But the ruins of Sunnydale scared him. The tumble into the vestibule of the vault had not scared him, splinters be damned. Returning to the site as the dead started to decompose had not scared him. Even being the lucky winner to find the remains of one of Sunnydale's many cemeteries had not scared him. But this---this was seriously freaky. He was starting to think it was going to turn out to be a splinter that started it all, too.
They went back to the vaulted chamber a day after the bodies of the girls were removed. It wasn't like there was anyone else who could climb down in and get the bodies out. He'd started to wonder if he was getting old. Bad enough that they'd found some comatose guy there after he'd left; where had he come from? Then there was the fact that the crime scenes looked so much different when they got the girls back up to the rim. He remembered the scene quite clearly; there'd been a lot more blood. He was also sure he hadn't hit his head. His hand was scraped six ways to Sunday and he'd probably left a blood trail all the way down to where he'd landed on his ass, but he didn't like to think that he was losing his cool. More to the point, he didn't want to think that his bosses thought so, either. A few comments about the crime scenes looking 'different' and he shut up smartly. Missing a victim? Stumbling like a debutante in high heels? Reporting a bloody crime scene only to look at the photos and see that the victims looked like they'd died in bed? Maybe he had hit his head. It wasn't as if Sunnydale was on a par with Bosnia, so why was it starting to weigh on him?
He'd done lots sites that had been a whole lot worse, and he'd seen things that inspired emotions he didn't think English had words for. He'd once had to rappel into another cavern that had been used as a body dump site somewhere in what used to be Yugoslavia. At the bottom he had found himself confronted with a child's hand amidst all the adult bodies. That kept him awake for weeks afterward, because they simply never found the child it belonged to. It had been a neat cut, too----whoever had done it had not done so by accident. It was the kind of wound that could cause someone to bleed to death, but a tourniquet, properly applied, could prevent that more or less simply and instantly. And so he wondered for a long time afterward: where was the child? It had probably been a little girl, though it was hard to tell with a kid that age; there seemed to be flecks of pink nail polish on the pinky, but who knew? Had someone found her in time? Had they saved her life? Or had she simply tumbled down into the depths to bleed to death somewhere on a ledge in the dark caverns of an unmapped cave?
The best case scenario in that case was that she been wounded and left to die all by herself somewhere in the woods. At least then in his dreams, in his sweaty awakenings after nightmares, he could imagine what passed for a happy ending. Someone found her. Someone rescued her. Maimed for life in a war zone, orphaned, but still alive.
That was not the world of his dreams, though. Did she cry for her mother? Could she still be out there? Did she even have a mother left? Children that age always thought their mothers could protect them from anything, and no kid should have to have that theory proven wrong.
It was like a fairy tale in reverse: it was what actually happened when the storyteller turned the lights off and the luck ran out. The only huntsmen that he knew of in the woods of Bosnia were the ones Little Red Riding Hood should run away from.
Sunnydale's victims were all long dead. Until about two days after they found those girls, that is.
They found a lot of strange things in the wreckage. There were lots of swords, lots of axes, and lots of what looked like wooden tent pegs. Then there were the crucifixes---and the Stars of David. There crystal balls and crescents, Bibles and Talmuds and Korans. To sift through Sunnydale's ruins was to find one's self in the midst of a full scale religious revival. And wherever one went, one found those weird little wooden tent pegs.
It could have been another wacko California town----there were sure enough cemeteries to hint that something wasn't right----but other things countered the religious symbols. There were more than the usual number of bars and strip clubs. The guys managed to salvage the inventory from both types of establishments, and their trailers featured the best beer and the widest selection of g-strings in California. There had also been, to judge by the wreckage, at least one X-rated bookstore and not one but two big chain bookstores somewhere in town. In the end, they wound up crumpled together with a church and a mosque at the eastern end of the pit.
He wondered more and more about what had been going on in the strange little town, what life had been like there before the earth opened up and took them all into the pit. He wondered that even before the rescue workers started dying.
The day they found the dead girls and he took his tumble, he was sure there was no other body down there. The guys stayed around after they hauled his clumsy ass back up to Medical, and no one tripped over a comatose guy, especially a naked one. And why was the guy naked? None of the girls were.
