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Chapter 7 HARD WORK

No sign of Dervish in the morning. He's normally an early riser so I guess he's still suffering from his binge-drinking on the weekend. I want to wake him, tell him about my inner turmoil, the magic, the howling, what happened at the hole. But instead I decide to let him sleep in and get his head together. We'll discuss it when I come home after school, when he can think and focus clearly.

Scrubbing hard in the bathroom. The dirt doesn't want to come off. Especially bad under my nails. Without wanting to, I think about gravediggers-their hands must be stained like this all the time.

Looking up when I've scraped them as clean as I can. My reflection in the mirror. Remembering the face I saw/imagined in the rock. Something about it niggles at me. It's not just the fact that there shouldn't have been a face in the rock at all. There's something more... something else...

I'm on my way out the front doors when it strikes me. The face looked ever so slightly like my dead sister Gret.

The day passes slowly, as if I'm experiencing it second-hand, watching somebody else's body going through the motions of a normal school day. Chatting with Charlie, Leon and Shannon. Greeting Reni with a big smile when she arrives with Loch. Making light of my friends' compliments about the party. Shrugging off the incident with the bottle-"A good magician never reveals his secrets."

Bill-E turns up. I know he's itching to discuss the cave with Loch and me, but we can't speak of it in front of the others, so he slides past silently. Loch yells an insult after him, cruder than usual, perhaps to cover up the fact that he's become Bill-E's secret ally.

Lessons don't interest me. The teachers could be ghosts for all the impression they make. Fading in and out of conversations during break and lunch. The major part of my mind fixed on the twists of the last few nights, the hole I've dug, the face in the rock, the beast I'm apparently becoming.

Heading back for class after the lunch bell. Loch and me are by ourselves. Bill-E hurries up to us and says quietly, "Still on for this evening?"

"Sure," Loch says.

"No." Both stare at me. "Dervish wants me home," I lie. "Not sure what it's about. Maybe something valuable got smashed at the party."

Loch winces. "Bad luck. Guess it's just me and Spleenio then." He pinches Bill-E's cheek.

"Get off!" Bill-E yelps, pulling away, rubbing his cheek. "That hurt."

"Sue me," Loch laughs.

Bill-E turns his back on him. "Maybe you can come later?" he asks me.

"I doubt it," I sigh.

Bill-E looks worried. "Perhaps I'll cancel too, leave it till tomorrow."

"No you don't," Loch grunts. "If you back out now, you stay out. This is a joint venture. If you don't pull your weight-and I know that's a heavy load to pull, you chubby little freak-get lost. We don't need hangers-on."

Bill-E's fists ball up. The rage inside him froths to the surface. I think he's finally going to go for Loch and I silently will him on. If he fights back, maybe that will be the end of the teasing and Loch will start treating Bill-E as an equal.

But then Bill-E looks Loch over, sizes up his height and muscles, and chickens out. His hands go limp and he turns away with a weak, "See you later then."

Loch leans over and mock-whispers to me, just loud enough for Bill-E to hear, "Do you think anyone would notice if I took Spleeny out to that hole and made him disappear?"

"Shut up, you jerk," I snap and march ahead of him, paying no attention to his theatrical gasp.

Home. No Dervish. A note on the kitchen table. "Gone to fetch my bike. Don't worry about fixing me dinner-still not in the mood for solids."

Hellfire! Of all the times in my life, why does Dervish pick these few days to be Mr. Impossible To Pin Down! I wish now I'd hit him with the news as soon as he got home-would have served the old sozzle-head right.

Too itchy-footed to wait for him. Better to be active than hang around here, struggling to kill time with homework and TV. So a quick change of clothes, a hasty sandwich, then it's off to the hole to find out what Loch and Bill-E make of my late-night digging marathon.

They're gob-smacked. Standing around the pit when I arrive, jaws slack, staring from the rocks and mounds of earth down into the hole, then back again. Both are holding shovels limply and look like you could knock them over with a fart.

"Bloody hell!" I gasp playfully. "You've been working hard."

"We didn't do it," Loch says numbly.

"It was like this when we arrived," Bill-E mutters.

I force a frown. "What are you talking about?"

"We haven't been digging," Loch says, becoming animated. "We only got here a few minutes ago. We found it like this."

"But who... how... what the heck?" Bill-E mumbles.

