FIRST THERE WAS a snapping sound . . . then a combination of rushing wind and sheer terror. One thousand feet of empty space separated Murphy from the raging river and instant death.
For a split second he was suspended in midair like an eagle soaring in the sky. Then gravity took over. Adrenaline surged through his body and his grip tightened on the cable like a vice. Teeth clenched together, barely breathing, all he could do was to desperately hang on.
As Murphy first approached the one-hundred-and-fifty-foot-wide gorge, he could see two cables spanning the void attached to large trees on either side. The first cable was low to the ground; the second, about six feet above. Hanging from the center of the top cable was what looked like a manila envelope twisting in a gentle breeze.
He shook his head. That must be the prize.
As Murphy moved closer to the edge, he reached up, grabbed the top cable, and pulled hard. Very tight.
Then he carefully leaned out and looked over the edge. The sight of the wild Arkansas River one thousand feet below almost took his breath away.
Do you really want to do this, Murphy? As much as you love adventure, someday Methuselah is going to get you killed.
He carefully surveyed the surroundings looking for the slightest movement. Although he could see no one, his skin began to crawl with the eerie sensation that he was being observed.
He took several deep breaths then slowly inched his way onto the cables. Holding on to the top cable with both hands and standing on the bottom cable, he bounced up and down to test their strength.
As he ventured out on the cables, he realized that he had two problems: the up-and-down motion and the back-and-forth motion: the back-and-forth motion, in particular, put more weight on his hands when his feet were not directly under his body. If he had to use up his upper body strength to move the seventy-five feet to the center, it would be a very long way back.
It didn't take him long to realize that it was not a good idea to look down at the potential thousand-foot fall.
Keep your mind on the envelope and not swinging back and forth.
It took Murphy almost fifteen minutes to reach the envelope. The closer he got to the center of the gorge, the more his swinging motion of the cables increased and the more his body weight on the lower cable caused the distance between the two cables to stretch. Even though he was six foot three, his arms were now extended above his head to almost his full reach.
Only three more feet to go, he thought reassuringly.
Murphy smiled to himself as he drove into his reserved parking spot on the Preston University campus. Arriving early gave him some precious minutes alone to gather his thoughts before his classes began.
A good night's sleep . . . great cup of coffee . . . and a bright sunny morning with no clouds in the sky . . . it's great to be alive.
The manicured lawns and lush trees made a striking contrast against the blue sky. The smell of magnolias filled the air. Murphy had grown to love the southern lifestyle. He also had grown to love his classes in biblical archaeology. In three years, they had become some of the most popular courses at the university. He was grateful for the opportunity he had to combine his love for archaeology with his love for the Bible. Everyone seemed to enjoy his lectures. Everyone, that is, except Dean Archer Fallworth.
Murphy glanced up as Shari bounced into the office, her sparkling green eyes alive with energy.
"You seem pretty happy for an assistant who's late to work," Murphy teased.
"I would have been here early if I didn't have to stop to pick up your mail," she replied, smiling and dropping a stack of letters, magazines, and a small box on his desk.
The brown-paper-wrapped box caught his attention. It bore no return address, only the name Tyler Scott. There was no sound when he shook it.
Shari was pretending to be busy, but Murphy could see her eyeing the box. It could be some unusual new artifact from a distant land. She was a dedicated archaeologist, and she was extremely curious. Because Murphy loved to tease Shari, he set the box down, picked up his lecture notes, and started to review them.
"Aren't you going to open it?" Shari asked.
"You know exactly what. Here're some scissors."
Murphy laughed and opened the box. Shari cocked her head, watching, as he drew out an unsigned card, which Murphy read aloud:
A gorgeous sight,
A Royal delight.
Travel not at night But in the daylight. He's looking for you to come!
Beyond the gates
He there awaits.
He's looking for you to come!
For he to you, he cannot go.
For him his time is slow.
He's looking for you to come!
His name has been caught.
It is Tyler Scott.
He's looking for you to come.
Use your brain, don't be a blunder-head.
The Spanish name it for the color red.
He's looking for you to come.
"That's weird," Shari said, looking puzzled. "What do you think that means?"
"I think it means trouble."
"Who else would send a strange riddle and leave it unsigned?"
Shari's look of curiosity changed to a look of anxiousness. "Do you think it is from Methuselah?"
"Good guess, Shari. I wonder what he is planning now."
Murphy was now close enough to reach the manila envelope twisting in the wind. His left hand bore his entire weight on the top cable as he reached out and removed the envelope with his right.
He shoved the envelope down the neck of his shirt for safety, then grabbed the cable again with both hands. After a few deep breaths, he began to walk carefully back across the cables toward his starting point.
"Are you having fun, Dr. Murphy? I know I am," Methuselah's voice boomed out, almost causing Murphy to lose his balance.
Where was the sound coming from? Murphy glanced around, but over the roaring of the waters below and the blood pounding in his ears, he had no clue.
"I think that it has been too easy for you so far. Don't you think so too, Dr. Murphy?"
Murphy tried to speed up his efforts to reach the safety of the canyon wall.
Methuselah's laugh echoed from the nearby rocks. "Slow down, Murphy. There's no need to hurry."
With that, the cable under Murphy's feet gave way. Instantly all of his weight shifted to his hands and arms as he dangled above the gorge.
Working frantically, Murphy was able to swing his legs up and catch the heel of his right foot, then his left, on the upper cable. Now he was hanging above the gorge by his legs and arms.
