shirt. "The lung, and what not. But you shouldn't be such an easy target."
"It's not easy to duck when you have your back turned to the people doing the shooting, and you're trying to drive a bloody great truck at the time."
"If you're really as old as you say you are, you should have picked up any number of odd skills by now." She grinned at his sharply raised eyebrow. "I'm sorry, Methos. It's just that the real story is all a bit odd, and I wasn't sure that you'd believe it."
"Yes, alright. Well the gold wasn't exactly found in the cellar of a chateau. Or rather it was, but not the way you might think. The cellar is unreachable from the chateau itself; the only access is through a long tunnel that opens out a few miles from the main building, which eventually leads back to the house. All part of some elaborate security system, and something of a local legend. The place was owned by a rather eccentric, impossibly rich type back in the sixteenth century."
"Get to the point."
"Yes. Well, supposedly the gold is cursed. It's all detailed in local folklore, although most locals nowadays don't actually believe that there ever was any gold, let alone that it was cursed. Some Nazi soldiers posted nearby heard about the tale and obviously believed it, and they set out to find the tunnel. It took quite a lot of effort, according to the POW I told you about. Amongst other things there was something about booby-traps."
"Booby-traps? Why didn't you mention that bit before? Or were you hoping to send me on ahead and find out where all the pitfalls are?"
"Well, it would certainly have been handy if you had tried to sneak in first..." She grinned. "Anyway, these soldiers were planning to take the gold and keep it until after the war - or until their first proper chance at desertion. Then they were going to use it to make a good getaway, and start up a new life somewhere else. It was late in the war, and they were fairly sure by then that Germany wasn't going to win - or maybe they just weren't loyal Nazis, we didn't really discuss that bit."
"And assuming that this bit about a curse is relevant, they took the gold, and soon after things started to go wrong, I suppose?"
"That's about the size of it. The tales goes that anybody who takes the gold out of the tunnel, and isn't its rightful owner, brings down the full weight of the curse. General unpleasantness, loss of life... I'm sure you know the sort of thing. It was so bad that these particular soldiers decided to take the gold back, and return it to the place that they'd got it from. Of the seven that originally took the gold, two died before they returned it, and two never made it out of the tunnel alive. The other three didn't go down with them to put the stuff back. They were keeping watch, and that POW was convinced that that's what saved their lives."
"There's a long and noble history of gold being hidden in secret places, from which only a few people return. It's got nothing to do with curses, and everything to do with wanting bigger shares. You know that."
"Yes. This German soldier though - the one that I spoke to - he said a lot more than that."
"Ancient gods? Black cats and broomsticks?"
"No. He said that the gold was defended by something other than traps and curses. Some kind of guardian. He wouldn't say what, but one of their number was an amateur practitioner. Herbs and potions and things done at midnight. You know. Apparently he cast spells before they went into the tunnel, and swore that it was the only reason they'd been able to get the gold out. Later, when they'd got the gold, he was the first to die."
"When people involved in a robbery start dying, again it's rarely to do with curses. It's that 'bigger shares' thing again."
"I know that. I'm not saying that I believe any of this, necessarily. I'm just telling you the full story, like you wanted. At any rate this would-be sorcerer and his charms weren't there when the others took the gold back. And that's where the story ends. The POW wouldn't say anything else. I think he was too scared." She shrugged. "So... what do you think?"
"Of all of that? I don't know. Unless you've spent the last thousand years with your eyes shut, you'll know that there's a lot in this world that can't be explained. But curses and guardians watching over gold buried deep in the French countryside? It doesn't sound very likely. Why didn't you tell me any of this earlier?"
"Because I know how it sounds! I'm as open-minded as any Immortal with a few centuries behind them - but it just seemed easier to say that the gold was down a hole, and leave it at that."
"True. I suppose. And those two soldiers who came after us?"
"I have a sneaking suspicion that they were the last two members of the gang, trying to warn us off, not beat us to the boodle."
"Oh great. The German army spends six years energetically trying to kill me, and then decides to save my life by shooting at me. They really believe all this stuff then? And Simon and Claude?"
"Simon and Claude don't believe a word of it. Mortals are a sceptical bunch, you know that. They don't live long enough to be otherwise. Anyway, that's the truth, at least as far as I know it. If all this is true, we could have worse than soldiers with guns to fight off before this is over. Still interested?" She fluttered her eyelashes at him, slipping back into the flirtatious behaviour that she knew would annoy him greatly. Sure enough he glared.
"Let's just find the damn stuff, shall we? I'll worry about curses when the gold's in sight. Shiny yellow stuff has a habit of making most problems seem much smaller." He flexed the arm that had been shot, and clearly passed it fit for duty. "Want me to take the wheel again?"
"If you like. I was thinking we should be looking out for our friends."
"Our heroic companions under fire? Yes, I suppose we should find out what happened to them." He stood up. "Come on. Switch places and I'll see if I can't make up some lost time. They know where we're going, don't they?"
"Don't they just." She frowned suddenly, abandoning her previous playfulness. "Put your foot down, old man. I'll be damned if I'll let them get there first!"
"They can't hope to get the gold up, loaded and driven away before we reach them. Why worry about who gets there first? That's taking 'finders, keepers' to a new extreme, isn't it?"
"It's the principle of the thing." She slid into the passenger seat, and tried to look even more innocent than usual. "I'm cross with them now."
"Fair enough. But it could be that it's booby traps we really have to worry about. Trip wires connected to giant swords designed to behead unwary thieves. I've seen some cunning set ups in my time. Some of those ancient tombs--"
"This is France, not the legendary mines of King Solomon." She pointed at the road ahead. "Just drive, Methos. Worry about the details when we're underground. All I want to think about now is making sure that Claude and Simon know who's in charge around here."
"And the curse?"
"For ten million dollars in gold I'm willing to put up with a little bad luck." She flashed him a smile that was fifty percent flirtation and fifty percent wicked humour. "Aren't you?"
Claude and Simon reappeared towards midday, their truck rumbling and clattering over the rough road, Simon's perpetually sour face gazing without enthusiasm through the windshield. Apparently he had been hoping that his two associates had been shot, which was hardly a surprise. Neither mortal was any more trustworthy than the Immortals themselves. Methos glowered.
"Couldn't they have done the decent thing and crashed somewhere?"
"They're not so bad." Amanda was in high spirits again, now that they had made up for lost time and been reunited with their associates. Methos made a face.
"They ran out on us and left us to be shot. You were angry about it at the time."
"True - but then we'd probably have done the same thing to them. Might still. You can't blame them for being as crooked as we are, you know."
"Who's crooked?" He shrugged. "Anyway, they're back now so there's no point wishing they weren't. I suppose it'll make loading the gold easier."
"Exactly." She grinned at him, and he returned the display with a scowl, which was more or less traditional. "You should stop being so miserable."
"I'm not miserable, I'm fashionably grouchy." He scowled again, this time with even less conviction than before. "Anyway, old men are allowed to be miserable."
"You're not an old man. You're a gangly young one who's just been alive a long time."
"I am very old. And very wise. And don't you forget it. Now how much further have we got to go? This seat isn't very comfortable, and I'm bored with driving."
"You're bored with everything."
"Not with gold."
"Well obviously not. Gold and nice expensive shiny things that belong to other people. Who could ever get bored with them?" She laughed and ruffled his hair. "Not far now. We'll have to head off the road soon, then we're looking for some trees growing in a circle. Should be able to see the chateau in the distance, on a hill."
"Hell of a long way for the owner to go, just to count his money."
"Maybe he liked exercise. Or maybe he was afraid of the curse too." She shrugged. "Anyway, who cares? If he'd kept it in the house, somebody would have gone off with it years ago." She pointed ahead. "There's the turning. Keep your eyes open for the chateau and the circle of trees."
"I already see it. Up there." He pointed, and she turned her head to see the distant building standing on a rise. It was very big and very old, and was certainly extremely beautiful. The sort of building that featured in grandly illustrated fairy tales, and which might well have once housed visiting princes and grand balls. It was also the kind of place generally commandeered by visiting armies, and she knew that the Nazis were likely to have used it - in which case the Allies certainly would be doing the same.
"We'd better find somewhere good to hide the trucks," she muttered. Methos nodded.
"The passes I've got ought to get rid of any nosy officials, but I'd rather not have to deal with them. Too many of them want their palms crossed with silver before they'll give the go ahead to anything, and I don't want to have to go sharing the gold with a lot of army pen pushers."
"And besides, if they make too many inquiries those passes might not stand up as well as we'd like. Let's just hope that everybody up there is looking the other way for a bit."
"Won't matter once we're in amongst all that greenery." He guided the truck over bumpy, awkward ground to where trees grew thickly in small groups. Sure enough the chateau was no longer nearly so visible, and in some places was hidden completely. Amanda was tense now, looking out for the circle that marked the entrance to the tunnel. Claude and Simon spotted it first, and were heading towards it before Amanda saw it at all. They guided their own truck after the first, and bumped to a halt just outside the circle.
