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«Dead Secret», Beverly Connor

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To my niece, Tonya


A special thanks to my brother, Charlie, for information about knives; Dr. McDaniel; my husband; and my editor Martha Bushko.

Chapter 1

Diane squirmed on her belly through the crack in the rock, dragging her backpack behind her on a tether. The crawl-way was no more than a slit, as if the cave wall had been pierced through with a giant knife blade. The passage was maybe twenty feet long, barely wider than her shoulders, the ceiling two feet high at its highest, sixteen inches at its lowest-a tight fit. Loose stones scraped through her clothes from her chest to her abdomen and down her back. Of all the places she could be, this was the best-the dark, secret places of a cave.

Despite the cool temperature, sweat dampened her shirt, making it cling to her skin. Her mouth was dry from breathing in dust, and she craved a sip of cool water from the bottle tied to her backpack. Her fingertips felt the edges of the opening at the end of the tight passage. She tugged and squirmed until her head emerged into a larger tunnel running sharply to the right. Diane slithered out of the crack like a cave creature, a small cascade of pebbles and dust following her out and down a gentle slope to where she had room to rise to her hands and knees.

The dual lamps on her helmet illuminated the walls, making round designs of light and shadows on the red-brown rock. Ahead, the height of the tunnel increased. At its end, about three feet above the floor, an irregular opening gaped like the mouth of a shark.

Diane slid into a sitting position, pulled her backpack to her and took a long drink from her water bottle. Her gaze briefly lingered on the distant hole in the wall before she examined the sides of the tunnel, picking out survey stations-line-of-sight points from which to measure direction and distance. This visit, she’d only mark the stations with small tags. She liked to go slow when she mapped a cave-do an open traverse and take only basic measurements the first trip, get a feel for the cave.

It took time to learn a cave. When she finished mapping a section, it became like a good home, a place she knew intimately, yet still holding surprises. Her two favorite times to be in a cave were the first time-seeing everything new-and after she had mapped it and made it home.

A big cave like this one could take years to map. The landowners told her that no one had been through the entire cave. As far as she knew, she was the first to be in the section she was now in.

Diane took another drink of water. She listened for Mike, one of her caving partners, who should have been close behind her, but she didn’t hear him crawling through the tunnel.

She turned on her walkie-talkie. “Mike, the passage I just came through is tight.”

There was a moment of static before she heard his voice. “Guess I shouldn’t have eaten that pizza for breakfast.”

The section of zigzagging tunnels she’d just explored was devoid of any remarkable features but possessed a subtle beauty just from the color and texture of the rock.

Her gaze shifted again to the hole at the end of the tunnel. In another cave she’d crawled through a very similar hole that led into a cathedral room with flowstone draperies rippling across an entire wall, stalagmites that reached the ceiling like the trunks of giant redwood trees, and stalactites hanging like colossal chimes. Diane looked forward to getting to the hole at the tunnel’s end.

She took the bright yellow ultrasonic distometer from a pocket on her backpack to measure the tunnel length. The electronic device was more convenient than a tape measure-though she still carried a tape: There were some places that just had to be measured the traditional way.

The floor of the tunnel was covered with breakdown-piles of broken bedrock fallen from the roof-but none were high enough to block her device. She pressed the button and the digital display showed 15.7 feet. She recorded it in her notebook.

The tunnel was three feet tall at its highest, not tall enough to stand in, so she would have to cross the space on her hands and knees. She eyed the breakdown. Not the most comfortable surface to crawl across, but easier than squirming on her belly. At least the knee pads would protect her knees from the sharp debris.

Diane shifted her backpack so that it hung from her side, stuffed the extra tether into one of the backpack pockets, and began the slow advance over the stacks of shaky rubble toward the opening in the wall ahead. She had gone perhaps half the distance when the floor beneath her seemed to shift a little differently with her weight. She glanced down at the angular rocks beneath her and hesitated, unsure what she was seeing.

Between the piles of rock was something strange-an optical illusion. She stopped and stared a long moment, moving her head one way, then another, studying the images. Looking through the space between several of the rocks was like looking through a View-Master-three-dimensional. She thought she glimpsed the tip of a stalagmite. With an electric flash of insight, she realized she was not seeing an illusion, but looking through to another chamber below her, and she was held up only by a jumble of rocks plugging a hole.

“Oh, shit,” she said out loud.

She moved a hand to her shoulder to turn on her walkie-talkie. The rocks shifted again.

“Mike,” she said, “I’m in trouble.”

“I’m not far behind you. What’s the problem?”

“I’m on top of some breakdown that has plugged an opening to a lower level. There’s no floor under me.”

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