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A MERENGUE BEAT SPLIT THE AIR, TRILLING FROM THE Nextel on her hip. The trace evidence lab’s number glowed from the screen.
“Evie?” Marissa asked. “How’s it going, chica? Tony wants to know if you’re done there.”
“There’s another disaster for you to visit. And I’m being literal.”
Evelyn’s nose itched, and she rubbed it with her forearm since her gloves were covered with black powder. Next to her, Riley flipped through the Markhams’ address book. “I have three more rooms to fingerprint, and I want to fume the table with superglue.”
“Sorry, but there’s been an explosion at the salt mine.”
Evelyn held the talk button on the radio–wireless phone she had been issued by the county, resisting the urge to bang it on the table. “Excuse me?”
“The Alexander salt mine, the one under Lake Erie. The building is about a two-minute walk from where you are right now.”
Tony expected her to go into a mine? Beads of sweat burst from the pores on her forehead. “Wouldn’t that be an Occupational Safety and Health matter?”
Marissa’s sympathetic sigh floated from the walkie-talkie. “I know it’s the last place you want to go, Evie, but there’s five guys dead of nonnatural causes. That makes it an ME case. Tony says all you have to do is photograph and supervise getting the bodies out. OSHA will do the rest. Hang tough. You can do it.”
“I have my reservations about that.” Evelyn snapped the phone shut.
“Salt mine, huh?” Riley asked.
Grace Markham’s apartment suddenly felt unbearably stuffy. Evelyn buried her face in the sleeve of her lab coat.
“Ever been down there? It’s pretty neat.” He dropped the book back on the victim’s desk and glanced at her. “You have a black smudge on your nose.”
THE FIVE-STORY BUILDING perched on the corner of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River, a gleaming construction of fresh brick. Evelyn hated it instantly.
The Flats, the banks along the mouth of the river, had been an industrial depot before developers in the go-go eighties converted it to trendy bars. As the nineties went bust, the area began to go back to its roots, and the new salt mine building had been built over the rubble of the landmark Fagan’s Pub. Evelyn had been to Fagan’s only twice in her life (at seventeen, too young to drink but pretty enough to get past the bouncer, and at twenty-six, plenty old enough to drink but sufficiently young-looking to get carded), but that didn’t matter. Fagan’s had watched over both the lake and the city for generations, and she mourned it.
The parking lot attendant checked her ID, and a hefty man in a hard hat emerged from the structure to guide her in. It did not comfort her that he appeared even more harried than she felt.
“I’m Phil Giardino, plant manager. You can come this way. I don’t know exactly why the ME’s office needs to be here,” he added without apparent malice. “OSHA will be out in full force any second now.”
“Any industrial accident is an ME’s office case. I won’t take too much time.” Believe me, I’ll set a record getting back to the surface. “Where are we going?”
He held open a heavy glass door, and they entered the lobby—not one designed for public use but a small area with a time clock, lockers, and a secretary. Giardino moved with such a quick pace that she had to trot to keep up with him. He tossed information back over his shoulder. “We’re opening a new vein. This whole building is new, an expansion of Alexander’s main operation, at East Eighty-eighth. This morning’s blast went wrong, somehow.” He stopped at a heavy metal door and slid a magnetic-stripe key card through a reader to open it, leading her into a large room with file cabinets, two elevators, and three men sitting at a table covered in papers. A fourth man in a green uniform crouched in front of the elevator doors, tools spread across the floor.
Evelyn struggled to picture the situation she was going to have to analyze. “It caved in?”
“No!” Giardino snorted, as if that were funny. “Salt mines don’t cave in, never have. For every room we excavate—that’s a square area about sixty by sixty feet—we leave one room untouched. You get a sort of checkerboard effect, and it’s plenty secure. No, it seems the dynamite charge had about twice the power it should have, knocked a front-end loader off its wheels and onto a group of guys. It killed three men right away, and two more died on the way to the hospital. I’ve got six wounded too.”
He recited these facts as concisely as possible, his jaw muscles tight. Then he paused only long enough to push the button for the elevator. She hoped that didn’t mean what she thought it meant.
