The ruby was heavy in Riley’s hands. Solid, cold, and unaware of the chaos it caused. The weight of it matched the dread rising inside of her. All around her, Riley’s friends laid on the floor—dead. There was nothing she could have done to save them from their ill-gotten fate. All Riley could do was focus on saving herself.
Dust attacked her lungs with every inhale. Her eyes struggled to focus, her legs ached from the hike it took to simply get to the burial site. Now fifty feet under the graveyard, Riley regretted every step she had taken.
They had not been prepared for this. She had not been prepared for this. Another rumble shook her down to her bones, and her teeth rattled with the vibration. If only she had gotten to Scott in time. If only he hadn’t been so pigheaded when it came to the sanctity of death and the afterlife.
This couldn’t be how it ended.
* * *
“I bet ya a thousand bucks there’s nothing down there.” Scott said as he helped pull the rest of them up the ten foot high rock face. He was a wall of a man—all muscle and rugged good looks. There was nothing about him that said he was anything other than someone made to hurt others, and that was how he liked it.
“That’s a bet I don’t care to counter,” Dolan said in his highbrow tone. He was the complete opposite of Scott. Demure, worldly, and clean. He hated how everyone else found his uptight, overly intellectual ways amusing. The others' arguments? They were grave robbers after all; nothing upstanding or citizenry about the lot of them. None of them did anything traditionally, even Dolan, as much as he liked to protest to the contrary.
“I’m not losing a chunk of my share on some stupid bet,” Geoff said as he took Scott’s hand to be the next one up. Geoff was the brains of their little outfit. Had been six years running, and since he was the one who has scoured the world for them, he could be whatever he wanted. As long as the jobs kept coming in. Dolan and Scott’s bickering never interfered with the job. He never let anything interfere with the job.
Dolan spoke as he wiped what little dust he could from his pressed clothes. “That’s because you’ve yet to win one against him.”
“Shut it, Dolan,” Geoff grunted as he cleared the top of the steep face.
“How bout you, girlie? Ya up for a little wager?” Scott asked with a wiggle of his thick eyebrows.
Riley laughed. She always laughed when it came to Scott, the older brother she never had. She loved them all like brothers. Thankfully they weren’t, so she could leave them behind from time to time. Riley believed women were like magic: only enticing when mysterious. And mystery required time alone. Time to build secrets.
“Sure,” Riley said as she took Scott’s massive hand. “I love an extra bit of money.”
His eyebrows pulled together as if he were hurt by her jest, then released as he threw his head back and barked out a harsh laugh. It made her laugh even more as he easily pulled her up to where the three of them waited.
“I don’t know why you indulge him,” Dolan whispered to Riley as they made their way to the gravesite.
“You and Geoff hate when he pesters you during a job. I don’t mind it. Keeps my mind off the danger. Besides,” she said, “when he talks, that means he hasn’t found anyone to beat up. And I for one do not want to know why there would be anyone to beat up underneath a tomb.”
Riley willed her body to hang from large crypts, scale whisper-thin overhangs, and crawl through dirt-covered crevices. She often wondered how she came to be part of their thieving gang in the first place. It was probably her attraction to getting into tough binds. If it was a place no reasonable person would be caught dead in, Riley would be the first one through the door.
A skeleton from a grave above fell mere feet from where Riley stood frozen in memory. The tomb was shaking like a dog trying to rid itself of a flea. She, unfortunately, was that flea. Riley knew she had to get out, but the way in had collapsed after Scott’s final tug of the ruby in her hand. There was no other way out that she could see. Another violent shake threw her to the floor with a squeal of panic. She was happy to be alone at that moment. The embarrassment of her fears bobbing so easily on the surface would have gotten her teased to death. Letting out a huff and pulling herself to her feet; Riley steadied her nerves and set out to find an escape. She would not die here in this damp, dark, dead place.
* * *
They had been walking for at least an hour when Dolan spoke again. “One more turn and we should be at our desired location.”
“One day we’ll have to teach ya real English, Dolan.”
“This is real English, you oaf.”
“Clearly, you’ve never been ta Jersey.”
“Clearly, you’ve never been to school.”
