Pandora Rhees needs new clients to save the private investigator business she inherited from her parents.
When Crexlan Tooms knocks on her door with a problem that demands immediate attention she jumps at the offer.
Maybe too fast.
Join Pandora as she digs into the disappearance of two men on Zeta II, a wild and dangerous mining frontier beyond the reach of galaxy law.
Pandora’s Private Inquiries available free two weeks only. You can also find it in e-format at your favorite retailer.
Pandora Rhees wrapped her heavy cloak more tightly around her body in an effort to deflect the combination of heavy, chill fog and the cold spray thrown up from the water skimmer’s bow. A futile gesture as the cold moisture penetrated everything.
She shivered, noticed the skimmer’s pilot smirking at her, and straightened her shoulders—unwilling to let him witness any sign of weakness that might make gossip fodder when he pulled a few mugs of ale later with his mates.
Appearance meant everything in her line of business.
Look like you know what you’re doing and others will believe that you do. One of her father’s adages.
The unexpected loss of her beloved parents still cut deep. Pandora ignored the pain and focused on the task at hand.
She would have gladly passed on this job on Zeta II—a planet of vast oceans and very little solid ground—but her credit balance had dropped dangerously low after setting up a new business office and she desperately needed the work.
There was nothing like an empty credit account to severely limit one’s choices.
“Appearance is everything.” Her business forecaster had unknowingly echoed her father. “Make the investment in the proper space now and your business will grow.”
Following the advisor’s recommendations–recommendations she had paid dearly for—Pandora had rented a small, three room office in the new Rose Tower in the center of Ridgeport, the largest port city on her home planet Myar. She had paid what seemed an exorbitant number of credits up front for three moon’s rent and stylish furnishings, credits she could ill afford.
Since opening Pandora’s Private Inquiries only a few small jobs had come her way. Two moon cycles after signing the rental contract Pandora knew she needed a big client to walk through her door or she would find herself on Beggar’s Row.
Two days before, Crexlan Tooms had answered her prayer. Tooms, second in command to Master Cyrus Black, the Cyrus Black, owner of Planetary Mining, had knocked on her door with a problem that needed immediate attention.
Tooms was a mountain of a man with massive shoulders, hands that completely swallowed Pandora’s own, and a voice that sounded as if it originated from the depths of a deep, stone cavern.
He had inspected Pandora’s obviously quiet office and told her flat out that he was reluctant to hire a young, unproven investigator, but the large, established firms were all booked and he needed her services immediately.
Pandora had leaped at the opportunity. Not only was Planetary Mining the largest mining company in the Regulus star system—with very, very deep pockets—they were also highly respected.
If she completed the job for Master Black in a satisfactory manner the jobs would start pouring in and she’d be able to hire a receptionist and another investigator. Her dream of following in her deceased parents’ and grandparents’ shoes would be realized.
The water skimmer’s deck shuddered under Pandora’s feet, bringing her back to the present. The skimmer bucked as it rode the wild surf that pounded the stone breakwater guarding Orion, Zeta II’s only port. Pandora grabbed the deck rail and automatically spread her feet for stability.
For several tense minutes the heavy water skimmer climbed the crests of the waves and slammed into the troughs with a lurch that made her stomach slide up and down. She caught a glimpse of the pilot’s sly, grinning face and wondered if he was making the ride rougher than necessary just to goad her.
She heaved a silent sigh of relief when they finally popped through the breakwater’s narrow opening onto placid green waters. The pilot steered the skimmer to the public pier and waited in silence for Pandora to disembark.
She tossed her pack onto the stone pier and clambered up after it, noting that the pilot had stopped the skimmer just short of the passenger landing. She held her tongue and handed the pilot his fee from the expense credits Crexlan Tooms had given her.
The pilot counted them and glared at her through squinted eyes.
Pandora stared back. “I believe in bonus pay,” she said coldly, “but only when warranted. Your customer service technique could use some work.” She swung her pack over her shoulder and went in search of Tooms.
The pilot had had good reason to treat her poorly, she reminded herself as she made her way up the pier. Zeta II was a frontier planet, mostly unexplored and primarily occupied by tough miners and the few willing to live with extreme hardship in order to supply them.
Women were uncommon on the mining planet. The few who were there occupied the lowest rungs of society.