We spend ten minutes debating the mystery. The simplest solution, which I offer shamelessly, is that somebody discovered the hole after we'd left and did some more digging themselves. Bill-E and Loch dismiss it instantly-there are no shovel marks in the newly excavated sections, and no footprints except our own. (I didn't leave any barefooted prints in the night. I must have been extra light on my feet. Padded softly... like a wolf.) Besides, they argue, who the hell would go digging in the middle of the night?

"An earthquake?" I suggest as an alternative.

Snorts of derision. We don't get earthquakes here. Besides, even if we did, that wouldn't explain the earth and rocks piled up around the hole.

Loch wonders if a wild animal is responsible.

"What sort of animal do you think that might be?" Bill-E sneers. "A troll or an ogre? Or maybe it was elves, like in the fairy tale with the shoemaker."

Eventually Bill-E comes up with a theory which satisfies all three of us, at least in the absence of anything more believable. "Lord Sheftree," he says. "If this is where his treasure's buried, maybe he booby-trapped the entrance with explosives. When we were digging, we set them off, but because they'd been buried so long, they didn't ignite straightaway. It took them a few hours to explode, by which time we were safely home, clear of the blast radius."

"I dunno," Loch mutters, examining the rocks around us. "These look like they were pulled out cleanly, not blasted."

"Maybe it was a catapult-type mechanism," Bill-E says, warming to his theory. "He had all these rocks loaded on a platform, which was set to shoot them upwards when the trap was sprung. They'd crush anyone nearby."

We discuss it further, trying to pin down the exact workings of the trap, wondering if there might be more than just one. I advise caution and propose retreat-we should report this and leave it to professionals to mine the dangerous hole. Bill-E and Loch shout me down.

"We'll go slowly," Bill-E says.

"Carefully," Loch agrees.

"If there are other traps, they're probably slow-burners too," Bill-E argues.

"But I doubt if there are more," Loch says. "What would be the point? One's enough. If it was set off, old Sheftree could have simply cleaned up the remains of the bodies, then set the trap again."

In the end, despite the dangers, they decide to proceed. Since they can't be swayed and there's no profit in cutting myself off from them, I reluctantly grab a shovel and all three of us climb down into the hole.

For an hour we work doggedly and fearfully-me fearful of faces appearing in the rocks, Bill-E and Loch fearful of running afoul of the dead Lord Sheftree.

We pause every time there's a rustling in the trees overhead, or when a heavy stream of earth trickles down into the hole, me anticipating whispers, Bill-E and Loch thinking it might be the grinding gears of Lord Sheftree's next weapon of mass destruction. But gradually we adjust to the natural sounds of the forest and stop flinching at every minor disturbance.

Bill-E and Loch are more convinced than ever that we've unearthed the final resting place of Lord Sheftree's buried treasure. Not me. There's something magical about this hole. It drew me to it last night, sang out to the moon-affected beast I'd become and lured it here, turning me into a conspirator, using me to clear the way for... what?

I don't know. I haven't the slightest idea what we might be digging our way down to. But I'm pretty certain it's not a rich miser's hidden treasure.

Loch and I work paired, chipping away at the hard-packed earth around the large rocks, prising them out slowly, often painfully, rolling and dragging them up the slope. Bill-E cleans up after us, removing the smaller rocks, pebbles and dirt. We're an effective team, although as Loch tires from the hard work, he starts cursing and teasing Bill-E, taking out his irritation on him. At first I ignore it, but he keeps on and on, Spleenio this, fat boy that, dodgy eye the other, and eventually I snap.

"Why don't you lay off him?" I snarl after an especially brutal remark about Bill-E's dead mother.

"Make me," Loch retorts.

I square up to him. "Maybe I will."

Loch holds his shovel in both hands and raises it warningly. I grab the handle and we glare at each other. Then Bill-E slips behind me and whispers, "Do him, Grubbs!" It's so flat, so vicious, so un-Bill-E, that I turn around, startled, releasing the shovel.

"What did you say?"

Bill-E looks confused, but angry too. "I meant... I just..."

"I heard him," Loch growls. "He told you to bump me off."

"What if I did?" Bill-E bristles, and now he tries to get round me, so that he can go toe-to-toe with Loch.

"Stop," I say firmly. I lay my left palm against the nearest rock wall and concentrate. After a few seconds I feel or sense the vibrations of a very faint throbbing. A non-human throbbing. "We all need to chill."

"Who made you the leader?" Loch barks.

