Lethal Expedition (Short Story)

BOOK: Lethal Expedition (Short Story)
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Lethal Expedition
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

A 2012 Ballantine Books eBook Original

Copyright © 2012 by James M. Tabor
Excerpt from
The Deep Zone
by James M. Tabor copyright © 2012 by James M. Tabor

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

eISBN: 978-0-345-53445-3

Cover Art and design: Carlos Beltrán




Hallie Leland came to with a noose tight around her neck. She had to open her mouth wide to breathe, and the air coming and going sounded like steel wool scratching on wood. The sides of the loop pulled up under her jawbone and joined in a knot where her skull and spine met. A rope tight against the back of her head led straight up to some solid connection. Whoever had done this understood knots: if she moved, the noose tightened but would not loosen. It was pitch dark, but scents—old rope, damp concrete, stove fuel, and the milky smell of climber’s chalk—revealed that she was in her own windowless basement

She was sitting in a stout wooden chair. Towels wrapped her forearms and lower legs like soft casts, and duct tape bound her four limbs to the chair’s arms and legs. She thought:
Why towels?
No marks.

Yelling for help was pointless. Her house sat alone at the end of a dirt road twenty-five miles northwest of Washington, D.C. The nearest neighbor lived a half mile away. She didn’t yell for another reason: she would not give her captor that satisfaction

Who had done it? Stephen Redhorse was her first thought, but others came to mind. The Latin Kings. Or maybe even a man returning from the dead

But why?

The horror in the cave seemed a good place to start

Day Seven: Sunday


Devan Halsted screamed.

Hallie Leland, 150 feet below, saw his headlight beam slashing the cave’s darkness, then heard a sound like crockery shattering in a dropped sack. He had fallen from atop the vertical wall she had just rappelled, and now she rushed to his side. Half of his right leg hung by white tendons. Impact with the wall had shattered his helmet and removed most of his face. The landing had burst his viscera. Hallie had to breathe through her mouth.

They were on the ninth day of this Talisto Cave expedition, still two days from the surface. At thirty-two, Hallie was a veteran of search-and-rescue missions in caves and mountains; she knew that grief would have to wait. Now she had to keep their third team member, Kurt Ely, from following Halsted onto the rocks.

“Stay off rope!” she shouted.

“What? Why? What’s going on?” Ely yelled back, and she cursed silently. She had more experience in extreme caves than the other two put together, but Ely had been questioning her judgment at every turn since their first day.

“Devan fell! Stay off the rope!”

“He fell? How far? Is he hurt? What happened? I—”

!” she shouted, out of patience and not wanting to have a second body lying before her.
“And stay where you are until I say it’s safe to move!”

She turned to look. Halsted had landed on his back, and she could see that his red chest and seat harnesses were properly buckled. His rappel rack, a device that looked like a big steel paper clip with transverse bars, was still attached to his harness with a locking carabiner. Both ’biner and rack were intact. That left only one possibility: a death rig. Threaded the wrong way
through a rappel rack, the rope simply popped free when weighted, and the caver fell. It was called an “air rappel”—and from such a height, it meant certain death.

“Kurt!” she shouted.

“What?” He sounded angry.

“Come on down.”

Several minutes later, Ely dropped onto the cave floor. After nine days underground, he was ghost-pale, his long brown hair and full beard filthy and matted.

“Oh my God.” He covered his mouth. “I’m going to be sick.”

Hallie kept her headlamp beam averted as he stumbled away, retching. When he returned, he didn’t look at Halsted.

“What do we
with him?” Ely asked, and she heard the edge of hysteria in his voice.


“We should say something.” Hallie stood on one side of the mound of rocks.

Ely slumped on the other side, eyes unfocused. He was not taking Halsted’s death well. Physically exhausted before the accident, he now appeared to be edging toward mental collapse. He was smoking a cigarette, absolute sacrilege in a cave to Hallie. He had promised, before entering the cave, not to smoke while in it, but apparently the stress of Halsted’s death was too much. She suspected he had been sneaking smokes most of the time anyway, because she’d smelled the tobacco reek on his breath.

Hallie recited the Lord’s Prayer. They went to their packs and sat, keeping their headlamp beams pointed down, to avoid blinding each other. Ely scrubbed grimy hands over his face. “He was a good young man.”

“Devan reminded me of a big, goofy puppy,” she said.

“He must have gotten careless.”

“Did you check his rig before he dropped in?”

Ely’s head came up and his eyes flicked from side to side. “No. He’d been doing okay. Should I have?”

Hallie said nothing, reaching for her canteen.

“My God,” Ely said. He buried his face in his hands.

Hallie wanted to comfort him, but not at the expense of honesty, and she knew that Ely
have checked the rig of the less-experienced caver. There would be time later to talk about that.

“We’d better saddle up,” she said. “The sooner we move, the sooner we’re out.” And, though she did not say it, the sooner they would be away from Devan Halsted’s corpse.


Fifteen hours later, Hallie awoke in her sleeping bag and lay watching the fireworks of false light images her darkness-tricked eyes kept displaying. She swigged water, spat, checked her luminous watch: 4:17
After leaving Halsted’s grave, they had climbed until Ely could go no farther and camped near a watercourse. She had slept for four hours and still felt exhausted.


The rushing water was loud. She called his name again. Her flashlight beam swept the camp area, and she saw his black sleeping bag. Empty. She stood, shouted his name, flashed her light up and down—the universal distress signal. No response.

Kneeling beside his sleeping bag, she found two things: their notebook with the cave route map and a torn-out page filled with barely legible printing:


I was responsible for Devan’s death. No. That is too easy.
I killed him
. You were right. I should have checked his rappel rig. I knew that but I was
so tired
and now he is dead. There will be an inquest and everyone will know that I
was re
killed him. I don’t think I could live with that. There’s more. Devan and I were closer than you knew.

I’m going back to be with Devan. Please don’t search for me. It would only put you in danger for no good reason. I’m leaving the cave map to get you out. I won’t need it. I have been honored to know you even this brief time. I will pray for your safe exit from this cave. Pray for me if you can.


She nearly shuddered, filled with a mix of rage and pity. Should she go after him? She could find the grave, but then what? Talk him into returning? Not likely. Tie him up in climbing rope and haul him back? Ridiculous. But neither did she feel comfortable packing up and leaving.

She decided to wait at the camp one full day. She was out of food, but batteries were more important, and she had enough for another forty-eight hours, at least. She would spend most of the next twenty-four in the dark, so that should leave enough to get out. If Ely was not back the next day, she could assume that he was not coming back at all.


He did not come back, and Hallie started out. Her journey became a blur of tight tunnels, freezing lakes, vertical climbs, boulder fields. Early on, rocks broke from a ceiling far above and exploded on the cave floor twenty feet away. All caves were beautiful to Hallie, but Talisto was particularly beautiful, its walls striped in brilliant colors from mineral deposits, the formations fantastic beyond imagining, punctuated by gigantic waterfalls and chambers bigger than Grand Central Station. Going down, she had reveled in this magic realm. Now, coming out, she was too exhausted to notice.

BOOK: Lethal Expedition (Short Story)
9.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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