Lethal Expedition (Short Story) (4 page)

BOOK: Lethal Expedition (Short Story)
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“Did you find any?”

“I retrieved viable samples of one.”

“When did you start back out?”

“We had been in the cave five days by then. I don’t know the date.”

“What was the condition of your party?”

“Devan Halsted was having trouble with the vertical pitches. And he had severe diarrhea, which weakened him.”

“What happened to Dr. Halsted?”

“He fell trying to rappel a cliff face.”

“How far?”

“A hundred and fifty feet.”

Luciano’s expression changed for the first time. “In a

“A supercave,” Hallie corrected. “That’s not really big for such a cave. Five-hundred-foot walls are common.”

“Do you know what caused his death?”

“The landing.”

He looked up, but her expression remained serious. “Sorry. Let me rephrase. What caused his fall?”

“It appeared that he set up his rappel rack incorrectly. It’s called the death rig.” He gave her a yellow pad and she sketched. “We buried Devan and climbed up until we couldn’t go any farther. We had to rest.”

“How well did you know Dr. Halsted?”

“I hadn’t met either of them until just before the expedition. They knew each other. I’m not sure if it was work or personal. But whichever, Kurt did not deal well with Devan’s death.”

“Is that common? For strangers to undertake an expedition like this?”

“Yes. Often you need scientists in specific disciplines with unusual skills, like diving or climbing. In this case, it was caving. You get used to working with new people.”

“You said Dr. Ely wasn’t dealing well with the other man’s death?”

“He felt responsible.”

Luciano’s head came up again. “Really? Why?”

She explained.

Luciano said, “Did you agree with him?”

“I didn’t tell him that. It could have sent him over the edge, and I needed him stable enough to get out. But he was right, technically. Protocol requires a senior caver to check gear of the less experienced.”

“Please go on.”

“I went to sleep, and when I woke up Kurt was gone. He left a note, which I believe you have.”

“I do,” Luciano answered. “What do you think happened to Dr. Ely?”

“I think the note says it. He was overcome with grief and guilt.”

“That hardly seems reason enough to take his own life.”

“Have you ever been in a big cave?”

“I’m claustrophobic. I can’t even think about it.”

“They affect you in strange ways.”

“I’m not following.”

“It’s hard to explain. But one thing they do is amplify emotions.”

“So Dr. Ely’s guilt might have been exaggerated?”

“His grief, too.”

“Why didn’t you go after Dr. Ely?”

She explained about the twenty-four-hour wait.

“Was a rescue operation mounted at any point?” Luciano asked.

“I understand they requested one when we were overdue. That Mexican team arrived at base camp about when I came out. Good thing, too.”

“This extremophile you brought back. Does it have a name?”

“Not a scientific name yet. We called it Bloody Mary. It’s a red, viscous material.”

“Is it rare?”

“It could be a totally new species. We’ll know soon.”

“Is it very valuable?”

“It’s most likely a primitive, prehistoric organism, Agent Luciano. It might have been living in that cave for a million years.”

“But new antibiotics … a huge market if it works, I’d assume?”

“A huge
,” Hallie said. “And possibly years away. But yes, new drugs could be very valuable.”

“Thank you.” Luciano switched off the recorder.

“So what happens now?”

“Senior counsel review.”

“And then?”

“One of two recommendations. Case closed. Or referral to the U.S. attorney.”

what would happen?”

Luciano shrugged. “Beyond my pay grade, Dr. Leland.”

Luciano gave her a card. “My cell number is written on the back. Call me if you remember anything that might be important.” He started for the door, then stopped.

“One last thing, Dr. Leland.”


“Would you be willing to take a polygraph test?”

She hesitated, but had nothing to hide. “I guess so. But why?”

“Thank you for your time. Someone will be in touch.”


Later that morning, Hallie’s chiming cell phone woke her. The caller ID showed “Stephen Redhorse, MD.”

“You were in the
this morning: ‘Government Expedition Turns Tragic.’ I didn’t know you’d come back. Why didn’t you call me?” He sounded more irritated than concerned.

“Too tired and too beat up,” she said, though those weren’t the only reasons.

“How are you?”

“Not so bad. Maybe a mild concussion. I should be out later today. Where are you?”

“In the hospital. My hospital.”

“How’s D.C. General today?”

“The ER is insane. Cops say that the Latin Kings took a huge coke shipment from Mexico and are dealing on Crip turf. It’s a shooting war out there.”

“Sounds like the reservation.” She regretted that immediately.

For a moment he didn’t reply. “You know those poor Indians can’t afford AK-47s. Rusty old shotguns, more like,” he added sarcastically. “Will you take some time off?”

“A week,” she said. “Boss’s orders.”

“I’m surprised you can stand being out of the lab that long.”

“I haven’t even unpacked my expedition gear. There’s plenty to do.”

“Look, I didn’t come right over because we have so many emergency cases and I’ve been sleeping here and …”

“Don’t apologize. People there need you more than I do.” The silence stretched, and she thought,
Why is it so easy to say the wrong thing now?

“I would like to see you, though,” he said.

“When’s your next day off?”

“Thursday. Always subject to change, of course.”

“Come out to the house Thursday evening, then. We’ll have a drink and catch up.”


Stephen Redhorse was a tall, full-blooded Oglala Sioux with obsidian eyes and a black ponytail. They had become friends at Johns Hopkins, where she was working on her doctorate in microbiology and Redhorse on his in physics. He had dropped out of that program before earning his PhD and entered George Washington University’s medical school.