She swallowed the lump in her throat and asked. “We’re going down?”
“How far down is it?”
“About eighteen hundred feet.”
She tried to frame that image in her mind, and the idea of it made her step back, knocking into the uniformed man’s gear on the floor. “Sorry,” she murmured, righting a bottle before it could drip more than a few spots of oil onto the floor. “Is the elevator working? It’s not broken, is it?”
The man grinned at her, without the benefit of his right front tooth. “Just routine cleaning—oiling the cable and wiping up the dust from the carbon brushes. You’re not claustrophobic, are you?”
Yes, she wanted to say. Yes, I am, and eighteen hundred feet down into the earth is about the last place I want to go. Why the hell do I have to investigate an industrial accident anyway? It’s not like I’m going to know what I’m looking at.
But she already knew the answer. A bad industrial accident like this one could wind up in lawsuits for everyone from the company and the dynamite supplier to the workers’ union. While OSHA would complete the official investigation, her first-on-the-scene photographs and notes would be used by all the parties. She wiped her hand on the hem of her lab coat.
“Come on,” Giardino said and stepped into the elevator.
Its plain, metal-paneled interior looked normal enough, except for the rust spots that covered every visible inch. Eighteen hundred feet. The elevator rode smoothly, but could the floor, underneath the tile, be as rusty as the rest of it looked? Enough simply to collapse under their weight? Giardino had to weigh 250 if he was a pound.
“This seems a little rusted.” Her voice creaked from her dry throat.
He grinned without mirth. “Everything rusts like crazy down there because of the salt. But it’s secure, don’t worry.”
“What about fire?” She became aware of each breath. Was there sufficient oxygen in the mine? “Did the explosion cause a fire?”
“Just the initial burst. It burned the guys pretty bad, but then it died out. There’s not much down there to burn, other than the seats off the machines and some jackets and stuff that they had thought were in the safe zone.”
Nothing that a couple million gallons of lake water wouldn’t put out, anyway. She grasped a handrail, and the gritty, flaking surface bit into her palm. “What about the lake? Did the explosion crack any walls, cause any leaks?”
Her persistent questioning finally penetrated his worry. “You don’t have to be nervous. I’ve been in this mine five days a week for the past twenty-five years, and a few smashed fingertips is the worst I’ve ever suffered. We’ve mined salt from under Lake Erie since 1933. There’s fifty miles of roads stemming from the original mine. They’ll be mining salt here for the next three centuries.” The car began to slow. “Besides, there’s at least sixteen hundred feet of limestone between us and the bottom of the lake.”
The bottom of the lake! Evelyn began to pray. Then the door slid open.
Instead of a cramped, coal black tunnel, the salt mine “room” stretched wide enough to accommodate two backhoes, a handful of men, and a coffee machine station. Anything metal showed the effects of the salty atmosphere. Plenty of lighting ran across the high ceiling. Every surface gleamed a muted white, like quartz. The air felt only mildly stuffy and the temperature pleasantly cool. It looked like a large parking garage made of salt.
“So this is where salt comes from,” she said, relieved.
“Industrial salt,” Giardino said. “Stuff used in chemical processes, for refrigeration, and for snow removal. You’ll never be sprinkling any of this stuff on your eggs. The site is this way.”
She followed him onto a large golf cart, nodding toward the curious stares of a group of men. They perched on the backhoe, dwarfed by its size. One of the men had a few smears of blood on his pant leg.
This isn’t too bad, she told herself as the car took off with a jerk, bumping over the rough floor. Just don’t think about being eighteen hundred feet down, connected to life and air by only a rusty elevator shaft. Or having an entire lake full of water on top of you, possibly beginning to snake its way downward after an overpowered explosion…
“You have to wear this.” Her guide handed her a yellow hard hat. “We moved everyone out of the area, once the fires were out and…and we could see there was nothing more to be done for these guys.”
A yellow, rust-flecked front-end loader lay on its side like a fallen dragon. Pipes and black soot streaked the white walls and ceiling. Smaller carts and trucks sat scattered as if hastily abandoned. Portable lights on stands filled the room unevenly, brilliance alternating with shadow.