"Hello." Claude's smile was almost genuine. "We thought we'd lost you for a while there."
"Sorry to disappoint you." Methos ignored both of them, and headed for the middle of the circle. There was a distinct dip in the ground here, leading down to a few gathered rocks and a single, withered elm. "What do we need to know about these booby traps?"
"As far as we know there's only one." Claude seemed to be trying to get Amanda to smile at him, but Simon was still merely glowering. "Look, er... about earlier on. I wouldn't want you to think that we were running out on you or anything. We just..."
"Had a sudden attack of expediency." Amanda grabbed some rucksacks from the back of her truck and threw them both at the mortals. "Here. You can make yourselves useful. There's some rope and other bits and pieces in there that might come in handy."
"Why should we--" Simon broke off. "Yeah. Sure." He picked up the nearest rucksack and slipped it on. "Well anyway - you can't blame us for what we did. There's about as much warmth and good feeling between us as there is between the Allies and what's left of the Nazis."
"Nobody's blaming you, Simon dear. Just making sure that you don't get to pull something like that again." Flashing him the sort of sparkling smile that was not remotely genuine, Amanda started off after Methos. Claude shrugged.
"Oh well. It was worth a try."
"Worth a try? We should have just shot them ourselves. Who needs her and her supposed expertise, or him and his blasted paperwork? We'd have got on okay without either of them getting in the way - and if it's true about these booby traps, we're more likely to trigger them with four of us blundering about down there than if there's only two."
"They don't look like the type to go blundering. And I thought you didn't believe that there were any traps?"
"Booby traps, curses, magical guardians - whatever. I just care about the gold." Simon started to hurry after the others, expression still sour, eyes still hard. Claude watched him go, thinking about other underground places he had surveyed, during his former career as an archaeologist. Up in the daylight he was as disparaging as Simon, but he had an idea that both their opinions would change, once they were beneath the ground, and felt how different things were down there. All manner of stories seemed more believable in a dark and twisty little tunnel, once the real world had been left far behind. He was still thinking about that, and wondering what exactly they were going to be facing in the tunnel, when he arrived at its mouth. It was well hidden amongst the rocks, and must once have been hidden even more, before the visiting band of German soldiers had cleared the way a bit. Methos was peering inside.
"There's a short drop, then a wide space. Not too dark at first. Looks like quite a few of our predecessors are still down there though."
"Lots of them?" asked Amanda. He nodded.
"Looks like a bloody graveyard. None of them look like they've been beheaded by giant swords hidden in the ceiling though. Maybe this won't be so bad." He surprised her by sliding in first, without trying to make somebody else go before him, and the others followed him down one by one. The bright and wintry daylight lit the place reasonably well, and it was not hard to see the entrance chamber. Just as Methos had said, there were bodies strewn across the floor - recent ones, in German army uniforms; older ones in various stages of skeletonisation; some crumbled almost to nothingness within rotten remnants of their clothing. Methos crouched beside the freshest of the corpses, checking to see if he could ascertain what had killed them. Two sets of dead, blue eyes stared up at him from two youngish, pale faces. Their dog-tags proclaimed them to be just what they appeared; soldiers in the German army, both around thirty years-old. There was no sign of blood, or of any noticeable injuries. Amanda looked questioningly at him, and he rose to his feet.
"Whatever killed them was pretty damn subtle about it."
"If they all knew the stories about this place, maybe they died of fear," suggested Claude. Amanda gestured at the other bodies.
"All of them?!"
"We don't know what might be down here. Anyway, some of these people could have died in any number of ways. It's too hard to tell when there's nothing left but bundles of bones."
"There's no immediate sign of injury here either," announced Methos, crouched now over the largely decomposed wreck of a man with grey hair and a tweed jacket. He looked to date from some time in the nineteen twenties, and bore heavy, hob-nailed boots that suggested he was some kind of explorer. "No signs of stress fractures, or anything like that."
"I don't believe that they all died of fear, whatever the hell might be down here." Amanda looked about at the cobweb-coated ceiling. "Be careful what you touch, all of you. Don't forget that there are supposed to be traps around here. If there are no marks on the bodies, could they have been poisoned?"
"Gas, you mean? Or something impregnated into the walls?" Simon kicked at the nearest Nazi soldier. "It's been available in some form for a long time, so it might be possible. I don't know enough about chemistry to say for certain, but there must be some way to rig up something along those lines. It would have to be a chemical reaction of some kind involving local substances though, surely, or there'd be a risk of it all running out one day. Then anybody could grab the gold."
"Maybe we should forget the semantics and just follow the tunnel." Amanda went ahead a little way down the corridor. She alone seemed to have thought to bring a torch, and she flashed it about as she went. "I can't see any obvious signs of booby traps."
"If you could it would rather defy the point, wouldn't it." Methos joined her, eyes on the alert for trip wires, loose stones, or concealed counterweights. "There are no more bodies along here, anyway. Why are they all congregated around the entrance way?"
"Poison." Claude was examining the walls as they went deeper into the tunnel. It had narrowed quickly, until they could move only in single file, and jostled together in a confused scraping of limbs. "There's some kind of residue here; crystals of some kind. If something was introduced, perhaps in liquid form, it might react to almost anything, and probably produce a very nasty gas. Anybody caught in the tunnel would be sure to realise what was happening and try to get back to the entrance - and have enough time to get there and no further. Very neat."
"Very." Methos also examined the walls, thinking of the many chemicals and poisons that he had seen Kronos meddling with over the years. "Still, poison gas isn't the threat it thinks it is."
"If you say so." Claude gave him a very peculiar look. "There's probably a trigger in the floor. Couldn't be a trip wire, or there'd have to be somebody to reset it every time."
"Maybe there is." Simon was grinning like a teenager telling scary stories around a campfire. "Maybe the guy who hid the gold here hundreds of years ago is still down here. Maybe he's a ghost, or he's immortal or something, and he sits down here in the dark counting his gold, all alone."
"An Immortal?" Amanda raised a questioning eyebrow towards Methos, but the older man shook his head.
"Unlikely?!" Claude was still giving him peculiar looks. "Let's just forget the strange theories, shall we? Hands and knees for a while, until we get a feel for the place. There has to be a way through here without triggering off this trap, and those Nazis obviously found it. If they can, so can we."
"If they found a safe path, how come they're dead?" Simon was looking back towards the bodies, but Claude had obviously put them from his mind. He was more interested now in the mechanics of whatever trap lay ahead, and crawled along the tunnel floor with the air of a man whose earlier cowardice had been just a momentary glitch. He hardly seemed concerned for his own safety now.
"Something scared them," postulated Amanda, in answer to Simon's question. The usual levity was in her voice, but there was a seriousness there too. Simon glanced at her, the tale they had heard about the place at last beginning to penetrate his usual scepticism. It was easier to believe such things underground, and a glimmer of panic now showed in Simon's eyes, as an answer to his earlier jokes. Amanda was no longer there to see it, for by then she was away following Claude, watching him with a certain sense of amusement. The mortal's transformation into interested archaeologist was a surprise, for she had written him off as nothing but a thief and a traitor-in-waiting. She was that herself, of course, but was more willing to credit herself with a measure of romanticism. She was seeing Claude now as a human instead of a burden to be lost once his muscle was no longer of any use. Simon was still muttering, though, as he followed her along, and she found herself still thinking uncharitable thoughts about him. If there was any kind of trip wire or similar apparatus nearby, Simon was likely to be the one to trigger it. His tread was not soft, his movements not slow or careful. In contrast the cat-like tread of Methos just behind him was inaudible to Amanda, and for a moment that worried her. He could sneak up on any or all of them, down here in the dark, and they would never see him coming. He would probably not think twice about killing two mortals of whom he clearly had no great opinion, and he had already admitted that he would try to trick Amanda if he could. She wondered idly if that might include a beheading. You could never tell with Methos. The man was impossible to gauge, impossible to predict. He always had his own agenda, his own unfathomable thoughts. Amanda liked him a great deal, and respected him even through her teasing - but she didn't think that she would ever trust him. Not completely. Those feelings came back to haunt her now, and she wondered if he was armed. Not with a gun - he would certainly have one of them hidden about him somewhere, or a knife at the very least. She was thinking of a sword. He was dressed lightly even though it was cold, and wore a rather short jacket - but the lack of an obvious hiding place was never reason enough to suppose that an Immortal was not carrying a sword - especially when that Immortal was the oldest and trickiest of them all. Her neck tingled, and she hoped that it was just over-reacting.
"There's something here," announced Claude suddenly, his soft voice bringing her mind back to more immediate concerns. She crouched down behind him, wishing for more space and more light, for her own small torch was barely enough. Claude pointed to help direct the beam. "Just there. It's an old trick, but a clever one. Put any weight on that bit of the tunnel floor, and something will be put into motion. From what we've see already, I think we can imagine what." He looked rather pleased with his diagnosis. "We were told that there's only one trap, but there may be more. I've been in tunnels in the past that had whole sections of roofing rigged to collapse, and sections of flooring that fell away. Our forebears were a clever lot."