The other strange thing was the dust. It was part dust and part ash, sometimes feathery and light, sometimes gritty and coarse. There were piles of it and it seemed almost like it was made of some kind of glass; there were tiny chips in it. That was where those infernal splinters had come from. His hand had been full of them and by the time the medic pulled them all out his hand booked like it been bitten by hundreds of gnats. Not big enough to bandage, but big enough to scratch, and he did so much of that that finally his hand turned angry and red-looking. He wrapped it up in an ace bandage and stuffed it inside one of his new pair of gloves.
They went back the next morning, him with those stiff new gloves that felt clumsy, and found that the piles of ashes had disappeared. The cavern was too steep at their end for anyone to feel comfortable going down into it, especially with the debris of the town perched precariously on the vault, so they headed back up to find another entranceway into it, but not before he noticed one thing that made his skin prickle.
There'd been piles of dust before. Piles and piles of it. Little mounds of it, actually, each in a neat heap, as if someone had started many little fires and swept the ashes to dispose of before getting distracted. .It glittered in its piles and if kicked danced in the midair, stinging against faces and hands. He began to wonder what would happen if he breathed it in. It felt like bitter snow against his face, sharp and cutting.
But now a lot of those piles were gone.
Each place where one of the bodies had lain had been marked. They'd been so young, and that always made an impression. He was sure there'd been some blood stains. It was the sort of thing he was supposed to notice, after all.
Within twenty four hours, those were gone.
The coroner, he thought. Or those cops. Evidence, that's what it was. They took evidence with them.
They clambered around to where they estimated the other end of the cavern was, and started poking around. That was where he started to feel the hairs on the back on his head start to take a permanently upright stance, even before Gibbs died. It was also where three of Sunnydale's cemeteries had tumbled. He'd looked at maps before going to the site, of course, and he couldn't recall that three of the cemeteries had been located so close together. When the earth collapsed, though, they wound up all jumbled together. It had been kind of amusing to find a strip club piled on top of a house of worship. Finding three bone yards together was not fun at all.
In order to find a way into the cavern they had to pick their way through splintered coffins and remains covered with orange FEMA sheets. Sometimes all there was was a little flag with a number on it. That marked a place where a part of a body had been recovered.
They poked and prodded and measured, got one of the geologists to do whatever it was geologists did, and but finally it Neville himself who located fresh air coming from a ditch. He took a deep breath and smelled sulfur. Worse yet, he had a sudden vision of the drop off at the other end of the cavern, where it had taken six seconds for a rock to hit something. He signaled without looking back, and before long they'd passed the hand spotlight up to him. Gibbs was the one who called it the Batsignal; it was the sort of thing that could be seen for ten or twenty miles on a clear night.
Shining through a hole at the end of what looked like nothing more than a drainage ditch, it revealed merely a prosaic chamber with dirt walls and rough shards of stone as a ceiling. A dark shadow off to one side looked promising. They broke open a larger space for the rest of them, then squeezed into the chamber expectantly. Neville tied off a guide rope to the ditch's iron grate almost without being aware of it, so automatic was the response. It was somehow comforting, having a good stout rope around.
The air was coming from that dark little corner, and when he poked the spotlight through it, he found himself staring at a cavern that must have stretched the length of the pit. Stalactites the size of redwoods held up the roof here and there, but beams of sunlight showed clearly where something or somethings had broken through the vault. The floor was white and shimmery with that dust, and the air seemed to sparkle the way it did with the first snowfall. It was weird and awful and exhilarating all at once.
A gentle slope led down from their perch to the floor and Gibbs was the one who was skinny enough to go through the hole first, the rope rippling behind him. The sunbeams and the reflections blinded them all, so at first the sheer size of the cavern was not apparent. It took an hour to carefully move down the slope, which had to have been a half mile deep. The Batsignal was more of a hindrance in those conditions than a help, and Gibbs laid it on the ground at the bottom, both to rid himself of its weight, and to mark the spot where they'd make their ascent.
From the floor of the of the cavern, the light changed their perspective so abruptly that the sunlight became blinding, and the shadows became voids. The headlamps didn't help at all against that heavy darkness; they just made the dust dance.