She pulled out her camera, adjusted the flash. She put the viewfinder to her eye and instantly felt calm. Absorbing the area through the camera lens detached her from her surroundings, made her feel as if she were watching it on TV and wasn’t actually eighteen hundred feet below the surface of the earth.
What appeared to be bloodied rags protruding from underneath the loader turned out to have human arms still in them. One man had been crushed only from midchest down, his head and arms unhurt. The two others were almost entirely buried. The metallic smell of blood wafted around the odors of oil and smoke.
Giardino stood to one side, allowing her to photograph the scene. “We’re going to have to take this apart to right it, we don’t have anything large enough to pull it up. We had to disassemble it to get it down here in the first place. It’s going to take a while. This whole thing is going to take a while, set us back months.”
She glanced at him before zooming in on one victim’s upturned palm. She always did close-ups of hands, back and front, no matter the cause of death. Defensive wounds, discolorations, dirt smears could give a clue to what people had done immediately before they died.
Giardino, meanwhile, read censure in her look. “I don’t mean to sound callous. That guy there, he lived on my street. We’ve been friends”—he broke off, his voice choking, and fished a bandanna from his back pocket—“for ten years. I don’t know what his wife’s going to do when she finds out.”
Evelyn turned back to the distance of the camera lens, safely removing herself from the tremor in the large man’s voice. She finished with the photos, then asked: “Can I see where the explosion took place? If it’s safe.”
He led her farther into the mine, without using the golf cart this time. The soot here came in more than streaks; every surface had been blackened by the explosion. It also held boulders of salt, some two and three times taller than Evelyn.
“We place the dynamite in predrilled holes. It will bring down eight or nine hundred tons of salt in boulders; we break those up into smaller pieces that get loaded onto trucks and go to the primary crusher.”
She tried to picture the process, the hugeness of the undertaking, both frightening and impressive. What sorts of people come up with ideas like this? Let’s excavate huge salt rooms sixteen hundred feet below one of the Great Lakes. Let’s dig a canal across a Central American continent. Let’s walk on the moon.
“The crusher’s back past where we came in,” he continued. “That breaks the boulders up into football-size pieces that go to the surface.”
She wandered in and out of the salt mountains, photographing scraps of red paper from the dynamite sticks. She did not touch them; that would be OSHA’s job. She would collect only evidence adhering to the victims themselves. “What do you think went wrong?”
“Hell, I don’t know. I’d like to think the dynamite was mislabeled. I might know more when I can talk to the wounded guys. Most had plenty of experience, but we did have a few newbies in the bunch.”
“I noticed the building seemed brand-new,” she said as they returned to the room with the overturned loader.
“Alexander Mining sank a lot of money into this new vein. I invested part of my pension money in it. If OSHA shuts production down too long, a lot of people stand to lose a lot of money.”
“So you had a number of new employees here?”
“I can’t believe Duane—that’s the foreman—would have let them near the dynamite, but who knows?”
“Was Duane wounded?”
Giardino’s eyes grew wet, and he gestured at the floor, where the foreman’s arm stretched out from under the heavy machine, fingers stretching upward in mute appeal.
THE TELEPHONE SHATTERED THE DARKNESS, SNAPPING Evelyn to attention with a painful jerk. 2:16 A.M.
No, Angel was in the next room, in bed. She’d come home from her date hours earlier.
“Is this Evelyn James?”
“This is Doctor Bailey at Metro General Hospital ER.”
“How did she get there without calling me?” Her mother wouldn’t have—
“Ma’am? Do you know a Marissa Gonzalez?”
THIRTY MINUTES LATER, with wrecked hair, no makeup, and clothes dampened by a cloudburst, Evelyn stumbled through the automatic doors of the hospital emergency room. The lights blinded her. White-coated staff moved with purpose. The results of assorted dramas waited in plastic chairs—a hugely pregnant teenager stared at the ceiling with a steely gaze of resignation, an odiferous older man moaned in the agony of delirium tremens, three men seated together had blunt-force injuries to various limbs. Through eyes like slits, she saw a young black man in a dark blue uniform approaching.