"And a pretty damn grim lot too," shot back Simon. Claude shrugged.
"They didn't like thieves. Who does? We're talking tombs mostly though. If this is just a secret entrance to some old French treasure-trove from just a few hundred years ago, I can't see things getting too complicated. What would be the point?"
"Protecting ten million dollars worth of gold?" suggested Methos. "Some people would argue that just about anything is worth doing for that much money. I don't think we need to worry though. This place dates back four hundred years. If it was four thousand years I'd say to watch out for more traps. The world was a more elaborate place then."
"You an archaeologist yourself?" asked Claude, a new interest and respect showing in his face. Methos smirked, his shadowy eyes showing his own mocking kind of humour.
"Only as a hobby. You might say I have a personal interest in the past." His eyes drifted past the others. "Come on. We can make good time now we've got this part figured out."
"Are you sure?" Amanda's eyes were hard, warning him that she didn't want to take any risks yet. No matter the lack of risk for her and Methos - she didn't want Simon and Claude dead unnecessarily. At first she didn't think that Methos had caught her hidden meaning, for his reply was not immediate, and with the torch pointed elsewhere he might not have caught the subtle shift in her eyes. He smiled in the end though, and she caught it in the edge of the torch's thin beam. Of course he had seen - Methos saw everything.
"I'm sure." He spoke so casually, so carelessly, as always as though there was nothing in the world that mattered much to him. Nothing save himself, anyway. "Look at that. You couldn't miss triggering it unless you knew it was there. You'd have to know that the place was booby-trapped. Anything else would be redundant."
"And if those Nazis had that kind of insider knowledge, isn't it all the more weird that they tripped this thing in the end?" Simon was becoming increasingly unhappy. "Like that German POW said - something must have scared them."
"Probably the curse," Amanda told him, as usual unable to avoid being a tease. He shot her a strangely nervous look.
"You can never tell with these old places," he said. "And don't forget that the Nazis were pretty anxious to put the gold back. Who knows what might be down here? If it really is cursed--"
"You want out?" asked Claude.
"Of ten million dollars? You nuts?"
Simon frowned. "Then shut up and stop worrying. Honestly - curses? Before we came down here you didn't believe in any of that. Now you're speaking like the plot of a Hollywood B-movie."
"Maybe." Methos, who had seen enough in his life to have gained a hearty respect for curses and the like long before this tunnel had been hewn from the French countryside - and long before the countryside in question had ever known itself to be French - was rather inclined to agree with Simon. Only the fact that French chateaux were not known for intricate curses and fiendish, ancient spells made him really content to go on - that and ten million dollars in gold, which was enough to make most men try anything, at least up to a point. Claude smirked up at him.
"You believe in magic and curses, London?"
"I've seen curses in action, and plenty of other things as well." Methos' face bore no expression, and his eyes gave no clue as to his seriousness or lack thereof. "I've seen men tear their own eyes out to avoid looking at dead spirits, and I've seen others struck dead where they stood because of curses."
"You must have travelled." Claude was smiling in the way that a professional will often smile at a layman he considers to be under-experienced. "In certain countries, where old beliefs still hold sway, the power of men's minds--"
"They're still dead," Methos pointed out, before the patronisation could continue to the point where he might feel obliged to end Amanda's hopes of keeping the mortals alive. "I don't care whether it's magic, psychological manipulation, or whatever other theory you want to put forward. None of that makes any difference when you're the one digging your own eyeballs out with your fingernails."
"And on that note..." Amanda slipped past Claude, neatly jumping the wide stretch of treacherous flooring. Claude nodded.
"Yes, we should be getting on. Those soldiers could be behind us."
"What happens if they follow us and trip that bit of flooring?" asked Simon, who seemed to have settled nicely into his new rôle as worrier. Methos smiled coldly, though by that stage everybody had turned to look away from him.
"You die," he offered unhelpfully, with a rather noticeable lack of apparent concern for his own life. Simon stopped short in his forward motion, and almost fell onto the trap. Methos caught and steadied him, then pushed him onwards.
"They won't come down. Amanda doesn't think that they're still after us, but even if they are, they'll want to make sure that any gas we might have triggered has had a chance to clear."
"Unless they've got gas masks," offered Amanda. Simon flinched.
"Could be it's nerve gas." Claude was back to examining the walls. "If they're serious about stopping people from getting in, it's the logical choice. Or am I thinking too much like somebody who's just spent years doing gas attack drill with the army?"
"There's always been nerve gas. The Egyptians used it, and so did a number of civilisations in the East." Methos gave Simon another push to get him started. "Crude stuff compared to the ones that get made today, probably, but it worked. Anyway, that's not the issue, is it. We should try to get to the gold as soon as possible, whoever else might be after it. Once we start moving it, we'll have the local authorities and several different Allied armies to worry about. Plus the local civilians. Any of them might want the gold going to anybody but us. And I haven't come this far to have it all shipped off to Fort Knox by some Yankee general."
"Or to London to pay off Britain's war debt," put in Claude, rather pointedly, making the usual assumption that Methos was British. The old man merely shrugged.
"Either way, we should be going a lot faster than we are. Speed it up a little."
"I'm not arguing with that." Amanda pointed her torch up ahead, illuminating a rocky floor, tapering walls, and a gently curving tunnel that led onwards into darkness. "Come on then. Let's go and see what scared those Nazis so much." She shot a fierce look back at Methos. "And no more talk of curses and magic, for goodness sakes. We've got enough to worry about."
"Just trying to be helpful." He watched with a flicker of impatience as she pulled ahead once again, the two mortals following her lead, then felt for the sword hidden beneath his jacket. Nobody reached five thousand years of age without developing powerful instincts, and his were singing aloud. Teasing Simon with talk of the things he had seen in his long life was all well and good, and appealed to his decidedly warped sense of humour; but there were truths behind every joke. The two Nazis lying dead at the entrance might very well have been panicked by something, and whatever that something had been, Methos wanted to be ready for it.
The corridor had grown unnervingly thin; the sort of thin that made it hard even to move in single file, with curves that made it impossible to tell whether or not there was anything, or anyone, up ahead. Methos hated it. Drawing a sword in such a confined place was difficult at best, but with people around his movements were hampered further. He didn't like not knowing what was waiting around the next bend, either. It bothered his permanent concern for his own welfare, and made his self-preservation alarm bells jingle furiously. At least his Immortality sensors were keeping quiet. The last thing he wanted now, in this place of confinement, darkness and uncertainty, was the buzz and burn that warned him of possible greater threats.
"How much further?" asked Simon. Amanda, almost invisible up ahead, shot a look back at him that managed to be disparaging even though it could barely be seen.
"How are we supposed to know?" she asked, not entirely unreasonably, Methos thought. Simon glowered.
"I don't like it in here," he muttered, apparently trying to excuse his pointless question.
"That's odd, because we all love it." Methos let his hand fall again to his sword, wondering if he was going to need it. He had a gun as well of course, but somehow the sword was always the weapon to which his hand went first when looking for reassurance. It was the one that made him feel just that little bit more secure.
"Anybody know which direction we're heading in?" interrupted Claude, apparently eager to break up the fight before it started. "I've totally lost my bearings."
"East, or thereabouts," said Methos with authority. He had always been good with directions. It was the kind of awareness of his surroundings and environment that helped him to stay alert and alive. Amanda nodded.
"Sounds about right. The chateau was more or less due east from the tunnel entrance, although we did weave about a bit when we first came in here."
"Good. Maybe if we're back on course we shouldn't be walking for much longer. This tunnel can't be all that long." Claude lapsed back into silence, mind on curses that were so much easier to believe in when underground. The others were thinking much the same, and they were all becoming increasingly anxious to reach the end of the tunnel. At least then much of the uncertainty would be over. It was with considerable relief that they realised at last that there had been something of a change in the atmosphere. It was noticeable to all of them - a variation in the quality of the air; a drop in the temperature that was just enough to make the skin tingle. Simon drew his gun, seemingly ready to point and fire at anything - not that there was anything at which to fire. Amanda flashed her torch up high, trying to find out if there was some kind of air vent that might be the cause of the atmospheric changes. There was nothing. The only answer seemed to be that they were nearing the end of the tunnel.
"Any likelihood of more traps before we reach the end?" she asked. Claude shrugged.
"I haven't stopped looking out for them all along, but I don't think we'll encounter anything else now. There are no more bodies, anyway. No sign of anybody who might have been caught out by a second trap." He smiled awkwardly. "Not that there's likely to be. Nobody had a chance of getting past that first one really."
"Then stay alert." She couldn't resist a smile. "Watch out for scythes coming out of the ceiling to behead us all."
"If they do they'll take your head off first," muttered Methos. She had to laugh then.
