Read Blind Descent-pigeion 6 Online

Authors: Nevada Barr

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Suspense, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #Mystery Fiction, #Mystery, #Crime & mystery, #Crime & Thriller, #Fiction - Mystery, #Detective, #Mystery & Detective - Women Sleuths, #Mystery & Detective - Series, #Pigeon; Anna (Fictitious Character), #Women Park Rangers, #Carlsbad Caverns National Park (N.M.), #Carlsbad (N.M.), #Lechuguilla Cave (N.M.)

Blind Descent-pigeion 6

BOOK: Blind Descent-pigeion 6
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BLIND

DESCENT

NEVADA

BARR

G. P. Putnam's Sons Publishers Since 1838 a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. 200 Madison Avenue New York, NY 10016

Copyright© 1998 by Nevada Barr All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

Published simultaneously in Canada ISBN 0-399-14371-8 Printed in the United States of America

For Andrea, Jim, and Andrew Goodbar.

Without their expertise and generosity not only could this book not have been written but I would never have been lured into the beauty of the underground.

With deep appreciation of the staff of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, particularly Dale Pate, Paula Bauer, Harry Burgess, and Frank Deckert. Among them, they educated, enlightened, amused, advised, and kept me safe on what turned out to be some of the most amazing journeys of my career. People like those at Carlsbad Caverns make me remember that the hackneyed phrase "our National Parks are our greatest heritage" is the simple truth.

1

Anna hadn't seen so much dashing about and popping in and out of doors since the French farce went out of fashion. Given the pomp and posturing surrounding her, she felt like a walk-on in Noises Off.

  Anna Pigeon was on the overhead team, the second wave to hit CACA-the official if unfortunate National Park Service abbreviation for New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns, home to two of the most famous caves in the world, the original cave, known and exploited since the late 1800s, and Lechuguilla, discovered in the 1980s and yet to be fully explored.

  Though Carlsbad was less than an hour's drive from the Guadalupe Mountains, where Anna had worked some years back, she'd been down in the cave only once. The parts of Carlsbad open to the public were highly developed: paved paths, theatrical lighting, named formations, benches to sit on while changing film. At the bottom, some seven hundred fifty feet underground, there was a snack bar and souvenir shop. When hot dogs and rubber stalactites had been brought into this pristine heart of the earth, their ubiquitous companions came as well: rats, cockroaches, and raccoons.

  It could be argued that the open areas of the caverns felt as much like a Disney creation as Space Mountain. There were no dangerous mazes, no precipitous heights, no tight squeezes. Still, it was a cave, and so Anna had passed on repeat trips. Given the inevitable nature of things, she would spend much of eternity underground; no sense rushing on down before the grim reaper called for her. Her love of bats might have overcome her fear of enclosed spaces, but if one waited, the splendid little creatures were good enough to come out and be enjoyed in less Stygian realms.

  This December she had been sent to CACA from her home park in Mesa Verde, Colorado. Trained teams consisting of park rangers from all over the region responded to catastrophes that ranged from hurricanes to presidential visits. This time it was the injury of a caver.

  Had the caver been hurt in Carlsbad Cavern, extrication would have been simple: pop her in a wheelchair, roll her down to the snack bar and onto the elevator. She'd have been home before her mother knew she was missing.

  But this caver had been injured in Lechuguilla. The cave was on NPS lands near CACA's headquarters. Lechuguilla was closed to the general public for the protection of both the cave and the visitors. Nearly ninety miles of the cave had been explored but it would be many years before it was fully mapped. Lech was a monster man-eating cave, dangerous to get into and harder to get out of.

  Two days into Lechuguilla, a member of the survey team had been hurt in an accident. Not surprisingly there'd been a contingent of experienced cavers at Carlsbad at the time, a small but dedicated group given to squeezing themselves into dark holes and living to write home about it.

  Before Anna and her teammates had descended on the park, the cavers had begun doing what they did best: getting one of their own back. Procedures in place from the last, well-publicized rescue from Lechuguilla, in 1991, the NPS had mobilized in record time. Within four hours of the report, Anna had been on a plane to El Paso. By the time she reached Carlsbad more than two dozen others from the southwestern region had arrived.

