Authors: Allison Brennan
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” she said.
Sean was shaking. She took a blanket from her backpack and put it over his chest. She didn’t want to accidentally bump the wood in his leg. He grabbed her hand and squeezed.
“It’s okay,” he whispered through clenched teeth.
“I hate to hurt you.” She held a water bottle to his lips and he sipped.
She sat with him for a long minute. Dislocated shoulders were painful, but putting them back in place was twice as bad. Fortunately, other than general soreness, the pain dissipated quickly.
He swallowed, drank more water, then breathed deeply. “Better.”
“Yes, I probably have a mild concussion. I was knocked out for a minute or three. But other than a growing bump on the side of my head and a whopper of a headache, it’s fine. Not even bleeding.”
“Much.” She wetted a clean piece of gauze and wiped dried blood and dirt from his scalp and face. Sean was so much like her brothers—take a beating and still get up fighting, even when they needed to lay low for a while. “I’m keeping an eye on you tonight, since I’m pretty certain you won’t let me take you to a hospital.”
“I’d have to be unconscious before you could get me anywhere near a hospital.”
“I need to take care of your leg,” she said. “Drink some more water.”
“Bossy nurse, aren’t you?”
She smiled. “I’m sure you’re not a model patient.”
“I’ll be a great patient. Especially if I’m bedridden with you.”
She snorted. “One-track mind.”
“We’re still on vacation, Princess.” He paused and gave her a half-smile. “We
on vacation, until someone nearly burned down the lodge. You know what this means, right?”
“Exactly. This doesn’t count as our vacation. I should never have let Duke convince me this would be a quick and easy assignment.”
“Well, except for your clumsiness, I’m glad we can help Tim. He’s heartbroken about what’s been happening.” She assessed Sean’s leg with the flashlight. The bleeding seemed to have stopped, but she couldn’t be certain it wouldn’t start up again. “I’m going to cut your jeans.”
When her hand brushed against the wood, Sean ground his teeth against the surge of pain.
He’d need a tetanus shot, antibiotics as well. She carefully cut away the material. “How did you end up at the bottom of this mine shaft?”
“We found the ATV you were riding by the highway.”
“The kid busted his quad. I chased him, he did a quick turn and I slipped right in here.”
Lucy stopped what she was doing and looked at Sean’s face.
“An intentional trap?”
“I think it was a spontaneous idea on his part.”
“You said he was a kid?”
“No older than seventeen or eighteen. He’s not doing this alone. He was scared of someone. I’m going to find him. I almost had him convinced to trust me—then he bolted. I suspect he planned to circle around back to my quad in the hopes I’d left the keys in and he could get to it before me.”
leave your keys in it.”
He shook his head. “I was stupid. Rookie mistake.”
Lucy gently pulled away the scraps of material. She pulled an emergency combat tourniquet from her first aid kit—the C-A-T used by the military and EMTs were not usually found in an over-the-counter kit, but she’d enhanced her supplies. She wrapped it around Sean’s thigh above the stake and cinched it into place.
“I’m going to pull this straight out, pour water on it, then—”
“Just do it.”
Lucy laid out the rest of her supplies and propped the flashlight on her backpack. This time, she didn’t count. She assessed the angle, then pulled the stake straight out of Sean’s thigh. Nearly an inch of the sharp wood had gone in. She poured water liberally over the wound.
His eyes were closed, his jaw clenched, his face covered in a fresh layer of sweat. The grime and dirt from the mine coated his skin, his dark hair falling forward over one eye. She needed to get him someplace warm, clean, and dry.
She patted the injured area with a thick wad of gauze, then checked the bleeding. The tourniquet was doing its job. She hadn’t thought any major arteries had been hit, considering the location of the stake, but she wouldn’t remove the tourniquet until they got him out of the hole.
She held the gauze there for a long minute. Tim called down. “Lucy? Sean?”
She looked up. The sunlight was brighter. It was eleven in the morning, though it felt as if much longer than four hours had passed since she and Sean first smelled smoke.