"Not if they come from behind. And anyway, your head is likely to be closer to them then mine is. There are advantages to being short."
"Apparently so." He was glowering and she knew it, even though her back was turned. "But my instincts are rather better than others. I am not being beheaded in some tunnel." He seemed content to leave it at that at first, then added, "Or anywhere else." Simon looked sour.
"Who's worried about beheading? Flying swords are for Saturday morning adventure serials, and comics. Just worry about there being more poison gas."
"Oh do shut up, Simon." Claude was rapidly losing patience with his associate and supposed friend. "Stop worrying and come on."
"You'll be the one worrying when we turn the last corner and come face to face with who the hell knows what." Simon glared daggers at Claude's back, but otherwise did as he was asked and ceased to complain. They went on in silence for the last stretch of the tunnel, but even Amanda and Claude, with their apparent confidence, began to move more slowly as the passage widened out into a chamber. A lamp burned there; a round, bulky gas lamp roughly the size of a football, and it lit up a high-ceilinged, faintly Gothic-looking room. Domed and dark, strengthened with thick beams of wood, it smelt like a cellar, and seemed to be just that. Giant wine and brandy barrels lined the walls, covered with dust and apparently undisturbed for centuries. Amanda raised her eyebrows.
"Interesting. I wonder if any of it's still drinkable."
"Who cares?" Methos wandered over to the nearest barrel and rapped on it with his knuckles. "Vintage wine is a whole lot of fuss over nothing."
"You'd prefer vintage beer, I suppose." She rolled her eyes. "Never mind. We're not here for the alcohol, anyway."
"No, we're supposed to be here for gold." Claude stalked into the middle of the room and gestured about at the dust and the barrels. "Where is it?"
"Here, somewhere." Amanda joined him in the middle of the room, and checked the floor. "There must be a trapdoor or something."
"Um..." Wandering along in their wake, looking increasingly unhappy now, Simon couldn't take his eyes off the gas lamp. "They didn't have gas lamps four hundred years ago. They didn't have that many of them one hundred years ago. Who put this one here? And why is it still lit?"
"Maybe the soldiers put it here to help them carry the gold." Amanda was stamping on the floor, searching for a likely place for a trap door. "Don't worry about it."
"Don't worry about it? It's a gas lamp! Where the hell is the gas coming from?!"
"That's not a bad point." Methos went over to inspect the lamp whilst the others made their survey of the floor. "It doesn't seem to be connected to anything. There's no gas supply as far as I can tell."
"Then maybe it's not a gas lamp," suggested Amanda, too busy listening out for hollow sounds to really pay much attention to what he was saying. He frowned at the lamp.
"What else could it be? The smell isn't right for oil, and the flame doesn't look right either. There's certainly no candle in there, and you're not telling me that a battery would produce a flame like that?"
"Maybe it's some German army thing. Like a signal lamp or something." She stopped suddenly. "I think I've got it. Stand back everybody."
"Bring that light over here," suggested Claude, and Methos obliged by trying to lift the thing up. It was warm, but not uncomfortably hot, and although the surface was smooth it didn't prove to be too hard to lift it and carry it over to the others. Amanda put her torch aside, and in the light of the big round lamp, she traced the outline of a trap door with her fingers. "There has to be some kind of handle..."
"Unless there's a magic word," threw in Methos. She glared at him.
"If you don't have anything sensible to say, Tommy, try shutting up."
"I'm serious. Magic words have a noble history where caves and treasures are concerned. And if you're going to have magic lamps to light your secret rooms, you might as well--" He broke off. "Did you hear something?"
"No." Simon's expression said otherwise. "Let's just find the handle and get this door open."
"That's what I'm trying to do." Amanda's sensitive, trained fingers glided softly around the edges of the flag stone she had chosen as the centre of her search. "Ah ha."
"I definitely heard something." Methos rose to his feet and looked about. Simon looked like he wanted to sink into the floor.
"There's nobody down here," he said, more for his own benefit than for anybody else's. Claude looked up briefly, clearly not interested.
"Might be those other German soldiers coming down here after us," he suggested. "Maybe we should post a guard."
"No. They'd be back that way." Methos nodded towards the thin tunnel through which they had come. "I keep hearing something from somewhere else."
"Everything echoes down here. You can't be sure where any sound comes from." Amanda's nimble fingers triggered something, and there was a loud click. She hopped aside as the stone on which she crouched slid smoothly aside. "Am I good or am I good?"
"Whoever designed that mechanism was better." Methos moved closer with the lamp, so that they could see what lay beneath the stone. He didn't need to bother. A light was glowing down there too; just the same, as far as he could see, as the one he still held, somewhat awkwardly, in his arms. He set down his own.
"There are no steps," he pointed out. "We go down there, and it won't be easy to get back up."
"I know. We've got rope, though." Amanda caught his eye suddenly, looking properly serious for the first time in some while. "You're sure that you heard something?"
"Something, yes. I don't know what."
"Well then stay alert." She smirked, well aware that that was the last thing she needed to tell him, and he shot her a withering look.
"Mind your neck," was all that he bothered saying in reply, and watched her as she lowered herself down into the chamber below. She didn't speak when she landed, and he called down to see if she was alright.
"Are you worried about me, Tommy?" Her voice showed signs of amusement. "Everything's fine."
"And the gold?!" Lying flat on the ground, Claude hung his head through the hole, looking down to where she now stood. He saw a big stone room, almost identical to the one above it, with heavy wooden rafters that lent it the look of a church. There were several more barrels there, and number of long extinguished candles around the sides of the room, all standing in various degrees of crookedness, and in piles of dribbled, patterned wax. The gold lay scattered all around; ingots and coins, clearly having been tossed down through the trap door, forming an irregular floor that caught and scattered the light from the room's single gas lamp. Amanda stood in the middle of it all, looking decidedly pleased with herself.
"I've got to say," she announced to the world at large, "I've rarely seen a more beautiful sight."
"There's more of it than I imagined." Claude swung himself down to join her, pulling off his rucksack as soon as he landed. "And it's barely tarnished."
"Keeps its looks, does gold." Amanda picked up a couple of the coins. "Sixteenth century."
"And probably worth more than their own weight, in that case. Collectors will pay a fortune for that kind of thing." He pulled a rope from his pack and began to uncoil it. "I have to say, when we first heard that prisoner talking about all of this, I didn't believe him for a moment. A huge stash of gold hidden underground, soldiers desperate to put it back because of some curse it was supposed to carry... I came here not really expecting to find anything of worth. I mean, I hoped, but I don't think I ever really believed."
"Oh ye of little faith." Amanda picked up a few more coins, examining the designs, feeling the pleasant weight. "These are good. They don't seem to have been clipped at all."
"Maybe they weren't ever in circulation. Coin clipping was rife in those days." He threw the rope up to Simon, who disappeared to secure the end of it to something. "Just imagine it. Some crazy hermit or something, sitting in his chateau with all his wealth around him, deciding to have this place built so that nobody could ever take it away from him."
"People have done that throughout the centuries. Riches lead to madness." She laughed. "Not that knowing it ever stops us all from trying to get them for ourselves."
"And now we've got ten million dollars." He bent to pick up a gold ingot, and whistled appreciatively. "I always knew these things were heavy, but I never really thought about how heavy they'd be."
"I know. Nice, isn't it." She tossed the coins back down, and hoisted up an ingot of her own. "You should try making a run for it with several of these things."
"Did. Didn't get far, mind. I had to throw them down a sewer and escape up onto a roof. They weren't there when I went back for them though. There's always a sewer rat out on the prowl."
"Where was that?"
"Paris." She didn't add that it had also been in 1797. "Come on. Time we were getting moving. I don't want to risk losing this lot to some latecomer to the party."
"You don't think London was imagining having heard something?"
"Oh he heard something. One thing you have to remember about Tom London; he has instincts the rest of us can only dream about. They've even better still when his neck might be on the line. He's always on the alert. Always."
"Yes. But then he's lead a pretty eventful life, and for a lot of years now. I trust him."
"Who are you trying to kid? You two do not trust each other."
"Well, no. Fair point. But I do trust his instincts." She gave a tug on the rope. "Are you two ready up there?"
"Whenever you are." Simon's face appeared in the hole above them, looking rather pale and distracted. Claude had to smile at him.
"Alright up there, Simon?"
"Don't joke around." Simon glanced away at something that they couldn't see. "There's something weird about this place. Don't tell me you can't hear anything?"
"Knocking." Simon twitched, suggesting that he could hear the noise again.
"Like footsteps? Boots?"
"It's not soldiers." Simon glanced away again. "It's coming from inside the walls."
"Maybe somebody is in the chateau up above? It's quite possible. Just don't forget that they can't get down here from up there. Not without some serious demolition equipment, by all accounts."
"It's not somebody up above! The noise isn't coming from up there!" Simon's voice cracked, and he fought to bring his fear under control. "Just hurry up. The sooner we get out of this place, the sooner I can get my heart back to where it's supposed to be."