To her relief, Tooms waited for her at the head of the pier. After briefly acknowledging her he led Pandora through Orion’s narrow dirt streets, ignoring anyone or anything in his way with a disregard that puzzled Pandora until she realized that others automatically moved out of the giant’s way. She had to trot to keep up with his long strides and stumbled more than once on the uneven ground.
The town’s smelled of salt and bitter dust underlaid with the slightly sweet smell of rotting vegetation. Discarded food and beverage containers littered the alleys.
Pandora was surprised to note that all of the buildings edging the streets looked as if they had been hastily constructed of whatever materials were handy. None stood taller than a low single story.
Roughly built of metal, thatch, or wood—often combined in a single building—they were all roofed in the same overlapping broad, brown leaves. Apparently Planetary Mining’s stone breakwater and public pier were the only structures in Orion that had been built with care and permanence in mind.
Two laughing, intoxicated men and a single female slammed out of a leaning metal building beside Pandora. The sign over the door identified it as Orion’s only drinking spot.
One of the men stumbled into her. “Watch where you’re going,” he snarled as he turned toward her with a raised fist. When he saw Pandora he grinned and grabbed her arm. “Hey Warken, I got my own woman,” he crowed.
The man’s friend, his arm wrapped around the other woman’s waist, turned. He saw Tooms standing a short ways behind Pandora. “Ah, Luthin, I think that’s the boss’s woman.”
Luthin’s head whipped around. He dropped Pandora’s arm as if it had burned his fingers. “Sorry, boss. I didn’t know she was yours.” He lurched off in the opposite direction.
“My apologies,” rumbled Tooms. “The miners have a tough life and take what comforts they can find on their free days.” He turned away and they resumed their journey through the town.
Pandora didn’t know what she had expected Orion to look like, but it wasn’t the ramshackle town she was seeing. She had looked for but had been unable to find any pictures when she tried to research the mining town after Tooms had left her office. She had assumed that the lack of pictures and stories was because Orion was too new and remote to be written up yet.
The reality was much different. The buildings and trash gave Orion an air of disrepair and impermanence that made her feel uneasy. The town seemed to quietly pronounce that no one would be there long enough to justify the effort or expense of erecting more permanent, pleasing structures.
“It’s a rough trip to Mine Number Three. You going to be able to handle it?” Tooms had come to a stop beside an unusual vehicle that looked like an open cylinder with long, spider-like legs.
Pandora realized that they had reached the outskirts of town. The countryside beyond the town undulated with soothing green hills that stretched into the distance until they merged with remote purple-gray mountains.
“I can handle it,” she answered. She had to handle it. Ridgeport society didn’t give failed businesses a second chance. “I need you to tell me more about the missing men.”
“We’ll talk after you see Three.” Tooms took Pandora’s pack from her and tossed it into the open-topped vehicle, then lifted Pandora after it before she could climb in on her own.
She pressed her lips together and tried not to glare at him. The vehicle listed slightly when Tooms climbed in the forward seat but righted itself when he fired up the engine.
Pandora tried to get comfortable on the hard seat, gave up, and secured her harness. “How far are we going?” she shouted over the roar of the engine.
Tooms handed back a headset with a mic. To her relief the headset shut out most of the engine noise. Tooms’s gravelly voice sounded in her ears as the vehicle raised ten feet off the ground and moved forward on its slender legs.
“Number Three is the farthest of the mines,” he told her. “Two men disappeared from there a week ago. There are no land predators on Zeta II dangerous enough to challenge a man. It’s a gentle planet as long as you stay off the water. We need to know what happened to them. The men are worried. We need to know if they ran off or if there’s a new danger to the men we don’t know about.”
“Were the men working when they disappeared?”
“No. When they’re on duty the miners work long hours, eat, and sleep. The missing men neglected to show for their shift.” The tight anger in Tooms’s voice made Pandora think that he took not showing up for work as a personal insult.
She looked down over the side of the vehicle while she thought about how to proceed with her inquiries. The plants grew so thickly beneath them that she couldn’t see the ground, but the spider-legs vehicle had no trouble picking its way through them.
Tooms grunted. “Spiders are the only way to get around out here. We tried hacking roads through the vegetation but it grows back practically overnight.”
