An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 56

   

She found the box and was momentarily panicked to find it locked, before recalling that she had the key; it was on the big jangle of grubby keys that Mr. Campbell had given her, each one dangling a worn paper tag with its function written on. Of course, she couldn’t read the bloody tags—and frigging Andy Davies had casually borrowed the flashlight that should have been in her belt, on the pretext of looking under the truck for an oil leak.

They’d planned it pretty well, she thought grimly, trying one key, then the next, fumbling and scratching to insert the tip in the tiny invisible slot. All three of them were clearly in on it: Andy, Craig McCarty, and Rob Cameron.

She was of an orderly mind, and when she’d tried each key in careful turn with no result, didn’t try them again. She knew they’d thought of that one, too; Craig had taken the keys from her to unlock the toolbox in the panel truck, and returned them with a bow of exaggerated gallantry.

They’d stared at her—naturally—when she was introduced to them as the new safety inspector, though she supposed they’d already been informed she was that shocking thing, a woman. Rob Cameron, a handsome young man who clearly fancied himself, had looked her frankly up and down before extending his hand with a smile. She’d returned the slow up-and-down before taking it, and the other two had laughed. So had Rob, to his credit.

She hadn’t sensed any hostility from them on the drive to Loch Errochty, and she thought she’d have seen it if it had been there. This was just a stupid joke. Probably.

In all honesty, the doors closing behind her had not been her first intimation that something was up, she thought grimly. She’d been a mother much too long to miss the looks of secretive delight or preternatural innocence that marked the face of a male up to mischief, and such looks had been all over the faces of her maintenance and repair team, if she’d spared the attention to look at them. Her mind had been only half on her job, though; the other half had been in the eighteenth century, worried for Fergus and Marsali, but encouraged by the vision of her parents and Ian safely bound at last for Scotland.

But whatever was going on—had gone on, she corrected herself firmly—in the past, she had other things to worry about in the here and now.

What did they expect her to do? she wondered. Scream? Cry? Beat on the doors and beg to be let out?

She walked quietly back to the door and pressed her ear to the crack, in time to hear the roar of the truck’s engine starting up and the spurt of gravel from its wheels as it turned up the service road.

“You bloody bastards!” she said out loud. What did they mean by this? Since she hadn’t satisfied them by shrieking and crying, they’d decided simply to leave her entombed for a while? Come back later in hopes of finding her in shards—or, better yet, red-faced with fury? Or—more-sinister thought—did they mean to go back to the Hydro Electric Board office, innocent looks on their faces, and tell Mr. Campbell that his new inspector simply hadn’t shown up for work this morning?

She breathed out through her nose, slow, deliberate.

Right. She’d eviscerate them when the opportunity offered. But what to do just now?

She turned away from the power box, looking into the utter black. She hadn’t been in this particular tunnel before, though she’d seen one like it during her tour with Mr. Campbell. It was one of the original tunnels of the hydroelectric project, dug by hand with pick and shovel by the “hydro boys” back in the 1950s. It ran nearly a mile through the mountain and under part of the flooded valley that now held the greatly expanded Loch Errochty, and a toylike electric train ran on its track down the center of the tunnel.

Originally, the train had carried the workmen, the “tunnel tigers,” to the work face and back; now reduced to only an engine, it served the occasional hydroelectric workers checking the huge cables that ran along the tunnel’s walls or servicing the tremendous turbines at the foot of the dam, far off at the other end of the tunnel.

Which was, it occurred to her, what Rob, Andy, and Craig were meant to be doing. Lifting one of the massive turbines and replacing its damaged blade.

She pressed her back against the tunnel wall, hands flat on the rough rock, and thought. That’s where they’d gone, then. It made no difference, but she closed her eyes to improve her concentration and summoned up the pages of the massive binder—presently on the seat of the vanished truck—that contained the structural and engineering details of all the hydroelectric stations under her purview.

