Read Dead Secret Online

Authors: Beverly Connor

Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Mystery, #Mystery & Detective, #Suspense, #Fiction - Mystery, #Detective, #Mystery & Detective - Women Sleuths, #Women Sleuths, #Medical, #Police Procedural, #Mystery fiction, #Forensic anthropologists, #Georgia, #Diane (Fictitious character), #Women forensic anthropologists, #Fallon, #Fallon; Diane (Fictitious character)

Dead Secret

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Praise for the novels of Beverly Connor, winner of the
Romantic Times
BOOKclub’s Career Achievement Award for suspense Novels

“Calls to mind the forensic mysteries of Aaron Elkins and Patricia Cornwell. However, Connor’s sleuth infuses the mix with her own brand of spice as a pert and brainy scholar in the forensic analysis of bones. . . . Chases, murder attempts and harrowing rescues add to this fast-paced adventure.”

—Chicago Sun-Times

“Connor combines smart people, fun people, and dangerous people in a novel hard to put down.”

—The Dallas Morning News

“In Connor’s latest multifaceted tale, the plot is serpentine, the solution ingenious, the academic politics vicious . . . chock-full of engrossing anthropological and archeological detail.”

—Publishers Weekly

“Connor grabs the reader with her first sentence and never lets up until the book’s end. . . . The story satisfies both as a mystery and as an entrée into the fascinating world of bones. . . . Add Connor’s dark humor, and you have a multidimensional mystery that deserves comparison with the best of Patricia Cornwell.”

—Booklist (starred review)

“Connor’s books are a smart blend of Patricia Cornwell, Aaron Elkins, and Elizabeth Peters, with some good, deep-South atmosphere to make it authentic.”

—Oklahoma Family Magazine

“Crisp dialogue, interesting characters, fascinating tidbits of bone lore and a murderer that eluded me. When I started reading, I couldn’t stop. What more could you ask for? Enjoy.”

—Virginia Lanier, author of the Bloodhound series

“Beverly Connor has taken the dry bones of scientific inquiry and resurrected them into living, breathing characters. I couldn’t put [it] down until I was finished, even though I wanted to savor the story. I predict that Beverly Connor will become a major player in the field of mystery writing.”

—David Hunter, author of The Dancing Savior

“Fans of . . . Patricia Cornwell will definitely want to read Beverly Connor . . . an author on the verge of superstardom.”

—Midwest Book Review

“Connor’s breathtaking ability to dish out fascinationg forensic details while maintaining a taut aura of suspense is a real gift.”

—Romantic Times (Top Pick)

ALSO BY BEVERLY CONNOR

DEAD GUILTY*
ONE GRAVE TOO MANY*
AIRTIGHT CASE
SKELETON CREW
DRESSED TO DIE
QUESTIONABLE REMAINS
A RUMOR OF BONES

*Published by Onyx

ONYX
Published by New American Library, a division of
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street,
New York, New York 10014, USA
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto,
Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)
Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
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Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices:
80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

First published by Onyx, an imprint of New American Library,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

First Printing, December 2005

Copyright © Beverly Connor, 2005

All rights reserved

REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

eISBN : 978-1-101-09999-5

http://us.penguingroup.com

To my niece, Tonya

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

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.”

“Okay. Don’t move. Let me get you in sight.”

Mike was one of the geologists who worked in her museum, and he was the best caving partner she’d ever had. Diane heard the scraping and heavy breathing as he crawled through the slit. So much adrenaline was pumping through her system it was hard not to take flight. She tried to stay completely still, though her heart was pounding so hard that she felt like it could shake the stones all by itself. Just shifting her weight to access her walkie-talkie had made the rocks beneath her move, grinding against each other as they labored under her weight.

If she stretched out on the rocks, would that even out the pressure her body was exerting on them? It might, but moving into a prone position might also be enough to cause the rocks to fall. Diane’s gaze darted around, looking for the edges of the hole, hoping the entire floor of the tunnel wasn’t false. Couldn’t be, her mind told her. The rocks couldn’t be suspended in a large hole. The logic gave her a moment of relief.

Suddenly with the next breath, the rocks fell from beneath her. Diane hurled her weight toward the closest wall and grabbed for the rim of the opening. Her fingers clenched the lip of the hole as her backpack fell to the end of its tether, snatching at the joints in her shoulders, jerking at her grip. She held on to the ledge. Her body, weighted by her backpack, swung above the black void.