“How do you know where you’re going? It all looks the same.”
“Locators. Every camp sends out a different frequency.”
“Maybe the men wandered too far from camp and couldn’t find their way back.”
“No.” Tooms’s tone was firm. “Every miner is fitted with a personal locator. That way we always know where each man is and they can find their way back to their designated camp if they wander off. I can tell you that no one wanders off. There’s nothing out here to interest them.”
So much for the simple solution. Pandora frowned. “Are you saying the men’s locators failed?”
Tooms’s lifted his massive shoulders in a shrug. “We don’t know what happened,” he said flatly. “That’s why you’re here.”
Pandora decided to wait until she had a chance to see the mining camp’s setup before she asked any further questions.
The Spider tracked up and down the strangely hypnotic green hills for several hours until Pandora thought her bones would rattle apart. Tooms didn’t speak again until they reached the base of the mountains.
“As I said before, Number Three is the most distant of our working mines. It’s also the newest. We’ve only been mining it for three moon cycles.”
“What are you mining here?”
“Terbium ore. We stockpile it until we have enough to make up a shipment.”
The vegetation beneath them thinned out until Pandora saw only bare, rocky ground. She spied the camp as the Spider crested a low rise. Dozens of bright yellow tents were clustered together in a long, sloping hollow. The yellow tents surprised her and she asked Crexlan about them.
“Visibility. Gray tents would be hard to see against the gray rock.” He shut off the Spider’s engine and the vehicle settled to the ground.
Pandora undid her harness and climbed out of the vehicle before Tooms could lift her out. Her sore muscles protested and she groaned, then stretched to relieve them while she looked about her curiously.
She guessed there were close to one hundred yellow tents set up in orderly rows. Three larger tents stood in the center of the tent camp. “What are those tents for?” Pandora asked, pointing to them.
“The tent on the far left is the infirmary. It doubles as the assay tent where we test the ore samples. The middle one is the grub tent, and the last one is my office and private quarters.”
Pandora grabbed her pack and slung it over her shoulder. “Where can I freshen up?”
“Latrine is beyond the tents at the low end of camp. Meet me in my tent when you’re finished so I can fit you with a locator. Don’t wander beyond the latrine.” He strode off before Pandora could ask him where she would be sleeping.
Pandora picked her way carefully through the tents. She didn’t see or hear anyone else and wondered if they were all in the mine.
When she cleared the edge of the tent camp she looked around for the latrine tent but saw only a narrow creek. She set down her pack and splashed water on her face. The water felt surprisingly warm, a sign of volcanic activity.
She stood and turned a slow circle. The tent camp stood behind her. The creek in front of her. Surely Tooms didn’t mean the creek was the latrine? She crossed the creek and saw a narrow ditch. Once she got close enough she realized that the open ditch was the latrine.
It hit hard that the miners lived rough and she might be too far out of her comfort zone to do the job Planetary Mining was paying her for.
Pandora gave herself a mental shake. She wasn’t going to quit before she’d even begun. She desperately needed this job and by all that was holy she was going to do this job.
She looked down at the smelly ditch and shuddered, then quickly did her business, stopping to wash her hands thoroughly in the warm creek, before making her way to Tooms’s tent.
“Find it?” The big man didn’t look up from the map he was inspecting.
Pandora could tell from his tone that Tooms expected her to say she couldn’t work under the camp’s conditions. She squared her shoulders. “Yes, I found it. Do you have a spare tent where I can leave my pack?”
“I had Gavit clear out of the tent next to mine.” Tooms stepped to the door and pointed to one of four tents that sat next to his. “It’s yours for the duration of your stay. Why don’t you drop off your pack and we’ll get started.”
Pandora’s tent held only a narrow cot with a blanket. She set her pack on the cot and removed a smaller pack, clasping it around her waist. The smaller pack held her knife, a voice recorder, and a britelite. Tools that had once belonged to her mother.
“You have to wear a locator at all times,” Tooms told her as he snapped a metal band around her wrist. He locked it with a slim hex-shaped key and slipped the key into his pants pocket.
The cold metal felt foreign on Pandora’s wrist until it warmed to her body temperature. She inspected the smooth silver band.
“How does it work?”