"Just throw down some of the bags, and we'll start filling them up. It's going to take a whole lot of going back and forth to the surface to get this little lot up."
"Somebody ought to stay up top with what we've brought up already," Simon suggested, as he began to toss down the tough bags that had been stowed in his rucksack. "Otherwise somebody could make off with it. I'd be quite happy to volunteer for that."
"I bet you would." Claude began stuffing handfuls of gold coins into the first of the bags. "How much can you carry?"
"As much as will get us shot of this place before my nerves give out." Simon gazed down at the scene with greedy eyes. "There anything else down there? I can't see the edges of the room properly."
"Nothing except more barrels." Amanda slid a couple of ingots into another of the bags, and tied the top up carefully. "Where's Tom?"
"Fiddling around with that lamp." Simon glanced away, obviously towards Methos, and called out to him. There was no reply that Amanda and Claude could hear. Simon frowned. "Hey! London! Stop playing about with that thing and come over here. Hey! What are you doing?"
"What is he doing?" Amanda crossed over to stand directly beneath the trap door. Simon glanced down at her briefly.
"Shaking the thing about. London, come on. You'll break the damn thing, and I don't want to be down here without the light."
"I'm not sure we want to be down here with the light." Methos was holding the lamp at arm's length, testing the weight, shaking it about to see if he could see or hear anything inside. Simon stood up.
"It could be flammable, and there's a lot of dry wood down here. Plus a fire would suck up all the oxygen in no time, and then where would we be? Come and help pull up the first lot of gold." He froze as the hollowing knocking they had heard several times before rang out suddenly from deep within one of the walls. "Damn it, what is that?"
"You probably don't want to know." Methos set the lamp down on one of the wine barrels, and crossed over to the trap door, kneeling down to take hold of the rope. Just beneath him he could see Amanda, standing in a sea of gold, and he let a lazy smile take over his face. "You look very happy down there."
"Not as happy as I'll be up there." She finished tying the two bags to the end of the rope. "This won't be very light."
"Gold doesn't tend to be." He gestured Simon into position, and together they began to pull the heavy load up. It swung about, and caught on the edge of the hole as they heaved it through. Unbeknownst to Methos, the lamp behind him wobbled as the impact of the two bags made the floor vibrate faintly. Simon fumbled with the knot that attached the two bags to the rope, and both loads flopped loudly onto the stones. Set in motion, the lamp rolled off the wine barrel. There was a loud crash as it shattered into many pieces, and a flash of blue flame before the light went out. Simon scrabbled for Amanda's abandoned torch.
"What the hell are you two playing about at up there?" Claude's voice showed signs of strain, but his confederate's growing fear did not register with Simon. He had his own fear to worry about; for where the lamp had shattered and the light had gone out there was now a shapeless, blue glow. It rose above the ground, like marsh gas but with greater purpose, hovering an inch or two above the ground. Methos took a step towards it, then froze. The shapeless mass was shapeless no longer. Moving quickly, like liquid poured into a mould, the blue light shifted and changed. Legs first, then arms, then a clear and definite body. A head, with wispy threads of hair; clothes, shoes, and a gradual build up of colour. In no time at all, the faint glow that should not have existed, had become a man who most definitely should not have been there. He was about six feet tall, dressed in faded grey, with a tarnished necklace hanging loosely about his throat. His eyes were blue; the blue of the light of the lamp; and his cheeks were sunken and sallow. He looked withered, as if the general atmosphere of the room in which they all stood had communicated itself to him; the old, mustiness of the stone and the barrels a part of him, as much as it was a part of everything else. Methos became very still.
"I think it's safe to say that I wasn't expecting that." His eyes snapped over to Simon, who was pointing his gun with a shaky hand. "Don't be a fool. That isn't going to have any effect on him, and you'll probably end up killing yourself with a ricochet."
"He shouldn't be here. It's impossible." Simon was swallowing hard and blinking even harder. "What is he?"
"Why not ask him?" It took a moment for either man to register that it had been the new arrival who had spoken, in a voice as musty and as old as the room. "I'm in charge of this place. Of the rooms beneath the ground, and of everything that's in them. This is my place."
"You're... a ghost?" Methos was keeping his distance, but had started to move now, circling as though to come at the other man from behind. Simon went even paler, if that were possible.
"A ghost?" he echoed. Claude was calling up to find out what they were doing, but neither man really heard. The musty figure broke into a rustling, distinctly unpleasant laugh.
"Ghost? Yes, if that's what you want to call me. It's my job to make sure that none of the things kept down here ever leave. The gold was taken once, by people who were clever enough to get past me, but those who took it soon came to regret what they'd done. You won't get nearly that far."
"Tom?" Amanda's voice, like a sudden burst of sanity, came up quite suddenly through the open trap door. "What the hell is going on up there? Why haven't you thrown the rope back down?"
"Just sit tight a--" Methos broke off as the spectral figure shot a hateful glance over at the trap door. He made a cutting gesture in the air with one hand, and the stone door slammed shut. Methos ran over to it, feeling around the edge just as Amanda had done. The dry, papery laugh sounded out again, bitter and vengeful.
"Try that and you'll lose your fingers."
"We should get out of here." His hands toying unconsciously with one of the sacks of gold, Simon shot quick, nervous glances between Methos and the impossible man.
"Must you?" The man moved towards him, smiling with all the ice of the long dead, as Simon rushed to back away. "Why would you want to do that?"
"You... you said you looked after this place. So you must want us to leave. Mustn't you?" Simon could hardly get the words out, and his skin had turned chalk white. The spectre, who had been inhumanly pale to begin with, barely seemed more so in comparison with the desperate, terrified figure before him. Methos mulled over the idea of making a run for it, and decided that he probably wouldn't get very far. Whatever this thing was, it was a wholly unknown quantity, and he could have no idea what to expect from it. He tugged at his already loose collar, as though to loosen it further, and bribed his feet into taking a few steps forward.
"Is it your gold?" he asked. Eyes that seemed almost literally to burn, turned sharply to rage at him.
"Is it your gold? Is that why you're protecting it?"
"I was detailed to protect it by my employer." A chill breeze ran through the cavern, and the sallow skin stretched across the figure's bony face seemed suddenly to flap about like the folds of his aged clothing. "I served in this castle as a man and as a boy, in a time when nobody would have dreamt of breaking in here. You and your friends are robbing a grave. My grave."
"Your..." Simon couldn't stop his eyes from drifting to the closed trap door. "We didn't know. There's no inscription. No indication..."
""Would it have stopped you if there had been?" The figure turned his head to once again stare directly at Simon. His jaw dropped open, and for a second there seemed to be no skin covering the gaunt face. There was merely a skeleton, grinning and manic like a mad thing. Methos felt himself fast losing the desire to stick around and help Amanda. His hand went by reflex to the hilt of his sword - and found that it wasn't there. He grasped ineffectually at empty air, then heard the sandpaper dry laugh of the gaunt ghost. His eyes snapped around. Apparently not having moved, face still split by its skeletal, slack-jawed smile, the creature now cradled the sword in his bony arms. One long, dry finger tested the edge of the blade, and the burning blue eyes burned all the more. Methos swallowed hard.
"What do you want?" he asked. Always be ready to compromise, his instincts told him; and he always liked to listen to those instincts. The ghastly smile flapped up and down as the creature's teeth clashed together in accompaniment to another cackling laugh.
"You're an odd one. Not like the others who come here. He freezes in panic and waits for death. Others run in fear and die in the tunnels. But you stay."
"I hate to follow with convention." Methos picked up one of the bars of gold, and threw it at the creature's feet. "You've got your gold."
"Oh, I know that. Your little gestures are hardly going to spare you. Any of you. Why not just run? Trip the trap - you'll find it rather hard to avoid with no light. The poison doesn't hurt all that much, supposedly. A minute or two, gasping like a dead fish. Less, usually. Your friends will die too, eventually, trapped in the vault."
"True." Methos had no qualms about leaving them. Claude wasn't his responsibility, and the eventual suffocation wouldn't really kill Amanda. She would be furious when she did eventually get out, but a furious Amanda might even be an improvement on a playful one. Besides - Amanda could never be his first priority. There was only one person who could ever be that.
"We - we could go." Simon was looking desperate, although he wasn't making any attempt to move. He probably couldn't. "We don't want the gold anymore. London - tell him. We don't want the gold."
"Then go. Run. Or try to." The creature was smiling still, and now his dead eyes carried new sparks; new flames. Playful flames, like those in Amanda's eyes, but with a coldness that belonged solely to the dead. Simon tried to take a step, feet shuffling stupidly, not managing to bring the rest of himself into motion as well. "You'll never make it down that tunnel."
"I--" Simon's eyes darted left and right, wide and bright and pleading, his face imploring the world for help and asking advice of Methos. "I don't - you've got your gold. Why kill us?"
