The rungs on the rickety ladder creaked with every breath Sydney took. She didn’t stop worrying until her feet finally connected with a solid dirt floor. A few seconds later, after more creaking, Nigel, too, stepped onto the packed soil of the sub-basement. She still wasn’t sure how he’d known about the well-concealed trap door below the orchestra pit. No one from the theater claimed any knowledge of it, and the rust on the decayed hinges spoke of long disuse.
Something rustled behind her. She spun on her heel, her flashlight flowing over the walls of the passage. A dozen set of eyes glowed back with the illumination of the narrow beam. The rat family froze momentarily, staring at the intruders. After a long heartbeat, the animals scattered back into pitch-black recesses. It made sense; this unfinished space probably connected to the sewers.
Their flashlights did little to help the unease that wrapped her. She instinctively moved closer to her colleague, flicking the light up to his face. Nigel, in turn, gave her a look that might have been... protective? Reassuring? She wasn’t reassured, if so.
"Down that tunnel," he announced. He moved steadily forward, leaving Sydney little choice but to follow.
The scent of damp earth mingled with distant, acrid fumes from the sewers, lending credence to Sydney’s earlier assessment. She was uneasy; the corridor was merely carved from the soil, without any supporting beams. As a long-time relic hunter, she understood implicitly the risks of cave-in. More than once, dust sifted over her shoulders, falling from the uncertain ceiling.
"Do you know how far it is?" she asked, biting her lip. So far she’d seen nothing but the tunnel. Excavated by man, she reminded herself. Just for a moment, her mind dredged up the fanciful image of a giant mole burrowing through the soil. The thought was so ludicrous it brought a smile to her lips.
"Not far. There’s a fork in the tunnels just ahead. There - there it is. We take the left turn and there should be a door." Even as he spoke, the tunnel bifurcated. They followed the left branch to an ancient slab of wood too rough to rightly be deemed a door. There were sets of holes marking what once must have held leather straps, the long-departed alternative to hinges.
How old was this tunnel? The theater dated back to the 1800’s, but this was clearly older.
"I’m guessing early, probably mid 1600’s or early 1700’s," Nigel replied in response to her unasked query. "That’s the earliest we can reliably know. New York was founded in 1621, if memory serves me right. Though I think it was then known as New Netherlands*."
"Yeah, it was. It was originally a Dutch colony. That makes no sense, though." Ever the pragmatic, Sydney reasoned out loud. "It was Dutch. How would a Dutch immigrant bring along a journal written centuries earlier by the advisor to a British monarch?"
"Well, there’s actually some question if Merlin was ever affiliated with King Arthur or his progeny. One record accords Merlin, then known as Merlinus, as transporting Stonehenge from Ireland to the UK. Another attributes the magician with the architecture of Camelot**," Nigel commented. "Here, how should we open this thing? It probably wouldn’t be healthy to bring the roof down on our heads."
"Magic?" Sydney quipped, arching an eyebrow. That was the Nigel she knew. A font of obscure facts, and less bold about dashing ahead into uncertain territory. "Something tells me a more direct approach would be better. We might be able to turn the door without actually removing it." She pointed to the top edge of the slab, where the roof made direct connection with the ancient wood. There was a similar spot at the bottom, almost immediately below the first. If they were careful, they might be able to use the earthen links as a pivot.
Carefully, slowly, they worked at the wood, and the object turned almost exactly as she hoped. There was a tense moment when a low rumble shook the air and a thick layer of dust fell. Sydney and Nigel froze in place, holding their collective breath until the moment passed. By then, the opening was large enough to permit them entry, if they angled their bodies to slip through the narrow access.
*The first settlement of New York
Go to Part Eighteen.