“I activate it with this.” Tooms pressed a small metal box to one side of the wristlet until a tiny circle of red began to blink on the locator. “Now I can locate you wherever you are and if you press this spot—” he showed her a slight indentation beside the blinking light—“the light will blink faster when you face the camp and slower if you are moving away from the camp.”
“Hmmm. And every man in camp wears one?”
“What happens when you attempt to lock onto the missing men’s locators?”
Pandora looked steadily at Tooms. “So their locators failed?”
Tooms lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “Apparently, but we don’t know for sure.”
Pandora decided she could return to that line of questioning later. “Where were the two men when they disappeared?”
She took a deep breath and let it out, trying to slow her racing pulse. She had been afraid of closed dark spaces ever since she had fallen into an abandoned dry well at the age of eight. It had taken ten hours for her parents to find her. Ten hours while she waited to die at the bottom of the cold dark well.
Pandora took another deep breath. “Show me the mine.”
The roughly hewn mine walls glistened and dripped with moisture. Pandora kept as close to the center of the horizontal shaft as she could while keeping out of the way of the ore cars traveling the center rails.
“Mining hasn’t advanced much in the last few thousand years.” Tooms’s voice rumbled in her ears. Upon entering the mine he had handed her a helmet with headlamp, headset and mic.
Pandora glanced over her shoulder. The mine’s rough oval opening had shrunk to a mere pinpoint of light. She suppressed a shudder, swallowed the sour taste of fear rising in her throat, and forced herself to say something so Tooms wouldn’t know how frightened she was.
“Where are all the men?”
“The main shaft runs to the center of the mountain where it tees. There are minor shafts leading off the main shaft and both arms of the tee. At the moment we’re working a new shaft off the left arm.” He led her deeper into the mine.
The yellow lights strung over Pandora’s head disappeared into the distance.
“How long is the main shaft?” She was pleased to note that her voice didn’t quaver.
“Three thousand meters. The men ride the ore carts to the current dig but I thought you’d rather see the whole set-up on foot. We’re about halfway to the tee now.”
The farther into the mine they walked the more humid it became until Pandora’s shirt stuck to her body and she realized she was walking through a shallow puddle. She felt a slight breeze and saw air exchanger tubing running alongside the lighting cable.
“Do you take a head count when the miners enter the mine and when they leave?”
Tooms glanced back at her and shrugged. “Up until now there’s been no need. Working the mine is all there is out here. They can’t leave the camp. Besides, Planetary pays better than any other employer. These men want to work.”
“How do you know someone isn’t lying sick or even dead in their tent?”
“They’re paired up. Every miner has a buddy. They look out for one another. They enter and leave the mine together.”
The noise had been constantly increasing in volume as they neared the shaft’s tee. Pandora was grateful for the noise-blocking headset. They turned into the left arm of the tee and the noise reverberated through her body.
“What is that noise?” she asked.
“Drill hammer and digger. The drill hammer breaks up the rock so we can extract the terbium. The digger drills through the rock to create new shafts.” Tooms pointed to smaller side shafts as they walked toward the noisy machine.
They stopped short of the working men. Most were shirtless, their lean torsos gleaming with sweat. They wore helmets with ear protection but no mics. Several looked up with questioning faces but went back to work when Tooms shook his head at them.
“Is this where the men were working last week?”
Even with her helmet’s ear protection the noise was deafening. Tooms hesitated and she thought he hadn’t heard her. Before she could repeat her question he answered.
“No. They were working the side shafts opposite this shaft. We moved after Graves and Harlow disappeared.”
This was the first time Tooms had called the missing men by name. She repeated the names to herself so she wouldn’t forget. It was too noisy to use her voice recorder.
“Could you show me where they were working? And is it possible they had moved into this shaft for some reason?” Tooms shook his head. “It must be very difficult to keep an eye on so many men. I’d like to check all of the side shafts.”
“We’ve already looked. They aren’t in any of the side shafts.”
“Humor me. You might have missed something.” Again she sensed a brief hesitation, so brief that she couldn’t be sure it was there.
Tooms turned away from the working men. “As you wish.”
An hour later Pandora had to admit that there were no clues to the men’s disappearance in any of the side shafts she had searched to that point. She stood with Tooms at the intersection of the tee and main shaft and tried to think of what to do next.