“Billy. Is she all right?”
He paused. “She’s still alive.”
Her voice ridiculously desperate, Evelyn asked again, “Is she going to be all right?”
“She’s still alive.”
They stepped to one side as a badly mangled young man went by on a gurney; for a moment Evelyn felt surprised to see him move, then she remembered that this was a hospital and not the ME’s office. “What happened?”
“I was first on scene, a little after one. The doorman in the apartment building told 911 that she stumbled in from the parking garage, clutching her throat and trying to scream. Then she collapsed. They had to intubate her to keep the swelling from closing off her air.”
“Someone attacked her?” Evelyn tried not to picture her friend with a tube in her throat, but the image sprang to her mind and stayed there. “Any description of the guy?”
The young patrolman took her elbow and guided her down the hallway. “The doorman didn’t even look. He’s not the intrepid type, I guess. My partner cleared the garage while the ambulance loaded her up, but he didn’t find anything. The guy was long gone.”
She had to force herself to ask the next question. “Did he rape her?”
“No. She had all her clothes on and no other injuries.”
Evelyn let out the breath she’d held. “Where was her fiancé?”
“At one in the morning? Where?”
“Here. He’s on call tonight up in pediatrics.”
“Of course. I wasn’t thinking.” Marissa had been complaining about her boyfriend’s irregular hours since she’d moved in with him.
“He was waiting for us when the ambulance arrived. I guess the doorman called him—one of the perks of high rent. They keep their tenants informed. Apparently they were getting married next month?”
“They are getting married.” No past tense. Not yet.
“I know a lot of guys who are going to be mighty grieved over that. Do you think this is the same guy?” Cops never used the word perp—the guilty party was just the guy. “The one that killed that rich girl?”
“Who? Grace Markham?”
“Why would it be the same guy?”
“Well, the strangling bit and all. And it’s the same building—the Riviera.”
She blinked at him. “You mean La Riviere?”
“What was Marissa doing there?”
“She lives there. With her doctor boyfriend.”
Evelyn absorbed this. Marissa had told her about the new apartment, but Evelyn hadn’t visited yet. She and Marissa saw each other every day at work, but life as a single mother was just too busy to allow for many nights out with friends. If Marissa had mentioned the name of the building, she’d missed it. Then, by the time Evelyn had returned to the lab to log in the evidence from Grace Markham’s scene, Marissa had left for the day; there had been no chance for the coincidence to surface.
She pressed herself to the wall to avoid getting run over by a patient and two nurses. “Is it always like this around here?”
“They’re still behind after that bunch came in from the salt mine.” Evelyn and Billy entered the elevator, and the doors closed, sealing them in blessed quiet.
“Oh, yeah. I had to go to that.”
The young officer shuddered as he pushed the 4 button. “I don’t envy you. My cousin worked there one summer, but he can’t take enclosed spaces.”
Evelyn wished she could sit down. She also wished she’d brushed her teeth before leaving a note for Angel and peeling out of the driveway. It would be a long night, and she would have liked to have felt as together as possible. The elevator doors slid open.
“You! Evelyn James.”
A stormy-faced Mama Gonzalez sailed down the antiseptic hallway like a tall ship with sheets unfurled. Evelyn felt like letting the doors drift shut and riding the small box to another floor, one where she wouldn’t have to confront her friend’s anxious mother.
She stepped out into the hallway. “Mrs. Gonzalez.”
“You will find out who did this to my Mareesa.”
“I will.” She didn’t dare say anything else. Rotund as well as tall, Mama Gonzalez could have snapped her in half.
“You will bring him to me.”
“I’ll…do my best.”
“You will bring him to me. I rip his arms from his sides. I will tear out his heart.”
Anger, Evelyn knew, felt more comfortable than fear. “And I’ll help you. How is she?”
Tears gathered in the woman’s eyes.
Evelyn hugged her, gently. “There’s nothing worse than seeing your child in pain. I know. But the doctors here will help her. She’ll be healthy again.”