“I can do a lot more for my people with that than with a physics doctorate,” he’d told Hallie. After earning his MD, he elected to specialize in emergency medicine and spent the last two years in D.C. General Hospital’s ER, as close to a MASH unit as any American city had produced.

After Hallie came to work in Washington, they reunited as friends and before long became lovers. They’d been seeing each other that way for nine months when, one evening over steaks at the Old Ebbitt Grill, he’d said, “I think you should meet my family.”

He had never mentioned them, and she wasn’t really at the meet-my-parents stage. Redhorse was handsome, bright, and liked the outdoors. He did good work at one of the nation’s worst hospitals, when he could have had a posh Georgetown practice. He was mostly gentle and considerate in bed.

But he had a temper that flashed unpredictably at waiters, headlines, sometimes at her, but most often and most venomously at the government. He cursed every branch, department, and representative with equal vitriol. Lots of people—maybe most, these days—disliked the government. But Redhorse
it. The longer they spent together, the more often that anger flared, usually after he’d had too much to drink.

“Where are they?”

“The Cheyenne River reservation in South Dakota.”

It seemed important to him, and she had never been to South Dakota, and she was ready for a few days away from work.


A few weeks later, they flew to Bismarck and drove south through frozen farmland that looked to Hallie like sheets of rusted, buckled iron. As they entered the reservation, the road changed from paved to dirt and passed under a crude, lodgepole-pine archway to which someone had nailed a hand-painted sign:


Poorest rezervation in the US

Highest suacide rate

Enjoy your stay

What Hallie first took to be derelict shacks with cracked windows and unhinged doors were occupied houses, surrounded by piles of trash and dog shit. Despite the January cold, an inordinate number of children and teenagers were outside fighting, some for fun and more in earnest. Many adults seemed unable to walk normally.

They passed a headless white cat frozen into the rock-hard mud, then stopped in front of a yellow trailer tiger-striped with rust. Inside, it smelled like a bad nursing home. A frail woman reclined in a brown La-Z-Boy, watching a soap opera, and seemed neither surprised nor pleased to see them. She wore a dirty red robe and pink slippers. Her wrists and ankles looked as fragile as glass to Hallie, and her face was like dried leaves.

“This is Hallie, Mama. I wrote you letters,” Redhorse said.

“Don’t read no letters.” She lit a fresh Marlboro from the stub of her old one without looking away from the television.

“Well, then, this is Hallie Leland. Hallie, this is my mother, Aziel.”

“She your woman?”

Redhorse glanced quickly at Hallie, who shrugged. “Yes.”

Aziel raised her glass, gulped vodka, sucked hard on her cigarette.

“Mama, where is Francie?”

“She go with Nelson Iron Crow.”


“The crack man.”

They sat on a stinking green couch and Hallie asked polite questions. It was like trying to converse with the dead. Aziel grunted occasionally, but she might have been clearing her phlegmy throat.

Redhorse kept patting his thighs and looking at walls. Finally he said, “We have to go, Mama.” He walked over and kissed her on the forehead. She reached for something, his arm or maybe her glass, but passed out before her hand found what it sought.

Outside, a bulky man in jeans, cowboy boots, and a tight black shirt leaned against their car.

“Remember me?”

“No. Should I?”

“I used to beat your skinny ass.”

“Edward Knows-the-Moon. You were drunk a lot. We were what, twelve?”

“Why you come back here?”

“To see my mother.”

Knows-the-Moon laughed. He stared at Hallie. “Lucky you,” he said. It wasn’t clear which one he was pitying.

Driving back to the motel, Redhorse said, “Eddie did kick my ass. Then I would go and beat on some other kid. Drink, drug, fuck, and fight. Nice life.”


They were driving back to the airport that night when blue lights flared behind them. Redhorse pulled over, but the trooper blasted his siren anyway. They sat waiting for a long time. Looking over her shoulder, Hallie saw a match flare and a cigarette tip glow red in the cruiser.

The trooper came finally, a tall, bony man, military-creased brown shirt, flat-brimmed campaign hat tipped low over his eyes. Redhorse kept his hands on the wheel, looking straight ahead. She saw his jaw clenching.

“License and registration, chief.”

Redhorse said nothing but Hallie saw his face tighten. He held up the documents between two fingers without looking at the trooper.

“I got you at ninety-two on radar, chief. What’s your hurry?”

“Catching a plane in Bismarck,” Redhorse said.

The trooper looked past Redhorse at Hallie. He drew in a long breath, let it out, staring at her the whole time, and said, “Huh.” Then: “Sit tight, chief. This won’t take long.”

The ticket was for $295—$75 for the basic violation, and ten dollars for every mile over the speed limit.

It was another two hours to the airport. After the stop, Redhorse said, “I hate those motherfuckers. My father was a Vietnam veteran. Marine. Two tours. When I was six, he drove an F-150 into a bridge abutment at a hundred and ten.”

“My God. Was it an accident?”

“No. But the cops said so.”


“They didn’t waste time on rigger deaths.”


“Cute little contraction of ‘red’ and ‘black.’ ”

“You don’t think it was an accident?”

“I think he tagged that bridge on purpose.”

“Why? To get the insurance money?”

“To get away from his fucking life.”

Hallie couldn’t think of an adequate reply. They rode in silence for a while. Then Redhorse spoke: “After the accident, one said, ‘Too bad we can’t train ’em to do that.’ Said it looking right at me.” He paused, looked over at her.

“And you wonder why I hate the fucking government.”

Day Four: Wednesday

BOOK: Lethal Expedition (Short Story)
4.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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