For seven years past the brothers had worked
almost exclusively as fishermen - trolling the oceans of the
world. Not for herring or mackerel, but to harvest the rich bounty
of a bygone era that lays hidden beneath her waves. And out of
all the seven seas there are none whose hidden treasures have
been scattered throughout history with such prolific abandon
as those of the far-flung Caribbean. So this had become their
cruising ground - their Eldorado. Where the broken necklaces
of the Windward and Leeward Isles spill green and gold into the
sea. From the spice islands of Trinidad and Tobago in the south-east,
all the way around to where the Bahamas flutter like butterflies
off the coast of Cuba.
It was August, and getting late in the
season for a cruising boat to be lingering as far north as Martinique4,
but for the crew of Storm Along, the island's old capital still
held one significant attraction.
The morning shadows of Mount Pelee were just beginning to lift
above the red, smoky rooftops of Saint Pierre, daubing a splash
of colour across the town's sandy doorstep. A fisherman, barely
three steps ahead of sleep was already on the beach, rolling
his brightly painted dory on rough-hewn timbers to the sea. A
hundred yards beyond the breaking surf Ben was awake too. Before
the first cock crowed dawn he had ferried his brother ashore
in their dinghy, and now from a secret place in their cockpit
he watched the landscape come to life. From the lush volcanic
peaks rising almost a mile above the stone-washed city walls,
right down to the sapphire-blue sea. A picture-postcard morning
- but Ben wasn't really interested in any of that. Instead his
attention rested on a particular finger of broken rocks that
stretched out across the beach from the settlement beyond. One
in a handful of narrow, brick openings to an ancient drainage
system that burrowed beneath the city - outlets to Saint Pierre's
history that, when the tide was low enough, allowed a man to
crawl back inside. Jesse was in there. Under the cover of darkness
the older man had watched him disappear, and now, on the lookout
for trouble, he awaited his brother's signal.
Today was the third day of their venture - the third day and
the third tunnel in a series of four potential targets. But with
a waxing moon the tides were rising sooner each day. And with
the premature summer weather the skies had been clouding over
early in the afternoons, threatening rain. Bearing this in mind
they had to work quickly, for either one of these possibilities
could trap a man inside the system, drowning him in the torrents
of a flash flood or (with the streets' drains frozen through
centuries of neglect) swallow him up into the creeping death
of a slowly rising tide.
It seemed rather incongruous then, that when Ben wasn't scanning
the shore, he occupied himself with a local travel guide that
he had found. Slow reading, considering it was written in French
rather than English but informative all the same. Despite this
apparent distraction, the concern that gnawed away inside him
manifest at Ben's fingertips as he fiddled distractedly with
the dial on a small, two-way radio at his side - determined to
minimise communications, but impatient for his brother's call.
Beneath the city streets Jesse waddled on, unable to stand but
only occasionally forced to crawl through the narrow river of
sewerage that flowed continually along the lower reaches of the
system. To very few men this was a beautiful world, and in the
tunnel vision of his passion Jesse couldn't help but admire the
architecture that had gone into its creation. The arched ceilings
and graceful buttresses were the handiwork of true artisans -
the tens of thousands of briquettes that had gone into their
construction likely to have crossed the Atlantic as ballast stones
in the bilges of early European slave traders. Running a rubber-gloved
hand along the tunnel walls Jesse noted they were of a different
texture to the overhead stone - a heavier masonry that might
have been quarried locally from the tough, granitic rock. And
beneath his Wellingtons the floors of the aqueducts had been
cobbled. Still, they were more difficult to assess, for in the
most part they had been covered in a slurry of volcanic material
that must have paved the catacombs in 1902 - the time of the
island's most cataclysmic eruption. But that was precisely why
they were there. Because in an otherwise unmemorable and splintered
conversation a four-by-two of inspiration had popped up out of
nowhere and hit Ben on the head, hammering home the probability
that anything caught in the Mount Pelee lava flows would most
likely have worked its way into the city's drains. There, because
of the invading water it would have cooled more quickly, cementing
into its molten trail the discards of three centuries and in
addition to this, the riches of more than thirty thousand people
caught in the wave of destruction - for all-bar-one had perished
in the rivers of fire and poison gas that engulfed the town.
"Earth to Jesse. Earth to Jesse. Come in Jesse."
The radio gave the young adventurer a bit of a start.
"Keep your voice down will you. I'm right under the bloody
marketplace. What do you want?"
"Is your torch on?"
