The Mystery of Dogwood Cross
CHAPTER
29
D’Angelo Organic
My pulse pounded in my head, and once I got a distance away from the entry, I slowed to a walk. There was a good chance that whoever was coming this way was already in the tunnel and would hear the sound of running.
Two things struck me as important. The first was that the tunnel was wide, and its ground was well worn and mostly flat. The second thing was that every few feet, timber props framed the cave walls and crossed the ceiling like ribs.
I kept moving forward until I came to a split. I tried to remember the map and determine my place on it. Left, and I’d be headed toward the stone pier and the cottages. Right, and I’d be headed for the plantation house. I took a deep breath of what felt like centuries-old air and veered left, into the narrower offshoot. Hopefully, they’d be heading to the plantation house.
I was only a few yards in when I heard voices coming from ahead.
No, no, no!
I cut off my flashlight and doubled back, against my better judgment. Back at the fork, I paused to listen. The path back to the pavilion seemed clear, but I knew it probably wasn’t. Whoever I’d head from the basement could come this way at any moment.
My only choice was to go toward the plantation house.
“Yeah, well, he ain’t back yet,” a woman said. I knew that voice all too well. “And I’m not happy about it. We need all the hands working tonight. If he doesn’t show, I’ll hunt him down.”
Another voice, one I didn’t recognize, answered in a deeper tone.
I had to move now.
Once again, I took off at a run. This time, toward the plantation house. I tried to be as light-footed as possible. It was next to impossible to see with the dim light of my phone, but I didn’t dare turn my flashlight on until I made more distance between Maisie and me.
The map said the plantation house was just under a mile from the split in tunnels, but it was impossible to calculate the distance. I’d never been good with estimating length, anyway. All I knew was that I had to move forward. And even though I’d spent the last few weeks walking tons around the island, and before that, I’d kept in fairly good shape with swimming, my lungs gave out fast in this cave. I had to slow to a jog, and then to a brisk walk.
I turned a corner and heard water.
Rain, not ocean.
I slowed even more, and the tunnel opened up into many…well, I didn’t know the name for them, so I’m going to call them rooms. Cavern after cavern, separated by arches, many low. The blackness lifted into indigo, and the rain fell more loudly there. I followed the sound to the place where one of the caverns let out, but paused before stepping into the downpour. Lightning flashed overhead, and the earth shook violently with it.
I stepped outside and tried hard to get my bearings.
Just a few feet outside of the cave, the ground disappeared and in its place was a drop, several stories to the ocean below.
I looked up, to see if there would be any way at all to climb up to the rolling lawn of the plantation house. There was a way, technically, but it required free climbing and hanging onto roots left exposed from erosion.
So, yeah. There was not a viable way out here.
I stepped back into the cave.
I was close to whatever Maisie was hiding, and there was no safe escape. My only choice was to move forward, into the next cavern in the system. So I did.
I passed under another archway and was greeted with battery-operated lanterns lighting up another cavern. Plastic trunks lined the walls, and a few dozen crates were stacked to create aisles, like at the supermarket. Hand trucks waited for use, some already loaded. In the far corner, an archway led to another well-lit room.
I moved in to read the label on one of the crates.
D’ANGELO ORGANIC OLIVE OIL
24 CT. / 500 ML
Olive oil? What? Surely this wasn’t what Rhys’s dad died over. I glanced behind me to ensure I was still alone, then took (another) risk and began prying the crate open. I was met with shreds of paper, like Spanish moss. I reached in, past the paper, and my fingers found cool, smooth, rounded glass. I pulled out a bottle, the cap of which was sealed. I put my flashlight down and cracked the seal. There needed to be gold in that bottle for it to be worth all this trouble.
Slowly, I poured a little of the opaque yellow liquid onto my hand, then lifted my hand to sniff it. And then I did that thing that everyone in movies does: I tasted it.
That was most definitely olive oil.