“I’m bandaging his leg, then I’ll get him ready to bring up.”
She lifted the gauze. The skin was red and starting to turn purple. She sprayed antiseptic on it and Sean’s body jerked. She bit back another
, took a fresh bandage from the kit, and taped it on the wound.
“You’re good for now,” she said.
“A minute,” he said.
She packed up the first aid kit, then sat next to Sean and took his hand. “You’re going to be okay,” she said, more for herself than for him.
He put his arm around her and held her head to his chest.
She squeezed back tears. Why was she about to cry? Sean was
. It might take him a few days to go running, but he hadn’t broken anything, he hadn’t
A tiny sob escaped.
“I’m okay. You know that.”
He kissed the top of her head, and that made the tears fall. She didn’t understand why she was so upset. She’d get Sean out of this pit, take him to the cabin, watch him all night to make sure the concussion didn’t cause him more problems, and by tomorrow …
What if he’d died?
There were so many things she wanted to tell him, things she didn’t know how to say. The thought of Sean dying terrified her. She’d lost people in her life, people she cared about. Her cousin. Her ex-boyfriend. Her brother Patrick had been in a coma for nearly two years and though she prayed daily, she never thought he’d wake up. That he’d survived and was now back to his old self was a miracle.
With all her hard-fought strength, her ability to close off her emotions, she found her walls crumbling as she pictured Sean sprawled on the floor of the mine shaft, dead.
To Sean’s credit, he didn’t try to get her to talk about it. Maybe he understood her better than she did—he seemed to get her even when she was confused.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
He looked down into her face. Her breath caught at the emotion twisting his face. “I love you, Lucy.”
I love you
She wanted to, but not here. Not now. Her feelings were all jumbled, fear and relief and an aching rawness.
She kissed him instead. “How’s your shoulder?”
“Sore, but functioning. I’m more than ready to get out of here.”
Lucy helped Sean put on the harness while he remained sitting, since he couldn’t put much weight on his bandaged leg. Then she helped him stand. He leaned heavily on her, showing Lucy that he was in more pain than he wanted to admit. “You’re going to have a lot of bruises,” she said.
“I’ll expect you to kiss every one of them. You might have to bathe me, too.”
“The sacrifices I’m going to have to make.” She wondered if she could get a doctor to come out to the lodge.
The scent of decay hit her again. This time, Sean hesitated, too, and looked down the tunnel.
“I smelled it when I first came down,” Lucy said.
“No,” he said, knowing what she was thinking.
“I won’t go far. I promise. Just check it out. If I don’t see anything within a few feet, I’ll turn around.” She clipped on the hook to the harness belt. “I’m not reckless, Sean. It’s most likely an animal. But just in case—” She didn’t say it.
“And if you don’t check it out now, you’ll be back here tomorrow.”
“How do you know me so well?”
Sean kissed her lightly. “I know you better than you know yourself.”
A sudden unease crept up the back of her neck at the truth of Sean’s statement. She called up to Tim. “He’s ready!”
Tim said, “Okay, Sean—I’m starting the winch.”
After an initial jolt off the ground, Sean was lifted slowly to the surface. He used his good leg to keep himself from hitting the wall, his hands holding the rope.
Once he was out of the shaft, Lucy breathed easier. She called up to Tim, “Make sure Sean gets water and blankets. I’ll be ready in a few minutes.”
Lucy picked up a stick to mark her way—she wasn’t taking any chances of getting lost. She aimed her flashlight toward the tunnel that led from the ventilation shaft.
She knew very little about mines, but was aware that they could be unstable and extremely dangerous. Because there was no active mining, she suspected her greatest danger would be from unmarked openings or debris left over from the mining days.
Using the stick to scar the wall, which was mostly rock with some wood supports at the base, Lucy left a trail to follow back to the pit.
As soon as she stepped into the tunnel, the unique, putrid scent of decaying flesh increased. She proceeded slowly as the tunnel veered slightly to the right, shining her light on the ground to make sure it was solid before continuing forward. Glancing back once, she could barely see the light at the beginning of the tunnel and noted that she was on a gradual downslope as well as the curve. The roof seemed to be shrinking. Claustrophobia gripped her for a minute. Breathing deeply, she calmed herself.
