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Diamonds are Forever: Section Five

       Last updated: Tuesday, April 27, 2004 23:36 EDT



5. Wealth of History

    Father started out. "All begins with Winston Slade."

    Winston Slade had been quite a character. Son of a butler for one of the English nobility (family legend differed on just who), he'd run away and ended up in Holland, where he made a sort of living performing odd jobs until one of the local jewelers gave him a chance to apprentice. Winston didn't mind the work, but after a while his restlessness got the better of him, and he took his accumulated savings- what little there was-and got a boat to America. He arrived in 1795 and immediately started working his way across the country, doing whatever jobs came to hand. He had a reputation as a man who'd try anything once, and never complain no matter how hard, dirty, or dangerous. He fought Indians in the mountains, caught at least one outlaw himself, was suspected of smuggling activities, and joined a traveling group of performers (who might, some said, be a fancy group of thieves) for a few months. Finally he reached the interior of Kentucky and decided that now, at the age of thirty-three, he was getting tired of the constant movement. He found a girl who could put up with him-Genevive Vandemeer-and the two of them packed up everything they owned and set out to find a homestead. When Winston found the Hollow, he knew he had arrived. He built the house with his own hands and started working on becoming a settled farmer.

    "Winston weren't exactly a wanderer," Grandpa said. "He wandered because he wanted excitement. When he settled down, he meant to do it. But it wasn't easy on him."

    This made the cave he found some years after they settled a godsend. It gave him a dangerous and challenging place to explore that nonetheless kept him near home. Genevive didn't like it, of course, but it was better than Winston either forcing her to move every few years, or just running off into the sunset.

    By the end of 1811, Winston Slade had explored a considerable stretch of cave, methodically working his way inward, taking different sources of light and taking far fewer chances than might be expected. He enjoyed doing his explorations especially during the winter, as the underground passages were actually warmer than the air above. On December 2, 1811, Winston descended into the darkness for a two-day exploration jaunt. By this time, Genevive had grown accustomed to his periodic explorations. She was no shrinking violet and as long as he left her a gun, plenty of firewood, and food for the time, she was perfectly content to take care of things for a few days. On at least one occasion Winston had come back to find a bear laid out for skinning, Genevive having shot it when it got too close to the family holdings.

    Winston took a new path downward which, after a short steep run, led into a number of magnificent caverns whose extent he could hardly grasp. While exploring the side passages, he came across a cave dotted with fascinating pools filled with various types of stones. This puzzled Winston. He had seen "cave pearls" before, but this wasn't the same thing; each pool had a particular sort of stone in it, rounded as though from water flow. He wondered what sort of process would sort out minerals like that.

    It didn't occur to him at that point that there was anything intelligent behind the pattern. While he'd occasionally heard odd sounds and movements in his explorations, he'd never seen anything to give evidence that there was really anything down there. He was the only man who'd ever descended this far into the earth that he knew of.

    One particular pool, filled with translucent pebbles, attracted his attention. With the shimmering, pure cave water pouring down into the pool, the stones seemed almost like landborne clouds or ghosts of pebbles. Idly he reached in and picked up a few, rolling them around in his hand.

    It was at that moment that he noticed something-a particular glint of light, a feel, he was never quite sure- that tugged on memories from twenty years before. Hardly able to believe it, he tried the pebbles on his jack-knife; the knife scratched. The file he carried in his pocket, hardened in his own hand-forge, couldn't make a mark on them.

    Winston let out a whoop which could have been heard for miles in the caves, had there been anyone to hear it, and scooped out the pebbles, stuffing them into his pockets. He considered checking the rest of the pools, but he was too eager to get out and show Genevive.

    As he turned to go, Winston suddenly felt his blood run cold. He saw something moving at the edge of his light, where nothing should move at all. If he could have he would have extinguished the torches, but he knew that if he ever lost the light, he'd never get it back. And did he want to be alone in the dark with the shape he could barely see?

    So he tried to hide behind a large stalagmite. The shape came on, carefully stopping at each pool and waiting a moment before moving on. It paid no immediate attention to the torches or Winston, and it dawned on the ancestor of the Slade clan that the thing was blind in the normal sense. Clearly it could make its way around without help, but it wasn't using sight or smell. Winston began edging slowly away from it, and received confirmation that it could not, in fact, see him. Winston still moved very carefully, as he suspected the thing had other senses- possibly hearing, or something more outlandish.

    The creature was making its way methodically along the array of pools, and Winston realized it wouldn't be long before it reached the pool he'd just emptied. It was then that it dawned on him that these pools must be something special to this creature. Maybe it was a miner, as well. What it might do when it found one of its pools emptied was something Winston didn't care to find out. The thing might be shorter than him, but its color and the way it moved gave him the impression of something with the solidity of stone. Winston grabbed up one of the torches, made sure the rest of his equipment was secure, and headed for the exit as quickly as he dared.

