Zach Douglas broke through the tunnel floor at five-thirty in the afternoon. “Hey, y’all, I think—” He broke off on a whisper, his mouth dry from dust and dehydration. He cleared his raw throat and shouted up to the others, “Hey, I think I found a weak spot here!”
Tired muscles and aching fingers were instantly forgotten as rock gave way to nothingness and a puff of stale air blew into his sweat-drenched face. The team had been digging in the sticky mud all day, but this was what he’d been hoping for the past two months. What he’d been looking for the past three years. A shudder of wonder and excitement shimmied down his spine.
“You got something, Zach?” Ellen called to him from the surface as she slid down along the ropes to land beside him. Her headlamp cast an eerie glow in the small vertical chamber. The floor slanted at a thirty-degree angle at one end of the ten-by-ten stone enclosure. The tunnel bulged out in the middle so the area felt much larger than it actually was.
“Omigod!” She slapped a muddy hand on his shoulder. The bio chem student loved to dig as much as the rest of the guys. “Michael, Don! Get down here now. Zach’s breaking through!”
Zach shook his head as two more figures scrambled down the various ropes, their headlamps reaching into the darkness like Hollywood searchlights. Everyone crowded together, euphoria and adrenaline thick in the air. They all examined the place where he’d felt the puff of breeze.
Zach hated to wipe the excited expressions off their dust-streaked faces, but someone had to be the adult. He felt like a kid on Christmas morning, but Don was the only official minor. Still, Zach had to be the responsible one. He was the park ranger.
“Guys, we can’t all be down here while I do this. I haven’t set a bolt anchor yet to clip myself in.” He pointed to the small hole he’d made. “This whole floor could collapse if there’s a cavern underneath.”
Michael nodded. “You’re right, we shouldn’t even be standing here, but it’s just so exciting. I’ve never been on a dig where someone broke through before.”
“Me neither,” admitted Zach. He looked around at Ellen’s and Don’s disappointed faces, trying to come up with a way for everyone to share the moment while keeping safe at the same time. As the more experienced of the four, he knew that hanging out on top of a compromised cavern floor discussing who would sling the final shovel of rock was the height of stupidity.
“Okay, here’s what’s doing. Y’all are going back topside while I set some protection and break through. If this were Caving 101, we’d all be getting an F. I’m going to clip in and make a bigger opening. Then we’ll figure out what we’ve got and how to go through together.”
Don and Ellen nodded. Michael wrapped the rope around his waist on hip belay and the others clipped in with their Jumars and shimmied back up the nylon lines. “You’re lucky to have such agreeable folks working on this,” Michael murmured.
“Don’t I know it,” said Zach.
The entrance was a new find. In his wildest dreams, he’d been hoping for something like Lechuguilla Cave, in New Mexico. Don, Michael and he were in it for the exploring. Ellen was here for the science and her final thesis at the University of Texas.
They were on private property and permission to dig had been easy to obtain. So far the project had been pretty much a bust. Back-breaking, sweat-producing work with nothing to show for their efforts but good times. Working together on Zach’s off weekends, few and far between all winter and spring, they were finally at the payoff.
After Michael’s ascent, Zach set a bolt anchor, clipped in and began hacking away at the rock. Topside, he could hear everyone talking. A bizarre anomaly in the tunnel allowed sound to carry from directly overhead. He even heard his own cell phone ringing in his backpack, one hundred feet above.
Three more swipes with his crowbar and he had a basketball-sized hole. The wind below sucked the pebbles, dirt and rock down inside like a giant vacuum so he didn’t even have to clear the debris away. There must be a good-sized chamber underneath him to have that kind of suction. He kept working at the opening until it was large enough to slip his head and shoulders through.
Ellen, Don, and Michael looked down at him, calling encouragement. But he barely heard them now, his heart pounded with excitement. His palms were slick with sweat.
He’d been hooked on caves since he was a kid and visited Carlsbad Caverns with his family. He’d loved everything about the underground rooms and majestic formations. Even when he and his sister had gotten separated from the main tour, he hadn’t been frightened. He’d been fascinated.
Tammy. God, his twin would love this. Well, she wouldn’t like the dirt part anymore, but she’d love the discovery part. He couldn’t wait to make that call.
It took more than a little courage for him to put his head inside the gaping hole in the tunnel floor not knowing what was down there. Kind of like Roman Holiday. Tammy’d talked him into renting it at the video store when she’d come to visit last month. Expanding his “chick flick” education, she’d said. They’d stuffed themselves with buttered popcorn and watched Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn putting their hands into a gargoyle’s mouth.
Zach lay on his stomach with his head and shoulders sticking straight down into the hole. There was just enough clearance for him to squeeze through and still use his hands to pull himself back up and out. He felt the blood rush to his head as he slipped into the pit. Cool air blew against his face. His headlamp wasn’t very bright, but wild, beautiful rock formations were clearly visible—gypsum crystal melting away into deep shadows of what must be a tremendous chamber. He flicked on the high-powered flashlight and his breath caught.
The cavern below was massive, at least three or four hundred feet long, by his estimate. He hung sixty feet in the air, upside down over the floor. His light didn’t reach quite to the ends of the room. At the far edge of one wall was a huge pool and what appeared to be a waterfall.
Their new cave was obviously part of the Edwards Aquifer system, just as he’d suspected. The other end or what he could see of it contained immense calcite curtain formations and mountainous soda straws. A magical-looking fairyland. The fact that his were the first eyes to have ever seen the soaring walls and undulating flowstone made it that much more amazing.
He couldn’t wait to get down on the cavern floor and examine everything up close. He raised his head out of the chasm with a silly grin on his face. It was like leaving another world.
“Guys, you won’t believe this,” he called up to the team, still feeling a little dizzy.
“Zach? Zach?” Michael, Don and Ellen were all calling down to him. Their voices were no longer excited; they were panicked.
“You’ve got to tell him,” whispered Ellen.
“I don’t want to.” Michael sounded angry.
“Someone has to,” insisted Ellen.
What the hell? They had no idea he could hear every word.
Don and Ellen peered down at him. Michael was now halfway down the rope without a belay.
“Are they sure?” Don whispered to Ellen. “I mean they have positive I.D. on her?”
Zach’s blood ran cold.
Michael landed at his feet. The light from the headlamp made him look washed out and pale, an awful sadness in his eyes.
No. Whatever Michael had to say, Zach didn’t want to hear this. Not here, not today.
“Zach, your phone kept ringing. I figured it must be an emergency so I answered. There’s...there’s been a murder.”
Jesus. “Where? At the park?”
As a ranger he would be needed at the scene ASAP. Zach took a deep breath and waited for Michael to respond. His heart rate should have begun to return to normal, but it didn’t. An uneasy feeling swept over him like a cold wind as he looked into Michael’s face.
“So I’ve got to get back to the park station. My God, who was killed?”
Michael shook his head. “You don’t understand. The murder wasn’t here.” That sadness in his eyes deepened as he reached out to put a hand on Zach’s shoulder. “It happened in Dallas. The phone call was from your mother.”
No, no. Zach felt the air leave his lungs but Michael continued to speak.
“I’m so sorry, Zach. They found Tammy this afternoon in her apartment. Your sister was murdered.”
Excerpt from: BULLETPROOF TEXAS by Kay Thomas
Copyright © 2009 by Kay Thomas
Permission granted by Harlequin Books S.A. and Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved