Veiled eyes, p.16
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       Veiled Eyes, p.16

           C.L. Bevill
 
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  But she wasn’t a manipulative tormenting siren. When she thought no one was observing her, she looked at children longingly. She let dreams of permanence slip unfettered from her thoughts. She wanted what others had had all their lives, and it dangled before her, some tempting morsel on a fishhook just out of reach.

  Gabriel slowly shook his head, trying to clear it.

  Anna was thinking of Meg Theriot again. The conja woman. The same one that his own mother had wanted him to see to seek relief from the increasing dreams of Anna, dreams of her as she had come closer to him. But Gabriel knew about Meg. He knew what really enticed her, and he knew he would never see her in that capacity. She was nothing more than a con artist with only a smidgen of the gift.

  But Anna, what would she ask Meg? And worse, what would be the answers she would receive? Meg had never liked Gabriel because she knew he could see inside her black heart, and Gabriel didn’t bother hiding his distrust of her. It was true some outsiders could be trusted, but Meg, like Anna, had been raised in a covetous world where money was a god, and only the rich were to be envied. It had warped the older woman. Grudging acceptance of her had come at a price. Meg was one of the family but had no friends among them.

  Not so Anna. Gabriel had raged at her, but it wasn’t her fault. She didn’t know to come back. Not until it was almost too late. Stubborn and willful, he thought. Curious as a cat and dangerous. But she is naïve, trusting, childlike. Anna was contradiction personified. True, she was an innocent to her gifts, and the young went through a stage of exaggerating the emotions from others they felt, but she felt so sure that something was wrong with Meg. She hadn’t said exactly what.

  Gabriel sifted around his thoughts searching for clues. How can she possibly know what has happened to Meg? If he concentrated, he could see the outline of her thoughts beneath their protective wall. A giant garage door, shining with its newness, a smile crossed over his face at her mental construction. This was a mechanic with a mental garage door, which only made sense. It blocked him just as effectively as if it had been a real door and stood between her and him. He frowned.

  Focus, fool, he told himself. Gabriel’s head began to ache. On her. On Anna. There was just a glimpse that lasted but a moment. Darkness surrounded Anna. A solitary beam of yellow light lit her way, showing the glitter of a sparkling substance that seemed to glow in the murk. Was this real or something inside her mind, like the hundred girls hanging from hooks in the back of a tractor-trailer?

  Anna, he thought as the vision vanished. Anna, what are you doing?

  * * *

  Anna had never been in a mine before. She had seen some abandoned shafts in the deserts outside of El Paso on hiking trips with the nuns; holes in the ground where men had searched for some kind of ore. She didn’t know what kind. But that’s what they had been, mere holes in the ground.

  The Unknown Salt Mine was different. The entrance was a simple set of doors where men had once passed through on their way to scouring away the treasures of the earth for their own profit. The plain building concealed a gaping hole in the side of the bluff where huge equipment must have once been brought through. The building had been built to prevent unauthorized individuals from entering the mine.

  She tripped over something and looked down, seeing the remains of rails resting on the bottom of the tunnel. These had been placed to bring up the ore in railcars, she guessed, later to be replaced with vertical conveyer belts in other locations. The yellow light from the headlamp showed the glitter of white materials in the wall. Little dots of luminescent twinkles that looked like diamonds were studded there. This was not some precious jewel, although once it had been called white gold.

  Anna was confused for a moment. It didn’t look like there was enough salt there to bother mining. She remembered the history book she had borrowed from Camille. The salt dome started below the sand and earth on the top layers. She didn’t remember the figure exactly. Twenty feet down. Thirty feet? Somewhere below her was a massive salt dome, like many that dotted the earth beneath Louisianan’s feet. The Avery Salt Mine in southern Louisiana made more money on tourism than it cared to admit.

  The shaft split in two directions. One led to an elevator that had only one direction. Down. Anna examined the elevator and saw that the large freight and passenger elevator was gone. She looked over the fenced-off shaft, directing the headlamp downward, and could see nothing but the heavy wires and buffers that guided the platform into place as it raised or lowered. Below was blackness. The headlamp didn’t illuminate much beyond the range of ten feet.