Murmurs came down the hall, and my heart began to pound again. Quickly, I replaced the cap, the bottle, and then the top of the crate. Careful to keep all of my stuff close, I squeezed into the first shadowed crevice I could find. I worked hard to steady my breathing, but I was sure that even people across the Intercostal Waterway, in Georgia, could hear my heart pounding.
The voices grew louder, and once again, they became clear.
“No one made you post that junk on the Internet,” Maisie sneered. “Calling yourself Blackbeard. That was enough to get the police out here twice after the accident.”
“It was a warning,” the other voice—Henri—answered. “To keep people away.”
“Clearly, it didn’t work,” she snapped. “Between that horrible social worker and that teacher-woman, I’ve had my hands full. Fuller than they were even with two invalids! And that’s to say nothing of the girl.”
As they neared, Henri changed the subject. “Danny got those supports by the pier up?”
“Weeks ago,” Maisie answered. They were close. So close that I could hear keys jangling in a pocket and Maisie’s heavy, out-of-shape breathing between her sentences. I pressed myself deeper into the crevice, but movement at the top of my eye caught my attention.
A gigantic, alien-mutated centipede, with legs that jointed up so high over its body that they looked like spines, made its way down the cave wall, inches away from my face. I choked back a squeal of terror and tried to make myself even more compact, praying it didn’t turn even the slightest way to me.
Its body just kept coming, seemingly with no end. The thing ended up being almost as long as my forearm—which I pressed close against my body. It showed mercy and turned away from me, and meandered out, toward the light, as Maisie and Henri walked past and disappeared into the cavern to the left. Two guys—probably in their mid-twenties—who I’d never seen before followed them, but stopped to load crates onto the hand truck. When it was loaded, they went back down the path we’d all come.
Alone in the storage chamber again, I carefully moved from the crevice. I had to get out of here, and I didn’t dare follow Maisie and Henri into the other cavern. The only way out that didn’t lead to more people was the ledge.
I was going to have to risk it.
I followed the sound of the rain back to the opening I’d found before and squinted as the drops hit my face, fast and hard. I flipped on my flashlight again and surveyed the ledge and the long drop below. There was nowhere to go but to my own death, if I tried to go down. So I scanned above the cave entrance with my beam. If I were in a cartoon, I’d be able to pull my way up using the exposed roots and wet soil.
But I was not a cartoon character. I was a human being with dismal upper body strength. I scanned the area to the left of the entrance and found hope. Even though the ledge broke off just beside the mouth of the cave, the ground two feet away sloped up into a steady incline that didn’t appear too steep. I’d have to jump, but it was a little more than a hop. From there, I’d be able to crawl up if I was careful enough.
So I tucked my light back into my bag, and then tightly pulled my bag to my body.
And I jumped.
And I made it.
The knees of my jeans, covered in the red mud of the southeast, matched my hands. Soaking, with the storm picking up behind me, I found my way to the road. There, I picked up a run, my boots sloshing through the mud. After what seemed like miles, my chest and legs burning from exertion, I was in the final stretch to the gatehouse.
Mom.
Mom, Mom, Mom.
Finally, I could see the warm yellow glow from Mom’s workspace on the second floor.
Mom!
I pushed aside the sliding glass door and let myself in, this time not worried about the mud and water I was tracking in. “MOM!” I yelled, and started up the stairs. “Mom, we need to talk! Something bad is—“
I stopped short.
Mine were not the only muddy footprints in this house.
The others belonged to someone with larger feet.
Mom and I wore the same size shoe.
I backed down the stairs, keeping my eyes on the dark places on the first floor: the path to the kitchen, and the hall down to the bathroom. “Mom,” I said way too quietly. “If you’re here...”
“She’s not here,” came the reply from the darkness.
“Rhys?” I asked, staring to the kitchen. He stepped out, looking exhausted and just as drenched as me.
“She came looking for you,” he said. “But one of Henri’s men was there. They got into an argument. He took her to Maisie. I—I couldn’t have stopped him, Miya, even if I tried. I’m sorry.”
The bad guys had Mom.
The people who killed Rhys’s dad had my mom.
Well, that just wouldn’t do.
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