Welcome to The Book of Bones a (mostly) weekly adventure serial.
Click here to download the chapter in digital format.
If you haven’t been reading along, start here with Chapter 1.
The path into Carlsbad Caverns seemed to go on forever. It wound down at a steep incline through majestic chambers that looked like something out of a fairy tale, albeit a dark and foreboding one. Only Padilla, who had visited here many times before, seemed immune to its magnificence. Even Bones, who had seen more than his share of amazing sights, found himself slack-jawed at the sight. Perhaps he would return someday and explore this place properly perhaps he would return someday and give this place the time and attention it deserved.
Jessie glanced up at him, reading his thoughts. “When this is over, you should bring me back here. I think I deserve it after all I’ve been through.”
Bone smiled and winked. He wasn’t ready to think about that right now. They moved in in silence until, after a descent of what felt like hours, they found themselves in the midst of a horde of tourists.
“Where did all these people come from?” Jessie asked. “We nearly had the place to ourselves on the way down.”
“Most people take the elevator from the visitors center,” Amanda said.
“Lazy bastards.” Padilla grinned. “If an old man like me can make the hike, they can too.”
“I don’t know. The walk was tough enough. I don’t relish the idea of doing it again, except uphill this time.” Kruger looked back in the direction from which they had come, a slight frown creasing his brow.
“I’m glad you said it and not me.” Padilla knuckled the small of his back. “My brain says I can handle it no problem, but my body is raising some objections.”
“The place we’re looking for is not too far from here.” Bones unfolded a map of the caverns and they all gathered around. He tapped their destination on the map.
“I remember this place,” Padilla said. “I wanted to take the guided tour but Mama was having none of it.”
“Let’s split up. As a group, we make a motley crew. Might draw attention” Bones felt Jessie’s hand close on his.
“You three go ahead. We’ll follow along behind you,” the young woman said.
They navigated the crowds of tourists, trying their best to blend in. It wasn’t difficult, considering how focused the visitors were on their surroundings. Everywhere Bones looked he saw something wondrous. It was hard to believe that it lay beneath such dry, barren land up above.
Despite their fascinating surroundings, Bones kept an eye out for anything amiss. It wasn’t long before he grew suspicious of two men who seem to be following along behind them. Each wore cargo shorts and a T-shirt, and carried maps of the caverns. At first glance they blended with the rest of the tourists, but he sensed something was wrong. For one, they made too much of a show of checking their maps. The caverns were large, but the concrete paths lined with metal rails weren’t exactly difficult to follow. And every time he glanced in their direction, they quickly took an interest in a stalactite or other formation. They were faking it.
Finally, Padilla halted in the middle of the pathway. He turned, swept the caverns in his eyes, and then leaned back against the railing. Kruger and Amanda did the same. Bones kept walking toward them.
“What are you doing?” Jessie whispered. “I thought we were pretending to be in separate groups.”
“I think we’ve been made. Don’t look around.”
Jesse grimaced. “I wasn’t going to.”
“Yes you were.”
“All right. I was, but you don’t have to be smug about it.”
“Smugness is one of my many charms.” He halted about five paces from the others, turned and rested his hands on the rail. “I think we’re being followed,” he said, not looking at them.
“What do we do?” Padilla asked, still staring off into the distance.
“You guys keep wandering around. Jessie, you stay close to them. I’ll see if I can get them to follow me.”
Padilla checked his watch. “Hurry. The tour group should be coming up at any minute.”
“Got it.” As the others wandered away, Bones took out his map and gave it a long look. Next, he took a quick look around, not too subtle, but not too obvious. At least he hoped. He tucked the map into his pocket, turned, and strode away. He didn’t exactly walk fast, but neither did he stroll. He walked with a sense of purpose, his eyes fixed on a spot in the distance.
The two men didn’t look at him as he passed by. Bones kept moving. As he turned a corner, he dared a quick glance back. They were following him. Good. Well, it wasn’t good that whoever was after them had caught up yet again, but at least he knew who they were and where they were. Now to deal with them.
No sign marked the entrance to the King’s Palace. That seemed to be the way here. Bones supposed that drawing attention to the out-of-the-way spots would only encourage tourists to wander off to places they weren’t supposed to be and get themselves lost. That was fine by him. Fewer witnesses.
He heard voices in the distance and waited. A few minutes later, a family wandered past. The father, busy trying to keep the children corralled, didn’t notice the smile his wife flashed at Bones. He merely nodded in return. He didn’t do married chicks; not literally, not figuratively. When he was alone again, he vaulted the rail and hurried down the steep, winding pathway, as it doubled back again and again. He didn’t turn on his flashlight. His pursuers would figure out where he went soon enough, if not immediately, but he didn’t want to draw the attention of any other tourists that might pass this way.
It wasn’t long before the flashlight became a necessity. Bones had excellent night vision but this was something else entirely—an utter absence of light that one could find only when caving, or at the lowest depths of the sea.
He clicked on his MagLite. The red filter he had placed over the lens cast a dim light a few feet in front of him. It was enough to see by, but not enough for someone to spot him unless they were close. He assumed there was a tour group somewhere up ahead and he had no desire to draw their notice.
He made his way deeper into the caverns along a well-worn path. He passed through more magnificent chambers that already seemed a bit mundane after all the wonders he had seen thus far. He swept his beam back and forth, looking for the perfect spot. He didn’t want to kill these men if he didn’t have to. He supposed he could simply hide and let them pass him by but that would only gain him and his friends a short lead, and that would be virtually worthless if there pursuers had figured out exactly where Bones and the group were headed next.
He finally came to a place where a curtain of stalactites cascaded down from the ceiling to meet a wall of stalagmites. Behind them lay an open space more than large enough for a man to hide. Perfect. He hefted a stone the size of his fist, hunkered down in the darkness, and waited.
Minutes later, he heard the soft shuffle of people trying to move quietly and almost succeeding. He tensed, ready to spring. A dim glow announced the men’s entrance into the cavern. They played their flashlights around, searching. A narrow sliver of light swept a few inches above Bones’ head, but he was well hidden. After a few more moments looking around, the men moved forward. The path carried them within a few feet of where Bones crouched. When the men had passed him by, he made his move.
Unlike his pursuers, Bones actually could move in silence and his long legs allow him to move at a cautious pace and still close the distance in an instant. He didn’t need his flashlight—the men were silhouetted in the glow of their own lights and it was child’s play to make his attack.
The man on the left was bigger, more muscled, and strode forward confidently, while the fellow on the right continually looked around, his nerves on edge. Bones judged him the less dangerous of the two so he went after the bigger man first.
Clutching his rock in both hands, Bones club the man across the back of the head. His knees turned to rubber and he collapsed in a heap. His partner could only manage a “What…?” before Bones cracked him across the forehead.
With both men down, Bones bound them with their own shoelaces, stuffed their socks in their mouths, and gagged them with strips torn from their shirts. He then dragged them into the same place he had hidden only moments before. When this was over, he would call in an anonymous tip to make sure the two men were found. But for now, they’d remain here, where they couldn’t interfere.
He took a deep breath. Time to find out if he and the others were right.