Jackson, from Jackson, studied each of our faces, we leaned in like kids on our first camping trip the wind picking up at just the right moment, whistling in Jackson's pregnant pause. Jackson, glanced a steely gaze at the corporal, "Kegs of beer.... a whole mess of monkey spiders." He started laughing busting our balls again.
Tony, who preached patience in poker but most needed poker school out of any of us to learn it, spoke "No there's not. It's full of experiments."
The volume lowered to conspiratorial again and everybody edged toward Tony. Jackson was disbelieving, "Experiments?' pointing a knife my way, "You've been reading too many of his books..."
"No, I did go into the hatch last week," Tony pulled out a key chain, "turns out the key to the sheds works on the lock on the hatch too."
We looked at the Corporal, he shrugged it was true.
"Well, what did you see?" Jackson pressed, "Out with it private. Experiments on what? People?"
"No..." he shook his head "They figured out how to turn steel into gold."
"What's that... Alchemy?" the corporal asked.
"No," I had to interject "that's impossible, alchemy has been a pipe dream for centuries, and besides the belief was that you'd transmute an element close to Gold on the periodic table into gold... not steel, maybe platinum or even better lead. True, Persians did attempt this, and as a side effect created modern chemistry but alchemy has been debunked"
"Listen to Professor smarty pants" Jackson mocked, "You learn that in college too where they taught you how to unhook a bra, do a keg stand, and add two plus two?"
"I read a lot. Matter of fact, I'm reading a book on alchemy right now, which is where Tony probably got his inspiration for this ghost story, huh Tony?"
"I don't know what book is your foot locker, I don't have a key to that," Tony said. "But I do have a key to the hatch." He held in it the air and we got quiet again. As we did the wind grew louder and it swayed the key tempting us.
Slowly, we all looked at the Corporal, even disbelieving me.
He shifted uneasily from side to side, "Well, alright boys," he seemed inspired. "See what I'm going to do is call an end to this little poker game right here. And you see this pot right here, I figure you all forgot to ante an extra $20, and since I'm winning this pot without a showdown, I'll just take it and head to bed. Know what I mean." He started pulling the money from our stacks.
"No way partner we don't got no extra ante," Jackson stood up "and even if we do I got Kings full. How you going to beat that Corporal." He flung his cards to the table.
"That's a nice hand but see I got a royal flush and you can believe me and you can award me the pot and go into that hatch without me showing or "knowing" what you are up to... If I have to spell it out to you, you can also not believe me that I have a royal flush and I'll fold, you'll win the hand without these antes and we'll play poker all night instead?"
Jackson fumed getting it, "That's a big pot."
Corporal nodded, "It is."
"Maybe you should just keep the extra antes. Sure seems like you are asking me to give up a lot more than these guys... Know what I mean."
"That is true. But that's poker. Sometimes you are the fire hydrant and sometimes you are the dog. Look at it this way, Jackson from Jackson, sounds like there is a bigger pot down below. And in case any of you guys bring anything back I want my share too. Know what I mean?" The corporal swiped up his money and stood eyeing each of us.
We nodded. As soon as the Corporal was out of ear shot, we all quietly got up and followed Tony toward the hatch. When we first made camp months ago nine tanks sat in a perimeter around the hatch with one turrent facing every direction, but now after months of inactivity and apparent disinterest from the Iraqis, only one tank remained, and the rest were sent elsewhere. We knew the crew inside was probably sleeping or playing poker too.
The perimeter had long since stopped looking outward and they damned sure weren't going to start looking inside the facility so we walked pretty freely toward the hatch. I immediately noticed the sand that had built up on the hatch since we'd been there was displaced and only a thin film of sand sat on it now. Tony or somebody else had definitely been in it.
He slotted the key into the lock, turned it, and eased the massive lock open. It clanged loudly agains the hatch. We all warily looked to see if anybody had heard.
"Wait til you see this guys," Tony smiled.
He pulled the hatch open and clicked on his flashlight, we followed suit and stepped down into the long dark, damp flight of stairs.