  With the overhead team came the inevitable Porta-Johns, food trucks, and power struggles.

  On duty less than three hours, Anna was happy to sit out the political squabbles in Oscar Iverson's snug little office. There, far from the madding crowd, she manned the phones in her official capacity as information officer, doling out approved statements to a press already panting for another media glut like that generated by the Baby Jessica case in Texas. When she was eight hundred feet below the surface of the earth and two days travel from the light of day, a grown woman in a limestone cave was almost as good as a baby in a well shaft.

  For the past half hour reporters had been getting short shrift. Anna was reading. By chance she'd picked Trapped!, the story of caver Floyd Collins, off Iverson's shelves. It detailed the gruesome death and media circus surrounding the entrapment of a caver in the 1920s. Collins had become wedged in a tight passage; his attempts to wriggle free had brought down loose dirt and rock, entombing him from neck to heels, his arms pinned at his sides. For thirteen days, friends had made the dangerous descent to feed him, while up above concessionaires sold food and souvenirs to an ever-growing crowd of vultures gathered in curiosity, sympathy, and morbidity. On the fourteenth day rains so softened the earth that the access tunnel collapsed. Collins was left to die alone.

  Scrawled in the margin of the book were the words "fact: wedge victims die."

  Transfixed by the same dread a woman in a stranded VW might feel watching a logging truck bearing down on her, Anna was glued to the book. Iverson, Carlsbad's cave specialist, gusted into her sanctuary, and she dropped Trapped!, glad to be rescued from its bleak pages. He waved her back into his ergonomically correct office chair and folded himself haphazardly over the corner of the desk.

  Housed in an old stone building built in the 1920s, the office was small, crowded by two desks, the walls lined with metal shelving and stuffed with books. Sprawled over the cluttered desktop, Oscar looked as homey and leggy as a spider in his web. Long limbs poked out the fabric of his trousers at knee and hip. His arms, seeming to bend in several places along their bony length, were stacked like sticks on his thighs. Come Halloween it would take only a little white paint to pass him off as a respectable skeleton. A mummy of the sere and unwrapped variety would be even easier. The man looked made of leather, hide tanned by the desert, hair coarse and straw-colored from the sun. Anna guessed he was close to her age, maybe forty-five or -six.

  "Got some bizarre news," he said, banging his heel softly against the metal of the desk.

  For whom the bell tolls, Anna's mind translated the hollow ringing.

  "Now that the relatives have been notified we can release the name of the injured woman. Frieda Dierkz. And she's asking for one Anna Pigeon."

  Shit, Anna thought. It tolls for me.

  "Frieda?" she echoed stupidly.

  Iverson shot her a startled look. "Don't you know her? From the intensity of the summons, I got the idea you two were best buds."

  "Buds." Anna's mind was paralyzed, not so much by shock as by incongruity. Hearing Frieda's name in reference to the victim of the rescue was akin to running into one's old grammar school teacher in an opium den.

  "She's the dispatcher at Mesa Verde," Anna managed. "We're . . . friends." They were friends, fairly close friends, and Anna wondered why she'd sounded so halfhearted.

  "Dierkz was on the survey team," Oscar said patiently, his washed out hazel eyes trying to read Anna's face.

  It wasn't an earth-shattering revelation. Most cavers led other lives. They were geologists and physicists, beekeepers and bums; regular folks who had been bitten by an irregular bug that compelled them to creep beneath the skin of the world every chance they got. Anna had seen the photos of a helmeted and mud-bedaubed Frieda grinning out from nasty little crevices Anna wouldn't go into for love or money, and she'd listened with half an ear about her upcoming "vacation." She'd just not put two and two together.

  "What does she want me for?" Without much caring, Anna noted the disapproval sharpening Iverson's gaze. She could guess where it came from: cavers helped cavers. It was an unwritten law of survival. Who else was going to fish them out of the god-awful places they insisted on pushing their way into? Iverson stared, and Anna stared back, refusing to apologize or explain. A moment passed, and his look softened. Perhaps he reminded himself she was not a caver but a mere mortal.