She had the sinking feeling that she was about to fail at her first important job and lose the one slim hope she had of making a success of her inquiry business. She stared down the right arm of the tee with Tooms waiting patiently at her side. “I think we need to check all of the side shafts, Master Tooms,” she said, waving a hand at the tee’s right branch.
A miner ran toward them and called excitedly to Tooms. The two men conferred for a minute, then turned and ran back toward the other miners.
Tooms turned to Pandora. “There’s a problem with the equipment that I need to see to. Wait here. I shouldn’t be long.”
He took two steps and turned back to Pandora. “The mine is very dangerous. Don’t wander off on your own.” He strode off after the miner, his long legs eating up the ground until he rounded a curve and disappeared from her sight.
Feeling very much alone, Pandora shifted uneasily from foot to foot. Now that she was alone she felt the mine shaft’s ceiling pressing down on her. She thought of the huge mountain sitting on top of her and began to shake.
She needed to move, needed to do something to take her mind off being underground or Tooms would find a blubbering, incoherent mess of an inquiry agent when he returned.
She looked down the right arm of the tee and decided to explore it. The locator would ensure that Tooms could find her if she got lost.
Relieved to have something to occupy her mind, Pandora searched the side shafts on one side of the tee arm, reached the end, and began to search the side shafts on the opposite side.
Part way into the third side shaft from the end, she came to a cave-in. It reminded her of the massive weight pressing down on the mine and her nerves returned. She ran out of the side shaft and back to the main shaft, arriving just as Tooms rounded the curve.
“You all right?” he asked, joining her.
Pandora nodded. “I’m not real fond of underground spaces. I think I’ve seen enough for now.”
“I’ll walk you out. I need to grab a part for the digger.”
They followed the main shaft in silence. Tooms left Pandora at her tent and said he’d meet her in the grub tent for the evening meal. The last she saw of him he was striding back to the mine’s entrance carrying an odd-shaped object on one massive shoulder.
Later that night, Pandora lay on her cot mulling over everything she had seen and heard since arriving on Zeta II. With Tooms at her side to make sure they behaved and answered her questions, she had questioned every man in the grub tent. No one had anything to contribute to the mystery of the missing men.
Pandora mentally traced that day’s journey through the mine. She had searched each side shaft carefully, looking for any sign that the missing men had been there, and found nothing.
Not quite every side shaft, she corrected with a slight shudder. She had searched every side shaft until she found the cave-in, then had chickened out and run back to the main shaft. When she had mentioned the cave-in to Tooms he had not been pleased that she had wandered the mine alone, but he shrugged off the cave-in, claiming that it had happened before the men had disappeared.
She wished she had thought to ask a few of the other miners about the cave-in. It was the only one she had seen in the mine. Presumably there had been others, but they had been cleaned up. Why not the one she’d seen today?
Pandora rolled onto her side and worried her bottom lip until she drifted off to sleep.
A slight change in air movement inside the tent awakened her. The luminous dial on her watch told her she’d only been asleep for an hour.
She lay quietly, wondering what had woken her, when she realized she wasn’t alone in the tent. She opened her mouth to scream but a rough hand clamped over her face. In the faint light that permeated her tent wall she saw a man’s shadow looming over her. A locator band gleamed dully on the hand covering her face.
One of the miners. What did he want with her? She remembered the men coming out of the Orion bar with the woman between them and began to struggle again.
“Quiet,” a male voice whispered into her ear. “We don’t want to wake Tooms.”
Pandora struggled against the hand but its owner was much stronger than she was. She slumped onto the cot and tried to think of what to do.
The stranger grabbed her wrist with the locator and pushed it between her legs. He then wrapped his hand around his own locator. “You’re here to find out what happened to my brother?” The stranger’s whisper was so soft Pandora could barely hear him.
She nodded her head and he pulled his hand from her face but kept his free hand wrapped around the locator.
“Listening devoice,” he said, nodding at the locators. “They found something. Something down the shaft opposite where we work now.”
Excitement coursed through Pandora. “How do you know that?”
“Harlow was my brother. He told me that what they found is worth a fortune.”
“Does Tooms know this?”