"We're being manipulated." His forehead creases and I start to tell him there's magic at work, affecting our tempers. But then I realise how crazy that would sound. "The soil," I say instead, inventing quickly. "There must be some sort of chemical in it. Put there by Lord Sheftree. It's making us feel and say things we shouldn't. If we don't stop, we'll be at each other's throats soon."

Loch's frown deepens, then clears. "I'll be damned," he sighs.

"The sly old buzzard," Bill-E hoots. "Chemicals to alter our dispositions and turn us against one another. Coolio!"

"I thought you were my enemy," Loch says wonderingly, staring at me. "It came so suddenly, without warning. I believed you were out to kill me. The shovel..." He looks down at the sharp, grey head, then drops it and clambers out of the pit. Bill-E and I follow. We find Loch sitting by the edge of the hole, shivering.

"Are you OK?" I ask.

"I don't think we should carry on," Loch whispers. "You were right. We should turn this over to someone who knows what they're doing. Chemicals... That's out of our league."

"No way!" Bill-E protests. "We're close, I know it. You can't back out now. That would be real madness."

"But-" Loch begins.

"There might be no chemicals," Bill-E interrupts. "Maybe we're just tired and edgy. It's been a long day, we're hungry, we've been working hard, it's late... Combine all those and you get three sore-headed bears."

"It was more than grumpiness," Loch says.

"Probably," Bill-E agrees. "But let's say there are chemicals down there. It's been so long since they were planted, their strength must have dwindled by now. I bet, if we'd dug fifty years ago, they would have blinded or killed us. Now all they can do is make our hackles rise. We should take a short break, clear our heads, then get back to work. If we find ourselves getting short-tempered again, we come up for another rest."

"I'm not sure," I mutter. If we were alone, I'd tell Bill-E about my fears-that this place is part of the world of magic. I'm sure he'd take more notice of my warnings then. But I can't speak about such matters in front of Loch. "Why don't we leave it for today. It's getting late. Let's go home and sleep on it."

"Not yet," Bill-E pleads. "Give it until dusk, like we planned. Since we're here, we might as well make the most of the daylight."

"Spleenio's right," Loch says. Now that the influence of the hole has passed, he's his old self again, intent on getting his hands on the treasure, quickly forgetting his fears. "Let's do what we came to, then go home and relax. It might be weeks before we dig all the way to the bottom. We can't get cold feet every time we run into an obstacle."

I don't like it but their minds are set, so after a brief rest, we pick up tools and edge down the hole again.

We remove one of the biggest rocks yet and haul it to the top. Standing by the edge of the hole. Sweating, shaking, flexing our fingers. "This is torture," Loch groans.

"Think the treasure will be worth it?" I ask.

"It better be."

"What if there's nothing there, if it's just a hole?"

Loch smiles. "It isn't. We're on to something big. I can feel it in my bones."

"You're just feeling what you want to feel."

Loch scowls. "Stop being such a-"

Bill-E screams. Loch and I bolt down the hole. We find Bill-E submerged in earth to his waist, clinging to the rocks around him, face bright with terror. "There's nothing underneath!" he shouts. "My legs are dangling! I'm going to fall! I'm going to fall! I'm going to-"

I grab his right hand. Loch grabs his left.

"We won't drop you!" I yell.

"Not unless you give us reason to," Loch jokes.

"I was digging," Bill-E gasps, fingernails gouging my flesh. "Rooting up stones. The floor gave way. My shovel fell. I heard it clanging all the way down-a long way. I thought... I dropped this far... I managed to grab the edge. If I hadn't..." He starts to cry.

"Look at the chubster," Loch howls with delight. "Booing like a baba!"

"Can't you shut up just once in your stupid bloody life!" I roar-then catch myself. "The chemicals," I hiss. "Loch... Bill-E... take it easy. No outbursts. No insults. Relax. Think nice thoughts. Tell me when you feel normal."

"How can I be normal when I'm stuck down a-" Bill-E shrieks.

"Nice thoughts," I interrupt sternly, sensing the throbbing again, coming from the rocks around us. "Loch-you thinking nice things?"

"Yeah," Loch grins. "I'm imagining the baby's howls if we let him drop."


"OK," he grouches and shuts his eyes. After a few seconds his expression clears, he opens his eyes and nods to show he's in control. Bill-E's less composed, but that's understandable given the situation he's in.

"You need to talk to us," I tell him. "We're going to pull you out but we don't want to hurt you. Are there any stones jabbing you, sticks, wire... anything that might cut into you if we pull you up quickly?"