  Above her was the complicated mechanical equipment that included the counterweights. Anna realized that the company must have had to dig out half the bluff above her to install the elevator equipment and then put it back to disguise the shape. Or perhaps to keep the bayou’s shores looking natural for tourists or even to protect the components from the elements. There was a large gray box beside the gate mounted on a steel beam. She flipped it open and saw buttons. Up, down, emergency stop, and a master control switch. She saw that a key was necessary to use the elevator. The little keyhole was empty in the off position.

  She looked down again. Did that mean that someone was below her? Or did it mean that the elevator had been purposely left on a lower level in case of trespassers? Or was there even an elevator left? Perhaps it had been salvaged in the years since the mine’s closure.

  The only other choice was the other tunnel. Anna went back in that direction and started down it. It was a large tunnel that led straight into the bluff at a slight descent that increased the further she traveled. Large enough to drive a dump truck through, it appeared as though this was the route that the larger equipment had to use to get into the lower levels of the mine.

  After a hundred yards the tunnel had a switchback and continued down. All around her, Anna could see the sporadic glitter of salt in the walls. There were lumps of the white material, but it seemed like only a marginal amount of the substance. Then she went around another switchback and found a world of sparkling, snow white iridescence that threatened to blind her for a moment.

  Anna’s headlamp seemed to make the world glow with fire. She blinked and slowly scanned the ground before her, ignoring the magnificent radiance of the salt dome. There was no trace of Meg Theriot. Neither could Anna feel the older woman. The salt surrounded her like a blanket and left little evidence of anyone’s passage.

  She passed a niche carved in the side of the wide tunnel and hesitated. Someone had spent an inordinate amount of time sculpturing a Madonna formed from pure salt. It was an icy figurine with indistinct features that stared out into the darkness.

  Here was the Blessed Virgin to watch over the salt miners and those who would go into the endless night below the surface. Anna cast a disconcerted look over her shoulder at the Virgin before she continued downward.

  The salt beneath her feet was broken up, and she struggled at times. Clearly this route hadn’t been used like the freight elevator; the rocks underfoot were large and unbroken with the passage of repetitive heavy vehicles. After a time and several switchbacks, she came to another even larger tunnel and began to follow the rails that led deeper. Here the path under her feet had smoothed out, and she realized that she was entering the main part of the mine where men had toiled.

  She passed an empty railcar, fragments of salt rock sitting in it from years past. There were more tunnels that broke off from the largest passageway and she began to worry that Meg could have wandered down any of these. But there was that internal instinct that was drawing her toward something else. Deeper into the earth. Something was down there that she needed to see.

  The air became moist and full as Anna walked further. She began to realize that there were miles of tunnels down here. They twisted and turned and went to every part of the salt dome. There was reasoning behind the seeming insanity of the twists and turns. One simply could not mine a huge hole under the earth, or it would collapse. Instead they had
tunneled into every part of the salt dome to bring the precious mineral up in as vast a quantity as was possible. Then the salt was transported to where it would undergo an evaporative process to separate it from the other minerals.

  But it was only Anna here, alone in the darkness, with her breathing as the only accompanying noise. She began to doubt her own reasoning. Why would Meg be down here? And if Meg was in dirty silt, how could she be down in a salt mine? She looked down and saw a path of pristine white salt, where dozens of men had hauled tons of material ever upward. It was smooth from a thousand feet pounding it down. Only white salt lay beneath her Nikes, not muddy earth that threatened to suck her down.

  “Meg!” Anna suddenly screamed. The sound echoed harshly back at her and she flinched. She’d made some errors in judgment before, but she suspected this was one of her worst. It was one thing to place herself in danger, but to put someone else like a helpless old lady in danger, was something else altogether. Then, Anna let her guard down and focused her mental concentration. Meg! Meg! MEG!

