The rungs turned in David’s grip. He slipped and bumped his jaw, nicking his tongue. A metallic taste turned his stomach. Just a little farther in the snake’s belly. A couple more feet and he’d been in the light.
Biceps trembled as he pulled. He couldn’t feel his toes where he pushed. It didn’t matter; he was almost there. The sill passed under his chin. Slowly, stainless-steel rollers came into view. Then stone. Blessed stone. A tear distorted his vision. He’d made it to the caves. When he fell out of the chute, he’d kiss the floor.
Then he wouldn’t move for an hour or so.
Or a year.
Whichever came first.
Okay, maybe not that long. The bastards threatening Mavis were still out there. He twisted; his shoulders cleared the window frame on a diagonal. Another push and he heaved his chest on the assembly line rollers.
“Who are you?” The male voice cracked at the end.
He paused and glanced to his right. The damn helmet of his biohazard suit shifted, blocking his view. He shoved it off his head, listened to it bang to the ground. Much better. A young man clawed up the door and a strange purring noise filled the odd-shaped room.
A man he recognized.
“Manny?” Just where the hell had the chute dumped him out? He glanced around the room. Metal studs followed the curving stone to give the room a kidney shape. Empty MRE boxes stood sentinel at the foot of the rack. David slid to a stop inches before he head-butted them. “Where am I?”
“The storeroom.” Manny’s eyes bulged as he climbed the wall. “Near the cafeteria.”
The purring changed to a fast tick. David’s balls drew up tight. He knew that sound…
“You have to get out! You’re radioactive!” The young man slapped at the metal door. The echo rolled around the room.
Damn! The pieces clicked into place in David’s head. The ticking was a Geiger counter. Scanning the room again, he noticed the cream colored rectangle on the floor. Maybe it was a good thing the readout was face down. He levered onto his elbow.
“If I’m radioactive, then so are the vegetables that have been coming up that chute.” He jerked his head toward the dark rectangle near his feet. “I cleaned off before entering the greenhouse and came directly from there to here.”
But there was no denying the ticking noise.
Something was glowing.
Swinging his legs down, he sat up on the rack. Rollers mashed his ass. The things he did for justice.
“I have to get out of here.” Manny spun around and plastered himself to the door. Latching onto the door handle, he pushed down.
Thankfully up released the lock. The kid wasn’t going anywhere until he calmed down. David had two or three minutes to salvage his mission.
“Stay Manny.” David crossed the room and set his hand on the other man’s shoulder.
Manny ducked and leapt aside. He backpedaled right into the wall and raked the sheet metal. “Don’t touch me.”
“I’m not contaminated.” Keeping the kid in his sight, David stooped and picked up the counter. The ticking slowed. Turning it over in his hand, he checked the readout. Ninety-five hundred and climbing. He thumped it with his gloved hand. Was the dang thing broken? “How often do you take a reading in here?”
Manny sidled along the wall, away from the exit.
The kid blinked. “What?”
“How often do you take a reading?” He spoke slowly, hoping to penetrate the fear and panic.
“Tw-twice a day.”
“And the highest it’s been is…” Fill in the blank kid. You can do it.
“A–a couple hundred.” Manny raised his hand and pointed to a black screen on the wall. “It’s recorded there.”
David nodded. Of course. Every entry point was monitored. So why was the radiation spiking? He climbed the tube. There’d been no cracks of light in the dark snake’s belly. No indication of leaks. He stilled.
But he had heard voices. He’d assumed they’d come from the other end. This end. He scanned the small room. Not exactly a hotbed of social interaction.
“Who else was in here with you, today?”
Manny stiffened. “I’m not radioactive! You are!”
David sighed. Let’s try this again. “Bear with me, Mr. Saldana. I need to know who’s been in this room recently. I distinctly heard voices come from up here, so someone was talking.”
“Chef Jardin and I chatted while I prepped the tomatoes.”
“Where is he now?”
“He?” Frown lines wrinkled Manny’s forehead. “Chef is a woman.”
A woman. David shook his head. He could have sworn, those were men’s voices he’d heard. His heart picked up speed. Men like the ones in the greenhouses. Men who had a secret entrance. Could it really be that simple?
Yes, it could.
Especially given the radiation bump. Well, shit, he’d just won the lottery. Now, he just had to prove he had the winning ticket. Crouching on the floor, he swept the Geiger counter in small arcs. It started purring again at two o’clock. He tapped his gloves on the floor. Liquid dripped from his fingertips. Melted snow, no doubt. “Well, I’ll be damned.”
The bastards had come in this way.
“What is it?” Manny leaned closer. “What did you find?”
David squat walked from small puddle to small puddle. A brown line bisected the fourth spot. He pinched it between his fingers and held it up to the light. “A pine needle.”
He had his proof.
“How’d that get in here?” Manny looked around the room as if expecting to see a pine tree nearby.
“Someone brought it in when they by-passed the safety protocols.”
Too bad, the evidence was deadly. No way would he show Mavis or Lister. Hell, he might be getting finger cancer just holding it. He motioned Manny to stand farther away. He’d dump the radioactive waste outside after he figured out how the bad guys were infiltrating the conveyor. “You got a rag?”