"How long do you think you can hang on, Dr. Murphy?" Methuselah called out, cackling.
"Long enough do slide across the cable and wring your neck!" Murphy cried.
"Now, now, Doctor. You sound as if you might be upset. Let's see if we can make it a little more interesting for you."
Methuselah's cackling laugh increased, and then the upper cable snapped. Murphy could feel himself falling.
"Do you have any idea what the riddle means?" Shari asked with a puzzled frown as she twirled one of her jet-black pigtails in her fingers.
"No, but I'm sure that it's one of his coded messages. I think we'll have to take it apart piece by piece."
"Well, he does mention 'He's waiting for you to come' five different times. That must be significant."
"It must be a key thought. Let's start with the last stanza. 'Don't be a blunder-head the Spanish name it . . . for the color red.'"
"Could that Spanish word be the name for a state? The state of Colorado?"
"Good, Shari. This Tyler Scott he mentioned has been caught."
"Maybe he has been caught telling a lie or caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Or caught being late to work for picking up some dangerous mail." Shari grinned.
Murphy smiled. "Or maybe he's been caught by the police. Look at the phrase 'his time is slow.' He may be doing time in prison."
"That would tie in with the 'gates' and that 'he cannot go' but you must come to him. How about 'gorgeous sight, a Royal delight'? What's that all about?"
"Hmmm. Colorado ---prison ---gorgeous sight ---a Royal delight."
Murphy paced the floor, repeating those words and brushing his fingers through his hair. Then he stopped suddenly and looked at her.
"I think I've got it."
"Well, don't keep me in suspense. What have you got?"
"When I was a young boy I visited Colorado with my parents. We flew into Denver and rented a car and spent almost a month exploring the state. On one of those trips we went to Colorado Springs and Pike's Peak. From there we went to a town called Pueblo. West of Pueblo is Ca-on City. What do you think it is famous for?"
"Quick, Shari. No, it's famous for the Ca-on City State Penitentiary. It has a bizarre history."
"Bizarre sounds like it's right up Methuselah's alley. It's his kind of place. He should live there permanently."
"It was the home of the Do-It-Yourself Hanging Machine. One of the prisoners designed a self-triggering platform that would eliminate the need for a formal execution. The person who was to die would pull the lever himself. The machine operated through a series of pulleys. The pulleys would put three hundred pounds of pressure on the rope. This would throw the prisoner's body upward and instantly break his neck. Everyone thought that this was an improvement over strangling slowly on the end of a rope."
"Yuk! That doesn't sound like much of an improvement to me," Shari exclaimed.
"Well, the rest of the prisoners on death row didn't like it either. They then installed Colorado's first gas chamber, called Roy's Penthouse, in honor of Roy Best, the warden of the prison.
"Their most famous prisoner was Alfred Packer, the first 'Hannibal the Cannibal.' He was put into prison for eating other people."
"Where do you come up with these things?" Shari knew that Murphy's mind was loaded with strange trivia. Sometimes it drove her crazy. "What does that have to do with the note?"
"I'm getting to that. Near Cañon City is the Royal Gorge . . . get it? A gorgeous sight, a Royal delight. The world's highest suspension bridge spans the gorge at the height of 1,053 feet. Feeling the bridge move on its cables and the surface shake under you as cars drive by is quite an experience.
"Next to the bridge is an Aerial Tram with one of the steepest incline railways ever built. In some places the distance between the gorge walls narrows to only thirty feet. It's truly spectacular. They've even built an amusement park there.
"I'll bet you a Sanskrit manuscript that Tyler Scott is a prisoner in the Ca-on City State Penitentiary. Shari, call the prison and check if they have an inmate named Tyler Scott. Next week is spring break, and I could do with a little vacation."
Murphy heard a buzz, then the sliding sound of a metal door shutting and locking behind him. He was in a small cubicle with one wooden chair placed in front of an inch-and-a-half-thick glass window. On the wall next to the window was a phone.
Murphy looked around. The drab green paint was chipped and scratched. Names and messages were etched into the old surface. It looked as if it hadn't been painted in twenty years.
After another muffled buzz, Tyler Scott entered the chamber opposite of the glass window. Tall and thin, and wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, he looked to be about twenty-seven years of age. His blond hair was uncombed.
Murphy picked up the phone. "My name is Michael Murphy," he told Scott. "I'll get right to the point of my visit. This may sound strange, but I think you may have a message for me. Am I correct?"
"I don't get many visitors. Even my parents stopped coming about a year ago. They keep telling me that I'll never amount to anything. They say that I'm a loser." Depression and despair had etched lines on his young face. "I don't know what this is all about."
"Neither do I," said Murphy.
"A couple of months ago a stranger came to visit me. He told me that a large man named Murphy would probably come and ask for a message. He left some money for me to buy magazines and cigarettes."
"What did he look like?"
"He was tall and in his midsixties, with gray hair and lots of wrinkles. He looked like he had been in the sun a lot. Oh, yeah, he walked with a slight limp ---I saw it as he got up to go. His voice was different. He sort of laughed and cackled when he talked. Kind of spooky, if you ask me."
"What was the message?"
"I'm all out of cigarettes, mister."
Murphy looked at him and smiled. "I'll leave you some money for them."
"Thanks. He said to go to the north side of the Royal Gorge, past the amusement park. Follow the canyon going west for two miles. The canyon will narrow. Look for the cables. That was it. It didn't make any sense to me."