  * * *

  Meg! Meg! MEG! The thoughts burst through Gabriel’s mind like a dam breaking loose. Suddenly for a reason he didn’t want to put words to, he was afraid. But he wasn’t sure who he was more afraid for, Anna or himself.

  Where are you, Anna? he demanded. Where are you! Then he comprehended her location and exactly what she had done. Anna, he said silently, willing himself to be calm. Don’t move. Don’t move, Anna. You’re in danger. Oh Dieu.

  * * *

  Anna heard Gabriel, and she didn’t need to tell him where she was. He read it through her thoughts. But someone else had heard her. Anna. Don’t move. Don’t move, Anna. You’re in danger. Oh Dieu. There was fear behind his thoughts. Fear for her. Fear that something was about to happen to her. She glanced slowly around her.

  The tunnel had been silent. Only moisture dripped from the tunnel walls, trickling down its salty surface to the flattened path below, running off to somewhere far below in little rivulets of liquid that accumulated into pools as she went deeper.

  There was a thud on the walls and Anna started. The entire tunnel abruptly vibrated once as if something had suddenly stirred at her bequest. She didn’t know how long she had been down here, but it seemed like hours, and the time was dragging more as she stood staring into the blackness beyond the beam of her headlamp. Her thighs ached with effort and her knees trembled with the exertion of going continuously downhill. She froze in place and waited. A larger hole was scarcely discernible at the end of the passageway she stood in.

  Anna took a step backward. The tunnel vibrated again. Gabriel, she thought. Whistling man! What is it? Something was coming. A huge shape slowly began to ascend the passageway in the blackness. She lost the form in the intense gloom.

  Anna, Gabriel’s thoughts of dismay came to her. It included regret and longing.

  What’s he regretting? she asked herself resentfully. Then the passage shuddered again sharply. Anna had enough. She turned and ran. Then she tripped over something she didn’t see and fell, stunning herself in the process. Her head hit the earth, and her jaws came down with an audible snap. She felt a spurt of blood in her mouth as teeth caught the sensitive skin.

  Without pause, she scrambled to her feet and moved forward again. Anna caught sight of something next to the rail she had stumbled over, but the passageway pulsated again harshly. Something was down here in the darkness with her, and she was quite sure she didn’t want to get up close and personal with whatever or whomever it was.

  One hand snatched the object up as she brought herself into a loping run. She stuffed it into one of her pockets and concentrated on making tracks. The uphill passageway was not easy to ascend. Anna gasped with physical exertion before she had made two turns. At the third turn she looked back and saw nothing behind her. She came to a lumbering halt and listened to her own thunderous breathing. The walls weren’t vibrating again, but on the edge of her consciousness, something seemed to shift.

  Anna knew she wasn’t alone in this place. But what was worse was that she didn’t know who or what was down here in this passageway with her. It knew she was here, and it could hear her thoughts. With a low curse, she began running again. She ran until her lungs threatened to explode.

  * * *

  She’s in the mine. She can’t be in the mine! How could this have happened? Gabriel took a breath. Anna’s fear was palatable now. He could taste her blood in his mouth, and something warm was trickling down her face. It wasn’t like before. She was able to mask some of the fear. It wasn’t broadcasted over miles as anxiety gone wild with terror. But it was still there. He closed his eyes. Oh, Anna.

  * * *

  Anna hid behind a railcar while her breathing stabilized. It was an old iron car, half on the tracks that were mostly buried in remnants of salt. She slowly looked around her and realized that she was in a narrow tunnel that was getting smaller and smaller. Somewhere on her violent burst of speed to get away from whatever it was that had been lurking in the darkness, she had taken a wrong turn.

  Soon all she could hear was a drip of water coming from above her. It splattered into the salt and made a little plopping noise. Anna looked back and could see nothing beyond the light of her headlamp. No Meg. There was nothing but a huge shape that jarred the walls of the tunnel.