"Because there's a little knob on the top of the radio that
says Volume. Turn it down!"
Jesse hadn't thought of that.
"What do you want?"
"You know those little eels that we talked about yesterday?"
"Don't tell me. There's a recipe for them in that bloody
book you found?" Jesse had seen only one this morning -
slithering off up a side passage before he'd got close enough
to squish it and he wasn't about to go chasing off after it now.
"Seems they might not be eels at all. But a snake called
the Fer-De-Lance. Lives underground."
"Deadly poison. I'd stop messing with 'em if I were you
The natural slope in the tunnels meant that Jesse was getting
higher above sea level the deeper he penetrated the system, making
the footing drier as he progressed and exposing more of the tunnel
floor in the process. Although cramped, it was easy going, for
the gradient was mostly a slight and constant one. In some places
though, the flow had eroded shallow steps into the subterranean
pavement. These areas seemed to be linked to the above ground
openings, where run-off from the gutters at street level had
been agitated by its fall into the stormwater drains below. Near
the old marketplace was one such location. Light filtering in
from the street also meant that Jesse could see here, and what
he saw demanded his immediate attention. A miniature waterfall
- where turbulence created by the fall from street- level had
pressed an old copper coin against the bank of an eroded pool.
Picking it up Jesse was surprised to see another pinned beneath
it. Then another
and another! Coins dating back hundreds
of years - monarchs from across the courts of Europe, all fallen
victim to the combined subtleties of hydraulics and their own
growing weight of numbers. By some stroke of luck the lava had
bypassed this little oasis and so, one by one they had collected,
gallant kings shielding their queens from the ravages of time.
Even the earliest captive remained in relatively fine condition
and Jesse marvelled at his good fortune.
"The Gift Of God." He whispered.
Though taken aback by the gold piece in his hand, Jesse's reference
was not a prayer of thanksgiving, but rather a recognition of
the king, born Louis Dieudonne - literally 'the gift of God'
and ruler of France for over 7 decades in the transition between
17th and 18th century France. An amazing find on its own, let
alone in such noble company.
"The markets. Of course!" His voice raised an octave
Thus inspired Jesse took a chance and lay flat on his back in
the dirtied stream to work beneath the crumbling overhangs of
rock that led into a much narrower system. Once past this obstruction
he could roll over. It was tight for the big man but in compensation
the tunnels were dry from this point onwards, and their smooth
lava floor enabled Jesse to skid the torch along in front of
him as he shimmied into the tapering darkness. Eventually he
could proceed no further but at arm's length the beam of light
caught a reflection from just ahead. Glowing discs that stood
like little flowers in the sun. The flow must have been cooling
when it picked them up, floating them through the gloomy canyons
to sow silver and gold across this otherwise barren meadow of
stone. And here they'd remained, high and dry above the run-off
for over a hundred years.
The tunnel was so tight now that it was all he could do to reach
them - to pluck them one by one into a tiny bouquet of precious
but wasn't it dry in here just a moment ago? Someone
must have been hosing down the gutters on the street outside.
A minute later and the trickle was a flow.
"Earth to Jesse. Earth to Jesse. Do you hear me down there?"
Jesse couldn't reach back for his radio. He didn't have to.
"There's rain coming over. Not in town yet, but it's bucketing
down on the hills. Suggest you come home little brother. Do you
The call turned his legs to jelly.
Because of his focus on the waterfront Ben had been slow in spotting
the downpour higher up on the mountain, but Jesse was already
feeling the effects of what had happened. The already saturated
water table was surging into the drains, flooding the system!
He had to move fast. Forgetting the torch he pushed backwards,
slow at first, but the increasing flow backing up against his
shoulders was shovelling him on his way. Finally he was clear
of the side tunnels, but a quick look told him that the situation
was deteriorating rapidly. Although the tunnel was wider here,
the many tributaries that drained into this major artery were
feeding the flow, stealing the air space that separated him from
the low, vaulted ceilings. Fighting to shake off panic he made
the underpass, but on the other side it was already waste deep.
And still he couldn't stand! The half-light too was deserting
him, which meant just one thing - the tunnel up ahead had already
What to do? Head back up to the higher tunnels and pray the downpour
passed quickly? If it didn't, he'd never swim the extra distance.
Or should he push on? He must be getting close to the exit by
Fuck it! With as deep a breath as a drowning man can
muster he committed to the swirling darkness. To the straight
and narrow course that he swore he would follow for the rest
of his days if God got him out of this mess