L. Britt Ervin
I know you won’t believe my story. No sane man would, unless he too suffered the misfortune of beholding those wretched creatures I saw with my own eyes – and their monstrous god, lurching out of that boiling emerald lake under Pale Mountain.
I can’t say if anyone else survived but I’m certain Doctor Keith is dead and Professor Maxwell along with him, and there were others who met terrible ends even before them. I fled for my life at the apex of the terror and I alone exited on the far side of the mountain. Days had passed since I entered that cursed place and I emerged dehydrated and starving to find our base camp and its inhabitants had vanished without a trace.
“Don’t go,” was Professor Hawthorne’s advice to me last spring. He’d seen Dr. Keith’s map himself and charted the ley lines that intersected under the ancient peak. “Something so powerful buried so deep is not the work of men, nor should they seek it.”
Would that I had heeded his fatherly advice, but Dr. Keith was a skillful persuader and Maxwell’s expert translation of the ancient Akkadian scrolls discovered with the map told of wonders locked away for ages in the subterranean depths.
For my part, I was widely regarded as the foremost expert in evolutionary biology on the east coast of North America, but I had yet to secure tenure at university, as I fancied travel and adventure more than security and comfort. Keith was a prominent archeologist who contacted me with the blessing of Dean Whitcomb whom he’d met at Cambridge as an undergraduate, and I was introduced to him that Saturday at the shooting club after lunch.
Dr. Keith was tall with an athletic build and thick, wavy black hair. His skin was bronzed betraying the fact he conducted his research in the field rather than the library. He told me he was recently returned from Greater Lebanon where he’d taken part in an ongoing excavation, the fruits of which were a map that Professor Hawthorne was currently researching and five scrolls written in ancient Akkadian.
We shot three rounds of skeet then walked the pheasant course while he told me of the expedition he was organizing. I bested Keith at each event which was to be expected given that I was first alternate on the 1920 US Olympic shooting team. He himself was not a bad shot and we collected six pheasants. It was decided we would meet Professor Maxwell and the financial backer of their group, a Mr. Miles Norman, the following Tuesday in Professor Hawthorne’s chambers. There we would discuss the expedition in detail and the possibility of my involvement with the venture.
Tuesday afternoon I was visited by a Persian man of small stature who introduced himself as Professor Javad Abbasi, from the University of Teheran. He said he was hoping to employ me to consult with him regarding their biology curriculum. He gave me his card and I showed him into my modest office to hear him out. He seated himself and drew a stubby Turkish cigarette from a brass case, offered me one, and when I refused, he lit it. The pungent smoke filled the room as we discussed his proposal.
It did not occur odd to me at the time that he was more interested in my immediate plans than in my scholarly expertise as I ascribed his behavior to cultural differences and professional courtesy. I did however think it queer when he inquired if I was familiar with Pierre Montet’s excavation in Byblos and I demurred explaining there was little a biologist could learn from such endeavors. I listened to his proposal then politely declined his offer. He suggested that if I changed my mind I could contact him either by writing to him care of the University of Teheran, or via the Iranian embassy. I thanked him for his offer and showed him out explaining I was late for another appointment.
Dr. Keith and Professor Hawthorne were speaking in raised voices when I arrived for the meeting. They broke off their discussion and I was introduced to Professor Maxwell and Mr. Norman. Maxwell was younger than I expected. He was pale and bespectacled with a physique that was not quite bookish but rather, indoorsy. Norman had a narrow face, oiled, stark white hair and a thin black mustache. He wore an expertly tailored suit and spotless black leather shoes.
Keith’s map hung on the wall. It detailed a route to deep and vast interior chambers under Mount Shahdagh through a network of caves. The remote mountain was west of the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan and surrounded by sheer cliffs that kept the site cut off from the rest of the world.
Dr. Keith informed the group that prehistoric cave dwellings discovered at the base of the mountain indicated human habitation stretching back as much as ten thousand years. No scientific team had yet excavated the site and it was under the auspices of doing such work that he had secured the necessary government approvals for his upcoming expedition.
When I inquired why he believed a biologist would be of value on an archeological expedition, Professor Maxwell explained that one of the five scrolls told of great numbers of unimaginable creatures living under the mountain.
“Imagine, gentlemen, a place isolated, unseen and unspoiled for ten thousand years. What manner of living things inhabit such a place?” said Dr. Keith.
Norman spoke up, “And how much will the world pay to see such things on exhibit, or to sample the delicate flavor of their flesh?”