“Tooms knows everything that goes on in the mines and camp.” He took his hand off his locator and wiggled it in front of Pandora’s face, reminding her that the locators contained listening devices, then exited her tent without a sound, leaving Pandora with a thudding heart and something new to consider.
If the partners, Graves and Harlow, had found something valuable in the mine it would automatically belong to Planetary Mining and therefor Master Cyrus Black. What if the missing men had found a way to slip their locators and smuggle whatever they found out of the mine? They could be on Myar by now.
She thought about that scenario and finally discarded it. Not only would the men have to lose their locators, they’d have to find their way over the endless green hills to Orion. If they made it that far—and it was a big if—they’d need a ride to Myar.
Planetary Mining ships were the only ones who stopped on Zeta II. It seemed unlikely that the two men could hitch a ride on a company ship without being noticed.
Frustrated, Pandora absently twisted the metal locator on her wrist. If her visitor had told her the truth, Harlow told his brother that he and Graves had found something worth a fortune in a side shaft. Did she believe Harlow’s brother?
She thought about it. The man had taken a big risk coming to her in her tent. She found that she believed him. So what did that mean to her inquiry?
The man said that Tooms knew everything that went on in the mine and camp. So he must know about the discovery, whatever it was.
Had he helped the men take the discovery away?
Another, chilling thought struck her. What if Tooms wanted whatever was worth a fortune for himself? He was the only man who could conceivably smuggle something of value from the mine without anyone else knowing. He wore a locator, but who monitored him? Nobody.
Pandora felt the light buzz that told her she was on the right track. Her father had counseled her to always listen to that buzz and follow it.
The side shaft with the cave-in was the key to the mystery, she felt sure of it. She needed to take a closer look at it without Tooms.
Pandora reached under the cot and pulled out her pack. She carried a variety of tools with her, tools that had belonged to her parents, tried and true tools of the inquiry trade.
Pulling out the rolled pack of slender picks that her mother had taught her to use, Pandora went to work on the locator’s lock. Ten minutes later she slipped it from her wrist and set it on her bunk.
She quickly dressed and pulled on a jacket with pockets for the things she might need, then quietly exited her tent.
She stood still and silent for several long minutes, listening to the camp. The mountain air was clean and crisp and she was glad for her jacket and gloves. A slim half-moon sat near the horizon, ready to slip behind the mountain that housed the mine. It gave enough light for her to pick her way through the tents and she soon stood at the mine’s entrance.
The mine’s lights had been turned off for the night. The yawning black hole looked menacing and dangerous. Pandora craned her neck to look up at the mountain over the mine and shuddered. All that rock, all that weight, pressing down on the puny hole in its side.
She grabbed one of the mining helmets off its shelf with shaking hands and put it on, but waited until she was a few meters inside the shaft before she activated the helmet’s headlamp. If anyone was moving about the camp she didn’t want to alert them to her presence in the mine.
As she moved deeper into the mine the air became close and more humid than she remembered. She looked at the ceiling and realized not only were the lights off, but the air exchanger was turned off as well.
She hoped there were no lethal gases building up deep in the shaft and cursed herself for not researching mines more thoroughly before coming to Zeta II.
She broke into a trot, anxious to check out the cave-in and return to her tent before the camp began waking up. The deeper she traveled into the mine the more her fear threatened to overwhelm her.
When she reached the tee she stopped to catch her breath and mop the sweat from her face with her jacket sleeve. It wasn’t much farther to the cave-in. She took several deep breaths to calm her pounding heart.
The urge to turn back was strong. Pandora turned down the right arm of the tee and forced her feet to move forward until she reached the cave-in. She pulled her britelite and swept its beam over the pile of rock. Near the top she spied a small opening.
The loose rocks were treacherous and required both hands and all of Pandora’s concentration to climb them. When she reached the opening she pulled her britelite again and shined it through the hole but could see only the shaft ceiling.
She needed a better angle. Pandora set the britelite on a stone as far in front of her as she could reach and wiggled partway through the opening. Dust rose into her face and made her sneeze. The stench of something rotten made her gag.
This time when she flashed the britelite around what she saw made her gasp.
There were niches carved into the smooth, gray walls. Objects carved from a glowing, rose-colored stone filled each niches. None of the objects looked at all familiar. They had been made by alien hands, for what purpose she couldn’t even begin to guess.