    His foot struck a pebble just as he reached the tunnel, and the rattling, clicking sound echoed like thunder around the cavern. Instantly the creature's head turned in his direction, and it began walking purposefully towards him.

    Seeing that stiff-limbed mockery of a man shambling towards him, Winston panicked. He spun and dashed off, hearing something like an unoiled gate screech behind him.

    "Winston got out, of course, or we wouldn't be here to talk about it," I finished. "He and Genevive darn near moved out that day, momentarily wondering if he was atop a stairway to Hell, but the lure of money was stronger. Plus, with the relief born of escaping the things, Winston's curiosity returned."

    "Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Jodi said. "What, is this the reverse of the old bit where the city slickers play tricks on the country rube? Are you serious?"

    For answer, Adam pulled on one of the fireplace bricks, which opened a concealed vault. He reached in and tossed what he found to Jodi.

    Jodi looked at the rough pebble. "Diamonds? Here? Isn't that crazy talk?"

    I shook my head. "Turns out there's three places you find kimberlite pipes in Kentucky. One of them is in this county, not far from here. No one's ever found a diamond in Kentucky, but as near as I can figure it, the Nomes can dig into 'em at a level no one's ever reached before and there's diamonds down there."

    Jodi looked at me. "'Nomes'?"

    I blushed while the rest of the family laughed. "Ayup, Nomes indeed!" Grandpa Marlon boomed. "Old Winston called 'em kobolds, or somethin' close to that, but when little Clint saw 'em first he was readin' them Oz books an' so he started callin' them Nomes, and their leader, assumin' they got one, Ruggedo."




    "Okay, so it's silly. Still the way I think of them."

    "So," Jodi said, "these 'Nomes' or 'kobolds' have been after you guys ever since for stealing their diamonds, like a leprechaun and his gold or something?"

    "Something like that," I said. "Winston figured out a lot of stuff about them in the next few years. The reason they had a hard time tracking him was because he carried iron with him. Cold iron, he remembered, was one of the ways of dealing with the faerie folk. Most of their senses didn't do well around iron and steel. I guess they're doing some kind of electromagnetic sensing. They could hear some things and make sounds-pretty creepy ones. They don't do their tunneling themselves, they've got some kind of rockworms that do that for them. And their tunneling creates things that look just like natural caverns, complete with the formations. We're not sure yet what they actually want all those minerals for; maybe they eat them or something."

    Mamma handed me the secret album, and I flipped to the centerpiece. Jodi sucked in her breath. The things in the picture could be faked by modern technology, but the picture was clearly from twenty, thirty years ago. The thin-looking legs and arms attached to the more massive body were very like Baum's Nomes, while at a distance the head with its mass of crystals atop and fluted tube below could look like something with a head of hair and pointed beard. The crystalline "eyes" were located about where a human's would be, so overall the effect was very bizarrely humanoid, in a creepy way. The thing had a braided crystalline harness around its body, holding what looked like a sword sheath and some other crystal-and-stone accoutrements.

    Next to it was a low-slung thing, apparently of the same general order of living creatures by its gray-rock luster, but otherwise unrelated. It was much more reminiscent of centipedes in general construction, but the head glittered with points and tubes and glints of grinding structures. It was a clearly alien thing with an even more alien purpose.

    "I took that shot," Mamma said proudly. "Second time down, first time seeing them, never let out a peep."

    "Developed it herself too," Father said. "Mamma Bea insisted we get pictures."

    "Oy!" Jodi shook her head. "So, these things are real. I believe you. So what you mean 'something like that,' when I asked you that question?"

    "The Nomes lost track of Winston when he ran away, and for a while nothing happened. Winston found he could sneak around and spy on them, sometimes, without them noticing. For the next few years Winston didn't go down much, though, because there were the New Madrid Quakes which made anyone going underground awfully nervous. About 1816 he started regular trips again, this time focused on scouting out the Nome territory. Either he got clumsy or they got lucky, but this time they followed him to the exit. They don't seem particularly inclined to violence, but they seemed to want something from him and made a nuisance of themselves for a few days, though they never seemed able to actually approach the homestead."

    "After the second time Winston got himself some diamonds, though," Helen continued, "they changed their approach. Even tried to get into the house, though they clearly were almost blind here. Winston found he could bash them senseless with an iron bar and they were almost unable to hit back."

    Jodi glanced at me. She'd finally made the connection between my habit of carrying a crowbar and the family history. "So, you've been dropping in on these poor people every few years and stealing their diamonds, and then you have the chutzpah to beat them over the head when they object? Have I got this straight, now?"

    The family stared at her open-mouthed. While, upon reflection, I agreed with her assessment, I don't think anyone else had ever put it that way before.

    Father got his voice back first. "Point," he admitted.

    "I'm impressed," she said sarcastically. "And here I'd thought all the eminent domain conquests and oppression of the native population had been finished years ago."