“This would never have happened if she’d stayed on our prada.” The old woman snuffled against her shoulder. “If she’d stayed with her family, instead of moving out without the grace of marriage to live with that man.”
“She loves him. And violence can happen anywhere.” Evelyn patted her shoulder before stepping back.
Mama Gonzalez pressed a clean handkerchief to her nose. “We’ve lived on the same street all her life, and never did anyone touch her, not with her brothers around. You must find this man. She thinks you are so smart, she tells me so. Be smart now.”
Evelyn did not make promises. She considered them risky. But no sort of qualification would do in this case. “I’ll find him.”
“Come on, Mrs. Gonzalez,” Billy said. “Your son is in with the intake counselor, and they’ll need you. She’s in there,” he added to Evelyn, pointing at the last room on the left as he led Marissa’s mother away.
With a deep breath, Evelyn walked into the hospital room. It took conscious effort. She didn’t want to see her friend—fiery, outspoken Marissa—laid out, scratched and bruised, with a tube in her agonized throat because some son of a bitch—
A whistling sound came and went in the clear plastic tube protruding from Marissa’s perfect lips. Ice packs covered her neck. Her clothing had been replaced by a gown, and she had a scratch on her forehead. Long eyelashes rested on her cheeks. A doctor stood on one side of the bed; Evelyn approached on the other.
This drained form bore no resemblance to her friend. She had never seen Marissa function at less than 100 percent, somehow expending more energy than she took in, as if she culled it from the air.
Evelyn felt the red rush of pure fury start at the back of her scalp and work its way down, until her nose tingled and her heart thudded with hate. She would find who did this. And they would pay.
She grabbed the young woman’s hand as if one of them were drowning. She wasn’t sure which.
The doctor spoke. “Evelyn.”
She saw now who he was. She had noticed only the white coat at first. “Robert. How are you?”
Dumb question. Despite being clean-shaven, wide awake, and neatly dressed in Dockers and a polo shirt under his lab coat, he looked like hell. His eyes glittered with unshed tears. “I hope you get this guy.”
She nodded, unable to speak about their pain. Instead she gestured at the ice packs. “Okay if I take a look?”
“Anything, if it will help.”
The ice bag felt subzero to her flushed palm. Marissa’s entire neck had turned bright red, from either the cold or the irritation, and seemed double its normal size. A dark red line ran through the middle of it, developing the purplish hue of nascent bruises. Evelyn bit her lip and looked closer.
The ligature had left an inch-and-a-half-wide, uniform indentation, without dipping significantly in the middle. This indicated a flat shape, as opposed to a round type of rope or wire. The pattern had established itself in the front but wavered a bit on the sides, consistent with someone crossing the ends and pulling from the rear. It seemed to have a slight checked aspect. Like a weave. Like mesh fabric.
Like Grace Markham.
She replaced the ice, caught Robert’s eye, and jerked her head toward the door. They moved into the hall and conversed in low murmurs. “What is her condition?”
“They intubated to keep her from suffocating. It was either that or a tracheotomy, and you know how Marissa would feel about a scar.”
“I know how she’d feel about dying,” she snapped, stung that he would consider his fiancée’s beauty in any medical decision.
“A trach is too risky, anyway,” he hastened to add. “Of course, intubating means she has to be heavily sedated or she might pull the tube out. She won’t be conscious to answer any questions for a while.”
For a doctor, he seemed to be thinking like a cop. “Is she on a respirator?”
“No. The tube is there to keep her trachea from swelling to the point it cuts off her air. There’s nothing wrong with her lungs. But now we have to make sure she doesn’t stop breathing from the heavy sedation. If she does, then we will have to use a respirator, and that brings another host of dangers. We might have to paralyze the muscles with curare, and then she’d have to be weaned off that—”
Now he sounded like a doctor. “Did the lack of oxygen have any…effect?”
“Her EEG is normal. No brain damage. Her body is in shock from what has happened to it, but she should recuperate. She’ll be fine.” He repeated this, as if convincing himself. “She’ll be fine.”
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