“You might as well go in and see them up close.” Tooms’s voice rumbled from somewhere behind Pandora.
She turned her head but couldn’t see him. She knew her situation had turned dangerous. She tried to keep her voice light and unconcerned. “They look alien.”
“Yes. Harlow and Graves were running the digger when they broke through to this room. When they showed it to me I knew what an incredible opportunity it was. I moved the miners to the other arm and told Harlow and Graves to tell no one about what they’d found.”
“What happened to Harlow and Graves? Did you send them to Myar with samples?”
A laugh resonated deep in Tooms’s chest. “Send them to Myar with my treasure? Don’t be stupid. Check the floor. I imagine they’re still there.”
With her heart in her throat Pandora flashed the britelite down to the floor. Two men lay crumpled side by side. They were the source of the rotten smell. “You killed them?”
“Of course. I had them meet me here that same night. Told them we had to figure out how to get the most credits for what they’d found. It was easy enough. They both trusted me. I created the cave-in to cover it up until I work out a way to sell the relics without Cyrus Black knowing.”
Pandora’s fear had grown so great she thought she was going to be ill. Her stomach roiled. She swallowed the sour bile filling her mouth. “By law these belong to Master Black.”
“No.” The anger in Tooms’s voice was clear. “They belong to me. Those relics are my ticket to the kind of life Black lives. A life made possible by me. Do you think I want to spend my entire life in mines and mining camps?”
He seemed to want her to answer. “Uh, no, I don’t imagine any man wants to work in a mine for very long. It’s not natural to spend so much time underground.”
“What happens now?” Pandora asked softly, not sure she wanted to hear the answer.
“I’m afraid you leave me no choice. You weren’t supposed to get this far in your inquiry. I hired you because you’re young, inexperienced, and female. I thought you’d look at the mine, ask a few questions, and ask for a lift back to Orion and Myar. I miscalculated,” he added. “It won’t happen again.”
Pandora began to wiggle backwards from the hole. She felt Tooms’s big hands on her calfs, stopping her.
“Crawl through the hole. I’m afraid you’ll have to join Harlow and Graves. I promise I won’t hurt you. I need your death to look like an accident. When you are found the authorities will believe you became trapped and eventually suffocated.”
He pushed on Pandora’s legs. Not seeing that she had a choice, she pulled herself through the hole and scrambled down the other side, careful not to land on the bodies of the two miners. When she looked back at the hole she saw Tooms’s glistening face looking down at her.
“Sorry about this. You seem like a nice enough girl, but I need to look out for my future. Suffocating isn’t a pleasant way to die, I admit, but I can’t risk leaving any marks on you. Goodbye, Pandora.”
His face disappeared, replaced by rocks. In a few short minutes Pandora found herself entombed with two dead men and a collection of glowing alien relics.
Pandora sat against the wall farthest from the dead men and wrapped her arms around herself. How long would the oxygen last in such a small space? She realized that she was breathing too fast and tried to slow it down. No point in using up the available oxygen and hastening her death.
She reached for the dropped britelite and snapped it off. She might need it later. The helmet light was dimmer but cast sufficient light for her to inspect her tomb.
The stench of the dead bodies seemed thicker down on the floor. The pair had never had a chance against a big man like Tooms. Pandora averted her eyes from them. A small relic in a niche to their left caught her eye and she stood to inspect it.
The figure was an elongated head without a body and fit neatly in her small hand. The face’s features were finely carved in the strange glowing stone. It definitely looked alien, but the mouth was ticked up on one side in a smile that made Pandora smile in return.
She set the figurine back in its niche and looked over the other alien relics. There were dozens of the strange heads, all with half-smiles carved on their faces. Were the artists depicting living beings or did they simply have a benevolent outlook on life?
It was getting harder to breathe.
Pandora looked at the pile of rocks blocking the side shaft. Tooms had filled in the hole at the top, blocking off any air flow. Why couldn’t she pull away enough rocks to make a new hole?
She climbed the rocks carefully. A slip and fall could mean a broken ankle and the end of any chance at escape. She realized with a start that she fully intended to find a way out of there.
She had no idea what she would do once she got herself free—one step at a time, that’s what her father always said. “When you have a problem too big to solve, Dora, just tackle a little bit at a time. Before you know it you’ll untangle the knot.”