"I'm not killing you. Run and you kill yourself. You can't stay here. Here is my place. Here is for the treasures and the dead." A new, cunning gleam took over the mocking eyes. "Run, little man. Run like the others. Trip the switch, cough out your life. You can stay here then."
"No... Please..." Simon's eyes were raging now, looking for ways out, no longer even looking for answers. There was no disbelief anymore. No confusion over what this creature was or how he came to be here. Just desperation. The spectre smiled at him then, almost kindly - then in the flash of a second his eyes were hot and red, and he was standing directly in front of Simon. Where before had been the gaping, grinning mouth of a skull, now there was a wide, snapping mass of fangs. Laughter bubbled idly up from a leathery, dead throat, and as Simon stared, still not moving, a single hand snapped up and caught his neck. He felt the dry skin against his own, like ancient leather, or sandpaper used too often. He saw the other hand raise up, sword gone, showing him the talons suddenly in place of the fingers. He watched, transfixed, as they moved like a metronome in front of his eyes, while his mouth moved open and closed without sound. He heard his own teeth click together - then he heard no more. His body fell heavily, powerfully, in a hot rush of blood, and the wet chunk of flesh that had been torn away flopped noisily to the ground at the spectre's feet. He stared at his own, blood-slicked hand for a moment, then snapped his eyes over to Methos. They were not red anymore. Not mad. The fangs were gone, and the talons. Even the blood had gone, as though he had never even touched Simon's throat, let alone torn it out. Methos felt his mouth go dry. He cared not in the slightest for Simon. A hundred ghosts could do whatever they wanted with the man, and more. With Claude too, or even with Amanda - but he did care for himself. His ever-sensitive neck tingled, and his eyes drew his mind to dwell on those grasping fingers, and his own sword at the creature's feet. He swallowed hard. The spectre smiled at him.
"And you." The voice was so cold. So dry. "All these years I've guarded this place. The people I've seen. They come. They die. Sometimes they get past the trap and make it here. Once they brought charms to protect themselves from me, but I still got to them through the gold, when they took it. So many people over the years, and they all die in the end, one way or another. But you... you're different."
"No. Really. Not all that different." Methos took a step back, but all at once the creature was holding his shirtfront, and talons were once again in place of his fingers. "Honest."
"We'll see." The ghost cackled at him then, in its dreadful, dry way, and Methos felt his stomach churn. "We'll see." Only then did the old Immortal realise that the hand gripping his shirt had torn through the material - was tearing through the skin. He tried to move, but inhuman strength kept him rooted to the spot whilst the dry, dead hand crushed his heart. All that he could do then was convulse; twist; try to cry out. And fall, in painful stages, to the cold stone floor.
Amanda knew that something was wrong. Methos was untrustworthy, and he could be a complete bastard at times, she knew that well enough - but he wouldn't seal her up underground. There was no sense to it, anyway. Why run off with so little of the gold? Besides, her senses told her things even when her eyes could not. She felt the drop in temperature; the increase in tension; the new unpleasantness in the air that came just before the trap door had slammed shut. And now she stood on the pile of gold that she had worked so hard to get, lit only by the round gas lamp that seemed to have no explanation. Claude was banging on walls, searching for other exits, but she knew that there wouldn't be any. This was a secret room - a strong-room for hidden treasure. One way in and out, and that was all.
"Sit down," she told the mortal. He didn't even look at her.
"Sit down? When the air's gone, that's it. We'll die. You think anybody will come here before then? You think those German soldiers will get past the trap in the tunnel?"
"They probably know about it; not that they're coming anyway. Relax. Methos is still up there."
"Tom." She cursed herself for the slip, but had to smile inwardly at the thought of how furious the old man would be had he heard her make it. "He's still up there, and so's Simon. Somebody else must have shut that trapdoor. It might even be another booby-trap."
"Or it might be those Germans, in which case--"
"We'd have heard something. Voices, footsteps, gunshots, anything. It's something else, and until we know what--" She shivered slightly, wishing that she could understand her unease, and wondering why she was so glad of the presence of the lamp. It might be weird and inexplicable, but it was light. She felt almost drawn to stand next to it, as though it were a comfort, and a barrier against the dark. She didn't think that she had felt that way in nigh on a thousand years, since the days of her distant, and often frightening, youth.
"You don't know that." Claude stumbled towards her, slipping and sliding on the great pile of gold that was no longer in the thoughts of either of them. "Simon would sell his own grandmother for a handful of those gold coins we threw up there, and your friend London looks like a shady character if ever I saw one."
"They don't need to shut us in here to take the gold that they've already got." She felt like a teacher explaining some simple point to a rather slow child. "And if they want it all, there are far better ways of getting it than shutting us down here and waiting for us to suffocate. It could take a day or more with the size of this place, and they won't want to wait that long. Who would? Maybe Simon might try it, but not Tom. He'd know that it would be pointless."
"I can't see Simon trying it." Claude sat down rather stiffly, staring around at the gold in obvious distress. "Besides, by the look of him he was so scared he was hardly thinking straight." He looked up again. "But if not them, then who? If not the people who shot at you earlier, who else?"
"I don't know." Cold fingers traced a path down her back, and once again she wondered why that should be. What had happened up above? She strained her ears, but all that she could catch was a distant murmur that might be voices. She couldn't hear what they were saying, or even be sure that they were indeed voices at all, but it was something to listen to, and something more to think about. "Whoever put these lamps here, I suppose."
"Or whoever frightened those two German soldiers who brought the gold back."
"That's another possibility, yes. They're probably the same person." She made a face. "Or the same thing."
"Perhaps." She didn't elaborate. There were things that one saw during a thousand years of life that could never be explained to a mortal. They didn't see nearly so much, or experience as much, and as a rule never came to believe in anything in quite the same way. Casting that thought aside, she came to a brisk decision. "We have to get out of here. Anything might be happening up there, and whatever is going on is sure to spill down here sooner or later." She cast an eye around the room, well aware that there was unlikely to be any way of opening the trapdoor from this side. There didn't look to be anything suitable to which she could attach a rope, either, in order to climb up to the trapdoor in the first place. In point of fact there was only one idea that she could think of, and she roused Claude from his despair with an energetic clap on the shoulder.
"Come on. Help me to move one of these barrels."
"We put it under the trap door and climb up. After that, I don't know, but it's a start, okay? I don't know if we'll be able to move a full one, but some of them must be empty. So push."
"Yeah. Sure." He helped her begin to manhandle one of the huge oak barrels, listening to remainders of old brandy sloshing about inside. "We could maybe set fire to this. It's old wood, and the alcohol content inside must be pretty high by now, right?"
"Yeah... and then what? A fire would suffocate us in no time - which would be good, because it would be a whole lot better than burning to death. It won't deal with that trap door."
"It might. The heat would expand the spring mechanism, and--"
"Do you really want to test that theory?"
"No." He shrugged. "Just looking for ideas. I thought this was all going to be so easy. Come here, find the gold..."
"... Yeah..." He shrugged. "What can I say? I didn't want to split the stuff four ways. Two sounded a lot better - and don't pretend that you weren't thinking the same thing. Only reason you wanted me and Simon along was to help fight off Nazis and shift the gold. And we kept you along because we both liked the view." He shrugged again. "If it's any consolation, I'd rather dump Simon now and keep you, if we ever do get to share this stuff out."
"What makes you think I was planning on sharing it with anybody?"
"What about him?" She started to climb up onto the wine barrel. "I meet him every so often, there's usually some boodle in the offing - and one of us winds up stealing the lot. I brought him in to help keep an eye on you, not because I wanted to share anything with him." She balanced precariously on top of the unsteady barrel, frowning down at the mortal below. "Are you making a pass at me?"
"That would be a bit weird, wouldn't it."
"Just a bit."
"I could wait until we escape, and then make a pass at you if you like? I mean, theoretically we'll be rich then. Might have some fun. A sumptuous hotel in Paris?"
"Most of the hotels in Paris aren't especially sumptuous just now." She turned her attention to the trapdoor, and was annoyed to discover that she was not tall enough to reach it. "Get up here. I knew there was a reason I'd brought you along."
"What?" With some difficulty he scrambled up to stand beside her, trying to ignore the uncomfortable rocking of the barrel. "Oh. You can't reach."
"Size has its advantages." She watched him struggle. "It's only a huge hunk of solid stone, Claude. If you really want to impress me you'd move it in a second."
"I would?" He struggled on, clearly not making any headway. "I suppose that means only a fairground strongman has a chance with you. You see I--" He broke off. "I think it moved."
"It did?" It seemed impossible. A big stone like that couldn't move at the push of a man of Claude's size; but sure enough, as she watched, the stone door slid back. Below, the round blue gas lamp flickered and went out. Only a faint light shone then, coming down through the hole leading to the room above. A gaping hole, and somehow unfriendly, if a hole could be such a thing. Claude made as though to climb up through it, but Amanda prevented him from doing so.