Her arms ached after just seconds of hanging. Her gaze searched the rock for a better place to grip, but luck had been with the first hold her hands had found. There was none better.

“Hold on.” She heard Mike’s hammer pounding somewhere behind her, driving an anchor bolt into the rock.

Diane wanted to tell him to hurry. She knew he was working as fast as he could, but her hands were cramping and each breath was a struggle, her ribs stretched tight by the weight of her hanging body. She tried not to think about falling. Jerky flashes of her headlamps reflected fleeting glimpses of the cavern floor below. It would be a twenty-foot drop or more—not necessarily far enough to kill, but far enough to break more than a few bones.

Don’t think about that. Think about holding on.

She heard Mike working with the rope, tying it off.

“Hurry,”
she whispered.

“Almost there,” he said.

She must have whispered louder than she thought.

The backpack felt as if it were filled with lead. She felt her grip slipping. If she fell and landed on her feet, she’d break her legs, but her skeleton could still absorb most of the shock of the fall. Still, spine and hip injury would be almost inevitable.

Don’t think about falling
, she rebuked herself.
Think about hanging on to this damn rock
.

“I can’t reach you,” said Mike. “I’m going to toss you the rope. Grab it. You’ll swing back this way, so hold on tight.”

She leaned her head back slightly so that the rope fell between her face and her arms. Diane didn’t hesitate; she grabbed the rope with one hand, then the other. As soon as she released her grip, her body swung across the opening. The rope caught on the rim of the hole beneath the anchor, sending her under the ledge and slamming her into the thick face of rock dividing the upper chamber from the cavern.

Her backpack whipped back and forth below her like a frantic pendulum. She held tight as Mike tried to stop the swinging.

When the swinging stopped, Diane didn’t move for a long moment. She grasped the rope and breathed deeply, rejecting the pain caused from slamming into solid rock.

“You okay?” Mike peered over the edge at her.

“Nothing’s broken, as far as I can tell.” She looked up at him and then down at the cavern floor and the length of the rope below her. “I think I have more strength to climb down than up.”

“Okay. Let yourself down easy. I’m going to secure the rope a bit more.”

Diane lowered herself, hand over hand, until she reached the bottom of the chamber. Her feet were unsteady on the loose rocks. She sat down and untied from around her waist the line that tethered her backpack to her. Fortunately, nothing had dropped out of it. She stretched her muscles and fingered her rib cage. She’d be sore tomorrow, but right now she seemed fine.

From where she sat, she could see Mike setting another anchor bolt, securing her means of escape. He then placed a pad under the rope to keep it from fraying where it came in contact with the rock.

“Thank you,” she shouted up to Mike.

“No problem.”

Mike was a geologist at the museum where she was director and was working on his Ph.D. at Bartram University. He was a good friend and caving partner, and professed an attraction to her that left her a little unnerved, mainly because he was so much younger than she. But lately, to her relief, he had been seeing Neva, a fellow caver and a member of the crime scene lab that Diane also directed. And if Diane was any judge of body language, Mike and Neva had become close.

Diane thought to herself that while she was down here she might as well make good use of the time. She took her distometer, a notepad and bottle of water from secure pouches on the side of the backpack.

As Mike worked above, Diane picked her way out of the worst of the breakdown and examined the chamber she’d discovered, or perhaps, she thought wryly, that had discovered her. She glanced around and saw that she was standing almost in the middle if it. She measured to the wall ahead—twenty feet, three inches. She turned and measured the opposite direction: nineteen feet, seven inches—thirty-nine feet, ten inches long. Its width was eleven feet shorter. The height to the rim at the top of the chamber was thirty-two feet. Good thing she didn’t know that while she was hanging by her fingernails.

The twin headlamps on her helmet threw round pools of light on the several stalagmites that stood like sentinels around the room, tall and straight, casting their shadows on the wall behind them. The tallest was perhaps twenty feet. The thought that she might have fallen atop any one of them made her cringe.

Other than the entrance she had accidently created at the top, the chamber had only one other egress. About twenty feet from the floor on the wall of the cave was a rounded opening leading to what looked like a tunnel. She scribbled down some notes.

“Ready to climb back up?” yelled Mike.

“In a minute.” Diane walked around the room, examining everything.

“That’s what I like about you, Doc. You don’t let a little thing like a near-death experience keep you from having a good time.”

Diane had hardly heard him, however. The hair on the back of her neck prickled. In her dim peripheral vision she saw the figure of someone crouching behind one of the stalagmites.

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