  "The injury is worse than first thought." He spoke slowly as if Anna had a learning disability. His voice was low, gentling. She would have been irritated at the condescension had she not known Iverson always talked that way. "The caver who hiked out said a broken leg. Painful but not life-threatening. Apparently the rock that smashed her kneecap struck a glancing blow to her left temple as it fell. She was knocked unconscious but only briefly. We just got a second report. It was brought out by a member of another team surveying in the Great Beyond. He met up with one of Dierkz's team in Windy City and brought out a message. She's been slipping in and out of consciousness and has suffered some disorientation."

  "Head injury," Anna said. "Bad news."

  "Bad news," Iverson agreed. "Peter McCarty, a member of Dierkz's team, is an M.D. in real life. That's the good news. She's got a doctor with her. McCarty recommended we get Ms. Dierkz what she wants. She's agitated, and it is not helping her medical condition any. He feels it would soothe her if she could have a friend there."

  "A lady-in-waiting?"

  "Exactly."

  A chilling image filled Anna's mind: herself crouched and whimpering, fear pouring like poison through her limbs, shutting down her brain as the cave closed in around her. Adrenaline spurted into her bloodstream, and she could feel the numbness in her fingertips and a tingling as of ice water drizzling on her scalp. To hide her thoughts she rubbed her face.

  "Will you go?" Iverson asked.

  Anna scrubbed the crawling sensation from her hair with her knuckles. "Just deciding what to wear."

  Oscar looked at her shrewdly, the long, narrow eyes turning the color of bleached lichen. "Let me rephrase that: can you?"

  "I don't know," Anna answered truthfully. "Can I?"

  "Caving?"

  "None."

  "Climbing?"

  "Some."

  "Rapels sixty to a hundred fifty feet. Ascents ditto, naturally. Rope climbs with ascenders."

  "I can do that."

  "Crawl on your belly like a reptile?"

  Jesus. "How much?"

  Oscar laughed, a huffing noise concentrated in the back of his throat and his nostrils. "Not much where we're going. Lechuguilla is a big place. Huge. It's where the NPS stores Monument Valley during the off-season."

  It was Anna's turn to laugh, but she didn't. "The crawls," she said. "How much is 'not much'?"

  "Three or four good crawls."

  "An oxymoron."

  Iverson sat, letting her absorb the information. His heel rang its dull music from the side of the desk. Anna quashed an urge to grab his ankle, stop the pendulum. She tried to think of Frieda, alone and confused, hurt and afraid. She tried to think of friendship and honor and courage and duty. Cowardly thoughts of a way out pushed these higher musings aside: claims of a bad heart, a dying mother's call, or, if all else failed, "accidentally" shooting herself in the foot.

  "Can you?" Iverson asked finally. Her time had run out.

  Over the cringing claustrophobia, her mind had begun to chant the Little Engine That Could's mantra. She gave the cave specialist the edited version. "Sure."

 

 Oscar Iverson had vanished into what in any other law enforcement organization might have been gloriously termed a council of war. Under the civilizing influence of the NPS it was called a "team briefing." In an attempt to feel unity and coherence during cuts and down-sizings, the Park Service had begun to overuse comforting words: team, group, symposium, cluster. Words to keep from feeling alone and, if necessary, to diffuse the blame.

  Anna had been handed over to two cavers from Palo Alto, California. Timmy, a man who when aboveground was actually employed as a bona fide rocket scientist, though he preferred a less incendiary title, and his wife, Lisa, a New Zealander who had caved all over the world, enjoying photographic junkets in places with such alluring names as the Grim Crawl of Death.

  Had Anna been able to focus on anything other than not getting the shakes, she might have enjoyed the transformation process. Like an ugly duckling in an old movie, she was made over from head to toe. She was fitted with a brimless helmet and a battery-powered lamp strapped on with elastic. The batteries, three C-cells, resided in a black plastic case at the back of the helmet. The pack Timmy and Lisa put together for her was unlike anything she had used before. An elongated sack with a drawstring top, it was worn on the hip, with the strap over the opposite shoulder, like a woman's purse. A second strap secured it loosely around the waist.

BOOK: Blind Descent-pigeion 6
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