"Who's up there?" She spoke to dark emptiness, not expecting an answer, though it was clear that somebody was there. A shiver ran through her - an echo of the unease she had felt ever since the door had slammed shut. It made her senses scream with greater volume, and her fingers yearn for a grip on the hilt of a sword. Nobody answered her question directly, but she did hear something in response; a noise that grew from nowhere into the centre of her consciousness. Voices were chattering at her from out of invisibility. Many voices, all speaking in whispers, and coming from all around. She seemed to hear them within herself, rather than through her ears; seemed to feel their distant breath upon her skin. Her blood ran icy cold - but she knew that she couldn't stay here, in this place of relative safety, now that the door was open. If it closed, there was no telling when it might open again. She made no further attempt to hold back Claude, though he no longer seemed so enthusiastic either. Shooting her a very unhappy look, he swung himself up into the world above, and the ghastly, chattering voices swelled to greet him. It took Amanda a long moment to reach up and take his arm when he leant back down to offer it to her, but she reached for it in the end. The many, many voices broke into laughter then, and the world was cold indeed.
Methos awoke to the sensation of burning in his chest. Consciousness flooded his brain, and he struggled to retain it. His attacker... where was his attacker? He should find out before he let on that he was still alive. He should try to play dead, get a feel for the situation, try to think things through. It was no use, for almost immediately his body betrayed him. Violent coughs racked his chest as his lungs restored themselves to full order, dislodging the globs of congealing blood that had burst from his crushed heart. The heart itself objected to the return to life, too, moving fitfully at first, and causing his head to reel and thunder. He rolled over.
He was alone, or so it appeared. The blue 'gas' lamp, fully restored, glowed and flickered nearby, and by its light he could see more or less clearly. Simon lay nearby, his gory wound still dribbling blood. Good - then he had been out for nearly no time at all. He stumbled to his feet, retrieving his sword as he did so, and headed for the trap door. There was always a chance that they could all get out before the vengeful ghost, or whatever he was, made a return visit.
He was aware of voices as he walked. Whispering voices. Amanda and Claude? No, there were too many of them, and they came from close by. They were not beneath him, in the secret, hidden strong-room; they were all about. All around. Whispering, muttering, echoing voices that were as much inside his head as they were sounds to be heard in the normal way. They made his mind buzz, but not in the way that he knew. It was not the buzz of a nearing Immortal presence, but more the buzz of flies, and the chatter of lonely, restless winds. He rubbed his eyes and stared about him, looking at the walls looming at the edges of the ghostly blue glow. He saw them then; all of them. The figures that belonged to this place. A grey-haired man in a tweed jacket and hob-nailed boots; two familiar looking Nazi soldiers; so many others, brought by the years and gathered by the poison trap in the tunnel. So many spirits, all lost here, a part of that which guarded the treasure from intruders. Simon was amongst them now, staring at Methos was hate-filled eyes.
"I saw you." He tried to move forward, but was not used to his new form and status, and couldn't manage proper mobility. "You died, like me. Why do you get to still be real?"
"Luck of the draw." Methos' voice was hoarse and weak, and he coughed up blood when he had finished speaking. Simon's face looked drawn, pained by all that had happened. Presumably it was by no means pleasant to die violently, and then discover that there would be no escape, even in death, from this dark and depressing place. The other ghosts all looked sad too - sad and vengeful. Their eternally pale and sunken faces flickered and flashed with emotion. Methos wondered what sort of form they had - whether they too might be able to attack, as the first had done. He decided that there was no point in worrying about it. If they had any such abilities he couldn't hope to escape from this place, for they surrounded him entirely. He shut them out, and resumed his uneven stumble to the trap door. The voices around him rose and fell in volume, and he heard their anger and spite.
"Shut up." He bent to the trap door, wishing that his head would clear completely. It took him a moment to locate the hidden mechanism that opened the thing, and his eyes faded in and out of focus, refusing to co-operate. The voices increased in volume, and all across his back and shoulders the formless echoes of fingers tapped and snatched. These apparitions had no real physical presence then; that much was a comfort. All the same, the fluttering of non-existent hands was an irritation, chilling his skin wherever they made contact. Behind him the blue light flickered and went out. Great. Closing his mind to what this, in all probability, meant, he closed his hands around the mechanism and slid the door open. Even as he was doing so, a hand was seizing his throat.
He fell backwards in a confusion of ghosting hands, all snatching at him and failing to catch hold. Only the hand on his neck remained real, dragging him back, hauling him to his feet, lifting him from the ground. He choked, tasting the last of the congealing blood from the earlier attack as it rose and fell in his throat. The walls, and all their flickering spirits, faded in and out of clarity as his mind and vision trembled; and in the midst of that tangle of sensation he saw Claude emerging from the room below. He didn't seem to pay any attention to what was all about him, but concentrated solely upon hauling Amanda up beside him. Only then did either of them see the madness into which they had arisen. Claude's eyes were drawn inevitably to the body of his associate - then drawn again to the translucent echo of the same man, which stood in darkness with its fellows. It was not easy to see much, now that the lamp had gone out, for the only light was Amanda's torch, that remained lying where it had been dropped earlier on. Its beam fell directly open Methos, struggling in the choking, inhuman grip of the nightmarish spectre that had already killed him once. Amanda took only a second to react, and snatched up the sword that lay near her feet.
"Watchdog?" she asked. Methos nodded as far as he was able. Despite this new assault, his strength was at last returning, and for the first time since his return to life he felt properly able to control his muscles and limbs. Amanda's face hardened.
"Let him go."
"Or what?" The spectre laughed his sandpapery laugh. "I'm already dead. That sword can't hurt me."
"Er... Amanda?" Claude was less concerned with Methos and his assailant than he was with the many other spirits, all ebbing in and out of vision around the room. It made him feel trapped, and pushed his pulse rate up even higher. The Immortal woman ignored him. "Amanda!"
"Claude?" It was Simon, looming out of the masses like some fragment of the Technicolor Oz suddenly bursting forth into the black and white world of Kansas. His eyes were wide and real, and filled with pain and confusion. Claude quaked at the sound of his voice.
"Simon...?" His eyes snapped back and forth from the ghost to the crumpled body on the ground. "I... What...?"
"I'm dead." The spirit sounded confused, and as he spoke he seemed to lose form and colour, as if the effort were somehow weakening his hold upon the world. "I'm stuck here. I've become a part of this place and I can't get out."
"How sad." Amanda's voice was empty of all emotion and pity, which was not usual for her; but she had other concerns right now. The fluctuating nature of these many secondary spectres caused her to dismiss them in favour of the one holding Methos. The creature seemed to appreciate her attention, and with a jaw-splitting grin that bared a mouthful of temporary fangs, he threw Methos aside.
"You're like him, my dear. An antidote to our little company perhaps. Deathless. Maybe I should try to tear out your heart, just as I tried to tear out his?"
"Deathless." Simon was floating above the ground, pathetic and pleading. "Why do they get to be deathless? Look at me Claude. I'm - I'm nothing. But him... Look at the blood on his shirt - the hole in it. He was dead, but he's still alive. Why don't I get that secret?" He moved awkwardly, in stops and starts, towards Methos; travelling like an inexperienced swimmer struggling against a powerful current. Methos climbed to his feet, wiping away the blood that had dribbled from his neck.
"I already told you," he growled at the unfortunate creature. "I am what I am. We all are."
"You're a problem is what you are." The first spectre, the only dangerous one as far as Amanda could see, raised his hand, and Methos' sword was suddenly in its grasp. "Everybody who comes in here dies. It's what's kept the gold safe."
"Shame you missed the one who got away to tell us about this place then." Amanda was watching him carefully, trying to get the measure of him, or it, or whatever she felt the apparition was most likely to be. He smiled at her, and a dry, leathery tongue lapped in the air in a move that might have been meant to be suggestive.
"He took the gold out of here. The curse will get him, if it hasn't already - and his two friends. The ones that were following you?" He laughed suddenly, loudly and powerfully, though with a rattling quality that came from desiccated lungs. "The ones who wanted to warn you about me, I think. They were fools to try. It's always greed that governs a man's heart in the end. Always greed and never sense. That's why my graveyard grows so full." He tossed the sword from hand to hand, "And it will grow ever more full. Nothing can be truly deathless. Not with me to crush the life from it."
"All these people... They're the ones from the entrance way." That fact was just beginning to register with Claude, who wandered closer to Simon, and stared past him at the wan faces of the two Nazis; of the tweed-jacketed explorer; of a peasant in eighteenth century garb. Amanda hushed him, but their dried husk of a host stared over at him with a speculatory interest. He hefted the sword in one hand for a moment; then with a mocking, cold smile, he hurled the weapon straight at Claude. Amanda knocked the mortal aside just in time.
"We're leaving," she said with authority. Methos rolled his eyes.
"Yes, that's sure to work. Why on earth couldn't I have thought of that?"
"Shut up, Methos." She picked up the sword and handed it to Claude. "Hold on to that."