David shook his head. At least, the kid was no longer trying to claw his way through the walls. “I need to mop up the water and take it back outside.”
Manny patted down his chest and thighs. Finally, he reached around and plucked a cloth from his back pocket. “Here.” He tossed the towel toward David. “It’s a little dirty.”
“It’s okay.” Ignoring the red stains on the cloth, David swiped the cloth over the floor. “I’m not going to give it back.”
“You said someone brought it in here. Where did they go?”
“I imagine they went out the door.” He jerked his head to the exit behind him. It seemed to be the only way inside or out. But then, he’d thought the mine complex was secure until just a few minutes ago. He spun on the balls of his feet. Fuck! They could be dripping puddles of radiation wherever they walked.
Manny shook his head. “But it’s locked.”
Having cleaned up the water leading to the conveyor belt, David scanned the floor near the door. There didn’t seem to be any puddles nearby. But what about on the other side? Manny’s words registered. “What do you mean it’s locked?”
“We padlock it because of the risk of radiation.”
Interesting. David reached up to scratch his jaw then paused. Not a good idea unless he wanted glow in the dark stubble. “Who has the key?”
“Me and Chef Jardin. The military folks do to, and some German guy. He’s an engineer, I think.”
Great. Now his suspect pool was growing again. Of course, there was still the mysterious Bossman. But David had a time frame when the radioactive bastards must have come through here. “Did you see any of them within the last hour?”
“You saw absolutely no one?”
Manny shook his head. “Just Chef.”
David squeezed the rag in his hand. Maybe there was a second way out of here.
“But you can’t see the door from the kitchens and the lock wasn’t locked.” He made a c-shape with his fingers and set them over his right palm. “I looked like it from a distance, but up close you could see the curvy-thingy wasn’t in place.”
He raised his fingers half an inch above his palm.
Well, hell, anyone could have done it then. David picked his helmet off the floor. “I don’t suppose you have a flashlight?”
“Yep.” Manny reached behind the tablet computer and pulled a yellow tube out. He set it on the floor and rolled it toward David. It rolled in an arc until it hit stone. “I was just beginning to think maybe I should give some of them back, but the power went out again today.”
Today? The bastards had talked about events that would distract Mavis in the coming week. Was this one? “What happened?”
“Don’t know for sure, but it was probably the oxygen makers. They’re always going out.”
Which made them the perfect target. No one would suspect sabotage and they were vital to life underground. He couldn’t think of a better way to throw doubt on Mavis’s abilities. David picked up the light and flicked the switch. A bright beam shot out of the top. Thank God it worked. He sat on the conveyor belt and gave himself a roller wedgie.
Sometimes he hated his job.
“Hey!” Manny raised his hand. “You can’t go back that way. They’re going to start sending the potatoes.”
David swung his feet up and scooted toward the chute. “Not today. The bastards that pissed radiation in here, pulled a full-on Grinch and stole all the potatoes.”
“Because they want Mavis out of power.” And their Bossman in power. Too bad, he didn’t know the rest of their agenda. But he would, then he’d bring them down. Could he convince Mavis to reinstate spearing heads on pikes? That should keep the rest of the troublemakers in line.
“But that food was for everyone.” Tears glinted in Manny’s eyes. “We were going to make French fries.”
Damn, he hadn’t thought there was any innocence left to destroy. David slipped his legs into the covered conveyor. “I’m gonna find them, Manny. Find ’em and stop ’em. You have my word on it.”
No matter what it took.
Manny nodded. Biting his lip, he scooped up David’s hood and handed it to him. “It’s not just your fight, Sergeant-Major. It’s all of ours. Now that I know what going on, I’ll keep an eye out.”
David swallowed the denial. The kid was right. “Don’t take chances and check in with me daily.”
“Yes, Sir. I–”
Manny’s eyes widened. “Chef! She’ll be wondering where the food is.”
“Stall her. Actually, get out of here for a bit and let the counts die down.” If they did. He cleared the readout, switched the Geiger counter off and balanced it on the rollers.
“I’ll turn out the lights when I go.”
He slammed on his helmet and angled his body the rest of the way into the conveyor. He had to get far enough down the belly of the snake to be invisible. Mindful of the metal walls he crawled down and down. He glanced up every few feet. Was Chef inside yet?
A shadow blotted out the light above.
Muffled voices drifted inside. He stopped. Had she seen him? He waited for the shout of discovery. The end of his mission. He licked his dry lips.
The shadow withdrew. Two heartbeats later, the lights went out.
Holy shit. He’d done it. No, he and Manny had done it. He switched on his flashlight, illuminating the two-by-two foot conveyor. Now to find the bastards. But how? Should he climb back up and start from the top? Water dripped from the rag. God, he could be such an idiot. The vegetable thieving bastards would have melting snow on their boots.
Sweeping the light back and forth, he spied the first wet boot print on the side of the conveyor belt. He wiped the liquid as he descended. Surely the secret entrance couldn’t be too far down. He would have been upon them. Another two feet and he noticed a black rubber gasket running up the side of the wall.
“Gotcha.” He traced the square before hooking his finger through the latch. A low humming vibrated around him, and then he was moving forward. Fuck! They’d started the conveyor. He popped the latch and rammed a shoulder against the panel.
The door swung open.
Then he was falling.