She’d looked at the diagrams for this one last night and again, hastily, while brushing her teeth this morning. The tunnel led to the dam, and had obviously been used in the construction of the lower levels of that dam. How low? If the tunnel joined at the level of the turbine chamber itself, it would have been walled off. But if it joined at the level of the servicing chamber above—a huge room equipped with the multi-ton ceiling cranes needed to lift the turbines from their nests—then there would still be a door; there would have been no need to seal it off, with no water on the other side.

Try as she might, she couldn’t bring the diagrams to mind in sufficient detail to be sure there was an opening into the dam at the far end of the tunnel—but it would be simple enough to find out.

SHE’D SEEN THE TRAIN, in that brief moment before the doors closed; it didn’t take much fumbling round to get into the open cab of the tiny engine. Now, had those clowns taken the key to the engine, too? Ha. There was no key; it worked by a switch on the console. She flipped it, and a red button glowed with sudden triumph as she felt the hum of electricity run through the track beneath.

The train couldn’t have been simpler to run. It had a single lever, which you pushed forward or back, depending on which direction you meant to go. She shoved it gently forward, and felt air move past her face as the train moved silently off into the bowels of the earth.

She had to go slowly. The tiny red button shed a comforting glow over her hands, but did nothing to pierce the darkness ahead, and she had no idea where or how much the track curved. Neither did she want to hit the end of the track at a high rate of speed and derail the engine. It felt as though she was inching through the dark, but it was much better than walking, feeling her way over a mile of tunnel lined with high-voltage cables.

It hit her in the dark. For a split second, she thought someone had laid a live cable on the track. In the next instant, a sound that wasn’t a sound thrummed through her, plucking every nerve in her body, making her vision go white. And then her hand brushed rock and she realized that she had fallen across the console, was hanging halfway out of the tiny, trundling engine, was about to fall out into darkness.

Head spinning, she managed to grab the edge of the console and pull herself back into the cab. Flipped the switch with one shaking hand and half-fell to the floor, where she curled up, gripping her knees, her breath a whimpering in the dark.

“Holy God,” she whispered. “Oh, Blessed Mother. Oh, Jesus.”

She could feel it out there. Still feel it. It didn’t make a sound now, but she felt its nearness and couldn’t stop trembling.

She sat still for a long time, head on her knees, until rational thought began to come back.

She couldn’t be mistaken. She’d passed through time twice, and knew the feeling. But this hadn’t been nearly so shocking. Her skin still prickled and her nerves jumped and her inner ears rang as though she’d thrust her head into a hive of hornets—but she felt solid. She felt as though a red-hot wire had sliced her in two, but she hadn’t had the horrible sense of being disassembled, turned physically inside out.

A terrible thought sent her surging to her feet, clinging to the console. Had she jumped? Was she somewhere—somewhen—else? But the metal console was cool and solid under her hands, the smell of damp rock and cable insulation unchanged.

“No,” she whispered, and flicked the power light for reassurance. It came on, and the train, still in gear, gave a sudden lurch. Hastily, she throttled back the speed to less than a crawl.

She couldn’t have jumped into the past. Small objects in direct contact with a traveler’s person seemed to move with them, but an entire train and its track was surely pushing it. “Besides,” she said out loud, “if you’d gone more than twenty-five years or so into the past, the tunnel wouldn’t be here. You’d be inside… solid rock.” Her gorge rose suddenly, and she threw up.

The sense of… it… was receding, though. It—whatever it was—was behind her. Well, that settled it, she thought, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. There bloody well had to be a door at the far end, because there was no way she was going back the way she’d come.

There was a door. A plain, ordinary, industrial metal door. And a padlock, unlocked, hanging from an open hasp. She could smell WD-40; someone had oiled the hinges, very recently, and the door swung open easily when she turned the knob. She felt suddenly like Alice, after falling down the White Rabbit’s hole. A really mad Alice.

A steep flight of steps lay on the other side of the door, dimly lit—and at the top was another metal door, edged with light. She could hear the rumble and the metallic whine of a ceiling crane in operation.