Hawthorne snorted; Norman pointed the tip of his cane at him and croaked “You scoff sir, but what of the Dodo, eaten to extinction by the Dutch?”
“What of it?” said Hawthorne.
“Had two breeding pairs survived for farming, Dodo, not beef might be the meat of choice on American tables today.”
“Are you expecting to corner the cryptozoological foods market, Mr. Norman?” said Hawthorne.
“I am expecting to realize a sizable profit from this enterprise professor, in any and every way I can,” said Norman.
“This is not science.” said Hawthorne shaking his head.
“It is, professor,” said Dr. Keith, “science, and what comes after it.”
“Professor Strong,” said Dr. Keith, “what is your opinion?”
“I spent two years in the Galapagos studying other men’s findings,” I said. “I must admit, the prospect of being the first biologist in that undiscovered land intrigues me.”
“Quite.” said Norman and he ran a finger across his mustache.
Hawthorne turned and walked toward a world map that was hanging on the wall on which he had charted all known and suspected ley lines. Little pins were stuck in it at various locations and red thread stretched between them marking the tracts of arcane energy. “I will not go,” he said then he pointed at the intersection of over a dozen red threads directly over the center of Mount Shahdgah. “This confluence of power is unprecedented. Whatever is buried under that mountain should stay buried.”
“Is that your ‘scientific’ opinion Professor?” said Keith.
“It is the only sane conclusion a rational man could reach,” said Hawthorne.
Keith shook his head and smiled. “And you, Professor Strong?
“I appreciate Professor Hawthorne’s counsel. He is far more knowledgeable about such matters than am I. But, I have seldom been accused of being a rational man, and if now’s the time for men to discover what lies beneath that mountain, then I would be among them.”
The following morning I was awoken by a police officer knocking at my door. There was trouble at the university and he was there to escort me to my office. Two university security guards were found dead around dawn and my office was ransacked. I discovered nothing missing from my things and when interviewed at length by a detective Dawson, I told him of my strange visit from the queer Iranian Professor Abbasi the previous day.
Upon returning home, I found my apartment likewise ransacked. Whatever it was the perpetrator was looking for, he did not find it, as none of my possessions were taken. My collection of firearms was unmolested in their cases as was the tobacco can full of cash I kept in my pantry. Given the nature of the intrusion, and not wishing to involve the authorities further in my business, I decided not to inform the police of the break-in.
I was setting an end table upright when I felt a sudden draft from the hallway. With it came the pungent odor of Turkish tobacco and I was up in a flash and to my gun cabinet.
“That would not be a good idea for your health Mr. Strong.” I heard Abbasi’s voice from behind me. I turned and saw he was pointing a revolver at me. A much taller, athletic looking man with a dark complexion similar to Abbasi’s, entered and shut the door behind him. He had a full mustache and his face was oily and pitted with deep acne scars.
“Professor Strong, if you please. I’ve worked hard for my credentials.” I said as I raised my hands. “What is all this about Abbasi? What are you after?”
“We saw you with the defiler Radford Keith, and we know he came to you in possession of a sacred map and scrolls he’d stolen from a tomb in Byblos,” said Abbasi. He whistled to his accomplice and the man approached, and pushed me down onto the chaise, then drew a curved dagger from beneath his shirt. “Where is the map?”
The brute smelled awful and I gagged as he towered over me. He held the dagger to my throat.
“Please don’t think we won’t kill you to get what we want,” said Abbasi coming closer.
I suspected they intended to kill me whether I cooperated or not, given they had murdered the university guards simply to gain access to my office.
“Had you asked me about this specifically yesterday it might have saved you some bother,” I answered trying to lean back out of the stench. “I met Dr. Keith for the first time on Saturday past. He was hoping to employ me on a future expedition. I believe I’ve seen the map you’re looking for, yes, but it was not entrusted to me, nor was I asked my professional opinion on it, because, as I explained to you yesterday, I am a biologist and cartography is outside my field of expertise.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to make me believe you,” he said, then nodded to the brute who immediately struck me in the jaw. Stars exploded behind my eyelids and I felt the room spin. A moment later the brute had me by the hair and was yanking my head up.
“Where is the map?”
“I can take you to it,” I said, eyes still closed. I felt the freight train explode into my face again and everything went sideways.
I was pulled up by the hair again. “It’s at the university and you’ll need me to get you through security. The fewer bruises I have the easier it will be.” I heard a whistle and the brute pulled me to my feet. Abbasi took my hat and overcoat from the rack and the brute bundled me into them.
Abbasi sneered at me. “Cry out or betray me and you die.”
Continued in Part Two