    "It wasn't as if they were doing anything with the stones, girl!" Grandpa objected. "Just leavin' them sit in pools o' water. We had better use for 'em."

    "And if someone decided you weren't making use of your furniture, what, you think they could just come in and take it?"

    "Hold on, let's not get in a big argument here,"I said, to head off an explosion by Grandpa. "For what it's worth, Jodi, I agree with you. I didn't think it through before. So what do you think we should do?"

    "Have you geniuses ever thought of talking to them?"

    "Not recently," I admitted. "But several times people have tried to communicate. They don't seem to be able to see writing the way we do, and admittedly both sides are either mad or scared whenever they meet, which doesn't dispose them towards expending lots of effort to understand us. On our side, well, if they've got a language we haven't noticed it yet. They carry some things that look like tools, but darned if anyone's ever seen them making one, so we don't even know how they do things in their civilization."

    Jodi frowned. "Well, it's a furblungit mess, I'll say that. But Clint, you tell me: is that picture one of an animal or a person?"

    "Person," I said without hesitation.

    "Well, then?"

    The family was silent for a long moment. Then Grandpa heaved a long sigh. "Girl, you have a tongue for sure, and I don't know whether I envy Clint now. But damn-all, I guess you're right. Can't keep going down there takin' a man's stuff without even askin'. Even if the man's made of stone."

    Jodi failed miserably to hide a look of superior triumph. "So you'll go return this last batch, right? Maybe that will start a communication going with them!"

    We winced, and Adam bit his lip. "Um, Jodi? Can't rightly do that. Don't have them any more."


    "Most of 'em are already sold. We kept some as a reserve, but given the way they work it's not like we're gonna try to hide 'em in the cellar. They're in the safety deposit down to the bank."

    She grabbed my keys off the table. "Okay, then, Clint, let's head on down to the bank and make that withdrawal."

    There was a distant rumble of thunder. I opened the door, expecting to see clouds, but the sky was clear blue. "What in-?"

    Then I saw the cloud of gray-brown dust rising from the trees. "Father!" I started running towards the forest. Jodi and the rest of the family followed.

    I skidded to a halt a hundred yards into the forest. "Holy Mother!"

    The prior damage to the road had been nothing. A yawning pit over a hundred feet wide dropped straight into the earth, edges surrounded somehow by upthrust rock that formed a barrier that even my truck would never pass. It would take weeks to make a new way around.

    Grandpa came puffing up behind everyone else, his bum leg having slowed him up. "Kids! Kids! Get back to the house now!" He caught sight of the hole in the mountainside and cursed. "Listen!"

    We listened. The forest was as silent as a grave.

    Then we heard faint, deliberate movement. Heading towards us.

    Slades aren't cowards, but we're not stupid either. The Nomes couldn't drop the homestead, sitting on that massive, unsuspected foundation of nickel-iron, but they could take the ground where we stood out from under us. And they were above ground, in force, in the daytime.

    "Something about this last raid," I said, "seems to have really pissed them off!"

    "Never done this before?" Jodi asked.

    "Nothing on this scale," said Mamma Bea, handing Jodi a length of steel bar.

    As we rounded the bend towards the gate, something burst from the underbrush, shining stone weapon leveled at Jodi, screeching like a berserk set of rusty springs running over potholes. In bright daylight, there was little human about it-sparkling crystals on its head, faintly fluorescent violet eye-crystals, and that howling screech from the tube in its face which made me and Father jump back.

    Jodi didn't even flinch. Her steel bar parried the stone sword and carried it around in a disarming arc that sent the weapon spinning away.

    "What, don't get pushy with me! I've seen taxi drivers scarier than you!" Her New York accent was strong enough to cut, the only sign of how scared she really was. Jodi poked it in its stony chest, making it shrink back in disorientation, holding its arms up defensively. "Back off!"

    It stumbled backwards, bumping into another one that had belatedly decided to try to back up its buddy. We took advantage of the delay to make it through the gate and lock it.

    "Power on, boy!" shouted Grandpa.

    "Way ahead of you, Grandpa!" Jonah shouted, outsprinting me as he streaked towards the house. We saw a dozen-two dozen-gray figures at the fence, pulling at it. Strong and well-fastened as we'd made it, I could see that they'd be through it in minutes.

    Then tearing-metal shrieks echoed from stone throats and the Nomes leapt away from the now-electrified fence. A few of them shook weapons in our direction, but I swore that I heard a note, not of fury, pain, or anger, but desperation in the voices.


    We all collapsed to the ground, catching our breath. Finally I turned to Jodi. "It looks like we go to plan B."

    She drew a very shaky breath. "Okay, yeah, we're now surrounded, the road's gone, and they're waving sharp stone things at us. Let's do that Plan B." She looked at me. "Just what is Plan B?"

    "Talk to them," I said, grinning. "I think we just might be able to do it now."

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