But the silence continued to claw at her, more terrifying than the dark. A complete void of sound. No water, no creaking, not even the sound of scurrying rodents. Shouldn’t there be mice or
here? She didn’t know, but it was logical—not that she wanted to encounter a diseased, flea-ridden rat. Only her movement made noise.
The smell of the decaying body grew stronger.
Each footfall carefully placed, Lucy continued. One. Two. Five more feet. The light behind her disappeared. The roof brushed the top of her head, and she hunched over. A small rise of panic grabbed her spine, slithering up to her brain, paranoid warning signals silently shouting
run run run
but no one was here. She had nothing to be afraid of but her own fear. She would not let it win. She counted her steps to focus on something tangible in her battle against her nerves.
Suddenly, she stepped into a wide area that seemed even colder than the pit Sean had fallen into. She stopped to get her bearings, pulling her down jacket closer around her, though that did little to warm her. Shivering, she shined the light on the far walls and estimated that the long, narrow space was about twenty feet long and ten feet wide. Four-by-four wooden support beams were placed in the center, but they didn’t look strong enough to hold up anything.
Here, the miners had kept tools and other supplies. A makeshift stone table had lost one leg and leaned awkwardly in one corner. A metal chair, old and rusted, rested on its side against a wood-reinforced dirt and rock wall. Two tunnels branched off the room—one narrow like the tunnel she’d come from; the other a bit wider with a metal track laid on the ground, disappearing into the dark beyond the scope of her light. An old mining cart with metal wheels sat at the end of the line.
She couldn’t go farther into the mine without putting herself at great risk, as well as worry Sean while he was injured topside. She’d inspect the room, and that was all. Besides, it was below freezing down here—in the eerie light, her breath looked like smoke.
She skirted the wall and shined her flashlight all around, turning in a slow circle.
Lucy bit her cheek to keep from screaming.
Next to the tunnel from which she’d emerged was a horizontal cutout in the wall—about six feet wide and four feet high and lined with wood planks—possibly used for storage, possibly as a makeshift bed for a miner.
It was a stone coffin now.
The corpse’s long blond hair fanned around her, dull and limp from dirt and damp. Her hands were crossed at the wrists over her chest. Her legs were straight. She was dressed in dark slacks and a once-white blouse that was streaked with dirt and grime. Her eyes were closed, her mouth slack, and her skin had a blue, waxy, molted appearance.
Swallowing uneasily, Lucy approached the body. She looked down, not knowing what she expected to see—maybe physical signs of violence, or something else that might indicate whether this was an accident or murder.
The body didn’t look as though it had been dead for more than a few days, but the skin didn’t look quite right, either. It was hard to tell with the long-sleeved blouse and pants. The odor of decomposition was most definitely stronger here, telling Lucy that under the material there were bacteria at work.
On the surface the woman
to be dead three or four days, but this chamber felt like the cold storage room at the morgue. Cold enough to freeze a body and slow the rate of decay. The woman could have been dead for a few days, or months. Without an autopsy, there was no way of knowing.
Lucy’s eyes were drawn back to the victim’s hands, as they were positioned oddly on her body, cupped over her breasts.
Lucy’s peripheral vision caught movement and she jumped.
The victim’s mouth moved and Lucy stifled a scream, certain she was seeing something that wasn’t there. Lucy shined the light fully on the woman’s face. The cheeks were moving. Her mouth was partly open. The glare of the flashlight revealed thousands of tiny maggots filling the orifice.
Lucy blinked, frozen for a moment, and involuntarily pictured Sean. Insects and rodents devouring his body until it was a skeleton. If they hadn’t found him, he would have died here, too.
Lucy ran back the way she came, wishing she had never seen the body.
“Thank you so much for coming,” Lucy told the semiretired doctor who’d agreed to make a house call when Sean refused to go to the closest hospital in Potsdam.