At least she’d put on gloves before leaving her tent. The rocks were rough and awkward and heavy. She pulled one away and watched it crash to floor and land next to the dead men.
She climbed back down the pile and grabbed one of the men by his boots and pulled him away from the rocks. Her stomach roiled but she held her breath and managed to move both bodies out of harm’s way before tackling the rock pile again.
She was panting and sweating profusely by the time she’d created a hole large enough to stick her head into. She took several deep breaths. The air wasn’t much fresher than what she’d been breathing but the fact that she could now see through to the rest of the mine shaft buoyed her spirits.
She pulled more rocks away. By the time she had a hole large enough to squeeze through her gloves were in tatters and her fingers raw and bloody. Eager to be free, she started to climb through the hole but stopped when she realized she should take one of the smaller relics with her.
She swiftly climbed down and grabbed the first figurine she had looked at, slipped it into a jacket pocket, and climbed through the hole to freedom. Once on the other side she stopped to catch her breath and think of what to do next. It took her several seconds to realize she could see light.
Pandora rose quietly to her feet and walked to the head of the side shaft. Yes, the lights had been turned on. Did that mean Tooms was lurking in the mine, waiting to see if she escaped?
She heard a low rumbling. The miners were working. How long had she been trapped in the mine? Apparently long enough for the work day to begin. If the miners were working then Tooms would be with them, supervising. She began to run down the tee toward the main shaft.
She had almost reached the intersection when she saw lights bobbing toward her. She ducked into a side shaft and turned off her helmet lamp. She heard Tooms’s deep voice barking out orders and risked a quick peek.
Tooms stood facing her, speaking to two men. They were nodding at whatever he was saying. He broke off and glanced toward where Pandora stood. She pulled her head back.
Had he seen her? She waited for the sound of feet running toward her but to her relief Tooms began speaking again. She risked another look in time to see Tooms heading back down the tee’s left arm. The other two men headed out the main shaft.
Pandora ran after them. They looked surprised to see her but accepted her explanation that she had been searching the right tee arm for any clues to the missing men’s disappearance.
Once outside the mine Pandora raced for her tent. She grabbed her pack and headed to the Spider. She jumped into the pilot’s seat and inspected the controls. She wanted to cry when she realized driving the Spider was too complex for her.
“Here, now. What are you doing there?” A burly man ran toward Pandora.
She climbed out of the Spider and faced him. “I need to get back to Myar to make my report to Master Black. Tooms is tied up in the mine. Can you help me?”
The man—now that he was closer she recognized him as the camp cook—scowled at her.
“I’m headed to Orion to pick up supplies. Get in. Next time tell Tooms to assign you a driver. He knows better than to let a girl like you drive one of these. Spiders aren’t nothing to mess with if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
She nearly sagged with relief. By the time Tooms realized she had escaped she’d be safely on her way to Myar.
When they reached Orion hours later she had her shaking under control, but she didn’t completely relax until she stepped off the Planetary Mining transport onto Ridgeport soil.
Pandora wasted no time contacting Master Black and telling him what had happened. He listened in silence and growing disbelief until she pulled the small carved figurine from her pocket and handed it to him.
He looked at the relic, astonishment clear on his face. His sharp black eyes appraised Pandora.
“You Striker’s girl?”
“You knew my father?” she asked in surprise. Striker was her father’s nickname, used only by a close circle of friends. Apparently Master Black was one of those friends although Pandora couldn’t remember meeting him before today.
“Knew your mother too. Fine people. They did a lot of work for my company before they died.”
Pandora tried to swallow the lump in her throat. “Yes, they were . . . fine people.”
“You following them into the inquiry trade?”
“Yes. Trying to.”
Master Black seemed to come to a decision. He set the relic on his desk.
“Good. I’d like to hire you to oversee the removal and transportation of the alien artifacts from the mine to Ridgeport. Hire the manpower you need. After that we’ll see. I always have need of people I can trust.”
Pandora left Master Black’s office in a daze, a signed contract grasped tightly in her hand. She wished her beloved parents were alive to share her success. They would have been proud of their little girl.
She smiled and felt the first real spark of happiness since the accident that had killed them both.
Pandora’s Private Inquiries was going to survive.