"We're leaving?" he asked her. Nearby Simon was gnashing his insubstantial teeth, clearly of the belief that, if he was doomed to remain here forever, so too should be Claude - not to mention the strange abomination that was the man who could be dead yet live again. Claude did his best to ignore his friend. There was too much to take in to be really sorry for what had happened to Simon, but he did feel more than a little sympathetic towards the lost and empty echo of life that his associate had now become.
"You're not leaving," the first of the ghosts told him. "None of you are."
"Oh we are." Amanda shivered, as though suddenly taken by fear. "It's so cold in here, isn't it. And dark. I wouldn't want to stay here."
"You don't get a choice." The creature began to move towards her, drawn perhaps by her beauty, or by the mere fact that she was so much more the conversationalist than was Methos. "You'll make a wonderful addition to our company. I don't think I have any other women in my collection. So different. So... special." He took another step towards her, and another, effectively cutting Methos out of his line of sight. "So... female."
"I always have been." She didn't dare look at her fellow Immortal, for fear of drawing attention to him, but inside she was praying that he might have caught all that she had said. So cold. So dark. It had been all that she could think of, and all that she felt she would be likely to think. This place was not conducive to inventive thought - or to thought at all, save that of escape. The creature came closer to her, and she saw the shallowness of his blue eyes; saw the dried out leather of his skin; saw the long, skeletal fingers and the grinning, clicking teeth. It didn't help her confidence to know that he could take back the sword at any moment.
Behind the spectre, out of its sight for the first time, Methos was thinking. Amanda had deliberately drawn their enemy to herself, he was sure of that. But why? What was there that she thought he could do? He ran over some of his own ideas of escape, but the usual - bribery compromise, treachery, a knife in the ribs - really didn't seem to apply here. Her words floated through his mind, mixing with others that had also been spoken to him in this place. Cold. Dark. The speed with which the bright, hot light of a fire could take hold in a room filled with flammable things. Almost before he had fully thought about it, his hand was falling to his pocket. There had to be something, surely? He didn't smoke, but matches were useful things to have around. So many people did smoke these days - so many people seemed to want a light. There were so many uses for the little creators of fire that he couldn't honestly be without one. Could he? He was almost convinced that he was when, at last, his searching hand fell upon a little book, stamped with the logo of the club where he played piano at night. He was almost in a trance when he lit the first match. A chattering of hushed and hurried voices circled him, as though the spirits were dancing around and about him - and in their midst Simon looked up, horror-struck.
"Are you mad?" he cried, although there was little real force to his voice, now that he was just a shadow. "You'll kill us all!"
"What?" The spectre turned from Amanda, looked first towards Simon, and then at the object of his attention. His cold blue eyes registered the match, and he let out a roar of rage. "Fool! You think nobody has brought naked flame down here before? Many's the candle that I've--"
"Candles aren't proper fires." Methos touched the lit match to the book of other matches, and watched as they all flared into life. It burnt his fingers of course, but that he could live with. Now to find something else to burn.
"Aren't they?" In a second the creature was before him, reaching out with a dry hand to crush Methos' fist with his own. Methos' fingers, burning painfully, suffocated the flames within them, and with a twist of his thin but powerful wrist, the fearful apparition brought Methos to his knees. Only then did he seem to sense something. Only then did he, perhaps, smell a scent that should never have been in his underground realm. With a roar of rage he released Methos and spun around. Amanda stepped away from the fire that she had lit against the frame holding one of the brandy barrels in place.
"Sorry Methos." She didn't sound very sorry. "I needed a distraction."
"Yeah. Right." Nursing his burnt and blistered hand, and his painful, broken wrist, he stood up. Already the alcohol-steeped barrel was catching, and the brandy inside fed the fire into a wild and spectacular uprush. The spectre was before the blaze in an instant, grasping at the burning wood, trying to beat out the flames with his own hands. Dry as paper they caught fire in an instant, and his screams of rage echoed about the room. The flames swept higher.
"Quickly!" Amanda grabbed at Claude, pushing him towards the cavern's entrance. "Run, before the fire gets too big. We mustn't be trapped. Come on, Methos!"
"Huh?" Delayed by his retrieval of the thin-beamed torch, Methos turned towards her and nodded in understanding. "I'm right with you."
"Confound you, no!" Almost entirely engulfed by flames, the spectre screamed and screeched in ever increasing fury. Methos ignored him, and hurried away with the others. Only Claude tarried, drawn for a moment by Simon, who rose out of the rock by the entrance way. He looked so sad, so pleading and desperate, that his living friend was caught for an instant by sorrow and pity. He wanted to do something to help, but with the flames growing higher, and a current of air already beginning to flow down the tunnel, drawn by the fire, there was no time for anything; even had there been anything that could have been done. Feeling like a traitor and a cad, but with little real option, he ran straight through the insubstantial figure of his pitiful friend, and chased after Methos and Amanda.
The tunnels were a blur, this time. The threesome bounced off the walls, scraping themselves on corners, and drawing blood on nearly every rocky protrusion. Even with the torch to light their way it was only Methos' five thousand years of dedicated self-preservation that kept them from triggering the trap, and then only just. With the tunnel now filled with a raging gale, and screams, heat and roars chasing their every movement, they burst at last into the entrance chamber. The bodies looked even more sad now that the trio knew what had become of the souls of the unfortunate creatures, but there was no time to dwell upon such thoughts. With what was very likely the last of their strength, they climbed up out of the tunnel, and tumbled through the rocks that masked it. Claude began to shake like a leaf, but mercenary as always, Methos' only interest in him was the retrieval of his sword.
"Is it gone?" the mortal asked at last. "That - that thing. Is it dead?"
"He was dead long before he caught fire." Methos flexed his damaged hand, inspecting the healing skin tissue, and testing the mended bone in his wrist. "He was just slowed down for a bit, that's all. I should think he's still down there, waiting for the next band of treasure hunters."
"He'll be even less pretty than he was before though," commented Amanda. Methos nodded.
"That's true... You know, it's a damn shame about that gold."
"Is that really all you ever think about?" asked Amanda. Methos shot her a withering look.
"You know damn well that it isn't. But that doesn't mean that I don't feel sorry about the loss. I was supposed to come out of this ten million dollars richer."
"Two and a half," muttered Claude, beginning to regain his wits. Methos frowned at him.
"A quarter of ten is two and a half. We were all supposed to come out of this two and a half million richer."
"I think we were all planning to take the lot, actually." Methos stared over towards the hidden entrance. "There's probably a moral in all of this, you know, but I'll be damned if I intend to learn from it."
"Speak for yourself. I'm going straight back to the States to look for a job in a museum somewhere. From today I'm an archaeologist again. A proper one." Claude also looked back at the tunnel. "Simon..."
"There's nothing that can be done for him." Amanda sounded firm but gentle. "Forget it. He's gone, and you'll have to leave it at that."
"Yes. Yes, I suppose..." He stood up abruptly, testing his still shaking limbs. "Anybody mind if I take one of the trucks? I don't fancy walking all the way to the coast."
"Go ahead. And good luck." Amanda stood up as well, slapping the dust and dirt from her clothing. Even in discoloured work overalls she looked quite stylish, thought Methos, but was happy to discover that 'stylish' was all that he thought. Anything else would have been far too complicated.
"So." As soon as Claude had gone, she turned her attentions to the old man beside her. "What about you?"
"Me? I'm going back to Paris. There's work that I can still do there. I can be useful. There's a lot to sort out and rebuild all over Europe, and I still feel that I should do my bit."
"How very noble. You are Methos, aren't you. Not some peculiar double?"
"Very funny. We all have a desire to be useful occasionally, you know. Anyway, that jazz band is rubbish without me."
"Now that sounds more like the Methos I know." She shrugged. "Well I fancy a walk, myself. Perhaps over the border. With all that's going on in Germany, I'm sure to find something worth my interest. I'm sorry this little escapade didn't come to anything."
"I've never come through an 'escapade' with you with anything more than the clothes I'm standing up in to show for it. I'm getting used to it."
"You'll be avoiding me soon, at this rate."
"I do avoid you. I avoid all our kind for obvious reasons, but you more than the others. You're bad for my heart. And for my pride. And usually for my purse strings. Now are you sure that you don't want a lift?"
"Quite sure." She started to walk away, out of the trees in the opposite direction to the hidden truck. "See you around some day."
"Knowing my luck, very likely." He watched her until she had gone, with one last wave before she disappeared; then headed back to the remaining vehicle. He would have to explain to someone where the other one had gone, and there would probably be other questions to answer - but what the hell. He was alive. Only just, perhaps, but he was happy with that. And at least this time Amanda hadn't left him looking like a fool. All in all she had behaved rather well this time. Perhaps, after this latest encounter, he might even begin to soften in his attitude towards her, and not see her as quite such an infuriating pain in the neck. Deep inside, he thought, perhaps he really did actually like her. A tiny bit, anyway.
It wasn't until he was half way home that he found out she had stolen his wallet.