  Then there were whispers in her mind, insidious bits of thoughts that gnawed at her like a dog with a rat. She almost saw. I know. So close. Why? Drawn to it. Must protect. Where is she? Must guard. Leave, Anna. Leave the mine. LEAVE!

  If Anna hadn’t known that she could communicate with others, if she hadn’t done it herself successfully, she might have thought she was going mad. The voices were two or three who murmured internally to themselves with urgent concern. Familiar but unidentifiable, they weren’t directed at her. They spoke to themselves, and she knew that not only was there something huge and hulking in the mine with her, but others of the family who didn’t want her to see something contained here.

  But there was confusion underlying their tones. In her mad rush to escape, she had lost them in the maze of tunnels. Anna almost made a disgusted noise. Lost them but lost myself too.

  Anna stared behind her and knew that she didn’t dare go back. She could only hope that this passage intersected something else and led to the larger tunnels that would take her to the surface. And, of course, there was Gabriel. He knew where she was. Unless, he was one of them, searching for her.

  She rose up and headed up the passage, grateful to feel the slope going gradually upward. Up is good. Anything up is good. Let them keep their secrets. Then a nasty little voice asked her, But what about Meg?

  Anna could only hope that she could convince the family to start searching for Meg, that something was wrong with her, and that she needed help. No matter what was hidden in the mine. No matter what they desperately wanted to keep from Anna. Certainly, the health and well-being of one of their own, even half an outsider, would be important to them. After all, they had gone out of their way to rescue Anna from Dan Cullen, and they hadn’t even met her before.

  Fear is what binds the family together. Fear and love. Fear of what?

  After long minutes, Anna’s own fear began to seep away. She could hear nothing behind her, and the passage led upward. On the other hand, the tunnel intersected with no others and grew smaller and smaller. Dark earth began to streak through the white salt of the dome’s uppermost regions. Then it was red sand with thin streaks of salt marking the walls. Closer to the surface.

  Anna squeezed through a bend and found a dead-end. I have to go back. The thought was demoralizing and frankly frightening. Back into the black depths with unknown people and things. She glanced over her shoulder and saw that the light from her headlamp was dimming. She reached up to tap the batteries, recognizing that she had been down in the mine for what seemed like forever, and the batteries had to run out sometime. When she slipped the spares out of her pocket and disengaged the headlamp,
she saw that there was another light source in the narrow passage.

  The dead-end slithered on a few feet and ended up as a rounded hole where someone had once dug his way with merely a shovel. Anna let her eyes adjust to the bleak gloom and saw that there was a crack in the earth above her, and a little bit of light spilled downward. It didn’t look like sunlight but rather like fluorescent light from a store or some alternate light source. Water had drained through the little crack and made it wider, just enough to show some concealing brush growing at the very edge.

  The headlamp and batteries dropped out of her hands as she doubled her effort into scaling the sides of the craggy tunnel. When she climbed out, knocking great clumps of sand away from the rim of the hole, she saw that the light was coming from a huge billboard on the boundary of the tiny town. She had seen the sign before, when Sebastien had taken her to the auto parts store to get the fuel filter for his truck. With bright lights illuminating it at night so that it was highly visible, it invited people to come back soon to Unknown to fish and to enjoy the lake and to have fun. The base posts, covered with ivy and brush, concealed the small fissure that had collapsed sometime in the past, uncovering a distant opening to the underworld.

  Anna scrambled out and breathed a great sigh of relief. The stars shone above her, and the night air was strangely welcoming.

  Chapter 17

  Monday, December 22nd – Tuesday, December 23rd

  There are those who say that if a homeowner hangs a sprig of rosemary at the entrance of a house, it will drive away devils and contagions of the plague.

  At the entrance of the salt mine, Gabriel met Sebastien Benoit and his sons, Gaspard and Raoul. The road was mostly overgrown with shrubs, and the gates were locked. In the shifting light of a nearly full moon Gabriel could plainly see the mine buildings. A single floodlight by the closed, large double doors of the main entrance of the mine showed nothing out of the ordinary. No one was screaming; no one lay bleeding or dead.

 
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