Riley couldn’t help the giggle that left her lips. The maze of dirt and tree roots surrounding them was not the most comforting feeling she had ever felt. Every few feet it felt as if spiders were using their sweaty bodies as a shortcut to the other end of the low pathway. Riley did her best to ignore the twitch in her skin. Thankfully her headlamp was trained forward.
“Stop,” Geoff said.
“Please tell me we’ve arrived,” she sighed heavily. The ten mile trek had been hell with the high humidity. Every breath Riley took felt like a half breath.
“That would be the best news I’ve heard in quite some time,” Dolan said. His stiff stance had been forgone for a tired slouch.
Humidity was no one's friend. As soon as they got to the surface his not-so-pristine clothes would be replaced immediately. After belly crawling down a thin dirt corridor for twenty minutes, the group arrived at the underground burial site. Once she had safely maneuvered out of the crawl space, Riley was the last to take in the sight of the long-buried tomb. It was a meager burial site, nothing like the Egyptians of old. Its span appeared to be a twenty foot by twenty foot stone room. There was a chamber at the center of the room covered in silver, and a ruby the size of her head looked to have been smashed into the wall behind it, cracking the stones that encased it. Riley didn’t have to look over to know that Scott’s eyes were wide with greed.
“New bet, girlie.”
Before anyone could stop him, Scott had jumped over the tomb and was hacking away at the ruby with his hiking pick.
“Don’t!” Geoff yelled, but it was too late; the entire room started to sway.
Another big shake had Riley righting herself again as the room seemed to tilt like it was a box that no longer had supporting sides. She was trying her best to follow the sway, letting her hips move side to side like riding a wave. As her eyes continued to scan the tomb for an exit, a speck of light shone from where the ruby had once been.
The cracks surrounding the ruby’s resting place had broken and revealed an exit. A space had been made, large enough for Riley to possibly fit through. All she needed to do was get across the room. Thick chunks of stone were falling around her as the tomb started its final bow. Letting out a tense breath, Riley ran with the right facing slant. The angle was hell on her ankles and knees, but surviving in pain was better than dying in comfort. She’d complain once she made it out. The run was a slippery slalom to the hole in the wall. Using her own hiking hook, Riley scaled the crumbling surface, leaving the ruby behind. Live to steal another day. She would need two hands; she didn’t need the fortune. As she started climbing, a thick crack formed in the center of the room and it started to make its way towards her. The room was breaking in half. Riley was out of time.
Clawing blindly at the loose dirt in the hole, Riley dug. There was little light to guide her way, and no friends bickering at her back. If she ever got to the surface she would most likely be wanted. At least more wanted than she already was. She ignored her thoughts and let her slim fingers tear away at the cold, damp soil. She was making enough room to breathe and move forward. She could no longer hear the tomb collapsing behind her. All that mattered was the exit.
To her left, a larger shard of light appeared. Silently saying thanks, Riley corrected course and the beam of light grew larger. She could feel the heat from the warm day at her fingertips, see the blue sky clear and vibrant, hear the sounds of the city off in the distance.
With one last desperate gasp, Riley made an attempt to breach the thin layer of dirt that held her back from safety. As her fingertips broke the surface, Riley felt herself being pulled under; back into the sloppily dug tunnel she had just clawed her way out of. The light disappeared from her view as if the tomb had remembered she too was party to its desecration.
Riley screamed her throat raw as she was drug back down to join her friends.
Tiffany Niles recently obtained her AA in Creative Writing from Long Beach City College and she will continue her studies at the University of British Columbia for her BFA in 2020/2021. Tiffany has grown to love all aspects of the writing/publishing community and hopes to help other marginalized writers find their voices and tell their stories. Her story “Secret Admirer” was published in the Charmed Writers Flash Fiction Anthology in 2018; “Father and Son” was published through Perennial Press’ Super/Natural Anthology (2019), and her first CNF piece "All My Safe Spaces Are Dead" was publihsed in July 2020 with The Nasiona. She is excited to be working as a partner for Perennial Press, where she volunteers her time as a developmental editor, designer, correspondent, and social media liaison. Follow her on Instagram @TifWrites and @PerennialPress.