"I don't think so," Bill-E sobs. "But it's hard to tell. I don't know."

"Relax," I soothe. "You're safe. We have you. Now concentrate and let us know how we can help you out of this mess with the least amount of discomfort."

Bill-E focuses and moves slightly, exploring the unseen territory around his legs. Finally he gulps and says, "I think it's safe to pull."

"Great." I smile falsely. "Loch-you ready?" He grunts. "We'll take it easy to begin with. Act on my command. Pull softly when I say. Stop if I give the order. Understand?"

"Whatever," he shrugs.

I'd like to wipe my palms dry but I don't think Bill-E would hang there patiently if I released him. So, gripping tighter, glad of the dirt on my skin which counteracts the sweat, I give Loch the nod and we tug. Resistance, but not for very long. Soon Bill-E's sliding out of the hole-within-the-hole, trembling wildly but otherwise unharmed. When his feet are clear, we give one last yank and he sprawls on top of us, knocking us to the earth, where we lie panting and laughing weakly.

After about a minute, without discussing it, we get up and crawl forward, eager to check out the hole that Bill-E has uncovered. It's a black chasm. Impossible to see very far down it. The light's too poor.

"Wait here," Bill-E says, scrabbling up to the surface. He returns swiftly, a baseball cap on his head, two small torches strapped to either side. "Spent half an hour last night fixing this up," he says proudly, then holds up a bigger, stronger torch. "I brought this too. Been lugging it around all day. Just in case."

"Spleen, you're a genius," Loch says and Bill-E smiles. "A fat, deformed simpleton, but also a genius," he adds and Bill-E's smile turns to a scowl.

"Why don't you take one of the lights off the hat?" I suggest. "Then we can all have one."

"No," Bill-E says. "They're not powerful enough by themselves. You need the two together for them to be worth anything." He brushes by us, justifiably smug, taking temporary leadership. He crouches by the edge of the hole he made and flicks on the strong torch. Loch and I crouch by him and stare. The hole continues down as far as we can see, at a slight angle, lots of little stones jutting out of the main rock face, plenty of niches for hands and feet.

"Bloody hell!" Loch gasps. "It's massive."

"There's no way Lord Sheftree could have dug this," Bill-E notes. "He might have widened the entrance to make it easier to get to this point, but the rest of it's natural."

"How far down do you think it runs?" I ask.

"Only one way to find out," Bill-E grins.

"You've got to be joking!" Loch snorts.

"What?" Bill-E frowns. "You're not coming with me?"

"We can't go down there," I mutter, taking Loch's side. "Not without proper climbing boots, ropes, those metal pegs with the loops that climbers use... all that sort of gear."

"It doesn't look so difficult," Bill-E argues. "I say we try it and go as far as we can. If we run into difficulties, we'll come back later with climbing equipment."

"Why risk it?" I press. "Let's wait until the weekend, stock up, then-"

"You ever used any of that stuff before?" Loch asks. "Boots, ropes and so on?"

"Well, no, but-"

"Me neither," he interrupts. "Spleenio?" Bill-E shakes his head. "If we're going to do that, we need to practise," Loch says slowly.

"So we practise. It means a delay, but-"

"What if someone comes along in the meanwhile, finds this and claims it for their own?" Loch cuts in.

I glare at him. "I hate the way you set out on one side of an argument, then talk your way completely round to the other side."

Loch laughs. "You're too conservative, Grubbs. I share your concerns for our safety, but the Spleenster's right. If we take it easy, advance cautiously, stop if we feel it would be dangerous to go on..."

"What if the batteries in the torches die while we're down there?" I ask stiffly, fighting a losing battle but determined not to give in gracefully.

"I replaced them last night," Bill-E says. "They're all fresh."

"Genius," Loch murmurs, then grins at me. "It can't be that deep-old Sheftree needed to be able to get up and down with his cases of treasure. The angle's not too steep. And there are loads of toe- and finger-holds."

"Let's try, Grubbs," Bill-E whispers. "We won't do anything foolish. You can call it off if you think things look dicey. We'll follow your lead. Promise."

I hesitate and check the time. Glance up to where the moon will soon be appearing. I place my right hand on the rocky floor, feeling for vibrations, but there aren't any. I think of all the dangers- then of the treasure, if it's there, if I'm wrong, if this isn't a place of magic, if I've been imagining hidden perils.

A deep breath. A snap decision. I grab the big torch from Bill-E. "Let's go."

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