Her breath was coming fast, and not from the effort of climbing the stairs. What would she find on the other side? It was the servicing chamber inside the dam; she knew that much. But would she find Thursday on the other side? The same Thursday she’d had when the tunnel doors had closed behind her?

She gritted her teeth and opened the door. Rob Cameron was waiting, lounging back against the wall, lit cigarette in hand. He broke into an enormous grin at sight of her, dropped the butt, and stepped on it.

“Knew ye’d make it, hen,” he said. Across the room, Andy and Craig turned from their work and applauded.

“Buy ye a pint after work, then, lass,” Andy called.

“Two!” shouted Craig.

She could still taste bile at the back of her throat. She gave Rob Cameron the sort of look she’d given Mr. Campbell.

“Don’t,” she said evenly, “call me hen.”

His good-looking face twitched and he tugged at his forelock with mock subservience.

“Anything you say, boss,” he said.

HILLTOPS

IT WAS NEARLY SEVEN by the time he heard Brianna’s car in the drive. The kids had had their supper, but came swarming out to her, clinging to her legs as though she’d just come back from darkest Africa or the North Pole.

It was some time before the kids were settled for the night and Bree had time to give her undivided attention to him. He didn’t mind. “Are you starving?” she said. “I can fix—”

He interrupted her, taking her by the hand and drawing her into his office, where he carefully closed and locked the door. She was standing there, hair half matted from her hard hat, grimy from spending the day in the bowels of the earth. She smelled of earth. Also engine grease, cigarette smoke, sweat, and… beer?

“I’ve a lot to tell you,” he said. “And I know ye’ve a lot to tell me. But first… could ye just slip off your jeans, maybe, sit on the desk, and spread your legs?”

Her eyes went perfectly round.

“Yes,” she said mildly. “I could do that.”

ROGER HAD OFTEN WONDERED whether it was true what they said about redheaded people being more volatile than the usual—or whether it was just that their emotions showed so suddenly and alarmingly on their skins. Both, he thought.

Maybe he should have waited ’til she’d got her clothes on before telling her about Miss Glendenning. If he had, though, he’d have missed the remarkable sight of his wife, naked and flushed with fury from the navel upward.

“That bloody old besom! If she thinks she can get away with—”

“She can’t,” he interrupted firmly. “Of course she can’t.”

“You bet she can’t! I’ll go down there first thing tomorrow and—”

“Well, maybe not.”

She stopped and looked at him, one eye narrowed.

“Maybe not what?”

“Maybe not you.” He fastened his own jeans, and picked hers up. “I was thinking it might be best if I go.”

She frowned, turning that one over.

“Not that I think ye’d lose your temper and set about the old bitch,” he added, smiling, “but you have got your job to go to, aye?”

“Hmmm,” she said, seeming skeptical of his ability to adequately impress Miss Glendenning with the magnitude of her crime.

“And if ye did lose the heid and nut the woman, I’d hate to have to explain to the kids why we were visiting Mummy in jail.”

That made her laugh, and he relaxed a little. He really didn’t think she’d resort to physical violence, but then, she hadn’t seen Jemmy’s ear right after he’d come home. He’d had a strong urge himself to go straight down to the school and show the woman what it felt like, but he was in better command of himself now.

“So what do you mean to say to her?” She fished her brassiere out from under the desk, giving him a succulent view of her rear aspect, as she hadn’t put the jeans on yet.

“Nothing. I’ll speak to the principal. He can have a word with her.”

“Well, that might be better,” she said slowly. “We don’t want Miss Glendenning to take it out on Jemmy.”

“Right.” The beautiful flush was fading. Her hard hat had rolled off under the chair; he picked it up and set it on her head again. “So—how was work today? And why don’t ye wear knickers to work?” he asked, suddenly remembering.

To his startlement, the flush roared back like a brushfire.

“I got out of the habit in the eighteenth century,” she snapped, plainly taking the huff. “I only wear knickers for ceremonial purposes anymore. What did you think, I was planning to seduce Mr. Campbell?”

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