They had to get right up on it to realize that one of the shadows they were looking at on the floor was a body. Then they had to get within a few yards of him to realize that he wasn't one of the bodies from one of the cemeteries, either. There was just too much damage to the head--and it was fresh. A closer look compounded the mystery. There were pink stains around the body. Pink, not red. Where was the blood?
The body was wearing the dark blue uniform of a firefighter or a paramedic, lying just outside of a beam of light. The uniform at least was dark with blood, the patches as dark as the uniform fabric. The darkness was such that his legs were only dimly visible in the shadows. Neville glanced up automatically at the hole in the vault above him before checking for a pulse in the throat. The throat felt all wrong so he turned on the lamp on top of his hard hat and found himself confronted with what a ten-story fall can do to the human skull. After another minute or so, he realized something else; the back of the guy's uniform had been shredded. There were dozens of little holes and rips in it. There were no piles of that dust near him or under him that he could have fallen into. And no blood. Neville looked around carefully. A body falling from such a height had a tendency to bounce upon impact, but this guy had landed on what seemed to be the only area on the floor that was clear of those little piles of dust. He'd fallen, been fatally injured in the process, had been cut very badly and in a lot of places, and had bled out. Somewhere. Just not here.
Neville rose slowly from the body, looking around slowly. "Guys! Don't touch anything! Be careful where you step!"
That was his Crew Boss voice, and it had kept them alive in every type of cave and cavern there was. They froze instantly. He was suddenly grateful for the stiff new gloves. He'd always hated replacing just one glove, so he'd gotten a whole new pair to replace the one he'd lost in his fall. They were so thick and hard that the shards of whatever it was in the ash and dust just kept sort of slid off without pricking.
Instinct prodded him to turn the body over again and pull at the shredded uniform on the corpse's backside. There were only a few small bloodstains here and there on the material, enough to make the patches blend with the uniform, nothing more. After the fall and the bounce he'd obviously crumpled flat on his back. There was no lividity that Neville could see. The blood had not had time to settle before it had….had done what, exactly?
He looked around, gently laying the body back down on its back. The sun coming in was viciously bright in his eyes, and he stepped further back to get out of the glare. Seen from down here, the pillars of light were blinding against the void of the cavern. There were too many of them to allow the eyes to adjust, so that he had to squint and peer to make out the dull shapes of his crew.
There was no signal on the radios, so that meant they'd have to clamber back out and notify the officials. It was standard operating procedure, something they'd seen and done a hundred times before, like tying off a guide rope.
There was no reason for Gibbs, the skinny one, to be the one who broke the rope and fell, no reason for him to fall backward down that slippery, treacherous slope. He had old, tough, comfortable gloves, the sort that stuck to the rope like skin to skin. He was light and skinny and quick and usually led them up, but he had the Batsignal to carry.
There was no reason for the rope to snap like that. Neville replayed it in his head a hundred times that night, over and over again, reversing it and slowing it down, finding the moment when the rope suddenly went loose in his hand, when Gibbs' hand slid out of his as he started to tumble backwards.
It was the thing that he tried to put out of his mind that joined him in the dark vaults of his dreams that night. It was the feeling of Gibbs' hand jerking out of his as he grabbed for him one last time. It was the sensation of sudden force, reaching up out of the darkness to grab him and yank him back down into the pit.
The rope didn't break. Something yanked on it with such force that it jerked apart with a snap, one end slashing across his face like a whip.
And it took Gibbs with it.
The next day at evening roll call another firefighter was missing. And Neville found his way to the huge vault beneath the cemeteries, and found her lying in a section of floor that looked like it had been swept clear of dust. Only a few pink stains lay around her to mark her death.
While the cops processed these crime scene, he felt something under his boot and looked down. It was a small green book, and in picking it up he realized it had to come from one of the religious places. On its cover was a crescent. Beneath it in the grass lay a Star of David.
All those graveyards, he thought. All those churches. He understood, and it scared him.
He looked at the police, accompanying the body out through a double line of firefighters, saw their faces. They had guns, computers, and the sort of power that his muscle and size did not give him.
They were scared, too.
Continued in Chapter 18